Book Review: Giant — Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, And The Making Of A Legendary American Film by Don Graham


Wow, that Edna Ferber sure was a bitch.

That was my first thought as I read Giant, Don Graham’s history about the making of the film of the same name.  In the early 50s, Edna Ferber, a writer who was born in Michigan, raised in Wisconsin, and lived in New York, wrote a novel about Texas.  The novel was called Giant and it told a story of ranchers, oilmen, and casual racists.  It was meant to be an attack on Texas, a warning to the rest of the country to not allow itself to turn into Texas.  Ferber presented Texas as being a land where everything was big and everyone owned a jet and an oil well and all the rest of the usual stereotypes.  When Ferber’s novel was turned into a movie, she was apparently not happy to discover that the film was not the vehement denunciation of the state and its citizens that she wished it to be.  In Don Graham’s book, Edna Feber often seems to be hovering in the background of every scene, throwing a fit about every detail of the movie.  She comes across as a certain type of character that every Texan has had to deal with: the angry Northerner who can’t understand why we’re not as impressed with them as they are.

That’s not to say that Giant, as a film, was blindly pro-Texas.  The film featured a subplot that deal with the prejudice that Mexicans faced in Texas.  But the film also indicated that things could change and that people could grow and that was something that Ferber apparently did not agree with, at least as far as Texans are concerned.

If Graham’s entire book was just about Ferber’s displeasure with Giant, it would make for a fairly tedious read but, fortunately, Edna Ferber is just a minor part of the sprawling story that Graham tells.  Instead of worrying too much about Ferber, Graham focuses on the filming of Giant and how it not only brought Hollywood to the citizens of Marfa, Texas but also what it meant to George Stevens, the film’s director and it’s three stars, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.  Giant was the film that proved that Elizabeth Taylor could act.  It was also the film that brought Rock Hudson some rare critical acclaim.  And, perhaps most importantly, it was the last film that James Dean made before his death.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is at its most interesting when it deals with James Dean.  Graham does not make the mistake of blindly idolizing Dean.  Indeed, Dean often comes across as a brat.  Graham writes about Marlon Brando’s well-known dislike of Dean but he also shares anecdotes from the set that reveal that Dean was incredibly talented but also very self-destructive.  Reading about Dean’s behavior and his frayed relationship with George Stevens, one gets the feeling that, even if he had survived the car accident, Dean’s acting career probably would never have survived his own self-destructive impulses.  Graham celebrates Dean’s talent without idealizing his character.

Much as in the movie, Rock Hudson is frequently overshadowed by Dean.  In the book, Hudson comes across as being …. well, he’s come across as being a bit of a jerk.  Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, comes across as being driven, fragile, and committed to her stardom.  She also comes across as possessing an unexpectedly sharp wit.  If both Dean and Hudson were both a bit too self-impressed, Taylor possessed the knowledge of someone who had spent her entire life in the film industry.

Don Graham’s Giant is an entertaining book. Full of anecdotes and more than a little bit juicy speculation about what went on behind the scenes, Giant is a great read for Texans and film fans alike!

Once I Had A Secret Love: RIP Doris Day


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You wouldn’t think from reading most of the content I publish – Western actioners, horror flicks, film noir, exploitation trash – that I’d be a big Doris Day fan. But the first film I can remember seeing on the Big Screen is THAT TOUCH OF MINK, with Doris and Cary Grant, and I’ve been in love ever since. Talent is talent, and the iconic singer/actress, who died earlier today at age 97, had it in bucketloads. Doris’s career spanned nearly 50 years, from the Big Band Era to Cable TV, and was “America’s Sweetheart” for most of her adult life (not to mention “The World’s Oldest Living Virgin” due to her squeaky-clean screen image!).

Cincinnati-born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, born in 1922, wanted to be a professional dancer, but a severe car accident in 1937 curtailed that dream. Instead she turned to singing, and became a local sensation, eventually landing…

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30 Days of Noir #13: Undertow (dir by William Castle)


In the 1949 film, Undertow, Scott Brady plays Tony Reagan.  Tony used to be a member of the Chicago mob but that’s all in the past now.  He served his country in World War II and now, as he tells his old racket friend, Danny (John Russell), all Tony wants to do is settle down and run a hunting lodge in Reno.

