Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Films of Henry Hathaway: Down to the Sea in Ships

(NOTE: I feel terribly guilty about letting the Cinedrome lie fallow for so long. Between Christmas shopping and nine performances a week of A Christmas Carol at the Sacramento Theatre Co. I haven't had the time I would like to devote to researching and writing my next post (on The Magnificent Ambersons). Soon, I promise! Until then, here's an earlier post on one of my favorite movies, for those who may not have seen it when I put it up a year ago. -- jl)

In 1949 Henry Hathaway made one of the best movies of his long career. In it, his three stars, Richard Widmark, Lionel Barrymore and Dean Stockwell (and for that matter, most of the supporting cast) each gave one of his own best performances. Down to the Sea in Ships is in fact one of the finest movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system, and almost nobody has ever heard of it.

I know I run the risk of overselling the product here, but I simply don't understand why Down to the Sea in Ships isn't one of the best-loved movies of all time. When the talk turns to the great seafaring stories of the screen -- Treasure Island, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captains Courageous, Moby Dick et al. -- it's a mystery to me why Down to the Sea in Ships never comes up. If there are such things as flawless movies, and there surely are, Henry Hathaway's Down to the Sea in Ships is one of them.

I say "Henry Hathaway's" to distinguish this picture from the other Down to the Sea in Ships, from 1922. That one made a star out of Clara Bow, and curiously enough, it's available on home video -- no doubt because it's in the public domain, while Hathaway's picture is still under copyright and quarantined in the 20th Century Fox vault. In the 1960s and '70s it was the other way around: Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was gone and long forgotten, but if your local TV station had a decent film library and you were willing to stay up till two or three in the morning, you could count on seeing Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) two or three times a year. 

Before we leave the subject of Clara Bow's breakout vehicle for good, let's get one point clear: Wikipedia says that the 1922 picture "was remade by Twentieth Century Fox in 1949," but -- well, that's Wikipedia for you. (Whoever wrote the article didn't even know that it's "20th Century Fox," not "Twentieth.") In fact, there is no connection whatsoever between the two pictures -- other than the fact that they both deal with whaling ships out of New Bedford, Mass., and they both take their title from Psalm 107:23 ("They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters..."). These aren't two versions of the same story, they're two different movies with the same title; henceforth, when I use the title, I'll be talking about only one of them.

Fox chief Darryl Zanuck first set out to produce Down to the Sea in Ships in 1939 -- if not this picture precisely, at least one with this title and setting. Things got as far as sending a second unit crew into the waters of the Gulf of California to shoot background footage. But when World War II made it impossible to shoot on the open sea, or even in California's harbors, the picture went on a back burner. 

After the war, Zanuck reactivated the project and handed it over to producer Louis D. ("Buddy") Lighton and director Hathaway. Both men were working for Fox now, but they had been paired before in the 1930s at Paramount: Lighton had produced the Shirley Temple vehicle Now and Forever, The Lives of a  Bengal
Lancer, and Peter Ibbetson, all of which Hathaway directed.

The first draft of the script was by Sy Bartlett -- that's him at right -- born
Sacha Baraniev in Russia (now Ukraine) in 1900 but raised in America from
the age of four. Originally a newspaper reporter, he became a screenwriter
for various studios in the '30s, but he was noted more for hobnobbing
in Hollywood society, hosting Sunday barbecues, and the occasional
gossip-column appearance. He served with the U.S. Army Air Corps
during World War II, then returned to Hollywood and a job at Fox.
At the time that he took his first cut at Down to the Sea in Ships,
Bartlett's most memorable work was still ahead of him: he later
turned his wartime experience into the novel and screenplay
Twelve O'Clock High (1949) for director Henry King
and star Gergory Peck.

Music historian Jon Burlingame (in his notes for the movie's soundtrack CD) says Bartlett's script underwent a rewrite by John Lee Mahin -- shown here (on the left) in a rare acting stint in Hell Below (1933) with Robert Montgomery. Like Bartlett a reporter-turned-screenwriter, Mahin already had a number of major credits on his resume, many of them -- including Red Dust, Treasure Island (1934), Test Pilot, Captains Courageous and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) -- for Hathaway's mentor Victor Fleming.

Without access to what records might be in the 20th Century Fox archives, it's impossible for me to say exactly how credit for Down to the Sea's script should shake out -- which is a pity, because the script is a truly masterful piece of work; if the picture ever gets the kind of attention it has deserved for over 60 years, maybe someone will shed some light on the subject. The writing credit on screen reads "Screen Play by John Lee Mahin and Sy Bartlett; From a Story by Sy Bartlett," which matches the general drift of the two writers' careers: story was Bartlett's long suit, dialogue Mahin's. Making an educated guess, I'd say Bartlett was responsible for Down to the Sea's distinctive blend of rousing adventure and psychological acuity, Mahin for the unerring cadence and vocabulary of the speech of 19th century New England whalermen. Or it may have been more complicated than that; Mahin gets top billing on screen, which suggests that his rewrite probably amounted to more than just touching up the dialogue.

Down to the Sea in Ships opens in New Bedford in the summer of 1887. The whaling ship Pride of New Bedford returns from a four-year voyage under the command of Capt. Bering Joy (Lionel Barrymore), the best whaler on the New England coast. He's just about the oldest, too, though he shows no signs of being ready to retire from the sea. The reason for that is his 11-year-old grandson Jed (Dean Stockwell), the youngest in a line of the whaling Joy family that extends back "mighty nigh two hundred years." Capt. Joy, though still on crutches from an injury that kept him bunk-ridden for much of the voyage, is unwilling to retire, at least until Jed is thoroughly brought up in the ways of the sea and can continue the family tradition. Jed himself is (if you'll pardon the expression) entirely on board with this; he loves the seafaring life, the only life he's ever known. He's spent the last four years -- nearly half his life -- as his grandfather's cabin boy, and is now eager to ship out again as an apprentice member of the fo'c'sle crew.

Unfortunately, the decision may be taken out of both their hands. The whaling firm's insurance company refuses to cover Capt. Joy; moreover, Massachusetts law will not allow Jed to return to sea unless he can pass an exam covering the four years of schooling he missed while he was away. Fortunately, a sympathetic school superintendent (Gene Lockhart, in a warmhearted cameo) fudges Jed's test results rather than disappoint the captain.

And a tentative compromise is reached on the insurance issue when Capt. Joy is persuaded to sign Dan Lunceford (Richard Widmark) as first mate. The firm's president (Paul Harvey) says Lunceford is a promising young seaman who only needs some experience under a master mariner like Capt. Joy, but the captain isn't fooled: he realizes that Lunceford, who has a master's license, is being foisted on him at the insurance company's behest, to be in a position to take command of the Pride of New Bedford if age or infirmity should overcome the old man.

For his part, Dan Lunceford doesn't care much for the look of Capt. Joy, nor for his sneering at Lunceford's "book-learnin'" and his college degree in marine biology; only a sweetening of his percentage of the voyage's profits persuades the younger man to ship out with Capt. Joy after all.

Once the Pride of New Bedford is out to sea, Capt. Joy plays his trump card. He tells Lunceford that he sees "the hand of Providence" in Lunceford's presence on board. Jed was allowed to ship out, he says, only on the condition that his studies be continued, and Capt. Joy is hereby assigning Lunceford, in addition to his regular duties as first mate, to be Jed's tutor during his off-duty hours. In this way, the crafty old mariner intends to kill two birds with one stone: he'll see to Jed's education, and he'll keep Lunceford too busy to undermine his authority.

