Friday, May 26, 2017

'Lost' films found 2: Harry Hurwitz's 'The Comeback Trail'

In the world of cinephiles Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (1971) is regarded as a treasure, a beautifully rendered tribute to the joy of movie-loving, made at a time when Golden Age Hollywood icons were still widely known and revered. It’s an unmitigated delight and silly fun to boot.

The Projectionist was the first of three “nostalgia trip” comedies that Hurwitz made. The second and third of these films are nowhere near the first in terms of laughs and sentiment for a “lost era” of moviemaking, but both have their bright spots. The third and last was the very funny That’s Adequate (1989), a mock-doc about a fictional “poverty row” film studio hosted by the great Tony Randall; the second film, The Comeback Trail (shot 1971-’79; released ‘82) is the focus of this article.

But first, a word or two about Hurwitz himself. A NYC native who died at the young age of 57, he was a painter and filmmaker who made a series of low-budget genre flicks (for theaters and later “straight to video”) to pay the bills and to finance his nostalgia comedies. His art was acquired by Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the NYU art collection. He taught film and drawing at NYU, Cooper Union, and the Parsons School of Design, among others.

The nostalgia comedies were “personal” pictures for Hurwitz, the type he was only able to make every decade or so. He talks about this in an interview in the Film Director’s Guide by Michael Singer:

“I made my first five features without even being in the industry. I worked out of New York. I was making my living as a college professor, so I didn’t even look to my art for financial sustenance…. And as a filmmaker, I began with the same spirit that I did as a painter. Then, I got to see that I could make more money by joining the industry rather than teaching. In other words, I realized that I’d rather make bad movies than do good teaching. The movies that I do for myself I manage to do once every five years. I write it, I direct it, I cut it, I produce it. And it’s not an ego thing. It’s just that I wouldn’t have anybody come in and paint the red in my painting. It’s a complete work, and good or bad, I stand behind it. Whereas to make a living, I am now a writer and director for hire, in which I’m perfectly prepared to compromise. I feel very comfortable joining a system which, by the way, I revere….” [p. 4]

Harry Hurwitz. Photo by B. Fentington.
It’s odd to consider The Comeback Trail a personal film. The Projectionist, on the other hand, has various moments at which one feels great sympathy for its lead character, a projectionist played by the much-loved comic actor Chuck McCann. This reaches its peak in a series of moments in which we see McCann wander Times Square as he gets off work. He eats dinner at a greasy spoon, buys some porn mags (possibly the most low-key, true-to-life depiction of the place that adult materials have in the life of the average male ever found in cinema), and then goes to home to watch movies on the late show.

Comeback is a much broader comedy, but it still is a valentine (albeit a pretty crazy one) to Golden Age Hollywod. The plot is quite similar to that of The Producers. It concerns two low-end movie producers, Enrico Kodac (McCann) and E. Eddie Eestman (Robert Staats), who need a quick influx of cash or their “studio,” such as it is, will be shut down. (By the way, the misspellings of the last names were intentional — Staats played “E. Eddie Eastman” in other Hurwitz films.)

They hit upon the idea to make a comeback film for a retired action star, whom they assume is out of shape. They plan to insure the old man to the hilt and tax his heart by having him do his own stunts, and then collect on the million-dollar insurance policy when he dies. What they don’t count on is that the star they picked, Duke Montana (Buster Crabbe), is in terrific shape, and so their attempts to kill him backfire in one way or another.

Buster Crabbe
The film’s three stars all deserve discussion. Firstly, Crabbe, who was indeed in great shape at 63 (not that surprising, considering he was a two-time Olympic swimmer when he was younger). He plays along quite well with the broadly comic humor, serving as a straight man to both producer characters. His character narrates the proceedings, recounting to close friend Hugh Hefner (playing himself) the story of the producers' ridiculous plan.

Buster is quite the gentleman in the film, but Hurwitz confederate and sometime scripter Roy Frumkes decided to tell the world Crabbe's little secret, in a piece published in Films in Review. He recounted in an article about Buster that, while making Comeback, he had asked the film's stunt coordinator how the legendary star was on-set. “… he replied matter-of-factly: 'His style was always the same. He was a perfect gentleman on the set until the last day of shooting. Then he'd get drunk and beat everyone up.'” Frumkes proceeds to recount how Crabbe was indeed a complete gentleman on the set, but did get drunk and beat a guy up toward the end.

Another piece from Films in Review about Crabbe finds him reflecting on the film as near-pornographic. This is ridiculous, since breasts are only seen in one musical number that appears in one of the early films-within-the-film; topless dancers back up Monti Rock III as he sings a tune called “These Raging Loins.” No sex is ever seen in the film, but the producers discuss the softcore films they made in the past.

Buster, in younger days.
Said Buster: “Few people saw it in theaters. Some scenes were pretty strong – too sexy for family viewing…. All the producer had to do was take out three scenes and it would have been a good B Western. But he was adamant about not cutting anything. Still is. They ran it in Atlanta and the thing only lasted two days. The families would go and then protest some of the scenes. Without that family viewing audience you're dead. But, honestly, I think that picture was the best thing I ever did. And it's the vault right now, just sitting there. I worried about it for a few years, but I don't worry about it any more. It'll never get out.”

The least-known of the movie’s stars is Robert Staats, who is something of a mystery man. He appeared in five of Hurwitz’s films, and had small roles in films directed by Hurwitz’s contemporaries Robert Downey Sr., Jonathan Kaplan (a former Hurwitz student), and Alan Abel, and then basically disappeared. He is wonderfully funny in the other Hurwitz pictures, especially as a late-night TV pitchman in The Projectionist:

He played a pitchman again, albeit in a much more bizarre context, in Hurwitz’s softcore pic Fairy Tales (1978).

While he makes a great partner for McCann in Comeback, he’s generally an odd presence in the film. When not engaging in comic cross-talk or doing his pitchman shtick, he purses his lips, skulks around in a long coat, and generally takes on the appearance of a cartoon villain. His schnook-ish posture here is a far cry from his confident pitchman persona.

There is no information as to when or where Staats might have left this mortal coil, so I’m not certain if he’s still with us or not. Anyone who knows what happened to him, drop a line.

Despite the presence of the heroic-at-any-age Buster, McCann is the actual star of the film. He is tremendously endearing in The Projectionist, but here he assumes the cartoonish persona of an Italian con man. The character is broadly drawn and odd-looking: wearing a white suit, Chuck has a fake putty nose and a clearly fake mustache (he donned this look formerly on his TV show for an escape artist character named “Bombo Dump,” who can be seen here). His Italian accent is half-Chico Marx, half-J. Carroll Naish on Life with Luigi.

Chuck does have some very funny moments bantering with Staats, but the broadly farcical nature of his character is one of the reasons that Comeback doesn’t work in the long run.

