The Hard Hombre (1931, directed by Otto Brower)

In this short and comedic western, Hoot Gibson plays a cowboy who is so mild-mannered that his nickname is Peaceful.  William “Peaceful” Patton is such a pacifist that he’s even named after the first Quaker, William Penn.  When the movie starts, a group of cowboys are shooting at each other from opposite sides of a ravine.  Patton rides into the middle of the fight and tells them to put down their guns and settle things peacefully.  Everyone ignores him.

Patton has gotten a job in a neighboring town, working on the ranch of Senora Martini (Lina Basquette).  Leaving behind his beloved mother (Jessie Arnold), Patton heads to the Martini ranch and he discovers that everyone is scared to death of him.  That’s because Patton looks just like a notorious outlaw known as The Hard Hombre.  The Hard Hombre has killed a man for every year that he’s been alive.  Realizing that he can use this to bring peace to the town and to help Senora Martini get her cattle back from rival rancher Joe Barlowe (G. Raymond Nye), Patton pretends to be the Hard Hombre.

Soon, everyone in town is getting along and Senora Martini has fallen in love with the man that she thinks is the Hard Hombre.  But then, the Hard Hombre actually does show up in town!  Even worse, Peaceful’s mother also shows up and wants to know why everyone thinks her son is a killer!

With a 64 minute running time, this low-budget programmer isn’t bad.  It pokes fun at every western cliché, showing that even in the early days of Hollywood, the conventions of the western were already set in stone.  The film gets a surprising amount of comedic mileage from people acting scared of the mild-looking and acting Hoot Gibson.  Gibson was one of the earliest western stars, playing heroes who used their wits and who rarely carried a gun.  Appearing in a film for a poverty row studio was a step down for Gibson but his casting still pays off in That Hard Hombre and he gives a good performance as a cowboy who just wants everyone to get along and to make his mother proud.

Book Review: The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

Cinematically, the 1968 Democrat Convention has been done to death.

There have been a lot of movies made about the 1968 Democrat Convention and certainly, I can understand why.  Not only did you have an epic battle taking place in the Convention Hall between the Democrat establishment and the reformers but there were also riots in the streets.  The police were beating up protestors and slogans were being chanted and Haskell Wexler was filming footage for Medium Cool.  Yes, it was all very cinematic but again, it’s just been done to death.  We don’t need another movie about what happened in 1968.

Instead, what is needed is a movie about the 1924 Democrat Convention, which was held in Madison Square Garden and which lasted for two and a half weeks because none of the men running for President could get enough votes.  The two major candidates were Al Smith of New York and William McAdoo of California.  Smith was an anti-prohibitionist and was seeking to become the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party.  McAdoo was the son-in-law of America’s greatest monster, Woodrow Wilson.  Smith’s campaign was managed by a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was making a political comeback after being previously struck down by polio.  Though he was not himself a member and had no use for the organization, McAdoo found himslef being supported by the Ku Klux Klan, who was then at the height of its political influence and which opposed Smith because of his Catholicism.

With neither Smith nor McAdoo able to command a majority of the delegates, other “favorite son” candidates emerged.  U.S. Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, a longtime opponent of Klan, was not only nominated but also fought a heroic but losing battle to insert a plank condemning the Klan into the Democrat platform.  West Virginia’s John W. Davis was nominated, as was Kansas’s Jonathan M. Davis.  Meanwhile, in the wings, William Jennings Bryan managed the presidential campaign of his brother, Charles, and waited to see if the Convention would perhaps turn to him and put him on the national ticket for a record fourth time.  (Little did Bryan know, of course, that the Scopes Monkey Trial was waiting for him, right around the corner….)

In the end, 58 men received votes for the presidential nomination at the 1924 Democrat Convention.  It took a record 103 ballots for the party to finally nominate a candidate who, after all of that, would still have to run against the enormously popular incumbent, Calvin Coolidge.  Along the way, there were fist fights, political chicanery,  and many accusations of lies, bad faith, and prejudice.  FDR re-launcher his career with his pro-Smith speech but, in doing so, he also inspired the jealousy that would lead to Al Smith becoming one of the leading opponents of the New Deal.  Meanwhile, the aging William Jennings Bryan struggled to control a party that no longer had much use for him.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that I know about because I read a book called The 103rd Ballot, which tells the story of not only the convention but also the election that followed it.  The book was written by Robert K. Murray and it was originally published in 1976.  It’s been around for a while but the issues that it deals with and the politicians that are profiled all feel very familiar.  Today, control of the major political parties is still being fought over by the activist who do the work and the politicians who reap the rewards.  Extremism is still a threat.  Just as the Democrats did in 1924, Americans are still trying to figure out what the country’s role in the world should be.  As described by Robert K. Murray, historic figures like FDR, Al Smith, McAdoo, Calving Coolidge, and John W. Davis all come to life.  Their motivations are often petty but their actions change the course of history.

The next presidential election is going to be the 100-year anniversary of the 1924 debacle and the issues that made that convention so chaotic are the same issues that political types are still dealing with today.  In 1924, America was recovering for a war and a pandemic.  In 2024 …. well, you get the idea.  The main difference, of course, is that we now have air conditioning.  At the 1924 convention, air conditioning was still a relatively new concept and the delegates spent two and a half-weeks jammed into Madison Square Garden in the summer.  Agck!

So, seriously, some aspiring Aaron Sorkin (though not Sorkin himself, that’s the last thing we need) needs to buy the rights to this book and get to work on a movie or a miniseries about what happened in 1924.  I can’t wait to see who plays Al Smith!

Film Review: Death on the Nile (dir by Kenneth Branagh)

The main mystery at the heart of Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is not who committed the film’s murders but just how seriously we, the audience, are meant to take what we’re watching.

In this much-delayed (by COVID and a cast full of actors who could not escape personal scandal) follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh again plays the eccentric detective Hercule Poirot.  Poirot is again in an exotic land, this time Egypt.  And again, circumstances have conspired to isolate him and a group of wealthy and glamorous suspects from the rest of the world.  In Murder on the Orient Express, everyone was stuck on a train.  Here, they are stuck on a boat.  Admittedly, the boat provides a nice view of the pyramids but, eventually, even those testaments to engineering seem to be mocking the people stuck on the boat.  The pyramids, after all, have survived for centuries.  The same cannot be said for the people who have come to see them.  Over the course of the film, there are several murders.  (Indeed, Death on the Nile is significantly bloodier than Murder on the Orient Express and, unlike what happened on the Orient Express, the majority of the victims have done nothing to deserve their grisly fate.)  Like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is based on a novel by Agatha Christie.  Branagh changes a few details from Christie’s novel, which is understandable since it’s important to keep the audience guessing.  For instance, Bouc (Tom Bateman), who was Poirot’s assistant in Murder on the Orient Express, returns in Branagh’s film version and provides some continuity between the two films.  It also provides a nice side-mystery as the audience tries to figure out how Poirot and Bouc could just happen to run into each other in Egypt.  Fear not, the film offers up a solution.

As is to be expected, the victims and the suspects are brought to life by a cast of stars and familiar character actors, all of whom act up a storm.  Some, of course, do a better job of embracing the melodrama than others.  Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot play a glamorous couple and, regardless of how we feel about Hammer as a human being, it works because Gadot and Hammer both look they could have stepped out of a sophisticated, 1930s RKO comedy.  (Hammer’s stiff line readings, which are totally appropriate for his character, would actually be a highlight of the film if he wasn’t Armie Hammer.)  Russell Brand is oddly subdued as the doctor with the secret while Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders show up to keep all of the British comedy fanatics happy.  Sophie Okonedo plays a jazz singer and how you react to her character will depend on how much patience you have for anachronistic musical numbers.  (There’s a surprisingly large amount of them.)  Annettte Bening plays Bouc’s mother and there’s really not a subtle moment to be found in her performance but again, it works because Death on the Nile is not a particularly subtle film.  It’s a film that demands a certain amount of calculated overacting and Bening is enough of a veteran performer to deliver exactly what the film needs.