Lunceford has no choice but to accept the assignment, but he does so with ill grace. Resentful at what he regards as essentially a babysitting chore, he is impatient, sarcastic and dismissive. Resentful in turn, Jed is obstreperous and uncooperative. Lunceford decides Jed is just as ornery and pigheaded as his grandfather, and he give up the lessons as a waste of his time.

Stung, Jed applies himself and in time surprises Lunceford with answers to all the questions that had stumped him before. Lunceford suddenly approaches his duties as tutor in earnest, tailoring lessons more carefully to Jed's quick and lively but unsophisticated intelligence. As the friendship grows between Jed and Lunceford, Capt. Joy begins -- rightly or wrongly -- to fear that his grandson's respect and affection are drifting away from himself and attaching themselves to Lunceford; he responds to the unexpected competition by looking more carefully at Lunceford's ideas, which he had formerly dismissed as not worth his attention. All this happens even as the Pride of New Bedford roams the waters of the South Atlantic, stalking and taking whales.

That's about as much of the plot as I care to go into here; better that you should discover the rest for yourself. Down to the Sea in Ships isn't available on home video, but it does surface (pun intended) from time to time on the Fox Movie Channel, and it's worth seeking out to discover how the three-generation, three-way relationship of Capt. Joy, Jed and Dan Lunceford plays itself out against the background of a perilous voyage contending with the forces of nature and the leviathans of the deep. Each of the three discovers qualities of strength and character in the others that he either never suspected or did not properly value at first. Each brings out the best in the other two, and allows the other two to bring out the best in him.

All this, mind you, while the movie does not skimp on action and high adventure. There are scenes of whale chases and boats lost at sea, suspenseful and beautifully shot (Joe MacDonald) and edited (Dorothy Spencer), with excellent special effects (Fred Sersen and Ray Kellogg). Capping it all is a climactic sequence in which the Pride of New Bedford runs aground on an iceberg in the fog near the horn of South America...

...with the crew desperately struggling to free themselves and repair the damage before the sea pounds their ship to splinters against the unforgiving ice. Not to mince words, it's an absolutely brilliant action/suspense set piece. Amazingly enough, it was shot entirely in a soundstage tank on the Fox lot, but it's spectacularly convincing and harrowing for all that.

Down to the Sea in Ships was Lionel Barrymore's last starring
role, on loan from MGM. Once, when introducing Barrymore on a
1939 radio broadcast, Orson Welles referred to him as "the
most beloved actor of our time." It was probably an exaggeration,
but not by much; Barrymore's stock in trade was playing
cantankerous old codgers with hearts of gold. Ironic, then,
that the only role for which he's widely remembered today is
Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, one of the most thoroughly
heartless characters in the history of movies. In his own day
Barrymore was more closely identified with wise old Dr.
Gillespie in MGM's Dr. Kildare series, and with his annual
holiday performances as Ebenezer Scrooge on radio. In fact,
Barrymore had been slated to play Scrooge in MGM's A
Christmas Carol (1938) until he broke his hip in an auto
accident. That injury landed him in a wheelchair, then
advancing arthritis kept him there for the rest of his
career -- until Down to the Sea in Ships.

Henry Hathaway remembered, at first, a testy working relationship with Barrymore. As he told interviewer Polly Platt:
He had everything wrong with him, most of it in his head...I said, "You're not sick, you're just destroying yourself...I have no sympathy for you. You're a glutton, you drink too much...You want to destroy yourself, you're really doing it."
Is this callousness or tough love? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Hathaway had a reputation for being tough on actors. His side of it was simply that he refused to mollycoddle them; he expected actors to report to the set ready to work. He also remembered the day they finished shooting Barrymore's scenes:
We finish the picture, he walked off the set. No wheelchair. No crutches. And he came to me and said, "Mr. Hathaway, I want to tell you, you did more for me and for my life on this picture than ever happened to me before. From my father or my mother, or from anybody. I was just simply sitting there and waiting to die."
Hathaway went on to say that they remained friends for the rest of Barrymore's life. In any case, whatever the validity of Hathaway's recollection, the evidence is there on screen: Barrymore responded -- whether out of spite or chagrin -- by giving one of his strongest performances in years. For once he's not merely being wheeled around the set acting crusty (although in his more physically active shots he was often doubled by assistant director Richard Talmadge).

I don't mean to minimize the genuine pain Barrymore surely suffered, but that wheelchair must have been a real convenience for a man who had never been all that crazy about being an actor to begin with. In youth, his real interests were in painting, writing, and composing music, but the pressure to enter the family trade (and the money to be made from it) kept him on stage, screen and radio for nearly sixty years. The role of Capt. Bering Joy was a recognizable "Lionel Barrymore type," but it was also a complex and vigorous character betrayed by age and ill health, and Barrymore the self-described ham connected with it on a more profound level than almost any part he ever played. He deserves to be remembered for this performance as much as -- indeed, more than -- for the unalloyed wickedness of Henry Potter. 

Down to the Sea in Ships was Richard Widmark's fifth movie, after his sensational debut as the giggling psycho killer Tommy Udo in Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947). In the intervening three pictures, Widmark played a woman-beating gang lord (The Street with No Name), a murderously jealous bar owner (Road House) and an underhanded western outlaw (Yellow Sky). The studio realized he was in danger of being typecast as a succession of nutjobs, sleazeballs and unsavories (because he played them so well), when what the studio really needed was another leading man. Casting him as Dan Lunceford was a conscious effort to help him segue into more sympathetic roles. It worked. Widmark went on to be one of Fox's most stalwart leading men, playing good guys (Slattery's Hurricane, Panic in the Streets), bad guys (No Way Out, O. Henry's Full House) and guys in between (Pickup on South Street, Don't Bother to Knock) -- until, like many other stars, he went free-agent in the mid-1950s.

In Down to the Sea, Widmark is top-billed, although he doesn't appear until half an hour in. His Dan Lunceford is the character who goes through the most self-surprising changes in the course of the picture. After all, Jed is an adolescent coming of age, and changes are to be expected, while Capt. Joy, though seemingly set in his ways and defiantly so, proves to be flexible, open to change, and willing to learn -- when he thinks nobody is watching and he can do it without losing face.

Capt. Joy blusters, but it's Dan Lunceford who is most nearly arrogant at the outset; part of the reason the captain scoffs at Lunceford's education is that he senses Lunceford is more than a little puffed-up about it. For his part, Lunceford treats Capt. Joy with an exaggerated politeness that stops just short of insolent sarcasm. (Capt. Joy: "You may have noticed that most of my crew generally sign on again." Lunceford [drily]: "Out of affection no doubt, sir.") His sarcasm towards Jed's lessons, on the other hand, is undisguised -- at first. In time, he comes to realize he has misjudged them both, especially the captain. By the end he's telling Jed that his grandfather is "more of a man than you or I could ever hope to be." It's an admission Lunceford could hardly have imagined making when the voyage began.

And then there's Dean Stockwell. Stockwell's first screen role came in 1945, when he was eight years old, and he's still working today -- which means that his career has now lasted longer than Lionel Barrymore's or Richard Widmark's. When I screened my print of Down to the Sea in Ships for some friends, one of them said, "Dean Stockwell was a revelation!" She was familiar with Stockwell as an adult actor, and knew he had started as a child star, but had no inkling he was ever as good as he is here. ("He was marvelous," remembered Hathaway, "just a great actor. Intense little guy.") My friend was right: Dean Stockwell's performance here is a revelation, easily (at the age of twelve) the best of his career -- and for an actor whose resume includes Gentleman's Agreement, The Boy with Green Hair, Compulsion, Long Day's Journey into Night, Blue Velvet, and the TV series Quantum Leap, that's saying something. Jed Joy is the fulcrum upon which the plot of Down to the Sea in Ships pivots, and in Stockwell's performance we see him grow from an uncertain, sometimes petulant child into the makings of a fine, strong young man -- he seems even to grow taller as the story progresses (and it's all in his acting; the shooting schedule wasn't that protracted).

Jon Burlingame says that Down to the Sea cost $2.5 million, one of Fox's most expensive pictures of 1949, and that despite good reviews and high expectations (" engrossingly done that the box-office appeal should be sturdy," said Variety, "...dotted with tremendously moving scenes that will stick in the memory."), it failed to break even. Not an unfamiliar story in the history of Hollywood.

I've been dancing all around something here, and I might as well come right out and say it: Down to the Sea in Ships is a masterpiece. It's not one of those "miracle pictures" I've talked about before, like Peter Ibbetson or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Making it was no departure for the Hollywood studio system; on the contrary, pictures like this were right up Hollywood's alley. If there's a miracle here, it isn't that it was made in the first place, but that it turned out so well in the end.

Henry Hathaway never worked with a better script; for that matter, neither has anyone else. Whether the credit goes mainly to John Lee Mahin or to Sy Bartlett -- or some magical, once-in-a-lifetime chemistry between the two -- Down to the Sea's script is nothing less than a work of genius. It's a rousing sea adventure, a sharp-eyed psychological study, a near-documentary reconstruction of the 19th century whaling trade, and a subtle examination of the customs and dynamics of a shipboard community in the age of sails. Nearly every line is memorable, every scene layered with nuances that reward repeated viewings. Even the name of the ship -- Pride of New Bedford -- is pregnant with symbolism: the many facets of pride, as both virtue and vice, is a major theme that runs through the story and all three of the central characters. This superb text inspired everyone who touched it -- Hathaway, his actors, photographer Joe McDonald, editor Dorothy Spencer, composer Alfred Newman, everyone -- to give it the best of their considerable abilities. The result of their efforts is (I say it again) a flawless movie. Not a work of art, perhaps -- perhaps -- but of such a high order of craftsmanship that it's all but indistinguishable from the real thing. 

If you ever get the chance to see Down to the Sea in Ships, don't pass it up. I've never shown it to anyone who didn't love it. I guarantee it: this is one of the greatest movies you never heard of.

For my other posts on director Henry Hathaway, see:
          "A Genial Hack," Part 1 
          "A Genial Hack," Part 2: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
          "A Genial Hack, Part 3: Peter Ibbetson
          Films of Henry Hathaway: The Shepherd of the Hills

Friday, November 25, 2011

Remembering the Night

This post is adapted and expanded from an article I wrote for the November 22, 2007 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

I always dread this time of year, when the holiday movies are trotted out. You can't turn around without hearing some jackass bitch about how much he hates It's a Wonderful Life. He can't get enough of "I am your father, Luke" or "I'm King o' the World!", but Zuzu's petals once a year is just more than he can bear.

It makes me nostalgic for the days when I had It's a Wonderful Life all to myself (and yes, there was such a time). Well, almost to myself, anyhow. Certainly everybody else who knew and loved Frank Capra's picture had my own last name. Back about 1974 or so, in college, I had two friends who made a nightly ritual of staying up to watch car dealer Jay Brown's all-night movies on Channel 36 out of San Jose. One day -- and it was nowhere near Christmas -- they rushed up to me bubbling with enthusiasm for this great Jimmy Stewart movie they'd seen the night before. They figured if anyone would know about it, I would, and they were right. That was -- for me, anyhow -- the beginning of the revival of It's a Wonderful Life. And the beginning of the end for my family and me having the memory of It's a Wonderful Life all to ourselves. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad the picture finally came into its own, and I thank a merciful Providence that Capra, Stewart and Donna Reed all lived to see it. But then again, when people like that hypothetical (but all too credible) killjoy I mentioned above feel free to rag on it, sometimes I'm not so sure.

So I almost hesitate to mention Remember the Night. Maybe I wouldn't, but the cat seems to be getting out of the bag. When I wrote about Remember the Night in 2007, it was available only on out-of-print used VHS or bootleg copies of an AMC broadcast from the 1990s. Things are different now; the movie's available in an above-board (and beautiful) DVD from the TCM Web site (and as usual, there's an even better deal at Amazon), and I figure it's only a matter of time before someone runs up to me bubbling with enthusiasm about this great Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck movie they saw the other night. I want to be able to say I'm way ahead of them.

Most of the reason for Remember the Night's resurgency -- I mean in artistic terms, independent of the arcane ins and outs of who owns a film and who decides there's a market for it -- is its writer, Preston Sturges. This was the last script he ever wrote for somebody else to direct, the somebody in this case being Mitchell Leisen, then second only to his mentor Cecil B. DeMille as the alpha dog among Paramount directors (a position he would soon cede to -- or at least share with -- Sturges himself). Leisen's star has slipped a bit since his heyday in the '30s and '40s, alleviated somewhat by an excellent biography, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti, originally published in 1973 (the year after Leisen died), then revised and expanded in 1995. I'll have more to say about some of Leisen's pictures later.

Right now I'm talking about Remember the Night. The version of Sturges' script published in Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges is a facsimile of Sturges' actual typescript, dated June 15, 1939 and bearing the title The Amazing Marriage. Written in by hand on the title page is "Remember the Night[,] Or". Obviously, neither Sturges nor producer-director Leisen ever came up with a really good title. The Amazing Marriage at least has some slight connection to a line from the script, albeit one Leisen cut during shooting. The picture's final title, though, is so generic as to be meaningless.

If the title is generic, however, it's the only thing about Remember the Night that is. Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a hardboiled, tough cookie who gets busted in New York for lifting a diamond bracelet from a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. MacMurray is assistant D.A. Jack Sargent, about to leave town to drive to his mother's farm in Indiana for Christmas when his boss yanks him in to prosecute Lee. Disgruntled and eager to get on the road, he takes advantage of a legal technicality and gets the case continued until after New Year's. Then he begins feeling guilty about leaving Lee in jail over the holidays and arranges to get her bailed out. To his surprise and discomfort, the bail bondsman remands Lee to his custody, and the surprise is compounded when, despite the fact that he was prosecuting her only that afternoon, the two find themselves taking a liking to one another. They even learn that they grew
up about fifty miles from each other in the same part of Indiana. So, still feeling responsible for Lee, Jack decides to take her home to spend Christmas with his mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) and their hired hand (Sterling Holloway).

At the humble Sargent farm outside Wabash, Ind., Lee's hard shell begins to soften and melt in the glow of a household suffused by warmth, affection and mutual support -- the kind of nurturing family atmosphere that was completely missing from her own upbringing just a few towns away. This idyll of a Hoosier holiday brims with lovely moments, from Sterling Holloway leading the family in singing "The End of a Perfect Day" around the Christmas tree to the always-delightful Elizabeth Patterson (here at her sweetest) ruefully musing about her own youthful brush with romance ("I twiddled around with the idea one summer; was all right again by fall.").

Patterson's Aunt Emma sees clearly what we do: Love -- the other kind of love -- is beginning to bloom between Lee and Jack, and they allow themselves to forget -- almost -- that she's a repeat offender, and come January 3 he's going to have to try to send her to jail for a long time. 

Remember the Night wasn't marketed as a holiday movie -- it was released January 19, 1940, and besides, such a thing was almost unheard of then -- but it's one of the best and least-known. It was a hit in 1940, with Stanwyck and MacMurray already showing the sexy chemistry that would play to more sinister effect four years later in Double Indemnity. The picture was visible on TV through the 1960s and into the '70s, but was out of circulation for decades. Now that Turner Classic Movies and Universal (which owns the pre-1948 Paramount library) have partnered up to issue it on DVD, it surely won't be long before it becomes as popular and beloved as It's a Wonderful Life. Well, okay, maybe not entirely as much -- Wonderful Life has a mighty powerful mystique -- but I'm betting it won't be far behind. 

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers have all been nestled snug in their Tupperware beds in the fridge, and as it begins to look a lot like Christmas, if you're casting about for a new movie to add to your list of holiday favorites, consider giving Remember the Night a try. There's still plenty of time to order your copy

Oh, and one more thing. Don't come around in 2037 moaning about how you're sick and tired of Remember the Night. I won't want to hear it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Returning to Lost London

Halloween Season has come round again, and I think this is a good time to repost my four-part series on the lost Lon Chaney picture London After Midnight (1927), and on Marie Coolidge-Rask's novelization of Tod Browning and Waldemar Young's scenario. I've picked up some new readers since these posts ran a year ago (and very welcome you all are!), so, my new friends, this is for you, and I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to read the posts in order so you don't get ahead of the plot.

Have a fun and safely spooky Halloween, everybody!

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The 11-Oscar Mistake

The 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition of Ben-Hur is out. Mine arrived last week, number 13,192 of 125,000 -- so be warned: If you want your own copy, you've got only 111,808 more chances to buy it. As 50th Anniversary Editions go, this one is a little tardy, by nearly 22 months; the picture premiered in New York (at the Loew's State on Broadway) on November 18, 1959.

New York had a lot more daily newspapers in those days, and movie reviews were a lot more important, especially to a roadshow attraction like this that couldn't count on a big ten-jillion-screen opening weekend to make most of its money. A picture like Ben-Hur had to have "legs", and for that the New York critics were as important as they were to any first night on a Broadway stage. If the suits at MGM had been worried about the critics, they were breathing a lot easier by the afternoon of November 19. The chorus of praise was deafening: "a remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama" (New York Times); "squirms with energy" (Tribune); "a classic peak" (Post); "stupendous" (Daily News); "extraordinary cinematic stature" (Journal-American); "massive splendor in overwhelming force roars from the screen" (World-Telegram).

If you agree with all these encomia, you might want to read no further, because I don't agree and I never have. As far as I'm concerned, of all the lousy movies that have won the Oscar for best picture (a very crowded field), Ben-Hur may be the lousiest of the lot. ("Well, if you feel that way about it, why did you shell out 45 smackers for a deluxe boxed Blu-ray?" Good question; all I can say is, just as not every good movie is important, not every important movie is good.)

Let me remind you (if you're old enough to remember) or tell you (if you're not) how moviegoing has changed in 50 years. Forget home theaters, forget cable or satellite TV, forget Tivo or Internet streaming, forget even multiplexes. What they now call "platforming" wasn't a rare distribution strategy in those days, it was how all movies were handled. A movie would open in the big cities first -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, maybe San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington DC, St. Louis and a few others. Maybe in two or three theaters in the big cities, but probably in only one (and all theaters had only one screen). After its first run, the movie would filter down to smaller theaters in the big markets and bigger theaters in the smaller markets. If your hometown was small enough and far enough from a major market, you could have months of mounting anticipation before you had a chance to see the movie everybody you didn't know was talking about.

And absolutely forget about waiting till a movie turned up on HBO or Netflix. You'd have one chance to see it; even then it might play only three or four days and be gone. If you couldn't catch it those days, you could hope it would be held over or brought back. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. If not, you could watch for it at your local drive-in or theaters in a neighboring town, maybe in vain. That was moviegoing in the 1950s.

This dynamic was intensified in the case of roadshow attractions. I don't mean just the Cinerama movies, which were a special case all to themselves. I mean movies like Oklahoma!, Around the World in 80 Days, The Ten Commandments, South Pacific; they might play a year or more in metropolitan areas before going into general release ("Now at popular prices!"). Where we lived in Northern California, the nearest big city was San Francisco; I had friends whose parents took them down there to see Oklahoma! and Around the World, but my family never went in for that; I just had to wait. (I didn't see Oklahoma!, for example, until 1961, and only then because we moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1960.)

If we hadn't made that move, it might have been at least another year before I got to see Ben-Hur -- that's the kind of business it was doing; general release still looked a long way off. But voila! -- Ben-Hur was playing at Sacramento's most opulent picture palace, the Alhambra. By that time, as I've written here and here, Ben-Hur was more than a movie; it permeated the culture -- every newspaper, every magazine, every comedy routine, every conversation. Myself, I had already gotten a set of four toy Ben-Hur chariots for Christmas and played them to pieces. I had even found time to read the book -- no small undertaking for a kid, believe you me. One of the Alhambra's ticket outlets was the Sears Roebuck credit office, and they had a 6-foot-tall cutout of this logo mounted over the counter. That cutout alone was awesome, breathtaking; it was like gazing up at a cardboard Mt. Rushmore. (I wonder if any of those cutouts survive.) I wheedled the astronomical $3.00 admission price from my parents, and one Sunday in September I finally took my seat to have (as the posters promised) The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime.


As it turned out, this milestone in the march of Western Art was only a movie after all. And to my bewildered surprise, as I sat there in the throng -- the Alhambra held 2,500 and it was jam-packed to the last row of the balcony -- I found a startling thought running unbidden through my head: "This movie...isn't...very...good."

The first stirrings of disappointment came during the pre-title sequence showing the birth of Jesus, with the Wise Men tromping up and plopping their gifts down. It looked as awkward to me as a Nativity Scene enacted by a Sunday School kindergarten...

...with a Star of Bethlehem as tacky as a dimestore Christmas card or the picture on a gas station calendar. I didn't really know the meaning of the word "sublime" at that age, but I understood the concept, and I knew that just about everybody had promised me something like that in Ben-Hur. Well, it hadn't really started yet; maybe things would get better.
They didn't. By the time of the "great sea battle" -- nearly an hour and a half later -- I had about decided somebody was pulling a fast one. I was twelve years old and thinking, "How fake!" Maybe it was the huge screen, but these boats looked like bathtub toys. Howard Lydecker (though I didn't know his name at the time) had done a better job on Sink the Bismarck!, and with probably one-tenth the money MGM spent on this.

I wish now I had thought to eavesdrop on the lobby-talk at intermission, but I didn't, so I don't know how Ben-Hur was going over by the halfway (actually, about two-thirds) mark. But I remember what I was thinking: "Are they really falling for this?" I felt like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen suddenly blurting out that the emperor had no clothes. But I didn't blurt anything; I kept my thoughts to myself. I was just a kid, what the heck did I know?

I left the Alhambra Theatre that evening sadder, wiser, and four hours older, with a valuable lesson: Don't believe everything you hear.

Seeing the picture again and again over the years brought into focus things that I hadn't specifically noticed the first time, but that I could see had added to my general disappointment, like the solemn, leaden pace, with pregnant pauses between and during the speeches, each pause several weeks more pregnant than the last. Or the dull non-performance of Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah Ben-Hur's love interest. Harareet had little screen presence and less chemistry with Charlton Heston (for contrast, see Heston and Sophia Loren in El Cid), and after Ben-Hur Harareet's career went precisely nowhere. (For that matter, that's where it went even during Ben-Hur.)

On a related side-note, we've all heard Gore Vidal's story about how he saved the Ben-Hur script by writing in a homoerotic subtext between Heston's Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala, a story Vidal continues to tell despite on-the-record denials from both Heston and director William Wyler before they died. Well, maybe it's there and maybe it isn't; by the time Vidal started talking about it, Stephen Boyd was no longer around to give his take on it. More obvious to me -- now, I mean, not in 1960 -- is the same subtext between Ben-Hur and the Roman soldier Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) during the rowing drill in the galley; Arrius gazes intently through hooded eyes at the half-naked Judah as the hortator steps up the drumbeat and Judah strokes, strokes, strokes, faster and faster. Maybe Vidal wrote that too, and maybe Hawkins played it, I don't know.  My point is that all this talk about real or imagined homoerotic undercurrents in Ben-Hur is possible at least in part because plainly, there's absolutely nothing going on between Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet.

But back to my train of thought. When I saw Ben-Hur in September 1960, I had already read and enjoyed the book, so I never for a minute believed that the movie had simply gone over my 12-year-old head. Here was a picture that, as I saw it, was mediocre at best, yet it had critics everywhere flying into transports of ecstasy. Even the reliably hypercritical Time Magazine said that the script "sometimes sing[s] with good rhetoric and quiet poetry." (Really? Somebody quote me a line or two of that singing, quiet poetry. I dare you.)

To me it was a paradox, one I mulled over intermittently for years. Finally I came up with...I can't really call it a theory, exactly; it's more a hypothesis. No doubt it's a gross over-simplification, but I think it's worth trotting out and looking at.

And now this brings me to what I mean by the title of this post: "The 11-Oscar Mistake". I don't mean to say that giving Ben-Hur 11 Oscars was a mistake (although I think it was). What I mean is that there was a serendipitous mistake in the picture itself that wound up making it a huge hit and winning it 11 Oscars.

The mistake happened during shooting of the one sequence where Ben-Hur unquestionably delivers the goods: the chariot race. It's 8 min. 38 sec. of pure visceral excitement, and to get the full pulse-pounding impact of it you really had to see it in a huge theater on an 80-foot screen with 2,499 other people who were just as edge-of-the-seat excited as you were. (When was the last time you saw any movie with thousands of strangers? I'll bet it's been a while.)

The chariot race was the work of second unit directors Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt and Andrew Marton (finally assembled by editors John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters). Yakima Canutt is far and away the greatest and most famous stuntman who ever lived, with a career spanning 60 years from Foreman of Z Bar Ranch in 1915 to Breakheart Pass in 1975 (when he was 80). He all but invented the craft of movie stunt work, and he literally invented any number of safety devices to minimize the inherent dangers of the job. As either stunt performer, stunt coordinator, second unit director, producer or actor (sometimes wearing more than one hat on the same picture) he racked up nearly 500 titles in his filmography. (He also has the distinction of being the first man to go before the cameras in Gone With the Wind, doubling Clark Gable in the burning-of-Atlanta sequence.) For Ben-Hur Canutt selected and trained both the horses and drivers for the race.

Andrew Marton's career was almost as long as
Canutt's (from 1927 to '77), most often as director
(King Solomon's Mines ['50], The Longest Day,
Crack in the World, Clarence the Cross-Eyed
Lion) but also as second unit director on many
major pictures (The Red Badge of Courage,
A Farewell to Arms ['57], Cleopatra ['63],
Catch-22, The Day of the Jackal). On Ben-Hur
Marton was in charge of the crew behind the
camera while Canutt handled the human and
animal crews in front of it.

Doubling for Charlton Heston in the race's more hazardous shots was Yakima Canutt's 21-year-old son Joe (shown here in a 1994 interview). Heston had worked for weeks with the second unit crew to master driving his own chariot, adding one horse at a time until he was driving a full team of four. By the time it came to shooting, Joe Canutt said, Heston was as good a charioteer "as any man in the business", and he's in the chariot for quite a bit of the race. But as ever the case in Hollywood, MGM wasn't about to let their star take any foolish chances, and that's where Joe came in.

It was during this training that one of Heston's best-known anecdotes happened. You've probably heard it, but it bears repeating here in light of how things turned out. One day Heston turned to Yakima Canutt and said, "Y'know, Yak, I feel pretty comfortable running this team now, but we're all alone here. We start shooting this sucker in ten days. I'm not so sure I can cut it with seven other teams out there." "Chuck," said Canutt, "you just make sure y'stay in the chariot. I guarantee yuh gonna win the damn race."

Keeping Judah Ben-Hur in the chariot turned out to be a pretty near-run thing. Canutt senior had worked out a number of "gags" to punctuate the race with excitement -- wheels disintegrating, chariots crashing, Roman guards and chariot drivers (actually dummies) getting trampled and run over, and so forth. One of them called for Joe Canutt, doubling Heston, to drive his chariot over the wreckage of two others -- actually a short ramp placed in his path and blocked from camera sight by one pile of debris. In concept it was a pretty simple stunt, not particularly designed to stand out in the mayhem.

Joe worked long and carefully with his team before the shoot. He took the horses up and over the ramp one at a time, then in pairs harnessed together, then threes, then all four, then the four harnessed to an empty chariot, and finally all four, the chariot and Joe. At last everybody, human and equine, was comfortable with the stunt.

Here's how the sequence was planned, shot by shot -- each shot, obviously, filmed separately, even on different days, to be assembled later, rather than as one continuous action:

First a shot of slaves scurrying to clear the wreckage and horses of two chariots before the racers come round again.

Messala, knowing what's just around the bend, crowds Ben-Hur's chariot (with Heston at the reins) hard against the spina as they come around the turn.

As Messala and Ben-Hur gallop into the straightaway...

 ...the Roman continues to hem Ben-Hur against the spina, so close that guards on the spina have to leap onto the narrow curb to avoid being trampled (one doesn't make it)...

...and the wreckage looms directly and unavoidably in Ben-Hur's path as the slaves dash away to safety.

I draw on two sources to describe what happened when the next shot was filmed. One is Charlton Heston's autobiography In the Arena; the other is an account I read years ago but can't remember where, and I can quote it now only from memory. Heston says that Yakima Canutt attached a safety chain between his son and the chariot before the shot, but Joe disconnected it after Yak walked away. Heston never learned why; he speculates that maybe Joe didn't want to be shackled to the wreckage if anything went wrong. I think it's also possible that Joe had rehearsed his team thoroughly enough that he simply didn't think the chain was needed. In addition, Yak cautioned Joe to keep the chariot under 35 miles per hour to avoid being bounced out when he went over the ramp. 