Oddly enough, Chuck reappeared in this persona in the R-rated slapstick comedy Linda Lovelace for President (1975), where he plays two roles, a racist mayor and a hitman who is indeed the same “Kodac”/”Bombo” character. He worked in the film under two pseudonyms: the film’s credits say that the Mayor character is played by “Alfredo Fettuchini” and the guy with the crazy mustache and Italian accent (no putty nose this time) was a certain “Fettuchini Alfredo.” 

One assumes Chuck chose a pseudonym for the Lovelace picture because he was appearing at that time on the Saturday morning kiddie show “Far Out Space Nuts” and didn’t want to be identified with the most famous porn star of the era (although the movie is incredibly tame and Chuck does nothing “adult” except curse).

The Projectionist remains endlessly entertaining because Hurwitz inserted a number of tangents in between the plotted sequences. Hurwitz is quoted in the Film Directors Guide about the fragmenting of the film:

“And the nature of the film is really about the daily bombardment of ideas and ideologies and feelings and thoughts that we go through, so the whole picture is about fragmentation. Our lives are made up of little serials. You drop one thing, you go to another, you’re juggling 40 different parts of your life: the emotional part, the political part, the moral part. We’re constantly being tempted, we’re constantly being bombarded, so that’s why The Projectionist is full of commercials, superhero serials. It’s this fragmenting of time, which is what our days are like.” [p. 7]

Comeback has a few such diversions at the beginning to show us the movies that the characters made before their “great idea” came along. Later on we see a sequence from the film they’re making with Duke Montana, which is pure Western action, reminiscent of the “oaters” Crabbe made many years before (clearly a labor of love for movie buff Hurwitz). The rest of the movie sticks to the plotline, with Hurwitz seemingly allowing ample space in which to ad-lib. The result is a rather informal picture that viewers will either enjoy or tune out early on.

Thanks to uploader Kenny Hotz (star of the CBC/Comedy Central show “Kenny Vs. Spenny”), Comeback is now readily accessible to the public for the first time in decades, on the Vimeo website. Coincidentally, Hotz and his writing partner Spencer Rice codirected Robert Staats in his last film role to date, in the 1997 comedy Pitch, which is also currently online for free, on YT. Staats plays — can you guess? — a pitchman!

A later pic of Hurwitz.
There is much confusion as to when the film was officially finished — so now let’s try and “carbon-date” what has shown up in public view. Firstly, a friend and colleague, Donica O’Bradovich, has told me stories of being on the set in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the film-within-the-film was shot there) in 1971 with her father, award-winning makeup artist Bob O’Bradovich, who did a great job “aging” Crabbe in the early scenes, before he shows the producers he’s in kick-ass shape.

So Hurwitz began Comeback in ’71. The title credit on the version on Vimeo has a 1973 copyright, but another friend, Ben Fentington (a friend of Hurwitz’s), has told me about shoots in ’74-75 he was at, where Hurwitz shot material to “flesh out” the film. In this case, the scenes shot were things put at the film’s beginning, as examples of the films the producer characters made before they hit on their “great idea.”

Henny Youngman is seen as a comedy character named “Dumpo” who told one-liners in various gene-movie situations. This is followed by one of the film’s funniest scenes, a weirdo spoof of monster movies featuring standup comedian Lenny Schultz as a human chicken, and none other than Funhouse fave Professor Irwin Corey as a mad scientist (!).

Hurwitz and the Professor. Photo by B. Fentington.
The Comeback Trail wasn’t shown publicly until it premiered at the long-gone, much-missed Thalia in NYC in 1982 (here is the review that appeared in The New York Times). A Funhouse friend who has very pleasant memories of that engagement, actor Allen Lewis Rickman, can (much to my amazement) recite some of the film’s dialogue by heart, strictly from having seen the film that one time back in ’82. Suffice it to say that the film has never been released on VHS or DVD.

Here’s where things get even cloudier: I first saw the film on a VHS copy made by a fellow nostalgia buff who recorded it on Beta (!) when it aired on the famed Z Channel in Los Angeles. I broke out that version of the film — which is hard to watch because of constant video “rolls” — before writing this piece and discovered it’s a vastly different edit of the material. (Both cuts of the film include one of the odder ad-libbed scenes, an interview of the two producers and Duke Montana by the late, great Joe Franklin!)

Firstly, the title credit has a copyright date of 1979 and the narration by Buster Crabbe (told to Hugh Hefner) was replaced with Chuck McCann doing a sort of Lowell Thomas newsreel voice. The new narration emphasizes that the two producers run “Adequate Pictures” (the studio that is the focus of the later comedy That’s Adequate); Henny Youngman’s character is given a different name – he is now “Pimples” (a comic character reused in the later picture).

The approximately 15 minutes of newly shot footage includes other films produced by “Kodac” and “Eestman,” including another monster picture (a pizza-faced menace) and an action movie that takes place in Africa (but is shot by an L.A. swimming pool). We also see an Adequate Pictures awards ceremony (one winner is named “Tom Revolta,” thus dating the sequence), and the attempts on Duke Montana’s life are followed by a series of scenes in which McCann is in a hospital bed being visited by his incompetent partner.

And, in a scene that attempts to cover for a plot that Hurwitz had minimized to the point of near non-existence in the first version of the film, Crabbe goes back to his motel room with the producers’ loyal secretary, Julie (played by the leading lady of The Projectionist, Ina Balin). All this diligent re-editing clearly indicates that Hurwitz did indeed work on the film for close to a decade — and it *still* ran only 75 minutes!

For those who have waited decades to see Comeback, it may not be the “revelation” they’d hoped — then again, few comedies can measure up to The Projectionist. It contains some wonderfully funny moments and some bits where one wishes that Hurwitz had cut the routines a little sooner.

In an era when Lorne Michaels-produced crap-comedy is the norm at the movies, though, even a lopsided live-action cartoon like The Comeback Trail can be warmly welcomed for the broad farce and crazy movie buff daydream that it is.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In defense of Robert Aldrich, post-'Feud'

Aldrich, holding the French "bible"
of film noir, Panorama du Film
Noir Americain
Now that the “Feud: Bette and Joan” TV miniseries is over, the only true way to get the bad taste out of your mouth is to watch the movies made by the folks depicted in the show. Since Bette Davis was well-represented I feel no need to watch her pics at the moment; ditto Joan Crawford (more below on the show's depiction of her). I will return to the greatest (and meagerest) films made by those great ladies, but I felt the best path out of the “Feud” jungle of message-drama corniness and production-design overload was to revisit the work of Robert Aldrich, who wound up being portrayed on "Feud" as a complete wimp, a hack director who was out of his depth on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

That depiction was so far from the truth of the matter and was such a disservice to Aldrich that I wanted to put his real achievement in focus once again — and the only way to do that is rewatch his films (and give a first viewing to the lesser-known titles).

