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Archive for December, 2011

James Mason for Thunderbird Wine

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Click here, or on the image above to view this “unusual” commercial.

“I like the unusual flavor of Thunderbird wine. It’s an exceptionally good drink for every occasion. Thunderbird has an unusual flavor, all its own. Not quite like anything I’ve ever tasted. I suggest that you try Thunderbird. It’s really delightful.” — James Mason

James Mason made this brief, 30 second spot for Thunderbird Wine in 1964 — but why? The reason is simple; he needed the cash. As Siobhan Staples notes, “after an acrimonious and expensive divorce from Pamela [Kellino] in 1962, Mason realized he would need to keep the money coming in to support himself as well as his ex-wife and two children. He worked almost constantly over the next twenty-two years – not always in the best films, but always giving a faultless performance.”

This commercial has become something of a legend, and pops up in various places on the web. As others have commented, the sight of the urbane, distinguished actor pitching Thunderbird is hopelessly incongruous; Orson Welles acting as a spokesperson for Paul Masson is one thing, but after this, what’s next? Sir Laurence Olivier for Ripple?

In his autobiography, Before I Forget, Mason notes that he was paid a paltry $10,000 for the spot – “I could use it,” he noted – which Mason accepted only on the condition that he be allowed to actually write the script. Then, as he admitted, he took great delight in coming up with a decidedly “unusual” text. Yet as always, Mason carries off his role with aplomb and more than a little irony, which is certainly more than understandable under the circumstances.

A toast to 2012, then, from James Mason and Thunderbird!

The Swimmer (1968)

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this remarkable film.

“When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”

From Wikipedia:

“On a sunny early autumn day, the camera runs along the autumnal forest of an affluent suburb in Connecticut. The running is that of Ned Merrill (Lancaster), a seemingly successful, appealing and popular middle-aged advertising executive, clad only in swimming trunks. We never learn where he has arrived from. He walks out of the woods and into the backyard of some old friends sitting by their swimming pool. He chats with them, then he has a sudden idea: he tells his friends he intends to “swim” home across the county by dropping in on friends’ swimming pools which form a consecutive chain leading back to his house. He dives into the pool, emerges at the other end and starts his journey.

At first Ned gets warm welcomes as he meets old friends. These are mostly upper middle-class, well-to-do people with homes in the upscale outer suburbs. However, there are hints that Ned has been away for up to two years, and he brushes off any questions about himself. Each stop brings him face to face with some aspect of his life. The first one is with his youth when anything was possible, while the last one exposes the current collapse of his family life and where everything seems lost.

As the day wears on and Ned sees those who have been closer to him more recently, the welcomes begin to sour. Ned’s proud boasts about his wife, daughters and home are met with strong mixed feelings, jeers, suspicion and even anger – especially from women. In one backyard Ned meets a 20-year-old girl who, years ago, had babysat his daughters. She leaves with him, at first thrilled to do so owing to an unspoken crush she had for him in her early teens. But when Ned rather clumsily tries to woo and kiss her, she flees. He carries on with his “swim,” dropping by the pools of sundry other friends as it slowly unfolds that his life has somehow gone quite wrong.

He crashes a party at one pool. While he is allowed in at first, Ned is thrown out when he has an outburst after spotting a hot dog wagon he had once bought for his daughters, but which had recently been sold in a white elephant sale. He then shows up at the backyard pool of Shirley Abbott, a stage actress with whom he’d had an affair several years earlier. She is still feeling bitter and hurt. When Ned tries to rekindle things, this poolside meeting ends very badly for both of them.

As the day ends, Ned winds up in a crowded public swimming pool where he runs across and is shamed by local shopkeepers to whom he still owes money for unpaid grocery and restaurant tabs. When some of them comment about his wife’s overall snobbish attitude and his out-of-control daughters’ recent troubles with the law, he doesn’t want to hear it and angrily flees. As the sun goes down, a shivering Ned at last staggers up a rocky hill, shoves open a rusted gate and walks through an overgrown garden with an unkempt tennis court. A thunderstorm begins as Ned knocks on the front door of a locked, dark and thoroughly empty house, whereupon he breaks down on the front stoop and weeps.”

Based on a short story by John Cheever, this deeply affecting film was shot in and around Westport, Connecticut, in the summer of 1966 when star Burt Lancaster was 52, and features Cheever in a bit part as one of Ned’s “neighbors” roughly halfway through the film. It’s an uneven film, but ultimately tells more about the truth behind the surface of East Coast suburbia that nearly any other work of its kind.

The Swimmer is also something of a patch job, since director Frank Perry departed near the end of filming, and Burt Lancaster even plowed some of his own money into the film to finish it, but despite its somewhat compromised origins, the film is deeply affecting, and more than a little unsettling. Indeed, the film’s ending is so downbeat and enigmatic that Columbia Pictures, the film’s distributor, didn’t know how to handle the film, and shelved it until May 15, 1968, when the film finally went into general release.

After Frank Perry’s departure, the film was finished by the late, and deeply talented Sydney Pollack, though the film is signed by Perry alone, and Perry’s wife, Eleanor, scripted the film from Cheever’s story. Shot in the blazing summer, the film’s visuals are dominated by the green of well manicured lawns shaded by huge trees, conveying both the affluence and indolence of its characters. 

The final scene, in which Lancaster, at the gate of his empty house, breaks down weeping, is almost unbearably poignant, as he contemplates the ruins of his home, his family, and his life. As the film’s tagline asked, “when you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?” More than just about any other film, The Swimmer captures the essential emptiness of the American Dream; the house, the family, the facade that all too easily crumbles.

It’s deeply affecting and committed filmmaking, and remained Lancaster’s personal favorite of all his films. As his character, Ned, observes rhetorically near the conclusion of The Swimmer, “nothing’s turned out – nothing’s turned out the way – I thought it would. When I was a kid, I – I used to believe in things. People seemed happier when I was a kid. People used to love each other. What happened?” Life happened, with all of its unexpected twists and turns. And some get crushed by it, like Ned Merrill.

Here’s the text of Cheever’s original, horrific ending, which the film superbly – and faithfully – translates to the screen: “The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands. Going toward the house, he saw that the force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.”

This is a disturbing, enigmatic film – and essential viewing.

The Ghosts of Hollywood

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Here’s a sad, sweet little film shot in the early 1930s about the collapse of backlot Hollywood from the silent era — more than a little nostalgic, but an interesting glimpse into a world that existed before CGI, when one actually had to build a set in order to get the image on screen.

Click here, or on the image above to see the entire, ten minute film.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Maysles Brothers’ Salesman

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.


Salesman (1968) is one of the pioneering works of American documentary filmmaking, created by Albert and David Maysles, with Charlotte Zwerin serving as the editor who co-created the film in the cutting room. The Maysles brothers were some of the first filmmakers to use hand held sync-sound 16mm filmmaking equipment; indeed, they helped to create the equipment, along with other filmmakers, to document the world around them in a more immediate style than contemporary technology would then allow.

The structure of the film is simple; Salesman follows four door-to-door salesmen for a New England Bible company. We are introduced to them, one by one, in the beginning moments of the film, and then follow them on their rounds as they try to sell ornate Bibles to relatively poor people who clearly can’t afford the then-steep $50 price tag for each volume.

Joking, cajoling, shaming and wheedling their customers into purchasing the Bibles, sometimes on a monthly payment plan, the salesmen start their work in Boston, then move to Chicago, and finally to Miami, in search of new customers, and virgin territory.

When Salesman was made, The Maysles brothers were the “go-to” men for documentary filmmaking assignments, often at short notice; such earlier works as Showman (1963), documenting a day in the life of film producer Joseph E. Levine, and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), focusing on the Beatles’ first visit to America, in addition to filmic portraits Meet Marlon Brando and A Visit with Truman Capote (both 1966), consolidated their reputations as the key documentarians of the pop culture of their era. Salesman was their biggest commercial success up that point, and paved the way for Gimme Shelter (1970), which covered the disastrous concert by The Rolling Stones at Altamont, California.

