Re-discovering Tay Garnett: The “Rowdy Vaudevillian”

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on director Tay Garnett and his early features, Celebrity (1928) and Okay, America! (1932), were written by Derek Long, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. 35mm prints of Celebrity and Okay, America! will screen in a double feature on Friday, May 8, beginning at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.  Celebrity will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

By Derek Long

William Taylor “Tay” Garnett (1894-1977) is nowhere near as well-known today as John Ford (born the same year) or Howard Hawks, and to a certain extent it is not hard to see why. His most famous film is undoubtedly The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), but most would be hard-pressed to name another Garnett film, despite his forty-year career in the industry. The truly knowledgeable might cite the romantic melodrama One-Way Passage (Warner Bros., 1932), in which William Powell and Kay Francis play doomed lovers enjoying a last bittersweet encounter on a transpacific ocean liner. But few of Garnett’s other minor classics—be it the Gable-Harlow adventure pairing China Seas (MGM, 1935), the studio system satire Stand-In (United Artists, 1937), or the Loretta Young B-noir Cause for Alarm! (MGM, 1951)—have entered popular consciousness the way that nearly any of Ford or Hawks’ films have.

This relative obscurity is not for lack of either talent or interest; rather, it is largely because Garnett was much closer to the archetypical “studio director” than his famous contemporaries. While a few French critics raised Garnett to auteur status, his films lack the usual clear signs of an authorial stamp. Andrew Sarris placed Garnett in “expressive esoterica,” his third-highest category of director classes, dismissing him as inconsistent—“and inconsistency can never be defined satisfactorily.” A more charitable reading of Garnett would characterize him as one of the most invisible practitioners of Hollywood’s “invisible style”—as well as a director of immense competence. Unlike Ford, he worked in a wide variety of genres, making musicals, westerns, weepies, adventure films, crime melodramas, and—his personal favorite—comedies. Garnett thus shared Hawks’ characteristic versatility, even if he lacked the latter’s clear interest in recurring themes and character types.

Where Garnett really shined was in the creation of well-structured Hollywood narrative. He nearly equaled Hawks’ talent for efficient and creative storytelling; his best films seamlessly integrate characters with their settings, and Garnett generally succeeded in avoiding the tendency to use generic plots as interchangeable vehicles for stars. Garnett’s talents as a storyteller were no accident, though its origins might seem surprising. In his youth, Garnett dabbled as a vaudeville acrobat, and during his Navy service in the First Word War, he organized a very successful series of amateur vaudeville shows to boost morale. This stint as a military impresario landed him a number of jobs once he left the navy in 1922, including touching up film scenarios for independent producer Alan Holubar and writing titles for Charley Chase and Will Rogers comedies released by the Hal Roach Studios. In 1924, Mack Sennett hired Garnett as a full-fledged scenarist, and throughout the mid-twenties he wrote (and eventually directed) two-reel comedies.

In an interview with Rick Fernandez for The Velvet Light Trap shortly before his death, Garnett spoke of the formative impact of his work with Sennett: “You learned use of the camera [and] story construction, strange as it may seem. It would be difficult to find construction in a Sennett comedy, but it was there. Most of the comedies would run 4 or 5 reels long when they finished shooting before they boiled it down to 2 reels. So a lot of the continuity was murdered in the process, but they kept the laughs.” Garnett’s narrative sensibility and skill was honed, fundamentally, through comedy; as Sarris put it, “[his] personality is that of a rowdy vaudevillian, an artist with the kind of rough edges that cause the over-civilized French sensibility to swoon in sheer frustration.”

Here's a clip that demonstrates Garnett's vaudevillian sensibility from the rarely screened Stand-In featuring Humphrey Bogart re-teamed with Leslie Howard after The Petrified Forest (1936):


Both of the Garnett films in this double feature—Celebrity and Okay, America!— also show off something of the director’s fine vaudeville-based comic sensibility. Celebrity was Garnett’s first and only silent feature; his second feature, The Spieler (1928), began as a silent but incorporated talking sequences and a synchronized soundtrack. Based on a Broadway play by William Keefe and released by Pathé Exchange (which would evolve into RKO by the end of 1928), Celebrity features Robert Armstrong as third-rate prizefighter “Kid” Reagan, whose manager Circus (Clyde Cook) hatches a scheme to publicize his client by passing him off as a poet. In many ways, Celebrity was perfect material for Garnett. The original play was so full of vaudevillian gags and wordplay that Variety’s review of the film was disappointed that the film was a silent: “what a talker it might have made.” Luckily for us, however, Garnett uses that silence to his advantage, delivering delightful visual gags and intertitles full of period slang.

Okay, America! was Garnett’s first feature for Universal, and was part of a spate of newspaper films kicked off in 1931 by Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (United Artists) and continued in 1932 with Blessed Event, Love is a Racket (both Warner Bros.), and Is My Face Red? (RKO). In his performance as “Broadway Broadside” columnist Larry Wayne, Lew Ayres plays a thinly-veiled version of famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell (himself an ex-vaudevillian). Ordered to cover the kidnapping of a cabinet member’s daughter—a ripped-from-the-headlines plot point based on the Lindbergh kidnapping—Wayne soon finds himself wrapped up in a tangled web of drugs and corruption. Featured in the role of gangster “Duke” Morgan is character actor Edward Arnold, best-known to viewers as Boss Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia, 1939), in his debut talkie performance. The importance of vaudeville to Garnett’s command of sound cinema is in full evidence in Okay, America!, especially when it comes to the rapid pace of the dialogue. As Garnett stated to John Gallagher, “I have always very consciously striven for pace in every scene I ever shot…ninety percent of the time, if a scene has a pace problem, it’s because it’s too slow rather than too fast.”

Both of these early-career films force us to reconsider Garnett’s contribution to Hollywood cinema, and to take stock of the “rowdy vaudevillian” not as an uneven journeyman, but as a director who could find, at the core of every script, a great story to tell.

Eternal Life and Box-Office Death: Vincent Mollica on LIFEFORCE

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This re-evaluation of the Dan O'Bannon-scripted/Tobe Hooper-directed Lifeforce was written by WUD Film Committe member Vincent Mollica A 35mm print of Lifeforce will be the first half of a double bill concluding our Cannon Fodder series on Monday, May 4 at the Marquee Theater at Union South, presented in collaboration with WUD Film. Lifeforce begins at 7 p.m., followed by a Cannon trailer reel and Death Wish 3 at 9 p.m.

By Vincent Mollica

Made on a budget of roughly $70,000 and distributed by Mafioso, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became an unexpected hit of massive proportions. More than 40 years later Chainsaw is still talked about as a defining film of the horror genre. Despite this, Hooper’s post Texas output was fairly minimal making only two features before helming the 1982 mega-success Poltergeist. History, however, has more or less erased Hooper’s involvement on that film, crediting its success instead to writer/producer Steven Spielberg. In 1985, through the work of trickster god producers Golan and Globus, Hooper was given another shot at the big time: Lifeforce.

In August of 1983, Variety reported that Tobe Hooper had signed on to make three films with Cannon (Golan and Globus’s production studio). Two years later, they reported that Cannon would be bringing the first of those films with them to Cannes. The film was an adaptation of the sci-fi novel “The Space Vampires” called Lifeforce. At that point Lifeforce was Cannon’s largest production, with a budget of $25 million. This was far and away the most money that Hooper had ever worked with or ever would work with again. By all reports Cannon had a very hands off relationship with the film, allowing him to do whatever he wanted with the project.

Lifeforce’s insane plot centers on a race of humanoid space vampires who are brought to earth after being found comatose in a burnt husk of a space shuttle. Not only are these space vampires though, they’re naked space vampires, the leader of which (Mathilda May) often lures in her victims with raw sexuality. As these creatures destroy the earth it’s up to the astronaut who discovered them (Steve Railsback) and an army agent (Peter Firth) to stop them. Running with a generous budget and this wild premise, Hooper pulled out all the stops in production. He hired cinematographer Alan Hume (Runaway Train, Empire Strikes Back), used a score from Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), and effects from John Dykstra (Star Wars). He also built six London blocks at EMI’s backlot and used the entirety of one of its stages for the interior of the vampire’s spaceship.

In a 1983 interview, Lifeforce’s co-writer Dan O’Bannon said “if you have a strong story and characters but lousy visuals, you still have a hit. If you’ve got strong visuals but lousy story and character, you’ve got a flop”. In Lifeforce, audiences and critics found none of the above. The $25 million film opened with a little over $4 million, dropping almost exponentially over the following weekends. In the end the film garnered little more than $11 million dollars in box office. The New York Times called the film’s style “shrill and fragmented” and Variety claimed that the “broad…performances” and “preposterous dialog” pushed the film to “camp and unendurability” (this heartbreakingly appeared right next to a glowing review of Back to the Future, which would later match Lifeforce’s total earnings in a matter of a weekend). Although far from perfect, Lifeforce is a weird, kinky, gem that has a lot to offer beyond a few cheap laughs, much of which can be credited to O’Bannon’s script and Hooper’s direction.

Dan O’ Bannon, who co-wrote Lifeforce with Don Jakoby, is an incredible writer who, like Hooper, was forced to live in the shadow of his first big success: Alien. Before Lifeforce O’Bannon had depicted space as a means of transcendence in films like Dark Star and Heavy Metal in which characters turned into magical asteroids and space zombies, respectively. Lifeforce looks at this same concept, tying together the idea of space and vampirism to explore the exhilarating pull and push of a desire for eternal life. Lifeforce refuses to have the absurdist optimism of Dark Star or the straight horror of Heavy Metal, finding an uneasy middle ground. O’Bannon, at once drawn to and horrified by the great beyond of space, shows us a path to transcendence, but asks: “at what cost?” Although Lifeforce is actually rather goofy in tone, O’Bannon’s anxious musings ground the film and give it a melancholic sheen. 

Meanwhile, Hooper’s direction juxtaposes the film’s massive spectacle with a strong undercurrent of sleaziness. Although Lifeforce looks beautiful, many scenes are driven by little more than copious nudity and extreme close ups of men’s sweaty faces. However, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Funhouse, Hooper’s treatment of sexuality and violence is often meant to disturb rather than to excite. At its best, the film, with its operatic sets and colors, takes on the feeling of a male adolescent sexual fantasy gone horribly wrong. Hooper’s horrific evocation of sexual anxiety feeds right into O’Bannon’s reverent depiction of outer space, producing some of the finest sequences in either of their careers.               

Dropped by audiences and panned by critics, the gargantuan Lifeforce saw Hooper’s last real foray into the big time. He finished out his contract with Cannon on diminishing budgets making the solid Invaders from Mars and the excellent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hooper had not even wanted to direct TCM2, but didn’t have the budget to get a director. Finally Hooper spent the rest of the 80s and 90s making what Sight & Sound has called “marginally released Stephen King films…and forgettable direct-to-video horror”. O’ Bannon had greater success after Lifeforce, both writing and directing his masterpiece Return of the Living Dead later that year and writing Total Recall in 1990. However, through the ‘90s he faded from film and in 2009 O’ Bannon, a truly endearing artist in need of serious critical reevaluation, passed away. In the end, Hooper and O’Bannon’s legacies will almost solely consist of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien, leaving their work on Lifeforce left behind as a bizarre footnote. However, in the end, history’s subjugation of the film to the realm of failure doesn’t make it any less of a treat.