Marton called "Action!" and the two chariots came round the bend, Joe pacing himself to Messala's chariot galloping beside him. Yak and Marton reflexively yelled "You're going too fast!" -- but of course it was pointless; Joe couldn't have heard them over all the noise at that distance.

Joe's chariot hit the ramp. In this frame you can see that the horses are just leaping clear on the other side. (You can also clearly see, with the frame frozen, that it's not Charlton Heston driving.)

An instant later the team is safely clear and galloping away, but Joe's trouble is just beginning.

The chariot begins to descend and Joe goes into free fall, hanging for dear life onto the front rail.

The heavy chariot is still coming down and Joe is almost perfectly perpendicular.
Now his feet are over, putting him in a back-bend. He's a heartbeat away from either being crushed by the half-ton chariot or having the meat ripped from his bones by the bolts studding the underside. (And hey, look over to the right; see that? Yep, it's one of Andrew Marton's cameras. I'll bet even the editors never saw it. The camera is on screen for eight frames, one-third of a second -- just long enough to notice if you look that way. But of course nobody ever has.)

It was in this nanosecond that Joe Canutt displayed the combination of quick thinking and athletic prowess that marks the difference between a great stuntman and a dead one. It beggars belief, but here's what he did: just before his body toppled completely over, he let go his grip on the front rail of the chariot, dropped to a handstand on the tongue just behind the horses' flying hooves, and pushed himself to the side and clear away. Now I've never done a handspring off the tongue of a chariot at a full gallop, but I'm guessing it's not the kind of thing you can practice for; either you can do it when you have to or you can't. Joe Canutt could do it.

He didn't escape entirely uscathed, though. Something on the passing chariot clipped him on the chin, requiring four stitches. He was back at work after half an hour.

Joe Canutt, against all odds, was alive and well, but the shot itself was a dead loss, and after seeing his son go halfway to glory and back again, Yakima Canutt was in no mood to try it again. But according to Heston, at the screening of the dailies the normally detached William Wyler nearly choked when he saw the shot. "Jee-zuss!" he cried. "We have to use that!"

Yakima Canutt balked. "Don't see how y' gonna do that. I promised Chuck he'd win this race. I don't believe he can catch that team on foot."

But Wyler knew just how to salvage the shot. Neither Yak nor Heston was crazy about the idea but they did it:

With the chariot running at full speed, Heston faked the end of Joe Canutt's tumble by clinging to the front of the chariot...
 ...then, "in about three blinks of an eye", he clambered back in place and seized the reins once again. "It's a scary shot," Heston wrote, "-- it scared me, anyway." No doubt those three eye-blinks taught Charlton Heston a new respect for Joe Canutt, if any new respect were needed. (UPDATE: Wyler biographer Jan Herman gives a different account of how this solution was arrived at, but I'm going with Heston, who was there.)

Now let's go back to the Alhambra Theatre in September 1960. Judah Ben-Hur's flying header out of that chariot got a reaction from those 2,500 patrons unlike anything I've ever heard in a movie theater -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Men bellowed. Women screamed. Not a soul in the house -- and I include myself -- could believe we saw what we were seeing. And again, remember that 80-foot screen. This wasn't an image captured in a few thousand pixels on an HDTV. It was MGM Camera65, projected on a screen that looked like it covered two acres. When Joe Canutt's body went sailing into the air, you had to move your head to follow it.

And when Charlton Heston climbed back into that chariot and gathered up the reins to race on, the joyful roar from that audience all but drowned out the Alhambra's seven-channel sound system. It was like...oh, I don't know. Imagine Babe Ruth hitting a grand-slam homer in Yankee Stadium with two men out in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series and the Yankees down by three runs. The way those Yankee fans would have responded -- that's what that audience did for the rest of the chariot race after that stunt. They cheered, they stomped, they whistled, they bounced in their seats shouting "Go! Go! Go!" Myself, I sat there wide-eyed, taking in the whole experience -- what was happening on screen, and what was happening around me. It didn't change my feelings about the rest of the picture, but it's something I'll never forget.

By finding a way to salvage Joe Canutt's stunt-gone-wrong, William Wyler gave Ben-Hur something nobody knew it was missing -- probably not even Wyler himself. He gave it a moment -- a split-second, a heartbeat-and-a-half -- when it actually looked like Judah Ben-Hur might not win the race after all. In art both high and low, there are certain givens that everybody knows going in. Oedipus will blind himself, Scrooge will reform, Anna Karenina will throw herself under the train, Luke will destroy the Death Star. And Ben-Hur will win the chariot race. When Joe Canutt was thrown out of his chariot, and when William Wyler figured out a way to keep the shot in the picture after all, the audience's expectations were instantly upended, as surely as Joe Canutt had been.

Tristan Bernard once said, "Audiences want to be surprised, but by something they expect." Joe Canutt (by accident) and William Wyler (by design) created a moment that achieved the near-impossible: it made Judah Ben-Hur winning the chariot race -- which everybody expected -- a genuine surprise.

For all the New York Times's puffing about engrossing human drama, or Time Magazine's mooning over lines of quiet poetry, I say Ben-Hur (1959) really pretty much boils down to the chariot race -- and the chariot race boils down to that somersault Joe Canutt took on a miscalculated stunt. Don't get me wrong, the whole race is brilliantly staged, shot and edited, but that moment makes it an emotional as well as a visceral experience. At that point, the chariot race still has nearly three minutes to run, and the picture itself nearly 50. But that's the emotional climax of the race, and of the whole movie.

I admit, this hypothesis is something I concocted about a movie I didn't like very much, to try to understand why so many people did. As I said, it's no doubt an over-simplification. And yet, and yet -- I can never prove it, but I'll always suspect that some of those 11 Oscars, maybe even best picture itself, would have gone home with somebody else if Joe Canutt had been a little more cautious as he pointed his team toward that ramp.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Eugene O'Neill

An interesting artifact has come into my hands on loan from an old friend. It's an early draft of the screenplay for MGM's 1935 movie of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! by the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

It's a very early draft, in fact -- labeled both TEMPORARY and INCOMPLETE and dated January 18, 1935. The picture's premiere (in Worcester, Mass.) wasn't until December 6, and it didn't open in New York until Christmas Day. I don't know when it opened in Los Angeles, but Variety's review (and they were always very prompt) finally appeared January 1, 1936 -- nearly a full year after this draft started making the rounds at the Culver City studio.

Exactly what rounds did it make? Well, obviously it never made it back to the Script Dept., despite the request on the cover. The names "Oliver" and (smaller, more faintly) "Harry Oliver" are pencilled on the cover. Harry Oliver worked as an art director in Hollywood in the '20s and '30s, including (but not exclusively) at MGM; his IMDb page lists credits with Fox before the 20th Century merger (two of which, 7th Heaven and Street Angel, garnered him Oscar nominations), with Harold Lloyd, and with independent producer Sol Lesser. He's not among the names credited on Ah, Wilderness!, but that doesn't mean he didn't work on it; MGM was all one big family in those days, and crafts technicians didn't get credit for every lick of work they did. My guess is that when Ah, Wilderness! was in pre-production, the Art Department got a number of scripts for budget estimating purposes, and Harry Oliver got one of them to look over and offer input. How it got out of his hands (Oliver died in 1973) and wound up in my friend's wife's friend's uncle's box of mementos is anybody's guess.