Shot in gritty black and white, Salesman is at pains to show that what the four man do is brutal, unrelenting, and lonely, consisting of seemingly endless hours of driving, pitching to potential customers, nights spent in cheap motels (in one of the happier moments in the film, the four men are seen doing “cannonballs” in a hotel swimming pool to relieve their stress), and the constant pressure to sell, sell, sell.

Like their contemporary Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles’ documentary style strives to be as unobtrusive as possible, with no narration, minimal editing, shooting hundreds of hours of film to capture the essential moments that depict the tragically nomadic life of these men of the road.

The Maysles split the duties of filmmaking, co-producing and directing their films; Albert, however, emerged as the cinematographer of the duo, while David handled the sound. Working with primitive equipment that would only allow 400 ft. of 16mm film to be shot at one burst, or less than 12 minutes of running time, Salesman stands as a bleak, compelling time-capsule of a lost era that would, like the phenomenon of the door-to-door salesman, vanish into obsolescence with the advent of the new digital society.”

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Last Picture Show

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

The Last Picture Show

“Peter Bogdanovich began his filmmaking career as an actor, and a film critic of the auteurist school, conducting a lengthy series of interviews with the filmmakers who had defined classical 20th century cinema, such as Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller and Orson Welles. In his early years, he worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a film programmer, and also wrote film-related articles for the magazine Esquire.

Moving to Hollywood with his then wife Polly Platt, Bogdanovich drifted into “B” movie director Roger Corman’s circle, and soon was working for Corman on a variety of assignments, culminating in his writing, producing, directing, editing, and starring in Targets (1968), a landmark film about an aging horror star, Byron Orlok, who clashes with a young psychopathic sniper on a killing spree at a drive-in movie theater.

The film generated extraordinarily positive reviews, and Bogdanovich was launched as a director. His next film was Directed by John Ford (1971), a tribute to the legendary film director, with interviews from many members of the Ford “stock company” of actors, including John Wayne, Henry Ford, and James Stewart. But this was just a stepping-stone on the way to his next film, The Last Picture Show (1971), which Bogdanovich co-wrote with novelist Larry McMurtry.

Set in the fictional west Texas town of Anarene (actually Archer City, Texas, McMurtry’s home town) in 1951- 1952, The Last Picture Show is a coming of age film, a valentine to a vanishing era, an elegy for small-town life, and a showcase for the actors who bring the film to life, most notably Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, owner of the local movie theater, and Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the wife of a high school basketball coach.

In addition, the film has superb contributions from Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges (as two young men growing up in the desolate milieu of postwar society), Cybill Shepherd (in her film debut), as well as Eileen Brennan, Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, and Randy Quaid. Most of the action revolves around the town’s pool hall and theatre; as the title implies, when Sam the Lion dies, the theatre dies with him.

To effectively convey the despair and isolation of the world these characters inhabit, Bogdanovich made the sensible but resolutely uncommercial decision to shoot the film in black and white, and hired the gifted Robert Surtees to photograph the film. Scored almost entirely with contemporary pop songs of the era, The Last Picture Show comes across as an authentic, if resolutely downbeat, slice of Americana, and catapulted Bogdanovich into the “A” list of directors.

An immediate critical and commercial success, The Last Picture Show was honored with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, winning two awards for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson as Best Supporting Actors. Perhaps the definitive film about the loneliness of small-town American life, The Last Picture Show is emotionally searing and brutally honest, and thus endures as a classic American film.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital

“Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital (1970) is one of the most brutal exposés of the American health system ever made, and perhaps the most shocking thing is that since the film was made, matters haven’t improved much at all. Using his trademark “never apologize, never explain” hands off camera style, in which no narration is allowed to intrude on the image, and Wiseman essentially keeps filming and filming even when “nothing” seems to be happening, Hospital emerges as a ringing indictment of a system that is collapsing under its own weight, where the rich get measurably better care than the poor, and where a distant and uncaring bureaucracy controls the actions of everyone involved. The doctors and nurses try to attend the multitude of patients, but are seemingly overwhelmed; the incoming wave of supplicants never strops.

Never exhibited commercially in theatres, Hospital was originally commissioned by PBS, and won two Emmys, in addition to garnering a rave review from film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. Wiseman’s central sympathy here, as in most of his films, is with the poor, the disadvantaged, the ones who flock to the emergency room seeking help that sometimes never arrives.

Wiseman, born in 1930 in Boston, originally trained to be a lawyer, and initially pursed that career. Fascinated with the possibilities of cinema, however, Wiseman broke into film by producing director Shirley Clarke’s fiction film The Cool World (1963), covering the activities of teenage gangs in New York. Convinced that reality was more interesting than anything staged, Wiseman soon began making 16mm black and white documentaries, creating as his first film the groundbreaking film Titicut Follies (1967), which chronicled the crumbling infrastructure of a Massachusetts mental hospital with such unsparing ferocity that the film was soon barred from public screenings until a 1993 court order overturned the initial ban.

Similarly, Hospital is set in the operating room, emergency ward and outpatient clinics of New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. The hospital sees it all; victims of violence, drug overdoses, elderly patients at a loss to help themselves because of age or infirmity. Wiseman’s camera manages, in the midst of chaos, to become invisible simply by virtue of its omnipresence; and inasmuch as Wiseman functions as the producer, director and editor on all his films, the end result in Hospital is a deeply personal document of human suffering and redemption.

Wiseman typically shoots more than 100 hours of material for the documentaries he makes, and then discovers the rhythm of the material in the editing room. In some of his films, he favors fast cutting; but in most films, long takes predominate, in which the viewer is required to join in the work of “directing” the film, finding things out in a step-by-step fashion as an actual eyewitness observer would.

Wiseman wants us to experience the events he’s documenting without undue mediation, as any observant bystander would. With a list of more than forty films in his canon, Wiseman is perhaps the preeminent documentary filmmaker working today.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Harlan County USA

You can view the entire film by clicking here, or on the image above.

“In the landscape of the American documentary film, there are few films as a harrowing and heartbreaking as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976), which explores the effects and aftermath of a 1973 strike by coal miners against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky. Unlike many documentary films, which are shot over a matter of weeks or months, Kopple’s film took years to complete, during which time she covered the strike from every conceivable angle. She followed the miners in their daily lives, living with them and sharing in their struggle, and soon became a part of the strike itself; Harlan County, USA is thus a film in which the filmmaker shared in the struggle with the film’s protagonists, and the intensity of her involvement with the project is manifest in every frame of the film.

Born in Scarsdale, New York in 1946, Barbara Kopple attended Northeastern University, majoring in psychology, but soon became interested in film, and worked with the Maysles Brothers on some of their earlier projects to hone her skills. Like her contemporaries Frederick Wiseman and The Maysles Brothers, Kopple elected to simply shoot the film and see what happened, without adding narration to help to shape the flow of the narrative. Kopple filmed Harlan County, USA in an atmosphere of unrelenting violence; the company hires thugs to break up the union, and the union fights back in kind.

When a young miner is killed during a fight brought about by the strike, the company and the union are finally forced by the public outcry to the bargaining table. Kopple’s continual presence on the scene also played a factor; indeed, many of the miners after the fact credited Kopple with being a decisive factor in ending the strike. The film was released in 1976, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977. It was Kopple’s first feature length film as a director.

In the aftermath of the success of Harlan County, USA, Kopple went on to a variety of projects, but stayed true to her organizing roots with the 1990 film American Dream, documenting a similarly heart-rending strike at a Hormel meat packing plant in Minnesota in the late 1980s; as with Harlan County, USA, the film took many years to shoot, and when it was finally released in 1990, it, too, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991.

