Film History 101 (Part 11)

When we last left off, we were discussing how “Jaws” and a certain other film from the 1970s had completely redrawn the Hollywood landscape.   These movies proved that a studio didn’t have to turn out a series of successful films to make gobs of money.   All you needed was one, and you could maintain a healthy bottom line for years to come.    “Jaws” may have broken records, but the film which followed it in 1977  solidified the concept of the “tent pole” film.   That’s a movie  so popular that EVERYONE has to see it.

Here are some more clues about the 1977 film we’re talking about:

  • It sold more tickets in San Francisco than there were people living in San Francisco.
  • It’s still the third highest grossing release in film history.
  • It was released by 20th Century Fox.   Within 3 weeks of it’s opening, the stock price of the studio more than doubled.
  • The profits for 20th Century Fox in 1977 were more than twice that of any other year in its history.
  • It was so popular, it was re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1997.  In 1997, it was still one of the biggest money-makers of the year, despite having been available on home video for nearly a decade.
  • It was the first film to prove that movie merchandising could be just as profitable as the ticket sales themselves.

If you have an even casual interest in Film History, you know we’re talking about Star Wars.

But we don’t want to make it seem like “Star Wars” was the only decent film made in the 1970s.  As we’ve mentioned before, the decade proved to be exceedingly fertile ground for both movie makers and movie goers.   And we didn’t want to leave this segment of Film History 101 without touching on some of our other favorite films from that era.  Most you’ve seen.  But hopefully we’ve thrown in a few you may not have heard of:

The Godfather Part II. You know the old saying that sequels are never as good as the original? Here’s the exception that proves the rule.  Coppola took an instant American classic, and simultaneously created a prequel and sequel.  The early parts detailing Don Corleone’s rise as the Godfather are good, but it’s the second story that really hits home.   Watching Michael Corleone lose his soul is one of the most emotionally shattering experiences ever put on film.  A superb script, great performances, dazzling cinematography, and a searing story you can’t get out of your head make this a leading contender for the best film ever made.  One of our all time favorite film experiences, even after dozens of viewings.   (No exaggeration).

The Exorcist.  William Friedkin followed up The French Connection with a movie that still holds up in the scares department some 45 years later.  And just to show you how Film History 101 is interconnected, check out this earlier posting.   Friedkin said he learned how to make movies by watching Val Lewton films while growing up in Chicago in the 1940s.  Specifically, how to scare the pants off an audience.  An intelligent script, sharply constructed shots, silence, creepy sound effects,  and knowing exactly when to pull the trigger are all Lewton trademarks.  However,  the spinning head and pea soup mixed with oatmeal  were Friedkin’s own unique contributions to Film History 101.

The Poseidon Adventure. 1972’s second highest grossing film (after “The Godfather”) and the film that launched a mini-genre of “disaster movies.”   The action sequences are still top-notch, but we always liked the film for it’s underlying themes of fate and predestination.   In a life or death situation, does your ability to survive depend on sheer luck, or your own actions?   Of course, the main attraction in the film is the sequence where the ship capsizes.   It’s still pretty spectacular, especially the rotating shot where the grand piano slides down the length of the floor and crashes into the ceiling.   But perhaps the most iconic image from the film occurs when Ernie Orsatti the stuntman falls from the upside down table now located in the ceiling into a bank of lights.   That’s an actual stunt you see on film.  In fact, if you look closely, you can watch Ernie mouth the following words to the cameraman right before he lets go:  “I’m going to get you for this.”   In real life, the fall knocked Ernie unconscious, and put him in the hospital with a concussion for three days.  All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Shelley Winter’s swimming  abilities.

The Towering Inferno.    “The Poseidon Adventure” proved to be so popular that no expense was spared for this follow-on extravaganza from Irwin Allen .    It’s one of the few times in Hollywood history that two separate studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.)  combined their talent and resources to co-produce a single film.   It even had two directors:  John Guillerman handled all the dialogue sequences, while Allen focused on the shots where something was on fire.   The model for the burning skyscraper was created on the backlot and stood over 100 feet tall.  These days the movie is definitely a guilty pleasure.   We can’t help but chuckle at Leonard Maltin’s review of the film.  To paraphrase:   “All star idiocy about a burning building.  It purports to pay tribute to firefighters, but is  more interested in depicting grisly ways for people to die.”.   We can’t argue with that assessment, but it’s still grand entertainment.  (And it made even more money than “The Poseidon Adventure”).

Chinatown.  Another winner from Roman Polanski, and the film that solidified Robert Towne’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters.  An excellent modern example of Film Noir.  (Look for Polanski’s cameo as a  knife-wielding hood).

Harold and Maude. Cult classic about a young man Bud Cort)  obsessed with death.  Until he meets certified free spirit Ruth Gordon.   The elderly woman teaches him about the gift of life in the most unexpected ways.   The movie is famous for all of Bud’s fake “suicide” attempts in the early part of the movie, but finds its heart in the latter half.   It also put Colin Higgins on the map as a big time director.

Silver Streak.   Another Colin Higgins films and one of those rare films that does a great job balancing comedy and suspense.   We’re still a big fan of the finale when the train crashes into the station.  After this film, some went so far as to call Higgins the new “Hitchcock”.  He went on to make Foul Play before his career completely derailed with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  No one has seen him since.

Cabaret. Before Liza Minelli became tabloid fodder, she sure could belt them out.  (Musical numbers that is, not her husbands).

Annie Hall. Quite possibly Woody Allen’s best movie ever.  (And he’s made a lot of them).

Apocalypse Now.  Another great film from Francis Ford Coppola.  But the production problems literally almost killed the director and star Martin Sheen.  Too bad the last half hour is so anti-climactic.  Almost all of the scenes with Marlon Brando were ad-libbed.   The reason you never get a good look at him is because he showed up on the set grossly overweight.   But the film is still worth your time.   Another great Coppola movie from the 70s we can recommend is The Conversation.   Its look at electronic eavesdropping, invasion of privacy, and the manipulation of technology becomes more and more relevant with each passing year.

Blazing Saddles.  Our vote for Mel Brooks’ funniest movie.   Full of lots of stuff that just wouldn’t fly today.   But Young Frankenstein is up there too.  And don’t forget Silent Movie.

The Kentucky Fried Movie.   Before Airplane, the Zucker Brothers teamed up with John Landis to make this.   Raw, offensive, and rough around the edges….but oh so funny.

Animal House.   Another John Landis film which gets our vote for one of the funniest movies ever made…despite  scores of imitations.

Little Big Man.   Finally, a movie that had the courage to show American history from the Indian’s point of view.  By depicting Custer as a narcissistic psycho, (as he almost certainly was) it shows that history never stops judging one by their actions.  Even 100 years after the fact.

Days of Heaven. For Hollywood cinematographers,  there’s a term called “The Golden Hour.”   It’s the time at the end of every day when the sun just dips over the horizon and before the light disappears.  Everything is bathed in a warm, gold glow for only about 10 to 20 minutes.   Most cameramen dream of shooting during this  span of time every day.   But this was the first (and so far only) attempt to shoot an entire film during this window of time.  Rolling film only 15 minutes or so a day took a year to complete the project…and the plot ain’t much to talk about.   But the final product is oh so beautiful to look at.

Deliverance. As someone else once pointed out, Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward might just be the most frightening pair of villains in screen history.  Everyone remembers the scene we’re talking about.  Which is too bad.  Because the rest of the movie is terrific too.

Going in Style. George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg all sparkle as old men sitting on a park bench in New York who decide to spice up their life by robbing a bank.   Maybe the best movie ever made about aging, it’s sad and funny in equal doses.  With more than a touch of reality thrown in to make it worth your while.  And way more poignant than the recent remake.

Alien.  Another triumph from the “less is more” school of horror.   When the film was screened for the White House in 1979, Rosslyn Carter reportedly ran out of the room during the infamous chest bursting scene.  The movie is  actually a remake of a 1950s film called “It: the Terror From Beyond Space.”  “Alien” is better.  Trust us.

The Black Hole. At the time, this was the most expensive film Walt Disney studios ever produced.   It’s got a lot to recommend it:  great special effects, a larger than life plot, a wonderful soundtrack and some chilling visuals.   But the entire effort is almost sunk by a couple of silly robots thrown in to attract a younger audience.

Vanishing Point.   Barry Newman decides (for no reason) to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time.  With an entire cadre of state troopers in pursuit.  The first film to combine music with top notch racing action, the film is (justifiably) famous with car enthusiasts.

And two more you may have never heard of:

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.  Jodie foster is a young teenager who apparently lives alone in a house in New England.  Or does she?  Martin Sheen plays a pedophile who seems to have Foster right where he wants her.  Meanwhile Scott Jacoby (anyone remember Bad Ronald?) plays a crippled teen who develops a relationship with Jodie.   A truly original film with a great script.

The Silent Partner.  Elliott Gould plays a mild-mannered bank teller who gets tipped off that he’s about to be robbed.   So, he stuffs $300,000 into a duffel bag.  When the thief (Christopher Plummer) robs the bank, everyone thinks he’s the one who took the missing money.   Everyone except Plummer, who turns out to be a sadistic psychopath that now wants the rest of the loot.  So begins the cat and mouse game in which the shy bank teller appears to be seriously over-matched.   But not for long.  An addictive movie for the lucky viewer…right up until the perfect ending.

There are lots of other films from the 1970s we won’t hesitate to recommend.   Like we mentioned before, the decade was rich with just one great film after another:

Airport, Black Sunday, The Boys From Brazil, Carrie, A Clockwork Orange, Dawn of the Dead, Death Wish, The Deer Hunter, Diamonds Are Forever, Dirty Harry, Eraserhead, Halloween, Live and Let Die, The Longest Yard, Mad Max, Magnum Force, Marathon Man, Midnight Express, Network, The Omega Man, The Omen, Patton, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Saturday Night Fever, Shampoo, The Sting, Straw Dogs, The Taking of Pelham 123, That’s Entertainment, Three Days of the Condor, Up in Smoke, The Warriors, and What’s Up Doc.

We could go on, but for the sake of space, that should be enough to get you started if you want to further explore film history in the 1970s.

After the success of Star Wars, the 1980s saw a definite shift in the kind of product that Hollywood produced.   Films were geared toward a younger market, as all the movie studios tried to recapture the magic of “The Force.”.   As a result, there was a definite drop off in quality.   Out of the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time, only 8 were made during the 1980s.   It’s the lowest total of the entire sound era.

But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t good films made in that timeframe.   Some were classics in their own right.  It just goes to show that there’s no stopping innovation, even when money grubbing is involved.   We’ll take a look at some of them in the next installment of Film History 101.

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Film History 101 (Part 10)

One of the most famous “behind the scenes”  stories ever to come out of Hollywood occurred during the 1970s.   It happened during the filming of Marathon Man (a terrific movie by the way) and involved stars Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman.  Specifically, it took place during the filming of the famous scene where Olivier’s Nazi character tortures Hoffman in the dentist chair by drilling on the most sensitive parts of his teeth without any anesthetic.  (“Is It Safe?”)

Olivier showed up on the set that morning rested and ready to work, while Hoffman looked just awful.   He hadn’t bathed, shaved, or gone to bed for two straight days.  Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked like something the cat dragged in.  Hoffman explained that he was a method actor.  And that in order to get ready to film the scene,  he had not slept for 2 days, and had deliberately stressed out his body as part of his preparation.  Olivier, the greatest English speaking actor of his generation, calmly looked Hoffman over, and casually asked, “Why don’t you just act?”

It’s a great story.  But while its been repeated enough times around Hollywood to qualify as an urban legend, no one has ever come forward to vouch for it’s authenticity.   Hoffman denied for years that such an exchange ever took place, before finally admitting it was only partially true.   Given the egos that go along with method acting, it’s very easy to assume that enough of it is based in fact to warrant its continued retelling.

“Marathon Man” was released in 1976.  But it was during the summer of the previous year that a certain film came out which had a much bigger impact on the Hollywood landscape.  It set box-office records,  established itself as the top money-maker of the time, and led to a complete overhaul of how movies are marketed and distributed (even to this day).   It also instantly established its young director as a force to be reckoned with in the industry for decades to come.  (Hint:  Duh-dah, duh-dah).  The movie’s name was  Jaws. 

The movie was based on a best-selling book by Peter Benchley.   Most people who have read “Jaws” are sometimes shocked to find that it spends relatively little time dealing with the shark.  Most of it, in fact, deals with a love triangle between the three principle characters.   The producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) who secured the rights to the book still thought there was a terrific story in there, but they knew it needed some work.  They had been impressed with a made-for-TV movie they had seen named Duel, which featured Dennis Weaver being chased through the desert by a monstrous truck.   They liked how “Duel” never showed you the  driver of the vehicle, and built an incredible amount of tension through editing and a lean script.  This was exactly their vision for “Jaws.” So they approached “Duel’s” director with an offer to take on their new film.  The director’s name was Steven Spielberg.  At the time he was only 26 years old.   (Coincidentally,  the same age as Orson Welles when he made “Citizen Kane”).

Spielberg read the first draft of Benchley’s screenplay, and said he would take the job on two conditions.  One, he wanted to re-write the script to take out the love triangle and concentrate on the shark.  Two, he would deliberately not show the shark until over half way through the movie.  This was exactly what Brown and Zanuck wanted to hear, and the stage was set for a major chapter in film history.  But before reaching that point, the movie had to endure one of the most difficult productions since “Cleopatra.”

Spielberg went through two more drafts with Benchley before they amicably parted ways.  Two more scriptwriters were brought in, and once the script was what the director wanted, he turned to solving other logistical problems.   Brown and Zanuck had assumed they would shoot the movie with live sharks.  But the finished script called for the animal to do things that simply weren’t possible (like jumping up into real boat and splitting it in two).   It’s an old Hollywood maxim that dates back to the silent days:  Never shoot a movie with children, animals, or on water.  Spielberg was aiming for two out of three.

It was decided that a series of mechanical sharks had to be built.  In the end, there were five of them, nicknamed “Bruce.”   For a filming location, the production team chose Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.   Not because of the warm weather, but because it was the only place in the United States where there was a flat, sandy ocean bottom only 30 feet deep and which stretched out 12 miles to sea.   The film crew could get out of sight of land, and still have a relatively reasonable depth of water.  It was decided that the mechanical sharks would need this to operate properly.   But nothing like it had ever been attempted before.  When the first mechanical shark was flown to Martha’s Vineyard, it promptly sank.  A diving team then had to be assembled to retrieve it.   But this was only the start of the trouble.

After the production team found a way to keep the sharks from sinking, a new problem emerged.  The salt water from the ocean had a corroding effect on the mechanical shark’s internal mechanisms.  It ate through the wires and none of the gears would work. But under intense pressure from the studio, Spielberg couldn’t wait around.  His plan to keep the shark hidden from the audience was no longer just an option.   He literally had nothing to show, and was forced to keep “Bruce” under wraps even longer than originally intended.

Spielberg and his co-writer Carl Gottlieb were forced to rewrite the script as they went along to accommodate their uncooperative “star.”   In scenes where you were supposed to see the shark, they substituted yellow “barrels” that Quint (Robert Shaw) could chase in his boat the “Orca.” Again, this wasn’t the original plan. And it soon led to another calamity.  In the shot where the yellow barrels approach the boat, but then dip under, a winch system was devised to “pull” the barrels toward the boat.  But they were using a real boat.  A real OLD boat.   The strain from the winches ripped out the siding from the “Orca” and it quickly sank along with the cast, crew, camera, and sound equipment.  The latter elements could be fished out of the water (some a little worse for wear).  But the boat itself wasn’t salvageable.  A new one had to be built from scratch to match the old.

Bad local actors, uncooperative tides, damage to set pieces from the ocean’s pounding waves, and poor weather added to Spielberg’s headaches.   The budget for the movie doubled from $4 to $8 million.   The original shooting schedule was supposed to be 55 days.   It stretched to 155.   Many members of the film crew began to call the production “Flaws.”    Spielberg’s relationship with the crew deteriorated to such a degree that he assumed he was going to be fired.  To this day, and dozens of mega-movies later Spielberg says he’s never been under such stress.   In an taped interview a few years ago, he admitted he still has recurrent nightmares and problems with insomnia after the experience.   He says  it’s always the same.  In his dream, he’s on day four or five of “Jaws”, and suddenly realizes that he still has weeks to go on the production.  He says he wakes up in a cold sweat, and isn’t able to get back to bed.

But Brown and Zanuck continued to support their young director.   They were happy with the dailies they were getting, and agreed that as long as they saw some progress, they would stick it out.   But as the film began to take shape in the cutting room, they still didn’t know what they had.   Spielberg has stated that the turning point for him came when he went to visit music composer John Williams.   Williams played the “Jaws” theme we’re all so familiar with for him on a regular piano.  Spielberg laughed out loud and asked to hear the real score.  His heart sank when Williams said he wasn’t fooling around.   But when Spielberg heard the various motifs and chords played by a full studio orchestra, he knew that Williams was on to something.

Spielberg thought he might have a decent film.   But in the cutting room, as he began to apply Williams’ music to the movie, in his words it “came alive”.  The film began to exceed his wildest expectations.  Brown and Zanuck also saw some of the early cuts with music, and big smiles broke out on their faces.  Spielberg has always been fairly generous in providing credit to his co-collaborators. In this case, he’s openly stated more than once he feels “Jaws” would have made a third less money at the box office if it hadn’t been for John Williams’ music.

But even after the film was finished, Spielberg had one more scene he wanted to fix.   It’s the one where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dives underwater to retrieve a shark’s tooth from the hull of a boat only to be confronted with the head of a floating corpse.  In the original version, the head pops out, and Richard Dreyfuss just turns and swims away.   Spielberg realized that he had missed an opportunity for a really big “scare.”   So, he went back to Brown and Zanuck and asked for more money.   They were befuddled at the request, and promptly turned him down.  The movie was great, they said….please don’t mess with it!   So Spielberg ponied up $3,000 of his own money, hired some friends, and went to his film editor’s house.   She just happened to own a swimming pool.   They threw some carnation instant milk into the water to make it murky, and shot the entire underwater part of the sequence in the backyard one night.

When “Jaws” premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York in 1975, most of the cast attended the screening.  At the end of the movie, the audience just cheered.  And then stayed and sat in complete silence through the entire credits.   After the screen finally went dark, the entire crowd once again erupted in another loud series of cheers.   Spielberg, the producers, the cast and the attending film critics were dumbfounded.   After years of attending Hollywood screenings, this was something that they had NEVER seen.  That night, they knew they were witnessing something magical.

It was the birth of the modern Hollywood blockbuster,  or “tent pole” film.   In promoting movies, it’s still the conventional wisdom that the best advertising is the only kind you can’t buy:  good Word of Mouth.  Before “Jaws” came along, movies would open slowly in select markets.   A distributor would intentionally hold back copies of the film until they felt the current theaters were playing at capacity.   The idea was to build momentum through positive word of mouth.    But Brown and Zanuck realized they had lightning in a bottle.   They ordered up hundreds of extra copies of the film and simultaneously put them out for release to every theater in the country willing to play it.  In the process of using this mass release approach, “Jaws” became the first film in Hollywood history to break the $100 million barrier at the box office.  In today’s dollars, and after years of re-releases and ancillary rights, it has made over $2 BILLION.

“Jaws” was also released in the summer, paving the way for a yearly ritual at your local cineplex.   Namely films released with a built-in audience, aimed at a younger crowd, and with a wide distribution pattern.  Just like “Jaws” some 43 years ago.

Back then, the rest of Hollywood stood up and took notice.  “Jaws” also had the positive effect of removing the fear of bankruptcy which had plagued the movie-making industry  since the late 1960s.   In one fell swoop, movie-making was shown to be extremely profitable again.   But this also led the people who finance movies to approach it with a “home-run” mentality.   The idea was to swing for the fences, in the hope of landing another “Jaws.”    And as any baseball fan will tell you, when you try for a home run every time, your overall batting average is going to suffer.   Whether this has led to better movies overall is open to conjecture.

More “Jaws” trivia:

Roy Scheider’s line “We need a bigger boat” was completely ad-libbed.   It was never in the script.

Quint (Robert Shaw’s) speech about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is Steven Spielberg’s favorite part of the movie.   Two writers wrote the dialogue before Spielberg gave Shaw a bottle of scotch and told him to make up something.  What’s in the final film is the early part of Shaw’s ad-libbing.   Before he got too drunk to speak coherently.

The second half of the film does feature some live shark footage (shot off the coast of Australia).   When you see Hooper in the cage being menaced by the shark, they had a dwarf in a wet suit in the shot to make the shark look bigger.   The close-up of Richard Dreyfuss’ eyes in the sequence aren’t really his.  They belong to a third stuntman.

The very large tiger shark the townspeople string up on the dock was real.  The local fishermen tried for weeks to catch one off the coast of Massachusetts without success.  They finally had to fly a dead one up from Florida (which didn’t smell too great after a week of being out in the sun).

The opening sequence in the film (where the girl gets brutally attacked by the unseen shark in the water at night) was achieved using a special harness.   Several men using cables ran up and down the beach dragging the stunt actress through the water to get the desired effect of her thrashing around and being pulled under by the shark.  For the shot where her head gets jerked under the first time, that was actually Steven Spielberg pulling on the line under the water.

During the final part of the film, as the shark’s dead carcass sinks into the ocean, if you listen carefully, you can hear a dinosaur bellowing.  Spielberg lifted the sound effect from an old B-movie from the 1950s.  You can hear the exact same sound effect at the climax in “Duel” when the truck goes over the cliff.   It was Spielberg’s tribute to his other movie, as well as his way of showing that both the truck and the shark were forces of nature…primal and unthinking.

As it turned out, “Jaws” would only claim the title of “biggest money-maker” of all time for a scant two years.  As influential as it was, it was eclipsed in 1977 by another film which not only outperformed it at the box office, but which also created a seismic shift in the industry (and pop culture in general).  A movie, which perhaps more than any other, has defined the kind of entertainment we still expect when we go to the cinema today.  That’s next in Film History 101.

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Film History 101 (Part 9)

The early 1970s represented an enormous period of change for the film industry. As we’ve seen, studios no longer had the resources or clout to make pictures adhere to any pre-determined standards.  In fact, after a series of expensive flops, most of them were staring bankruptcy right in the face.  And it seemed  impossible to find an audience.   For the first time, individual directors were the ones in the driver’s seat.  In this new environment, many felt free to experiment and pursue their own personal visions.   Hollywood began to resemble the wild west as directors like Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, Martin Scorsese, Franklin Schaffner, Wes Craven, John Boorman, Alan Pakula, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich began to turn out films the likes of which had never been seen before.

In fact, many critics consider the 1970s to be the greatest decade in film history bar none.   Complex stories and characterizations, realistic plots, subtle but ingenious experiments in cinematography, great musical scores, and entertaining stories…this was the decade during which film took a major step up  both as mass entertainment and as a sophisticated art form.  Out of the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, 20 were made in the 1970s…more than any other decade.  (As a change of pace, also consider that for Bravo’s Top 10 Scariest Movie Moments of all time, five of the films were made during the 70s..including the top three spots) .

The early 1970s also witnessed another benchmark year in cinema.  While 1939 is widely considered the “single greatest year in film history”, 1974 is generally given credit as another possible contender.   The sheer number of classic films released in that single year is astounding and crosses all genres:   Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, , The Towering Inferno, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Longest Yard, The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham 123, That’s Entertainment, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Three Musketeers, The Sugarland Express and Death Wish just to name a few.

And we haven’t even yet mentioned what is probably the the most honored film released during the first half of the decade.   A film which AFI in 2007  ranked as the second greatest American film ever made (after “Citizen Kane”).   Other groups have gone even further.   Metacritics, Entertainment Weekly, and Empire Magazine have given it the number one spot.   When asked his opinion, no one less than Stanley Kubrick once stated that it was quite possibly the greatest film ever made.   If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s one more hint:   It also holds second place in the American Film Institutes list of most memorable quotes in film history:  “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”.

Of course we’re talking about The Godfather.   But what makes the movie’s production history so interesting to contemplate is that at the time, no one had any idea that “The Godfather” would ever end up being finished.  Much less  become an integral part of our popular culture.   In fact, it ran into so many problems that more than once even the director was convinced he had an unmitigated disaster on his hands.

“The Godfather” was based on a best selling novel by Mario Puzo.  When Paramount bought the property, Robert Evans, the head of production, started searching for a suitable director.   He offered the job to Francis Ford Coppola.   Why?  Because Coppola was Italian, and the producer thought he would be in the best position to bring life to the material.  In Evan’s own words, he wanted to “smell the spaghetti.”   Just one example to illustrate that sometimes even the most most successful people in Hollywood aren’t necessarily deep thinkers.

A graduate of film school at UCLA, Coppola was a minor director.   He had already made several modest but well-received movies such as “Dementia 13,” “The Rain People,” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”  But he was probably best known at the time as the successful screenwriter behind the movie Patton.  Coppola knew of Evan’s reputation as a micro-manager, and knew that if he took the job he would be under the microscope.   He also didn’t want to be part of any production which glorified the Mafia.  So, at first, he didn’t want to do it.  But with a little encouragement from his friend George Lucas, who was also a struggling filmmaker at the time,  Coppola signed on for the project.

Coppola wasn’t like most other directors.  Disorganized, flamboyant, and an extreme extrovert, he was not a big fan of organized film production and rigid schedules.   Instead,  Coppola put an extraordinary amount of emphasis into his casting decisions.   And he took his own sweet time in making them.  After months of tests and try-outs, he narrowed down his list of actors.  For most of his choices, he only received minor complaints from Paramount.   But when he announced that he wanted to choose Marlon Brando for the lead role, the studio heads became apoplectic.

At the time, Brando was persona non grata in Hollywood.  A brilliant method actor, he had always been a little quirky.  And during the 1960s he became well known in tinseltown for his penchant for deliberately making movies go past schedule and over budget.  No matter what the  incentives or penalties, Brando had an annoying habit of disappearing while on the set.  Sometimes magically reappearing on other continents without a care in the world.   By his own later admission, Brando despised Hollywood protocol, and in particular the “suits” which ran the studios.   He would purposefully swear to agreements and contracts, only to deliberately break them in a series of successful attempts to stick it to the establishment.  A Hollywood veteran, he knew exactly when and how to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

Coppola didn’t know about this poisoned history.   So he was slightly taken aback when the studio heads at Paramount began to scream at him that “there was no way Brando will ever be in this picture!!”   But ignorance was bliss, and Coppola stuck to his guns.   He knew from test rehearsals that Brando was perfect for the role, and that with him on board, he might just have the ticket for a winning film.  For his part, Brando had fallen on hard times, and was eager to work again.  Eventually a deal was reached.  After several yelling matches,  Brando took the part for peanuts, and had to sign a bond making him personally financially responsible for any delays in the production that which were of his doing.

Having won that battle, Coppola next started working with his cast to flesh out their characters.  Here, once again, Coppola proved that he wasn’t a conventional director.   Despite being a successful screenwriter, he believed scripts were organic entities, and that they should grow and change as the actors “found themselves” in their roles. Days would go by without any footage being shot.  And even after scenes were filmed, it was perfectly normal for Coppola to completely reshoot them the following day, after he rewrote the script overnight.  As Gordon Willis, the cinematographer on the Godfather, ruefully observed to a reporter:  “With Francis, scripts are like newspapers.  You get a new one every day.”

This unorthodox working style quickly began to take its toll on the production crew.  They found it impossible to stick to any set schedule.  Days would be wasted lighting a specific scene, only to not have it needed.  Or even worse, very complicated set ups were required with little or no advance planning.  Remember the opening wedding scene in the film?   Most of it was shot at 3 in the morning.  Outside.   In the dark.   It wasn’t planned that way, but it was another symptom of the chaotic production.  Yet on screen it looks like a hot summer afternoon. Imagine the amount of light required to pull off the illusion.  If nothing else, it serves as a showcase for the huge strides made in film lighting and cinematography up to that time frame.

Word began to leak back to Paramount that “The Godfather” was in serious trouble.   Most of the assistant directors claimed that Coppola was out of control.  And that the production was headed toward an abyss.  Coppola got word that the studio intended to fire him by the end of the week.   In response, he hunkered down with his lawyer.   They reviewed his contract.   Then, a light bulb went off.   He suddenly realized that most of the crew worked for him.  As such, he had the right to terminate their contracts.   Gathering intelligence from staunch loyalists, he quickly identified which of the assistants were making him look bad to the studio.  He guessed correctly that most of them were bucking for his job.  He abruptly fired them, and handed their jobs over to other crew members much lower on the production totem pole.

That left Paramount with a problem.   They couldn’t fire Coppola on such short notice.  Because no one was left in a position to take over.   Firing the Director would have meant shutting down the production for an extended period while a replacement was found and brought up to speed.   In addition, the actors on the set were loyal to Coppola.  If the director walked,  many of them would do the same.   Evans and the other Paramount execs began to look at the dailies and weigh their options.   The footage they were getting looked great.  So, they decided to let Coppola have a little more rope as long as they saw progress.   He had survived, but just barely.

Slowly, the film began to come together.   Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis continued to fight like cats and dogs, but somehow they brought out the best in one another.   In some cases, it was the classic clash between experience and innovation.    During the scene  where Marlon Brando is shot in an assassination attempt, and the oranges spill out into the street, Coppola said he wanted to shoot it from way up high.   Willis resisted, claiming, “That’s not possible.  Which character’s point would that angle represent?”   Coppola lost his temper and screamed back “Who cares!!   It’s Orson Welles’ point of view!!   Now get somebody on top of a ladder with a camera!!”

Maybe it was due to the tension and conflict, or perhaps it was because he was able to take advantage of the extra time given him by Coppola’s lack of organization, but Willis was able to achieve some astonishing lighting effects in the film.   One we’ve already mentioned is the wedding sequence.  But another comes during the final shots of the movie.  In the scene where Kay (Diane Keaton) is pouring a drink in the foreground, you see Michael (Al Pacino) accepting his new role as Godfather in another room.  It’s one shot, but everything is in sharp focus.  In addition, the overall light level in both rooms is very dark, and full of warm tones.   Any photographer out there will tell you that in order to pull something like that off, you need an extremely deep depth of field.   To get that depth, you have to rely on an extremely large f-stop (or small aperture) in the camera.   But to keep the film exposed properly, you also need to blast the set with an enormous amount of light.  Given the film stocks of the time, we’re talking supernova here.  To end up with a shot having that much depth of field, and still have it appear dimly lit requires an extraordinary amount of expertise, planning, and precision.  It’s just one reason why “The Godfather” is as much a pleasure to watch as it is to listen to.

