28 October, 2015

A Passing Of The Torch

            At about 9:00 at night on May 27th, 2014, I popped San Antonio into the VCR I'd just hooked up to my laptop.  To make a test.  Diana had just bought me a device so I could digitize my parents' -- now our -- VHS Collection to something less ... bulky.  More ... easily manageable. This was Diana's idea, you see, as I couldn't see any reason to attempt such a thing.  The 1400 VHS were neatly shelved, in order, in one of our closets.  And we had my Dad's handwritten Catalog listing them all, so if one might call it a little ... bulky, well, it was certainly manageable.  As you can imagine my perfectly reasonable rationale didn't fly so well;  so Diana bought me this device and I made the test.  

Well, it worked.  

In an hour and a half, I had a good quality file of San Antonio on my laptop and a newly irrelevant VHS in my hand.  "See?" Diana smiled.  "Now won't you be glad when they're all like that and we can watch them as easily?"  I glanced at the Quicktime, then at the VHS, then back to the Quicktime, not entirely sure.  But I did what any perfectly reasonable rational man would do:  I smiled and agreed and the next day began digitizing those 1400 VHS one title at a time.  (I say one "title" because anyone that remembers recording to VHS knows one tape doesn't mean the same thing.  No no no.  There were often three or four titles to a tape.  So in terms of how many titles I'd have to get through, well, perhaps there was something to Diana suggesting I start sooner rather than later.)  

And this week -- a year and a half later -- I finished the last tape.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I suppose we should go back to the beginning.  Where those 1400 VHS came from, why I inherited them.  Rather, why Diana and I still had them, decided to keep them;  why we still treasured them.

This won’t be an article on the history of VCRs or VHS but, for the purpose of this piece, we’ll say the format hit around 1980.  And remember at that time movies cost around $100 each (that’s about $290 in today’s dollars).  Well, in just the next ten years, we’d see VCRs in over half the homes in America, and we’d see the first significant drops in the cost of movies.  In 1985, Beverly Hills Cop was about $85;  just a year later Top Gun a steal at $25;  and the Home Video Grand Poobah, we picked up 1989’s Batman for $9.99.  So significant was this new Consumer Exhibition that Congress held a Hearing at which Jack Valenti, then head of The Motion Picture Association of America, said (swear to God this a quote), “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as The Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”  A bit theatrical?  Maybe, but you remember what people said about Napster and Music.

Why am I telling you any of this?  Because before 1980 the only way you could get a personal copy of most movies was on 16MM.  Yes, there were 16MM Prints of films floating around, and you’d buy one and hook up your projector and take two pictures off a wall and sit and watch a movie … but at a much greater cost.  A “little” movie -- say, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein -- would have run $1200 while a “big” movie -- say, Casablanca -- could have been $3000 (and you do the math on what that means in today’s dollars).  Point being when you could buy a VCR for $1500 and start recording off the TV for free?  Well, that was sweet music indeed for cinephiles everywhere.  (Sure, the cost of a blank VHS was about $20 but -- getting more than one title on a tape? -- that still felt “free” to a lot of people.)  And my Dad jumped on it.  

Also remember this was before Cable.  Sure, HBO was in its infancy and Showtime was right around the corner;  and who remembers ONTV and SelecTV?  But Dad was never interested in Beverly Hills Cop.  Now Abbott & Costello on the other hand;  Casablanca.  Playing those whenever he wanted would be gold.  And this is what I mean by “before Cable.”  1980 is still long before the likes of American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies, so where did Dad look?  TV Guide.  (Remember that?  This is all before Google too.)  That little magazine arriving in the mail was like Christmas morning.  Dad grabbed his black ink pen and poured through it;  going through each day and night, circling what he wanted.  KTLA was king back then with Tom Hatten’s “The Family Film Festival” by day and the network’s “Movies ‘Til Dawn” by night.  And Studios were one-offing some on Television, so you got the biggies:  Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz and (at Christmas of course) It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street.  And on Thanksgiving there were the great I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners marathons.  (One of the fun things about so many of the Titles being recorded off TV meant many of them have that year’s commercials throughout.)  But Dad had to hunt for them, know when they’d be on;  and often set an alarm for when they played at three or four in the morning.

Soon the library grew.  One of Mom’s favorites was Some Like It Hot so of course we got that.  And Dad appreciated how big a Star Wars fan I am -- imagine me then -- so he got that.  Soon we had twenty tapes.  As I say it wasn’t just Movies and TV Shows, he started collecting Serials too so imagine the thrill when some nights we’d watch a Chapter and a Movie!  The Perils Of Nyoka and Spy Smasher and Captain Marvel.  Soon we had fifty tapes, then a hundred.  Errol Flynn’s Desperate Journey and Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Bob Hope.  I don’t need to tell some of you I like Bob Hope.  Well, imagine a ten year old that had his hands on My Favorite Brunette and The Princess And The Pirate and The Road To Morocco whenever he wanted.  I still remember a friend came over to visit and I asked, “Wanna watch The Ghost Breakers?”  He screamed with delight, “You have Ghostbusters?”  I looked at him like he had three heads.  “Um, The Ghost Breakers.”  He looked at me oddly.  To this day I think we’re both still confused.