However, before Tony can forever abandon Chicago for Nevada, he has to make peace with his future in-laws.  He’s engaged to marry Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart).  In fact, he’s so in love with her that not even meeting a single teacher named Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) can distract Tony from his plans.  The only problem is that Sally is the niece of a Chicago gangster named Big Jim Lee and, in the past, Big Jim and Tony haven’t always been the best of friends.  In fact, the Chicago police are constantly harassing Tony because they’re convinced that he wants to start a gang war with Big Jim.  Instead, Tony just wants to make peace with Big Jim before the wedding.

Tony goes to visit Big Jim and …. well, you can guess what’s going to happen, can’t you?  If you’ve seen enough film noirs, you know that no one is every totally out of the rackets.  No one believes an ex-mobster when they say that they’re no longer interested in making trouble.  Even worse, any murder committed with automatically be blamed on anyone who says that they’re no longer a member of the rackets.  That’s what happens to Tony.  Not only does he discover that Big Jim has been shot dead but everyone thinks that he’s the one who did it.  Fleeing through the shadowy streets of Chicago, Tony finds himself not only being pursued by the police but also by the murderers.  Everyone wants to either capture or kill Tony.

In fact, the only person who seems to be on Tony’s side is Ann McKnight.  Ann lets Tony hide out at her apartment while he tries to figure out what’s going on.  Of course, Ann does have a nosy landlady who has no hesitation about letting herself into the apartment whenever she feels like it….

The plot of Undertow isn’t going to win any points for originality.  It’s not going to take you long to figure out who is setting Tony up, if just because there really aren’t enough characters in the film for there to be much suspense about who is betraying who.  But no matter!  The film is still an atmospherically shot and briskly-paced thriller.  Undertow was directed by William Castle, who is probably best known for directing campy B-movies like The Tingler and Strait-Jacket.  There’s nothing campy about Castle’s direction of Undertow.  The majority of the film was shot on location and Castle makes great use of Chicago.  When Tony tries to lose the cops that are tailing him, it helps that he’s not running across a soundstage but instead down real city streets, ones that feels alive with tension and danger.  There’s also a great chase that takes place in a long and dark corridor in an underground garage.

Scott Brady (who was the brother of tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney) gives a sympathetic performance as Tony and he and Peggy Dow have a really likable chemistry in their scenes together.  Dorothy Hart is also well-cast as the film’s femme fatale, while Bruce Bennett has a few good scenes as a detective who is an old friend of Tony’s.  Fans of “classic” matinée idols will want to keep an eye out for Rock Hudson, making a brief appearance in his second film and credited as “Roc” Hudson.

No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)


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I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s…

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Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal-International 1952)


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BEND OF THE RIVER, the second of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns, isn’t quite as good as the first, WINCHESTER ’73 . That’s not to say it isn’t a good film; it’s just hard to top that bona fide sagebrush classic. Stewart continues his post-war, harder edged characterizations as a man determined to change his ways, and is supported by a strong cast that includes a villainous turn by the underrated Arthur Kennedy .

Jimmy plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw now riding as trail boss for a group of farmers heading to Oregon to begin a new life. He encounters Kennedy as Emerson Cole, a horse thief about to be hanged, and enlists his help on the trail west. Both men know each other’s reputations; they were both once raiders along the Missouri/Kansas border. The wagons are attacked at night by Shoshone, an arrow piercing young Laura Baile, daughter of…

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Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)


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James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer)…

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A Movie A Day #63: Showdown (1973, directed by George Seaton)


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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The time and the place is the old west.  Growing up, Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) were best friends.  When the lovely Kate (Susan Clark) chose Chuck over Billy, the two of them go their separate ways.  Billy becomes a notorious train robber.  Chuck becomes the sheriff of their hometown.  After Billy returns home, it is up to Chuck to not only capture him but to also protect him from not only his former partners but a gang of vigilantes as well.

There’s nothing surprising about Showdown, a strictly by the numbers western that, if not for a few bloody gunshot wounds and some dialogue about cattle “humping,” could have just as easily been released in 1953 as 1973.  The only thing that makes Showdown special is that it was the last western made by both Rock Hudson and Dean Martin.  Dino is his usual fun-loving, half-soused self but Rock Hudson looks absolutely miserable here.  If Rock’s role had been played by Frank Sinatra (or even Peter Lawford), Showdown would probably be remembered as a minor classic.  As it is, it’s for Dean Martin completists only.