Ben Reiser Prepares You for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN

Friday, May 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These thoughts on Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) were written by Cinematheque Programmer and Accounts Manager Ben Reiser. A 35mm print of The Andromeda Strain will conclude our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Universal '71 series on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Ben Reiser

Corpses litter the streets of a small New Mexico town. Among those dead are children, some of them cut down mid-schoolyard basketball game. Crows pick at the flesh on these corpses. We linger on the dead body of a topless young woman. We linger on the visage of an elderly woman, she has hanged herself from a staircase banister. We linger on grisly flesh wounds and plucked out eye sockets. We linger on a surgeon slicing open a corpse’s wrist and watch as powdered blood spills out of the wound. An abandoned baby howls in desperation down a desolate hallway. A meat cleaver-wielding ghoul appears like an apparition and makes us jump.

Welcome to the first 30 minutes of The Andromeda Strain, rated G.

This slew of images and sequences that today would warrant at the very least a PG-13 rating if not an R are not the only elements that tell us The Andromeda Strain comes to us from a much different era. Featuring a conspicuous absence of sex symbols in the cast, or even a single main character under the age of 40, Andromeda Strain now plays like a time capsule treasure from a civilization that has not yet become locked into the demands of pandering to youth culture and puritanical tenets.

It also features a score by Gil Melles that is as abstract as anything ever recorded for a major studio release.

44 years after it first hit the big screen The Andromeda Strain, directed by Robert Wise (who, a few years earlier, gave us The Sound of Music) is a sci-fi thriller that in many ways feels even more forward-thinking now than it did then.

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT: "The CITIZEN KANE of the Jukebox Musical"

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Richard Lester's classic A Hard Day's Night was written by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A new 4K DCP restoration of A Hard Day's Night will screen on Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

A Hard Day's Night holds an interesting place in the history of the film musical. On the one hand, it's simply a product of genre cycles. The concurrent rise of the teenage movie-going audience and rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s had resulted in a steady stream of low-budget pop musicals. Spurred by the success of exploitation producer "Jungle" Sam Katzman's Rock Around the Clock (1956), starring Bill Haley and His Comets, filmmakers started churning out inexpensive vehicles to showcase contemporary musical fads, from calypso to jazz to surf rock. These musicals were almost guaranteed to turn a profit, while also offering the opportunity for ancillary revenue through soundtrack sales. A Hard Day's Night started as just another entry in this cycle.

The film was commissioned by United Artists' record division, which wanted a Beatles album to exploit in America. The lads from Liverpool were topping the UK charts and were poised to do so in the US as well. Signing the Beatles to a film deal with a tie-in album was just good business. Under the supervision of producer Walter Shenson, the film's budget was set at $500,000 – a mid-range figure for this type of musical; AIP turned out its Beach Party films for about $350,000 each, while Elvis musicals generally cost around $1 million. By the time A Hard Day's Night was released in the summer of 1964, the Beatles had made their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and UA was in a prime position to capitalize on the ever-growing Beatlemania. The soundtrack was released in advance, selling 1.5 million copies in the first two weeks, and the film was given a wide release of 1,000 prints. In the mid-1960s, such saturation booking was still a comparatively rare distribution strategy, but it was not an unusual one for pop musicals, which needed to reach their fickle target audience before the next passing fad arrived.

Yet although A Hard Day's Night was produced and handled like the majority of films in the pop musical cycle, its legacy has been radically different. Most pop musicals have been relegated to the cultural trash heap – the fate of many of the Elvis musicals – or else forgotten altogether – the fate, perhaps, of Richard Lester's first feature film, It's Trad, Dad! (1962). But A Hard Day's Night has sustained both its audience popularity and its strong critical reputation for an impressive fifty years. It has become, in critic Andrew Sarris' words, "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals."

There are a few reasons why A Hard Day's Night stands out from the dozens of other pop musicals produced during the same period. First, there is its screenplay by fellow Liverpudlian Alun Owen, which cleverly restricts much of the Beatles' dialogue to witty one-liners and thereby conceals their lack of acting experience. While many pop stars were noticeably uncomfortable or amateurish in their screen debuts (see Roy Orbison in The Fastest Guitar Alive [1967], for example), John, Paul, George, and Ringo seem natural and at ease. But it's the smart, comic satire at the film's core that earned Owen an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. The Beatles’ popularity was in keeping with the larger spirit of Swinging Sixties Britain; these were cheeky, working class boys from a northern shipping town, and their unprecedented success seemed indicative of the new generation's efforts to overturn class structures and authority figures. Director Richard Lester saw the Beatles as "revolutionaries in a goldfish bowl," and this is the view of the Fab Four presented in A Hard Day's Night. The musical fully embraces its stars as paragons of youth culture, worthy of our adulation – as was conventional for the genre – but it does so by pitting them against various institutions, including the very media industries that helped create Beatlemania in the first place. Owen's script is funny, gag-laden, pointed, and a bit surreal, resulting, as Variety put it, in "the kind of cinematic zaniness that has not been seen since the Marx Brothers in their prime."

What really makes A Hard Day's Night rise above the run-of-the-mill pop musical, however, is its visual style. In an effort to avoid the clichés of the genre – the boy-meets-girl, the putting-on-a-show, the tenuous excuses for song and dance – it was decided to conceive of the film as a semi-documentary: a day in the life of the Beatles. Although the film still concludes with the successful staging of a live concert, and although there are plenty of unmotivated musical numbers, by employing the visual techniques commonly associated with cinema verite (e.g. handheld cameras, loose compositions), Lester and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who also shot Star Wars) give A Hard Day's Night a rough, spontaneous feeling not found in the average pop musical.

Furthermore, Lester doesn't restrict himself to the look of docu-realism. As critic George Melly explains, Lester displays a "shameless magpie-like eclecticism," combining his knowledge of Surrealism, modernist filmmaking, avant garde experimentation, TV commercials, and popular music into a unique and overt directorial style. In A Hard Day's Night, zooms, both fast and slow, are prevalent. Lenses range from the very long to the very wide. The camera moves constantly and sometimes unpredictably. Striking and unusual compositions abound, from the bicycle wheel bobbing in the foreground during "I Should Have Known Better," to the low, wide-angle shots of Ringo rambling along the riverbank. The editing is quick and often disjunctive, evoking comparisons to the Soviet montage films of the 1920s. Lester's stylistic play may not have mattered much to the teenagers who simply wanted to see the Beatles in action, but it was a key reason why this particular pop musical was taken more seriously. Indeed, alongside A Hard Day's Night, a film like Looking for Love (1964), starring Connie Francis, appears downright pedestrian.

As Variety correctly noted, A Hard Day's Night was and is "the subject of much discussion." It continues to be cited as a major influence on the New Hollywood films of the late-1960s, and for many film musical historians, it's the only pop musical to employ a stylistic equivalent to the anarchy and rebellion of rock 'n' roll. The film is also central to the history of music videos, which adopted many of the techniques Lester used in A Hard Day's Night and its follow-up, Help! (1965). In fact, in 1984, MTV gave Lester a special award for being the "Father of the Music Video."

The pop musicals of the late-1950s and 1960s were designed to serve a specific purpose. Most were purely commercial products with little to no artistic ambition, but they made money for a struggling film industry and were enjoyed by the teenagers that watched them. A Hard Day's Night fulfilled this function and then some. And although it should not be seen as a typical pop musical, it nevertheless remains one of the most interesting and entertaining entries in that diverse and prolific genre cycle.

Stritch on Film! Matt Connolly on WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This appreciation of Elaine Stritch and her performance in Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) was written by Matthew Connolly, former Cinematheque staff member and Teaching Assistant in the UW Madison Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Who Killed Teddy Bear?, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, will screen as the second half of a double bill of rare 1960s psychosexual film noirs on Saturday, April 25. An 8:30 p.m. screening of Who Killed Teddy Bear? will be preceded by a 7 p.m. screening of Leslie Stevens' Private Property (1960). Both screenings are free and open to the public.

By Matthew Connolly

Though she appeared in films by such famed auteurs as Woody Allen, Alain Resnais, and Blake Edwards, Elaine Stritch has never been much associated with the movies. This makes a certain amount of sense. Throughout a decades-spanning career on Broadway, she gave iconic stage performances in roles dramatic (Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance) and musical (Stephen Sondheim’s Company), as well as anchoring a solo show that has become increasingly legendary in the annals of contemporary theater. (That show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, earned her a Tony award after four nominations throughout her career.) Her razor-sharp comic timing, singular stage presence, and nuanced renditions of some of musical theater’s richest songs have linked her indelibly to the Great White Way. As The New York Times wrote in their obituary for Stritch (who died last year at 89),  “the stage was her true professional home. Whether in musicals, nonmusical dramas or solo cabaret shows, she drew audiences to her with her whiskey voice, her seen-it-all manner and the blunt charisma of a star.”

Stritch may have never made the screen her home, but she could translate her stage charisma before the camera in a way that eludes some Broadway stars. Many contemporary viewers most likely know her from television, particularly her Emmy Award-winning work as Jack Donaghy’s domineering mother on 30 Rock. While movie roles rarely offered the dramatic complexity or comic firepower of her best stage and small-screen roles, certain films provide a glimpse at the range of Stritch’s talents.

Who Killed Teddy Bear? offered her such a role. Joseph Cates’s vivid look at the sexual underbelly of mid-60s New York City primarily focuses on Norah (Juliet Prowse) a would-be actress and discotheque DJ whose life becomes upended after receiving a series of obscene and threatening phone calls by a mysterious man. (The gravely voice on the other end turns out to be the club’s psychologically-warped busboy, played by Sal Mineo.) Stritch portrays Marian Freeman, the club’s manager and a confidante to Norah as she grapples with her increasingly unhinged stalker. When we first meet Marian, she’s entering the discotheque floor, puffing a cigarette and tartly reminding her maître d’ to keep up the phony French accent he adopts with guests. It’s the sort of role that one would expect Stritch to play—flinty, no nonsense, tough-yet-fair—and her seen-it-all attitude seems to flow directly from the city itself, captured by Cates in extended, quasi-documentary interludes. (Watching Nora’s sojourns in and out of Broadway theaters at one point, one cannot help but imagine Stritch walking past those same theaters as a young actress.)

