Favorite Films: Stagecoach (1939)

The First Shot of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach

The First Shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach

Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.

Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.

Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.

In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.

This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.

Favorite Films: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Les dames du bois de boulogne 1945 real : Robert Bresson Paul Bernard Maria Casares Elina Labourdette COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

Poster for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I’ve come down with my second cold of the winter season, so I decided to stay home and watch some DVDs. The last of them I purchased at Cinecon, not even knowing whether it had English subtitles. Fortunately, I did not have to watch it with Korean titles.

For over half a century, I have loved the films of Robert Bresson, beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951), in which a sickly young parish priest tries to minister to an uncaring, even malicious congregation. Over the years, I have seen most of his films—all of which I deemed to be masterpieces or better. Pickpocket (1959) I would easily put on a list of the best ten films ever made.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne came out in the year of my birth. It is a very French film based on a very French source, Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste, an 18th century picaresque novel. Bresson takes one of the stories in the novel and sets it in present day Paris.

Think of it as a tale of revenge. Hélène (played by a gorgeous Maria Casarès) breaks up with her boyfriend Jean (Paul Bernard). While they both pretend to be very civilized about the relationship, there are those two telltale tears below Hélène’s eyes that tell a different story. By accident, Hélène and Jean meat up with a beautiful young dancer, Agnès (Elina Labourdette) and her mother. Jean falls hard for Agnès, which gives Hélène her chance. She sets up the dancer and her mother in an apartment and stage manages Jean’s increasing infatuation. What Jean does not know is that Agnès was also something of a prostitute, though she seems intent on leaving the profession. Jean and Agnès marry, and Hélène casually tells Jean at the reception that most of the men at the wedding have enjoyed the favors of the bride.

Maria Casarès

Maria Casarès

I had seen the film many years ago and didn’t like it. This is a relatively rare case of me going from zero to sixty in half a century. (It could be that the print I saw was a bad 16mm print: I think it was.) Now I love the film so much that I will also undertake soon to readt he Diderot novel on which it is based. I was supposed to have read it in French at Dartmouth for a class in 18th century French literature, but I punted it.

By the way, don’t ever skip a chance to see one of Bresson’s films.

A Baker’s Dozen of Great Japanese Filmmakers

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

I have written on a number of occasions of my admiration of Japanese films, particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems their film industry could do no wrong. Following is a list of my favorite directors followed by my favorites of their films.

If it seems most of the films deal with samurai, it is because I dearly love the genre.

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969)
  • Kon Ichikawa: The Burmese Harp (1956), Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1965), Castle Menagerie (1969)
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
  • Keisuke Kinoshita: The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
  • Masaki Kobayashi: The Human Condition Trilogy (1959-1961), Harakiri (1962), and Kwaidan (1964)
  • AKIRA KUROSAWA: Just about anything he did, most notably Rashomon (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), and The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  • Kenji Misumi: Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
  • KENJI MIZOGUCHI: Just about anything he did, especially Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)
  • Kihachi Okamato: Samurai Assassin (1965), The Sword of Doom (1966)
  • YASUJIRO OZU: Just about anything he did, including Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Kaneto Shindo: Onibaba (1964)
  • Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Woman in the Dunes (1964)

The directors whose names are in red (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu) are by far the greatest, with Kobayashi not far behind.

 

When Betty Boop Was a Dog

Wanna Be a Member? Wanna Be a Member?”

“Wanna Be a Member? Wanna Be a Member?”

Today, Martine and I went to see a program entitled “The Greatest Cartoons Ever!” at the Alex Theater in Glendale. It was the 6th Annual show of cartoons put on by the Alex Film Society. Most of the cartoons were outstanding, but the one that caught my eye was a pre-Code black and white cartoon released in 1931 by the Fleischer Studios. Directed by Dave Fleischer, it starred Bimbo the dog and a very early Betty Boop.

Bimbo is trucking down the street when he falls through an open manhole, slides down a ramp into a strange kind of funhouse, and is accosted (see picture) by a bunch of strange members of a secret society who ask him: “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” When Bimbo loudly answers, “No,” he is sent further into the funhouse where there are various life-threatening traps including knives, an anvil-like device full of sharp blades, and other threatening traps.

Several times, he is asked by the members of the secret society whether he wants to become a member. Each time he vociferously refuses. Finally, one of the members takes off his costume and is revealed to be Betty Boop, which makes Bimbo change his tune. He becomes a member, and all the garbed members are revealed to be Betty Boops.

There is one difference, however. Betty and her backup dancers all have floppy dog ears. No matter: Bimbo is now delighted to join with such “pips.”

If you have six minutes, you can see the cartoon on YouTube. It’s pretty wild.

Favorite Films: A Christmas Carol (1951)

This Version Is Sometimes Called Scrooge

This Version Is Sometimes Called Scrooge

My favorite version of Charles Dickens’s classic is the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring the great Alastair Sim as Scrooge. It’s longer than and more faithful to the original than the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen as the humbugging miser. Plus it has the music for the old song “Barbara Allen” running through it at various points as the love theme.

In addition, there are several negligible musical versions and a not-bad TV version starring Patrick Stewart which isn’t played often.

There are many Christmas movies that purport to be classics. Some of them I love, starting with A Christmas Story (1983), which reminds me of my upbringing in Cleveland. Then there are The Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Christmas in Connecticut (1945)—all of which have their moments.

Whatever you choose to watch, I hope you enjoy it. And I hope this Christmas holiday will be a memorable one for you—and for all the right reasons.

The Approach to J. L. Borges

Argentinian Author and Poet Jorge Luis Borges

Argentinian Author and Poet Jorge Luis Borges

In 1935, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story entitled “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim.” In it, he writes of a man who, after a religious riot between Hindus and Muslims, “becomes aware of a brief and sudden change in that world of ruthlessness—a certain tenderness, a moment of happiness, a forgiving silence in one of his loathsome companions.” He concludes that “somewhere on the face of the earth is a man from whom this light has emanated; somewhere on the face of the earth there exists a man who is equal to this light.”

For me, the source of that light—at least in the world of 20th Century literature—is Jorge Luis Borges himself. I have read all his works that have been translated into English, and even the many interviews he conducted toward the end of his life. I am now on the lookout for ever more obscure works … and I think I have found a good candidate.

The book is by Argentinian author and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, and its title is Borges In/And/On Film (New York: Lumen Books, 1988). Its three parts consist of:

  1. Reviews of films written by Borges before his blindness became total in the 1950s.
  2. The influence of Borges on film critics and filmmakers (mostly French).
  3. A survey of films based on Borges’s stories or scripts.

The parts become decreasingly interesting from one part to the next. He had a curious liking for the films of Josef von Sternberg—before that director had discovered Marlene Dietrich. Afterwards he regards him as “a devotee of the inexorable Muse of Bric-à-Brac.” Reviewing an Argentinian film, Borges writes it “is unquestionably one of the best Argentine films I have seen, which is to say, one of the worst films in the world.”

Of Citizen Kane, he writes that it “suffers from gigantism, from pedantry, from tediousness. It is not intelligent, it is a work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.”

Of Victor Fleming’s version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Borges complains that he “avoids all surprise and mystery; in the early scenes of the film, Spencer Tracy fearlessly drinks the versatile potion and transforms himself into Spencer Tracy, with a different wig and Negroid features.”

Although Borges did no write many film reviews, many of his observations are interesting. He also has made one notable howler: Recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), he writes:

Thus, in one of the noblest Soviet films, a battleship bombards the overloaded port of Odessa at close range, with no casualties except for some marble lions. The markmanship is harmless because it comes from a virtuous, maximalist battleship.

It is not the Potemkin that bombards Odessa, but the Czarist Black Sea Fleet, whose shooting results in a massacre.

The above painting is the work of Beti Alonso.

Favorite Films: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Dude Abides

The Dude Abides

There are few films that have been produced in the last twenty years that do for me what The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers does. In the last thirty days, I have seen it twice; and Im still drawn in by it.

This is a film about mistaken identities and incorrect snap judgments. “The Dude” is Jeff Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges), an unemployed layabout who loves to bowl. He is confused for a more wealthy Jeff Lebowski, whose young trophy wife has supposedly been kidnapped. One of the Dude’s bowling partners is Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a harebrained security consultant who is a poster boy for making bad decisions. The two get drawn into the kidnap plot, but things go from bad to worse—until Donny (Steve Buscemi), also on the Dude’s bowling team, dies when the Dude and Walter and confronted by the kidnappers.

Along the way are such great bit parts as Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a egomaniacal bowler; Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the other Lebowski’s daughter; Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the trophy wife; and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), who runs into the Dude at the bowling lanes.

A Poster for the DVD Release of the Film

A Poster for the DVD Release of the Film

What is it about the film which has such a strong appeal for me? Probably it is because The Big Lebowski captures the whole Southern California lifestyle with accuracy and feeling. There are bowlers, millionaires, porno film producers, twisted cops, nihilists, wacko artists, and even a detective who seems to have lost his way. Oddly, Joel and Ethan Coen are New Yorkers who do not look down on L.A. as the land of mashed yeast and right turns at red lights: It looks as if they had actually spent some time here profitably.

I don’t guarantee that the Dude will do for you what he has done for me, but I think he just might.