Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Against Mahdist forces: January 26, 1885

General Charles George "Chinese" Gordon (1833-1885), who was killed at Khartoum whilst defending that city against Mahdist forces.

The Onslow Ford statue when it was at Khartoum.

They tell a tale in Gordon circles of a time when the Empire was drawing to a close and the sun setting in places it had not set before. And as British garrisons closed their gates, and Retreat sounded for the last time, British officers, troops, and their families headed back to the homeland. Khartoum in the late 1950s was such a place.

One of those military families had been at Khartoum in those waning days. Father was a Colonel, mother was “the Colonel’s lady” and there were two sons, aged eleven and eight. And since their early times at Khartoum, they had maintained a family ritual.

On evenings when the Colonel was not on duty, he would take his two sons to visit the famous Onslow Ford statue of Gordon on a camel. Father had initially instructed the children that each evening they should bid goodnight to the statue until the next evening or visit. And they should carry forward the tradition thereafter until such time as the Khartoum sun set for the last time prior to their leaving for home. Each evening, the boys would dutifully salute and say “Goodnight Gordon” before trudging back to their quarters.

So came the day. Came the last evening, came the final farewell, came that moment of sadness as “Goodnight Gordon” murmered the elder, and “Goodnight Gordon” whispered the younger. The Colonel beckoned and they turned to leave, but the boys were in tears, and the father was close to that condition, yet holding back. It was then that the youngest boy turned to the Colonel and asked quietly: “Father ………… who is that man on Gordon’s back?”

The Onslow Ford statue at Woking:

The Onslow Ford statue was originally near Trafalgar Square, later moved to Khartoum, and finally to Gordon’s School at Woking. At the statue is the late David Dixon -- a friend, a scholar, a good fellow, and one the finest men my wife and I have ever met.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

Raymond Massey on James Dean (and Jo Van Fleet)

Cover illustration from the book: East of Eden.

Raymond Massey comment from: Films of the Golden Age. Number 61. Summer 2010. Raymond Massey: The Transatlantic Actor. An interview by James Bawden.

Question by James Bawden: "How often do people ask you about Jimmy Dean?"

“Raymond Massey: In every interview! At every party! That movie [East of Eden] has a life of its own but Jimmy was dead by the time it went into release. Did he give a coherent performance? No! He was studying The Method which might have left him as mixed up as Monty Clift if he’d lived longer.

"The success of that film is due to director Elia Kazan. He’d add some bit of unrehearsed business to a take, to surprise Jimmy, and presto, we have our scene. Jimmy couldn’t do the same take twice because he had no training. He couldn’t match long shots with close ups -- that was still beyond him. There is a great performance buried in it – Jo Van Fleet as the mother, she's a force unto herself. In scenes with Jimmy, she just blows him away.

"In that scene where he rushed into the train car to toss down the lettuce, Jimmy went up and we just stood there for the longest time. Then Burl [Ives] turned to me and said, ‘Guess Jimmy’s got to hate that ice’.”

Films of the Golden Age is an illustrated, fan-based film quarterly magazine produced by one of the fold. Bob King, a very sincere and enthusiastic fellow, is the Editor. He includes a mix of articles that cover a balanced cross-sampling of stars and much lesser-known players. Pieces on the latter group are often quite lengthy and helpful when light is cast in shadowy corners not ordinarily probed.

Mr. King also includes letters, moviegoers’ memories of their past and a regular contribution on character actors. Rather a noble endeavor in an age when film blogs abound and many in the magazine/journal industry are hoping that Mr. Brink stays up in the old apple tree.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ten random thoughts on the tenth

--- She wasn’t always Walter Mitty’s mother.

--- I believe John Mills would have been the best General Gordon on film, but understand that a star of Heston's magnitude was necessary to carry the costs of Khartoum.

--- Having watched more than one hundred French films through Netflix last year I have developed a better appreciation of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

--- At Marylebone, near Baker Street, a half decade ago, a pleasant older man said to me that he thought the facial image of the Sherlock Holmes statue was odd looking -- and after pausing -- suggested that I resembled the statue.

--- In 1998, enjoying Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, and then listening to her post-film interviews, I was never more convinced of the legerdemain of screenwriters.