As the film progresses, though, we begin to see the full range of Marian’s affections for Nora. This becomes particularly apparent in a painful scene in Nora’s apartment, when Marian comforts her after yet another ominous phone call. Marian tightly embraces Nora on her bed, rubbing her back and comforting her “baby.” Nora slowly realizes the intimacy implied by Marian’s words, pulling away and asking Marian to leave. The scene itself reveals both the ambitions and limitations of the film’s sexual frankness, allowing a lesbian character like Marian visibility for the price of rejection and humiliation. But watch how Stritch plays the scene. Note the salty dash of female camaraderie she gives her observation that every man has a bit of the dark impulses made manifest in Nora’s stalker. Observe the long-squelched tenderness shine in her eyes and warm her steely voice as she comforts Nora—and note how she deflects Nora’s rebuffing with a complicated mixture of embarrassment, insecurity, and a defiant lack of apology. Her fact slowly regains its knowing, weary composure as Nora insists that she will apologize if she “is wrong” about Marian’s intentions. “Oh, yeah?” Marian says flatly. “I’ll look forward to it.” In a film fairly obsessed with notions of erotic dysfunction and its psychological roots, Stritch refuses to turn Marian into a repressed closet case on the prowl. Her performance is a small master class in using the smallest vocal inflections and facial movements to suggest a lifetime of hard scrabble living and tenacious survival.

Such an affinity for tough, sharp women would remain with Stritch throughout her career, from the world-weary Joanne in Company to the slashing wit of Coleen Donaghy to the dramatization of her own struggles with fame, men, and booze in Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Who Killed Teddy Bear? offers a bracing and lovely reminder that this fondness can be found even in the early days of her long and storied career. “Oh, she was a terrific character,” Stritch told the Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson in 2010 when asked about playing Marian. “She was a hard-boiled dame working in surroundings that were the pits in New York. She was a good egg, as my father used to say.”

Merman Goes Hollywood!: Amanda McQueen on CALL ME MADAM

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the classic movie musical Call Me Madam (1953) was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Call Me Madam will screen on Saturday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Ethel Merman is an undisputed icon of musical theater, but she never really made it in Hollywood. Though she appeared in a number of musical shorts and a few features in the 1930s, her subsequent film appearances were sporadic and often critical or financial disappointments. In this light, 20th Century-Fox's adaptation of the Broadway musical Call Me Madam stands out. Reprising her Tony-winning role of socialite-turned-Ambassador Sally Adams, Merman is on comfortable ground in this film and it shows. Her performance was praised by reviewers – The Herald Tribune called her a "double magnum of dry champagne" – and she was ultimately honored with a Golden Globe. But in addition to being the ideal vehicle to showcase Merman's signature belting mezzo and comedic timing, the film version of Call Me Madam has a great deal to recommend it to fans of the musical genre.

With a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in October 1950. Though its romantic comedy underpinnings are fairly standard, its topical political satire of United States foreign policy helped the show click. Merman's character was not-so-subtly based on Perle Mesta, a political hostess known for her lavish parties who served as Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. Moreover, references to real-life political persons run rampant throughout the show, from recurring jokes about First Daughter Margaret Truman's mediocre singing skills, to the song "They Like Ike," about Dwight D. Eisenhower's potential nomination for president in the upcoming 1952 election. To keep the show up-to-date as it moved from Broadway to touring companies over the next two years, Berlin altered the lyrics to "They Like Ike" three times (Berlin also fashioned the version used as Eisenhower's official campaign song, "I Like Ike"). While critical reviews of the musical were not quite enthusiastic, with Variety noting that it was "hardly a great show, but it's plenty good enough," its popularity with audiences was undeniable. Even in Washington D.C. it was gleefully viewed by the very people it lampooned by name.

In late 1951, Fox entered into negotiations to bring the musical to the big screen. The studio agreed to pay $300,000 for the screen rights – the highest sum paid for a Broadway show since the mid-1940s – but Ethel Merman's participation was a key part of the deal. Merman had undisputedly carried the stage musical; in Variety's words, she was the one "scoring with every song, getting every laugh in the script, and providing the drive, animation, authority and magnetism to capture and hold the audience." And now, with a full year of sellout performances on Broadway behind her, Merman was in a position to demand a salary of $150,000 to appear in the film. Fox balked and negotiations stalled until the rights holders agreed to accept $250,000, freeing up the extra cash needed to secure Merman. The cast was then rounded out with Donald O'Connor as press attaché Kenneth Gibson, Vera-Ellen as the Princess Maria, and an off-cast George Sanders as Sally's love interest, General Cosmo Constantine.

With a budget just shy of $2.5 million – about standard for a top-tier musical at the time –Call Me Madam went into production in July 1952 under Walter Lang’s direction. Arthur Sheekman was hired to write the screenplay, with Irving Berlin on hand to deal with the songs. The show's book was brought to the screen pared down but mostly intact, while a few musical numbers were shuffled around or replaced with other Berlin songs. "Something to Dance About," originally a number for Sally and the ensemble, was repurposed into a duet for Maria and Kenneth as part of the effort to beef up Vera-Ellen's role. "Washington Square Dance" was swapped out for an updated version of the 1913 hit "International Rag," and "Once Upon a Time Today" was replaced by "What Chance Have I With Love?" from Louisiana Purchase (Broadway 1940). But while the film version retains the show's comic satirical core, "They Like Ike" was deemed too political and was dropped.

Sheekman's adaptation is less of a one-woman show than the stage version, and the strong supporting cast justifies this shift in focus. O'Connor and Vera-Ellen have great chemistry as the young lovers, particularly when partnered in one of choreographer Robert Alton's elaborate pas de deux. O'Connor also plays well off Merman, and their counterpoint duet "I Wonder Why (You're Just In Love)" is delightful. Though a relative newcomer to film musicals, Sanders did have professional singing experience (check out his album The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady from 1958:

In Call Me Madam, you will see that Sanders more than holds his own alongside the others with his warm, lyrical bass voice. And, of course, the film still perfectly showcases Ethel Merman's unique brand of camp.

