Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

A Movie A Day #325: Damnation Alley (1977, directed by Jack Smight)


Anyone who has seen Damnation Alley knows that the only thing that matters is the Landmaster.

Damnation Alley has a slight plot.  A nuclear war has knocked the Earth off of its axis.  The skies are green and purple.  The scorpions are huge and the cockroaches eat humans.  Crazed survivors are living like savages, attacking anyone that they come across.  When a radio signal seems to indicate that there might still be civilization in Albany, four military men (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven) decide to drive across the country to check it out.  To reach Albany, they will have to cross an inhospitable stretch of land called Damnation Alley.  They will be making the journey in two Landmasters, amphibious vehicles that provide RV comfort with the extra advantage of a rocket launcher.  Along the way, they fight scorpions, roaches, and pick up some extra passengers (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley).

The radioactive sky looks cool but otherwise, the scorpions and the cockroaches are all obviously fake and no one in the cast makes any effort to do more than recite their lines.  But no one who has watched Damnation Alley cares about any of that.  We just want to drive a Landmaster.

There is nothing that the Landmaster cannot do.  It  can speed across desert sand.  It can tear up city streets.  It can break through walls.  It can turn into a boat.  It can fire missiles.  It also appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the TARDIS.  Either that or whoever did the set design for Damnation Alley was not detail-oriented.

Despite the awe-inspiring Landmaster, Damnation Alley was neither a critical nor a box office hit.  It was one of two science fiction films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977.  The other one was Star Wars, which was a good movie but didn’t have a Landmaster.

As for the Landmaster itself, it currently resides in California and has appeared in a handful of other movies.  Sadly, it missed out on the opportunity to appear in any of the Smoky and the Bandit movies.  Burt Reynolds driving a Landmaster?  That would have been box office gold.

Right, Burt?

My Huckleberry Friend: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (Paramount 1961)


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(“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” airs tonight, 6/12/17 at 8:00 EST on TCM as part of their month-long salute to Audrey Hepburn.)

“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky” – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

From it’s hauntingly romantic theme “Moon River” to it’s sophisticated screenplay by George Axelrod, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a near-perfect movie. The bittersweet comedy-drama stars Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar nominated performance as Holly Golightly, a New York “party girl” who winds up falling for struggling writer George Peppard. That Hepburn didn’t get the Oscar (Sophia Loren took it home that year for TWO WOMEN) is one of the Academy’s greatest crimes. The film has a very personal connection with…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #28: The Carpetbaggers (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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The 1960s was apparently a bad time for talented old school Hollywood filmmakers getting sucked into making big budget, excessively lengthy films.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz spent most of his career making movies like All About Eve and then, in 1963, he ended up directing Cleopatra.  Elia Kazan went from A Face In The Crowd to The Arrangement.  John Huston went from Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to directing not only The Bible but Reflections in a Golden Eye as well.

And then there’s Edward Dmytryk.  Dmytryk may not be as highly regarded by modern critics as Mankiewicz and Huston but he still directed some of the best film noirs of the 1940s.  His 1947 film Crossfire was nominated for best picture and probably should have won.  In 1952, he directed one of the first true crime procedural films, The Sniper.  His 1954 best picture nominee, The Caine Mutiny, featured one of Humphrey Bogart’s best and most unusual performances.

And yet, in 1964, he somehow found himself directing The Carpetbaggers.

The Carpetbaggers tells the story of Jonas Cord (George Peppard).  Jonas is the son of the fabulously wealthy Jonas Cord, Sr. (Leif Erickson).  At the start of the film, father and son do not get along.  Senior resents that Junior is more interested in piloting airplanes than in learning the family business.  Junior is angry that Senior has married Jonas’s ex-girlfriend, actress Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker).  In fact, as far as Jonas, Jr. is concerned, Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) is more of a father to him than his actual father.

Nevada Smith is Jonas, Sr.’s best friend and occasional business partner.  He’s a former cowboy who, we are told in a lengthy bit of exposition, is legendary for tracking down and killing the three men who killed his parents.  (As we listen to Jonas, Jr. tell the entire lengthy story, we find ourselves thinking, “Okay, so why not make a movie out of that story?”  Well, they did.  Two years after the release of The Carpetbaggers, Steve McQueen starred in Nevada Smith.)  Nevada’s also a film star whose career is in deep decline.

Speaking of deep decline, Jonas, Sr. ends up having a heart attack and dramatically dropping dead before he can get a chance to disinherit his son.  Jonas, Jr. inherits the Cord fortune and the Cord business and proceed to spend the next two and a half hours abusing everyone who gets close to him.  He even mistreats his loving and neurotic wife, Monica (Elizabeth Ashley, giving the only really memorable performance in the entire film).

Yes, there’s really no reason to have any sympathy at all for Jonas Cord, Jr. but the film insists that we should because he’s the main character and he’s played by the top-billed star.  We’re also told that he’s a brilliant aviation engineer and I guess we’re supposed to admire him for being good at what does.  We also discover that Jonas believes that his mother was insane and that she passed down her insanity to him.  He fears that he’ll pass the crazy gene to any of children that he might have so that’s why he pushes everyone away.  Just in case we don’t understand how big a deal this is to him, the camera zooms in for a closeup whenever Jonas is reminded of his mother.