First, since everything on the Net is now done in “listicle” form, I will briefly run through the good and bad aspects of the miniseries in that misbegotten but much-beloved short-attention-span format. First, the positive aspects:
— The cast was filled with uncommonly talented performers;
— the two leads both did great jobs incarnating their legendary characters (albeit on very different levels of performance);
— and despite occasional jarring, small anachronisms, the show's focus on the artifacts of its era was impressive.

Robert Aldrich, Alfred Molina in Aldrich garb.
Now the worst parts:
— The two leads were on different wavelengths — Susan Sarandon was understated and naturalistic as Bette, while Jessica Lange (outfitted with much makeup to make her resemble Joan) was playing her role as if Crawford was trapped in one of her own melodramas;
— the production design, in a note cribbed from “Mad Men,” overwhelmed and wound up distracting from the proceedings;
— the dialogue that conveyed the singular message (that older actresses have trouble finding good parts) was overripe, and the message was conveyed at least three to four times in each episode in very explicit dialogue;
— the emphasis on the lurid events of the characters' lives seemed to imply that producer-scripter Ryan Murphy wanted it both ways — to pay tribute to these two women who were considered outmoded in their middle age, but also to mock their outmodedness constantly;
— and certain real-life individuals were included simply to “add detail,” as with a terribly cloying frame device in which Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are interviewed for a documentary about the “feud.”

This aspect, of having things both ways, came to the fore in the final episode, in which the focus was primarily the “downfall” of Joan Crawford. The moment where she puts on a “Trog” mask (as the Doors "The End" plays!) was probably the litmus test of whether you liked or hated the show's approach — some loved its audaciousness as a metaphor for the lousy state that Crawford's career was in; others recognized it as a bid to get a cheap laugh out of that lousy state. Was it surreal, or tragic, or just a cheap shot to evoke a laugh at a washed-up Hollywood icon? Depends on how you view it.

There was no such uncertainty about the character of Robert Aldrich in the miniseries. He was played by the incredibly talented Alfred Molina, who made a three-dimensional being out of the character in the script. The only problem is that scripter-creators Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen, and Michael Zam had decided that it was best for their version of events that Aldrich be depicted as a hack director who had little control over his career and his pictures.

He is steamrollered by his two stars, can't cope with the inherent greed and nastiness of Jack Warner (despite one big defiant scene where Aldrich tells off Warner when Baby Jane is a hit), and he is a portly playboy who is impotent in bed with his wife (nice personal attack, that — Murphy and co. really decided to decimate Aldrich the man once they had completely torn apart Aldrich the artist).

Murphy's tremendous success in television is that he's a very good packager — “Glee” is a package, “American Horror Story” is a package, and “Feud” is nothing more than a package (the next feud has been announced as Prince Charles and Lady Diana — if divorce is a feud, there sure are a helluva lot of them….). The characters in such packages need to be simplified — as in reality shows where reality takes a back seat to the fact that certain participants are assigned roles like “the bitch,” “the ladies man,” “the jock,” “the older know-it-all,” or “the girl next door.”

For “Feud,” it was “the fat gay character actor” (Victor Buono), “sassy old lady” (Joan Blondell), “ridiculously rigid German servant with a Hispanic nickname" (Crawford's maid, “Mamacita”), and so forth. Even the characters of Davis and Crawford were oversimplified, intended to represent the ways that the two middle-aged stars dealt with their fates.

But the complete decimation of Aldrich was the most fascinating hatchet job in the show, since Aldrich was first and foremost a subversive artist, a filmmaker whose work was filled with crazy energy, sudden violence, emotional turmoil, endless imagination, and best of all, total sincerity. To say that “Feud” was intended as a camp exercise is obvious — the makers avoided the excesses of Mommie Dearest, but even Frank Perry resisted the urge to have Faye Dunaway put on a “Trog” mask.

The depiction of Aldrich in the series — which, like most American TV product, was too long — brought me back to his work and its crazy ingenuity. Murphy and his colleagues haven't got a scintilla of Aldrich's talent, and none of his subversive tendencies, so seeing them “cut down” a wonderfully adventurous (and yes, sometimes blissfully eccentric and perverse) artist wasn't just demoralizing for his cultists but also wildly inaccurate.

The series touched on Aldrich's career from 1962-64. At the point leading up to Baby Jane he was in need of a hit — his preceding four films had all flopped at the box office (despite being, like all his work, stylishly shot), after he had had a very good run of eight diverse and brilliantly stylish movies in the Fifties. It's important to know, however, that he wasn't just a director-for-hire looking for a solid meal ticket. He was born into a wealthy family (his cousin was Nelson Rockefeller) and was subsequently disowned when he opted for a career in the movie industry. He worked his way up slowly in the business, serving for a long time as a production manager and second assistant director before he became first assistant director to artists like Renoir, Milestone, Polonsky, Wellman, Losey, and Chaplin.

He directed TV dramas before and after his first two pictures (both B-budgeted) were made; a friendship sparked with Burt Lancaster led to his first two bigger budgeted films, the radical Apache (1954), in which a Native American warrior is a charismatic hero, and Vera Cruz (1954). All of the films from this early period are highly watchable but the last-mentioned is the best of the bunch, a vibrant, large-scale Western with Gary Cooper and Lancaster as two soldiers of fortune who join up with the governmental forces during the Mexican revolution, and then switch sides to aid the rebels.

In the seminal book on Aldrich by Alain Silver and James Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? (Limelight Editions, 1995), the filmmaker is quoted as saying, “I must create and I can't always create what I want artistically and culturally under present methods. [So] I relax by working… since I have no hobbies such as girls, horses, cards, etc etc, my principal preoccupation other than pictures is politics.” That interest fed into his best work, as he was resolutely left-wing and was lucky enough to not be ensnared by the blacklist. As a result his films are the best Lefty features to be made in Hollywood during the Fifties, alongside the work of Nicholas Ray.

This tendency is felt in his films, with the struggle between the rebels and the government in Vera Cruz providing a good example of the humanization of those opposing inhumane leaders (symbolized by the ever-unctuous George Macready and the always smiling Cesar Romero, described here as “Crocodile Teeth”). Aldrich continued to make inherently political films until his last superb picture, Twilight's Last Gleaming, in which a crazed general takes over a nuclear facility to force the government to reveal the actual truth of the Vietnam War, namely that it was a farce and the government knew this all along.

Aldrich was thus a filmmaker with a conscience as well as being a superbly talented crafter of images. He was often confused in his later years with Robert Altman, and the one thing he did have in common with the younger Altman was that both had an incredibly fertile period — for Altman it was the early Seventies, for Aldrich the mid-Fifties — in which they made several films in different genres, each of which revamped and reworked the genre.