Call Me Madam premiered in March 1953 to positive reviews and strong box office. Variety praised it as "a literate musical [that] avoids most of the common clichés," and predicted that exhibitors would earn "Much moola with Merman." Though not a huge blockbuster, Call Me Madam was one of the top grossing films of the year, and it received award nominations for its screenplay, musical score, costumes, and direction, on top of Merman's Golden Globe win. 

The following year, Fox tried to duplicate its success with its first CinemaScope musical There's No Business Like Show Business, which also featured an Irving Berlin score and a strong ensemble cast including both Merman and O'Connor. But Show Business was a flop – it has started to gain a better reputation in more recent years, however – and Merman would not appear in another movie until her non-singing role in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. So that leaves Call Me Madam: a musical presenting Ethel Merman at her brassy best. And with Sanders, O'Connor, and Vera-Ellen along for the ride, Call Me Madam is a charming and under-appreciated example of the type of film musical that would become economically unfeasible in just a few years' time.

DEATH WISH 3 Screening Postponed Until May 4

Monday, April 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to Badger basketball, the planned screening of Death Wish 3 on Monday, April 6, in the Cinematheque and WUD Film's Cannon Fodder series, has been postponed. Death Wish 3 will now screen at 9 p.m. on Monday, May 4, as a double feature with Lifeforce, which will screen at 7 p.m. The program will also include a dazzling 20-minute trailer reel of other Cannon "classics".

Cinematheque screenings will go on hiatus until Friday, April 17th. The 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival begins this Thursday, April 9, and continues through April 16th. If you're in need of a Cannon fix, allow us to recommend the screenings of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and Avenging Force on April 11th.  

DEATH WISH 3: A Classic of Trash Cinema

Sunday, April 5th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Michael Winner's Death Wish 3 (1985), part of our Cannon Fodder series, were written by Maureen Rogers, Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Originally scheduled to screen on Monday, April 6, a 35mm print of Death Wish 3 will now screen on Monday, May 4, at 9 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

By Maureen Rogers

Death Wish 3, is the second Death Wish film produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for Cannon Films. While the mid-eighties saw Cannon pursuing high brow releases such as John Cassavettes' Love Streams (1984) and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985), the company continued to rely on a slate of low-budget action-oriented features such as the Death Wish series--films that did little to improve the company's respectability in Hollywood but that continued to turn a profit at the box office.

1982's Death Wish II, a result of a distribution agreement with Filmways/Orion and a 3-picture deal with Charles Bronson, was a boon for Cannon, as the film grossed $16 million domestically. Three years later, Michael Winner and Charles Bronson once again returned to make a third film for Cannon. Death Wish 3, the lowest-performing in the series to date with a $6 million domestic gross, likely fell short of the expectations of all involved. Moreover, the film received unequivocally poor reviews. Though Variety noted director Michael Winner's "customary tongue-in-cheek panache," the trade journal criticized the filmmakers for poorly motivating the wildly over-the-top violence of Death Wish 3, writing that "attempts to justify the ensuing mass-murder are perfunctory." In Death Wish, Paul Kersey tragically loses his wife. In Death Wish II, Kersey loses his beloved daughter. In Death Wish 3, Variety complained, Kersey has little left to lose. But this doesn't stop him, however, from expending a large amount of ammunition to defend the streets of New York City from gangs of crooks targeting the city's innocent elderly.

Amplifying the violence and body count, Death Wish 3, more so than its predecessors perhaps, was produced and received as an exploitation film. Menahem Golan has acknowledged that Death Wish 3 was, in concept, designed to capitalize on the real life rampage of Bernhard Goetz. On December 22, 1984, as he was being mugged on a New York subway car, Goetz fired at four black youths nearly killing them. This incident was highly publicized at the time and, to Golan, provided perfect fodder for a Cannon film. Inspired by these current events, Golan began production on Death Wish 3 and even pressured the crew to complete filming so as to release the film in the fall of 1985, when Goetz was scheduled to stand trial. Cannon also promoted and marketed the film with rhetoric that would have explicitly evoked the subway shooting, at least for New Yorkers. The tag line of one ad for the film read: "He's back in New York cleaning up the streets his way."

Death With 3 has also gained a cult following, owing in part to the under-motivated extreme violence, stilted dialogue, and certain odd elements of the film's production design. Much of the movie was shot on location in London, though the film is set in New York City, a fact that is strikingly noticeable in certain scenes. For fans of the series, this likely only adds to the fun of watching Charles Bronson clean the mean streets of New York, taking on a cast of characters nearly as seedy and deranged as Paul "Kimble" Kersey himself.

TAKING OFF: Forman's First American Film (and Last Czech Film ?)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Miloš Forman's Taking Off (1971) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D Candidate in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Taking Off, part of our "Universal '71" series, will screen on Sunday, April 5, at 2 p.m., in the Chazen Museum of Art.

by Jonah Horwitz

Taking Off was the first film Miloš Forman made outside of his native Czechoslovakia. It was co-written—by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrière, John Guare, and John Klein—in Paris and New York, shot in New York with English dialogue, and financed and distributed by Universal Pictures. Nevertheless, Forman writes in his autobiography that he thinks of Taking Off "as my last Czech film"—and I'd have to agree. Why? Because in the way it was made, its style, its themes, and its tone of affectionate satire, Taking Off resembles Forman's Czech films like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Fireman's Ball (1967) much more than it does his award-winning Hollywood pictures that would follow.

Like the earlier films, Taking Off began with Forman observing the world around him. In 1968 he obtained a visa to plan a film in the US. But Forman and his compatriot Ivan Passer, set up in an East Village apartment, spent more time comparing notes on the thriving counterculture they found. The plot of Taking Off was inspired by a newspaper story Forman had read about a girl who would leave her affluent family in Connecticut every Monday to spend the week living on the street in New York City, all the while telling her folks that she was in school. Her double life was discovered only when she was found murdered in an apartment not far from that of Forman. But rather than adapt this sordid tale, Forman and Carrière set about interviewing teenage runaways in their neighborhood and their folks back home in Long Island and Westchester. Forman found himself at least as intrigued by the parents than the with-it kids. The shaggy-dog screenplay that Forman and his collaborators worked up is structured not by the struggle between the two sides of the Generation Gap—as was the case with so many other "youth pics" of the time—but by their mutual incomprehension.

As in his Czech films, Forman populated Taking Off with a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Lynn Carlin, as Lynn Tyne, was cast based on her performance in John Cassavetes' Faces, which had been her first professional role. Although Faces and Taking Off are opposed in tone, they both focus on the collision of the middle class with the sexual revolution; the climactic game of strip poker in Taking Off might be interpreted as Faces' psychodrama played for laughs. Buck Henry, as Larry Tyne, was best known as a writer, having won an Oscar for the screenplay to The Graduate. Linnea Heacock, who plays their daughter Jeannie, was discovered hanging out with friends in Washington Square Park, and her performance is affecting for completely lacking artifice. While the teenagers of contemporaneous counterculture films seem like know-it-all hipsters, Heacock comes across as precisely what she was: a shy 15-year-old girl. These performers, along with professionals like Paul Benedict and Georgia Engel (best known, of course, as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), were encouraged to improvise based on Forman’s descriptions of the overall shape of a scene.

Taking Off is a partial remake of one of Forman's earliest films, Audition (1964). For that film, Forman staged a singing competition in Prague and filmed the results. A succession of would-be starlets sang their songs before a group of judges, with varied amounts of talent and professionalism and exhibiting a mix of gonzo enthusiasm, shy hesitation, and utter terror. Snatches of these performances—blessed with the unmistakable awkwardness of documentary—are interwoven with narrative strands that follow several (fictional) characters through a few days before, during, and after the competition. In a stylistic strategy employed by Forman in most of his Czech films, he cross-cuts between fragments of these stories for quite some time before their larger interconnectedness is revealed. A cabaret performance is bizarrely juxtaposed to scenes of pedicures being performed.  Much later, the connection is drawn as the cabaret performer—now one of the contest's judges—rejects one of the young pedicurists after her halting performance (in Czech) of "Hello Mary Lou."

Forman was disappointed in Audition, particularly its rough synch between sound and image, and decided that Taking Off afforded him the chance to do it over. So he staged another singing competition, this time in the Village, and the women who turned out are if anything more varied and spellbinding. Their collective presence transcends the individual songs and performances, and provides a powerfully authentic snapshot of youth culture of the time (among other things, it proves that "the Sixties" extended into the early 1970s).

Taking Off begins with a succession of fragments from these auditions, enigmatically intercut with a therapy session in which Larry Tyne tries to rid himself of a smoking habit through auto-hypnosis.  It takes some time before we realize that the young girl singled out in the audition scenes is his daughter. Forman continues to cut back and forth from the audition for the first half of the film, and returns to it several times afterward, including at the very end. As in Audition, this montage is often richly expressive. At times songs from the audition play "over" scenes from the lives of the adults. Sometimes the songs ironize the narrative situations, other times they render them surprisingly lyrical. As the adults explore teenage Jeannie's bedroom, still filled with stuffed animals and other childish trinkets, they're accompanied by a line from "And Even the Horses Had Wings," future Oscar-winner Kathy "Bobo" Bates's haunting ballad of lost innocence:  "That was the world that I knew as a child." But Forman immediately undercuts the lyricism with a punchline about a diaphragm.

This oscillation between pathos and broad humor defines Taking Off's tone, just as the cutting between documentary and fiction defines its stylistic texture. The middle-aged parents at the film's center are figures of fun, but they are also portrayed with unusual sympathy and deepening complexity. The few hippie characters are ciphers by comparison; the drama of the audition sequences speaks for their emotional lives. The unexpected focus on the squares is actually typical of Forman (though it may explain why Taking Off failed to find much of an audience in 1971). From Black Peter’s hapless teenager struggling to lose his virginity to Loves of a Blonde’s small-town factory girl who mistakes her seduction by a traveling jazz pianist for a grand love affair, Forman specialized in “outsiders,” protagonists whose inability to fathom their society’s unwritten rules produces both humor and tragedy.

From Taking Off's commercial failure Forman seems to have learned a lesson that, in my view, proved as artistically regrettable as it was beneficial to his career. He felt that he could no longer make movies as he did in Czechoslovakia. As a foreigner in America, he no longer trusted in his powers of observation and his ability to direct non-actors in an off-the-cuff fashion. "If I really wanted to make films in Hollywood," he reflected later, "I'd have to change my whole style of working." Forman's regrouping eventually paid off in the massive critical and commercial success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) among other films. Those are both sturdy achievements, but they largely lack the distinctive, exploratory mix of tones and styles that makes Forman's early body of work, including Taking Off, so precious.

Further reading:

- Miloš Forman, Turnaround: A Memoir. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

- Miloš Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carrière, and John Klein. Taking Off. New York: Signet, 1971. Not so much the screenplay as a transcription (hence memento) of the film, with new "scene settings" written by Forman and Nancy Hardin. It also includes an essay by Forman about his first years in America and the production of Taking Off.

Recommended viewing:

- All of Miloš Forman's Czech films, including Audition (also known as Talent Competition, 1964), Black Peter (1964), and Loves of a Blonde (1965).

- Intimate Lighting (1965), the only film directed in Czechoslovakia by Forman's collaborator (and childhood friend) Ivan Passer.

10 RILLINGTON PLACE: A Chilling, True Tale of Multiple Murders

Monday, March 30th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place were written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of 10 Rillington Place will screen on Saturday, April 4 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1950, Timothy Evans, resident of 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London, was accused of murdering his wife and daughter. His downstairs neighbor, John Christie, was a key witness for the prosecution, and largely on the strength of his testimony, Evans was found guilty and hanged. Three years later, however, the bodies of six women were discovered in Christie's flat: three inside the kitchen walls, one – Christie's wife – under the floorboards, and two buried in the back garden. Christie confessed to rape and murder and was executed in 1953. The revelation that John Christie was a serial killer naturally cast doubt on his claims about Tim Evans. An inquiry into the Evans case upheld the original guilty verdict, but the British public refused to drop the issue. Newspaper campaigns and Parliamentary questions continued for years, and in 1961 journalist Lubovic Kennedy published a book on the events called 10 Rillington Place. In his account, Kennedy drew attention to a number of errors made by the police during the initial investigation, including the coercion of false statements and the overlooking or ignoring of crucial evidence – such as the human femur propping up the fence in the yard. For Kennedy, there was little doubt that Christie had committed the murders for which Evans had been unjustly hanged. In 1965, the High Court revisited the case again and posthumously pardoned Tim Evans. That same year, partly as a result of the Evans inquiry, Britain abolished the death penalty for crimes of homicide.

Such sordid events were ideal film fodder, but although the rights to Kennedy's book were purchased in 1962, it was nearly a decade before the project actually moved into production. By then, Hollywood was deep in recession, and 10 Rillington Place was the kind of film that appealed to nervous producers. First of all, it was topical; the constitutionality of capital punishment was under debate in the United States Supreme Court, while in the UK, many were arguing that the death penalty should be reinstated. True crime films were also in vogue, and 10 Rillington Place followed on the heels of In Cold Blood (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), and The Honeymoon Killers (1969). In addition, it offered the type of adult subject matter that contemporary audiences seemed to favor and that had become even more prolific with the recent adoption of the ratings system. Not to be overlooked, of course, was the fact that such films could be made on the cheap.

So in the summer of 1970, with a budget of only $1 million, an adaptation of 10 Rillington Place went before the cameras. Clive Exton wrote the script, and Kennedy served as technical advisor. The Filmways/Columbia production was based at Lee International in London, a small inner-city studio that primarily handled industrial films and television commercials. The facility was inexpensive to rent but was also conveniently located near Notting Hill and the real Rillington Place. Although the current tenants of No. 10 refused access, No. 7 was empty, and using the actual(ish) dingy, run-down house of the Christie murders (this was before Notting Hill was revamped into a suitable meet-cute locale for Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) helped give the desired air of realism. Indeed, the film paid meticulous attention to detail, even bringing in executioner Albert Pierrepoint, who had supervised the hangings of both Evans and Christie, to assure the accuracy of the execution scene.

This focus on authenticity was in keeping with director Richard Fleischer's detached, journalistic approach to the film's subject matter. Fleischer, who also directed The Boston Strangler, was no stranger to psychological dramas, to the point that Variety considered his work on 10 Rillington Place directorial typecasting. For this particular true-crime film, Fleischer utilized a "determinedly cool," understated style.

Critics agreed that Fleischer had gotten extremely strong performances from his cast – particularly Richard Attenborough as John Christie and John Hurt as Tim Evans. At the time of the film's release, Hurt's performance was deemed the stand-out one, and he was nominated for a BAFTA in 1972. Variety praised his "remarkably subtle and fascinating performance" while The Independent Film Journal claimed that "With each scene Hurt seems to tread new ground offering a characterization that is as deeply understandable as it is refreshingly devoid of all the standard cliches."

But Attenborough's portrayal of John Christie was only slightly less enthusiastically received, and over the years it has come to be seen as one of his definitive performances. Attenborough had actually worked with Fleischer before, when he was pulled in as a last-minute replacement for Albert Blossom, the circus owner in Fox's roadshow musical Doctor Dolittle (1967). Though not known as a song-and-dance man, Attenborough's exuberant, show-stealing performance of "I've Never Seen Anything Like It" about the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu won him a Golden Globe. Dolittle itself, however, was a box office flop – one of the many big-budget productions that created Hollywood's recession – and Fleischer's direction of the musical has been heavily criticized. But Attenborough enjoyed working with Fleischer, finding him extremely adept at putting his actors at ease – a skill that was likely appreciated even more on 10 Rillington Place. Attenborough claimed that John Christie was "the most difficult, disturbing role I've ever played." In fact, he'd only accepted the part because he believed the story was a "devastating statement on capital punishment" and he'd always had a penchant for socially critical projects. The difficulty of playing a serial killer was exacerbated by the fact that Christie was, by all accounts, incredibly dull – as one critic put it, "a man who was in every way except one the quintessence of nothingness." Thus Attenborough very effectively plays Christie not as a lunatic, but as an "insidious, ingratiating schemer."

10 Rillington Place remains a chilling thriller, all the more so for eschewing sensation in favor of restraint. And Attenborough so thoroughly disappears into his loathsome character, that it's perhaps comforting to remember that the versatile actor could also cut a jolly jig:

Reprise by loqualityenergy