Thursday, May 26, 2011

Richard Burton and Lana Turner in “The Rains of Ranchipur” (1955)

Because Richard Burton is my favorite actor, and I have committed myself to the goal of seeing as many of his movies as I possibly can, I have seen many terrible movies. “The Rains of Ranchipur” is one of them. Set in India, and released in 1955, it was not a hit at the time. It was a remake of 1939’s “The Rains Came,” starring Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy. So why remake a movie that was only 16 years old? Good question. I have no idea. As far as I can tell from reading about the film, the only reason for making the film was to showcase the disasters of the rains in the glories of CinemaScope. The picture was rushed into post-production, as it was shot during August and September of 1955, and released in December, 1955.
The first thing wrong with “The Rains of Ranchipur,” besides the fact that it’s a rather unnecessary remake, is that Richard Burton plays a Hindu doctor. Yes, really. And he does a pretty bad job; it’s really just watching Richard Burton with a tan. Despite the help of a voice coach, Burton was not able to imitate an Indian accent, so he just gave up. Burton was a very talented actor, but he was certainly not a character actor.
Burton plays Dr. Safti, a doctor in the town of Ranchipur, who is doing all he can to help the sick and the poor in post-independence India. The gorgeous Lana Turner plays Lady Edwina Esketh, who is unhappily married to Lord Esketh, played by the hulking actor Michael Rennie. The Eskeths are in Ranchipur to buy some horses. You know, just making a trip to India to get some horses, doesn’t everyone do that? Probably my favorite part of the movie is a scene at the very beginning. There’s a long scene with Turner and Rennie in a train on the way to Ranchipur, and they simply discuss their empty marriage. It’s a long scene, probably 4 or 5 minutes with no breaks, no cuts, and no edits. I love seeing long scenes unfold in real time. To me it’s always been a hallmark of old movies. There’s no fancy camerawork, you just have to listen and watch, and be pulled in by the story. And I was.
Burton and Turner meet at a party, and there is an immediate spark of attraction between them. But Edwina is a totally spoiled, selfish person, and Dr. Safti is totally selfless. Eventually they acknowledge their feelings for each other and start having an affair. There’s a climactic scene where Lord Esketh and Dr. Safti go tiger hunting, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen. Esketh gets attacked by the tiger; Safti has to shoot the tiger and in the process wounds Esketh. Dr. Safti then has to nurse Esketh back to health, an awkward situation for the two men. I found Lord Esketh to be an interesting character, he and Edwina have a very complicated relationship, and Lord Esketh comes off as a rather sympathetic character. Rennie does a good job playing a man who is somewhat lost in his own life, blessed with money, but still not happy.
Another plot in the film involves Fred MacMurray, who plays Tom Ransome, a rich alcoholic American who is romantically wasting away. A young girl, Fern Simon, played by Joan Caulfield, starts hanging around Ransome and tries to persuade him to become interested in life again.
And then the rains come, there’s both an earthquake and a flood, and Dr. Safti has to rush off and save lives, leaving Edwina behind. She becomes very ill herself, and Ransome takes care of her while also trying to get to Safti to let him know how sick she is. This is the part of the movie where we get our magnificent CinemaScope disasters, which seem to take too much pleasure in the tragedies we are seeing. Ransome, who is an architect/designer by trade, risks his life to blow up a dam and thus saves Ranchipur from further disaster. (Don’t ask me how blowing up a dam is good, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.) Ransome does not admit to the deed, but Dr. Safti cleverly lets Fern know that it was Ransome. I’m paraphrasing what Safti actually says, but it’s something like, “It must have been someone who had a great deal of knowledge on how dams are built and constructed, to have put the dynamite in exactly the right place. And someone who cares a great deal about the people of Ranchipur.” Anyway, Fern knows that Ransome is once more engaged with life, and they are paired off at the end of the film.
After she recovers, Lady Edwina has decided that she actually does care about some things in life other than herself, and she leaves Dr. Safti, knowing that Ranchipur needs him more than she does. In her first selfless act, she leaves Ranchipur with her husband.
There is an interesting film somewhere in all of this, but it didn’t quite make it to the screen. Dr. Safti is pretty much a saint, and he is not a very interesting character. His only flaw is that he’s attracted to Lana Turner, and I think just about every man would have been attracted to Lana Turner in 1955. There are a lot of things that happen off screen that might have made interesting scenes. Edwina talks at one point about Dr. Safti showing her the slums where the poor people live, but that all happens off-screen. It might have been a good scene to show Edwina’s gradual change of heart. Lana Turner is gorgeous in the movie, and parts of the story are interesting, but it doesn’t add up to a successful film. Apart from the first few minutes of the film, I don’t know that any of the movie was actually filmed in India, which is a shame. And IMDB lists the only filming location as being in Pakistan, so maybe what I thought was India at the beginning isn’t even really India.
The lack of realism in this film leads to the next problem with it. Apart from some of the extras, I don’t think that anyone in the cast is actually Indian. Of course, the unspoken reason for casting someone so totally unsuitable for the part of Dr. Safti is because in 1955 you could not have shown a romance between an Indian man and a white woman on screen. I’m pretty sure that no Indian actors were even considered for the part of Dr. Safti. This racism dates the film quite badly, and the utter ridiculousness of casting someone who was English/Welsh to play someone from India is insulting. The other major Indian character in the movie is the Maharani, the woman who basically runs Ranchipur. She is played by Eugenie Leontovich, who was born in Russia! Hollywood still had a long way to go when it came to portraying people other than Americans and Europeans.
In all of the Richard Burton biographies I consulted for writing this post, (yes, I really do research these movies before I write about them!) they all basically say that Burton and Turner had a pretty frosty relationship. All except for Michael Munn’s 2008 book, “Richard Burton: Prince of Players.” Munn was a close, personal friend of Burton’s, and according to him, Burton says he had a relationship with Turner. In the book, Burton is quoted as saying, “She was not someone I loved. She was just incredibly attractive and remarkably good in bed.” Well, okay, good to know! It’s not that surprising, given the romantic histories of both Burton and Turner, that they might have had an affair. (Between the two of them, they were married 13 times!) They were two remarkably attractive people, and Burton was well-known for trying to bed all of his leading ladies. (I think that Burton’s first wife, Sybil, whom he left for Elizabeth Taylor, deserves some kind of medal for putting up with him for so long!) By all accounts, Burton was supremely bored with the film, and he wrote it off by saying, “It never rains but it ranchipurs.”
It’s interesting to compare the careers of Burton at Turner in 1955, as they made this film. Burton turned 30 in 1955, and he was regarded as a promising young actor. His most successful films to date were 1952’s “My Cousin Rachel,” and “The Robe,” the 1953 religious epic that introduced CinemaScope to audiences. Turner was only 4 years older than Burton, yet she was a movie veteran by 1955, and was past the peak of her popularity, which occurred in the 1940’s. After “The Rains of Ranchipur” Turner still had a couple of hit films, like 1957’s “Peyton Place,” and 1959’s “Imitation of Life,” but after she turned 40 in 1961, her filmography is rather undistinguished. By contrast, nearly all of Burton’s most famous movies were made around the age of 40. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to compare them because Turner and Burton were very different kinds of movie personalities. Turner was discovered by Hollywood because she was gorgeous. She was a movie star who didn’t really need to be a great actress as long as she was still beautiful. Although his good looks undoubtedly helped, Burton was signed by Hollywood because of his raw talent on the London stage. But I still think it’s interesting to contrast how Turner’s career as a leading lady was basically over as she started to age, whereas Burton was still playing leading roles until he died at age 58. I think it’s generally true that it’s easier for male actors to keep playing leading parts as they age, and it’s more difficult for female actors. This gender inequity is still visible in movies today, as there are fewer and fewer parts for actresses once they start to show their age.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in "Vera Cruz" (1954)

I recently watched the 1954 western "Vera Cruz," starring Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. It's a very good movie, and somewhat ahead of its time. It's also a really fun movie to watch. The plot is really complicated, and it takes place in Mexico after the U.S. Civil War, during the Franco-Mexican War. Gary Cooper plays, well, Gary Cooper, of course. Actually he plays Ben Trane, a former Confederate soldier. (Gary Cooper from the South? Really?) In these post-Civil War westerns, why does everyone play a former Confederate? Aren't there any former Union soldiers doing anything interesting? Of course Trane was one of those nice Confederates who was just protecting his family farm, or whatever, and just happened to fight for the side supporting slavery. Lancaster plays Joe Erin, an American living in Mexico. After Trane and Erin meet, they team up to become mercenaries and make some easy money. They eventually meet Emperor Maximilian I, who hires them to escort a countess to the port of Veracruz. From that point on, there are crosses and double-crosses, as the plot thickens and leads to the inevitable showdown between Trane and Erin.

Cooper does a good job playing the sort of character he played a lot, the decent, good-hearted fellow. But it's Lancaster who steals the show as the villainous Joe Erin. Lancaster uses all of his movie star chemistry to make us like Erin, even though he's clearly a bad guy. It's a flashy performance, and for it to succeed, Burt needed a more subdued actor like Cooper to play off of. Lancaster does everything he can to draw attention to himself, from eating like a wild animal at the emperor's banquet to nearly breaking the fourth wall by turning to the camera and giving a huge grin for no reason at all as Erin finishes washing his face. Lancaster draws you into liking Erin, even though he's a contemptible man. Erin's outbursts of violence are random, as when he picks on one of his fellow outlaws as the men are dancing. He isn't violent for any specific reason; he's violent just because he can be. In a way, Erin is an early example of an anti-hero, a character type that movie audiences would see much more of in the 1960's. Because of Erin's sociopathic nature and the rather violent story, some critics have seen "Vera Cruz" as a precursor to Sergio Leone's westerns of the 1960's. Lancaster gives a great performance, and he definitely elevates the movie.

Lancaster's production company produced "Vera Cruz," which meant that, typical of the movies that Lancaster produced, the script wasn't finished when filming began, and the film went over budget. Fortunately, "Vera Cruz" was a big hit and it didn't matter. Originally, Lancaster was going to play the Ben Trane part, and he apparently wanted Cary Grant to play Joe Erin. Cary Grant in a western? As a villain? Grant said, "I don't go near horses." Lancaster then took the role of Erin and approached Cooper for Ben Trane. Clark Gable had just seen Burt in "From Here to Eternity" and advised Cooper to turn the part down, telling Cooper, "That young fella will wipe you off the screen, Gary." Cooper said yes anyway. (Gable would go on to star with Lancaster in the 1958 submarine movie, "Run Silent, Run Deep.") When shooting started, it was Lancaster who had doubts about Cooper's acting style. After the first few days of filming, Lancaster told a friend, "Coop is just throwing this away. Coop isn't doing anything. I have to compensate. I have to put energy into the scenes." But once the rushes from the first few days came back, Lancaster said, "There I was, acting my ass off. I looked like an idiot, and Coop was absolutely marvelous." Once he saw how effective Coop's silent style was, Lancaster ordered that the first three days of the film needed to be reshot. Also typical of Lancaster movies, Burt was involved in just about every aspect of the film, which annoyed director Robert Aldrich. (Burt was kind of a control freak; it’s probably just as well that he and Warren Beatty never made a movie together.) And how did the two stars get along, conservative Cooper and liberal Lancaster? Very well, despite being almost complete opposites, according to "Against Type," Gary Fishgall's biography of Burt. Lancaster would even serve as an honorary pallbearer when Cooper died of lung cancer in 1961.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune"

I saw Kenneth Bowser's powerful documentary "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune," a couple of weeks ago at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. It's an amazing film, and I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in Ochs or the folk scene of the 1960's. It presents a portrait of a talented and gifted man who sadly died way too young.

Bowser was able to interview just about anyone still living who had a significant connection to Phil Ochs. (Not surprisingly, he wasn't able to interview Bob Dylan.) Ochs started out as a folk/protest singer, writing his own material about the various troubles of the day, very much like Dylan. Eventually, inspired by Dylan and the Beatles, Ochs started writing more personal material, although he still wrote the occasional straightforward protest song. Ochs had little commercial success during his lifetime, and remained more of a cult figure. Apparently, Ochs always thought that he was just about to break out commercially, and he proudly predicted that his 1967 album "Pleasures of the Harbor" would go to number one. It's highest chart position was 168. Dogged by poor reviews at the time, it's now considered Ochs's masterpiece. Ochs's material was very uncompromising, and it's hard to imagine that he didn't see why he wasn't more successful. Maybe his enthusiasm was just his way of covering up his insecurities. Phil Ochs did not write simple love songs that would have been surefire hit singles. The closest Ochs came to having a hit single was his song, "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," from the "Pleasures of the Harbor" album. It's a great, funny, witty song, given a jaunty arrangement courtesy of Lincoln Mayorga's piano playing. But here's the first verse of the song:

Oh, look outside the window
There's a woman bein' grabbed
They've dragged her to the bushes
And now she's bein' stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops
And try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun
I'd hate to blow the game
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends

It's a brilliant satire of apathy, specifically referencing the then-current case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed and killed in New York City. Neighbors who overheard the attack did nothing because they "didn't want to get involved." It's a great song, but when the first verse of your song features a stabbing, it's probably not going to get a lot of Top 40 airplay. It's a great example of how Ochs created powerful songs that were totally uncommercial. People don't always want to be reminded of bad things when they listen to music, sometimes they just want to escape. But Ochs was not about to compromise his vision of his music.

As the 1960's came to an end, Ochs had lost his optimism about America. The war in Vietnam was still raging on, MLK and RFK were dead, Nixon had won the 1968 election, and Chicago police had savagely beaten protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention. Ochs started drinking more and more heavily, and he started to exhibit signs of bipolar disorder. And for whatever reason, he became unable to write new material. Even trips abroad did not spark his creativity. After his 1970 album, facetiously titled "Greatest Hits," another bit of irony that seemed to go over people's heads, Ochs released just 5 more songs during his lifetime. I wonder if Ochs might have had an easier time today, at a time when people get irony. I sensed from the movie, and from reading parts of biographies of Ochs, that sometime his audience didn't understand him. Few people seemed to understand at the time that Ochs dressing up in a gold suit like Elvis to promote his "Greatest Hits" album was at least a little bit ironic. Or maybe a lot ironic. They just booed him because he was performing 1950's rock songs and not the protest folk they wanted to hear. They were angry at him for confounding their expectations. Nowadays it would at least be easier for Phil to explain exactly what he was trying to do, and the meaning behind it.

The film features all kinds of amazing film footage of Ochs, which is reason enough to go see it. I got more of a sense of who this remarkable man was. There's even some heartbreakingly sad footage of Ochs in his final manic state, when he insisted that everyone call him "John Butler Train." Unlike Ochs, Train was mean and belligerent, and ruined some of Ochs's friendships. When Train left in early 1976, never to reappear, he left behind a shattered Phil Ochs, who thought that he could never repair the relationships he had broken. What Ochs didn't know, or didn't allow himself to acknowledge, was that people would have forgiven him, life could have gone on. There were still people hungry for his music, who would wonder, what would Phil Ochs have written about this? Phil Ochs chose to end his own life on April 9, 1976, at the age of 35. Phil may be gone, but his music lives on, and it's still touching people's lives today. I was born 5 years after Phil died, but his music and his spirit means so much to me. He's truly one of my heroes, and I wish he were still alive today.