They Have It In For us

Let’s face it: New York City has it in for us. They have a strange vision of the city that includes only the crescent-shaped area linking downtown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Santa Monica. That’s only a tiny slice of LA. The whole country has a population just over ten million people, most of whom do not surf, eat granola, work in the film industry, or belong to a cult.

Over the years, we’ve taken quite a beating. It was William Faulkner who said:

Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept… The plastic asshole of the world.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from writing screenplays over a period of two decades. In the Wikipedia article on him, it says:

As Stefan Solomon observes, Faulkner was highly critical of what he found in Hollywood, and he wrote letters that were “scathing in tone, painting a miserable portrait of a literary artist imprisoned in a cultural Babylon.” Many scholars have brought attention to the dilemma he experienced and that the predicament had caused him serious unhappiness. In Hollywood he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawkes, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Although Faulkner did not particularly like Hollywood, he participated in the production of some great films which bear his screen writing credit: Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Not coincidentally, they were all directed by Howard Hawks.

If you see Los Angeles as essentially Hollywood, you will be unhappy here. I was for many years until I saw beyond all the la-la-land rubbish. This is a particularly difficult city for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around. Perhaps it’s because they cannot find egg creams here, whatever those are.

Favorite Movies: Rio Bravo and El Dorado

Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)

Over a period of eight years, director Howard Hawks filmed virtually the same story twice—both films starring John Wayne—with the only differences being some minor script changes and a different set of supporting actors. The films were Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967). Interestingly, both films hold up pretty well today.

Both films were a reaction to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Gary Cooper tries and fails to enlist the help of his fellow townspeople in fending off an attack of several bad guys seeking vengeance for having jailed several of them. In contrast, John Wayne turns away several offers of help in the Hawks pictures and beats the bad guys anyway. Both times, the sheriff is under attack by wealthy ranchers who bring in hired guns to assist them.

Here are the major cast differences:

  • John Wayne plays himself in both pictures, though in El Dorado, he is a gunfighter assisting his friend, the sheriff, played by Robert Mitchum.
  • Dean Martin plays the drunk lawman in Rio Bravo; Robert Mitchum, in El Dorado.
  • The young gun is played, respectively, by Ricky Nelson and James Caan, in his first major role.
  • The female lead is played, respectively, by Angie Dickinson and Charlene Holt.
  • The deputy comic sidekick is played, respectively, by Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt.

John Wayne and James Caan in El Dorado (1967)

I just saw Rio Bravo again for the nth time yesterday afternoon. I will summarize it here because it is fresh in my memory. John Wayne and Dean Martin arrest Claude Akins for shooting an unarmed man. Unfortunately, scapegrace though he is, he is the brother of powerful rancher John Russell, who is determined to spring him before the U.S. marshal comes to town in six days. He besieges the jailhouse with his men and orders the musicians in his saloon to play El Deguëllo nonstop. This was a bugle call played by Santa Anna’s Mexican troops during the 1836 siege of the Alamo. Eventually, Russell’s men manage to kidnap Dean Martin. Wayne arranges for an exchange of Martin for Akins at a warehouse at the edge of town. The good guys prevail.

There is a third Howard Hawks film with a similar story, Rio Lobo (1970), which was the director’s last film. Although I love Hawks’s works, this is one you can skip.

 

 

Favorite Films: The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Scene That Scared Me Most as a Kid

My favorite science fiction film of the 1950s was The Thing from Another World, an RKO cheapie that was superbly written and, for me as a boy who grew up in that strange era, utterly frightening. The whole film takes place in a research camp in the remote arctic north of Alaska. An army officer (Captain Hendry) receives orders to investigate the landing of an unknown object weighing some 20,000 tons (18 million kilograms)—far above the weight of known aircraft of the period. Also, it could not be a giant meteor because it went up before ultimately landing.

He flies up to the research station and, the next day, scouts out the landing site, in which the entire craft with the exception of a protruding fin is under ice. Hendry’s men line up above the visible edges of the vessel to determine its shape (it is circular, of course) and test the fin for its composition (an unknown alloy of some sort). To study the vessel more carefully, Tobey employs thermite bombs to melt the ice around it. Unfortunately, it also blows up the space ship. In doing so, a large (8 feet or 2.5 meters) figure is thrown from the ship. Still encased in ice, the figure is flown back to the research station.

Tobey orders the windows of the supply room in which it is stored to be broken to keep the figure frozen in ice. One of the guards on a later shift puts an electric blanket over the space alien—for such it turns out to be. The ice melt, the creature awakens, and it immediately goes on the attack.

Flying Saucer Fin Sticking Up Through the Ice

The scientists at the station, led by the venerable Nobelist Dr. Carrington, immediately deduce that the priority must be to communicate with the “obviously” superior creature, even if it turns out to be suicidal in the end. Captain Hendry, on the other hand, is more concerned for the safety of the military and scientific staff. During the beast’s rampages, there is an almost total radio silence with the civilized world because of severe storms.

This 87-minute black and white film was produced in the same year that saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide, and it was more successful than either film. My only reaction to that is, to use an expression from the film, “Holy Cat!” By the way, the beast was played by James Arness in his first role.

The film was signed by Christian Nyby as director, though it clearly shows signs of having been heavily influenced by producer Howard Hawks.