Half a Hero (1953)

This post is my contribtuion to the CMBA’s HIDDEN CLASSICS BLogathon. These are the forgotten gems, the underrated ones that deserve more attention. You can discover more “Hidden Classic Gem” by clicking on this link.

America in the early 1950s was on a high. The war was over; the boys were home, a baby boom was in full swing and the economy was growing. Many folks were leaving the city and heading out to the white picket fence world of the suburbs. In the suburbs, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, people were living what many thought was the American Dream. 

      Released in 1953, Half a Hero is a small low budget programmer that had nothing on its mind other than providing a few laughs. Written by Max Shulman (Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys!, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis) and directed Don Weis (I Love Melvin, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis), this was the kind of small film that television helped kill. But time has been good to this little film. Make no mistake, this is no lost masterpiece. What it is though is a reflection, or a mirror held up to a time and place in America that reveals the country’s mood and emerging middle class during this period. [1]

   That may seem like a lot of weight to place on a small lightweight programmer that stars comic Red Skelton, but it’s true. Skelton plays Ben Dobson, an unemployed writer who gets a job at a magazine where his new and frugal boss, Mr. Bascomb (Charles Dingle), approves of Ben and his wife, Martha (Jean Hagen), living in a small tenement building on the West Side of Manhattan. Bascomb hates the newfangled fad of people moving out to the suburbs or as he calls them, the slums of tomorrow, where they are living above their financial means, borrowing money on credit which he rails against claiming it will ruin the country.  

Ben starts off as a rewrite man, checking and correcting other writer’s work. His boss likes his work, but the frugal employer does not offer a raise. Meanwhile, Ben’s wife (Jean Hagen) informs hubby she is pregnant. She’s pushes for Ben to ask for an increase or quit! It works. Ben to his surprised is valued.

    With a family now, Jean hints their small apartment feels cramped. They need more space. She suggests they look for a house; where else but in the suburbs? Ben is against it, however, he reluctantly agrees to ‘look.’ He sets the amount they could afford to spend on a house and swears they cannot wavier from it. Naturally, the houses in the price range Ben was limiting their financial sights on are small and not what his wife wants. And just as naturally, she gets her way with a house costing more than Ben wanted.

   Expenses soon mount as bill after bill arrives. It seems never ending. Ben, by the way, has not told his boss about his move to the suburbs, so when the boss man informs Ben he wants him to write an Exposé on how suburbanites are living above their means, Ben who is unhappy with his living in the burbs, hopes that if he writes the article, to be called The Slums of Tomorrow, about the folks in his own hometown they will hate him and his family so much they will feel forced to move back to the city.

   Surprisingly, there are quite a few serious moments in a film that is basically a comedy. It manages to jump smoothly back and forth. Skelton, a comic handles it all well. Along with Jean Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain, The Asphalt Jungle) as his wife and Charles Dingle (Talk of the Town, My Favorite Brunette) as his cheap boss, the cast includes Mary Wickes (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Frank Cady (Ace in the Hole) as potential buyers of their suburban home, King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Dorothy Patrick (Come to the Stable) as fellow suburbanites along with Kathleen Freeman, Burt Mustin and Polly Bergen who appears as herself singing the song Love.

       By 1953, when Half a Hero arrived in theaters, Red Skelton had already moved toward television. Sure there were more films, (Public Pigeon No, 1, The Great Diamond Robbery and some cameos in films like Susan Slept Here and Ocean’s 11) but more and more his work was on the tube. His hit television show began in 1951 and ran for an amazing twenty years.

Footnotes:

 HYPERLINK “https://d.docs.live.net/d1a7fc87681f81d0/Half%20a%20Hero.docx” \l “_ftnref1” [1] Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film, Bigger than Life, presents a darker view of the 1950s American suburban dream.

6 Films 6 Decades Blogathon

Here is my contribution to the National Classic Film Day Blogathon: 6 Films-6 Decades

Six favorite films, one from each decade beginning with the 1920s through 1970s. It was hard just picking one film. How do I choose between The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity? I picked one from each decade, but did I pick the right one? The answer is on the day I wrote this post, it was the right answer, but I keep asking myself how could I leave Double Indemnity off? How could I have chosen Mean Streets over The Godfather or The Last Picture Show? How could I have picked The Graduate over Rosemary’s Baby or The Manchurian Candidate? I’m sure if you call me tomorrow, I would come up with six different films and still be conflicted.

Find more contributions to this series by clicking here.

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush was the first silent feature film I ever watched. Back in the days before streaming, before DVDs, before VHS, a few movies, silent films that had fallen into public domain were sold on 8mm film via Blackhawk Films. Most were shorts and comedies by the likes of Buster Keaton. Laurel and Hardy and others. The Gold Rush is my favorite of Chaplin’s feature films. For pure laughs, you cannot beat it. But there is more; iconic images such as the “dance of the dinner rolls,” the boiling and eating of one of his boots for dinner and waking up one cold morning after a fierce snowstorm to find his cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff. These images are at times poignant, sweet and always laugh out loud funny.

Angels With Dirty Faces

I love Warner Brothers gangster films. They were tougher, grittier, and more streetwise than say a MGM gangster film like “Johnny Eager.” I grew up on films like The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties and Angels with Dirty Faces, and to this day they remain favorites.

Michael Curtiz was one of Hollywood’s great house directors. The only other director who can match him for one great film after another Is Alfred Hitchcock. “Angels With Dirty Faces” brought James Cagney back to his gangster type roles of the past, as well as back to Warner Brothers after a contract dispute. He came back in style in one of the best gangster films of the classic era. But “Angels” is more than just a gangster flick, it’s Warner’s, known for its social commentary, giving us a dose of how fate can change the course of your life on a dime. How things turn out in life is sometimes just a matter of chance. Who can make it over the fence, getting away from the police, and who does not. This was sophisticated filmmaking dressed up as slick popular entertainment. Rocky’s last mile is brilliantly shot with high contrast lighting. His defiant attitude and then the final moments of his life as he “turns cowardly.” The filmmaker’s leave it ambiguous. Did Rocky really die a coward? Did he do it for the kids or did he do more for Father Jerry, his only real friend. We can only surmise and draw our own conclusions because the filmmakers aren’t telling.


The Maltese Falcon

  Humphrey Bogart has been one of my favorite actors ever since I first became a film lover. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, he never lost that cynical anti-hero touch of a man who always went his own way and live by his own code, best expressed in this classic line: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” There is much more to the story that investigating his partner’s death. There are lies, deceit, sex and betrayal. There is also a supporting cast of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elijah Cook Jr. all who would become seminal supporting players in noirs to come.

Rear Window

I’ve written about this film times before. It’s my favorite Hitchcock, and that is saying a lot, and one of my all-time favorites. Rear Window gets to the roots of movie watching, and still photography. For anyone who is an avid filmgoer, it is no great revelation that watching movies is an extension of voyeurism; after all, that’s what we do, we look into the lives of others. Observing, in a socially acceptable way, as opposed to peeping into the windows of neighbors or strangers. We are all, to an extent, curious to know what other people are doing, it’s human nature. However, most people can keep these voyeuristic tendencies limited to the socially accepted variety. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of this trait in humans, and he suckers us into compliance right from the beginning with the casting of James Stewart. Who better than Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Straight Lace to lure you into peeping in on your neighbors and making you think there is nothing weird about it. You may not like hearing it but yes, if you like watching movies you are a voyeur! Rear Window is also smart, funny, tense, meticulous and intriguing.

The Graduate

There are some films that are indelibly burned into your psyche for whatever reason. It may have to do with the heart of every audience member jumping into their throats the first time the shark comes out of the water in Jaws. It could be the blaring rock sound of The Ronettes singing, Be My Baby, on the soundtrack of  Mean Streets, or the discovery of a little know film called The Panic in Needle Park as you watch a then unknown actor named Al Pacino blow you away. There are certain films that are etched into your life and become a brick on the wall that helped build your love for movies. For me, The Graduate was one of those films. The source material, a novel by Charles Webb, was published in 1963 to little and no acclaim.

By 1967, a lot had changed in America; the anti-war movement had emerged, long hair, hippies, the love generation, an anti-establishment movement was growing. There was a feeling of it was us against them (in 1968 Jerry Rubin would make the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30” a rallying cry). Webb’s Benjamin Braddock did not live in that world. He seems to be a character on the cusp, a product of 1950s white picketed suburban America. Though unlike his 50s counterparts, he did not want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Subsequently, he drifts… mostly into an affair with Mrs. Robinson.

Still, the film was revolutionary for its time. It came out at a time when American cinema was finding a new path; a new generation of filmmakers were just beginning to emerge. America’s old guard was on their last legs with their best days behind them. The look and style of the film was very much influenced by these factors.

Mean Streets

Every serious film lover sees a film that once in a while affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about. This is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it doesn’t have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply. “Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks. The movie’s energy comes from the powerful acting, the cinéma vérité style filmmaking and Scorsese’s pioneering use of popular music. From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.

National Vietnam War Veterans Day

John Greco Author/Photographer

Today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day

First Bloodis the first and best of the Rambo movies. Each sequel in the series became more simplistic and excessively militaristic. Based on David Morrell’s novel, First Blood has a dark somber tone and subtext completely missing in the other later works. The violence here is not exploitive but allows the viewers to enjoy the film on the surface as nothing more than an action/thriller. Howwever, there is a deeper level with something to say about returning war veterans and their problematic adjustment back to civilian life. The Vietnam veteran had the additional burden of facing a hostile homecoming. Unlike all previous veterans from earlier wars, the Vietnam veterans were not treated as heroes, instead they were met with disdain, spit upon, and even called baby killers.

