Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Films of Warren Beatty: "The Only Game in Town," starring Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by George Stevens (1970)

Warren Beatty became a full-fledged movie star after producing and starring in "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967. The movie helped usher in the "New Hollywood" era of films, and it also made Warren Beatty a very rich man. Warner Brothers had such little faith in "Bonnie and Clyde," thinking that it would merely be a "B" movie, that they gave Beatty 40% of the profits. According to, "Bonnie and Clyde" cost $2.5 million to make, and grossed about $50 million in the US alone. Good job, Warren. So, what movie did Beatty choose as his follow-up? Typically for Beatty, he waited and waited, and turned down a classic movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Beatty then accepted the offer to replace Frank Sinatra in director George Stevens' last movie, "The Only Game in Town," where he would co-star with Liz Taylor. Beatty was a huge admirer of Stevens's work, and basically said yes to the movie just so he could work with him. Stevens directed many great movies like "Gunga Din," "A Place in the Sun," with Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, "Shane," and "Giant," with Liz, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Unfortunately, "The Only Game in Town" is not one of his great movies. Ever polite, Beatty defended his decision, saying, "I always thought that it was probably one of the most sensible decisions I had made because I got the chance to work with George...ultimately it was more rewarding to me to have made a sort of an unsuccessful picture with him." Beatty soaked up everything from Stevens, who was a perfectionist with a tendency to over-shoot. (Just like Beatty would be as a director.) Beatty was amazed by Stevens's calm demeanor, and remarked that he never once heard Stevens raise his voice on the set. Beatty tried to handle himself the same way as a director.

"The Only Game in Town" is set in Las Vegas, but it was mostly filmed in Paris. Why, you might well ask. Well, because Richard Burton was a tax exile from England and could only spend a small number of days a year in the UK. So Burton's latest movie, "Staircase," though set in London, was being filmed in Paris. (In "Staircase" Burton and Rex Harrison play gay hairdressers. Really.) And Liz wanted to be in the same city as Richard. Therefore, extremely expensive facsimiles of Vegas casinos were built in Paris to accommodate Liz. Ah, show-biz!

"The Only Game in Town" was actually a play before it was a movie, running on Broadway for 16 performances in 1968. Frank D. Gilroy, the playwright, must have clicked his heels for joy when 20th Century Fox bought the film rights for $500,000 before the play even opened! It's basically a two-person character study, as the film focuses on chorus girl Fran meeting cocktail bar piano player Joe. Fran has been in Las Vegas for five years, and Joe is planning to leave for New York City as soon as he can save $5,000. Joe soon hits a lucky streak and wins $8,000 at the casinos. He tells Fran he wants to have one more nice night on the town before he leaves the next day. In an excruciating scene, we watch as Joe gambles away all $8,000. Which explains why he's been in Las Vegas for 5 years trying to save $5,000. Just as Joe is waiting for the perfect time to leave Vegas, which may never come, Fran is waiting for her lover, married and living in San Fransisco, to finally divorce his wife and marry her. In the meantime, Fran invites Joe to move in with her. No strings attached, free to leave whenever either one pleases. Eventually Fran's lover comes back with what seems to be the perfect news: he's gotten a divorce, and now they can get married. He's booked them tickets for a honeymoon starting that night. But after saying goodbye to Joe on the phone, Fran realizes that she is in love with Joe, and doesn't leave with her lover. (In a very un-Liz Taylor like moment, Fran even gives him back the ginormous ring he bought her!) So, what happens at the end? Well, I won't spoil that for you.

"The Only Game in Town" is actually a pretty good movie, it's certainly better than I thought it would be, and better than it's reputation would suggest. It was a flop when it was released in January 1970. The movie cost about $10 million to make, took a very long 5 months to shoot, and only grossed $1.5 million in the US. But it's an interesting story, and it features a very good performance from Beatty. Like many other Beatty characters, Joe is a charmer who is very adept at reading people and getting his way. His dreams are less grandiose than most of Beatty's characters, as his only real goal seems to be making it to New York. Joe is actually a well-written character, in part because he is very sarcastic and ironic, which makes his character seem much more modern. You could give Joe's lines to a character in a contemporary romantic comedy with no trouble at all. Sinatra actually would have been quite good for this part, the only problem is that he was about 20 years too old for it. (A piano player in his early 50's who is trying to make $5,000 to get to New York? Um, no.)

Liz is good, but her voice drives me nuts sometimes, as she has a tendency to screech her lines when she yells. She can sound so shrill and harsh. And whoever designed the wardrobe for Liz should have been fired. It's obvious from the way Liz is dressed that she must have gained some weight around the middle, as all of her clothes are really big and baggy on her, which just makes her look larger than she really was. She was only 36 when the movie was filmed, and still had a gorgeous figure, but you'd never know it from this movie.

And how did Richard Burton feel about his wife making a movie with Hollywood's new Don Juan? According to his journals he was a bit jealous. (Personally, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty would both be on my list of guys I would not want my wife to make a movie with.) Burton was on the set when Liz and Beatty filmed their love scene, and he played some George and Martha-like mind games, saying to them, "I say Elizabeth, don't you think you should be a bit closer to your lover? And Warren, you look a touch bashful. Is my presence making you nervous?" According to everything I've read, nothing happened between Liz and Beatty. I would think that Beatty would have tried to do everything he could to impress Burton, as the young Beatty had a pattern of seeking out friendships with older men who were more established in their careers, but I can't find any evidence of this from biographies of Burton or Beatty.

"The Only Game in Town" is certainly a curio, and it's not good enough for me to recommend it without reservations. It's not available on DVD, but I caught it on the Fox movie channel. But if you like old movies that are somewhat talky, or if you want to see two amazingly pretty people go gambling, or if you want to see Warren Beatty be incredibly snarky, this is the movie for you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mint Condition, by Dave Jamieson

It's the baseball off-season, so I thought reading a book about baseball would be the best way to keep the spirit of baseball alive during the gloomy winter months. "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession," by Dave Jamieson, chronicles the history of baseball trading cards, from their introduction in the 1870's and 1880's to the present day. Confession: I love baseball cards. I collected them voraciously in my childhood, and I still make the occasional purchase online or at a card show. Jamieson is only a couple of years older than I am, so his memories of the baseball card boom of the 1980's and the collapse of the baseball card market in the 1990's are my childhood memories as well. And Jamieson gets extra points because his all-time favorite baseball card set is the 1987 Topps set, which is my all-time favorite set as well. (You can see an example of the 1987 Topps set above.)

But onto the book itself. Jamieson dug deeply into the rich history of baseball cards, and I learned a lot from this book. The first time baseball cards created a sensation among young boys was in the 1880's, when cigarette companies inserted cards into their packs of cigarettes. This had the dual effect of both promoting brand loyalty to collect more cards, and also of making these young boys eager smokers. Win-win for the cigarette manufacturers. According to Jamieson, the popularity of the baseball trading cards helped establish cigarettes as a tobacco product at a time when they were seen as hopelessly lower-class. (People with status smoked cigars or pipes.)

Back in the olden days, baseball cards were not issued every year, and the next time they make a major reappearance is around 1905-1915. These cards were again mostly made by cigarette companies, and they included the most famous baseball card of all time, the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner. The Wagner card is noteworthy not only because Wagner was one of the greatest players of his era, but also because it was produced in very limited quantities. Sources vary as to whether Wagner objected to the card because he did not want to be associated with a tobacco product, or if he was angry because the company was using his image without his permission. Whatever the reason, the Wagner T206 is very scarce, and an example of it in good condition has sold for more than $2 million at auction, making it the single most expensive baseball card ever.

After around 1915 tobacco companies stopped issuing baseball cards, presumably because their product was selling so well that they saw no need to include giveaways like trading cards. There was a lull in the baseball card market until 1933, when Goudey, a gum company, started producing baseball cards again. Goudey would include 1 card as an enticement to purchase a stick of gum for 1 penny. The Goudey cards were very successful, and a number of other gum companies, notably Bowman, jumped on the baseball card bandwagon. By the late 1940's, Bowman had established itself as the leading baseball card maker. But within a decade the Topps gum company, despite coming late to the baseball card party, would have a virtual monopoly on baseball card production. How exactly did this happen? Jamieson is able to shed some light on it, but I would have liked more detail on the battle between Topps and Bowman. Topps issued it's first real set of baseball cards in 1952, and in 1956 Bowman sold their baseball card rights to Topps. How did Topps bring down Bowman in just 4 years? Well, a lot of the credit goes to Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who basically created the 1952 Topps cards, and in doing so, created the prototype for the modern baseball card. Berger and Gelman chose the dimensions that nearly all baseball cards would use from that point on, and they decided to include statistics on the back of the card. That was huge. Bowman's cards had narrative sentences on the back, which might incorporate some stats. It would usually read something like this: "Zernial batted .262 and slugged 29 homers while patrolling the outfield last season. The A's have high hopes for this young slugger in the years to come!" But Topps had a full row of all the most important stats from the previous season, hits, runs, RBIs, home runs, batting average, and they also had the player's career totals. And this was at a time when these stats were not readily available to youngsters. There were not comprehensive books of baseball statistics, so the newspaper and baseball cards were how kids knew what their favorite players had done. And so, despite making some beautiful cards, like their classic 1955 "television" design, Bowman sold out to Topps.

It's clear from "Mint Condition" that Topps didn't really want Jamieson digging too deeply into their closet, as Berger was the only former Topps employee he was able to interview. And there are some skeletons in Topps's closet, as they intimidated other companies from issuing baseball cards and basically had a 25-year monopoly, from 1956 until 1981. Topps pressured young prospects to sign exclusive baseball card contracts with them, meaning that other companies couldn't even get their foot in the door. Topps was the only game in town. And this led to some sloppiness on Topps's part. Like using the same photos for a player year after year. (Claude Osteen's 1963 and 1964 cards use the exact same photo, it's just cropped differently.) Or not bothering to obtain a photo of a player in his new uniform after he was traded. Which led to numerous cards of players without hats on, or players whose uniforms have been airbrushed almost beyond recognition. But Topps still changed their cards during this period. For example, beginning in 1971 photos from actual games were used on cards, which lent an excitement to some of the cards.

Eventually, the Topps monopoly began to crumble, as Marvin Miller, the new head of the player's union, took a much more aggressive stance against Topps in the late 1960's, arguing that they were getting rich off of baseball cards and barely compensating the players. (Miller was right, Topps paid most players $125 per year for use of their image.) Topps eventually let the player's union get a slice of the pie from baseball card sales. And Fleer, a rival candy company, launched a lawsuit alleging that Topps was running a monopoly. Eventually, Fleer was successful in their legal action, which opened the door for competing card companies to issue 1981 baseball card sets. Fleer and Donruss both issued their inaugural sets in 1981, and both were low-quality compared with Topps. Photos were blurry and errors were plentiful as the cards were rushed into production. However, despite Topps' fear that the market was not large enough to support two card companies, let alone three, baseball card sales jumped. Legal action by Topps meant that Fleer and Donruss could not package their cards with chewing gum, so Fleer included team stickers as a bonus, and Donruss included puzzle pieces for a puzzle of an all-time baseball great. (I never put the puzzle pieces together. Sorry Donruss! But at least the puzzle pieces didn't stick to the cards the way the gum did. My Dad once broke a crown on a stale piece of Topps gum.) An irony of the baseball card business is that the companies that produced the cards were actually candy companies, and in the beginning, it was supposed to be the gum that sold the cards, not the other way around. But at some point, the baseball cards became much more desirable than the gum.

As the 80's went on, Fleer and Donruss both greatly improved their quality, and the baseball card boom continued. I would have liked to know more about how Topps responded to Fleer and Donruss entering the market. Did Topps do anything special to make their cards better? (Looking back at their 80's sets, it really doesn't seem like they did.) The only things I can think of are the 1982 Topps "In Action" cards, and that the 1983 Topps set features two player photos on the front. Jamieson focuses on the 1989 entry of Upper Deck into the baseball card market, which proved that fans were willing to pay more money for a higher quality card. As the card market peaked in the early 1990's, all of the companies were overproducing cards at a staggering rate, and there were simply too many sets on the market. The 1994-95 baseball strike didn't help sell baseball cards, and that was around the time that I really stopped seriously collecting new cards.

As the baseball card market tanked, so too did the companies. Fleer was bought out by Upper Deck, and Donruss lost their license from MLB in 2006. For the 2010 season, the only company authorized by MLB to produce baseball cards was Topps. So we're back where we started, with a Topps monopoly.

Jamieson writes that baseball cards have become much more of a business than they used to be, and he doesn't think this is a good development. I definitely agree with him. Sure, there's joy in finding out that you have a card that's worth a lot of money, but I also take joy in common cards that aren't worth anything. It might be just a player in a crazy uniform, like the Astros' "rainbow" uniforms of the 70's and 80's, or it might be a fond memory of a journeyman outfielder like Tom Paciorek, but those memories take me back to my childhood. I still enjoy my baseball cards, and I'm very happy that I still do.