The "600" stamped on the label isn't the number of this individual script, it's the picture's production number -- meaning this was the six-hundredth feature initiated since the founding of MGM in 1924. The "Incomplete" stamp is literal: the last page of the script, p. 93, ends at a point where the finished film still has 32 of its 97 minutes left to run. The "Temporary" stamp means "Tentative"; there are many minor and two major differences between what the Hacketts had written by January 18 and what eventually turned up on the screen.

The first major difference is in the treatment of Wallace Beery's role. Beery (left) gets top billing in the picture, playing Sid, the brother of Spring Byington's Essie Miller and the brother-in-law of Essie's husband Nat (second-billed Lionel Barrymore, right). O'Neill's play all takes place on one day -- July 4, 1906 -- but the Hacketts had expanded the time frame to open a week or two earlier ("late June"), before Sid enters the action (he comes back to the Miller household after being fired for drunkenness from his newspaper job in a neighboring town). So in this January 18 draft, Sid doesn't show up until page 40 (of 93), on the morning of the Fourth. This would hardly do for a star of Beery's standing at the time (I wouldn't put it past him to have griped about it himself, loud and long), so a scene was added showing him going off with high hopes -- for both his new job and his newfound sobriety -- at the end of June, before slinking back to the Millers in time for the holiday. ("Ma! Pa! Uncle Sid's come to spend the Fourth!" To which Sid mutters under his breath: "The Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ad infinitum.")
As for the second major difference, it's another scene that doesn't appear in O'Neill's play -- a major one, just over 15 minutes long. I don't know when it was inserted into the script, but God bless the Hacketts for writing it, and Clarence Brown for directing it so beautifully, because it's one of the best and funniest scenes in the whole movie. Most of it takes place during the graduation ceremony at the high school in this small Connecticut city, where Nat and Essie Miller's middle son Richard (Eric Linden) will be the valedictorian. Before Richard's speech, however, we're treated to a generous sampling of the commencement program: the school glee club singing "The Blue Danube", an earnest young student reciting Mark Antony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar; a more nervous youngster offering Poe's "The Bells" ("...of the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells...") and studiously counting every "bells" off on his fingers; a girl student's how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation travelogue about her family's visit to the Swiss Alps; and my favorite, this young lady (I wish I knew her name) struggling doggedly through a clarinet solo, darting irritated glances toward her piano accompanist at every real and imagined mistake.

When it opened on Broadway in October 1933, the sweetly sunny Ah, Wilderness! stood out as the most uncharacteristic play the somber, brooding O'Neill had ever written -- a distinction it retains to this day. Like his searing, tortured masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night, it grew out of his family's life in New London, Conn. (pop. in 1900: 17,548), which the O'Neills made their summer home from 1884 (four years before Eugene was born) until the future playwright was well out of his teens. Both plays take place in virtually the same house -- the stage directions to both Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey describe the same room in almost every detail -- but the families that populate them couldn't be more different. The Tyrones of Long Day's Journey are unmistakeably Eugene, his penny-pinching actor father, his morphine-addicted mother and his alcoholic older brother. The Millers of Ah, Wilderness!, however, were modeled on the O'Neills' friends and neighbors John and Evelyn McGinley and their large brood of seven children; both Eugene and his father James admired and envied the McGinleys' jovial domesticity and unforced affection for one another. If Long Day's Journey into Night (making allowances for dramatic license) represents Eugene O'Neill's memory of his unhappy, dysfunctional family, then Ah, Wilderness! (making the same allowances) gives us the youth and family life O'Neill wished he had had. The Miller clan has its conflicts and crises, but they are character-building rather than soul-destroying, and there's nothing that can't be handled with love and common sense.

In their adaptation, the Hacketts emphasized the one slim
thread of plot in O'Neill's nostalgic reverie of a youth he
never had: the emotional growing pains of the Millers' middle
son Richard, from his jejune flirtation with radical politics to
his blossoming romance with neighbor girl Muriel McComber
(Cecilia Parker) and the mean-spirited oppostion of her father.
In so doing, the Hacketts handed 25-year-old Eric Linden the
opportunity to give the performance of his career -- and he
delivered in style. Never mind that he gets no better than
fourth billing; Ah, Wilderness! is Eric Linden's picture from
beginning to end. And never mind that he was a good
decade too old for the role; his boyishness made him look
not a day over 16, and his performance did the rest. Linden
had a busy career in the 1930s -- mostly in B-pictures for
RKO, Warners and MGM -- without ever really becoming
a star; this was his only chance to carry an A-picture on his
own. After this it was back to Bs at Metro and on loan to
various studios and independent producers. But before he
finally closed out his career in 1943 with Criminals Within
 (for lowly Producers Releasing Corporation, the skid row
flophouse of Hollywood studios), he would give one more
performance that I'm sure everyone who ever saw it
will remember to their dying day:

He was the Confederate soldier in Gone With the Wind 
who has just learned from Harry Davenport's Dr. Meade
that his leg will have to be amputated. He is on screen
for less than three seconds, but his desperate cries
("Don't cut! Don't! -- cut! Ple-e-e-e-ease!!") have
curdled the blood of millions of moviegoers for over
70 years. Oh yes, I'll just bet you remember
Eric Linden, all right.

The Hacketts deftly tinkered with the letter of O'Neill, but Ah, Wilderness!
 remained stoutly faithful to the play's spirit, and for that, a good share of
the credit should go to director Clarence Brown. Brown's career and work
deserve more attention than they've gotten, and maybe someday I'll have
more to say about him. For now, I'll simply observe that in his 53 pictures
between 1920 and 1952 he directed a striking number of performers to
their best-ever performances: Eric Linden here, Elizabeth Taylor in National
Velvet, Claude Jarman Jr. in The Yearling, Juano Hernandez in Intruder in
the Dust, George Brent in The Rains Came, Marie Dressler in Emma, and
so on. An equally striking number gave their near-best for him: Garbo and
Basil Rathbone in Anna Karenina, Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan in The
Human Comedy, Charles Boyer in Conquest, Paul Douglas in Angels in
the Outfield -- well, you get the idea. I could do a whole post just on
Brown's contribution to Ah, Wilderness!, but my topic here is what
the picture's success led to for MGM and Hollywood -- consequences
beyond what anyone could have expected. Clarence Brown had
a lot to do with that success; let's just leave it at that.

Ah, Wilderness! was a critical and financial hit for MGM, though it was somewhat overshadowed (at the time and ever since) by some of the studio's other pictures of 1935 (Mutiny on the Bounty, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina) and '36 (The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, San Francisco, Romeo and Juliet). Still, people noticed, and the chemistry of Ah, Wilderness! was tried again in the B-picture unit: Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington and Eric Linden were reunited as parents and son in The Voice of Bugle Ann, another (albeit lesser) piece of nostalgic Americana, set in the Missouri hills, from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor. 

Later in 1936, Sam Marx of MGM's story department got the brainstorm that would take the legacy of Ah, Wilderness! in a whole new, yet oddly congruent, direction. He remembered a play he'd seen that ran a little over a year on Broadway in the late '20s. It was called Skidding by Aurania Rouverol, about a small-town judge who has to preside over a political hot-potato case in the middle of his campaign for reelection; the play centered on the judge's case of conscience and (as a sidelight) the way it affected his family. Marx got Lucien Hubbard, head of the studio's B unit, to buy the screen rights, but it wasn't easy. "I practically had to get him down on the floor with my knees in his neck to make him buy the play," Marx recalled.

When the picture went into production in the fall of 1936,
Aurania Rouverol's Skidding had a new title, A Family
Affair; George B. Seitz was directing, from a script by Kay
Van Riper. It reunited a hefty chunk of the cast from Ah,
Wilderness!: Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Mickey
Rooney, Charles Grapewin. Also back were Eric Linden
and Cecilia Parker, romantically paired once again -- only
this time she was the one in the family and he was the
neighboring sweetheart. The picture was shot on the same
backlot "New England Street" that had been built for
Ah, Wilderness!, and the new family "lived" in the same
house. If you have any lingering doubt that this new
picture was designed to evoke pleasant memories of the
earlier one, here's the title frame from Ah, Wilderness!...

...and here's the same frame from A Family Affair. The new
picture took place in the "present day" (i.e., 1936) instead of
a rose-colored turn of the century, but otherwise it followed
the benevolent formula laid down by Eugene O'Neill in his
change-of-pace comedy: the friendly, cozy big-small-town
where everybody knew everybody else, the close-knit family
bound by ties of affection and respect, the periodic heart-
to-heart talks between father and son. The family of
newspaper publisher Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness! were the
clear progenitors of Judge James K. Hardy and his clan --
at least, by the time MGM had brought the Hardys to the
screen. (In fact, ironically, Aurania Rouverol's play had
beaten O'Neill's to Broadway by nearly five-and-a-half
years; Skidding had a longer run, too.)

A Family Affair was an unexpected hit, particularly for a B picture, and exhibitors besieged MGM with requests for more, especially more of Mickey Rooney, who played Judge Hardy's teenage son Andy -- the equivalent, if you will, of Eric Linden's Richard Miller in Ah, Wilderness! By the time the studio could get a sequel underway, Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington had moved on to other projects and were unavailable. They were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden as Judge and Mrs. Hardy, and You're Only Young Once became, officially, the first installment of the series -- and the only one not to have the name "Hardy" in the title.

The Andy Hardy pictures, 14 of them between 1937 and 1946, became the most successful series in movie history before the James Bond movies -- and in fact, if we think of it in terms of percent of profit for cost of production, they may still hold the record. There's no telling how many of MGM's expensive, prestigious failures had their fingers pulled out of the financial fire by the Hardy family. The series served as a training ground for future MGM stars -- Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, Kathryn Grayson, Donna Reed, and of course Judy Garland -- who one way or another would cross Andy Hardy's path. It made Mickey Rooney the number-one box office star in America for three years running. It was pointed to by Louis B. Mayer as his proudest achievement. It won MGM a special Academy Award (certificate) in 1942 for "representing the American way of life". In 1941 Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron proclaimed the Hardys "the first family of Hollywood", commemorated by a plaque in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

By the way, don't go looking for that plaque; it isn't there any more. The Andy Hardy pictures have long gone (unjustly) out of vogue. A few were issued on VHS years ago, but only one (so far) has made it to DVD, and that from the bargain-basement Warner Archive. (It's Love Finds Andy Hardy, and it's available, no doubt, only because Judy Garland co-stars with Mickey.) (UPDATE 12/23/11: The Warner Archive has begun to rectify this; they've just issued The Andy Hardy Collection, Vol. 1 with six of the early titles.) (UPDATE 7/12/13: The rectification is now complete: Warner Archive has issued The Andy Hardy Film Collection, Vol. 2 with the remaining ten features. Titles are also available individually.)

Mickey Rooney had an interesting take on the series: "Creating this New England utopia was all part of L.B. Mayer's master plan to reinvent America. In most of his movies that came under his control, Mr. Mayer knew that he was 'confecting, not reflecting' America...The Andy Hardy movies didn't tell it 'like it is.' They told it the way we'd like it to be, describing an ideal that needs constant reinvention."

In 1946, the year of the last regular Andy Hardy picture (Love Laughs at Andy Hardy), there was a sort of closing of the circle on Ah, Wilderness! Producer Arthur Freed, still flush from his rousing success with Meet Me in St. Louis (which itself was a very close cousin to Ah, Wilderness!) conceived the idea of turning O'Neill's play into a musical. So the Hardys moved out of their comfy white house and the Millers moved back in (and painted it yellow for Technicolor), and the result was Summer Holiday. This time Andy Hardy himself, Mickey Rooney (who had played the youngest Miller boy in Ah, Wilderness!), was promoted into the role of Richard Miller, and Richard and his Muriel (Gloria DeHaven) got the top billing (thanks to the Hacketts' tweakings of O'Neill, here preserved and enhanced) that Eric Linden and Cecilia Parker had deserved but been denied in 1935.

Summer Holiday was completed by mid-October 1946 but wasn't released until April 1948, and it's not hard to understand why: it's a bit of a dog. Not Arthur Freed's worst musical by any means (Till the Clouds Roll By, anyone?), but not all that far behind. The movie has a higher regard today in some quarters thanks to director Rouben Mamoulian's latter-day reputation, but it's pretty flat and charmless when stood beside Clarence Brown's 1935 picture. Part of the problem is the rather colorless score by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane; except for the movie's one hit, "The Stanley Steamer" (an ode to the Millers' newfangled automobile, first inserted by the Hacketts), the songs are probably the most forgettable score Warren ever wrote, and Blane's rhyming dialogue just forces the cast to burst into doggerel from time to time. Then there's the Richard/Muriel romance; sincere and comically poignant in 1935, it's rather arch and hammy here (Rooney was a dynamic talent in those days, but arch hamminess was always his Achilles' heel). In any event, audiences didn't respond as they had to Ah, Wilderness!; Summer Holiday lost nearly $1.5 million.

So Freed and Mamoulian's new, improved Ah, Wilderness! failed, and by the time it was released the last Andy Hardy movie was already two years old. (In 1958 MGM got the Hardy family back together -- all except Lewis Stone, who had died in 1953 -- for a reunion movie, Andy Hardy Comes Home. Alas, Andy learned that Thomas Wolfe was right; the movie was a flop.)

Even by 1948, the "reinventions" Mickey Rooney talked about had begun to outstrip Andy Hardy, but Andy cast a long shadow for decades after the series itself ebbed. Sometimes the influence was direct and deliberate, as with the Archie comics that started in 1941 in blatant imitation of Andy Hardy and are still around today. Sometimes it was indirect but distinct, as in TV sitcoms from Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, through The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, to Eight Is Enough and The Cosby Show. In them all, we can still discern the basic template with which L.B. Mayer "confected" small-town American life, in MGM's conscious imitation of the way Eugene O'Neill had "confected" an imaginary youth for himself in New London, Conn.; the shadow of Andy Hardy is really the shadow of Ah, Wilderness! (And let's not forget Meet Me in St. Louis and the Technicolor musicals inspired by it, like Centennial Summer, State Fair, and yes, Summer Holiday, all with a clear kinship to O'Neill's comedy.) With all due respect to the titanic power of plays like Long Day's Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh and Mourning Becomes Electra, it just may be that Ah, Wilderness! was in fact the most influential play Eugene O'Neill ever wrote.

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