Altman supplied new models for the genres in question, while Aldrich had been content to turn the genres “upside down” (that was the actual expression he used about some of his projects, per the Silver/Ursini book). His fifth feature, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), was hailed as a “nuclear noir” by French critics and is placed by most writers as the end of the noir cycle (with a very small handful of classic noirs coming after it). This sounds like sheer hyperbole, but I'll say it: If it were the only thing Aldrich ever made, it would be enough to guarantee him a place in the Pantheon.

It's an incredible act of subversion. Aldrich took a bestselling novel by pulpsmith Mickey Spillane and did indeed turn it upside down. He made the hero, Mike Hammer, into an openly sadistic sleazeball (who takes divorce cases — the sign of a true loser in the p.i. business) who wanders through an incredibly eye-catching L.A. filled with “high art” all around him (paintings, classical music, 19th century sonnets, opera arias), and he ignores all of it. He's not even that interested in the sports cars and dames that throw themselves at him — he's only interested in revenge and things that pique his curiosity.

The film builds to an astounding end, which has been softened by the reintroduction of some missing footage — as a result, the now commonly-seen version of the picture (on TCM and on the Criterion disc) includes the softer, more “digestible” ending, instead of the “end of the world” vision that concluded the film for so long. In the process, Aldrich uses oblique angles, masterful editing, and crazy set design (the apartments are either flophouse-gritty or bachelor-pad beautiful) to convey Mike Hammer's world, a place where Aldrich noted “the ends justifies the means.”

In an interview included in the Silver/Ursini book, Aldrich notes that the French Cahiers posse attributed too much profundity to Kiss Me Deadly (1955), that he wasn't intending for it to make a social statement. It definitely does, though, since it combines the beautiful surfaces and innate narrow-mindedness that, decades later, became the raison d'etre of “Mad Men.” When Aldrich was doing it, though, it was in the wake of Joseph McCarthy and similarities between the take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer and the noted Commie-hunting Senator were, I'm sure, entirely intentional.

Aldrich's next film, The Big Knife (1955), is his first expose of show business. The Aldrich seen on “Feud” is a blunderer, a guy who keeps dueling with studio heads and needy stars but who has no real control over his pictures. The real Aldrich made three films that are about the ways in which show biz can destroy performers — Knife, Baby Jane, and The Legend of Lylah Clare. Add to that trio The Killing of Sister George and even … All the Marbles, and you have additional portraits of women being mocked and diminished in the business. The only male to be ruined by show-biz in Aldrich's films is Jack Palance's lead character in Knife.

The film does wind up being corny, but that is because Clifford Odets' work doesn't age well. The play the film is based on was “of the moment” at the time it appeared and had the vague air of transgression, but the dialogue is horribly stilted and action is predictable at best. Despite these impediments, the film still was an open act of hostility by Aldrich against the film studios, as he made a movie that openly talks about the ways in which the studios would quell crimes their stars had committed and even “silence” those who spoke out about those crimes.

The over-the-top characterizations do date, but the film is still incredibly watchable because the cast is sublime and they're more than eager to deliver the ham. Take for instance this argument scene that pits anguished movie star Jack Palance and his totally powerless agent (Everett Sloane) against the completely corrupt studio head (Rod Steiger, in full throttle, playing a role intended to mock Harry Cohn) and a studio “fixer” (the always creepy Wendell Corey).

Aldrich's next film was a “woman's picture” that was crafted into a vehicle for Joan Crawford, Autumn Leaves (1956). As with this other Fifties genre films, he obeys the rules of the genre here while also overturning them with the inclusion of a “psycho” twist in the plot. Thus, in a Crawford weepie we wind up seeing the breakdown of her “dream man” (Cliff Robertson), to the point where he is put in a mental hospital and given shock treatment. Psychiatry was definitely a preoccupation in Fifties pop culture, but here it comes out of left field — we spend the majority of the film wondering how poor Joan will be shafted, never suspecting that the dream man is also a victim (of his scheming ex-wife, Vera Miles, and his lecherous dad, Lorne Greene!).

This film established a rapport between Crawford and Aldrich that of course factored into Baby Jane (although the “Feud” scripters decided that Aldrich favored Bette, and thus shafted Joan by the time Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte came around). Aldrich's reputation rests for many viewers on his skill at directing “men's movies” like his giant hit The Dirty Dozen (1967), but he did contribute some great visions of women in his films. The characters were all beleaguered and/or ruined by the end of the pictures, but that in itself is a commentary on women's place in society during the period that he made the films. (And, besides, many of his noblest male characters were ground under as well.)

Here is a great scene from Autumn Leaves:

The last superb Aldrich film in the Fifties (followed by the lean quartet that put him in financial jeopardy — the one true note in “Feud”) was Attack! (1956). It's an incredibly subversive (that word again) picture because it confronts the same issue that informed John Ford's Fort Apache (1948) — an indecisive leader (Henry Fonda in Ford's film, Eddie Albert here) being called on his behavior by a strong soldier (John Wayne in the Ford, Jack Palance here).

Like The Big Knife, the film is based on a play (by Norman Brooks), but this time out, the result is not as stilted, thanks to a script by James Poe. While John Ford and scripter Frank Nugent's take on the scenario was that one doesn't report the wimpy leader who winds up killing one's men (Wayne's character upholds Fonda's legacy), the Aldrich variant is to emphasize the lethal aspect of such a leader, and the importance of the common man standing up to such dangerously misguided authority — although it is William Smithers' character who winds up having to do it, since Palance dies dramatically in the film (another great Aldrich touch — many of his heroes die!).

While Fuller's Fifties war pictures are terrific and Ray's entry in the genre (Bitter Victory) is incredibly good, Attack! goes straight to the heart of the matter and questions the leadership that makes soldiers walk into perilous situations and then covers up the sheer pointlessness of their death. Aldrich continued this debate in Twilight's Last Gleaming.

By the time Aldrich reached What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, he was indeed recovering from four flops in a row. Three of the four films were relatively “normal,” but one is a true gem, Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). A post-war drama set in Germany, the film has one silly conceit — that six American actors, led by Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler, play the lead characters, a sextet of German demolition experts who make a deal to defuse unexploded bombs around Germany for the Allies for a period of three months.

The rest of the film is simply terrific. Aldrich makes certain to put no music under the bomb disposal scenes, so the editing is the only way that the tension is conveyed (no corny “thriller music”). The premise of the film is a truly existential one (thus the utter worship of Aldrich in France, while he was and is still barely celebrated in his home country). It seems that Chandler is such a devil-may-care soul (with a mean streak) that he makes a bet with his colleagues that he can outlive them all — they agree to make a fatalistic wager in which the participant who lives the longest collects money from the salaries of the other five.

It’s obvious that the film will end up being a deadly showdown between Palance and Chandler, but even there Aldrich has some fatalistic surprises in store. Given that some American critics faulted him for being over-the-top in terms of violence, Ten Seconds is a perfect example of the restraint he could exercise when it benefitted the storyline. And the best part of this whole thing? The film was a coproduction of Seven Arts and Hammer Films (yes, that Hammer Films).

“Feud” repeatedly showed Aldrich struggling with interference from Jack Warner on Baby Jane. The only time the true nature of the film — which was a production created and developed by Aldrich — was referred to in the show was when it was necessary to have a “worried Bob Aldrich scene.” Otherwise viewers never learned that, from his third film (Apache, in 1954) on, Aldrich was a trailblazing independent producer who made deals with studios to complete/release his films. His taste in material was always slightly “odd,” thus his interest in the Baby Jane novel and genre-jumping once more to create a distinctly modern horror film that traded on the past as part of its terror.

Aldrich knew he would take the grief for whatever went wrong on his projects. “… the Director is always held accountable for every picture that fails, and should a picture succeed the Director only shares that dubious distinction. However, the bottom line is the Director is in the trenches every day.” [Silver/Urisini, p. 40]

He likened show business to gambling, where you want to “stay at the table” as long as you can. “Staying at the plate or staying at the table, staying at the game, is essential. You can't allow yourself to get passed over or pushed aside. Very, very talented people got pushed aside and remained unused. That's the problem: staying at the table.”  [p. 346]

After the three years of his life chronicled in “Feud” (where the producers saw fit to show him suffering while working with Sinatra on Four for Texas, to make him an even more beleaguered wimp), Aldrich went on to make a number of audacious and challenging films. A few missed the mark, some are good entertainment, and a handful are truly great movies. I offer a few of the more ambitious and sharply challenging works below.

What is most fascinating about Aldrich’s career after Baby Jane is that when he had his single biggest hit, The Dirty Dozen, he immediately made two of his most daring films. The first of the two was The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), his ultimate statement on women being ground up by the Hollywood system. It's similar to some earlier show-biz films (Sunset Blvd, The Goddess), but it creates its own weird mythology and has one of the best “grotesque” endings in movie history. Kim Novak reportedly was disappointed with the picture, primarily because Aldrich dubbed in a German actress's voice for one of her incarnations, but she comes off beautifully in the piece.

His next film was even more controversial. The Killing of Sister George (1968), also based on a play, has been hailed as ground-breaking and incredibly important in depicting lesbians on film, and has also been criticized for being too grotesque in its characterizations (particularly the Coral Browne character). The film is dated in various aspects but it was incredibly daring for its time, as the long gay bar sequence demonstrates. It also featured a trio of excellent leads (although most attention goes to Susannah York's “femme” character). Here is the gay bar scene:

Aldrich’s last Western, Ulzana’s Raid (1972), is a great piece of entertainment, as well as being a pungent statement on the relationship between white authorities and the Native American (as had Aldrich's Apache). The film was his reunion with Burt Lancaster, with whom Aldrich made four of his finest films (three of them Westerns). Here is a scene that gives a feel for the movie’s tone (and was unfortunately trimmed for the U.S. version):

Aldrich's “guy movies” range from war pictures to one of the most one-on-one violent films of its era, Emperor of the North Pole (1973). The film ranks with Walter Hill's Hard Times (1975) as one of the great “fighting to survive in the Depression” movies (with the emphasis on the actual fighting).

The fact that Aldrich set Lee Marvin against Ernest Borgnine for this match of the century made the film even more of a favorite of those who love grizzled character actors (not forgetting Keith Carradine, who is excellent as the young hobo “student” of Marvin). This lighter-than-air trailer tries to sugarcoat the nastiness of the pic:

Aldrich's last crime film is an incredibly good neo-noir, Hustle (1975). One of Burt Reynolds' handful of non-forgettable Seventies pics (along with Aldrich's The Longest Yard), the film finds him playing a private eye in love with a hooker (Catherine Deneuve) who battles a homicidal attorney (played by the wonderfully villainous Eddie Albert). Here is a scene between Reynolds and Deneuve:

The last great Aldrich film — although I do have a great fondness for his women's wrestling adventure, ...All the Marbles (1981) — is Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977). As noted above, it's a riveting film that starts out as a kind of update on the Fail-Safe/Seven Days in May nuclear-paranoia thriller, but soon becomes a pointed drama about governmental duplicity as it goes along.

I don't know when, if ever, another great Hollywood director will ever be depicted on an ongoing TV drama. Hopefully the depiction will be nearer to the facts and a bit more respectful. I ain't holdin' my breath….

Thanks to Charles Lieurance for the screen-grab.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Author, author!: Richard Corliss’s ‘Talking Pictures’

With old Hollywood coming into view again, thanks to the extremely corny Feud miniseries (Robert Aldrich fans, take arms!) and the recent Oscars (which contained a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em old film clips), I’ve been thinking of the study of classic Hollywood films. The other occurrences that brought out these thoughts were the recent deaths of Richard Schickel and TCM host Robert Osborne. Since I have nothing special to offer in the way of tribute to those gents, I will move back to a writer whose work I’ve wanted to return to for some months now, Richard Corliss. I intended this piece to appear on his birthday (March 6), but it will appear instead near the anniversary of his passing (April 23, 2015).

In the Deceased Artiste piece I wrote about “RC” (as I was acquainted with him — I felt awkward calling him “Richard” in our correspondence) I noted that he wrote with particular elan and touching fellowship about his critic-friends when they died. I thought about the fine tributes I’m sure he would’ve written for Osborne and his old colleague Schickel and realized it was high time to return to Corliss’s writing.

He published only four books, and all but the last are out of print. The longest and most significant is his first, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema (1974), which now stands as the only “collection” of his reviews (unless his best Film Comment and TIME pieces are ever put together between covers). It was his first “grand statement,” a defense of the Hollywood scripter that reacted as a kind of corrective to his teacher and friend Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. As such, it’s an unusual book — to fully get what Corliss is doing you’re best served having at least read some of Sarris’s book, which was in itself a grand statement, in which Sarris ranked Hollywood directors from “Pantheon” masters to “Less Than Meets the Eye.”

Sarris was the foremost American proponent of the Cahiers du Cinema’s “politique des auteurs,” but he was quick to admit that that approach to film history did have its problems. Foremost among them were the Hollywood productions that were perfect films, but not particularly because of the director (Casablanca being the best example). He also included a chapter called “Bring on the Clowns!” in which he admitted that the great American film comedians who never received directorial credit on their films were still the “auteurs” of said works — when you see a film starring Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Mae West, or the Marx Brothers in their prime, it doesn’t matter who directed it, the film’s “life force” (and co-scripter) is the starring comedian.

A film critic who had tastes that ranged far and wide culturally, Corliss decided to extrapolate on this particular theme by discussing the screenwriters whose work was so consistently excellent that they outshone those who directed their work. The book was written over a three and a half year span and includes rewrites of some of his pieces for magazines and other publications. He discusses 100 films written by 35 carefully selected scripters.

