Beer, Chilli and Gentleman Jim

My brother and I usually go out into Manchester every few weeks. We get something to eat and have a few beers and a good natter. It’s always nice to visit our old haunts in Manchester and to find new ones. There always seems to be a new venue popping up and the only flip side to new venues in Manchester seems to be the extraordinary prices they like to charge for food and drink. Maybe, being the fully paid up tightwad that I am, I should stick to the old, less trendy and cheaper places that I know.

Of course, just lately with Manchester and the whole world dealing with a major pandemic I can’t see any new venues popping up, in fact, it looks like things might go the other way, with places closing down. Pubs, bars and restaurants have been the hardest hit during the pandemic and with the new restrictions, like the 10pm closing times, many more venues will sadly close.

These days, rather than go out into Manchester, my brother will come round to visit and we watch something on TV together while we chat.

Years ago, when I was a schoolboy, I was never that good at mathematics. In particular I was always frustrated by the particular rules that we had to remember. You know the ones I mean, the sum of the sides of a triangle equals the hypotenuse and stuff like that.

Here’s one rule that I have discovered myself. The sum of all the new TV channels does not necessarily equal anything worthwhile watching. Back in the old days when things were black and white and there were only 2 channels, there was actually something usually worth watching. Still, perhaps I’m looking back with rose tinted spectacles. I’m sure there was rubbish on the TV back then; maybe we just don’t remember it.

Anyway, with a chilli on the go in my slow cooker and a few bottles of Becks chilling in the fridge and nothing looking interesting to watch on TV, I dug out an old VHS copy of the Errol Flynn film Gentleman Jim.

I’m not sure how true to life this film was but it supposedly told the story of Gentleman Jim Corbett and his fight with John L Sullivan ‘himself’. John L was, according to Wikipedia, the first world champion of gloved boxing, reigning until Gentleman Jim defeated him in a bout fought under the new Marquess of Queensbury rules in 1892.

Looking at John L Sullivan’s picture on the internet it’s surprising just how authentic Ward Bond, who played him in the film, actually looked. My brother and I both remarked that our dad, who died in 2000, twenty years ago this November, loved this film. He liked both Errol Flynn and was a great boxing fan. His favourite boxer was Rocky Marciano, the undefeated champion who was sadly killed in a plane crash not long after ‘fighting’ Mohammed Ali in a TV computer bout. I remember my dad being outraged at the result which gave the win to Ali. Funnily enough, the version shown in the USA gave the result to Marciano which would have pleased dad enormously.

In my favourite Hollywood book Bring on the Empty Horses, David Niven paints an excellent portrait of Flynn. You always knew where you were with Errol, wrote Niven -he always let you down.

Flynn hailed from Tasmania, an island state of Australia. In Australia he became involved in a film production called In the Wake of the Bounty, a documentary film about the mutiny on the Bounty that featured reconstructions with Flynn as Fletcher Christian. After this he made his way to the UK where he became an actor and spent many years in repertory in Northampton. He was fired from Northampton rep but was spotted by producer Irving Asher and given a part in a film made at Teddington Studios in 1934. The film was Murder in Monte Carlo which has since been lost but apparently Asher, who worked for Warner Brothers, sent word to Hollywood recommending Flynn for a contract. After a successful screen test Flynn was given the starring role in the swashbuckling adventure, Captain Blood after Robert Donat turned down the role. The film was a great success and made stars of Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland.

David Niven recounts many tales about Flynn. The two shared a house together in Hollywood after Flynn separated from wife Lilli Damita, ‘Tiger Lil’ as Flynn used to call her.

During the making of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp.

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was not one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’

In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven describes a poignant moment after writing his chapter on Flynn.  Niven, living then in the South of France, took a walk along the coast and came across something sadly familiar. It was the abandoned remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Gentleman Jim was made in 1942 and was one of Flynn’s favourite films. He took extensive boxing training taking lessons from Mushy Callaghan, a former welterweight champion who worked as a stuntman and boxing advisor after retiring from the ring. During the film Flynn collapsed from a mild heart attack. He had just failed the medical to join the army having suffered from malaria in his younger days as well as having a heart murmur. The production was closed down for a week while Flynn recovered. After the war Flynn was often criticised for not joining the forces but Warner Brothers would not admit that their star, visually a picture of health and vitality, suffered from health issues.

The film is a lot of fun and it was interesting to watch the scenes of John L Sullivan in training. Training in those days apparently consisted of chopping down trees and swigging bottles of beer. Jim Corbett, in a crazy way anticipating the style of Ali many years later, beats Sullivan by his speed and footwork. Alan Hale plays the Irish American head of the Corbett family whose antics in trying to control his brawling clan are always amusing and Alexis Smith plays Flynn’s love interest. Over on Wikipedia Smith is quoted as telling Flynn to takes things easy ‘don’t you want to live a long life?’ Flynn replied that he was not interested in the future, just the present.

By the end of the 1950’s Errol Flynn no longer had a contract with Warner Brothers and his attempt to co-produce a film about William Tell had ended in financial disaster. He was involved with a young girl, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland and in a severe financial state. His health had suffered after decades of alcohol and possibly drug abuse. Beverly was with him when he died in 1959 aged only 50 after a meeting to arrange the leasing out of the Zaca.

I’d not seen Gentleman Jim for many years and I enjoyed it immensely. The chilli was another story though. I’d made an outstanding chilli about a month ago and this latest one was a little tame, not quite right. Pity but at least Errol Flynn still has the power to entertain and that scene where John L Sullivan hands over his world championship belt always brings a tear to my eye.


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Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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Actors, Lemons and The Big Sleep

I was going into work the other day and remembered that I had didn’t have anything to read. I do like to have a read on my break so I looked around and picked up The Big Sleep. If you haven’t read the book by Raymond Chandler you must surely have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I love the opening scene where Bogart meets with General Sternwood and has separate encounters with his two daughters. Sternwood, an old former general lives in a sort of greenhouse where the heat that keeps his tropical plants alive makes Bogart wilt. That was a great opening and sets the scene for the rest of the film.

When I sat down on my break and flipped open the book, a small cutting fell out. It was a newspaper cutting dated November 14th 1995 from the Daily Express. An Actor Bombs went the headline and went on to tell the story of an actor:

An out of work actor was amazed when his agent rang and offered a part in a Shakespearean play. All he had to say was ‘My Lord, I hear a cannon.’

For weeks the actor rehearsed his line, giving it a variety of interpretations. Walking down the street (My Lord, I hear a cannon.) In the bath (My Lord, I HEAR a cannon.) In the shaving mirror (My LOOOORD, I hear a cannon)

The day came and the actor strode on to the stage and turned to the audience

The cannon went off with a terrifying bang and he shouted ‘What the *** was that?’

That newspaper clip really made me laugh and sometimes we all need a good giggle. That’s one of the things I love about second hand books; who put the clipping in the book? Did they find it as amusing as I did? I hope so.

Anyway getting back to The Big Sleep. The book was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his wrting ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Mrs Regan was played by Lauren Bacall in the film and up till now I had always thought this was the film where they had met. Wrong! A quick check on Wikipedia and I see the couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 45 and married to his third wife Mayo Methot at the the time. Sparks apparently flew between the couple and Bogart divorced Mayo and married Bacall the next year, 1945. Despite the great on screen chemistry together the couple only made four films together.

The film version of The Big Sleep was a brilliant adaptation of the book and some of the differences are interesting. For instance, early in the book detective Philip Marlowe played by Bogart meets General Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. She looks at Marlowe and remarks how tall he is. In the film, Bogart of course wasn’t that tall so the dialogue is reversed ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ comments Carmen.

Carmen was played in the film by Martha Vickers and Chandler felt that she seemed to overshadow the performance of female lead Lauren Bacall. For that reason many of Vickers’ scenes were cut. Release of the film was delayed by Warner Brothers and in fact another of Bacall’s films shot after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent, was released first. Reaction to Confidential Agent was so good Jack Warner, the studio head, decided to beef up Bacall’s part in The Big Sleep so new scenes were shot and added to the film including a new ending.

The plot of the book and film are pretty complicated, although having just read the book I think that the book is easier to follow. During the filming the director and his stars wondered who killed the character of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur? They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler told a friend later ‘Dammit, I don’t know either!’

One strange element in the film, certainly for me, is a scene where Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is watching blackmailer Geiger. Geiger has a shop that sells rare books in Hollywood and Marlowe asks for information in another bookshop opposite. There he chats to a bookseller played by Dorothy Malone who, if you are old enough, will remember her from the Peyton Place TV series. Malone and Bogart seem to hit it off well in the film but he never returns to the bookshop and Dorothy is never seen again in the film.

Every time I watch the film I always expect Malone to reappear but that’s one of the many dead ends the film leads us down. I think it was Hitchcock who said that every scene in a film should lead the audience somewhere and Quentin Tarantino of course said the reverse. Perhaps director Howard Hawks favoured the Tarantino’s view. Over on YouTube I found a clip from that scene. It was titled, The Big Sleep, best scene ever. I wouldn’t go that far myself but see what you think.

As I write this I have spent the day at my Mother’s house in Manchester. She is suffering from dementia and is being looked after nearby but sadly, because of Covid 19, I am unable to visit. Lately, everytime I have visited her house with intentions to sort out the garden it has done nothing but rain. Today dawned nice and sunny, at least it was when I awoke at the ridiculous time of 6:30 am. After looking through my e-mails and planning my daily social media broadside into Twitter cyberspace I arose, had a wash, made a quick breakfast and got cracking. I mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and cleared the sharp and unruly brambles that have appeared at the end of the garden. I strimmed the path and finally, everything seems to look neat and tidy.

The apple tree in the corner, a birthday present from me to my dad who died 20 years ago this year is looking well but unlike last year I couldn’t see any apples. My mum used to make apple pies from the apples from this tree but after my dad died I came home to visit one day and was shocked to see the council had chopped down the tree. I was absolutely fuming and while I silently planned what I would do to the nameless official who had perpetrated this tragedy, my mum mentioned casually that it was she who arranged to have the tree chopped down. What on earth for I asked? She had been worried that the tree, which grew at an odd angle might trip her up.

Today the tree has  grown again, this time straight up and I can look forward to one day making apple pies again.

While I am on the subject of trees I might as well mention my lemon trees. I do love taking a stone or a pip from a fruit and growing something. I’ve grown quite a few lemon trees and I have two now, both grown from pips and both growing strong. They look good, I keep them well watered and fed but, no lemons. Liz bought me another lemon tree a while back. It was small but it came with about three small lemons. After a short while each of those lemons dropped off but no more have grown. It seems as though when it comes to lemons, I’ve got the kiss of death but if I could just grow a lemon, just one, it would really make my day.

My brother is planning to join me later. I’ve got a couple of lagers in the fridge and a chilli on the go in the slow cooker (gardening, blog writing and cooking: it’s been a busy day!) Tuesday, not much on TV tonight. Think I might just dig out my DVD of The Big Sleep!


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The Good the Bad and the Sequel

The first thing to remember about films is this, they are not a public service, they are made to make money. They start life as a business proposition. Producers start by asking would the public want to see this? Would they pay to see this? Suppose we got famous film star Mr X to star opposite film actress Miss X? One sure fire way of making the public want to see something is by making the film again. How can they make it again? By making the sequel! Sequels can be good, they can be bad but sometimes they can be downright ugly . .

Let’s start with the good.

The Godfather

The daddy of all mafia movies, this film by Francis Ford Coppola is one of the great films of all time. Based on the book by Mario Puzo and with a script by Coppola and Puzo himself it excels in just about every area of film making. The acting (Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall and many others) is excellent as is the photgraphy, the editing and the soundtrack. Coppola fought to have Brando play the title role and even had to make a screen test before Paramount executives would accept Marlon as Don Vito Corleone.

The original book was too big to be filmed so only part of the story is used. Don Corleone meets with fellow mafioso Sollozzo who asks for the Don’s help in a drug smuggling enterprise, hoping to enlist Corleone because of his political connections. The Don declines to get involved as this would risk alienating those same political connections. Sollozzo’s answer is to assassinate Corleone, however his attempt fails.

Michael Corleone then murders Sollozzo but has to escape back to Sicily. The murder causes an all out mafia war. In an attempt to make peace Don Corleone meets with the other mafia Dons. The peace is made but Corleone realises that it is Don Barzini who is the true enemy.

After Don Corleone passes away Michael wins a final victory by murdering all his opponents.

The film was the highest grossing movie of 1972 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Godfather Part II

As I said earlier, the original novel was too long to fit into one film so Part II features a leftover narrative from the book, told in flashback and the continuing story of Michael as the new Godfather.

Robert De Niro plays a young Vito Corleone who emigrates to America to escape the vendetta that has left him an orphan and that story runs parallel with Michael Corleone’s plan to move his family from New York to Las Vegas. Michael suspects financier Hyman Roth to be behind a failed assassination attempt but decides to travel to Havana and meet with Roth to discuss a deal involving Cuban casinos. The revolution happens while they are there and Michael escapes from the island but discovers that his own brother, Fredo, is the one who has betrayed him.

The young Vito Corleone’s story continues in flashback. Having set up a successful business in New York, Vito finds that Fanucci, a local gangster wants a pay off. Vito’s colleagues are fearful and decide to pay off Fanucci but Vito persuades them to let him settle the matter. He will make Fanucci an offer he cannot refuse he says. Later, he secretly murders Fanucci and afterwards finds himself both feared and respected as the Godfather.

Michael is subjected to a Senate investigation into his activities but avoids prosecution by bringing the brother of the star witness into court. The suggestion is clear; the witness must decline to give evidence or his brother will die.

As Vito becomes more successful, he returns to Sicily to seek vengeance for his family and murders the Sicilian Don responsible for their deaths.

Michael has Hyman Roth murdered as well as his own brother Fredo, who betrayed the family.

Once again the performances are superb and one of particular note is that of veteran acting coach Lee Strasberg. He is excellent in this one off film performance as Hyman Roth. Strasberg’s workshop, the Actor’s Studio, once taught Brando, Clift and Monroe the ‘method’, the technique of acting devised by the Russian actor Stanislavski. Strasberg brought the method to the persona of Hyman Roth and created an outstanding if slimy character.

Godfather Part II won 6 Oscars and became the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture statuette.

Here’s the bad . .

Bridget Jones’s Baby

A film I’ve seen on TV during the lockdown was Bridget Jones’s Baby. The film is the third film in the Bridget Jones series following on from Bridget Jones Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The film, like all the others in the series, was based on the book by Helen Fielding. The original film was pretty amusing, not completely my cup of tea but I enjoyed it.

The second, The Edge of Reason, was again, pretty amusing. Both films concern the adventures of young Bridget Jones. In the first film she works in London for a publishing company, has an affair with her boss and then leaves for a career in TV. Her parents set her up for a date with a guy called Mark which doesn’t work out but towards the end of the film Mark comes back for a second try and Bridget has to work out who she really wants to be with. The Edge of Reason was pretty much more of the same.

When I came to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby earlier this year I was surprised to hear the TV announcer warning me of some ‘highly offensive language’ used in the film. Bridget Jones? Offensive? Really? Yes really! Even a scene with a child swearing. OK I do swear myself now and again but some of the language in this film was actually just as the announcer suggested and was highly offensive. The other thing was that most of the actors looked really old, really haggard. Now this may have been that we were watching on our new smart TV and the picture quality is just so good these days that it can appear daunting. Sometimes, when Liz and I are at our local pub quiz, Liz will ask why am I watching the TV when it’s tuned to Sky Sports news when I don’t even like sport? Well, a lot of the time I am just amazed that I can see some football pundit’s pores or some hair that has escaped his razor. Still, the original film in the Bridget Jones series was made in 2001 while Baby was from 2016 some fifteen years later.

Film tends to freeze an actor in time and when you see them on TV talk shows plugging their new film it can be surprising to see just how old an actor has become. A while back I was watching Tom Hanks on the Graham Norton show and he had grey hair! Tom Hanks? Of course, not long prior to that, I had watched Apollo 13 which was made in 1995, 25 years ago!

Bridget Jones’ Baby finally settled down but I wasn’t totally impressed. In fact, I’d have to put it into the bad category.

Wall Street.

Wall Street was a 1987 film by one of my favourite directors, Oliver Stone. It was a big hit for Stone, in fact an iconic film really. Michael Douglas was brilliant in the role of Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko, a man who is happy to manipulate the stock market for his own ends. Charlie Sheen is pretty good too. Sheen plays Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who is anxious to, in his words, bag the elephant, set up a deal with his hero, Gordon Gekko.

Fox’s father played by Sheen’s real life father, Martin Sheen, lets on to son Bud that Blue Star Airlines where he works as a union rep is about to receive a favourable ruling in a ongoing legal case. The ruling will free up Blue Star to expand into new routes. Bud manages to wangle a meeting with Gekko in which he lets slip about Blue Star.

Gekko calls Bud and buys stock in Blue Star and Bud’s star as a stockbroker begins to rise. Later Gekko wants more information and Bud decides to invest in an office cleaning company so he can spy and find more insider information. Bud makes more and more money and moves into an expensive apartment. Later, the relationship between Bud and Gekko sours when Bud finds out that Gekko is planning to dissolve Blue Star and sell off the assets. Bud strikes a deal with rival investor Sir Lawrence Wildman to steal the company away from Gekko.

The film shows the world of stocks, shares and investments in minute detail, the camera moves relentlessly among the young wheeler dealers watching the stock options and moving in for the kill. The character of Gordon Gekko, indeed the entire film has become an icon for yuppies and the eighties ethos of making a quick buck. A phrase of Gekko’s ‘greed, for lack of a better word, is good’ has become synonomous with eighties success and was inspired by a real speech from an investor to the 1986 graduating class of the U.C. Berkeley School of Business Administration.

Michael Douglas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Money Never Sleeps was a 2010 sequel directed once again by Oliver Stone with Michael Douglas returning to his role as Gordon Gekko. Gekko is released from prison following his conviction for insider trading and securities fraud. Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie is involved with Jacob Moore, a trader at KZI Investments. The company suffers in a recession predicted by Gekko and the managing director commits suicide. Jacob meets with Gordon Gekko and promises to help him rekindle his relationship with Winnie and in return Gekko will search for information about Bretton James who blocked help for KZI Investments.

It all gets a little complicated here but Gekko has hidden 100 million dollars in a trust fund account for Winnie. The money is freed up for Gekko to invest on her behalf but then Gekko does the double cross and exits with the 100 million in his pocket. After using it to set up his own successful company he hands the 100 million back but the whole thing is so complicated I found it hard to follow. I had thought that perhaps the Charlie Sheen character would play a big part in the film but Sheen only has a small cameo as Bud Fox. Shia LaBeouf plays the part of Jacob Moore but somehow never looks convincing, he never seems to fit in. The character of Jacob was supposed to be similar to that of Bud Fox in the original but the actor just doesn’t really look comfortable in the part. Douglas is good as Gekko once again but the whole film suffers from a lack of pace which is not helped by the complicated nature of the plot. Carey Mulligan plays Gekko’s daughter Winnie who once upon a time featured in one of my favourite episodes of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Ultimately, an interesting film, not good, not ugly but I have to put it in the bad category.

Get Shorty

Get Shorty is a 1995 film based on the book by Elmore Leonard. The book is a fast paced read about a shylock, a loan shark called Chilli Palmer. In the film he’s played wonderfully well by John Travolta. Chilli has a couple of run ins with fellow mobster Ray Bones in which both times Bones comes off the worse. Chilli’s mob boss dies and Ray’s mob boss takes over the business and suddenly, Chilli finds himself working for Ray Bones.

Ray sends Chilli off to find out if a recently deceased client has left any money behind to pay off his loans. Chilli finds out that in fact the client is still alive after failing to board an aircraft that later crashed and killed all on board. Finding himself suddenly ‘dead’ the client takes off to Vegas with a suitcase of money to live the high life. Chilli goes off to find him but is asked by a casino owner to pay a call on producer Harry Zimm who also owes a great deal of money. Finding Zimm in Hollywood, Chilli, who is a big movie fan, pitches an idea to Zimm, a thinly veiled story of his life coupled with that of the client who missed the fatal aircraft flight.

Gene Hackman plays the producer Harry Zimm who also owes money to a drug dealer and Chilli offers to sort out the drug dealer in return for being part of a new project called Mr Lovejoy. Suddenly, Chilli is in the movie business.

Travolta is just brilliant as Chilli Palmer easily switching from friendly movie fan to hard faced loan shark. Look at me is the catchphrase Chilli uses to impress himself on a client. I love the way Chilli pops a cigarette into his mouth with accustomed ease and takes a smoke confidently enjoying the nicotine. There’s also a great scene where Chilli shows actor Martin Weir (Danny De Vito) how to act ‘tough’.

Get Shorty is funny and dramatic with tons of witty dialogue lifted directly from Elmore Leonard’s book. It’s a joy to watch and Travolta and Hackman are excellent as are Rene Russo as Zimm’s actress girlfriend and Delroy Lido as the gangster who has invested in another of Zimm’s films.

Get Shorty was a great success so fast forward 10 years to 2005 and cue Be Cool.

OK, time to reveal the ugly . .

Be Cool

Be Cool once again stars Travolta as Chilli Palmer only this time Chilli has become bored with the movie business and decides to move into the music industry. The film starts off well with the shooting of his friend Tommy Athens. Chilli offers to help Tommy’s widow (Uma Thurman) who now owes money to hip hop producer Sin Lasalle.

I enjoyed the action packed start but then just got bored watching some of the other stuff.  Linda Moon is a singer and Chilli decides to take over as her manager. Why, I don’t know because her singing isn’t that great. Her old manager might be Nick Carr played by Harvey Keitel. A guy called Raji could also be Linda’s manager or have a stake in her contract (I lost the plot somewhere about here) and he hires a hit man to take out Chilli. The hitman kills another hitman instead of Chilli and later a bunch of gangsta rappers appear wearing those crazy jeans that hang off their backsides. How they all managed to stuff handguns back there I don’t know.

The result is a dreadful dull film. I bought it on DVD ages ago on the strength of Get Shorty. I couldn’t really remember it, I’d clearly blocked it out of my memory so I watched it again for the purpose of this blog post otherwise I might have been tempted to press the eject button a lot earlier than I did. Even John Travolta, so good in the original cannot save this movie.

Take a look at the video below for a hint at how good the original was.


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3 Films about films

Every now and then, the film industry will make a film about itself, yes, a movie about the movie industry. There a quite a few I could include in a post like this but here are three of my favourites.

A Star is Born

I’m not sure how many times this film has been remade, the simple answer is plenty. There was the original 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March, the 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand and there was even a 2018 version with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. My favourite is the version from 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason. What a cracking film! In case you don’t know the story, it’s pretty simple, famous film star on the way out helps unknown star who is on the way up.

Judy Garland plays Esther Blodget, an unknown singer who meets drunken film star Norman Maine played by James Mason. Esther comes to Norman’s aid when he drunkenly wanders onto a stage where she is performing and pretends that Maine’s drunken behaviour is all part of the act. Maine later watches her perform at an after hours club and urges her to pack the band in and come to Hollywood.

The film shows Hollywood in the 1950s and the studio machine in action as it tries to remodel Esther into a movie star, with make up and costume teams, writers, publicists and of course a name change: Esther becomes Vicki Lester, only finding out about her name change when she goes to pick up her pay check.

Norman gets the studio boss Oliver Niles to listen to her singing and as a result Vicki is cast in a top Hollywood musical and becomes a star. She marries Norman but his drunken antics get worse. I won’t tell you the end in case you haven’t seen it but be prepared for great performances from both Mason and Garland. Judy was in fact nominated for an Oscar losing out to Grace Kelly.

The Bad and the Beautiful

This is one of my absolute favourite films and tells the story of a producer who wants to make it big in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas plays the part of Jonathan Shields, the son of a producer dumped by the industry who was so unpopular that Jonathan had to hire extras to come to his funeral. As the film opens, Shields has made it big but cannot get financing for a new project without the help of three former friends, actress Lana Turner, screen writer Dick Powell and director Barry Sullivan. None of them want to be involved but producer Walter Pidgeon asks them to listen to a call from Shields. As they await the call, their stories and former involvement with Shields are told in flashback.

Barry Sullivan plays director Fred Amiel who works closely with producer Shields. They make a great producer/director team but when a big break comes for the partnership, Shields betrays Amiel and gives the directing chair to a big name director. Amiel refuses to work with Shields again.

Shields works with alcoholic actress Georgia Lorrison and builds her confidence to take on a big role in one of his films. Georgia falls in love with Shields but even though he is not interested in her romantically, he strings Georgia along so she can complete her performance in the film. She is distraught when she finds out the truth but he releases her from her contract and she has great success at another studio. There’s quite an interesting moment when Shields wants to be alone after the completion of the film. The ending of a production always brings on a deep depression for him. I have to say I always feel that way after putting the finishing touches to one of my YouTube videos!

There is a third sequence involving writer Dick Powell’s character and the film ends on an interesting note; will the three collaborate with Shields for one final film? The film really brings home the background work done on a film, the writing, the production and all the other elements that make a picture. The film was directed by Vincente Minelli who went on to marry Judy Garland and became the father of Lisa Minelli.

Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder and starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson this is one of my all time favourite films. Holden stars as down and out screen writer Joe Gillis. He narrates the film from the opening sequence, where we see Joe’s dead body floating in a pool, right to the dramatic end.

Gillis finds his car about to be repossessed so needing money fast He heads to the Paramount lot where he tries to sell an old script. He Has no luck there but the repo men are hot on his tail. He tries to evade them by hiding in an abandoned Hollywood mansion. The mansion it turns out is not abandoned; former silent star Norma Desmond (Swanson) lives there and hires Gillis as a script doctor to work on a screenplay she has written for her comeback.

Gillis isn’t sure who she is at first but then recognises her: Cue the famous lines:

GILLIS: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big!

DESMOND: I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!

The dialogue is brilliant as is the whole film and it’s interesting too to see the old locations such as the Paramount Studios entrance, Schwabs drugstore (8024 Sunset Boulevard) that was once frequented by Hollywood actors and extras and many other places. Wilder also cast former silent director Erich Von Stronheim to play Norma Desmond’s former husband and director, now relegated to manservant and chauffeur. Stronheim himself actually directed Swanson in some of her silent fims.

Cecil B De Mille even makes a fascinating guest appearance as himself as does columnist Hedda Hopper. Look out for Buster Keaton in a small part too.

OK, that’s my three films. All of them show the glamour of film making in the 1950’s. The big cameras, the behind the scenes action, the PR men and the Hollywood studio system. It’s sad to see most of that has gone. These days you could probably make a motion picture with just a small digital camera, maybe even the Canon G7X that I use for YouTube videos. Maybe I should be dusting off my scripts and looking for my cast!

What are your favourite films about film making?


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Documentary: Sellers, Grant and Brando

Not long ago I came across a blog post about the best documentary films of all time and looking through it I noticed one about Marlon Brando. When I was younger I was very interested in Brando. I thought he was a great actor, one of the greatest in fact even though I think his stature has become diminished by his poor choice of roles in his later life.

Brando’s earlier films are a list of classic cinema greats and if he had perhaps died early like James Dean I’m sure many writers and cinema fans would have wondered what would have happened if Brando had lived, what great movies would he have made? Actually the answer is, not very many.

Anyway, before I get to Brando let’s look at some other examples of movie actor documentaries.

Peter Sellers as he filmed it.

The BBC Arena team made this film about Peter Sellers in 1995. It was created largely from cine film shot by Sellers himself, who was a lifelong camera enthusiast. The original documentary was made in 1995 and if I remember correctly, Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick had died and left behind a lot of Sellers’ effects, including his home movies which is how the film came to be made.

Normally, I’d say that you have to be interested in movie people and how movies are made to like this documentary but this film is so special I don’t think that rule applies.

The original film was in three parts and began with Sellers’ early days and his early films. The first cine films we see are black and white movies and as Sellers’ career takes off, his cine equipment also improves and he upgrades to colour and then on to sound. His own images show his young self as a sort of ‘spiv’, a Flash Harry sort of character with his double-breasted and shoulder padded jackets. An uneasy relationship with his mother emerges, as does a rather spoilt and volatile personality. His first wife talks about their early days and their life together and friends like Spike Milligan talk happily about successes like the Goon show and their beginnings in show business. Milligan had a 8mm camera and Sellars a 16mm one. Of course ‘Peter was richer,’ comments Milligan. ‘Richer by 8 millimetres!’

Sellers’ cine film is blended with interviews from various people who played a part in Sellers’ life.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

A fascinating section concerned Casino Royale, the spoof James Bond film. Various directors were involved but Joe McGrath shot one segment with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. McGrath was a TV director relishing the move into feature films, that is until Sellers told him he didn’t want to be in the same shot as co-star  Welles. A heated debate ensued which became physical. Sellers said he was going off to calm down. He never returned and if you ever see the completed movie, you’ll understand why Sellers’ character abruptly disappears too!

Sellers claimed to have no personality of his own and ‘borrowed’ them from the characters he impersonated. It’s interesting to watch the TV interviews included in the film where Sellers seems to mimic the Yorkshire tones of Michael Parkinson and again, in other snippets he is taking on the accents and style of his interviewers.

The film overall has a sort of melancholy feeling which I feel accurately represents Sellers’ persona. He was a sad character, disappointed in his life and loves. He was not happy with his last wife, Lynne Frederick and he even junked many of his cine films prior to his death as they didn’t seem to match his expectations. The mood of the film is further enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack full of sad saxophones and jazz tones.

There are some that put down documentaries that are full of so-called ‘talking heads’ but personally, if the talking head has something interesting to say, I like to hear them. However, in 2002 the BBC re edited the film by taking the soundtracks from the ‘talking heads’ and combined them with Sellers’ self filmed visuals. The result is now available as a BBC DVD. The original is much better though, in fact you can see all three parts on the video sharing site Vimeo:

Becoming Cary Grant.

The BBC does do a good documentary and a few months back I settled down to watch a documentary about the film star Cary Grant: Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant was the smooth talking and sophisticated star of many a Hitchcock film, indeed the documentary revealed ‘Hitch’ to be his favourite director. Grant and Hitchcock were both immigrants from the UK.

Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach in Bristol in the southwest of England. He had a rather sad childhood during which his mother disappeared. Various explanations were put to the young Archie including the lies that she had gone on holiday and later that she had died. In fact his father had his wife committed to an asylum where she languished until her rich and famous son returned to her much later. In fact, Grant did not learn that his mother was still alive until he was thirty-one years old.

Archie’s father remarried but Archie was not included in the new family. Instead he was sent to live with his grandparents. At school he developed a love of theatre and spent much time helping and later working at small theatres in Bristol. When he was only 11 he began working with a small troupe known as the Pender Troupe and when they went to undertake a new tour in the USA, the young Archie went with them, following in the footsteps of other performers like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.

In the USA, Archie toured the vaudeville circuit with the Pender Troupe and decided to stay on in the USA when the troupe returned home. He and some others formed their own troupe and Archie spent a lot of time doing various acts like stilt walking and unicycle riding. Gradually he moved on to better roles in various theatre productions and even had a screen test in the early 1930s, which was shown on the documentary. Archie, now using the name Cary Grant comes over as a loud-voiced individual, making many faces for the camera. Of course, as a vaudeville actor he was used to talking loudly and making exaggerated expressions but he soon learned to tone down his performance for the cameras.

The documentary uses text from Grant’s unpublished autobiography and it is clear an experience in later life had a great effect on him. Grant took part in a form of psychoanalysis using LSD which enabled him to confront issues from his early life which the actor felt had unduly affected his relationships as an adult, particularly with women, in fact he was married five times.

The film was interesting but focused mainly on the unpublished autobiography and many of his friendships and relationships that I have read about in other books were not even mentioned. A great part of the film also was Grant’s collection of home movies which were used throughout the film although many times what we were seeing was not properly explained. Towards the end of the film Grant’s daughter was interviewed and visits Cary’s old home. In one scene we see her visiting the patio shown in a earlier shot on one of Cary’s home movies. More interviews and perhaps some more location footage would have benefited this film enormously. Still, it was interesting and can be found on the BBC i-Player if you missed the original broadcast.

Listen to Me Marlon

After reading about this Brando documentary I did a quick search on eBay, found a very cheap copy for a couple of pounds including free delivery, and sat down to enjoy it. It is different to the two films above because rather than home movie or the  written word, the prime source of the film is audio tapes that Marlon recorded for himself. The big problem there is that while many are good recordings, others are not only poor quality, but Marlon’s non acting speaking voice is rather difficult to understand. He has a strange lisping, mumbling voice completely unlike the strong voice of many of his roles.

On top of that a droning piano accompanies much of Marlon’s recordings and many times I found myself rewinding to find out what he had actually said.

The Brando that emerges from this film is a sad man made sad perhaps by memories of a drunken mother and a violent father. In an early sequence Marlon senior joins his son the film actor on a TV show and the voice on one of Marlon’s tapes tell us how both of them were acting, one playing the loving son, the other playing the caring father. Marlon spent a lifetime looking to psychoanalysis for help, feeling inadequate despite his fame and success as an actor. It seems also that he despised his craft even though it gave him financial security to do and live however he wished.

Acting he reveals was the first time he did anything that he was praised for and the first to see his talent was Stella Adler, an actress who trained and nurtured him as an actor.

Brando appeared in a number of classic films including A Streetcar named Desire, Viva Zapata, and the Oscar winning On The Waterfront. Some of his later choices of film roles were just frankly disappointing especially during the 1960s. By the end of that decade he was persona non grata in Hollywood and when Francis Ford Coppola decided he wanted Brando to play Don Corleone in The Godfather, alarm bells were ringing in the executive offices at Paramount. Not only was Brando held in low esteem as an actor he also had a reputation as a troublemaker who caused delays and added more dollars to production schedules and costs.

I’m not sure Brando ever really appreciated what Coppola did for him. As well as giving him an Oscar winning role Coppola rehabilitated Brando in the film industry and made him a bankable star once again. Later, when Brando appeared in Apocalypse Now, he appeared on set massively overweight forcing Coppola to shoot him in darkness and shadows. Brando complained about the script too and began rewriting his own dialogue. On his personal audio tapes Marlon rants on about his treatment by the director but really, it was Francis Coppola who should have been complaining.

Listen to me Marlon was fascinating but ultimately a disappointing film. If I ever do a blog post about the best documentaries ever I’m sorry to say I won’t be including this one.


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TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

You might think that the lockdown is heaven sent for a writer. Stay at home and write stuff, perfect! After a few weeks though I have found not only have I not written much at all. Actually, I’ve been feeling a little bit bored, just like a great deal of the population I suppose.

Television

One thing I have done is watch a great deal of TV although a lot of it has been disappointing. Back in the late 1960s one of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. It was an American sci-fi show produced by Irwin Allen who made The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure among other things and a few weeks back I was delighted to find that it was being re-shown on the Horror channel.

In The Time Tunnel two American scientists are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the Time Tunnel Complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks.

One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack. That was one of the better ones.

Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians back at Time Tunnel HQ struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. They never seem to manage to get the pair home as there is never enough power for this process despite a huge powerhouse courtesy of the special effects department which we see a glimpse of almost every week. The other thing is that if they did get back home, there’d be no show next week.

I did love this show as a 12 year old sci-fi fan but here in 2020 I seemed to be fast forwarding through all the boring bits, of which there were plenty. Some things don’t seem to stand the test of time and the big problem with the Time Tunnel is that the stories mostly weren’t good enough and many episodes seem to revolve around what appears to be stock footage that was filmed for some other project. I’m really cheesed off that I missed the Pearl Harbour episode though.

Coronation Street, like all the TV soaps is suffering because the lockdown has prevented further filming of the series. Instead of going out six times per week, we are now only getting three episodes to satisfy us and even those are looking like they are missing something. It looks to me like the current main storyline involving controlling husband Geoff and wife Yasmin has been the focus of the last filming sessions while some other content involving the minor storylines is missing. Last Wednesday’s episode seemed to have a slightly odd narrative flow, returning to the same scene when perhaps we should have cut to something else, the cafe or the Rover’s Return pub. Still, the editors can only work with the footage they have and sooner or later there will be nothing and our favourite soaps will be on hold until staff can return safely to work. I noticed also that TV quizzes like Tipping Point and Countdown are now just re runs of older episodes.

Spotify

One other thing has made my life slightly more interesting during these slightly surreal times and that is Spotify. You might not have even heard of it but it’s a music app I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I thought originally that it was a way of downloading music. I’m not a great downloader but the previous place where I used to download music was the HMV digital site, 7Digital. It had, I first thought, gone to the heavenly resting place of defunct web sites but when I finally got connected once again after many years I found it not very interesting and so in my search for internet music I came across Spotify. Now with Spotify, you cannot actually download music, well actually you probably can if you pay for Spotify premium but as the cheapskate that you know I am, I’m happy just to listen to music. On Spotify you can set up favourites and playlists and here’s the really extraordinary thing, after a few days use Spotify starts to suggest things you might like, new music that is similar to music you have already played. Now, after only using it for a couple of weeks, I have built up some pretty substantial music playlists.

Books

After finishing my last book, Michael Palin’s diaries, I looked around for something new to read and picked up three books. Bruce Forsyth’s autobiography, Khrushchev’s memoirs and a book of three Noel Coward plays. I’ve read the Noel Coward book before but the writer’s wit and humour never cease to amuse me. Blythe Spirit is one of Coward’s best known plays and was also made into an excellent film starring Rex Harrison. Having read that book before I tend to just flip through it and re read some of the best bits although in the end, I went through the entire book.

When Khrushchev’s memoirs become a little too serious and I fancy a change, something a little bit lighter, I turn to either Noel Coward or Bruce Forsyth. I picked up Bruce’s book at a church sale and although I didn’t expect much, it has been pretty interesting. Bruce was probably one of the last old time entertainers. He talks about the days of variety in the 1950’s and 60’s and about being in various shows and playing in theatres like the London Palladium and how he managed to break in to TV with Sunday Night at the Palladium which he compered for many years.

At one time he was travelling the country living in a caravan and performing in numerous shows. The latter part of the book is just an excuse to mention all his show biz chums and drop a lot of names but all in all, it was a good read. Bruce doesn’t tell us much about himself though, except in a chapter about his relationship with the UK press, where he proceeds to give the press a good telling off. Still, Bruce was a proper celebrity unlike some celebs these days who seem to make a career from being on TV reality shows.

The Khrushchev book is interesting but suffers like many books written in a foreign language by not reading quite as well as it should when translated into English. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was another foreign language book I read a while ago but that was a new translation and actually read pretty well.

One brilliant foreign language book that comes to mind is Papillon by Henri Charrière. This, unlike the two books mentioned above is an amazing read, an absolutely wonderful book and one of my all time favourites. It was made into a film with Steve McQueen which comes out pretty poor when compared to the book. Still, the book is a pretty thick volume and there is probably enough material in there for a TV series, never mind a film.

One part of the book which is pretty relevant to the lockdown is when Papillon is sent to solitary confinement. In case you don’t know anything about Papillon at all, he was a Frenchman convicted of murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana and after numerous escape attempts and many adventures, he finds freedom in Venezuela.

When Charrière is sent to solitary confinement he wonders how he will fill a chapter about a time when nothing at all happens to him, locked away for 24 hours a day with a rule of silence. Every day he is made to stick his head out of a small door in his cell so the warders can check to see if he is still alive. If he is, he is given food which has little nutrient. Luckily, Papillon’s friends have bribed the warders to give him some extra food including some fruit, or I think it might have been a coconut, which helped to sustain him. After many months someone new takes over the solitary block and he lets the prisoners out every day to socialise. This easing of the strict regime helps Papillon and his fellow inmates no end. I can imagine feeling similar when the lockdown is eased.

Blogs

Just looking back at some of my old blogs for inspiration, I came across The Big 300, my 300th blog post and was surprised to find that this very post you are currently reading is my big 405! Still, I did start blogging way back in 2016 just as a way of promoting Floating in Space, my novel set in Manchester, 1977. You might possibly be thinking that this has been an excellent time to pen a sequel. If so, how wrong you are!


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Favourite Film Directors Part 3- Stanley Kubrick

This is number three in my Favourite Director series. Stanley Kubrick is one of the cinema’s great visual artists and a particularly memorable cinema moment for me was watching Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film 2001 on a hot weekday afternoon during the school summer holidays of 1968.

I was only 11 when I first saw 2001 and I remember my Mum being surprised that I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, until I bought the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

2001 is a particularly visual film. Kubrick cut out a lot of dialogue because he wanted the film to stand as “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

According to Wikipedia, despite the few people in the cinema with me that day in 1968, the movie went on to become the highest grossing North American movie of that year.

2001 set the standard for the sci-fi movie with its depiction of spacecraft drifting slowly and silently through space. The first Star Trek movie was heavily influenced by 2001 which made it look a little dated when the movie Star Wars was released and did the opposite thing, showing spacecraft whooshing across the screen at lightning speeds.

As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. All the technology that Kubrick displayed had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story.

If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Jupiter. (In the book the destination is Saturn, it was changed for the film as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings).

Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extraterrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew.

The film came about because Kubrick wanted to make the definitive science fiction film and he wrote to Aurthur C Clarke, one of the foremost sci-fi writers of the time and asked him to collaborate on the screenplay. Stanley liked Clarke’s short story ‘the Sentinel’ and the two worked together to formulate the final script. Other works of Clarke’s were added to the timeline and while the two wrote the script together, the novel version was written by Clarke simulateously as he worked on the screenplay. The two, book and screenplay do differ slightly.

Huge amunts of research was done to find the best way to show space travel on the screen and for it to be scientifically accurate. One interesting feature was a huge centrifuge built on the set at Shepperton Studios in the UK which represented how the spacecraft duplicated artificial gravity by rotating. The huge set cost around one million dollars in total. The centrifuge enabled Kubrick to shoot the actors from various positions including a 360 complete arc of the set as the astronauts did their daily fitness jog.

Kubrick was born on the 26th July in 1928. He lived with his family in the Bronx, New York and after leaving high school became a photgrapher for Look magazine. During his time there he became interested in motion pictures and in 1950 he decided to make a short film about boxer Walter Cartier based on a series of photos he had taken for the magazine. In 1951 he resigned from Look to concentrate on making films. His first theatrical feature was Fear and Desire which he produced, directed, photographed and edited. That film was largely financed by his uncle.

An incredible leap in film making for Stanley came in 1956 when he was asked to direct Paths of Glory by the producer and star, Kirk Douglas, based on a true story of the French army in the first World War. The film showed the trenches in a different light to many films that came before and in particular, Kubrick’s tracking shots through the trenches were a revelation. Paths of Glory is a powerful film and well worth watching if you ever get the chance to see it.

Kirk Douglas later asked Stanley to take over the director’s chair on Spartacus, after he sacked original director Anthony Mann. Spartacus is perhaps the only film on which Stanley did not have full editorial control.

Stanley Kubrick acquired the film rights to Vladimir Nobokov’s controversial novel Lolita and decided to film in England. He moved his entire family to the UK where they would set up home. Kubrick first worked with Peter Sellers on Lolita and was so impressed with him, he asked him to play multiple roles in his next film Dr Strangelove. Dr Strangelove was a cold war film about a US bomber crew that decides to drop the atom bomb on Russia. Sellers played various roles, the US President, A British air force officer, and Dr Strangelove, an ex-nazi scientist. He was also supposed to play a US air force pilot but dropped out of that role which went to American actor Slim Pickens.

It almost seems as if every picture Stanley Kubrick made was something new in cinema, something that broke new ground. In Barry Lyndon Kubrick had to create new filming techniques because he decided to film in completely, or almost completely, natural light. Barry Lyndon was the film version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, about an 18th century rogue and adventurer. The film was shot on location in England and Ireland and many of the shots were set up to resemble various 18th century paintings. New techniques and lenses were introduced to allow the director to shoot in candle light although diffused artificial light was used as well.

Kubrick ventured into the horror genre with The Shining based on the book by Stephen King. A writer played by Jack Nicholson decides to take a job looking after the Overlook Hotel during the winter season when the hotel is closed and snowbound. During the stay the character descends into madness amidst various supernatural events and his wife and son played by Shelley Duval and child actor Danny Lloyd struggle to stay alive when Jack turns into a homicidal maniac.

Apart from second unit location shots, the film was shot entirely in England at Elstree Studios and featured extensive filming with the Steadicam, a new device which allowed for smooth hand held filming. Kubrick was apparently super keen on getting the exact shot he wanted which resulted in multiple re-takes. Today the film is considered to be a horror classic although Stephen King apparently hated the film.

Stanley Kubrick’s final film was Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Sadly, Kubrick died of a heart attack on the 7th March 1999 only days after screening the almost completed film to producers Warner Brothers.

Kubrick made other films which I have not mentioned here. One particularly controversial film was A Clockwork Orange which sparked great debate about violence, not only violence itself but how it had been handled by the cinema. Utimaltely, Kubrick withdrew Clockwork Orange from British cinemas and it was not available in the UK until after Kubrick’s death.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most talented and influential directors in the history of the cinema and he leaves behind an amazing portfolio of motion pictures.

A lot of the information here was from the splendid book Stanley Kubrick: A life in Pictures by his widow, Christianne Kubrick, well worth reading if you ever see a copy.


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Films, Allegories and McCarthyism

In the 1950’s, Senator Eugene McCarthy, aided and abetted by the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, began to accuse hundreds of Americans of being either communists or communist sympathisers. Hoover had designed President Truman’s loyalty and security program and his agents carried out background checks on federal employees. This information was supposed to be secret but in 1950 when the Korean War began, Senator McCarthy produced a list of supposed communist party members or supporters working for the state department and presented it to the press. Much of his information came from Hoover.

The House Committee on Un-American activities was probably the best known and most active government committee involved in anti-communist investigations and probably became most well known for its investigation into the Hollywood film industry. In 1947 the committee began to subpoena various film industry workers and force them to testify about their support for the communist party. They were asked ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?’

The first witnesses brought before the committee refused to answer and became known as the Hollywood 10. They all cited the constitution’s first amendment which they believed guaranteed free speech and free assembly and therefore freed them from the requirement to answer the committee’s questions. They were wrong. The communists of the USSR may have been allies in the defeat of Hitler but now that Nazi Germany lay in ruins, the red menace was the new enemy and America was scared.

The committee questioned numerous people, actors, directors, screenwriters and many others and more than 300 individuals were blacklisted by the industry. Some like Charlie Chaplin, left the country. Some screenwriters wrote under pseudonyms to find work. Larry Parks, the star of The Jolson Story, testified in tears. He was blacklisted and left the movie business after his contract with Columbia Pictures was cancelled.

Two prominent ‘friendly’ witnesses were director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.

On the Waterfront

Director Elia Kazan had originally employed Arthur Miller to write the screenplay for On the Waterfront but the two fell out over various things especially the fact that Kazan had identified eight former communists to the HUAC. Kazan then asked Budd Schulberg to write the script. There was still some difficulty in getting the film to the screen and eventually Kazan approached Sam Spiegel to act as producer. He was able to set up a deal with Columbia Studios.

The film stars Marlon Brando as dock worker Terry Malloy, brother of Charlie ‘the gent’ who is the right hand man of union boss John Friendly played by Lee J Cobb. Terry unwittingly leads fellow dockworker Joey Doyle into an ambush, thinking Doyle will be threatened to withdraw his statements to the crime commision. However Doyle is murdered leaving Terry shocked and confused. Later he becomes friendly with Joey’s sister played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, tries to get Terry back into line in the famous scene with the two in the back of a taxi but fails. After John Friendly has Terry’s brother murdered, the local priest played by Karl Malden convinces Terry to tell everything he knows to the waterfront crime commission. Terry does so but is ostracised by his fellow dockers until Terry forces Friendly into a brutal fight. The dockers then stand with Terry when bruised and battered, he returns to work.

The film was thought to be Kazan’s response to criticism of his stand at the HUAC hearings although Schulberg later denied this, explaining how he attended actual waterfront hearings and based his film on those. Arthur Miller in his play A View from the Bridge has his character inform on two illegal immigrants but it is portrayed as a betrayal rather than the honest informing of Waterfront.

Either way, On the Waterfront is one of my very favourite films and Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy won him one the film’s eight Oscars. Forget about Don Corleone, this was Marlon Brando’s finest hour.

Spartacus

Spartacus was based on a book by Howard Fast who was jailed for his refusal to testify at the HUAC hearings. According to Wikipedia, he wrote the book while in prison. Kirk Douglas was disappointed at not getting the lead role in Ben Hur and looking round for a similar project came across Fast’s book. He purchased an option on the book with his own money. Later, financing was arranged with Universal Studios.

Dalton Trumbo wrote the script although he had been blacklisted but managed to continue working by using an alias. He had earlier been jailed for contempt of congress as he was a member of the Hollywood 10.  Kirk Douglas decided that Trumbo should be given a screen credit in his own name and this action helped to end the blacklist.

Anthony Mann was the original director but Douglas fired him after 2 weeks claiming he was scared of the scope of the picture. Douglas then hired Stanley Kubrick to direct, Kubrick having worked with Douglas previously on Paths of Glory.

The film has been said to have links not only to the McCarthy era but also to the American civil rights movement. Slavery is a central theme to the film and the fight to end segregation in America is reflected in the mixing of various races in the Gladiator school. The climatic scene where the rebels are asked to give up Spartacus and instead call out ‘I am Spartacus’, alludes to the HUAC hearings where witnesses were asked to name names.

Spartacus is a wonderful film and was restored twice, once in 1991 and again in 2015 where a version 12 minutes longer was produced as well as having a remastered soundtrack.

Kirk Douglas is excellent in the lead role and a trio of characters played by Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton work together so faultlessly they help elevate the film to an outstanding degree. Poor John Dall, who plays Glabrus is hopelessly outclassed by the British actors.

High Noon

High Noon is not a movie that I would have thought would be in any way related to McCarthyism or the HUAC hearings. However, the film was directed by Fred Zinneman from a screenplay by Carl Foreman. Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC . He admitted once being a communist party member but declined to name any fellow members and was therefore classed as an uncooperative witness. Realising he would be blacklisted, he later sold his partnership in the film project and moved to the UK.

John Wayne declined the lead role as he thought the film an obvious allegory of blacklisting, of which he was a fervent supporter. Gregory Peck amongst others turned down the role and it eventually went to Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly played Cooper’s new wife despite the age difference; she was 21 and Cooper 50.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) marries devout Quaker Amy Fowler (Kelly) however the Marshall gets word that Frank Miller, a vicious gunman who Kane had sent to prison years before has been released and is due to arrive on the noon train. At first Kane decides to leave town but then realises he will be caught out in the open with the gunmen coming after him. Not only that, the gunmen are making him run and ‘I’ve never run from anybody before’ he tells Amy.

Will returns to town but his new wife, whose extreme religious beliefs include an vehement opposition to violence, will have nothing more to do with him. As the minutes tick relentlessly down to noon he tries to get a group of deputies together, but for one reason or another they all fail him and he has to face Miller and his gang alone.

At the end of the film, reconciled with Amy, Cooper looks around disgusted by the townspeople who have shunned him and throws his Marshall’s badge to the ground.

The tension mounts up relentlessly in the film and builds to a wonderful climax. Another great aspect of the film was the music and the distinctive theme song, actually called ‘High Noon’ although mostly known as ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin’’. It became a hit for Tex Ritter.

My brother and I watched this film a few months ago and afterwards he told me a story that our dad had told him years ago. Dad saw the film when he was in the army. Dad served in various places but wherever they were on this occasion, the film was projected in a big tent. Afterwards when the men dispersed after the showing, the theme tune had made such a big impression that they were all whistling or humming ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin”.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

Things to do During a Pandemic (Part 2)

Some people are born to do certain things. Winston Churchill was a born leader, and Clark Gable was born to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. As for me, I was born to watch TV. My old dad used to call me ‘square eyes’ because I was glued to the television, or so it seemed to him.

During this unprecedented time -I had to use that phrase because I keep hearing it so much on TV- there is not much to do in one’s own home. Those lovely few warm days have slipped away leaving us in the northern UK a little chilly. The sun is hidden behind grey clouds and it is cold so no barbecues, no more reading out on the lawn.

I’ve have done a little reading and writing and put together a few revised videos for my various internet pages, but mostly I’ve been sipping red wine and watching TV. Some of it has been good, some of it not so good. Anyway, here’s a quick look at what I’ve been watching on TV this week . . .

Young Winston.

I’m not a great fan of director Richard Attenborough but to my mind he has made two really good films: Chaplin and Young Winston. I remember seeing Young Winston at the cinema back in the seventies. Simon Ward plays the part of young Winston Churchill and he plays a good part. He even comes across with a fair approximation of Churchill’s voice, both in his portrayal and also in the many voice overs. The book is based on Winston’s own book My Early Life. I read it many years ago and it was a wonderful read as I remember and this film is a particularly good version of it.

The film tells the story of young Winston Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph, who adores his father who sadly dies young, spoiling Winston’s dreams of working with him in Parliament. The film flips backwards and forwards in time showing Winston’s first day at school and then his exploits in the army. Winston failed to get elected as the Tory candidate for Oldham but later, after making a name for himself as an army officer, correspondent and author, he returns victorious after escaping from a Boer POW camp and finally enters Parliament.

Various familiar names play their parts beautifully including Anne Bancroft as Winston’s American mother, Robert Shaw as Lord Randolph Churchill and many others in smaller roles; Robert Hardy as a prep’ school headmaster and Jack Hawkins as the headmaster of Harrow.

Randolph died at the early age of 45 apparently from syphilis although others have suggested his illness may have been a brain tumour.

This was a wonderful film, beautifully photographed and put together from a script by producer Carl Foreman. What is rather sad is that when I first saw this film there was a scene at the end where the older Churchill falls asleep and dreams of meeting his father who appears free from illness. The scene was based on a short story Churchill wrote in 1947 but for some reason that scene has been dropped from TV and DVD versions of the film which is a great shame.

Bridget Jones’ Baby.

Another film I’ve seen during the lockdown was Bridget Jones’ Baby. The film was based on the book by Helen Fielding and I have to say, I was surprised to hear the TV announcer warning me of some ‘highly offensive language’ used in the film. Bridget Jones? Offensive? Really? Yes really! Even a scene with a child swearing. OK I do swear myself now and again but some of the language in this film was actually just as the announcer suggested and was highly offensive. The other thing was that most of the actors looked really old, really haggard. Now this may have been that we were watching on our new smart TV and the picture quality is just so good these days that it can appear daunting. Sometimes, when Liz and I are at our local pub quiz, Liz will ask why am I watching the TV when its tuned to Sky Sports news? Well, a lot of the time I am just amazed that I can see some football pundit’s pores or some hair that has escaped his razor. Still, the original film in the Bridget Jones series was made in 2001 while Baby was from 2016 some fifteen years later.

Film tends to freeze an actor in time and when you see them on TV talk shows plugging their new film it can be surprising to see just how old an actor has become. A while back I was watching Tom Hanks on Graham Norton and he had grey hair! Tom Hanks? Of course, not long prior to that, I had watched Apollo 13 which was made in 1995, 25 years ago!

Bridget Jones’ Baby finally settled down but I wasn’t totally impressed.

Storyville.

BBC Four have been showing a documentary about OJ Simpson recently. I missed the first few episodes but thank heaven for catch-up TV. The documentary is in 5 parts and won an Oscar for best documentary. Episode one details Simpson’s incredible sporting career and also showed how it was important for him to be seen just as OJ rather than OJ the black athlete. He was apparently a friendly and amiable man who made many friends in the sporting world and kept himself well away from controversy and was never involved in the civil rights movement in America unlike sporting celebrities like Mohammed Ali. Later episodes show how he made a life after sport by becoming a TV sports pundit and by courting wealthy friends in Los Angeles to advise on his investments. In particular he made TV advertisements for Hertz car rentals which were highly popular and did well not only for Hertz but raised Simpson’s profile in the USA even higher.

The series also looks at the climate of race relations in Los Angeles and the activities and methods of the LAPD who clearly were not engaging or even trying to engage with the black community. A ‘them and us’ situation evolved in LA and when Rodney King, a black motorist was brutally beaten by a group of white police officers the situation become even more inflamed. The officers were taken to court but found innocent by a white jury causing riots and disturbances in the area.  This was the background of the later OJ Simpson murder trial.

Simpson divorced his wife and married eighteen year old Nicole Brown, a blonde LA waitress. Their marriage lasted seven years and was not happy, especially in the latter years when Nicole was beaten and abused by Simpson. She called the police numerous times reporting OJ for assault. On June 13th, 1994, Nicole and a waiter named Ron Goldman were found dead. A trail of blood led away from the scene and later blood was found on Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.

Simpson was not as famous in the UK as in America but I do remember seeing the crazy car chase on TV with Simpson in his white Bronco followed by a fleet of Police cars. I have to say that this series has completely gripped me so far and the portrait of Simpson himself and the racial climate in Los Angeles and the attitude of the police is compelling. If you are interested you can still find the episodes on the BBC I-player, at least you could when I wrote this a few days ago. When I tuned in to watch the final episode it was not available! 

Rocketman.

As we are cooped up at home for the duration, why not watch a good film on pay per view? It just so happens that Liz renewed her Sky sunscription recently so we were entitled to a free film. OK, settle back, pop corn at the ready, red wine poured, here we go.

Rocketman was an enjoyable film, well mostly. In parts it was a cross between a music video and a Hollywood musical featuring, of course, Elton John’s music. The first part of the film was very good while the second part seemed to just go on a little too much about Elton’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. Elton’s songs were all presented in an interesting way, some pretty much as we have heard Elton perform them in the past, others in a sort of musical fantasy production number way. I enjoyed all of them.

Elton’s relationship with lyricist Bernie Taupin was shown to be much closer than I realised; Elton, in the film, thinking of Bernie as the brother he never had. Elton’s father doesn’t come over as such a nice character and one sad moment was when Elton was reunited with him and found him to be much closer to his new sons in his new marriage than he ever was with him. Come to think of it, his mother doesn’t come out of the film as being a great mum either whereas before I always thought Elton and his mother were close.  The family member who always believed in him according to this film was his gran. Anyway, even if you don’t like the film itself the rest of the time it’s pretty much like listening to Elton’s Greatest hits, so if Elton’s music does it for you then you should like it.


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