Kopple’s numerous other projects include Keeping On (1981), a dramatized account of a strike at a textile mill; Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues (1989), a documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the killings of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964; and in a lighter vein, the documentary Wild Man Blues (1998), which follows director Woody Allen and his Dixieland band on a tour of Europe, with remarkably revealing results. Eclectic, evolving, and continually searching for new subjects, Barbara Kopple keeps working in both the commercial and independent cinema, resolutely independent, answering only to herself.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

Kim Jong-il’s Movie Mania

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Kim Jong-Il on the set of one of his “masterworks” in 1979

Kim Jong-il is dead; good riddance! But perhaps you don’t know that the late despot also fancied himself a superb filmmaker and theoretician, as evidenced by his remarkably self-referential (but then, is that really any surprise?) text On the Art of the Cinema, which he wrote – ahem – in 1973. Among numerous other rambling digressions, the text admonishes the reader that “the cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature. The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction. Therefore, concentrating efforts on the cinema, making breakthroughs and following up success in all areas of art and literature is the basic principle that we must adhere to in revolutionizing art and literature.” Is this, perhaps, a tad repetitive?

As S.T. Vanairsdale notes in Movieline, “Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader who died Sunday at age 69, was a tyrant, a thug, a meddler, a menace, a fanatic, a spendthrift, a dilettante, and [was] responsible for some of the worst abuses witnessed by world civilization in the last half century. But enough about his movies.

The awfulness of Kim’s regime — its human-rights transgressions, its warmongering, its political ruthlessness — obviously cannot be overstated, and anyone who’s seen such bracing nonfiction fare as Yodok Stories (about DPRK concentration camp refugees who stage a musical about their lives), Kimjongilia (about surviving under the Dear Leader’s oppressive thumb) or The Red Chapel (about Kim’s sociocultural stranglehold on Pyongyang) knows full well about the nightmare that is life above the 38th Parallel.

And once you’ve got that out of the way, let’s reflect on that time when Kim — a notorious cinephile who had put an international assortment of filmmakers and other “cultural consultants” (read: political prisoners) to work as DPRK propagandists (several of whom wound up committing suicide) — kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife Choi Eun-hee. Their mission: Help Kim establish North Korea as a force in world cinema. They did exactly that with Pulgasari, quite possibly the worst monster movie in the history of a genre absolutely choked with awful films.”

You can view a clip from Pulgasari here, if you really think you need to.

All kidding aside, the man was a monster, and I’m glad to see him go; I hope that whatever happens next in North Korea is better than what Kim brought to his people, which was a regime of terror, enslavement, and perpetual surveillance. However, it seems that his son Kim Jong-un will succeed him, so we’ll probably get more of the same — too bad.

Don Sharp, Last of the Classic British Gothic Filmmakers

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Don Sharp, director of a series of lavish and tastefully brutal horror films for Hammer Productions in the 1960s, has died at the age of 89. No cause for grief here; Sharp had a long and varied career. He worked with such actors as Deborah Kerr, Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sutherland and Lee Remick on numerous projects, and was really a jack of all trades in the film business.

Still, as Dave Rattigan points out in the Gather website, “fans of Sharp’s era in British filmmaking, especially Hammer horror afficianados, will rue his passing as one more of the old school sadly dying off, leaving few stalwarts behind. Don Sharp belongs up there with names such as Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness), Freddie Francis (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) and Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit) as one of the legends of the British Gothic horror genre.” Fisher, Francis — a dear friend of mine — and Baker are all gone now; if you click on the links above, you’ll see clips from some of their Hammer films.

The poster above is from Kiss of the Vampire, one of Sharp’s most accomplished films; click here, or on the image above  to see a clip from the film itself, which was heavily censored upon its initial release, and still plays in cut form — in some cases — on television to this day.

Ten Contemporary Women Directors

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Here’s a list of ten contemporary women directors you should know about from Women’s Press by Judy Berman.

As she writes; “Kathryn Bigelow may have been the first female filmmaker to win a Best Director Oscar for 2009′s The Hurt Locker. But did you happen to notice that for the most recent Academy Awards, the nominees in the same category were all men — in a year when two movies directed by women, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, were up for Best Picture?

Gender inequalities exist throughout the arts, but they’re especially pronounced in the rarefied world of film directing. We all know a few big-name women filmmakers: Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Susan Seidelman, Catherine Hardwicke, Nora Ephron, Julie Taymor. In honor of International Women’s Day, we present ten great, contemporary female directors who you may not know but should definitely check out.”

And so you should, by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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