It’s a curious book to read in this era when media surrounds us everywhere, but then so are all the serious film books written in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Talking Pictures also comes from the time when people other than academics would read serious film books. The filmgoing culture that took mainstream, and more particularly old and foreign, films seriously was at its height from the Fifties through the Seventies (the election of a B-movie actor curiously did a lot to kill off cinema appreciation in America). Reading these books one gets the sense of shared enthusiasm — from the best-selling books of Pauline Kael to erudite fare like Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meanings in Cinema.

RC meets "rock-teur" Chuck Berry
We’re talking about a time when film criticism mattered, and books like Talking Pictures existed as a tool for arguments among buffs — these days that role is filled by “listicle” items on the Internet that spotlight the “funniest movies ever” or “10 action movies you must see before you die.”

Corliss’s notion of reworking the auteur theory to shine the light on writers rather than directors thus fit perfectly with the times. Sarris himself admitted that there were other “auteurs” who were responsible for many films, and Corliss got quite a boon by having the Old Man himself write the foreword to Talking Pictures, acknowledging and praising Corliss’s attempt to shift the attention of film buffs with this book.

Lubitsch directs Garbo and Melvyn
The book seems to be an interim step to the discussion of multiple auteurs on certain films. Corliss states this outright in the introduction: “You could call Citizen Kane either the culmination of Herman Mankiewicz's dreams or the beginning of Orson Welles' nightmares, but it would be silly to ignore either man's contribution. Who is the auteur of Ninotchka: Ernst Lubitsch, or the Charles Brackett-Billy Wilder-Walter Reisch team, or Greta Garbo? Obviously, all of them. I've tried in this book to make a case for the screenwriter without libeling either the director or the actor.” [Penguin edition, 1975, p. xxviii] 

Talking Pictures is thus an argument against the director-as-auteur, but not the auteur theory per se. In the intro, the terms are defined this way:
“William Wyler was absolutely right to hold the director responsible for ‘a picture's quality’ — just as a conductor is responsible for the composer's symphony, or a contractor for the architect's plans. But he must also be responsible to something: the screenplay. With it, he can do one of three things: ruin it, shoot it, or improve it.” [p. 20]

Picking the scripter as the prime shaper of a movie seems like a sound decision until one actually factors in a few other items that aren’t usually the case with a director. The first, most important, is the profusion of scripters who worked on films during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Many of the movies from that era would have a person listed who concocted the storyline, then another set of writers who wrote the initial draft of the script, and then a final set, usually a duo, who “signed” the film as the main scripters.

In line with that, while it’s possible that an editor (or a heavy-handed producer of the Harvey Weinstein sort) could shift around a director’s work, it’s far more common that a scripter would toil on a film and then see his/her work completely scrapped by the next “set of hands.” Thus, in Talking Pictures, Corliss often has to play detective to attribute a given film to a given scripter. In some cases, he decides on discussing certain films as the work of certain lesser-remembered scripters (Charles Brackett, for instance), rather than their famous collaborators (Billy Wilder, in Brackett’s case).

The most striking thing about the book is that Corliss wrote it when he was a “young turk” in the film-crit biz, and thus he was not afraid to take swipes at certain revered figures. Thus, the man who in later years was considered quite a kind critic in his work for TIME (even when panning something, Richard could be uncommonly polite about slamming a talented person who had turned out a wretched movie) was quite ready in the early Seventies to dissect and tear down many movie classics.

I went on a spree a few years ago and wound up watching every film directed by Howard Hawks (not counting the missing silents, obviously, and the ones he was fired from or left). Thus I was surprised that one of the scripters responsible for some of Hawks' best works gets appraised/trashed by Corliss in Talking Pictures. The writer in question is Jules Furthman, whose screenplays during a four-and-a-half decade career, included The Docks of New York, Morocco, The Shanghai Express, and Blonde Venus (all Sternberg); Mutiny on the Bounty, Nightmare Alley; To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Only Angels Have Wings, and Rio Bravo (the last quartet directed by Hawks; the final two being among the top tier of Golden Age films).

With that kind of pedigree you'd think Furthman might be in the first rank. He's actually in the third rank, and Corliss sums up his feelings about Furthman's writing this way:

“The problem is that there's not much difference between best and worst Furthman. He is always competent, often compromising, rarely compelling, and never incomparable. In general, Furthman exemplifies the kind of screenwriter whose filmographic whole is greater than the sum of his particular contributions to it, whose best work was done as the 'employee' of a directing or performing personality stronger than his own, and whose career deserves to be resurrected but not adored.” [p. 270]

So, in effect, the book is most interesting when Corliss takes on a contrarian position and trashes a writer whose films were pretty sublime (or was it Sternberg and Hawks who made those films sublime? Back to square one…). What RC makes clear at many points in the book is that he did read many of the screenplays in question, so he was also aware of many of the weaknesses inherent in Furthman's writing.

Jules Furthman
The odd thing, given the titles in question, is that the films cited above are indeed quite, quite good — so to say that Furthman was nothing better than a craftsman ends up becoming praise for his co-scripters (including Faulkner on The Big Sleep), or an argument that either Sternberg and Hawks were alchemists, making gold out of dross, OR the studio system just turned out some heavy-duty classics amid the programmers and routine vehicle pictures.

One last point of contention (mine, not Richard's): While Sarris arranged his book in “descending order” from his “pantheon” of great directors to “Subjects for Further Research.” Corliss on the other hand outlines his various strata in the book's introduction, and then groups the scripters thematically in the book proper so we don't start off or end up with the cream of the crop. The four categories he chose, incidentally, were “Parthenon” (not Pantheon!), Erechtheion, Propylaea, and “Outside the Walls.”

Last notes about the book itself: It closes out on a small group of scripters who had had great successes in the Sixties and Seventies. The positive write-ups here include his section on Carnal Knowledge and his entry for Robert Benton and David Newman. In the process of writing up the latter team, he reviews a script that was never made into a movie, “Hubba-Hubba.”

Newman and Benton
This is quite a ballsy move, and even more striking than the fact that Sarris included projects in pre-production in the filmographies in his book (for years, I've wondered why he put “Napoloeon” in Kubrick's listing, given that the film hadn't even begun shooting). What I came to realize on second reading of Talking Pictures is that Corliss might have even suspected that “Hubba-Hubba” was dead in the water, and yet he “reviewed” it in order to have an example of an unfilmed script.

He does mention in his rather lengthy entry (five pages, the same amount of space devoted to The Searchers) that the script features “three or four sequences that audiences will long remember — if they ever get to see them.” I could, of course, be completely wrong on this, given the fact that he also takes care to mention three projects written by Benton and Newman that were about to be filmed (one of them, he notes, should start filming by the time the book is published). None of the three ever saw the light of day….

The reason I'm doing this re-appraisal and resurrection of the book, though, is that it belongs to that period of time when movies really did matter to a greater number of people — given the present-day argument that “[A current excellent TV show] is just like cinema… in fact, it's our era's version of literature!” means that too many reviewers don't really like cinema all that much. (Very good TV is nothing to be sneezed at, but it is indeed just that — excellent TV. Not cinema, not literature, but very good television.)

In his best writing, Corliss went about this task as a critic in a very serious fashion. He also, like the good logic-based liberal he was, was very much open to debate. Books like The American Cinema and Talking Pictures were indeed intended to start arguments, but healthy arguments based on a real knowledge of the subject — rather than today's online “listicles” that declare certain things “worthy” of inclusion, with all else in the category being not even worth contemplation.  (When you're making up a list of “films to see before you die,” you've already hit the rock-bottom Cliff Notes level of critical appraisal.)

Before I discuss the individuals whom Corliss clearly loved and hated, I should point to an instance in the book where he acknowledges that his opinions were open to debate:

“A truly dogmatic critic can talk himself into liking — or, at the very least, making a sophisticated case for — just about any film that appeals to his prejudices. So, although I continue to affirm my resistance to any formal theory that claims the screenwriter as an auteur, any reader deserves to be skeptical when I simply state that the pair of writer-director films, Darling Lili and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, can be recommended as more meaningful, more personal, and even, to the disinterested viewer, more satisfying than the offerings of our two Pantheon residents.” [p. 157]

I will discuss Corliss's dislikes before his likes, since he was always at his best when rhapsodizing about something he loved, and that is the best note to close on. I also do this because I tend to disagree with a few of his evaluations in this category, so I will be conducting a one-sided argument, which can only be answered by then giving Richard the final word, in the form of his praise for the writers whose work he truly did love.

Tammy and the Bachelor
His young turk attitude allows him at points to be brutally frank about some much-beloved Hollywood personalities. A personal favorite of mine is his tangential diss of two very exuberant blonde performers. While discussing Norman Krasna, he takes time to single out “those paragons of pointless energy, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee.”

He goes on, in a somewhat caddish but (let’s be honest) uncannily accurate mode: “Both actresses were too tough to make it as Audrey Hepburns and too angular to be Marilyn Monroes; wide-eyed aggression would have to do. If that was enough to keep their careers afloat longer than their talents deserved, it also helped sink their movies. Debbie rarely transmitted a feeling of joy in her work; it was all work, reworking, and overworking.” [pp. 71-72]

Had he lived to see Reynolds’ departure, I'm sure he would've written a beautiful obit for her, studio-contracted object that she was, but in the Seventies he let it all hang out. Thus, we come to the places where he tears apart some of mine own faves. First, Frank Tashlin, who, he says found in the severe limitations of his leads (Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jack Carson, Lucille Ball) “exactly that quality of lumpy, proletarian inflexibility that would express his own view of comedy as submission to pain, and not — as the greatest silent comedy artists demonstrated — its sublime, effortless transcendence.” [p. 77]

Jerry and Frank Tashlin
I know that Richard was not a fan of Jerry Lewis at all. He also had a major problem with Tashlin, a director whom I feel was the single best “rangler” of Jerry, to the extent that his movies actually make Jerry rather charming (something Jerry was unable to achieve the times he directed himself). Richard's take? “It may be too much to ask that Tashlin's films also provoke the joy, the delight, the spontaneous laughter of great screen comedy. So I will not ask. I will simply say: they are not funny.” [p. 89]

One of the biggest turnabouts in Andrew Sarris's writing was that he openly condemned Billy Wilder in The American Cinema, placing him in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category, but later realized Wilder was one of the greats whom he had been completely wrong about. I'm not certain what Richard's later take on Wilder was, but here he shares Sarris's Sixties contempt for the master-scripter [my phrase, not Corliss's] by expressing his loathing of the darker-than-dark A Foreign Affair (1948) as a “vile” film.

Also in the “hated it!” category, interestingly enough, is Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948), which is now commonly agreed upon as a masterpiece of both film noir and urban drama. Corliss finds it to be a triter creation by Polonsky, summing it up this way: “Like Odets and Fuchs, Polonsky was at his movie best when he thought he was selling out. When he was left on his own (as in Force of Evil and Willie Boy), the themes turned pedagogical, the images verged on the ponderous, the dialogue often surrendered epigrammatic cheekiness for muted soliloquies and voluptuous self-contempt.” [p. 136]

Corliss embraced some of the greatest visions of the Sixties maverick period. He wrote a review in 1968 praising the mostly-loathed Richard Lester downer Petulia (which is now thought of as a masterpiece, natch). His enthusiasm for the modernist filmmaking of that period did not, however, extend to Robert Altman's biggest hit, M*A*S*H (1970), which he hated

His summation in his entry here on the film's screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr. (who won an Oscar for his script, which had been greatly changed by Altman in the filming), was that its “characterizations lack the depth and consistency we demand when looking for a movie that's more than very funny. As with The Graduate, its tone is too distinct and erratic (The Hardy Boys one moment, Satan's Sadists the next) to fit it easily into a genre. And as with The Graduate, most critics tended to review a film they wanted to see instead of the film in front of them.” [p. 344] I disagree, but am thoroughly amused that RC got an Al Adamson reference into his pan.

The most intriguing thing about the final section of Talking Pictures is that Corliss chose to tackle the new Hollywood by singling out a group of screenwriters who sadly did not “rise” any further in the Seventies (unless you want to count Robert Benton, who became a successful director after splitting with his scripting partner Robert Newman). This chapter includes a thorough trashing of Funhouse hero Terry Southern, whom Corliss finds to be facile and none too witty (mine own feelings are in this piece).

The thing that hits one reading Talking Pictures from this later point in time is that there were scripters who became “superstars” in the years after the book came out. They usually became directors (like Paul Schrader), although some didn't (the enormously successful, and then utterly forgotten, Joe Eszterhas). In our correspondence he threw out a few names of people that he would've put into an updated version of the book, like Dustin Lance Black. While Woody Allen is another key name — since his films are mostly script and the visuals are really the creation of whoever is the cinematographer on that particular film — one of the most successful scripters-turned-directors was of course Francis Ford Coppola.

