Chaplin, Brando and A Countess From Hong Kong

Hong4There was a lot of buzz about A Countess From Hong Kong when it was first announced. After all, it would be Charlie Chaplin’s first film in more than ten years. The buzz increased, even more, when it came out that Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren would star. What a combination! The Little Tramp, Stanley Kowalski and Italy’s greatest export since pizza and pasta. How could it miss? Continue reading

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Watching The Godfather Epic

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   Over the last several days I have been watching the approximately 423 minute version of The Godfather and The Godfather 2 entitled The Godfather Epic. It’s a re-edited version of the first two films in chronological order with some deleted footage included.  The Godfather Epic was originally released in 1990 as a box set on VHS. A similar version, running slightly longer at 434 minutes, known as The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television, aka The Godfather Saga was broadcast on NBC back in November 1977.[1] As mentioned, both versions include scenes not in the final films such as  Michael’s first meeting with his father after returning from Sicily and Sonny’s taking charge of the family after his father was severely shot in an attempted assassination. In total, the Novel for Television/Saga included approximately 75 minutes of unseen footage. Since it was made for broadcast television some scenes of violence and nudity were trimmed to meet the commercial TV standards of the day. Continue reading

The Fugitive Kind (1959) Sidney Lumet

Recently released on DVD by Criterion this little seen film is a revelation. Based on Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending” the film focuses on Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Marlon Brando), a drifter whose sexual magnetism disrupts life in a small Mississippi town.  Interesting enough Williams wanted Brando and co-star Anna Magnani to be in the play. Both declined and the roles eventually went to Maureen Stapleton and the less than charismatic Cliff Robertson. The play was a flop financially, Williams first major bomb closing after only 68 performances, still the producers were able to make a deal with United Artists to make the film with Sidney Lumet who only had four films to his credit as a director.  Anna Magnani agreed to do the movie as long as Anthony Franciosa, who she was having an affair with at the time, was awarded the role of “Snakeskin.” Franciosa potentially would have been good in the role, however he was not a big enough star to get UA to provide the budget needed to make the film. The producers wanted Brando and offered him one million dollars, at the time the highest salary ever, if he accepted the role. Brando just finished directing his first and only film, “One Eyed Jacks.” Financially he was in a  hole. His production was in the red due to the slow pace he worked while directing the western. Additionally, he was in the middle of a divorce. Needless to say, he quickly accepted the deal. Later he would claim he sold his soul when agreeing to make this film. The producers now had two “Snakeskins” and had to get rid of one, namely Tony Franciosa. The question was how was the fiery Anna Magnani going to respond. To the surprise of all, she was okay with it, deciding that she too would dump the unfortunate Franciosa and planned to begin an affair with Brando her new co-star.  The problem was Brando was not interested. This caused much friction on the set between the hot-tempered Magnani and the rebellious million dollar star, with the young director in the middle.

As the film opens, Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier is run out of one town by a judge. He arrives one dark rainy night in a small town in Mississippi.  His only possessions are his guitar and his snakeskin jacket (one wonders if this was the inspiration for Nick Cage’s character in “Wild at Heart?”). The women in town are attracted to the enigmatic stranger. There is the young and wild Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) and Vee Talbott (Maureen Stapleton), the wife of the brutish town sheriff, who will find her artistic calling after meeting Val. Of all the women in town, it is Lady Torrance who is most affected byVal’s attention. She gives him a job at her husband’s general store. Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory) is a racist and an abusive husband who does not let the fact that he is slowly dying stop him from being an ornery SOB. Lady, an outsider herself, is trapped in unloving marriage, in a town filled with narrow-minded conventionality and bigotry. With Val her passions for sex, love and life are rewakened. She views this awakening as her refuge from her bored existence ignoring the potential consequences that may result.      

The story is filled with what one expects from Tennessee Williams, the gothic south, sexual frustration, repression and a bit of madness all rolled up into to one big wet mint julep. The pace of the film is unhurried, it just adds to the slow boiling volcanic eruption that you can feel is about to take place before the film ends.

Sidney Lumet, best known for his New York films, veered away to the South for this, just his fourth film (he actually went north, upstate New York near Poughkeepsie to a small town called Milton that was made up to look like a small southern town). With the help of cinematographer Boris Kaufman whose stark black and white images gives the film’s visuals a gothic noirish quality at times reminding one of “The Night of the Hunter.” Brando looks great, his performance filled with a powerful intensity and the animal magnetism the role requires.  Anna Magnani is mesmerizing with her fierce personality and Joanne Woodward, in a role that is as unguarded and dangerous as anything she has ever done verges on the edge of going overboard but never quite does. Victor Jory is the face of nasty evil and R.G. Armstrong is perfectly cast as the sadistic sheriff. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the acting alone.

As an Italian-American, for me one of the more interesting aspects of this work is the treatment of the Lady Torrence character. Like Val, Lady Torrance is an outsider; she is even treated by her tyrannical husband with no respect.  One has to remember that the source material was written before the civil rights movement where Blacks, and Italians, were treated as second class citizens in the South.  When many Black people began to move up North in hopes of a better life, Italians were brought in to replace them as cheap laborers. They were looked down upon and treated as second class citizens by the locals.  Growing up in the South, Williams would have been well aware of this. He also had an Italian character in his play, “The Rose Tattoo” (again played by Magnani).

