22 August, 2013

I Was Given 1977. Let Me Explain.

            Hello, class!

            So my dear friend John Rios ropes me into one of those “I give you a year, you list your ten favorite movies” things on Facebook.  And I’m game.  My year?  1977.   Easy, I think.  There’s ‘Star Wars’ – the seminal film that year – and ‘Annie Hall’ – the film that would win Best Picture that year.  Yep, easy.  But then I google a list of 1977 films and find –
‘A Bridge Too Far’
            ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’
‘Saturday Night Fever’
and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’

Shit.  Now I’m going to have to write-up something.  Yep, here we go.

            Movie tickets cost $2.25 and ‘Star Wars’ brought in $461,000.  (And probably the most famous – but not widely known – story there is Mr. Lucas was ordered – ordered – to open the film with (the then traditional) Opening Credits.  He refuses and decides to distribute the film independently.  (I wonder how that worked out for him.)

            And ‘Annie Hall?’  Mr. Allen became the fourth person in Oscar history to be nominated in a single year as both an Actor and Screenwriter (after those shmucks Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Sylvester Stallone);  and Allen was the first person since Welles to be nominated in the same year for Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Director.  And ‘Annie Hall’s’ win for United Artists made it the first studio to win three Best Pictures in a row;  the second wouldn’t be until DreamWorks (1999-2001). 
            Outside The Oscars?  Disney releases ‘The Rescuers’ which – long before Jeffrey Katzenberg’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ and John Lassiter’s ‘Toy Story' -- saves animation at the company;  and that same year the company releases one of its own instant classics, ‘The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh.’

            Okay, films in 1977.  So far we have (in alphabetical order) –

‘A Bridge Too Far’
‘Annie Hall’
            ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’
'Saturday Night Fever'
‘Star Wars’
‘The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh’
‘The Rescuers’
and 'The Spy Who Loved Me.'

Well, that’s nine.  And this is a “Top 10” list, so I only need one more.  What else was released in 1977?  I can’t imagine I missed anything.  Duh, how about --

‘High Anxiety’
‘Smokey And The Bandit’
and ‘The Goodbye Girl.'

            And those “little two” in there;  ‘Julia’ and ‘The Goodbye Girl?’  The first only won Jason Robards Best Supporting Actor (and he the only person to win in that category two years in a row), and Vanessa Redgrave Best Supporting Actress.  (‘Julia’s’ also the film that premiered little what’s-her-name Meryl Streep.)  And ‘The Goodbye Girl?’  The film began as a screenplay called ‘Bogart Slept Here’ (essentially Neil Simon’s take on what happened to Dustin Hoffman after he became a star) that was to star Robert De Niro.  But after several table readings, it was decided Mr. De Niro wasn't right for the role, and Richard Dreyfuss was brought in to try out with (already cast) Marsha Mason.  At the end of that reading, Mr. Simon decided, "[The script] doesn't work, but they do."  So he rewrote the screenplay in six weeks.  The result?  Mr. Dreyfuss won his first Academy Award.

            All right, so now in our “Top 10 of 1977” we have –

            ‘A Bridge Too Far’
‘Annie Hall’
            ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’
‘High Anxiety’
‘Saturday Night Fever’
‘Smokey And The Bandit’
‘Star Wars’
‘The Goodbye Girl’
‘The Spy Who Loved Me’
            and ‘The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh.’

            I think I reached “ten,” haven’t I?  You do the math.

            ‘Close Encounters.’  How are you doing with those potatoes?  ‘Network.’  Are you mad as hell and can’t take it anymore?  ‘Saturday Night Fever.’  Shall we dance?  ‘Slapshot.’  Widely considered one of the great sports movies, and if you’re a Paul Newman fan and haven’t seen it, how dare you.  ‘Sorcerer.’  Don’t let the title fool you, it has nothing to do with Medieval Times Magic and is a great thriller backed by no less than William Friedkin and Roy Scheider.  (And those of you that know, the truck on that bridge?)  And then there's ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.'  We should all ski so well.

            Needless to say, ’77 was a bit better than just ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Annie Hall.’  Though even those two are great.

