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

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.

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