 

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)


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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #20: Magnificent Obsession (dir by Douglas Sirk)


Magnificent_obsessionThere’s a scene early on in the 1954 melodrama Magnificent Obsession in which formerly carefree millionaire Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) meets with an artist named Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger).  We know that Randolph’s brilliant because he speaks in a deep voice, tends to be unnecessarily verbose, and often stares off in the distance after speaking.  Bob wants to know about a dead doctor who was a friend of Randolph’s.  Randolph explains the late doctor’s philosophy of doing anonymous good works.  Bob’s mind is blown.  (Hudson, who was never the most expressive of actors, conveys having his mind blown by grinning.)

“This is dangerous stuff,” Randolph warns him, “One of the first men who used it went to the cross at the age of 33…”

And a heavenly chorus is heard in the background…

And that one line pretty much tells you exactly what type of film Magnificent Obsession is.  It’s a film that not only embraces the melodrama but which also holds on tight to make sure that the melodrama can never escape.  There’s not a single minute in this film that is not hilarious overwritten.  It’s not just Randolph who tends to be portentous in his pronouncements.  No — everyone in the film speaks that way!

The dead doctor is dead specifically because of Bob.  Apparently, the doctor had a heart attack but the local hospital’s only resuscitator was being used to save the life of Bob who, while the doctor was dying, was busy recklessly driving a boat.

Helen (Jane Wyman), the doctor’s widow is, at first, bitter towards Bob and when Bob offers to donate $250,000 to the hospital, Helen refuses to accept his check.  This leads to Bob doing a lot of soul-searching and eventually having his life-changing conversation with Randolph.  Excited at the prospect of doing anonymous good works for the rest of his life, Bob tracks down Helen and tries to tell her that he’s a changed man.  Helen, however, wants nothing to do with Bob and ends up getting hit by a car while running away from him.  Helen survives but now, she’s blind!

Now, at this point, you might think that Bob has done enough to ruin Helen’s life.  At least, that’s the way that Helen’s family views it and when Bob attempts to visit her in the hospital, they order him to go away.

Eventually, Helen comes home from the hospital and starts to adjust to a life without eyesight.  One day, she meets a man on the beach and they start up a tentative romance.  What she doesn’t realize, at first, is that the man is Bob!  By the time she does realize who the man is, Helen has fallen in love with him.  However, she feels that it wouldn’t be fair to Bob to pursue a relationship with him and she leaves him.

So, of course, Bob’s response is to go to medical school and become a neurosurgeon.  Many years later, Helen has a brain tumor and needs an operation to survive.

Can you guess who her surgeon turns out to be?

Magnificent Obsession is almost a prototypical 1950s melodrama.  It’s big, it’s glossy, it’s self-important, and undeniably (and occasionally unintentionally) funny.  Even the total lack of chemistry between Hudson and Wyman somehow adds to the film’s strange charm.  It’s hard not to admire a film that starts out over-the-top and just grows more excessive from there.

Watching Magnificent Obsession is a bit like taking a trip into a parallel, technicolor dimension.  It’s strange, fascinating, and far more watchable than it should be.

 

 

Back to School #10: Pretty Maids All In A Row (dir by Roger Vadim)


Pretty Maids All In A Row, which — as should be pretty obvious from the trailer above — was originally released in 1971, is a bit of a historic film for me.  You see, I love movies.  And, as a part of that love, I usually don’t give up.  Regardless of how bad a movie may turn out to be, once I start watching, I stick with it.  I do not give up.  I keep watching because you never know.  The film could suddenly get better.  It could turn out that what originally seemed like a misfire was actually brilliant satire.  If you’re going to talk or write about movies, you have an obligation to watch the entire movie.  That was a rule that I had always lived by.

And then, one night, Pretty Maids All In A Row popped up on TCM.

Now, I have to admit that I already knew that Pretty Maids was going to be an extremely 70s film.  I knew that it was probably going to be more than a little sexist.  I knew all of this because the above trailer was included on one of my 42nd Street Forever DVDs.  But I still wanted to see Pretty Maids because the trailer hinted that there might be an interesting hiding underneath all of the cultural baggage.  If nothing else, it appeared that it would have some sort of worth as an artifact of its time.