Moving on from those who were trashed to those who were treasured, we reach a film that is celebrated in Talking Pictures in two entries (the ones for Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer). Corliss states flat out that “His Girl Friday is Hawks's best comedy, and quite possibly his best film.” [p. 318]

This, the “most anarchic newspaper comedy of all time,” inspires Corliss to one of his best insights about the films of Golden Age Hollywood. He reflects on what movie viewers prize: “Though Walter bullies, lies to, and spills things on Bruce, the film convinces us that Walter and Hildy were made for each other, if only because angelic boredom is a greater movie sin than stylish corruption.” [ibid]

One of the most interesting comparisons occurs when he's talking about Singin' in the Rain in his entry on Comden and Green. He notes that that perfect musical “suggests, without a wasted shot or twist of the plot, the same end of a sublime, ridiculous movie era that Billy Wilder painted, with broader, more delirious strokes, in Sunset Boulevard. The difference in tone is due as much to the two films' fidelity to their own themes as to the fact that Hagen is Singin' in the Rain's comic villainess, and not its tragic heroine." [p. 199]

Perhaps the most unusual note in the book is struck when RC praises Dalton Trumbo’s correspondence (which was released in book form as Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo in 1970) above his screenplays. He explains it this way: “A long look at the non-movie ephemera of Trumbo, Hecht, Harry Brown, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and others convinces me that half the screenwriters in Hollywood poured their talent into witty letters, fierce memos, and funny stories once they realized their scripts would not be filmed as they were written.

“Of the self-destructive Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht wrote: ‘I knew that no one as witty and spontaneous as Herman would ever put himself on paper. A man whose genius is on tap like free beer seldom makes literature out of it.’ The art of conversation is not only a dying art, it is one that dies anew as the embers of a witty evening's memory turn to the dust of gossip.

“Mankiewicz ‘put himself on paper’ for the movies just once — when he wrote Citizen Kane. Trumbo's own genius was clandestine, conspiratorial, circulated only to special friends and formidable enemies. His screenplays deserve the oblivion most of them have already received; but his letters will live, for the true record of the man is there — in those florid, cantankerous, incandescent salvos.” [p. 262]

Ben Hecht's first Oscar
winner, dir. by Sternberg
There are conflicted feelings in entries about certain screenwriters. The Big Daddy of ‘Em All, Ben Hecht, is thus a target for Corliss’s bouquets, and slings and arrows. Hecht was indeed a sort of “industry” among scripters — his name was so famous that he frequently seems to have been only briefly involved with the films that wound up bearing his name as a scripter. Thus, while one has to be of two minds about such a ubiquitous figure (see, for example, Hecht’s credit on the Zsa Zsa sci-fi masterwork of high camp, Queen of Outer Space), it’s impossible to escape how Hecht got into the enviable position of being a “franchise” rather than just a writer.

Or as RC puts it, “Hecht did offer a backhanded defense of the craft he loved and the restrictions he loathed. ‘It is as difficult to make a toilet seat as a castle window,’ he wrote in 1962, ‘even if the view is a bit different.’ During his long tenure in Hollywood, Ben Hecht made both. But at his best, he could make a porcelain privy glisten like stained glass on a sunny day.” [p. 24]

Corliss rhapsodizes about some less famous films as well, including scripter Norman Krasna’s Hands Across the Table (1935). Sure it’s a film directed by Lubitsch, but Richard raises the ante against Sarris by giving the screenwriters “authorship” of the film in this book. Of Hands, he notes (curiously praising Lubitsch more than Krasna) it “was Ernst Lubitsch's first film as Paramount's production chief. For once, the School of Lubitsch — which was attended, consciously or not, by most of Hollywood's best romantic-comedy writers and directors — produced a work eminently worthy of its master.” [p. 67]

Letter From an Unknown Woman
At times he contextualizes the book’s whole concept by attributing the films to both their director and their scripters. In a case like the sublime Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), this makes perfect sense. “Letter…, both as an exquisite set of reverberations from [Howard] Koch's best early films and as a virtual master plan for the later, more famous Ophuls pictures, is a most convincing case for multiple authorship. Not only is Letter crucial to the careers of both writer and director, but it is also the perfect conjunction of these powerful proponents of film romance.

“Ophuls' woman-in-love theme achieves perhaps its most beautiful expression here; but the film reveals at least as many Kochian obsessions, most significantly the letter as a transmitter of intonations of love and intimations of death — a memento mori that can cleanse the receiver even as it kills the sender.” [p. 116]

And, while today’s cinephile reader might be surprised at the number of well-regarded scripters who come in for a beautifully worded drubbing in Talking Pictures, at other points the obvious talent of the masters is recognized and becomes the subject of lyrical prose.

Sullivan's Travels
Speaking of Preston Sturges and his superb use of character actors, Corliss notes (in this instance, apropos of Sullivan’s Travels): “No writer or director was more generous to these gifted spear carriers than was Sturges as writer-director, but then no writer or director was as dependent on them to propel his picture. He used them as a chorus to carry his hero, kicking and screaming, away to the burial ground.

"They were raffish, cynical small-timers in themselves, but when unified in opposition to the hero — which is what Sturges always did with them — they forgot their differences and banded into a powerful force for intimidation. Individually, they were bull throwers; collectively, they were a bulldozer. And it took the Sturgean hero a full ninety minutes to free himself, however tentatively, from their grasp.” [p. 45]

The modern (read: post-studio system) screenplay that comes in for the most praise in the book’s last chapter is Jules Feiffer’s script for Carnal Knowledge (1971). Corliss is unabashed in his praise of the script (and the film). One wishes there had been a Feiffer script that was in the same league after ’71 — I will steadfastly defend two-thirds of Altman’s Popeye (1980), but Resnais’ I Want to Go Home (1989) is a major disappointment, despite the references in the film to master cartoonists Will Eisner and Lee Falk.

When analyzing Carnal Knowledge, Corliss does a fine job of contextualizing the many media that Feiffer was working in at the turn of the Seventies: “Those who say Feiffer's vision is simplistic because he is a cartoonist are wrong; it is simple because he is a moralist. That vision is a creation unique in its comic pessimism. It is also remarkably consistent, which may explain why Little Murders, conceived as a novel, succeeded as a play — and why Carnal Knowledge, conceived as a play, stands as the most personal and perceptive film to emerge from the new breed of screenwriters.” [p. 366]

Like The American Cinema, Talking Pictures was sadly never updated and thus is forever frozen in amber at the beginning of the Seventies. It can be easily found in the usual places where secondhand books dwell and remains a remarkably well-written cause for arguments among movie buffs who care about and love old Hollywood. (It made perfect that the last institution to embrace Corliss was the stalwart destination for all of us smitten with old movies, Turner Classic Movies.)

Richard had other loves in the world of cinema — and many in the other arts, from theater and literature to music, erotica, and comic books — which I hope to chronicle in future blog entries. His writing was filled with enthusiasm for the things that he loved, and while Talking Pictures reveals an earlier, surprisingly acerbic Corliss, his best reviews and theme pieces (a lot of them done for the Internet in this century) deserve to be read in the decades to come. Any publishers (or academic presses) up for a collection of RC’s best and most eclectic writing?

And since the man himself enjoyed diversions, tangents, and connecting the dots with trivia, I have to note that while I wrote this piece over the last several weeks I kept hearing this song in my head.