(In the 60s, all mental instability was represented via zoom lens.)

However, Jonas isn’t just into airplanes!  He also buys a movie studio, specifically because Rina Marlowe is under contract.  Soon, Jonas is directing movies his way.  Jonas also finds himself falling in love with another actress (Martha Hyer) so, of course, he starts treating her badly in an effort to push her away.

What can be done to save the tortured soul of Jonas Cord?  Maybe he just need to get beaten up by Nevada Smith…

The Carpetbaggers was based on a novel by Harold Robbins.  The novel was apparently quite a scandal when it was originally published.  People read it and they wondered, “Who was based on who?”  Well, if you’ve ever seen The Aviator, it’s not that difficult to figure out.  Jonas Cord, eccentric movie mogul and obsessive pilot, was obviously meant to be Howard Hughes.  Rina Marlowe was meant to be Jean Harlow, a fact that can be guessed just by looking at the last names.  And I’m guessing that Nevada Smith was probably based on former President Warren G. Harding because … well, why not?

I suppose that, by the standards of 1964, the film version of The Carpetbaggers would have been considered risqué.  For a modern audience, the main appeal of something like The Carpetbaggers is to see what was once considered to be shocking.  The film is overlong, George Peppard doesn’t exactly figure out how to make Jonas into the compelling  rogue that he needs to be, the clothes and the sets are a lot more interesting than any of the dialogue (but not interesting enough to carry a nearly 3 hour movie), and the film’s pacing is so off that some scenes seem to go on forever while others are way too short.  But, as a cultural and historical artifact, The Carpetbaggers does hold some interest.

The Carpetbaggers was made at a time when Hollywood felt it was under attack from both television and European cinema.  With a film like The Carpetbaggers, the studios were saying, “See!?  Television will never be able to make a film this long and big!  And those Europeans aren’t the only ones who can make a movie about sex!”  Of course, as so often happened during this time, the studios failed to take into account that size and length don’t always equal quality (and ain’t that the truth?).  As for the sex — well, we hear a lot more than we actually see.  The Carpetbaggers is one of those films where everyone talks about sex, largely because showing sex wasn’t really an option.  (And it should be noted that most of the sex talk is delivered in the language of euphemism.)  As a result, The Carpetbaggers feels incredibly tame by today’s standards.  As a result, your main reaction to The Carpetbaggers will probably be to marvel at what was considered daring and shocking 50 years ago.

(And before we get too cocky and quick to dismiss those who came before us, let’s consider how our current films will look to movie audiences five decades from now…)

As far as biopics of Howard Hughes are concerned, The Carpetbaggers in no Aviator.  However, it is an occasionally interesting historical artifact.

Guilty Pleasure No. 22: Battle Beyond the Stars (dir. by Jimmy T. Murakami)


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Two of my favorite films of all-time happen to be very similar. In fact, one could say that they’re pretty much the same films. I’m talking about Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and it’s Western-remake by John Sturges, The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s film is one of the greatest films of all-time and it’s no wonder that many have taken the film’s story of the downtrodden hiring a band of misfits, rogues, but still honorable men to help them fight against huge odds.

One such film that tries to add onto Kurosawa film’s legacy was the Roger Corman-produced scifi-adventure film Battle Beyond the Stars. This 1980 film was one of Corman’s many attempts to cash-in on the Star Wars phenomena, but in his usual low-budget style.

For a low-budget scifi film, Battle Beyond the Stars happened to have quite a cast one doesn’t usually see in such productions. While it had such grindhouse and exploitation regulars as John Saxon and Sybil Danning, it also starred the wholesome Richard Thomas from The Waltons and George Peppard (who would later become famous with a new generation as Hannibal Smith of The A-Team). The film would be directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, but from watching the film one could see Corman’s fingerprints all over the production from the script which was pretty lean and cut to the basic outline of Kurosawa’s original film. There’s not much fluff to bog down the pacing of the film.

This film has always been a guilty pleasure of mine because it so resemble Seven Samurai and The Magificent Seven, but adds in it’s own unique style and look to a well-worn and well-trodden plot. It was much later that I found out that James Cameron had a major hand in the special effects work in the film. Think about that for a moment. The self-proclaimed “King of the World” who literally breaks film budget records every time he begins work on a film did FX work on battle Beyond the Stars whose effects budget probably wouldn’t buy a day’s worth of crafts table eating for his most modestly budgeted films.

Lisa Marie always loved to say that grindhouse and exploitation films are some of most honest films out there. There’s no bullshit to what we see on the screen. It’s filmmakers forced to be daring and inventive because the lack of resources forces them to think outside the box. Battle Beyond the Stars might be seen as a mediocre attempt to cash-in on a scifi cultural phenomena, but it does so with a go for broke mentality that makes it such a fun film to watch. It’s not the greatest thing Corman has ever produced and some would even call it a very bad film, but once one looked past it’s rough and flawed surface then one could see a gem in the rough hidden beneath.

Oh, this remake of the remake of the original also happened to star one Robert Vaughn who was one of original Magnificent Seven.

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer