Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review: Criss Cross, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo (1949)

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster in the opening scene of Criss Cross, 1949. Burt's jacket is really weird, it has a checkered pattern with black elbow patches and a black back. Did anyone really wear jackets like that in 1949?

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster clinch for the cameras in Criss Cross, 1949. Get away from her Burt, that dame's no good for you!
Burt Lancaster was a star from the very beginning of his movie career. He made his electrifying screen debut in The Killers in 1946. Although his acting technique improved over the years, his charisma was readily apparent from the moment he first stepped onto the screen.

Before Lancaster made The Killers, his entire professional acting experience consisted of a single appearance on Broadway in the play A Sound of Hunting, which ran for three weeks in November, 1945. That fact always blows me away. You’d never know from watching The Killers how little experience Lancaster had. Of course, he had been an acrobat for years in the 1930’s, but that’s very different from being an actor. Lancaster was older for an actor who was just starting out. He turned 32 in November, 1945, and he was 6 months older than Tyrone Power, who had been a major movie star for nearly a decade. But Lancaster quickly made up for lost time. In 1947 Lancaster formed his own production company and took charge of his film career. 

Lancaster was an extremely handsome man. He was tall, athletic, and had thick wind-swept brown hair and magnetic blue eyes. Lucy Kibbee, the wife of screenwriter Roland Kibbee, who would go on to work with Lancaster on several movies, said of her first glimpse of Lancaster at a Hollywood party: “I grabbed Kibbee and said, ‘My God, there’s a Greek god sitting over there!’ He was so gorgeous and tall and beautiful and had this great body, physically above everyone in the room.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p.83) 

Lancaster signed non-exclusive contracts with producers Hal Wallis and Mark Hellinger. Wallis wanted to change Lancaster’s name to Stuart Chase, but decided against it because there was a famous economist with the same name. Lancaster certainly didn’t look like he should have been called Stuart Chase. 

Criss Cross, from 1949, was Lancaster’s ninth movie, and in his filmography it followed the luridly titled Kiss the Blood off My Hands, which was the first movie that Lancaster’s production company made. Criss Cross had been a project of Mark Hellinger’s, and Lancaster was excited about working with Hellinger again. Hellinger had produced Lancaster’s first two movies, The Killers and Brute Force. When Hellinger died suddenly from a heart attack in December, 1947, Universal studios took over production of Criss Cross. Lancaster was not looking forward to making the film, as the script had changed a great deal since Hellinger had died. But Lancaster didn’t have much of a choice, as Universal told him he would be in breach of his contract if he didn’t make Criss Cross. 

On the set of Criss Cross, Lancaster was reunited with director Robert Siodmak, who had directed The Killers. The plot of Criss Cross was becoming very similar to The Killers as well, with Lancaster cast as the hapless film noir stooge who falls under the spell of a treacherous woman. The woman in Criss Cross was played by the stunningly beautiful Yvonne De Carlo. De Carlo had first met Lancaster at a casting conference in late 1946, and according to her autobiography, they began a short but passionate affair, which included an encounter where they made love in De Carlo’s backyard on her mink coat! (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall, p.57) 

Criss Cross opens with a tracking shot of Los Angeles from a helicopter, which eventually focuses in on a parking lot, where we met Steve Thompson (Lancaster) and Anna (De Carlo), caught in a passionate embrace. They are divorced, and she has married someone else, but they are passionately in love. Criss Cross then flashes back to Steve’s return to LA. He’s been traveling the country, trying to get Anna out of his system after their divorce. He thinks he’s been successful, but of course it hasn’t worked. When Lancaster goes to their old favorite club, look closely at the young, handsome guy with dark hair who Yvonne De Carlo is dancing with. It’s Tony Curtis, in one of his first film roles. Anna and Steve start dating again, even though all of their encounters seem to end with them getting into a fight. Anna also starts dating the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who she eventually marries. But when she runs into Steve again, they start an affair. Eventually Slim finds out about their affair, and Steve offers Slim a proposition: he will help Slim rob an armored truck. (Helpfully, Steve works for an armored truck company.) Of course, things go awry during the robbery, and it becomes clear that the plan was to double cross Steve. Steve gets shot, but he’s able to thwart the robbers from getting all of the money, and the newspapers hail him as a hero. As he recovers in the hospital, Steve is kidnapped by one of Dundee’s thugs. Steve bribes the thug to take him to Anna instead, who has all of the robbery money. Instead of being happy to see Steve, Anna lashes out at him, telling him he would only slow her down with his broken arm. Criss Cross ends bleakly, as Dundee shows up and shoots both Steve and Anna dead. 

Criss Cross is a good, gritty film noir, but for me it was too similar to The Killers to really be a classic. I think The Killers is just a better movie. But Criss Cross has all of the typical noir elements: interesting camera angles, a fatalistic and hapless protagonist, flashbacks, voiceover narration, a colorful supporting cast, and a cold-hearted femme fatale. 

Dan Duryea gives an excellent performance as Slim Dundee, the kind of slimy gangster that no one would want to run into. Stephen McNally is also very good as Pete Ramirez, a cop who tries to help Steve. Duryea and McNally both had interesting lives before they became actors. Duryea majored in English at Cornell University, and then entered the advertising business. When he suffered a heart attack in his late 20’s, he decided to pursue acting, which had always been his first love. Duryea had success on Broadway in The Little Foxes, and he reprised his role in the 1941 movie version. Duryea worked steadily in movies and television until his death in 1968. Stephen McNally had a successful career as an attorney before he quit in his late 20’s to become an actor. Like Duryea, McNally always found plenty of work in movie and on television. McNally retired from acting in 1980, and passed away in 1994.

After Criss Cross, Burt Lancaster would try harder to broaden his screen image, and he broke out of the tough guy mold with roles like the alcoholic Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. I’ve always admired how Lancaster tried to show his full range as an actor. Just when it looked like he might be typecast as a film noir actor, he made a swashbuckling film like 1950’s The Flame and the Arrow, which showed a different side of his talent, and demonstrated what a great acrobat he was. With his roles in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952, and From Here to Eternity in 1953, Lancaster was finally taken seriously as an excellent dramatic actor. Lancaster was never afraid to play against type, and in many films he downplayed his charisma and his athletic physique. Slowly but surely, one film at a time, Lancaster expanded his range, to the point where he may have been the most versatile leading man of his generation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Review: John O'Hara's Hollywood, short stories by John O'Hara (2007)

Cover of John O'Hara's Hollywood, 2007.

John O'Hara at work, circa 1960. He's looking you over to figure out which brand of shirt you're wearing and what that says about you.
John O’Hara was one of the most successful American authors of his generation. O’Hara rose to fame during the 1930’s through his short stories in The New Yorker, and from his first two novels, Appointment in Samarra, and BUtterfield 8. O’Hara spent varying amounts of time in Hollywood from 1934 and 1955 as a screenwriter, and his time in California informed the short stories in the 2007 collection John O’Hara’s Hollywood. The book collects all of O’Hara’s 22 stories about Hollywood and the movies. It’s an excellent collection for fans of O’Hara’s writing, but it’s not without its faults. 

Most of O’Hara’s early short stories from the 1930’s and 1940’s were very short, with many being under 1,000 words. O’Hara was a master at creating a mood in just a few words in these super short stories. O’Hara’s stories don’t really have endings that resolve the story; they just suddenly come to a halt. In this way, they capture the rhythm of real life. 

Personally, I found the early short stories in John O’Hara’s Hollywood to be the most interesting. I thought that some of his later stories from the 1960’s were just too long and lacked narrative drive. The longest stories in the book are “Yucca Knolls,” “James Francis and the Star,” and “Natica Jackson,” and those are the three stories I found most disposable. They range from 50-80 pages in length, and they’re overly reliant on dialogue. Not much happens in them, and it seems that the only reason they are so long is just because they could be. O’Hara also seems stuck in the past in these stories, as they re-hash the 1920’s and 1930’s, the decades which he was most comfortable writing about. 

The last piece in the book is one of the most fascinating; it’s a non-fiction piece titled “Hello Hollywood Goodbye,” that O’Hara wrote in 1968 for the magazine Holiday. Unfortunately, the introduction doesn’t mention it at all, so we don’t get much context for this piece. From what I know about O’Hara’s writings, it was fairly unusual for him to write an autobiographical non-fiction essay. 

John O’Hara’s Hollywood was edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, the leading scholar of John O’Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bruccoli’s introduction is excellent, but someone in the proof reading department was asleep at the wheel, as the introduction states that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote What Makes Sammy Run? and The Disenchanted, while Budd Schulberg wrote The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, when it’s actually the other way around. 

I noticed some interesting things as I read John O’Hara’s Hollywood, and one of them is that O’Hara really had a thing for fake movie titles with the word “strange” in them. In “The Magical Numbers” the fake biopic of President John Tyler is called Strange President. (p.22) Strange Courage is the movie the actor in “Adventure on the Set” has just finished. (p.27) Strange Virgin is the name of the movie that Kenyon Littlejohn is making a test for in “Drawing Room B,” (p.49), and it’s also the name of the movie, adapted from a novel, being made in “The Industry and the Professor.” (p.62) I wondered if all these fake movies with “strange” in the title was supposed to be an in-joke for movie fans. Were there a lot of movies with “strange” in the title being made in the 1930’s and 1940’s? 

O’Hara might be making some in-jokes as he re-uses some character names in different stories. “The Answer Depends” name checks Sidney Gainsborough, who appears in the first story in the book, “Mr. Sidney Gainsborough: Quality Pictures.” The fictional actress Doris Arlington is mentioned in “The Answer Depends,” “Yucca Knolls,” and “James Francis and the Star.” 

John O’Hara was a very interesting writer. He was clearly gifted with superb and sensitive abilities to capture the way people talked, thought, and felt, but yet in his personal life he had a knack for pissing off nearly everyone he met. Of course, he’s not the only great writer who also had a difficult personality. O’Hara had a keen sense of class and status in America, and he had a large inferiority complex about having never attended college. Ernest Hemingway supposedly once made the joke that he was collecting funds to send O’Hara to Yale. The sad part is, O’Hara might have taken Hemingway up on his offer. Obsessed with Yale life, O’Hara badgered the university to give him an honorary degree. Yale declined, because O’Hara was graceless enough to ask for the degree. O’Hara also made no secret of his desire to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, he never got it. 

O’Hara finally quit drinking in the mid 1950’s, and he became a much more prolific author, publishing 10 novels and 7 short story collections between 1955 and his death in 1970. He became a famous and wealthy author, and he gloried in the social signifiers that his status afforded him, as he drove a Rolls-Royce and an MG convertible with his monogram on the door.

O’Hara still holds the record for the most short stories published in The New Yorker, with an incredible 247! Along with those two other Johns, Cheever and Updike, O’Hara became synonymous with The New Yorker and the sophisticated short stories found between its covers. 

At his best, John O’Hara was a superb chronicler of American life and culture, and John O’Hara’s Hollywood presents some of his best work.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason (1952)

Movie poster for The Prisoner of Zenda, 1952. This was the fifth movie version of the classic tale.

Deborah Kerr as Princess Flavia and Stewart Granger as Rudolf Rassendyl, The Prisoner of Zenda, 1952.

Stewart Granger, looking handsome on the set. This photo was used when he appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1952.

Jane Greer and James Mason in The Prisoner of Zenda.

Fencing instructor Jean Heremans talks to James Mason and Stewart Granger during filming of the climactic sword fight.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda has become a classic adventure tale. The story has been filmed many times, and the 1952 remake starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason was the fifth version. I haven’t seen any of the other versions, so I can’t compare the 1952 version to them, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  James Mason is one of my favorite actors, so I’m always inclined to look favorably upon his films. 

The story of The Prisoner of Zenda is that an Englishman, Rudolf Rassendyl, (Granger) is on vacation in the fictional country of Ruritania when he discovers that he bears a striking resemblance to the soon to be crowned King Rudolf (also played by Granger). It turns out they are extremely distant cousins. When the King is incapacitated, but not killed, by a poisoned drink, the King’s right hand man, Colonel Zapt (Louis Calhern) convinces Rassendyl to impersonate the King during his coronation. Fortunately for Rassendyl, everyone in Ruritania speaks perfect English, so his accent won’t be a problem. Rassendyl is assured that he will only have to play his role for one day, but that changes once he learns that King Rudolf has been kidnapped by his evil brother Michael (Robert Douglas) and his accomplice, the scheming Rupert of Hentzau (Mason). Rassendyl also meets the lovely Princess Flavia (Kerr) who is engaged to the King. He quickly falls for her, and she warms up to him, as Rassendyl treats her better than King Rudolf ever did. Thanks to Michael’s girlfriend, Antoinette de Mauban, (Jane Greer) Rassendyl learns where King Rudolf is being held. Rassendyl is the type of courageous protagonist who has no problem at all planning and carrying out this daring rescue mission. There’s an excellent swordfight at the end between Rassendyl and Rupert, which ends with Rupert leaping out the window into the moat, leaving open the possibility that he survives. (Anthony Hope did write a sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, which has been filmed several times.) With King Rudolf rescued, Rassendyl leaves Ruritania and the beautiful Flavia behind and returns to England.

Stewart Granger gives an excellent performance as Rassendyl and King Rudolf. The scenes where Rassendyl and Rudolf interact look seamless and the scenes weren’t shot using the obvious trick of having a double stand with his back to the camera. There’s even a moment where Rudolf touches Rassendyl’s sleeve, and it looks quite convincing. I’m surprised the technology was that advanced in 1952.

Granger had the requisite good looks and charm to be a successful leading man, and he projects Rassendyl’s inner decency very well. Granger also had the great hair necessary to be a swashbuckling action star. An interesting fact about Granger is that his real name was James Stewart. When he went into acting, he changed it to avoid confusion with the American actor, but Granger was always known to friends as Jimmy. At the time The Prisoner of Zenda was made, Granger was married to the lovely actress Jean Simmons. The Grangers were good friends with Richard Burton and his first wife Sybil. Burton was another highly acclaimed British actor who first came to Hollywood in 1952. Supposedly, Burton kissed Simmons instead of Sybil at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if Burton and Simmons had an affair, but the chemistry between them is easy to see in 1953’s The Robe, the religious epic that introduced the world to CinemaScope. The Robe also starred the wonderful Victor Mature. My two favorite Victor Mature quotes: When a director wasn’t satisfied with Mature’s work in a scene, he said, “I’ve got three looks, looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead. Which one do you want?” And when Mature was refused membership in a country club because he was an actor, he replied, “I’m not an actor-and I’ve got sixty-four films to prove it!”

Mason is excellent as the villain, and he brings a sly humor to Rupert. Mason could be both charming and menacing, often at the same time, and he does both very well here. He clearly has fun with the role of Rupert, and it’s again a reminder that Mason would have made the best James Bond villain ever. Mason also would have made a superb Iago. Mason was always quite self-deprecating about his own acting talent, and the only comment he made about The Prisoner of Zenda in Clive Hirschhorn’s 1975 book The Films of James Mason was “I thought the costumes were ghastly.” (Hirschhorn, p.104) The costumes were certainly designed to take advantage of the color photography, but I quite enjoyed them, even though Stewart Granger can’t quite keep his shirts and jackets buttoned up in the second half of the movie.

Kerr is luminous, as always, as Princess Flavia, and although the role doesn’t require her to flex her acting muscles very much, she still does an excellent job. Kerr is convincing as we see her have a change of heart towards King Rudolf. 

Granger, Mason and Kerr all had similar career trajectories, as they became big stars in British films, and then moved on to Hollywood in the late 1940’s. Kerr made three movies with Stewart Granger, the others being King Solomon’s Mines, which made Granger a star in the U.S., and was the second highest grossing movie of 1950, and 1953’s Young Bess, about the early years of Queen Elizabeth I. Kerr also made three movies with James Mason, the others being Hatter’s Castle, a British film from 1942, and 1953’s Julius Caesar, which featured one of Mason’s best performances as Brutus. The Prisoner of Zenda was the fourth movie that Stewart Granger and James Mason had made together. They first appeared together in Secret Mission, from 1942, which starred Mason, and in which Granger had only a small role. By the next year Granger had moved up to his first starring role in The Man in Grey, which proved to be Mason’s breakthrough role, and they co-starred again in 1944’s very successful Fanny By Gaslight. In both films, Granger played the good guy, while Mason played an evil cad.

I’ve written before about Mason’s early career in my review of Caught, the 1949 movie that was his first Hollywood film. My description of Mason that follows comes from that post. Mason found his greatest success in England playing sadistic, aristocratic types in period dramas, and women loved him. Or loved to hate him, or hated that they loved him, or something like that. Mason cut a handsome figure on screen, with his thick, dark hair, his sad, expressive dark eyes, his brooding countenance, and of course his beautiful voice. Mason’s voice could suggest either friendly openness or chilling cruelty, and he truly made the most of his fantastic instrument.

The 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda is a thrilling adventure story, elevated by the excellent performances from the three leading actors. Watch for Lewis Stone in a small role as the Cardinal-he played Rassendyl and King Rudolf in the 1922 silent version.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Concert Review: The Rolling Stones at TCF Bank Stadium, June 3, 2015

The sky was pretty dramatic over TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on June 3, 2015. Fortunately, the rain was done by the time the Rolling Stones took the stage. Photo by Mark Taylor.

Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards at TCF Bank Stadium on June 3, 2015. Photo by Jeff Wheeler of the Star Tribune.
It’s been almost 52 years to the day since The Rolling Stones released their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s song “Come On,” on June 7, 1963. Amazingly, the band is still going strong, and they delivered an excellent concert last night at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. It rained heavily earlier in the day, but the skies were starting to clear by the time the Stones took the stage around 9:20 PM. The band played for a little over two hours, and they revisited many of their greatest hits. I’ve been a fan of the Rolling Stones since I was a teenager, and I’ve seen them three times before in concert, at the dreadful Metrodome in 1997, the Target Center in 1999, and at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field in 2002. The Stones never fail to entertain and put on a great show. 

Musically, the Rolling Stones are still excellent, with Charlie Watts providing the rock-solid beat that he’s always been known for, and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood nailing the iconic riffs throughout the show. I was really impressed with Wood’s playing last night, he took several impressive solos and he played some great lap steel guitar on “Happy.” Mick Jagger is still one of the most charismatic performers in rock and roll, and it looks like he hasn’t gained a pound since 1964. At 71, Jagger still runs around the stage like a young kid, and he worked all sides of the stage, running from side to side, and then out on a smaller platform that extended into the audience. Jagger’s still a mass of kinetic energy on stage; the only time he stands still is when he’s playing the guitar. The main Stones were ably supported by the backing musicians who tour with them, including longtime members Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on backing vocals, and Darryl Jones on bass. 

The set list was heavily weighted towards favorites from the Stones’ “classic period” with 13 of the 19 songs coming from between 1968 and 1974. But there were some nice surprises, like a terrific version of the beautiful “Moonlight Mile,” the last song on 1971’s “Sticky Fingers.” Mick threw everyone a curve with 1997’s “Out of Control,” which is a song I haven’t thought of since 1999. The song featured many of the classic Mick Jagger dance moves. Other highlights of the show were a funky version of “Miss You” that proved that Mick hasn’t lost any of his upper range, and a menacing “Midnight Rambler,” featuring excellent harmonica from Jagger. Jagger was also very in tune with the local crowd, as he humorously listed some of the many things to do in Minneapolis, working in as many “m” words as he could-“Minnehaha Falls, the marvelous Mall of America, and the Minneapolis Art Museum.” (It’s actually the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but I’ll cut Mick some slack.) Jagger even mentioned the very first time the Rolling Stones played in Minnesota, when they appeared at Danceland at the Excelsior Amusement Park on their first U.S. tour in 1964, saying, “There were only 243 people and none of them liked it very much.” That appearance was only their 6th show in the United States. Jagger was obviously in a good mood, and he led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts. (Wood’s birthday was on June 1st, and Watts’ was on June 2nd.) 

Here’s the set list from last night:

Jumpin’ Jack Flash
It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)
All Down the Line
Tumbling Dice
Doom and Gloom
Moonlight Mile
Out of Control
Honky Tonk Women
Before They Make Me Run (Keith sings lead)
Happy (Keith sings lead)
Midnight Rambler
Miss You
Gimme Shelter (with Grace Potter, the opening act, sharing vocals)
Start Me Up
Sympathy for the Devil
Brown Sugar
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with choral group VocalEssence)
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction