Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

“If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure.”

• The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how.

• The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why.

• The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.

… Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

I find the clarity of Sarris’s three- director comparison neither without controversy nor typical of his writing. But it is very representative of the way he looks at film, film history and the center of his focus: the director.

The American Cinema came into my life in the 1960s as it did to many of my generation. And Andrew Sarris’s film counsel has to this day remained a constant in my life. Finding representative scenes to support Sarris’s claim for Hawks and for Walsh posed little difficulty. Not so with Ford. The second part of Sarris’s premise: “… even if he doesn’t know how” eliminates many choices.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

Titanic: April 15, 1912

The following entry appeared in a slightly revised format on April 15 and 16, 2010.


The big ship ran across an ice field shortly before midnight. Within three hours, one of the great dramas of the twentieth century unfolded. In a disputed section of ocean, the ice prevailed, the ocean abided, and the sepulchres went unmarked.

Titanic was theatre, in real time, in three acts. The time it took to sink approximated that which it takes to perform a play. Ice, then heroism and cowardice, acceptance and denial shared the decks. Death took no holiday, heeded no class. The rich drowned among the poor. Mrs. Straus chose to stay, and from such drama sprang the literature, from the literature -- the legend. And Lady Marjorie later went into the Atlantic as did Noel Coward's newly wed Marryots.

It is said that an era died on that cold night a scant two years before the lamps went out and the east wind blew. The Edwardians are gone, but the world long remembers a maiden voyage, a wicked ocean, and the night Titanic slipped into the sea.

Note: About thirty years ago, I wrote the above as an introduction to the Titanic section in an antiquarian book catalogue for Gravesend Books.

I first crossed the North Atlantic on a troopship in 1958. And then I crossed westbound in January 1960. My wife and I traversed it numerous times since, during the next half century. And each time, on each trip, when we pass reasonably close to those unmarked sepulchres, one can almost hear again that simple piece of music which some called Autumn. For when at sea, one cannot help but hear the sounds of yesteryear, listen to the voices of those who have crossed before, and to think of the ships now gone to that neverland into which mystical ships pass.

The waters of reverie do not come with proper charts. I was a child of the Great Depression and in those days our parents discussed Titanic in general conversation, spoke of the Morro Castle, and my father, being a New Yorker, talked often about the General Slocum. So peril at sea and on other waterways was part of our world. (As our uncles learned, in the 1940s while travelling in khaki aboard the great Queens.)

I later learned about Titanic in the relatively dry surroundings of Bronx movie houses. The first I remember was the Negulesco / Stanwyck film (with the great Thelma Ritter) and some others which used a Titanic-like motif (e.g., History is Made at Night). A few years later came the Walter Lord book and its filmed manifestation: the excellent A Night to Remember. A spate of books (and television versions) carried us through the next decades until 1995 when Titanic surfaced on Broadway in a very good musical: Titanic.

The public memory of the play has been somewhat swamped by the later film spectacle of 1997, on which I shall refrain from comment. Like the controversial Captain Lord of the Californian, I will ignore the rockets glare from that aberration and return to my reverie.

Titanic (the musical) played at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway from April 1997 through March 1999. It ran through 804 performances. I saw it first alone and then, a second time, with my wife. We were both quite moved by it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ten Random Thoughts on the Tenth: April

--- After watching Frankenstein last week, I still cannot rid myself of an image I have long had of an assistant director on the back lot shouting at the extras to turn in their instruments and pick up their torches.

--- It is likely that Paul Douglas’s underlying vulnerability makes me invariably enjoy his screen persona, whereas the more blustery style of Broderick Crawford wears thin.

--- I suspect Joseph Cotten has been in more great films than almost any other featured player.

--- I am tired of seeing and hearing the over-anthologized grapefruit scene in Public Enemy -- Mae Clarke deserves better.

--- I am not sure if I was ever taken with Wuthering Heights, but in recent years if it shows up on the same day as Cobra Woman, I’ll opt for Montez.

-- I think it was on Turner Classic Movies that I heard the following: Cagney performances were never real but always true.

--- I revisited Antonioni’s Il Grido on Netflix Instant last week, after last seeing it a half century ago, and enjoyed it immensely.

--- I like Mamet-speak.

--- I have a friend in Gravesend (Kent) who has an excellent collection of Laurel and Hardy materials but is also a Luddite -- he attends no cinemas, has no personal computer, no television, no DVD or VCR player.

--- In 2004, I was on a French tour of Normandy D-Day sites where the French guide likely used the term “liberators” a few hundred times -- while I heard the following three words only once: American, British, Canadian -- each in connection with a cemetery.

Note: “Random thoughts” pieces bring to mind the great Jimmy Cannon, whose “Nobody Asked Me, But” set the form. Any similarity stops there.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Off the Lot 5: Closing a circle

William J. Stewart, Jr. Born March 12, 1928. A reflection.

He was a marine at the end of World War Two. He did not fight as a Marine but sure could fight when he was living with our family. He was my older brother and afraid of no one. Bill, or Billy, made a hard life for himself and for others. He died an alcoholic at thirty-seven. My brother left home early first to join the Marines, and later to marry -- probably to get away from the rest of us.

Billy married a very decent, somewhat older woman with whom he had two children. He later abandoned all three and had two children with another woman who could have been played on film by an aging worn-out Mary Astor. Continuing his downward spiral, he kept his job working for the railroad, but did two other jobs to keep the alcohol coming: tending bar and as driver on small time grocery store stickups. He drank double Vodkas with a Vodka highball chaser every round I ever drank with him, which was relatively often.

Billy ended up in Bellevue Hospital, in the “drunk section” very similar to that shown in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. My brother died there while experiencing Delirium tremens. It was different from Wilder’s vision but equally depressing to watch.

When he and I were still at home, and throughout his life, he was a voracious reader. The source of most of his books was the mass market paperback. His reading life likely started when that publishing phenomenon was in its infancy.

Billy was raised during the Great Depression in a lower middle, working class background. And like many young from those ranks almost always had a paperback tucked in a pocket somewhere. He left these books all around the apartment where we lived and I was drawn to them. I started to read them but made little distinction between W.R. Burnett, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. There was also a good sampling of books related to the American Revolution -- always Howard Fast and Kenneth Roberts.

My brother was not much interested in movies, so my interest in that all-encompassing world came not from him. But my passion for books did: from his love of reading, his need for the companionship of books, and his joy in what he had learned.

So at least one good legacy can be found among the cinders of a life long gone – that of a person who could have been so much more.