Over the years, most critics have damned this film as minor Williams, a twice failed play; the original version was called “Battle of Angels” which closed in Boston never reaching Broadway.  Years later he rewrote the play renaming it, “Orpheus Descending.” As a movie, the story was given a third chance at life . “The Fugitive Kind”  is one of those films that just gets better with age.

****

The Wild One (1953) Laslo Benedek

The Wild One may have been the first film to exploit the misunderstood youth vs. the establishment gap. As you watch the film you realized how ingrained so many of the images of Brando with his sideburns,  his leather jacket, jeans and a cap have become over the years. Before Wyatt and Billy in “Easy Rider, before Elvis in Jailhouse Rock and before James Dean in anything, the image of the young rebel without a cause was cemented in the 1953 Stanley Kramer production.

“What are you rebelling against, Johnny.”

“Whatta got.” he answers.

Under the layer of the post war white picket fence traditionalism of the Eisenhower years, the white collar, nine to five, man in the gray flannel suit conformity laid a slow ticking bomb that would explode into the youth culture revolution of the sixties. In New York’s Greenwich Village, artist like Jackson Pollack and DeKoonig were upheaving the status quo in the art world. Jack Kerouac and the Beats were on the road living and writing life’s experiences, the Weavers and other folk musicians were filling the coffee houses, white teenagers were beginning to listen on the radio to black music stations, and in Memphis a young white kid named Elvis signed a contract with Sun Records. Parents, glad the war was over were happy to sit at home with a fairly new invention called television watching and trying to emulate families, like Ozzie and Harriet, x they saw on the boob tube.

In New York in late December 1953 and in theaters across the country in 1954 a new picture premiered. The screen opens up on an empty country highway. The camera is low to the ground.  A written prologue appears saying what you are about to see really happened in a small town and the public needs to not let it happen again. Then we hear the voice, Brando’s voice, he says “it began for me on this road…it couldn’t happen again in a million years…Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I Just went with it.”

Slowly in the distance  we see a hazy vision and hear distance a roaring sound. As the visuals come closer, the camera becomes engulfed by forty to fifty members of a motorcycle gang. The bikes and its riders seemingly roaring over us. Leading the way in dark sun glasses and sideburns is Johnny Strabler (Brando).  The close up of Brando on his bike is the first of the many now iconic images of the brooding sullen itinerant rebel that have been embedded into  our pop culture consciousness.

The Wild One plays like a later day version of a western. A group of outlaws come into town and cause havoc. The town’s people decide to take things into their own hands when they believe one of the young women, in this case young Kathy Bleeker (Mary Murphy), has been assaulted. The town’s men beat Johnny up, however. he manages to get away and back to his cycle. Heading out of town, the vigilante crowd chases after him. A tire iron is thrown. It hits Johnny who falls from his cycle. The out of control bike hits and kills one of the kinder townsfolk. The county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men arrive and immediately arrest Johnny for murder. The townsfolk are so blood thirsty they are ready to practically send Johnny to the electric chair until it comes out that it was the throwing of the tire iron by one of their own town people that caused the death of the old man. The sheriff lets Johnny go, but not before spewing a morality lesson on the young delinquent.

If the young in the film are wild and rebellious, the adults are shown as violent reactionaries too willing to take the law into their own hands to fight for right, or at least their version of what’s right.

The Wild One is first film to directly deal with disaffected youth and the motorcycle culture. It was controversial for its time. Conservative groups saw the film as a plot to undermine America’s youth and fear grew in some towns that some youth gangs would imitate what they saw on screen. In England, the film was banned by the British censors and not released until 1968!

This was Brando’s fifth appearance on the screen and he acting is still powerful to watch even today. Just watch the little nuances in his performance. They fill the screen each second he is on screen. Brando agreed to do the film after reading the original script. Always on the side of the underdog he, along with producer Stanley Kramer, saw the film as an indictment on society’s response to the increasing problem of violence among the youth in America.

Problems with the film began after the script was first turned down as unacceptable by the Breen Office. The censors viewed the story as too sympathetic toward the motorcycle gang. Gang members and glorified and the violence was excessive. The script was changed most evident in the introductory narration Brando now had to say at the opening of the film where he would utter the words that this only happened once and could never happen again effectively obliterating  everything that followed.

The film was not a huge success at the time of its release but over the years has gained an influential reputation beginning with Brando’s wardrobe. That young Memphis singer with the odd name of Elvis found an image to go with his music, leather jacket sales exploded across the country and posters of Brando became best sellers.  Also in the cast was Lee Marvin, still in the early phase of his career. Here he appears as Chino the gang leader of a second gang. Many of Marvin’s parts at this time were brutal low life’s (The Big Heat, Shack Out on 101) though here there are bits of humor in his performance that are missing from just about anything else he did up to this time but  point to his comedic ability that would shine later in Cat Ballou.

The film was based on a real incident that happened in Hollister, California in 1947 over the 4th of July weekend. A story about the incident appeared in a 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine called The Cyclist’s Raid by Frank Rooney. The screenplay was written by john Paxton and was directed by Laslo Benedek who previously worked with producer Stanley Kramer on the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman.