Monday, December 28, 2015

Mister Leonard

Auteur, indeed.

Sheldon Leonard was producer/sometime director/always chief creative boss of The Danny Thomas Show (1957-64), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), I Spy (1965-68), Gomer Pyle (1964-69) (one of the funniest shows of the 60s, Vietnam be damned, thanks to the professionalism of Jim Nabors and the comic greatness of Frank Sutton), plus the one season (1969-70) of the Emmy-sweeping My World and Welcome To It. No creative force dominated American TV culture as widely, as humanly, and with as much variety as did Leonard's product during the transition from Eisenhower to Nixon.

The jewel in the crown -- the best show of its time (and perhaps ever) -- was of course The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). While it was Carl Reiner who drove the DVD car, Sheldon Leonard provided the road map, and what a map it was . . . kind, gracious, graceful, elegant, brilliantly funny, modest, super smart, humane -- with (like the time of the show itself) always the good speaking. The variety of Leonard's genius can best be felt by comparing DVD with Danny Thomas. The two shows overlap across four seasons, an overlap set within the entertainment world of early-60s New York City. Yet Thomas drifts with the Sweet Smell of Success: nightclubs, bars, agents, penthouses, taxicabs, tuxedos, and at times an almost hysterical aggressiveness. Van Dyke is quiet and gentle: it exists in back offices, suburban living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens, in a neighbor's dental chair. Throw in a small Southern town contained inside a bell jar, the black-and-white world of international intrigue, a military barracks, and the fantasy-filled study of a Thurberesque writer. . . amazing. Even more amazing: all of it good-hearted.

One of the funniest Van Dyke episodes (and the only one with a nightclub setting), stars the man himself: "Big Max Calvada" from November 20, 1963, on the cusp of the Unspeakable.

Friday, December 25, 2015

And Why Not?

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dark Holiday

James Harvey -- along with Chris Fujiwara, Tom Gunning, David Bordwell, and Raymond Carney (except when Carney's writing about Capra) -- is one of my film writer/historian Gods. There is so much to learn from reading (and re-reading) Professor Harvey's two masterpieces, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood (1997) and Movie Love in the Fifties (2002). 'Though he hasn't published since '02, word is he's currently wrapping up a history of the Western to be published by Farrar Straus, and based on Movie Love's astonishing analysis of Johnny Guitar and The Lusty Men it is a release devoutly to be wished for.

The knockout punch for me in first reading Movie Love was the chapter on a forgotten and very hard-to-find (thank you, Karagarga) WWII noir called Christmas Holiday, directed by my favorite noir director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman, The Suspect, Spiral Staircase, The Killers, Dark Mirror, Criss Cross, Cry of the City) and written by the ever-strange Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Perhaps Siodmak's most famous sequence, Phantom Lady (1944).

Or maybe the opening to The Killers (1946).

James Harvey:
The script that Herman Mankiewicz supplied for Siodmak's Christmas Holiday had some resemblances to his Academy Award-winning Citizen Kane screenplay. It has the same skewed chronology, the same overlapping flashbacks; and entering it is a bit like stepping into a labyrinth (one of Welles's favorite movie metaphors), mostly because it begins so far away from its main story and characters. It's almost fifteen minutes before the star and central character appears or is even spoken of. In the meantime, there are (the opening scene) an OCS graduation ceremony (even a speech); a scene in the barracks with a young lieutenant (Dean Harens) getting a Dear John wire from his fiancée; a passenger-plane flight through an electrical storm; a forced landing in New Orleans; and the soldier getting a room at a hotel where people are all sleeping in the lobby (it's wartime and it's Christmas Eve). In the hotel bar he meets a friendly, half-soused newspaperman, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). You got troubles? I'll take you to the Maison Lafitte, says the newspaperman. What's the Maison Lafitte? "It's a -- well, let's face it -- it's a kinda joint a little way outta town."

It looks like a Wolf Man outtake when we get there: a crumbling porticoed mansion in a raging night storm, overarching trees bent by wind and rain in the foreground of a long shot, as the two men emerge from their car and struggle through the storm onto the front porch. But inside the entrance hall, it's light, with a Christmas tree by the door at the foot of a stairway, and a crystal chandelier overhead, as a maid in cap and apron takes their coats and lightning flashes through the windows, while a Dixieland band rides and rollicks on the soundtrack. And after all the neutral, generic places we've been looking at before this (from the parade grounds to the hotel room), getting to this one -- lush and lively and tacky all at once -- makes you feel the way a good song does when it finally gets to the chorus. Now, we know, we're really at the movies.
Buy the book.

Robert Siodmak's Christmas Holiday (1944).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


They are lonely; the spirit of their writing and conversation is lonely; they repel influences; they shun general society; they incline to shut themselves in their chamber in the house, to live in the country rather than in the town, and to find their tasks and amusements in solitude. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial, — they are not stockish or brute, — but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. Like the young Mozart, they are rather ready to cry ten times a day, "But are you sure you love me?" . . .

And yet, it seems as if this loneliness, and not this love, would prevail in their circumstances, because of the extravagant demand they make on human nature. . . Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, "Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?" And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists? where are they who represented to the last generation that extravagant hope, which a few happy aspirants suggest to ours? In looking at the class of counsel, and power, and wealth, and at the matronage of the land, amidst all the prudence and all the triviality, one asks, Where are they who represented virtue, the invisible and heavenly world, to these? Are they dead, — taken in early ripeness to the gods, — as ancient wisdom foretold their fate? Or did the high idea die out of them, and leave their unperfumed body as its tomb and tablet, announcing to all that the celestial inhabitant, who once gave them beauty, had departed?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Illegal Immigration

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In my post about the great Kim Novak, I mentioned the way of Hollywood and miracles. She and many stars were the result of happy accidents only possible in an isolated creation chamber where all bets are covered cold. So one can take a chance on an awkward, shy girl from Chicago who came to LA for she knew not why. Or on a rodeo rider/poker player/roustabout just wandering in from the rails, and turn him into Robert Mitchum. Archibald Leach was a trapeze artist from England. Poof! he’s Cary Grant.

And the movies. Can one imagine Detour (1945) being born under any other kind of system? Gun Crazy (1949), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Marrying Kind (1952), The Big Sleep (1946), Holiday (1938), Lady from Shanghai (1948), Out of the Past (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), My Darling Clementine (1946), Angel Face (1952) or White Heat (1949)?

Or Some Came Running (1959). Looking at the push novelist James Jones made as he proposed a $1,000,000 sell price for his yet-to-be-completed novel (by far the largest asking price in Hollywood history, eventually purchased for $200,000); looking at the best seller craze which dominated – and in many cases suffocated – 1940s and 50s Hollywood; and looking at the seemingly too-cool-for-school cast, one might think the movie, hoping to catch From Here to Eternity lightning-in-a-bottle, would be just another middle-brow social issue project come down with elephantiasis.

Enter Vincente Minnelli. One would be hard pressed to find two male sensibilities as opposed as those of Minnelli and James Jones: Jones a brawling small town southern Illinois street kid who knew little beyond the military and the men in it; Minnelli the complete urban sophisticate, far more in touch with style, beauty, female sensibility, and affairs of the heart. There's not a chance in heck that a director such as Minnelli (if we had one) would be brought together with a novel almost exclusively concerned with the problems of men, in the end-of-cinema Branding/Marketeer miasma we now suffer. But it was possible in 1958. And it is this melding and confrontation between the two sensibilities which gives us the miracle of Some Came Running: a swaying back-and-forth, beyond the control of Minnelli, the true "story" of the film, a thematic resolution unresolved. Until it is.

James Jones – perhaps because of the money and because he was allowed to hang with the Rat Pack – seemed pleased with the movie adaptation of his 1,200 page book. Which is kind of strange because Minnelli not only works to reverse the meaning of the novel, but challenges just about every part of Jones’s macho value system. Poker, drinking, broads, brothers, cars, back alley fights, the writer as warrior – all here, and all eventually trumped by a silly, stupid, madly-in-love girl named Ginny.

Veteran David Hirsch (Frank Sinatra) has decided to return home to Parkman, Indiana after 16 years away and a long hitch in the Army. Arriving from Chicago with a $5,500 poker bankroll burning in his pants, he learns he has arrived with something else as well.

Whatever happened to Shirley MacLaine, here so natural and warm and lovely. . .

But not for Dave Hirsch. Other things. His successful older brother, mostly. In a beautiful mix of sequences, Minnelli shows how much a part of mid-20th Century American male ethos Hirsch is, almost to the point of caricature. But not quite. Minnelli (helped by Elmer Bernstein's fine score) temporarily embraces the ethos, particularly in the strange and moving shot of Hirsch's favorite books. And in the character of gambler Bama Dillert (Dean Martin).

Hirsch meets a girl with the appropriate name of Gwen French (Martha Hyer), the daughter of a famous poet. She's also the teacher of a respected writing class at the University. And she's madly in love with Dave's talents as a writer.

Dave is already way past that.

Gwen won't have it. So Dave does what any red-blooded American male would do in the face of female resistance: run off to Terre Haute for girls and gambling. (And to learn of Bama's hat obsession.)

Upon Dave's return to Parkman, Gwen French receives two visitors.

At last, David Hirsch sees the light. And loses his best friend.

In the most famous and bizarre sequence, the work's contradictions erupt into a holocaust of color and movement. The sins are paid for. And in a final gesture of pure cinema, Some Came Running resolves itself.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tender is the Night

When the man tried, he was great at everything: fighting, loving, drinking, dressing, pimping for once-in-a-century Presidents.

Of course, he was the greatest male pop singer of his century.

And -- when he tried -- Frank was one of the great movie actors of classical Hollywood.

Happy 100th Birthday.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Heaven. . .

. . . Is Eleven.

Heaven, the sun, the moon, and the stars . . .

Tuesday, December 1, 2015