I have a new video out today in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which I wrote and appear in, on the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. About the Blacklist, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of its most celebrated personages, had this to say in 1970, when the Blacklist had begun to wane: “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. When you who are in your 40s or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”
Archive for August, 2012
The scene above is from Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy of wretched excess, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, about which I have this to say: “Back in America, producer/director Stanley Kramer was readying a much more ambitious project, perhaps the most overwhelmingly brutal comedy ever made: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). With a cast featuring literally every living comedian in either a leading, cameo, or supporting role, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and everyone else in between, the film, budgeted at a then-colossal $9.4 million, was of such epic proportion that when released at 192 minutes (in two parts, with a 15 minute intermission), after preview screenings of 210 minutes, it was one of the most spectacular films of the year, regardless of genre.
But what is most striking about the film, in the end, is not its epic dimension or scope (the film was shot in ‘Ultra Panavision,’ then touted as the new seamless form of Cinerama, a popular 1950s three camera, three projector process that produced an illusion of depth), but rather the film’s view of life, which is acerbic in the extreme. The premise of the film is slim; an aging gangster, ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Durante), runs off the highway in his car, and with his dying words, tells a group of ‘good Samaritans’ who have stopped to help him that there is $350,000 in stolen loot stashed under a ‘big W’ in the fictional Santa Rosita State Park in California, and the money is theirs, if they can find it. With that, Grogan dies, literally ‘kicking a bucket’ down the culvert as he does so. Almost immediately, the passersby begin fighting amongst themselves for the money, and soon each one is trying to stop the others from leaving the park, and finding the $350,000. The film then becomes a literally mind-numbing orgy of violence and destruction, as gas stations, cars, planes, and anything else in sight is destroyed with ritualistic, almost sadistic fetishism.
The members of the group are shadowed in their quest by Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, in one of his last roles), the Chief of Detection of the Santa Rosita Police Department, but in the end, he, too, succumbs to the temptation of ‘Smiler’s’ loot, and tries to abscond with the entire fortune, tricking the others into thinking he will turn it in to his superiors at police headquarters. When the group discovers they’ve been tricked, they give chase, and in the end all wind up in the hospital as a result of injuries sustained in their pursuit, including Captain Culpepper. All their efforts have availed them nothing, and in the bargain, all face lengthy hospital stays while they recuperate. The film has developed a cult following other the years, and certainly, in terms of excess, violence, and spectacle, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of the most expensive and epic “dark” comedies ever produced.
Yet the majority of humor in the film derives from outright cruelty – Ethel Merman perpetually screaming at her on-screen husband, Milton Berle, or anyone else in her line of fire; Phil Silvers offering a lift to the stranded Jonathan Winters, who is puffing along in the desert on a child’s bicycle; when Winters throws the bike away, Silvers speeds off, leaving him in the dust; Sid Caesar and Edie Adams locked in a basement full of exploding fireworks – and as many critics remarked at the time, the sheer wastage of the film is appalling. All that motivates the film’s central characters is greed, anger, lust and avarice. As a compelling vision of the dark side of the American dream, the film certainly succeeds. But when viewing the film, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was conscious, and how much simply a byproduct of the movie’s brutal trajectory.
Lured on by the ‘promise’ of instant wealth, the protagonists of Kramer’s film are locked into a headlong race to their own destruction, and they lay waste to everything they touch in the process. The film remains controversial to this day for its sheer overkill; how many more car crashes can the mind absorb? How many more shouting matches? How much more destruction? There seems to be no answer forthcoming in the film, which ends with Ethel Merman’s character slipping on a banana peel in the hospital ward where all of her co-stars are convalescing. At this, everyone starts laughing hysterically. Humiliation, pain, violence, cruelty; is this really the stuff of comedy? Yet the colossal perversity of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains a monument to over indulgence; ‘give me more, more, more,’ the film seems to say – which is just what its protagonists want, as well.”
The site has been around since 1999, and contains text, audio clips, video clips, and other Cold War ephemera, and is a truly one-stop source for anyone interested in what was like to live in America in the dawn of the Atomic Era. As the site’s editors put it, “CONELRAD is the creation of writers who grew up in the shadow of the bomb and all its attendant pop culture fallout. We wish to share our collected interest, experience and obsession with this strange era and thereby provide as much information as possible to the public. This is not to say we’re living in the past! The Day After Trinity is now and forever more and we will reflect that reality here. From apocalyptic dirty bomb scenarios to the Russians and Chinese reigniting the space race, CONELRAD is always on the Eve of Destruction. Watch our Alert ticker on the top of our main page to stay informed of the latest CONELRAD activity. In addition to our own writing on all things atomic, we aim to provide a comprehensive clearinghouse of atomic links. There is a lot of material out there and we will continue to update this section frequently. Furthermore, we extend an open invitation to those of you out there who share our passion for Atomania to send us your suggestions and submissions.”
While the main site for the Archive of American Television is here, I have linked to the interview site as the first stop for viewers, since it offers something like 700 interviews with actors, writers, directors, producers and others who created television programming — the good, the bad, and the indifferent — from the first 75 years or so of television history. It’s an invaluable resource for those who are interested in researching the medium, and highly recommended.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.
As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.
At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.
The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”
“It’s not a likable movie. Even me, myself, I hate the film.” (Pascal Laugier)
Pascal Laugier’s radically experimental horror film Martyrs (2008) is a persuasive and explosive leveling of capitalism, which is not limited to materialism, the Catholic Church, the cynical genre of torture porn, and the widespread embrace of anti-humanist postmodern irony. Martyrs joins the work of Pasolini, Bava, Bataille and other confrontational artists, including Luis Buñuel. Specifically, Martyrs recalls the eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. It directly assaults viewers with both detestable visuals and agonizing sounds of pain, in an almost unbearable filmic experience of terror that rouses the even the most cynical viewer from her/his postmodern stance of superiority. Martyrs makes the viewer responsible for the reinforcement of institutionalized capitalism, particularly religion, and more specifically religion’s obsessive embrace of death, its insistence on afterlife, its abuse of women, and its concomitant obsession with martyrdom. It is also a critique of the consumer of the horror film and an astounding film in and of itself.”
The character of Cosmo Topper, a button down banker haunted by the ghosts of George and Marian Kerby, was originally created by novelist Thorne Smith in the late 1920s, and served as the springboard for several indifferent films, but found its most lasting fame as a television series that lasted from 1953 to 1955, racking up a total of 78 episodes, which were played and replayed in syndication forever after.
In the television series, Topper was played by veteran actor Leo G. Carroll, whose eternally befuddled character was the perfect foil for the ghostly Kerbys, played by real life husband and wife team Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling. Lee Patrick, who had been knocking around in movies in bit parts — she was Sam Spade’s secretary in The Maltese Falcon, for example — was superb in role of Henrietta, Topper’s somewhat scatterbrained spouse.
The plots usually revolved around the fact that only Topper, and the audience, could see the Kerbys, who had perished in an avalanche while on a skiing vacation. For everyone else, things seemed to float around the house of their own accord, unexplained noises would erupt, and the Kerbys in general delighted in putting Topper in uncomfortable situations, all in an effort to loosen him up.
Further, the Kerbys had an alcoholic pet St. Bernard, Neil, who spent most of his time lapping up one martini after another, while Cosmo’s Boss, the exquisitely corrupt Mr. Schuyler (magnificently played by veteran heavy Thurston Hall), president of the bank where Topper works, keeps testing Topper’s patience with a variety of schemes and threats designed to make his life at the office miserable.
With the aid of the Kerbys, however, Cosmo Topper triumphs over the mendacity and mediocrity of 1950s American suburban life, and the series, which long ago passed into the Public Domain, and is available on DVD from Alpha Video, is well worth seeking out – it’s a real gem. Leo G. Carroll’s droll timing is a wonder to behold, and Sterling and Jeffries, very much in love, have a ball with their roles. Everyone on the series had to work very quickly, but they make it seem so effortless that it’s a real delight to watch.
Scripts were handled by a variety of writers, including a young Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer; directors included Leslie Goodwins, Leslie H. Martinson — who later worked on the Batman TV series — and Lew Landers, and all the episodes were shot in two days or less, including time for Bewitched-style special effects, at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif.
The End of Summer (1961) is Yasujiro Ozu’s second to last film.
Here are some thoughts on the film from a brilliant essay by Michael Koresky, which accompanies the Criterion DVD of The End of Summer: “to develop the script for what would be his penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961), Yasujiro Ozu and coscreenwriter Kogo Noda retreated to the warm climes of Tateshina, in Nagano. Between February and April of 1961, according to Ozu, the two men enjoyed lovely spring weather every day and, with no guests to call on them, were able to get drunk and boisterous whenever they wanted to, which was often. This rowdy, carefree attitude seems to have informed the end result: like Late Autumn (1960), which depicted its three middle-aged male characters as older versions of the playful schoolboys of his earlier films, The End of Summer again paints the father figure as regressing to a youthful state—much to the chagrin of his three daughters.
Yet here, the disappearing patriarch represents something even grander: the decline of a traditional way of life for a family. While attempting to find a suitable husband for the youngest of its three daughters, Noriko, as well as, tangentially, for her widowed sister, Akiko, the Kohayagawa clan is also struggling to run its faltering sake brewing company, which has survived generations. (Akiko and Noriko are played by Setsuko Hara and Yoko Tsukasa, who had so movingly portrayed mother and daughter in Late Autumn.) The family faces hardships both emotional and financial when the impish father, Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura), begins to behave in an increasingly erratic way, taking off in the middle of the working day to reunite with his former mistress. When he becomes ill, the future of the business and the family unit is thrown into question, and the possibility of selling out to a larger corporate interest becomes an attractive prospect for the children.
It’s quite obvious, from its buoyant, almost romantic-comic, opening to its funereal ending, that The End of Summer is primarily concerned with the younger Kohayagawas—with what happens when the children take over from their parents, with the pain of letting go versus the possibility of moving on. There’s such a fine, elegantly drawn line between hope and sadness in The End of Summer, between the celebratory and the benedictory, that even as the film ends on disturbing images of smoke wafting from the top of a crematorium and crows perched ominously on gravestones, there remains the distinct sense of life drifting forward (“It’s the cycle of nature,” remarks a peasant woman, watching the ashes pour from the chimney stack).
The anecdote that supplied the main inspiration for the film also speaks of a balance between the comic and the painful—the true tale of an acquaintance of Ozu’s whose father suddenly rose from bed, hale and hearty, the morning after he had suffered a serious heart attack. Such a moment occurs in The End of Summer, although this instance of humorous resurrection remains tinged with the inevitability of death. Retrospectively, it seems a poignantly fitting attitude, both anxious and accepting, for a man who was coming to the close of his life.”
Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.
Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.
Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”
About the Author
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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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