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John Huston’s Lost Film – In This Our Life (1942)

November 12th, 2014

In This Our Life is John Huston’s forgotten film — click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer.

. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.

But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.

Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.

As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.

In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”

With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.

But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.

In This Our Life deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated – it really is John Huston’s lost film.

Jean-Claude Carrière To Receive Honorary Oscar 11/8/14

November 8th, 2014

Jean-Claude Carrière will receive a much deserved, much overdue Academy Award for his work tonight.

As Kevin Noonan reported in Variety, “Jean-Claude Carrière will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Governors Awards Saturday, a feather in the cap of a nearly 60-year screenwriting career — but most certainly not an actual cap to it, he says. Known for his numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, including co-writing films such as Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Milky Way, the French screenwriter earned a reputation for crafting and adapting surreal, seemingly impossible projects. That reputation culminated in his work with English theater and film director Peter Brook to create a nine-hour stage version in 1985 and five-hour film adaptation in 1989 of the epic Sanskrit poem The Mahabharata. Already an Oscar winner for his 1962 short Heureux Anniversaire, Carrière [had these thoughts] his long career, working with Buñuel, and not knowing what an Oscar was.

As Carrière told Noonan, in part, “it’s a good encouragement for the thirty years to come. I’m 83, it’s something that I’m very happy to receive and proud, anybody would be. But I hope it will not announce the end of my working life, you know what I mean? That I keep working and writing. What I’m just doing right now, I’m in a hotel room and I’m writing a script [. . .] I’ve been gratified with good health, and since I was a kid, an intense desire for working. I’m a hard worker.

I’m very, very often alone in my room thinking, writing, correcting. I don’t know what it is. I love my job, maybe that’s the main reason. First of all, you need to have some success at one point. If not, you’ll be desperate and you’ll give up. From time to time, every three times you need a success, and then it gives you a real joy and you will enjoy working. Right now, what I’m doing alone a hotel room, far from my family, from my friends, I enjoy it very much. That’s all I can say. Enjoy working. And don’t smoke. You can drink a little bit, from time to time.

. . . A screenwriter is not a writer. He’s already a filmmaker. Of course, he better know how to write. But he’s not going to write a literary novel or piece of literature. What he must know at every moment when he writes a script, what I’m doing now, he must know how it’s going to be shot, how it will last, and maybe how it will cost. He mustn’t be attached to his words. He knows the script is the first form of a film, the first approach. And here in a hotel room, I have no camera, no lighting, no sound recorder, nothing. I’m just alone with my computer. And I have to know precisely the techniques of the filmmaking.

When I’m working with the director, if the director starts talking to me about technique and I cannot answer, he doesn’t need me. That’s why I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been working with the camera … and also I have done a lot of editing. That’s absolutely essential for a screenwriting. You mustn’t approach the film itself as a playwright or a novelist, but as a filmmaker. And I’m very happy about this Oscar, already almost five or six of my screenwriter colleagues, they called me to say how happy and proud that for once a screenwriter is awarded.”

You can read Noonan’s entire interview with Jean-Claude Carrière by clicking here, or on the image above.

Larry Teng Directs Hawaii Five-0

November 8th, 2014

The reboot of Hawaii Five-O, which just aired its 100th episode, is superb action television.

I don’t watch that much TV, so I came late to this show, but even if my favorite directors are people like Manoel de Oliveira and Eric Rohmer, one simply has to admire the skill of people like Larry Teng, a young director who works in episodic television on such shows as Medium, Elementary, NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-O, and has done a great deal to bring diversity to the director’s chair on television. Teng’s brilliance as an action director is simply stunning – fight scenes, car chases, shootouts – this is work much like that done by the gifted William Witney for Republic in the 1940s, and he’s obviously primed to make the jump to features.

Watching the show, and having been on as many sets as I have, it’s stunning that the cast and crew knock out each of these episodes in eight days flat – but as Teng told Cheryl Hollar,

“in Hawaii Five-O (on such episodes as ‘Ua Hopu,’ ‘Mai Ka Wa Kahiko,’ ‘Ka Hakaka Maika’i,’ ‘Ma Ke Kahakai’), there’s a visual grandeur built into the show. There’s a little more mission. It’s a different kind of storytelling specific to the need. You have to have the full cooperation of the island when you’re shooting. It’s one of the bigger budget shows out there. And it really shoots itself. It’s a beautiful location. That’s one reason we are able to do the big scope movie stuff that we do.

Anytime you work on a show as ambitious as Hawaii Five-O, you still try to do the show in eight days. You have to understand where you want to spend your time on a show like that. You have to have enough daylight to shoot a lot of different scenes. You’re always chasing the sun. And, there’s also the potential for breakdown of equipment that’s not always readily accessible to you as it would be in a production center like L.A.

Hawaii Five-O’s ‘Ua Hopu’ (2012) felt like a mini movie to do. It was an all-day shoot in the jungle. We had two and a half hours to do it. Alex O’Loughlin [one of the leads in the series] and Mark Dacascos [playing the villainous Wo Fat] only had about an hour that Sunday to really choreograph, which is like no time at all.

Normally, you have like a full day. So, coming on set, we narrowed about four hours work down to two and a half. Alex and Mark only had one hour rehearsal time. That is normally a full day as well. It was also the last scene of the day. So, the closer it got to quitting time, we started to lose a little bit of light.

Also, with something like that, you don’t want to harm your actors. So, you want to make sure it’s safe. You break down the fight scene into movements, like four separate sections.” In short, it’s hard work, which most people forget when they’re just sitting watching the tube.

Watch an episode, to see what cutting edge action direction is like today; really impressive.

Mom

November 7th, 2014

Mom is a television sitcom that steps outside the usual box.

Mom, a half hour sitcom which debuted in 2013, stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, and was created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker. Chuck Lorre is the current “king” of half hour TV sitcoms, with a whole string of credits under his belt, starting with writing duties on Roseanne, and the moving on to create or co-create Grace Under FireCybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly, but Mom is probably the best thing he’s ever done. Anna Faris has been knocking around in medium budget “spoof” feature film comedies for nearly a decade now, wasted for the most part in the Scary Movie franchise and other similar projects, where she really couldn’t show the true range. Allison Janney is also a superb actor, who has also been working of late in an excellent supporting role on the cable series Masters of Sex.

The series itself often steps outside the usual TV comfort zone to deal with such issues as homelessness, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, teen pregnancy, the realities of living paycheck to paycheck in an unforgiving world, and manages to mix real social observations with some pretty funny punch lines, which both Janney and Faris deliver with expert aplomb. Don’t get me wrong; there’s always a happy ending around the corner, even when the extended family is evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and is forced to move into a sleazy motel rather than sleep in their car.

But the show clearly passes the “means test” – the characters don’t live in palatial mansions on their minimum wage jobs, as happens in many TV sitcoms. Faris’ character works as a waitress; her mother, played by Janney, has a distinctly sketchy past; they don’t always get along, and all the plot lines don’t neatly wrap up with each half hour (of 22 minutes, if you want to deduct time for the commercials). In between the laughs, there are some hard truths on display here. Despite the fact that Mom’s primary mission is to entertain, there’s some really good acting from the ensemble cast, sharply funny dialogue, and genuine insight – imagine! – in this show, which has just been renewed for a second season. The series is picking up viewers, and is just starting a second season. You could do worse than to watch an episode.

Mom is a welcome respite from most of the junk you’ll find on TV; check it out.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

The Search for Legendary Los Angeles P.I. Samuel Marlowe

November 1st, 2014

Daniel Miller of the Los Angeles Times has an amazing story: the saga of the first African-American Hollywood private eye, Samuel Marlowe.

As Daniel Miller wrote tn the Los Angeles Times today,I spent more than a year reporting the story of Samuel Marlowe, the man who may have been Los Angeles’ first licensed black private detective. Family members and a dogged screenwriter believe he also knew noir writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and corresponded with them regularly. If Marlowe’s connection to the authors could be verified, he’d belong in history books. But like so many characters out of L.A. noir, he remains cloaked in mystery, his exploits partly unverifiable.

To get the story, I interviewed dozens of people — from Marlowe’s great-grandsons to scholars of Chandler and Hammett. I combed archives and canvassed South L.A. properties. Along the way, screenwriter Louise Ransil, who has penned a script about Marlowe, provided her own insight into the PI’s life. Ransil said that after Marlowe died, his son gave her access to the private detective’s files — but they have since gone missing. In a conversation about the reporting of the story, Ransil shared her thoughts on the private eye who called himself the ‘Answer Man,’ and the hunt to find his lost letters.

You can read the rest of this fascinating story by clicking here; to see a video, click on the image above.

New Article – “Turn It Off!” – Sound and Silence in 1960s British Gothic Cinema

October 31st, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International, on the use of silence in 1960s British horror films.

As I write, “it’s Halloween once again, and as one might suspect, American cable networks are offering a cornucopia of horror films, past and present, though the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s which started the entire horror cycle in America are now missing from most playlists. Val Lewton’s superb RKO gothics got better treatment from Turner Classic Movies, which ran a whole stack of them this year, and the British films produced by Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s were also well represented on the channel, albeit run at two and three in the morning, not exactly peak viewing hours.

The Hammer films, once ‘X’-rated in Britain upon their initial release, now seem like quaint fairy tales, which is what Hammer director Terence Fisher always claimed they were – ‘fairy tales for adults.’ These are films I know well, have seen many times, and have written about on numerous occasions. I no longer watch them all the way through; instead, I dip into them, keying in on certain scenes that I admire, and then switching to another film with much the same purpose in mind.

But as I sampled one Hammer and/or Amicus film in this fashion in the past few days, something hit me more forcefully than it ever has before in this particular subset of films – the use of silence, and a lack of dialogue, is a trait that nearly all of these films share. The most effective of these films operate through the power of the image alone, in concert with the movements of the actors, and the music of Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard, the two most accomplished composers who worked on the Hammer and Amicus films.”

You can read the entire essay here – Happy Halloween!

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

October 29th, 2014

And while I’m in a Welles mood, what about his true lost masterpiece, the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons?

While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.

By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.

To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.

I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.

If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.

We may never see the complete Ambersons, but what remains is still one of the masterworks of the cinema.

Orson Welles’ Last Film to Finally Surface?

October 29th, 2014

Orson Welles (far right) filming Oja Kodar in The Other Side of the Wind with cameraman Gary Graver and Frank Marshall, holding camera slate.

As Dave McNary reports in Variety, “Orson Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, may be heading for a theatrical release next year. The New York Times has reported that Royal Road Entertainment has reached an agreement to buy the rights to The Other Side of the Wind with the aim of showing the film by May 6 — the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth. The report said Royal Road is planning to promote the distribution at the American Film Market next week.

Welles shot the film-within-a-film between 1970 and 1976 and then worked on it until his death in 1985, leaving behind a 45-minute work print that he had smuggled out of France. John Huston starred as a temperamental film director battling with Hollywood executives to finish a movie –much like Welles did throughout his career. Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich played supporting roles.

To obtain the rights, Royal Road has negotiated agreements with Welles’s collaborator, Oja Kodar; his daughter and sole heir, Beatrice Welles; and Iranian-French production company, L’Astrophore. Welles had financed through a combination of TV roles and investors, including Mehdi Bushehri, brother-in-law of the shah of Iran and an investor in L’Astrophore. As a result of clashing with Welles, Bushehri took control of more than 1,000 negative reels, which have been stored in a Paris warehouse.

Since Welles’ death, a multitude of efforts have been made to sort out the legal issues in order to complete. Two years ago, veteran producer Frank Marshall, who was a line producer on The Other Side of the Wind, joined with Royal Road’s Filip Jan Rymsza to approach Beatrice Welles and Oja Kodar. Beatrice Welles, who manages the Welles estate, told The Times that the 2012 visit was key to starting the process of getting the film finished.

Marshall and Bogdanovich will assemble the film. ‘We have notes from Orson Welles,’ Marshall told The Times. ‘We have scenes that weren’t quite finished, and we need to add music. We will get it done. The good news is that it won’t take so long because of all of the technology today.’”

We’ll have to see how this plays out; could be very interesting.

Another Amazing Film Archive Looking For A Home

October 28th, 2014

D.A. Pennebaker is looking for a home for his vast archive of films documenting the 1960s.

As Cara Buckley reports in The New York Times, “‘Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine,’ and a young Bob Dylan, lean of body and scruffy of hair, flips cue cards along to his lyrics as the poet Allen Ginsberg stands off to the side, chatting. This landmark video, for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ opened the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, which became a rock doc classic and also earned the man behind the camera, D. A. Pennebaker, a place in film history.

In the near half-century since, Mr. Pennebaker — the D. A. is for Donn Alan, but he goes by Penny — has made some four dozen documentaries (the vast bulk with Chris Hegedus, his wife and collaborator), inspired the likes of Michael Moore and won an honorary Academy Award. Still actively making films, the couple will receive a lifetime achievement award at DOC NYC next month.

Now Mr. Pennebaker, 89, and Ms. Hegedus, 62, are looking for a new home for their ever-expanding trove: vintage camera equipment, hundreds of file folders and boxes and crates filled with outtakes, correspondence and many, many reels of 16-millimeter films, all of it housed either in their Upper West Side townhouse or an underground, James Bond-like cold-storage warehouse called Iron Mountain, in upstate New York. Among the films made between them: Monterey Pop, Elaine Stritch at Liberty and Depeche Mode 101, which made lasting friends out of Mr. Pennebaker and the boys in that band.

The couple want to keep all of the archive in one spot and, crucially, the footage preserved and intact. Many of the reels include outtakes of noted figures that have never been seen: a strikingly young Richard Avedon at an art show, Janis Joplin wailing at a recording session, Jimi Hendrix playing mournful guitar after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Truman Capote working on an unreleased film about death row. ‘You kind of save it all, because you just never know what there is,’ Ms. Hegedus said. ‘You have something that’s deteriorating that’s part of artistic history.’”

More proof that film needs preservation – it’s part of our shared cultural heritage.

About the Author

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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