And this brings us to a small gleaming of why I kept those VHS;  why Diana and I treasured them.  I talk a little bit more about this in my Top 5 Retrospectives but I’ll touch on it again here.  Two things, actually.  One, these are the Movies and TV Shows I grew up with so naturally they had an incredibly visceral impact.  And, two, I often say that anything artistic -- a Movie, a Book, a Song -- affects you most based on when you first encounter it.  Well, this VHS Library -- its Movies, TV Shows, Serials, Documentaries -- was very much my childhood;  very much part of who I’d become.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV in the Granada Hills house where I grew up.  I remember Mom & Dad bringing a VCR and eight or ten tapes each time we went to Lone Pine so we could study the footage before going out to find its location.  I remember when I was at College and I’d go home to visit and I’d bring some back with me;  “comfort viewing.”  I remember the last movie Dad and I saw together before he passed:  Lady On A Train.  By that time I had it on DVD but of course we watched his VHS.  And I remember when Diana and I got together and I could share all of it with her and how excited she was to see me excited and we poured through The Library together.    

Of course, this was before the 1400 VHS were shelved in our closet. 

This was before the device.

So last May I started Digitizing.

It sounds easy but no;  and I don’t just mean the emotion involved when I’d finish a tape and reluctantly throw it away.  I mean the technicality of it.  Because you’d think you could launch a tape, walk away and come back when it’s done.  But no.  First of all, if there’s more than one Title on a tape -- I believe the record was seven -- you don’t want to have a Quicktime with multiple things in it, you want a list at the end of the day that’s The Thin Man;  then, separately, After The Thin Man and so on.  So I’d record whatever was first on the tape, set an alarm for its runtime, come back and continue with the next.  The other issue that all but dictated handling each Title on its own was Tracking.  Remember having to Track a VHS;  you popped it in and parts of the image were fuzzy until you dialed it clear?  Well, that had to be done per-Title.  So, indeed, speed in the process went quickly the way of Betamax.

Did anything help?  Kiiiiind of.  When I came across, say, Citizen Kane and it was just the movie (just its content), I skipped it (having a pristine version on DVD or Blu Ray).  And that accounted for a good number of Titles -- a couple hundred -- throughout.  Another help was if a better print of a given movie came along, or Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was shown Letterbox, Dad would “better” the version he had, and I’d only digitize “the better one.”  But he’d not necessarily get rid of the former, causing duplicates.  (And keeping two wasn’t necessarily an oversight, rather the former might be on a tape that had other Titles on it so it had to be kept.)  For me, content dictated the choosing.  So even a “duplicate” wasn’t always just that.  For instance, even if I had a “better version,” if I came across Murder He Says taped live on “The Family Film Festival” with Tom Hatten’s wonderful commentary throughout, you bet I kept it.  So, really, I was addressing by Title.

On average, I got through about six tapes -- fifteen or twenty Titles -- a week so it’s not surprising it took a year and half.  Most of the time it was fun, revisiting The Library, often being reminded of what was there.  Of course, not every VHS made it.  Quite a few were lost to “damage;”  weather-warped or simply wouldn’t Track at all.  But those I could “save” were well worth it;  indeed keeping them alive in a technology where analog tape would only get worse as time goes by.  And, sure, The Library isn’t as “exclusive” as it once was.  I remember when certain Titles Dad had were extremely rare.  A Chapter of Daredevils Of The West, Fatty Arbuckle’s The Roundup, the Jackie Gleason Pilot for The Life Of Riley, Disney’s Mosby’s Marauders, the original two-hour Pilot for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Now a lot of the Titles are on DVD or Blu Ray, and Eddie Brandt’s in North Hollywood still carries the torch, and Quentin Tarantino is showing a lot of great classics -- in 35MM! -- at his New Beverly Theatre.  Even Netflix and Hulu now have a lot.  But these VHS were Dad’s;  a collection accumulated over twenty five years simply because he was a fan.  So many great Silents, so many great Episodes of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, so many great A&E Biographies.  The Spanish and French versions of the 1938 Lone Ranger Serial.  The Boston Blackie series.  And The Falcon and Nancy Drew

And now they’re Diana’s and mine.

