Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid and other Films that Got Away

the-frisco-kid

Gene Wilder was unique in his temperament and physical appearance. By that I mean he was uniquely suited for the role of his life in Young Frankenstein and equally up to the task for his classic performances in The Producers and Blazing Saddles.

Screening this month on Turner Classic are some Gene Wilder gems. Some of these are on my short list of Films that Got Away. One is the 1970’s film, Start the Revolution without me. Wilder began to perfect his controlled manic style of comedy in this piece with Donald Sutherland. It’s a spoof on the classic tale of The Corsican Brothers, with the two brothers played by Wilder & Sutherland- one set of royal birth and the other of peasant extraction, and the ensuing comedy in the dual roles is comic fodder for both Wilder and Sutherland.

The Frisco Kid was a one-off type of comedy where you might “get it” or perhaps not. But there were plenty of gems for the taking in this Western, where Wilder plays a Rabbi traveling West with his cowboy companion, played by Harrison Ford. A couple of moments are priceless: Wilder as the Jewish Rabbi is trying to eat breakfast with monks who have taken a vow of silence. This proves to be nearly impossible for the amiable Jewish persona that was Wilder. And when the pair find themselves in an Indian camp, Wilder is at his comic best when he is describing how the Jewish people celebrate in similar fashion to the Indians. “Watch that Lady! I think that lady is a Jewish Indian!“… Priceless

Speaking of cult classics, Turner Classic Movies is also showing the ever-popular Strange Brew this week. Oddly enough, this 1983 film was loosely (very loosely) based on the story of Hamlet-complete with ghosts and the Elsinore tableau thrown in for good measure. The two Second City alumni, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis of Ghostbusters fame, are perfectly cast as two hapless Laurel & Hardy-esque screwballs who are trying to make the connections and discover the secrets of the mysterious brewery. A Canadian classic, this is not for everyone, but some of the funniest bits occur when the two are seemingly just playing it loose with the off-the-cuff remarks that have been a staple for years in our household.

Start the Revolution without me, Strange Brew, and The Frisco Kid are all playing this week on Turner Classic Movies. Check your listings for the times, as most are middle of the night showings.

About Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan

6 Degrees can’t let the month pass without a word on Robert Ryan. One of my favorite actors has been featured all month on Turner Classic Movies. Robert Ryan was a workhorse, a character actor, a film noir star, and at times a B movie actor with a ruggedly handsome profile that rivaled his co-star and friend, John Wayne. John Wayne was an icon, but Ryan was the stalwart trooper who worked in so many genres and cut through generations of rapidly changing film audiences with differing tastes and mores.

He was the down and out boxer in the film noir classic The Set Up, directed by The Sound of Music director Robert Wise. He was the love interest in one of Marilyn Monroe’s early hits, Clash by Night. He starred with John Wayne in. The Flying Leathernecks, a bad-B, and with Pat O’Brien in Marine Raiders, which is highlighted with the singing of the venerable Marine fight song, Bless Them All.

Ryan was a Marine in real life and he used that tough-guy persona in his performances. Moving from the film noir period, he went on to star in movies like Lonelyhearts, with Montgomery Clift, and the unique version of Erskine Caldwell’s novel, God’s Little Acre. He was the heavy in many films, most notably with Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock and Robert Mitchum in Crossfire.

In the sixties, he was in the classic The Wild Bunch, as well as the war films, The Longest Day and The Battle of the Bulge. Ryan was friends with John Wayne, but his politics came down on the other side of the fence. He was an ardent liberal who fought for Civil Rights.

One of the lighter stories surrounding Ryan’s and John Wayne’s friendship was regarding the time Robert Ryan went on a radio program and condemned the John Birch Society. When he returned home, there was a man with a shotgun standing in his driveway. As he pulled in, he realized it was his old friend, Duke Wayne, who had dropped by just to insure that there would be no trouble for Ryan!

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid airs Sunday, January 17th

Butch & Sundance

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the greatest westerns of all time, and it was made at a time when westerns were definitely on the decline. This is actually a funny movie. Most of the film is a comedy, with Paul Newman delivering one of the best comic performances of his career as the amiable outlaw Butch Cassidy. Robert Redford’s breakout performance as the Sundance Kid, plus the very real onscreen chemistry of the two leads, resulted in a generation of “buddy” films where two guys were paired together in various action roles.

But the unexpected bonus of this classic is the masterful direction by George Roy Hill. He had a flawless script by William Goldman, and two A-list actors to work with, but the film could easily have been forgettable in a less talented directors’ hands. Hill used a classic old-time musical score, arranged by composer Burt Bacharach, which permeated the entire film with an essence of nostalgia for a time long past. And his ability to weave the storyline through various scenes of the gorgeous Old West landscape interwoven with tight close ups of the gorgeous actors and their often hilarious dialogue was pure genius.

In my book, 6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village, I wrote of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”:
Considered by many Hollywood insiders to be the best screenplay ever written, this film originally included some scenes that were reportedly scrubbed because Paul Newman couldn’t say the lines without laughing. Yet this is a poignant film at times that focuses on two real-life outlaws on the run for their crimes. The parts we remember most vividly are those that give the movie the aura of a “buddy” picture, than an action-adventure comedy, and finally a western very much of the sixties.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid airs Sunday, January 17th & Wednesday, January 20th. The film is playing at select theatres in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies.

On the subject of Casablanca

 

Editor’s Note: Casablanca is playing this Sunday, September 18th at Tampa Theatre as part of the Summer Film Series. The film begins at 3:00 pm.

 

Casablanca

 

Casablanca is one of the best B movies ever made. The local paper here in Tampa had a dispute over whether it should be designated as a “Chick Flick” or simply a classic film. In my role as a film critic, I’m moving away from the term “Chick Flick” in describing movies. There are Fem flicks-defined as films for women, by women and about women…I would not put Casablanca in this genre.

Casablanca is much more than just a chick flick. It was a film written with quite a convoluted history of authorship, as you can tell in the following excerpt. No one really knew how it was going to turn out even when they were shooting it!

The following is an excerpt from “6 Degrees of Film: The future of film in the Global Village” by Mary L Johnson. The book is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Degrees-Film-Future-Global-Village/

Casablanca
Script authorship of Casablanca also was disputed, only this time it was writer versus writer who vied for the lone credits. Someone said about this B movie classic, “One of the charms of Casablanca lies in its awkwardness. Not only do the politics and romance sit side by side, but that there are two or three contrasting manners of style. There’s the comic-cynical, the soppy-elegiac, and the solemn-propagandist … [It’s] not so much a story as a stringing together of great moments to remember. How, and in what order we remember them is left to us, and this is part of why we like the film so much.”
Four authors claim to be the true author of Casablanca. There is Howard Koch, who claimed he was brought in “to shape the film’s politics”; the brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, who wrote as a team; and Casey Robinson. Robinson said that he had the idea for a film “out of a ‘lousy play’ called Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”
According to Koch, the story was, “So they start shooting and Hal comes to me and says, ‘We need some help. There’s a little trouble.’ Bogart had said, ‘I won’t shoot this __________’; and he had used a very nasty word and gone home.”
Ingrid Bergman on the Casablanca shoot said this: “Every day, we were shooting off the cuff; every day they were handing out dialogue, and we were trying to make sense of it. No one knew where the picture was going, and no one knew how it was going to end … We said, “Well, who are we?” … and Curtiz would say, “We’re not quite sure … It was ridiculous. Just awful … Bogart didn’t know what was going on, so he retired to his trailer … I wanted to know who I was supposed to be in love with, Paul Henreid or Humphrey Bogart?”
The Epstein brothers had gone on to another project for Frank Capra and were not available, so they sent the script in from Washington page by page. Two scripts were floating around, one from the Epsteins and one from Howard Koch. Robinson was brought in to add the love-interest angle. It was apparent that “none of them knew he was working on a movie that would turn out to be something to boast about; all the signs were that Casablanca would be a stinker.”
The facts are this: The film used some lines from the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, including the line “Then play it, Sam” and the song As Time Goes By. The irony was that Julius Epstein was not proud of his part in scripting Casablanca. He called it “slick shit,” and said, “Casablanca is one of my least favorite pictures. I’m tired of talking about it after thirty years. I can explain its success only by the Bogie cult … I can recognize that the picture is entertaining and that people love it. The whole thing was shot in the back lot. Furthermore, there were never any such things as letters of transit around which the entire plot revolved. The movie is completely phony.”

Excerpt from 6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village

 

 

Montgomery Clift and the LGBT Connection

Mont cliftIn light of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage, it comes to mind that many younger people have no idea who Montgomery Clift was. He was a tortured soul and a fearless actor. He was also before his time in so many ways. He was loved by both men and women, who saw the vulnerability that shone out of his eyes. He made us love him for the man he was, not the Hollywood pinup that was presented to the world at large.

His performance in films of the fifties made him a worthy contemporary and competitor of Marlon Brando. Montgomery Clift was also bi-sexual, and because it was the fifties in America, Clift was forced to live his life in the closet, never openly acknowledging his sexuality. Perhaps it even made his acting more intense, but for whatever reason, his films are still gripping and highly recommended viewing.

A tragic car accident sidelined his career while he was still at the height of his fame, and the aftermath and recovery made him face those inner demons. Addicted to pain killers and alcohol, Monty Clift suffered an inner torment along with his outward pain in his final years.

Yet his body of work is remarkable. Clift is superb in so many films, beginning with the adaptation of a Theodore Dreiser novel called A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor. He then manages to make a boiler-plate B movie, The Search, somehow become one of the most heart-rendering stories of suffering that came out of the post-World War II era. He was able to convey onscreen what was felt by millions of displaced families living in the ruins of Europe at the end of the second World War.

Clift went on to give stellar performances in The Young Lions, Red River and Miss Lonelyhearts, and with each part he played the vulnerability and the pathos are on full display. A man who lived ahead of his time, each performance was in the moment and spot on in conveying the torment and inner angst that so many in the LGBT community have known and felt for so many years.

Those who have not discovered Montgomery Clift and his body of work, I would highly recommend an intensive session for the “Armchair Film Festival”. Don’t delay in screening some of Clift’s classic performances found on DVD or shown on Turner Classic Movies.

6 Degrees Armchair Film Festival

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It’s summertime at the movies! That means vacations and lighter fare and blockbusters and perhaps lots of different memories for many of us. Beach movies and films from our high school years and summer fun.

There are so many different film festivals out there it’s hard to keep track. One thing in this age of video that is definitely a bonus is the discovery of so many great films and great performances that you can see on demand and on video. For instance, I fell in love with Russell Crowe and Peter O’Toole and Clive Owen at the movies and subsequently became a fan after watching so many of their older films that were available on video.

Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe, before he became a big star, was in some great movies like Proof from 1991, The Sum of Us (1994), Virtuosity (1995), and his big break into A-list films in 1997’s L.A. Confidential.

Clive owen
Peter O’Toole’s best performances were often in films not widely seen today like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or the comedy, How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn. Clive Owen, who has suffered (and made me suffer) through some real clunkers in recent years, was brilliant in the movie based on the play Bent (1997), the made for TV movie Second Sight (1999), Greenfingers (2000), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), the film noir movie I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead (2003), and Beyond Borders with Angelina Jolie also in 2003. He was best known to audiences in the 2004 King Arthur film and then was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Closer, also from 2004.

All of these actors and many more are seen in what I call the “Armchair Film Festival”. If you are a fan of Film Noir, then you’re in luck.  TCM shows some of the greatest film noir classics and is even offering a class online that’s free and open to the public!

Mont clift

Turner Classic Movies has a featured star each month and will show many of their greatest films. For example , the work of actor Montgomery Clift can be seen on TCM as he is featured this month in A Place in the Sun and Hitchcock’s I Confess.

If you are interested in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and films dealing with Human Rights issues, then you should watch A Gentleman’s Agreement and To Kill A Mockingbird, both starring Gregory Peck, and Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy.

annie hall

**Woody Allen at the Movies: Woody is worthy of volumes and is definitely recommended for Armchair Film Festival viewing. His early comedies and transition from comedy to drama would give any film lover enough material for several retrospectives on his work. TCM is showing showing Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters  this month.

s mcqueen bulllitt

**Steve McQueen, another actor worthy of an Armchair Film Fest retrospective, is featured in Bullitt and The Sand Pebbles. Bullitt is one of my favorite films. It’s one of McQueen’s best, and the car chase sequence is probably the granddaddy of all those car chase scenes featured in countless pictures for generations. Bullitt set the standard and it added a touch of authenticity to the screen just knowing that Steve McQueen loved to race cars and was known for doing many of his own stunts.

Sound of Music

Fans of The Sound of Music may recognize some of director Robert Wise’s trademark work in the Film Noir classic, The Set Up. If you can appreciate Wise’s use of shadows and light in The Sound of Music, you’ll know he was attuned to the process from his history with so many film noir features.

**6 Degrees readers, stay tuned as we look at a star or a film genre to recommend each month in the Armchair Film Festival.