            Screen on, class.

San Antonio

           Let’s get right into it.

          San Antonio (1945)
          w Alan Le May & W.R. Burnett
          d David Butler

          Hans Wollstein wrote, “Much better than its reputation, San Antonio, in glorious Technicolor, is a slam-bang, no-nonsense Western filled with stand-out action sequences and performances.  Although often negatively compared to Errol Flynn's earlier Warner epics [most notably Dodge City], San Antonio -- with sweeping tracking shots contrasted by more intimate but equally dramatic character delineation -- stands on [its] own merits.  The great Warner stock company, including French import Victor Francen and a quietly menacing Paul Kelly, adds to the overall tenor of the film, as does Max Steiner's grand score.  Garbed by Milo Anderson, heroine Alexis Smith is a sight for sore eyes and imbues her stock assignment with more gusto than you would ordinarily expect.  Among the other highlights are veteran B-Western Star Tom Tyler … and a climactic gunfight that seamlessly progresses from Francen's posh saloon into the streets to culminate, inevitably, in the ruined Alamo.  All, of course, staged to maximum effect by Director David Butler.”
And I know I’m going to get at least some flack for today’s film.  Choosing it over The Sea Hawk and Gentleman Jim;  perhaps especially Captain Blood?  

               Well, to start off, something personal.
Whenever I played cowboy as a kid -- am I of the last generation to play cowboy as a kid? -- I wore my gun backward because of Clay Hardin (Flynn’s character in this movie).  Sure, Wild Bill Elliott wore his that way first, and I knew that, but when I first saw this movie -- Flynn on this screen cooler in a cowboy hat than even Steve McQueen -- well that was it.  And, as I wrote in the Desperate Journey review, so many films resonate based on when you see them.  Yes, I “grew up” in the thirties and forties -- for those of you that knew my parents, these were the movies I watched growing up -- so these are the movies that genuinely mean something to me.  Seeing them as a kid?  You bet that stays with you.  So is Desperate Journey or San Antonio landmark cinema?  Up to you.  But there’s no doubt they’re both great movies.

And -- again as I wrote in my “Bob Hope Top 5” -- it isn’t always about the story as it is about the movie.  And this is Flynn's.  You know what a Woody Allen or James Bond is going to be before the opening credits roll.  That’s why you’re there.  (And, remember, they made sixty-six Hopalong Cassidy features -- sixty-six features -- so, sure, Hollywood had a handle on how to handle its stars.)  You pay your ticket because it’s theirs.  And Errol Flynn is the same way.  It’s a star vehicle of the thirties and forties.  “What are you going to see tonight?”  “The new Errol Flynn!”  And that was, wonderfully, enough. 
While San Antonio is often thought of as “light,” I think Director David Butler’s handling is spot-on for the kind of film it set out to be.  And, class, let’s read that again if we need to:  the kind of film it set out to be.  Even given the Writers they hired, Warner Bros didn’t set out to make The Gunfighter or The Searchers -- both stunning dramatics -- but rather an Errol Flynn western.  And what Flynn western would take itself too seriously?  (Again, I don’t consider They Died With Their Boots On a “Western.”)  Our film today has great story and action, but it’s the fun of it that makes it work so well;  viz Tom Tyler’s shoot-out.  And Butler -- coming from Bob Hope’s The Road To Morocco, You Got Me Covered and The Princess And The Pirate, as well as the oft-missed Kay Kyser hit You’ll Find Out (and great title, that) -- does a great job balancing the drama, action and humor.
Speaking of how they told the story, how about who?  After all, what write-up of mine wouldn’t touch on the back-stage?  Co-Writer Alan Le May started in films with none other than Cecil B. De Mille on North West Mounted Police.  And if that’s a great beginning, Mr. Le May would all but end with none other than John Ford on his classic The Searchers.  Co-Writer W.R. Burnett started in rewrites on the 1932 Scarface and would go on to write the novel and screenplay for High Sierra, the story for Yellow Sky and the classic The Great Escape.
If I get a complaint in these Top 5s of mine it’s that I’m too congratulatory.  But, again, I’m not doing A Critique, but commenting on my favorites of so-and-so.  So of course I come into them as a fan.  If I wanted to really critique something, well, I just wouldn’t enjoy it.  (Who wants to write-up five Brett Ratners?)  But I will acknowledge one of the major critiques of our film today, and that is its score. 
Now let me be clear:  the score itself is great.
But it was used before.
I’m of course talking about the theme, so easily hummable -- it’s a word -- because the incomporable Max Steiner used it before in (yep, Flynn’s own) Dodge City.  And that film -- a huge hit;  Warner Bros was trying to replicate its success here -- well, imagine the theme for Superman playing while Rocky runs up those steps.  Yes, it was that recognizable. 
So there.  I critiqued something.
But while we’re here, let’s talk a little bit about how incomporable Mr. Steiner was.  He was trained by Johannes Brahms and Robert Fuchs.  He conducted his first operetta when he was twelve, and became a full-time professional -- either composing, arranging or conducting music -- when he was fifteen.  Often referred to as “the father of film music” -- along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures Of Robin Hood) and Franz Waxman (Objective Burma) -- literally created the language of writing Scores.
The language?
He introduced the idea of film themes -- characters and situations having their own -- throughout three hundred scores in his career with RKO and Warner Brothers and was nominated for twenty four Academy Awards, winning three;  interestingly, none of which for his two most famous, Casablanca and Gone With The Wind.  His breakthrough performance?  Just a little film called King Kong.  He was the first recipient of The Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and worked with Michael Curtiz, John Ford and William Wyler.  Mr. Steiner himself once said, “I've always tried to subordinate myself to the picture.  My theory is that the music should be felt rather than heard.”  When The American Film Institute ranked their 25 Greatest Scores, Mr. Steiner had two of them.  And perhaps his biggest fan?  Mr. John Williams.  Indeed, over those three hundred themes, we feel him in every one.
(And the song "Some Sunday Morning" -- written for San Antonio and nominated for The Academy Award -- went on to be a hit record for numerous singers including Frank Sinatra, Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes.)
While we’re in trivia mode, the character Bozic -- played by the always great S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, perhaps best known for Casablanca, though I love him in Danny Kaye’s Wonder Man (that film coming up in Mr. Kaye’s Top 5) -- makes the joke about a riderless horse as “an empty horse.”  This is a reference to Director Michael Curtiz (not our Director today, but you remember him).  When wanting to see stray horses wandering through the infamous battle scene in (yep, Flynn’s) Charge Of The Light Brigade, Curtiz directed the wranglers to "Bring on the empty horses."  Flynn and David Niven cracked up laughing, infuriating Curtiz.  Niven later made this "Curtizism" immortal by titling a volume of his autobiography, "Bring on the empty horses."

Last but not least, I have to talk a little bit here about that other great Flynn film;  the one that almost knocked San Antonio off this list:  Gentleman Jim (coincidentally co-starring Alexis Smith, three years prior to ours today).  Gentleman Jim is without question a good movie but, again, this is my Top 5 and all Top-Anythings are subjective, aren’t they?  Another Flynn-Raoul Walsh collaboration -- remember they made seven films together -- Gentleman Jim is one of the rare moments where we get to see a sincerely serious Flynn on screen.  And I mean that, “sincerely serious.”  Sure, we know the “fun” Flynn of Robin Hood and Desperate Journey and even a melodramatically seriousness in The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (one of my favorite Bette Davis pictures) and the playful seriousness of The Adventures Of Don Juan (in my opinion, the end of his era) but Gentleman Jim -- like Objective Burma -- lets him be serious for a bit.  Where we care for him instead of just cheering for him.  Particularly moving is the end of the film -- sorry, spoiler?  Not really -- where he has the conversation with Ward Bond.  It’s genuinely moving.  
A 2008 review of San Antonio wrote, “[This] lavish Warner Brothers western qualifies as an above average frontier fracas, probably the last really top-notch oater that Flynn made.  [Incidentally, Flynn, Smith and Sakall reassembled for Montana in 1950.  But, no, that one’s not top-notch.]  While many feel Smith was not as compatible the way Olivia de Havilland was in their films together, Flynn fans will enjoy [their] cheerful banter here.  And her knock-out tune [“Some Sunday Morning”] bolsters the movie and improves with each viewing.  San Antonio ranks at the very least as an all around good looking western.”


               So, in wrapping up --
Why Errol Flynn?
That was how we began these Top 5s -- remember that’s what Lawrence Bassoff was asked when he produced his book, “Errol Flynn:  The Movie Posters” -- so it’s appropriate to book-end here.  After so much has been written about the Australian actor -- better writing than my drivel -- why do any of us still write about him at all?  Bassoff’s answer may still be the best:

“Because he’s never been replaced.”

Sure, we have Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise and George Clooney.  (And for humored action I admittedly love Dwayne Johnson.)  But Errol Flynn?  No, I don’t think he can be replaced.  We’ve said he’s the swashbuckler -- and I’ll stand by that -- but let’s face it -- even considering both Fairbanks -- Mr. Flynn is the High Adventure Star of The Silver Screen.  And, as “Jimmy” Stewart Granger wrote in Basoff’s book, I too get annoyed when people disparage Flynn’s work.  Because it is just jealousy.  Because that guy up there on that screen, swashbuckling with pirates or shooting it out with Nazis and Cowboys, well … that’s a hell of a life.
Near the end of his -- remember he was only fifty -- Flynn himself said, “If I have added a bit of happiness to a lonely life, or added a bit of color to a drab world, then maybe my life has not been in vain.”
               No, dear sir, you still haven’t been replaced.

21 August, 2013

Objective Burma

World War II.

January, 1942.

The Japanese objectives in Burma are focused on the capture of Rangoon, the capital and principal seaport.  This would close the overland supply line to China and provide a strategic bulwark to defend Japanese gains in Malaya and The Dutch East Indies.

The campaign was fought between The British Commonwealth -- including Canadians -- and The United States against The Empire Of Japan, Thailand and The Indian National Army. 

While being politically complex -- The British, United States and Chinese all had different strategic priorities -- it’s the only land campaign by The Western Allies in The Pacific which was fought continuously from the start of hostilities to the end of the war.
And in our story?

If ‘Desperate Journey’ advertised World War II, today’s film documents it.  While ‘Journey’ was Indiana Jones-fun, we’re now in the real.  Think ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ versus ‘Schindler’s List.’  As Barbara Jean Matthews once wrote about Life versus The Arts:  “People don’t just get killed, they die.”

And in switching from the oft-thought-of “romantic European fight,” we’re now in a completely different theatre here -- that is, theatre of war -- in South East Asia, marching through the hot, humid jungle;  our film today based loosely on the real-life six-month raid by Merrill's Marauders in:

‘Objective Burma’ (1945)
w Alvah Bessie and Ranald MacDougall & Lester Cole
d Raoul Walsh

Hal Erickson wrote for The New York Times, “‘Objective Burma’ [rates as] one of the best combat films of WW2.  Errol Flynn stars as Captain Nelson, who leads a hardy band of paratroopers behind enemy lines … for the purpose of destroying a Japanese radar station.  Their mission accomplished, Nelson and his men prepare to make their escape by plane, but this proves to be impossible.  It is therefore necessary for the surviving paratroops to make a grueling 150-mile journey by foot through the Japanese-held jungle, in hopes of eventually reaching their own lines.  [The] performances are uniformly excellent, with Flynn, George Tobias and William Prince standing out.  Director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe stage the combat scenes with brutal efficiency, showing little but conveying a lot in the way of gore and carnage.”

“Brutal efficiency?”  That goes for the making of the film and Merrill’s Marauders, to be sure.

So far in this “Top 5 Retrospective Of Errol Flynn’s Films” we have –

‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’
‘They Died With Their Boots On’
and ‘Desperate Journey’

Now this --

If you’ve seen ‘Objective Burma’ -- and this isn’t really a spoiler -- don’t you first think of their parachuting-in to those great Franz Waxman violins?  It isn’t just an incredibly dramatic sequence -- for my money it holds up to William Goldman’s - Richard Attenborough’s great ‘A Bridge Too Far’ -- but Waxman was nominated for The Oscar here;  didn’t win but did five years later for that little what-its-name, ‘Sunset Blvd.’  (Sorry, strange way to open a review.  Let’s move on …)

If there’s a film in Mr. Flynn’s list that can be called a masterpiece -- beyond ‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’ -- this is it.  Nominated for three Oscars, it was originally released “cut” (they edited it down), but please be sure you’ve seen the 142-min version (a looooong runtime in the 40s).  But much like ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ the longer version helps.  (Sorry, still a strange way to open a review.  Moving on again …)

Coming off the first Flynn-Walsh collaboration ‘Desperate Journey’ -- that movie being a “high adventure romp” in the likes of the classic ‘Gunga Din’ (and homaged in that other classic ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’) -- ‘Objective Burma’ is indeed a serious look at World War II.  Yep, Flynn and his boys parachute into an occupied jungle to bomb a radio station -- interestingly, that being the easy bit -- but then have to march their way out.  And it’s that very march that takes up most of our story;  a looooong march -- physically, emotionally -- that dramatically tolls on our band of brothers.

‘Objective, Burma’ was made immediately after the events it depicts -- and even before the end of WWII -- so it’s a piece of almost instant history;  and, as such, gets the technical and cultural details spot-on.  Walsh & Co had access to real planes, uniforms and equipment.  There was no point toning this stuff down, for the film was made with an audience of real soldiers in mind;  and they would have spotted inaccuracies faster than any historian.

In England, ‘Objective Burma’ was taken to task by a newspaper journalist who felt the Americans unfairly took credit for the success of the Burmese campaign (and not just by journalism;  none other than Winston Churchill expressed genuine anger over this).  As stated, the film is loosely based on Merrill's Marauders, special forces who were mostly British, Indian, Gurkha, Chinese and Burmese.  The Marauders did actually exist, and played a major part here.  Still, it's easy to see why the film caused massive offence in Britain and among troops of many nationalities in the China-Burma-India theatre.  So much so that Warner Bros. issued an apology, and withheld the British release of the film until 1952, at which time it was accompanied by a lengthy prologue -- the opening Voice Over on most cuts today -- extolling England's contribution to the Burma invasion.

As I do -- and thank you for letting me -- a quick bit on the back-stage.  Co-Writer Alvah Bessie (he did the first draft here) had done ‘Northern Pursuit’ with Flynn & Walsh two years before.  No slouch, he was nominated for The Academy Award for Best Story here.  Ranald MacDougall worked for Warner Bros. from 1944 to 1950, most famously on the Joan Crawford (& Michael Curtiz) classic 'Mildred Pierce,' for which MacDougall received an Oscar nomination.  He was a creator and co-writer of the CBS radio series ‘The Man Behind The Gun’ (awarded the ’42 Peabody) and did uncredited work on ‘Pride Of The Marines.’  He then went into TV under the pseudonym Quentin Werty where he created ‘Westinghouse Playhouse.’  Then in 1963, he scripted a little film called ‘Cleopatra’ for Joseph Mankiewicz (yes, brother to Herman and father to Tom;  look ‘em up if you need to).  Lester Cole (he and MacDougall did the second draft here) would next do James Cagney’s ‘Blood On The Sun.’  As for our Director, Mr. Walsh, please see the ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ write-up.  Needless to say -- much like Mr. Curtiz, though far less volatile -- Walsh & Flynn did some of their best work together.

A recent (2002) review wrote, “I have always thought that Errol Flynn was a fine actor and this is surely one of his best performances.  [‘Objective Burma’] portrays the horror of war without the unnecessary crude language and graphic bloodletting of modern war films.  [Flynn] shows a compassion and commitment to saving his men and accomplishing their mission.  The direction, dialogue, scenery and story paints a realistic story of what war really is.  No false heroics or unnecessary theatrical baggage.  Flynn, Henry Hull, etc. excel in their roles and this movie is a testament to the very best in theatrical productions.”

Real?  You bet.  And a great movie?  Bet even more.

As for us, class, we round out our Top 5 with ‘San Antonio.’