At the end of the run, it’s 1130 Titles, all now individual Quicktimes on a two-terabyte drive, with a duplicate archive sitting in the closet.  1400 VHS culled down to two boxes about the size of an iPhone.  Well, to be fair, it was a year and a half well worth it.  Because Diana was right.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that the VHS are gone, but that we have what was on them.  Again, content being king. 

We still have The Library at all.

Back in the 80s, before IMDB, there was a book on Dad's shelf called The New York Times Directory Of The Film.  Published in 1971, it … well, I’ll let its own introduction say:  “Through the miracle of the computer, every name that has ever appeared in the credits of a Time review -- actors, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, composers, even animals -- has been lifted from the columns and placed alphabetically under the proper heading, with their films arranged chronologically.  This leads to some pleasant discoveries, like Akka (chimpanzee), or Dostoevski (original author), or the surprising number of films made by, say, Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper before either was officially ‘discovered.’  The original reviews are rather like butterfly specimens that have been pinned for all time in spectacular array.  But the films themselves are not butterflies;  they are not to be pinned down to one time and one place.  Whether produced as entertainment, art or propaganda, they live a life of their own, with a continuing power to affect us.”  There are even photos of about 2000 Actors and Actresses.  It was without question the IMDB of its day and remains an amazing, impressive book (and is now on Diana’s and my shelf).    

Perhaps better than anything, it shares how I feel about wrapping the last year and a half of this project.  Mom and Dad’s Library isn’t gone, it’s just a torch that’s been passed.  That will live longer now than it would have before.  To still be enjoyed.

Thank you, Diana, for reminding me of that.  And making it happen.

15 September, 2015

Witness For The Prosecution

            Rounding out our Tyrone Power Top 5 is, let's just say it, an enormous film.  There's the cast, sure;  led by Ty and Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton.  But look who Co-Adapted and Directed:  Mr. Billy Wilder.  From whose famous play?  Dame Agatha Christie (who, yes, also happens to round out our Birthday Bash).  Well, this is indeed one of those wonderful instances of that much talent in-front-of and behind the camera delivering a true A-Picture.  And let's get right into it.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury ...

        'Witness For The Prosecution'
        w Billy Wilder & Harry Kurnitz                               and Lawrence B. Marcus
        d Billy Wilder

           You know the story, right?  An aging attorney (Laughton) takes the case of Leonard Vole (Power) who is on trial for the murder of a wealthy widow.  Vole's wife (Dietrich) is his only alibi ... and she decides to testify against him.  In beautiful Agatha Christie fashion, a series of events cascades into a deliciously melo-
dramatic mix of wit and thrills.  At the end of the movie, a narrator actually implores us not to
divulge the twist;  and who could ever argue that?

Dame Agatha Christie -- who would have been 125 today -- began writing ...

30 June, 2015


             There seems to be something of a Birthday Bash in this round of our Top 5 Retrospectives.  We're celebrating Mr. Tyrone Power whose first entry -- Jesse James -- posted on what would have been his 100th Birthday, The Mark Of Zorro posted on what would have been that leading lady's -- Linda Darnell's -- birthday, and this entry posts on what would have been today's leading lady's birthday:  Miss Susan Hayward.

But that’s not the only benchmark in today’s write-up.  As I mentioned in The Black Swan, how surprising it was that was Ben Hecht’s first we’d talked about, it’s as surprising today’s film is the first in these Top 5s to showcase that marvelous maze of boulders called The Alabama Hills.  Yes indeed, today you not only get Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, Dean Jagger and Jack Elam, Henry Hathaway at the helm from a script by Dudley Nichols;  as if all that wasn’t enough … dear readers, today’s the day we go on location in Lone Pine. 

You fans remember how today’s movie begins, don’t you?  The stagecoach barreling through desert and mountains, sun and snow, as we hear, “Yes sir, that’s it.  The Overland Mail.  San Francisco to St. Louis in twenty-five days.  Twenty-seven-hundred miles in twenty-five days and twenty-five nights.  When the weather and injuns behave.  A lot farther and longer when they don’t.  People said it couldn’t be done.  They laughed.  Called it The Jackass Mail.  But when mail and passengers and gold began coming through from California day-in and day-out, the whole country sat up and took notice.  San Francisco to St. Louis.  The shortest, fastest, back-breakingest ride you could buy for two-hundred dollars gold.  Meals included.  Yes sir, that’s it.  The Jackass Mail.”  And where does the stagecoach pull up for the night … and our adventure?

Rawhide (1951)
w Dudley Nichols
d Henry Hathaway

            The Western is an interesting genre.  And let’s not round up “Cowboy Pictures” in this;  the hundreds of glorious B-Pictures with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Charles Starrett, the list goes on and on.  No, let’s just talk The Western.  The -- how do I put this -- straight dramatic narratives (and we touched on this a bit in Jesse James).  More than any other genre, this was my dad’s favorite (particularly the B-Pictures) so naturally I have a soft spot for them (hey, even Bob Hope got on a couple of horses).  Well, more than any other genre, there’s absolutely zero consistency to its popularity.  (We’re in the midst of Superheroes reigning Popular Supreme but you wanna talk Consistency?  Horror.)  Whenever a really good Western hits, we’re warmed by it being a Hollywood staple and simultaneously shocked by its wide appeal.  I kid you not.  Take a look at five off the top of my head --

                  Stagecoach (1939)                                                                             
                  Red River (1948)
                  The Gunfighter (1950)
                  The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
                  Unforgiven (1992)  

                  All of them great?  You bet.  But keep in mind those five don’t include --
Shane (1953)
The Searchers (1956)
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
Dances With Wolves (1990)
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

And those ten don’t include … you get the idea.  All of them?  Considered instant classics.  Well, they surprised even more.  [The only safe bet might have been John Ford behind a camera pointed at John Wayne but, remember, as our dear friend William Goldman said so well, “Nobody knows anything.”  Incidentally, Goldman himself wrote in 1982 -- thirteen years after Butch (which brought home the Screenwriting Oscar and the equivalent of $600 million dollars)  -- he doubts anyone would even read it then.  Crazy?  Maybe, but so goes the state of The Western.]

Rawhide then -- and keep in mind this an A-Picture with the likes of Ty in-front-of and Henry Hathaway behind the camera -- was not expected to be “a home run” but “a good base hit” -- suits really did talk like that -- meaning they’d make a good film and maybe break even (and note the order they cared for back then).  That we get a movie as good as this, and it did as well as it did, was indeed another surprise.  I’ve talked about a couple Westerns in these Top 5s -- San Antonio, Jesse James -- and it still surprises me they’re as random as they are.  Maybe ‘cause it takes a really good one to be talked about?  Nobody questions Saw 17 coming to a theatre near you but we’re reluctant to give the same amount of money to spurs and six-shooters that might be -- gasp -- good.

But I digress.     

So.  Rawhide.

First off, let’s not confuse this with the hit Clint Eastwood TV Show.  Maybe you hadn’t, nor were about to, but we’ve said it and can move on.  (Well as long as we’ve paused;  when our film today was shown on TV in the sixties, to differentiate the two, its title was changed to Desperate Siege.  Okay, now we can move on.)  This is Rawhide, the 20th Century Fox feature and -- if you aren’t familiar with it -- you’re in for a damn fine film.

Ty -- a city boy sent West by his father to learn the trade -- works at a stagecoach way-station when Susan Hayward and her baby niece arrive, waiting for their next coach.  It’s hot and dusty and the food is barely that and this is no place for a baby;  and that’s when an escaped murderer and his henchmen show up, planning to rob a coach the following morning.  Will our heroes make it through the night;  given a chance, can they thwart the murderer’s plans?

One of the things I find interesting about this film is -- how do I put this -- how wonderfully lean it is.  Not as plain as that might sound, but how straight-forward, un-flourished it is.  Take, say, Casablanca -- an indisputable masterpiece -- where the drama, action, romance, even comedy, certainly the score, is heightened;  there are very big emotions playing there (and perfectly).  But here, the story is told very plainly, matter of factly, even the score (or lack of, even in the climax).  Hugh Marlowe just wants the gold.  He doesn’t want to bed Susan Hayward or burn down the world (that’s for Jack Elam).  Even when we learn why Marlowe’s murderer went to jail -- the traveleres unknowingly ribbing him -- he doesn’t slaughter them, because that would detract from the gold.  Susan Hayward doesn’t particualrly care for what’s right or even safe -- at first -- she just wants to take care of her niece;  get home.  And Ty, well, he just wants to get through the week because then he gets to go back East to good food and clean baths.  This doesn’t detract him from the work to be done, not even his character arc is that great;  he does his job well, eats and sleeps when it’s time, learnin’ the business, but countin’ the days to get the hell out.  Even the love story, such as it is, is played out of a plotted necessity and Ty’s and Miss Hayward’s kiss is part of the ruse they can’t help but give into at that moment.  All simple, one-tracked motivations that stir the drama … and, wonderfully, never lead to melodrama.

               Except for Jack Elam who is so perfectly evil it’s a tornado barreling through the realism.  There are few truly evil characters in stories.  Top of my head, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Night Of The Hunter (1955), Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown and Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) in The Omen (1976);  I would include Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List but he’s not as much a created character as the personification of Nazi atrocities.  You can’t even discuss The Joker or Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter in the same list (and I love them all).  We’re talking people who couldn’t care less about theatrics;  who’ll tease, embarrass, steal from, rape, murder simply for the pure pleasure of it.  So, yeah, when Hugh Marlowe -- our villian -- has to look after and out-for one of his own men, I mean, the only one in the movie you’re worried about is Jack Elam.  Evil incarnate riding into our Stage Station.