--- After watching Richard Chamberlain as Edmond Dantes again recently, my wife and I are certain that the Gerard Depardieu version of The Count of Monte Cristo is leagues ahead of all the others.

--- George Raft annoys me.

--- My knowledgeable film friends (and wife) despair when I tell them how much I admire Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract.

--- My wife and I stumbled across Ed Harris’s Appaloosa recently and were pleasantly surprised.

-- Henry Ford told us “If I had asked my [early]customers what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse'.”

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

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Film School: The Devon

It opened in 1928, I am told, but did not become part of my world, and later my history, until around 1940. It was on Tremont Avenue, a major east-west Bronx thoroughfare, just one half block from the Grand Concourse. The Devon Theatre was my first film school. We called it the Dee-von, not Devon (as in Evan). And it was neither picturesque nor palatial. It was a small 600 seat Art Deco movie house in the mid-Bronx, two blocks from where I lived. Perhaps I saw my first movie there, perhaps not. Try to remember.

But the Devon soon became my first film school. The curriculum did not start with Griffith, Eisenstein, or the Danes. It was a third run house -- the movies that came there reached its confines last -- usually tired prints accompanied by worn and folded one sheets, half sheets, and lobby cards.

Prints of these films had by then descended from the likes of Radio City, the Roxy, the Capitol, and lesser venues. When projected, they glistened less, perhaps, because of their meandering journeys. But, I suspect, as poor print quality took its toll on the images of those oversized studio performers -- I noticed little, or not at all.

The range of films was eclectic. And there was certainly a copious sampling of such as When the Daltons Rode, a rhythmic title that stays in mind, or similar western fare. It was a bit early for the deluge of war films but they were soon to come. And Maisie and Boston Blackie were in evidence. So the distribution cycle went from opulent to Poverty Row.

These were the first movies of what would become, as best as I can calculate, well more than ten thousand seen in a lifetime. In the Devon, I saw the forties films in the forties and the early fifties films in the early fifties. And some thirties films found their way into that broad two decade montage.

The faculty at my first film school, as best I recall, was six in number. Try to remember. There was a girl or a lady in a glass and metal box out front who dispensed tickets. A little man in a red jacket at the inner entrance took my ticket, tore it in half, returned a piece and placed the other half into a waist-high wooden box, behind which he stooped. At quiet moments, he sat on a small stool. There was a matron, with a flashlight, dressed as nurses used to dress, a projectionist (unseen) and a lady behind a candy counter. (Popcorn was a futuristic concept then and even in later years that would be upscale Bronx anyway.) I suppose there was a manager somewhere.

Course materials were a blank slate of mind, and remembrance of tales previously told by others of things seen in the dark – larger than life images cast upon a screen. The only qualification was young eyes waiting to see such illusion. There was no cafeteria or commissary. We ate on the premises: candy in little boxes most often, something with a lot of little pieces. Unmentionable things moved on the floor there, as they did at home, but I did not see them. My eyes were affixed on the screen as I sat behind the fourth wall.

By some strange confluence of events and coincidence, the photograph shows the Devon just about the time I was coming of age (for movies). It is almost certainly from 1940, when at six years of age I was likely first taken there. It was when I was about to be enrolled in my first film school. The photograph shows the structure as I recall it – abutted by a group of stores that I still remember well. I have in later years seen the films displayed on the marquee.

Like any good school, there was connectivity with other institutions of advanced learning and these had names like the Avalon, the Jerome, the Fox Crotona, the Loew’s Burnside and the Loew’s Paradise. And foreign languages were heard in the distance and later beckoned me to the Ascot and the Lido. But those were film schools for other days or later times -- tales of which might be told in some future posting. Try to remember.

An epilogue

The lower photograph was taken some twenty years and two wars later: Easter Sunday, 1960. The film school can be seen, apparently still operating. At that time, when the flight to the suburbs was already in full force, some students remained just a little while longer. Much of the Bronx eventually went into uncertainty, decay and ruin. The Devon, far less fortunate, became the location of two ordinary stores. Current Internet mapping sites indicate the stores are still there on a business street in a tired borough. I keep hoping they are false fronts.

Note: The photograph of the Devon Theatre is courtesy of Cinema Treasures.