(If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know how much I love my cinematic time capsules.)

So, the film started.  I logged onto twitter so that I could live tweet the film, using the hashtag #TCMParty.  And from the moment the film started, I knew it wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t just that the film’s camerawork and music were all extremely 70s.  After all, I like 70s music.  I don’t mind the occasional zoom lens.  And random psychedelic sequences?  WHO DOESN’T LOVE THOSE!?  No, my dislike of the film had nothing to do with the film’s style.  Instead, it had to do with the fact that there was absolutely nothing going on behind all of that style.  It wasn’t even style for the sake of style (which is something that I usually love).  Instead, it was style for the sake of being like every other “youth film” that came out in the 70s.

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And then there was the film’s plot, which should have been interesting but wasn’t because director Roger Vadim (who specialized in stylish decadence) had no interest in it.  The film takes place at Oceanfront High School, where the only rule is that apparently nobody is allowed to wear a bra.  We meet one student, Ponce De Leon Harper (played by an amazingly unappealing actor named John David Carson), who is apparently on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because, at the height of the sexual revolution, he’s still a virgin.

(Because, of course, the whole point of the sexual revolution was for losers like Ponce to finally be able to get laid…)

Ponce is taken under the wing of high school guidance counselor Tiger McDrew (Rock Hudson, complete with porn star mustache).  Quickly figuring out exactly what Ponce needs, Tiger sets him up with a teacher played by Angie Dickinson.  However, Tiger has other concerns than just Ponce.  Tiger, it turns out, is a sex addict who is sleeping with nearly every female student at the school. But, American society is so oppressive and puts so much pressure on the American male that Tiger has no choice but to kill every girl that he sleeps with…

This is one of the only film I can think of that not only makes excuses for a serial killer but also presents him as being a heroic  character.  And, while it’s tempting to think that the film is being satirical in its portrayal of Tiger and his murders, it’s actually not.  Don’t get me wrong.  The film is a very broad comedy.  The high school’s principal (Roddy McDowall) is more concerned with the football team than with all of the girls turning up dead at the school.  The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is a buffoon.  The tough detective (Telly Savalas) who investigates the murders gets a few one liners.

But Tiger, most assuredly, is the film’s hero.  He’s the only character that the audience is expected to laugh with, as opposed to at.  He is the character who is meant to serve as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s view on America’s puritanical culture.  If only society was less hung up on sex, Tiger wouldn’t have to kill.  Of course, the film’s celebration of Tiger’s attitude towards sex is not extended towards the girls who sleep with him.  Without an exception, they are all presented as being empty-headed, demanding, shallow, and annoying, worthy only of being leered at by Vadim’s camera until Tiger finally has to do away with them.

(The film’s attitude towards women makes Getting Straight look positively enlightened.)

Rock and Angie

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ANYWAY!  I spent about 40 minutes watching this movie before I gave up on it.  Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I gave up after 5 minutes.  But I stuck with it for another 35 minutes, waiting to see if the film was going to get any better.  It didn’t and finally, I had to ask myself, “Why am I actually sitting here and wasting my time with this misogynistic bullshit?”  So, I stopped watching and I did so with no regrets.

What I had forgotten is that I had set the DVR to record the film while I was watching it, just in case I later decided to review it.  So, last week, as I was preparing for this series of Back to School posts, I saw Pretty Maids All In A Row on my DVR.  I watched the final 51 minutes of the film, just to see if it ever got better.  It didn’t.

However, on the plus side, Rock Hudson does give a good performance in the role of Tiger, bringing a certain seedy desperation to the character.  (I’m guessing that this desperation was Hudson’s own contribution and not an element of Roddenberry’s screenplay, which more or less presents Tiger as being a Nietzschean superman.).  And beyond that, Pretty Maids serves as evidence as to just how desperate the Hollywood studios were to makes movies that would be weird enough to appeal to young people in the early 70s.

Watching the film, you can practically hear the voices of middle-aged studio executives.

“What the Hell are we trying to do with this movie!?” one of the voices says.

“Who cares!?” the other voice replies, “the kids will love it!”

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