No, there’s nothing particularly subtle about Death on the Nile but then again, that’s always been a part of Kenneth Branagh’s appeal.  Branagh’s endless (and often justified) faith in his own abilities as a director and an actor means that Branagh is willing to do things that others would avoid, whether that means making a 4-hour version of Hamlet or a black-and-white film about growing up in Belfast or, for that matter, a gaudy Agatha Christie adaptation in which he plays the lead detective.  Death on the Nile is a celebration of melodrama, beautiful people, and nice clothes.  Even the fact that the Egyptian backdrops are obviously phony works to the film’s advantage, giving the proceedings a bit of a retro, Hollywood studio system feel.  At its best, Death on the Nile is an homage to old-fashioned camp..

And yet, there are hints that Branagh means for the film to be something more.  The films opens with a prologue, one that is not included in Christie’s book or in anything else that Christie wrote about Poirot.  The prologue, which is filmed in black-and-white, features Poirot getting terribly wounded during World War I and growing his famous mustache to cover his scars.  We also discover that the great love of Poirot’s life was a nurse who died during the war.  Later, while solving the murder, Poirot often talks about how he has shut himself away from the world, never wanting to risk falling in love again.  There’s even a hint that Poirot has fallen for one of the suspects.  Branagh’s a good actor and can obviously pull off Poirot’s inner turmoil but those little serious asides still feel out of place in a film that features Armie Hammer and Russell Brand as romantic rivals.  It’s hard not to wonder if Branagh is in on the joke or if he’s seriously attempting to use Poirot as a symbol for an alienated and traumatized society.

One could argue that Poirot uses his mustache to hide from the world in much the same way that many people have spent the past two years using their masks to hide from COVID.  Except, of course, Death on the Nile was actually filmed three years ago, before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.  The film was first delayed by the theaters shutting down.  It was delayed a second time by the scandals surrounded Armie Hammer.  (Indeed, this film will probably be the last major studio release to feature Armie Hammer.)  It was finally released in February of this year and, within a month, it was on Hulu and HBOMax.  It didn’t exactly kill at the box office but I think Death on the Nile will be rediscovered over the years.  It’s a minor entry in Branagh’s filmography but it’s still enjoyably silly, regardless of whether that was Branagh’s intention or not.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Uli Edel Edition

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy 75th birthday to German director, Uli Edel!  It’s time for….

4 Shots from 4 Uli Edel Films

Christiane F. (1981, dir b Uli Edel, DP: Justus Pankau and Jürgen Jürges)

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989, dir by Uli Edel, DP: Stefan Czapsky)

Body of Evidence (1993, dir by Uli Edel, DP: Douglas Milsome)

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008, dir by Uli Edel, DP: Rainer Klausmann)

Scenes That I Love: “I Love The Smell of Napalm in the Morning” from Apocalypse Now (Happy birthday, John Milius!)

Today, the Shattered Lens celebrates the 78th birthday of the iconic screenwriter and director, John Milius!

While director Francis Ford Coppola definitely put his own stamp on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, the film started life as a script written by John Milius and the film itself is full of dialogue that could only have been written by Milius.  The most famous example is Robert Duvall’s monologue about the smell of napalm in the morning.  Actually, the entire helicopter attack feels like pure Milius.  Reportedly, Duvall’s character was originally named Colonel Kharnage but, by the time the movie was made, his name had become Kilgore.  It’s still not exactly a subtle name but it’s not quite as obvious as Kharnage.

(When James Caan read the script, he loved the role so much that he was offended to not be offered it and, as a result, he turned down offers to play not only Willard but also Kurtz.)

Happy birthday, John Milius!

Music Video of the Day: And We Danced by The Hooters (1985, directed by ????)

Today’s music video of the day comes to us from The Hooters, a Philadelphia-based band whose sound will always be identified with the mid-80s.  And We Danced is their biggest hit to date.  It’s certainly the one that most people think of if they think about The Hooters.

This music video, which was hugely popular back when MTV played music videos, was shot at a drive-in theater in Exton, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1985.  Unfortunately, the theater has since been torn down but, in a sense, it will exist forever because of this music video.  The video itself was nominated for a Best New Artist award at the MTV Music Video awards but it lost to Take Me On by a-ha.