16 October, 2014

The Mark Of Zorro

His three-cut signature – the letter Z – is unmistakable.  It’s the sign of The Fox.  The calling card of the masked avenger we cheer as Zorro!

His creator, Johnston McCulley, started as a crime reporter for “The Police Gazette” and in Public Affairs for The Army during World War I.  A history buff, he would go on to write hundreds of stories, fifty novels and numerous screenplays for movies and TV, often using the rough and romantic Southern California Desert as his backdrop.  And it was in 1919 that he first introduced us to his most famous character, in a serialized story appearing in the pulp magazine “All-Story Weekly.” 

The black costume with the flowing cape, the cowl mask under the flat-brimmed sombrero, the sword in one hand and bullwhip in the other.  Mounted on his trusted steed Tornado, he is the heroic vigilante fighting for the people of El Pueblo De Los Angeles!

Of course, he started as a curse.  Let me explain.

It was in that “All-Story Weekly” pulp that McCulley unleashed “The Curse of Capistrano.”  Don Diego Vega becomes Señor Zorro to avenge the oppressed townspeople.  Well, it’s our hero who’s dubbed “The Curse” by the evil Captain Ramon and the noblemen.  In the end, our hero thwarts the aristocrats, romances the beautiful Lolita Pulido, and frees the good people of the town to live to fight another day.

First, an oft-asked question:  is Zorro Spanish or Mexican?  The simplest answer is McCulley created the character as “of Mexican heritage” who is educated in Spain before returning to California in the 1820s.  So you decide.  Of course, Don Diego Vega (later De La Vega) / Zorro has appeared in several incarnations, from stories to radio to comics to features to television.  And, sure, things change.  Interestingly, the fox – zorro is Spanish for the fox – is never depicted as an emblem but rather a metaphor for the character's cunning.  McCulley's concept of a band of men helping Zorro, for instance, is often absent from other versions;  a significant exception is the Serial ‘Zorro’s Fighting Legion’ (1939).  In the original stories, Zorro is aided by a deaf-mute named Bernardo.  In Disney’s TV Series (1957), Bernardo is not deaf but pretends to be, serving as a spy.  The Family Channel’s TV Series (1990) replaces Bernardo with a teenager named Felipe, but with a similar disability and pretense.  The two Antonio Banderas features (1998 & 2005) reintroduced the character to a wide modern audience, and in 2009 a popular TV Series in – wait for it – The Philippines began, continuing 95 years of the Spanish-Mexican-California hero.

            Ah, but is he fact or fiction?  Well – fact – the historical figure most often associated with the Zorro character is Joaquin Murrieta, a miner turned outlaw during The California Gold Rush.  Opinions on why he became an outlaw vary, not unlike our old friend Jesse James, although Murietta is – fiction? – widely regarded – significantly due to an 1854 dime novel by John Rollin Ridge – as The Mexican Robin Hood.  (None other than William Wellman told the story in his 1936 film ‘The Robin Hood Of El Dorado’ and – for you close-watching fans – yes, that’s why Antonio Banderas’ character’s name is Murrieta.)  The character of Zorro certainly resembles Robin Hood, is a direct literary descendent of Orczy’s ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1903), and is a rather obvious ancestor to Batman (first appearing in the comics in 1939). 

            While the pulp magazines and even an early Serial (1919’s ‘The Masked Rider’) continued to evolve similar ideas, without question the most significant version came in the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent feature, ‘The Mark Of Zorro.’  Adapted directly from the McCulley story (by Fairbanks and Eugene Miller), it was produced by Fairbanks for his own production company and was the first film released through United Artists, the company co-formed with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-name and what’s-his-name.  An unparalleled success – think the first ‘Star Wars’ when it came out – Fairbanks’ ‘Mark’ is indeed genre defining, birthing the likes of Errol Flynn and, sure, Tyrone Power (did you think we’d forgotten about him here?).  The original 1920 New York Times review wrote, “[Fairbanks’] Senor Zorro, an alert and mysterious avenger of the people’s wrongs … with a sure sword, a swift horse and a sense of humor … Certainly there are moments in the motion picture which must delight anyone … There is a duel scene, for example, which is something distinctly original in the history of mortal combat on the stage or screen, and there are spirited races and pursuits, sudden appearances, quick changes, and flashes of tempestuous love-making that are typically, and entertainingly, Fairbanksian.”

            And it wouldn’t be touched – much less paralleled – for twenty years.

             'The Mark Of Zorro' (1940)
             w John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort & Bess Meredyth
             d Rouben Mamoulian

            Okay let’s start, simply, with how great this movie is.  Not how great this movie was then – our version today was first released nearly 75 years ago! – but how great this movie is.  

            [MOVIE STUFF]

            [BEHIND THE SCENES]

            [MORE MOVIE STUFF & END]

            Up next?  Ty takes a cutlass to the seven seas in Rafael Sabatini’s ‘The Black Swan!’

14 October, 2014

Quiet On The Set

Many times throughout my Top 5 Retrospectives – where I pick an Actor and showcase his or her (in my opinion) Top 5 Films – I’ve mentioned Lone Pine.  (While Errol Flynn made films there, the first I happened to pick was Tyrone Power’s Rawhide.)  Some of you hear “Lone Pine” and nod knowingly while some of you may very well say, “Where?”  Well, I thought I’d showcase that a little bit.  After all, Diana and I just got back from The 25th Anniversary of The Lone Pine Film Festival.  “What?!  Twenty-five years?!”  And I digress …

It was Sunday evening, the end of the day, wrapping up the first Lone Pine Film Festival and Dad and I were driving back into town from The Alabama Hills, back to The Dow Hotel, and Dad said, “That was fun!  I’m glad we got to do that.”  (He and Kerry Powell had just put on that first Festival in 1990.)  “Yep!  Really glad we did that.”  Because remember, at the time, we didn’t think it would be anything more than that:  just that one year;  just that celebration.  Dad had released On Location In Lone Pine, his book on the movies shot in the area, and we’d had a wonderful weekend celebrating those movies.  Even Mr. Roy Rogers himself joined us to unveil the Historical Marker at the corner of Whitney Portal and – I’m not making this up – Movie Road!  (Rogers’ first starring feature – Under Western Stars – was done there in 1938.)  But to think people getting together for a weekend to celebrate would be anything more than that;  just that one time?  No, to be honest, that wasn’t even a dream.

Well, that was twenty-five years ago.

Yes, Diana and I just came back from this year’s Lone Pine Film Festival, its 25th Anniversary.  And what a great weekend it was.  The movie screenings, location tours, concerts, celebrity guests, all commemorating the town’s movie heritage.  Talk about tours?  Twenty-five years ago it was one.  This year it was fifteen.  Talk about celebrity guests?  Over the years the Festival’s hosted the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Virginia Mayo, Gregory Peck and Claire Trevor.  And talk about … But first, some of you may still be asking, “Where is Lone Pine?”  And then, “What is The Lone Pine Film Festival?”  And, “There’s a Lone Pine Film History Museum?”  Okay, fair enough.  Let’s go back to the beginning.

The town of Lone Pine, California is located about three hours north of Los Angeles at the base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.  Its Alabama Hills just west of town have been a Hollywood favorite for going “on location” since 1920.  (The first film we know was shot there was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s The Roundup.)  Since then the town’s movie list has grown to approximately 450 titles;  westerns, sure (with Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Mel Gibson’s Maverick and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), straight dramas (Humphrey Bogart and Russell Crowe were both there), comedies (Blake Edwards and Ricky & Lucy), Sci Fi (Tremors, even a few Star Treks) and the list goes on.  Considered Lone Pine’s hallmark film is the George Stevens classic Gunga Din for which all of the exteriors were shot in those Alabama Hills, and a second Historical Marker commemorates that film.

What makes the area particularly special is it’s still there.  Let me explain.  How many times have you wished you could visit a classic location only to find you can’t?  And I don’t mean you can’t get on a Studio Lot or the Stage where they built the Dracula castle has been torn down.  I mean a location is gone.  Parts of The Iverson’s Movie Ranch and Corriganville certainly come to mind.  Well, Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills are – while public land – owned by The Bureau Of Land Management and California’s Department of Water and Power.  So not only are they still there at all, they haven’t been touched since the classic movie days.  Which means you can still get out there and visit them.  You can literally stand where Errol Flynn stood.  And Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power.  And Robert Downey Jr.!  All that Afghanistan at the beginning of Iron Man?  They didn’t go to Afghanistan, they went to Lone Pine!  And maybe it sounds a little crazy – well aren’t all us fans? – but that can’t help but be exciting.

So how did the celebrating begin?  Well, Mom and Dad had been visiting Lone Pine for years, for fun.  And one day after spending glorious hours out in the rocks, they went back into town and asked for a book on the movies made there.  “There isn’t one?”  Well, Dad was thrilled he’d be the one to write it;  sharing with us those movies and stories about them and the friends who made them.  And then Kerry Powell, a local artist and businesswoman, said she wanted to put on something to commemorate it all.  And so they did.  And now so many fans can enjoy getting out into those rocks and seeing where Hollywood made King Of The Khyber Rifles and How The West Was Won and The Shadow.  Yes, it’s been over ninety years that Hollywood’s been going on location in Lone Pine.

After all, more and more often, movie fans are as interested in Where It Was Done as How It Was Done.  So as The Festival commemorates the movies made there, the fact that it’s continued as long as – and as well as – it has is up to the fans.  For attending each year, sure, but also for going up on their own throughout the year to enjoy the area.  Not to mention the tireless efforts of the volunteers who freely give their time to share the movie-making history.  And the Festival and Museum Boards – led tirelessly by the current director, Bob Sigman – for their year-long work in presenting – and protecting – that heritage.  Indeed, with so many wonderful people involved, this year, twenty-five in, felt like a passing of the torch.  What Mom & Dad, Ray & Kerry Powell, and so many people have made happen thus far is truly incredible.  What a delight it is to still see so many fans – some of you! – continue to enjoy it.  To take that torch and carry it on.

                 Because one of the great things when talking about the movies they make there is, simply, that they’re still making them.  We’re not just commemorating what has happened “so many years ago” but that it continues.  And two great examples of that are 2008’s Iron Man and 2012’s Django Unchained. 

These are two powerhouse A-listers, with the likes of Jon Favreau, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx playing there.  (And, sure, some of 2013’s The Lone Ranger and Man Of Steel were done out on the nearby Owens dry lake.)  Point is, Hollywood still loves to get out and play on location.

There’s some great Behind The Scenes footage on the Iron Man DVD of their shooting there;  in The Alabama Hills and out on the Olancha sand dunes (about a half-hour south of town).  Favreau says that getting to Lone Pine “was well worth it because it really gives you a look like we traveled halfway around the world.”  And Downey Jr. says, “What a privilege it was to be able to be there playing this guy with the caliber of people I was working with.  What a blast.”

And why did Tarantino – film buff that he is – want to shoot Django in Lone Pine?  Because that’s where a favorite of his, William Witney, had worked!  As Tarantino told The New York Times in 2000, “People think that the only good westerns made in the 40s and 50s were by John Ford or maybe Howard Hawks.  Film guys might add Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth but William Witney is ahead of them all;  the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.”  Tarantino even used one of Witney’s original Clappers – the slate you see at the beginning of each shot that lists the Scene & Take and shows Sync – on the film.  And Dr. King Shultz and Django’s campsite?  Yep, shot in what fans call “Lone Ranger Canyon,” because that’s where Witney shot that ’38 Serial.  (And that’s the pic at the top of this article!)

Which brings us to The Lone Pine Film History Museum.  Opened in 2006 with financial support from Beverly and Jim Rogers and – just as significantly – generous local community and business support, the museum is a beacon for visiting fans, housing truly great pieces of memorabilia.  There’s the stagecoach from Rawhide and the car Gene Autry (actually stuntman Joe Yrigoyen) jumps in Trail To San Antone!  Plus a bunch of – yes, original – costumes including Errol Flynn’s Kim and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and – yes, original – scads of photographs and one-sheets (and some glorious three-sheets), all from movies made, remember, a five-minute drive from that very museum.  In fact, that’s why Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills are often called “a living museum” because you can still get out there, walk around and be where it happened.

And, remember, still happens!  Ecstatic there was finally a showcase for Where It Was Done, Quentin Tarantino himself frequented The Museum, including – sharing his love of cinema as he often does – screening movies in its Theatre for his Cast & Crew.  And when shooting wrapped, he graciously donated (Christoph Waltz’ character) Schultz’ dentist’s wagon.  (Yes, sitting right inside the front door as you walk in, the wagon, tooth on top and all.)  What else?  Tarantino et al even signed their autographs right on the wall!  Can you say where else that was done in years past?  Indeed, right in town at The Indian Trading Post, where so many classic film stars – Flynn, Cooper et al – did the same when they were there.  (Luckily for us, all those years ago, The Indian Trading Post actually took a hot iron and trace-burned those signatures right into the wood so you can still see them!)

And then – the pièce de résistance, Festival weekend or any other – there are the rocks themselves.  The Alabama Hills.  That living museum.  (Which, PS, sit right in the middle of a land of twenty-mile shadows.  Yes – and some of you may already know this – there are shadows up there that are twenty miles long!  But we’ll get to that …)

What makes Lone Pine – certainly that Festival – so significant … well, sure, that it’s retrospective, only celebrating movies made there (not premiering new ones a la other festivals) … is that fifteen minutes after seeing Lives Of A Bengal Lancer in the Museum Theatre or (Festival Weekend) High School Auditorium you can stand right where (Director) Henry Hathaway shot it.  And on Festival Weekend, there are approximately 120 photomarkers scattered out in the rocks for you to enjoy, showing stills at the locations from the Movies and TV Shows and Serials shot there.  (Again, vis-à-vis the pic at top.)  Even on a non-Festival weekend – the photomarkers are only placed Festival Weekend – you can visit The Museum, see Tony Stark’s bloodied suit, and fifteen minutes later stand right where he launched the Jericho missile.

            At the end of the day, Lone Pine is no Cannes or Sundance or Toronto.  It didn’t go to NYU or USC.  And it still fights the often “Where?” and “What?”  But some of its charm is just that;  like Brigadoon, celebrated by those that know.  Those that love her that much.  That proudly champion her throughout the years.  And it’s just like Dad’s “sunset theory.”  The most beautiful sunset in the world is breathtaking, sure, but it’s even more so when you can nudge the person next to you and share it with them.  That’s why he wrote On Location In Lone Pine.  Because he wanted to share with you those movies.  Made in those Alabama Hills.  Just west of that town.

            Oh!  I almost forgot.  We have some unfinished business, don’t we?  (And for those of you that know, yes, I’m stealing from Dad here.)  I’m talking about those twenty-mile shadows.  Well, in that part of The Owens Valley, where Lone Pine sits, it’s twenty miles from the Sierra Nevadas to The Inyo Mountains.  So in the evening, as the sun falls behind those Sierra Nevadas, Mt. Whitney and friends cast their shadows twenty miles across the valley.  (Anyone know how The Alabama Hills got their name?  Welllll, maybe I’ll save that story for next time.)

In 1984, Bob Sherman wrote a wonderful pictorial history on Chatsworth, California’s Iverson Movie Ranch called “Quiet On The Set.”  The phrase is two-fold.  One, it’s what The A.D. – Assistant Director – calls out at the beginning of a take, to get everyone quiet so cameras can roll.  And, two, well … at so many great shooting locations over the years – Iverson’s, Corriganville, Melody Ranch;  Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills really are the pinnacle – it’s often, now, wonderfully quiet.  Where you can get out into that Living Museum and relive Where It Was Done.

                 I hope you will.

08 May, 2014

Hey Marvel, It's DC Calling (Part 2)

Okay, time to check your capes at the door again.

There's always continuing news in the Super Hero world, and I don't pretend I'm starting a trend that way, even though this is the second in this series.  But our friend Ben Affleck rears his head.  A few different ways.  (And, see, I’m allowed to say that, "our friend," because I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Affleck on ‘Gone Baby Gone.’  Ahem, moving on …) 
Affleck’s directorial follow-up to ‘Argo’ has hit a delay.  His new film, ‘Live By Night’ (also from Affleck’s own ‘Gone Baby Gone’ author Dennis Lehane;  and he also the author of cinema hits ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Shutter Island’), was going to hit theaters on Christmas Day, 2015, but will now be pushed almost a year to October, 2016.  Reason?  Well, there seem to be two, but the main one is that pesky little thing called ‘Batman Vs Superman’ (and GOD have I prayed they come up with a new title).
Affleck's involvement with both ‘Batman Vs Superman’ and its immediate follow-up ‘Justice League’ (the two films are said to be shooting back-to-back) was the reason The Brothers Warner greenlit ‘Live By Night’ at all.  (See, if you agree to make big-budget comic-book tentpoles, you get to trade them for really good stories!  Do I blame Mr. Affleck for that trade?  Not in the least.  He gets to tell another good story and probably do it really well.  But tit-for-tat is for another entry.  Moving on again ...)  Affleck had already pushed production on ‘Live By Night’ – a period drama – to accommodate ‘Bats’ and ‘Justice’ but now 'Bats'' own delay has required ‘Live By Night’ to delay again.  Is that okay?  I think so.  The Leonardo DiCaprio-produced movie is sure to be an awards contender -- as Affleck's previous films have been -- but the scope and involvement with ‘Bats’ – and, sure, ‘Justice’ right after – has to take precedence.  (Go Brothers Warner!)
But wait, we can’t just cite DC.  On top of the costume carnivals, Entertainment Guru ‘The Wrap’ cites Affleck's commitment to media and press for David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ will also prevent Pre-Production on ‘Live By Night.’  By pushing the project – entirely – to 2016, Affleck at least gets to guarantee he can make the film he wants to.  (Again, with his track record, I say a very fair trade.)  But it does raise the question of his involvement in ‘Justice League.’  Is he officially in?  “Officially,” at press, “it’s not a done done deal.”  Yes, they really do say that.
Look, say what you will about the man’s career as a whole, but Mr. Affleck has without a doubt proven himself as a director, and I genuinely think – given a good script – he’ll make a good Bruce Wayne.  (‘Cause, remember sports fans, it’s all about the actor playing the “alter ego.”  Anyone can put on a costume.)  As long as The Powers That Be focus on the stories – ‘Batman Vs Superman,’ ‘Justice League,’ ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Live By Night’ – I trust will all be worth their wait.  (Go homonym!) 
Continuing Super Hero news, I can’t help but mention what’s going on in ‘Daredevil’ land (granted, only a so-so segue from Ben Affleck, but you probably see it).  Mr. Joe Carnahan was once heavily invested in bringing a gritty, dark reboot to the screen;  he even personally created an impressive sizzle reel for it.  But, alas, those Twentieth Century Foxes passed on what would have been an R-rated project and the rights have since reverted to Disney/Marvel who are now developing the character as “a Netflix series.”  (Good?  Maybe, if they hold to “a gritty vision.”  There’s a hell of a version in Jeff Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s ‘Daredevil Yellow’ that is its own reboot of the classic Frank Miller take.  Either one of those?  We’re blindly in good hands.)  At press the top two names for running the series?  Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight (and I like them both).    
Of course, more details emerge of Carnahan's vision.  The sizzle reel was great;  it definitely gave us a sense that his ‘Daredevil’ would have been something special and definitely unique.  (As good a director as Mr. Affleck is, the best thing that came out of his version was uniting with his lovely wife, Jennifer Garner.  Granted, he didn’t write-direct that movie, so I’m really taking a digression here, sooooo …)  With The Wonderful World Of Disney taking over Marvel, it’s almost a zero chance they’ll produce a movie that dark, but we can’t help but hope for it.  Ugh, what could have been?
In an interview with ‘Movie Pilot,’ Mr. Carnahan gave further details on what his ‘Daredevil’ trilogy – yep, you read that right – would have been.  Carnahan had three distinct themes in mind for his “Man Without Fear.”  He said, “I was going to do a kind of ‘cultural libretto’ and make the music of those eras a kind of thematic arc.  So the first one would be Classic Rock, the second Punk Rock, and the third film New Wave.”
… Interesting.
Though, setting the films in a Period – late 70s, early 80s (versus making the hero contemporary) -- would have fit with the feel of the character.  Taking the tonal cue from the music would also have been … interesting to see on the big screen.  It would have at least allowed for the various characters / costume changes / themes over the years;  roughly 1973, 1979 and 1985 that Carnahan was looking for.
While a Netflix series may be the better medium to share the story arcs that make ‘Daredevil’ great in the comics, I can’t help but feel Mr. Carnahan’s take would have been great in the theatre.  Hopefully Kevin Feige and Disney come to understand that some characters can’t be watered down to a PG Rating.  (Hell, it worked for Mr. Nolan's 'Batman.’)  As I’ve said many times, I like Mr. Feige, what he’s done for Marvel, and the fact that Disney hasn’t watered him down in their buyout.  So I have to continue to believe there’s still hope for all concerned.
What’s next? 
For now, we’ll live by night.