Like many Vietnam Veteans, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has PTSD that went undetected. A former…

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Valentine’s Day – 1929

John Greco Author/Photographer

On Valentine’s Day in 1929, Al Capone allegedly sent a surprise gift to his Chicago North Side enemy Bugs Moran. Capone and Moran were in the middle of a gang war over territorial rights involving bootleg booze. On that romantic holiday, four men posing as police officers, entered Moran’s headquarters. They lined up seven of Moran’s thugs against a wall (Bugs wasn’t there) and emptied their machine guns into them. While it has never been completely proven that Capone was behind the massacre, he is generally credited with the bloody gift. Photo is from Roger Corman’s 1967 film, THE SAINT VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.

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My Favorite Private Eye Films

John Greco Author/Photographer

Here we have my top ten, plus six HM’s, of my own personal faovorite P.I. eyes. I’ve always had a soft spot for the anti-hero types, though you will find Nick and Nora Charles on the list. It was Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe who cemented my love for the mean dark streets of film noir where many of the best P.I. films are set. Please share you own favorites if you so desire.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

There are lies, deceit, sex, betrayal, murder, a stay true to the source screenplay by John Huston, a supporting cast that includes Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorr, Elisa Cook, and of course Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade all add up to make this film the epitome of Private Eye films.

Chinatown (1974)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

A multi layered, satirical, witty send up, and as you would expect…

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Newsletter

John Greco Author/Photographer

Finally, after a long delay, I have published my first newsletter. If you are interested in receiving it, send me your email (johngrecoauthor@gmail.com) or PM on Facebook, and say newsletter. For a limited time, I will send to anyone who signs up a copy of my short story, MAKE IT WRITE (Kindle or PDF). Let me know which you prefer.

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Thoughts on Movie Going in the Age of Covid-19

John Greco Author/Photographer

Will movie going ever be the same? It’s not like I want to add more doom and gloom to what we have been experiencing, however after reading a few articles recently, I have wondered about its future. Theaters are in crisis. Regal theatres have kept its doors closed up to now. AMC is open with limited capacity and struggling.  Like many, I have not been inside a movie theater since the pandemic hit us early this year, turning our lives inside out. True, I have been watching plenty of movies, thanks to DVD’s, Netflix, Amazon, and other outlets that we fortunately have today, but theater going is still a unique experience. I mean, I don’t care how big your TV screen is, it’s not as big as a theater’s. And though I no longer indulge, I love the smell of movie theatre popcorn, and just having other people around to…

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Seven Days in May

   This post is part of Classic Movie Blog Associations “Politics on Film.”  Blogathon.

In the opening scenes of “Seven Days in May,” we find picketers from both sides of the political spectrum demonstrating outside the White House. Tempers are high. A riot breaks out, and the police arrive attempting to break up what has turned into a free for all. Those divisive times were over fifty years ago. It’s amazing how times have not changed. Today it is no different, tolerance and respect are in short supply. For many of us, emotions are driven by fear. We live in a period where Americans fear foreigners, terrorists, North Korea, Iran, Nuclear war and more. Fear drives irrational behavior.

     Based on a novel written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, and published during the Kennedy administration, the roots of Seven Days in May go back to the late 1950s and one Major General Edwin Walker. Walker was a staunch anti-communist with strong political views, which he had no problem sharing with those under his command. He labeled former President Truman, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others including then-current President Eisenhower communists. He protested to President Eisenhower about sending Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to assist with the integration of schools. Walker was a follower of Rev. Billy James Hargis, who believed the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot. Walker was also an acquaintance of Robert Welch Jr., a co-founder of the John Birch Society. Walker submitted a resignation letter to Eisenhower, which the President refused to accept. After the election of J.F.K., Walker once again sent a letter of resignation. Kennedy accepted it. Walker was out, though his ties to Kennedy did not end there.  The novel’s authors used Walker as a major inspiration for the character of U.S. Air Force General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film.

     Kirk Douglas purchased the film rights to the book, and despite Pentagon objections received the blessings of then President Kennedy to make the film. Burt Lancaster agreed to play Scott and John Frankenheimer to direct, this despite his misgivings of working with Lancaster again after having problems during the making of Birdman of Alcatraz.

     President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union going against the opinion and recommendations of his military advisors. Scott is especially perturbed and considers the President’s move an act of treason. The American public has reacted by giving Lyman a twenty-nine percent approval rating.

    Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), Scott’s aide, comes across some strange inexplicable information: various cryptic data sent between Joint Chiefs of Staff members, a secret military base located in a barren area of Texas. Suspicious, “Jiggs” suspects that Scott and a group of other senior military are planning a coup. The military takeover is scheduled for the following Sunday when the President will be isolated during a military practice alert. Though he has no definitive proof, “Jiggs” goes to the President who gathers a group of trusted advisers to investigate the claims. The President sends faithful Georgia Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) to Texas to investigate the secret military base. He finds it and ends up held in confinement. Presidential aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) is sent to the Mediterranean to “talk,” basically draw out a written confession from Vice Admiral Barnswell (John Houseman).  Girard gets it, but on his way home is killed in a plane crash over Spain. The confession, tucked in a cigarette case, a gift from the President, lies in the wreckage. Additionally, “Jiggs” obtains some discriminating letters from Scott’s former lover, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to use against Scott. The President does not want to use the letters, we’re never told what they contain, though he is encouraged by his staff to use them. Scott, by any means necessary, must be stopped.

     When the President confronts Scott, the General denies it all. He is convinced the public is behind him and not a weak President. Leyman is about to confront Scott with the letters, but at the last minute stops himself. Later, after a meeting with the other Joint Chiefs, Scott tells them of his meeting with the President, and that he has no solid evidence. They need to stay united and move on with their plan on Sunday. However, before the plot is put in motion, the President holds a press conference demanding the resignation of Scott and the other Chiefs of Staff. During the press conference, the President is informed that Girard’s cigarette case was found and contained Barnwell’s handwritten admission of the plot. He orders copies be made and sent to Scott and the others. The coup is over. The President addresses the nation saying, “There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men, are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.”

     Though made more than a half a century ago, Lyman’s film ending speech remains thought provoking and a powerful indictment on those who believe the only road to peace is through bigger and bigger bombs. War is the answer. As Lyman says, “our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker.”

     Seven Days in May is a perfect companion piece to director John Frankenheimer’s previous paranoid/political film, “The Manchurian Candidate,” Frankenheimer remains faithful to their respective sources. The film is one of the finest and frightening political thrillers ever made.  Frankenheimer’s sharp direction is nicely complemented by Ellsworth Fredericks low-key, almost noir-like cinematography, and Jerry Goldsmith’s menacing score magnificently assists in setting the mood. The entire cast is impressive: Burt Lancaster is like a tightly wound clock, and far more evil than had he been his loud, typical over-acting self; Kirk Douglas had the tough role of blowing the whistle on his boss, a man he admired; Frederic March makes for an admirable President who has lost the confidence of the American public, but must stick to the principals he believes are right, and Edmond O’Brien gives a typically steady performance as the boozy Senator from Georgia. Others in the cast include the still beautiful Ava Gardner, Andrew Duggan, George Macready, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe, and Richard Anderson.

President John F. Kennedy read the novel and found it credible enough to believe it could happen here. Assassinated in November 1963, Kennedy never did get to see the film. Still, there is one more connection between J.F.K. and Seven Days in May.  On April 10th, 1963, retired General Edwin Walker, whom Lancaster’s character was inspired by, was in his home sitting at a desk when a bullet came through his window, fragments from the shattered window wounding Walker. While there is no definitive proof the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, he was known to hate Walker considering him a fascist. Oswald’s wife Marina later testified after the Kennedy assassination that her husband told her he was going to shoot Walker. However, by the time the FBI found out about this connection, Lee Harvey Oswald is shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

‘Tis the Season is Here!

John Greco Author/Photographer

Christmas may seem far away, but it’s closer than you think, and will be here before you know it. With that in mind, today is the release date for ‘Tis the Season, my new four short story collection mixing Christmas and crime. The four tales consist one old and three new tales. In Home for the Holidays two brothers reunite on Christmas Eve. Let’s just say it doesn’t turn out well. Next up is a revised version of A Merry Little Christmas which originally appeared in Devious Tales. Favorite Time of the Year deals with a troubled marriage and a final solution. In ‘Tis the Season a hitman with a soft spot for the holidays may or may not have a holly jolly Christmas. The holidays can bring out the worst in everyone, and does so in these four short Christmas themed stories. ‘Tis the Season is not…

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Movie Watching in Quarantine Scene 5

John Greco Author/Photographer

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

Man

John Ford’s brilliant western is both a romantic, three-way, love story and a look at the west on the cusp of change. Watching it again I realized how political a movie this is. There are battles between two factions. Those who want to remain a territory and those who want to become a state. It’s a typical rich versus the everyman battle. The future versus the status quo. Even the film’s love story, a triangle between a tenderfoot, a gunslinger, and the woman they love represents a dying western way of life. John Ford blends it all together with this filmmaking classic, his last great western.

The Graduate

grad

Some films are indelibly burned into your psyche for many reasons. It may have to do with the heart of every audience member jumping into their throats the first time the shark comes out of the…

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