Rawhide Station for The Jackass Mail.  Remember that’s what it’s called in the bracketed narration:  The Jackass Mail.  Well, that was real.  While the Overland Mail ran from San Francisco to St. Louis, there was the company’s southern route from San Antonio to San Diego, pulled by mules, hence its nickname.  There were two trips a month, one leaving San Antonio and the other San Diego, with 30 days allowed for each.  That’s 1,476 miles – just short of half the U.S. – at about 40 miles a day.  It cost $200, and most of the meals were included, but it was tough going.  I mean tough;  swear to God you were asked to bring your own guns and ammunition to fend off Indians.  Our stage station at “Rawhide,” then, was The Ritz compared to the stops along the way;  unmanned water holes setup at thirty-mile intervals, when they held water.  And only three stops – San Antonio, El Paso and San Diego (so only one during the trip) – had buildings.  Over the course of its run – this is roughly 1857 to 1861 – about 40 trips of the entire route were made.

So, yes, the stage station set 20th Century Fox built for our movie today was gorgeous.  Aaaaand I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a little bit more about that.

You can read more on The Alabama Hills, that marvelous maze of boulders just west of the California town of Lone Pine – and its annual Film Festival (this year marking its 26th) – HERE but, briefly, it’s been a favorite shooting location since 1920 (the first film we know to have been shot there is Fatty Arbuckle’s The Roundup).  What makes the area particularly special is it’s still there.  I’ll explain.  While public land, The Alabama Hills are owned by The Bureau Of Land Management and The Department of Water and Power, so not only is it still there at all, it’s practically untouched since the classic movie days.  Which means you can still get out there and visit them.  Lone Pine’s hallmark film is the classic Gunga Din but get your hands on the list of over 450 movies shot there.  So you can visit.  And stand where Ty stood (a couple of times;  he did Rawhide and King Of The Khyber Rifles there).  And Errol Flynn.  And Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood.  Did I mention Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx?  Sure, parts of Iron Man and Django Unchained were done there too.  For over ninety years, Hollywood has been going on location in Lone Pine. 

And so Rawhide Director Henry Hathaway & Company went there, built our stage station, and shot all the exteriors there.  Hathaway loved those rocks.  He’d already been there for Lives Of A Benghal Lancer and would return for his segment of How The West Was Won. 

He was born -- ready for this? -- Marquis Henri Léopold de Fiennes in Sacramento, California;  the son of an American actor and stage manager, Rhody Hathaway, and a Hungarian-born Belgian aristocrat, Marquise Lillie de Fiennes.  He was by right a Belgian marquis, a hereditary title held by his grandfather who was on a mission for his king to acquire the Sandwich Islands.  Failing to do so, he settled in San Francisco (and lucky for us he failed because we now call those islands Hawaii).  Not surprisingly, Hathaway tended to keep his aristocratic lineage quiet.  After all, can you see How The West Was Won “Directed by Marquis Henri Leopold de Fiennes?”

When Mr. Hathaway passed in 1985, Kevin Thomas wrote for The Los Angeles Times, “[He] was so unpretentious he’s often underestimated in Movie History.  Although he worked in the same Western and Adventure genres that made Ford and Hawks legends, he rarely inspired the analyses accorded those two contemporaries.”  True and yet -- alongside Ford and Hawks -- few Directors hold up as well.  Look at Hathaway’s work in Noir:  Kiss Of Death;  Gritty Drama:  The House On 92nd Street and Call Northside 777;  Broad Adventure:  Prince Valiant (coming up in Miss Leigh’s Top 5);  and of course The Westerns for which he’s most famous:  not only did he direct John Wayne six times but helmed Duke’s only Oscar win.  Oh, and then there are the “little movies” with -- wait for it -- Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.  (Without digressing, there’s an oft-told Hathaway and Dennis Hopper story which I’ll leave for you to discover.)  My personal favorite Hathaway film?  If you haven’t seen the great -- and one of James Cagney’s best -- 13 Rue Madeleine, you’re in for a real treat.  For our turn today, Rawhide was the fourth of five films he and Ty made together. 

Screenwriter Dudley Nichols won The Academy Award the first time he was nominated … and was the first person to refuse it.  This was for John Ford’s The Informer (1935).  Why did Nichols refuse his Oscar?  Because The Screen Writers Guild was on strike at the time.  (The Screen Writers Guild was so impressed by this they nomimated him President the following two years.  Oh, they weren’t The WGA until 1954.)  Mr. Nichols worked on thirteen films for Mr. Ford, perhaps most notably Stagecoach.  But it’s for what many consider to be the screwball comedy that he’s perhaps most famous:  Bringing Up Baby.  Personally, I can’t help but think of him as writing, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic play Ten Little Indians:  And Then There Were None (1945).

I don’t know that Rawhide will go down as one of the greatest westerns ever made;  mostly, I think, because of how unflourished it is.  (But, then, I think of how wonderfully unflourished The Gunfighter is and it is on a lot of people’s lists.)  Perhaps it goes back to what I was saying about The Western Genre feeling comfortable and a surprise at the same time.  I also read a comment on the TCM Website that said, in part, “The location is the only reason this flic [sic] could be considered a Western.  It could be a dessert island, even a forgotten place in NYC.”  And I think there’s something to that.  Rawhide is a great character-driven drama that just happens to be set in The West.  And perhaps that’s why -- Hathaway, Nichols & Co telling a good story, making a good movie -- we remember this one.  At least I do.

I’ll close this with a personal anecdote, to share how you really can go out into Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills and visit some of these incredible film locations.  When Diana and I were there for The Festival’s 25th Anniversary [October 2014], we stopped by The Rawhide Burial Site -- yep, that’s what they call it -- and she snapped this picture of me.  (And, yep, that round boulder really is there, a great landmark from the movie.)  I hope you can get out there and find more of your own.  That’s well worth it …

                Coming up, our last film in Ty’s Top 5 is also his last film, Witness For The Prosecution.

The Black Swan

The Swashbuckler.

The name alone evokes great high-adventure;  pure fun in entertainment.  The hero?  A diamond in the rough.  The villain?  Just dastardly.  The damsel?  If in distress – even in the classics – strong-willed.  And the weapon of choice?  The sword.  There are often pistols, sure, but in the final fight, when hero and villain go mono-a-mono, sparring dialogue as wonderfully staged, it’s gotta be the sword.  From Cyrano de Bergerac to Jack Sparrow, if adventure has a name …

The word swashbuckler emerged in the sixteenth century;  the likeliest derivation from using a side-sword in one hand – swashing through the air – and buckler (shield) in the other.  The Spanish Rodeleros were well known for mastering the sword-and-buckle and made up the majority of Hernán Cortés troops in his swash of The New World.

The Renaissance saw the introduction of the sword as a civilian weapon and the rise of “the duel.”  Victorian-era authors – Scott, Dumas – found dueling romantic, heroic, and propelled a significant and widespread role of swordsmanship – soon fencing – as far as the theatre stage.  By the time Movies were birthed, dueling was immediately a heralded genre;  because they started as Silents, flamboyant action spoke volumes.

Oft considered the poster boy of the genre is Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950).  Born in Italy but living mostly in England, he spoke six languages, choosing to write in the last he learned because, he said, “all the best stories are written in English.”  He wrote for twenty-five years before finding success with Scaramouche (1921), followed by Captain Blood (1922).  Riding this one-two-punch, his publisher reprinted earlier work, including The Sea Hawk (1915).  It should be no surprise that Hollywood embraced him – just look at those three titles – and it was in 1932 – his twenty-second novel – that he wrote our story today. 

The Daily Telegraph once captured Sabatini and his work the best:  One wonders if there is another storyteller so adroit at filling his pages with intrigue, with danger threaded with romance, a background of lavish colour, of silks and velvets, swords and jewels.”

The Black Swan (1942)
w Ben Hecht & Seton Miller from the novel by Rafael Sabatini
d Henry King

We’re passing the middle of our Ty Top 5 – following Jesse James and The Mark Of Zorro – as we come to his first Pirate Epic, a dash-and-bluster opera played for fun and romance as Cast & Crew are clearly having as much fun as we are.  If not as well known, this film stands strong next to Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, Robin Hood and Sea Hawk as a great swashbuckler;  and, just as significantly, plays precursor to all modern fare.

Speaking of Flynn, I wrote in his Robin Hood post that it’s “the unequivocal swashbuckler.”  And while I don’t regret writing that – and doubt anyone would disagree – I’m just thinking now, “I wonder what we think of when we hear the word swashbuckler.”  Personally, I think Pirates.  There are a number of great non-Pirate swashbucklers – I’m just talking characters now (there are so many movies made about each) – like Robin Hood and Zorro and Prince Valiant and The Three Musketeers – but, gut reaction, I think Pirates.  And today’s movie is the first “Pirate film” in these Top 5s.  (The “Pirate film.”  That’s kind of its own genre, isn’t it?)  Well, rest assured lads and lasses, you’re in fine waters. 

The Black Swan – the titular ship and the movie – swaggers up and down the Caribbean under full sail, its pirates wearing enormous sashes and brandishing shining cutlasses;  sweeping merrily through the streets;  breaking heads, stealing maidens, and brawling over rich brocades.  And should one find himself on a dungeon’s rack?  Aye, perhaps the only code among them is to set the captive free! 

Amid this color is Sir Henry Morgan's return to grace as Governor of Jamaica and his attempt to sweep a former henchman, Billy Leech, from the seas.  Tasked is Morgan’s good friend Jamie Boy (Tyrone Power) who heartily dives in after making a midnight abduction of the beautiful Margaret (Maureen O’Hara), an aristocratic lady to, well, make the voyage more bearable.  How Jamie Boy brings the villainous Leech to bay while winning the lady’s heart culminates in the final – and doesn’t-disappoint – battle as ships rake each other with cannon fire, their pirates dueling across the decks!

(And you bet I ended both those paragraphs with exclamation marks!)

Look at the film’s open.  The sea.  A pirate ship that cannon-fires another.  And then credits -- a rare thing in those days to have a pre-title sequence -- as we blast into those names, red against the sky:  Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, heralded by a traditional “pirate song” so visceral it doesn’t matter you’ve never heard it before.  Like crashing down that first wave in Disneyland’s Pirates Of The Caribbean ride, you feel what you're in for!  And then what?  A card to set the stage:  “This is a story of the Spanish Main – when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was – Love, Gold, and Adventure.”  I don’t care how old you are, you’re six again, jumping up and down on your parents’ bed.  And all that’s in the first two minutes.   

Speaking of Pirates Of The Caribbean -- the Disneyland ride -- I say up front I have nothing to support our movie today being a direct inspiration … though I can’t imagine it wasn’t.  While the ride didn’t open until 1967, the idea for a pirate-themed attraction at The Magic Kingdom was around since the 1950s.  One of the earliest plans was a Wax Museum-like walk-through, but the success of It’s A Small World (at the 1964 World’s Fair, opening at Disneyland in 1966) wonderfully changed that.  Pirates was the last attraction Walt personally oversaw, and he’d sadly pass away before its opening.  (And get a load of this, ‘cause we haven’t had a Bob Hope tie-in in a while:  who presided over the grand opening of the ride?  Miss Dorothy Lamour.)  Look, we know Walt loved movies.  So take a look at ours today and then ride Pirates.  Look at the sets, lighting, colors – Leon Shamroy won The Oscar for his Cinematography here – the costumes, makeup, the overall feel of the film and ride.  Walt must have loved this movie.  So was it an inspiration?  Welllll, I still have nothing to support it … directly.

Let’s begin today’s Behind The Scenes with our leading lady.  The incomparable -- go on, compare her to someone, I dare you -- Maureen O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons near Dublin, Ireland.  Her parents were clothiers which, while true, isn’t as much fun as saying Robert Evans started his career in women’s pants (also true).  Even as a young girl, Miss O’Hara always dreamt of being a stage actress.  She trained in drama, music and dance – did you know she sang, and well? – and, in the evenings after classes, worked in amateur theatre.  Her father was a practical man and insisted she learn a “proper” education so she enrolled in a business school and became a proficient bookkeeper;  a skill that, years later, proved useful when John Ford had her transcribe his notes for “a little love story he wanted to shoot in Ireland.”  Young Miss O’Hara shined enough in her stage classes that she landed a Screen Test in London.  It wasn’t noteworthy, per se, except for one man who saw it and thought it better than most:  Alfred Hitchcock.  He cast her in her first major motion picture, Jamaica Inn (1939), opposite another notable Englishman – Charles Laughton – who, so entranced with her, had her cast opposite him in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939).  And it was Laughton who suggested she change her last name, reportedly quipping, “Bit shorter for the marquee, you know.”  Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that Gone With The Wind came out that year as well (and more on GWTW in a bit). 

Then World War II began and O’Hara’s contract was sold to RKO who cast her in low-budget films until she was rescued by John Ford – this is the first time they met – where she first shined in his 1941 Best Picture Winner, How Green Was My Valley.  They would go on to make many films together, including that “little Irish love story,” the classic The Quiet Man (1952).  O’Hara is often remembered for her undeniable chemistry with another Ford regular, John Wayne.  They made five films together, and if you haven’t seen Rio Grande (1950) please put it at the top of your list.  With over sixty films to her credit, it’s most likely a little holiday movie for which she’s most famous, starring as Natalie Wood’s mother in Miracle On 34th Street (1947).  Just last year [2014], The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences presented Miss O’Hara The Academy's Honorary Oscar at The Governor’s Awards, making her the second actress to receive the award without having previously been nominated in any category.  The first?  Miss Myrna Loy. 

Of The Black Swan, Miss O’Hara herself said – and keep in mind she’s twenty-two in our film today (Ty’s all of twenty-eight) – “It had everything you could want in a lavish pirate picture: a magnificent ship with thundering cannons; a dashing hero battling menacing villains; sword fights; fabulous costumes ... [and] working with Ty was exciting.  In those days, he was the biggest romantic swashbuckler in the world.  But what I loved most about working with him was his wicked sense of humor.”

Jamie Boy … Jamie Boy …

We already touched on our Director, Mr. Henry King, in the Jesse James write-up – and remember he and Ty made eleven films together – so let’s talk our Writers (adapters here of the Rafael Sabatini novel):  Ben Hecht and Seton Miller.  Mr. Miller you might remember from our Robin Hood write-up – and he did The Sea Hawk;  savvy swordplay well in his wheelhouse – so let’s talk about the other gentleman, Mr. Ben Hecht.  Of these Top 5s, this is my eighteenth, and I’m actually surprised he hasn’t come up before.  It was once said of Ernest Lehman – look him up if you need to – that “even his flops are hits.”  Well, the same can be said of our guy today.  Look up Ben Hecht’s titles.  Realize (and I hope appreciate) their diversity and the impact they’ve had not just on Hollywood but how we tell stories.  He was a Journalist, a Playwright, a Novelist and a Screenwriter.  But there’s really no better way to say it:  Ben Hecht told Stories. 

You may know his name for writing the play The Front Page which he turned into its second filmed outing, the instant classic His Girl Friday;  not just the best of the play’s many adaptations but the blueprint for romantic screwball comedies (and never since done so well).  Hecht was the Script Doctor (certainly for Hitchcock but perhaps most famously for Gone With The Wind) and wrote many of his Screenplays anonymously to avoid British boycott of his support of Judaism.  (Jews the world over were so appreciative of this gentleman that the Israeli Naval Flagship is the S.S. Ben Hecht.)  It was written of his Autobiography, A Child Of The Century, that “his manners are not always nice, but then nice manners do not always make interesting autobiographies, and this one has the merit of being intensely interesting.  If he is occasionally slick, he is also independent, forthright, and original. Among the pussycats who write of social issues today he roars like an old-fashioned lion."  Throughout his nearly one hundred films, six were nominated for The Oscar, and he took home two. 

Now, getting back into the movie, it’s worth mentioning how “real” it was.  (What the hell is he talking about?  “Real.”)  Well, “By land or by sea you can always rely on me for wrongdoing of any nature!” Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) yells with giddy evil.  (And speaking of GWTW, yep, that’s Scarlett’s dad.)  Henry Morgan gets to throw his elaborate curled wig and drink out of a barrel, with none other than Anthony Quinn lurking in the background.  And Leech?  A proud rapist.  The pirates, even the ones we’re supposed to like, aren’t terribly cleaned up.  (Everyone laughs when Jamie dumps the unconscious Margaret on the stone floor at seeing his old friend.  PC?  Hardly.  Funny?  Sure.)  For pirates, it’s a brave nod to realism.  But for 1942 it’s remarkable. 

Granted, most of this doesn’t mean anything to a modern audience.  Especially how risqué Jamie and Margaret pretending to be a newlywed couple was;  Leech coming into their cabin, forcing them to sleep in the same bed.  Well, in 1942, our Hays Office – remember them? – would normally have found this unshowable (it’s a word).  Jamie and Margaret were clearly not married, and Tyrone Power even had his shirt off again (you’re welcome, fans).  The censors should never have let that scene show, but they did.  Why?  Because in this movie, we the audience know they’re only pretending to be married and – here’s the clincher – Jamie’s being respectful of her.  It’s a plot point of his falling in love with her.  And apparently Hays was so entranced by Ty’s gallantry that they let it show.

… Jamie Boy.

I sometimes browse the internet specifically for these write-ups – vintage reviews, like from our old friend Bosley Crowther;  or modern takes from TCM, things like that – and I came across a charming blog called They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To where I found this fun bit:  As part of Maureen O'Hara's 93rd birthday bash last August [2014], The Black Swan was shown on the big screen of Boise, Idaho's historic Egyptian Theatre.  (Miss O'Hara currently lives in Boise.)  As a Boise resident, I attended the event and was able to catch The Black Swan in this incredible environment.  I'm tellin' you, until you've seen Tyrone Power ‘up close and personal’ on the big screen, you are missing out.  Truly, that is how he was meant to be seen!”  Adorable?  Sure.  But what always stands out when I come across things like this is how well classic movies still resonate today.  How passionate modern audiences still are.  See, it’s not just me!  There're a lot of us out there still carrying the torch.

In 1942, Crowther noted for The New York Times, “After seeing The Black Swan, a good many boys will be brandishing wooden swords in the parlor and slitting sofa pillows for some time to come.”  And if that isn’t how a swashbuckler should make us feel – still jumping up and down on our parents’ bed – well … that’s our fault.

Up next?  We go on location in Lone Pine in Ty’s Dramatic Western Rawhide.