But Coppola was still beset with doubts.   He later described one of his darkest moments during the production coming when he took a night off to go see a new film causing quite a stir at the time.   It was called The French Connection. Like everyone else who saw it, he was thrilled with the action sequences….especially the car chase under the subway tracks in New York City.    He later claimed that he walked out of the theater with a sense of despair.   “Who would come to see my film?” he asked himself.    “We don’t have any car chases.  All we have is a bunch of men in dark rooms…talking.”

Coppola also continued to fight with Robert Evans.  To this day, they tell totally different stories about the final cut of the film.  Evans claimed that the original version was less than 90 minutes in length and that he wanted more stuff added.   “Go back and bring me a movie!”  he famously claimed to have said.   Coppola strongly disputes this.   He claims his original cut was much longer, and that Evans kept arguing with him to pare it down and make it more “commercial.”

Regardless, when “The Godfather” opened in 1972, audiences immediately recognized it as a new American classic.  It broke box office records, and  instantly became ingrained as part of our  culture.   You see references to it everywhere.   From “The Sopranos” to “The Simpsons.”.  In restaurants and bars people quote lines from the movie everyday.  (“Leave the gun..bring the cannoli;” “Hold your friends close…your enemies closer;” “He sleeps with the fishes”).    John Gotti even used to show it to his crew so they’d know how to act like real gangsters.   And the music is instantly recognizable, no matter what context you hear it in.

When the Oscars were handed out that year, Marlon Brando won for best actor.  But true to form, he didn’t show up at the ceremony.  Instead, he sent Native American Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award on his behalf.  Dressed in full native garb, she used the occasion to protest to the slack-jawed audience about the U.S. Government’s treatment of American Indians.   (We miss the old Oscar shows.   Some years you never really knew what might happen).  “The Godfather” also won Oscars that night for Best Picture and Screenplay.

There’s a famous story about Coppola cruising Sunset Boulevard in a limousine shortly after that year’s Academy Awards.   While at a stop light, another limousine pulled up.  Inside were William Friedkin, the director of “The French Connection”, and Peter Bogdanovich, who had helmed The Last Picture Show. Everyone was out partying, and had plenty of champagne to go around in their respective vehicles.   Seeing Coppola, Bogdanovich stood up through the moon roof and shouted “The Last Picture Show….8 Academy Award Nominations!!!”   Friedkin then took his turn standing up and yelled: “The French Connection…winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture!!”     Coppola looked around and then stood up himself with bottle in hand.   He then bellowed:  “The Godfather….150 million dollars at the box office!!”  It showed that Coppola understood what the New Hollywood was really going to be all about.

Naturally, Paramount was keen for a sequel.   When they approached Coppola to do a follow-on, he was ready with several demands.  In addition to complete creative control and an obscene amount of money (his words), he wanted Gordon Willis back as his cinematographer.   But he also asked that it be put in the contract that Robert Evans would have nothing to do with the new picture.   He got his wish on all four counts.

One last piece of Godfather trivia:   In the baptism scene where Connie’s baby is being anointed, the baby is played by Sofia Coppola, Francis’s daughter.  As you might already know, she later grew up to become a film director and Oscar winner herself for “Lost in Translation”.   She also made “The Virgin Suicides,”  “Marie Antoinette” and “The Beguiled.”   Just like her father, she believes in a personalized style of film making.

Of course, as we mentioned, the early 1970s produced a slew of other great movies as well.  We’d be remiss if we didn’t also pay homage to at least a few more of them.  That’s next in Film History 101.


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Film History 101 (Part 8)

As we have seen, the 1960s was a transitional decade for Hollywood as it was overcome by a new wave of youth-oriented pictures.  As such, it began to feature an ever expanding variety of new styles, themes, and story lines.  Among them were some key films which acted as benchmarks for the future development of cinema as an art form.   In fact, the 1960s was the first decade to feature movies that stylistically began to resemble what we accept as mass entertainment today.

One of the most influential of these was Bonnie and Clyde.  Directed by Arthur Penn, and released in 1967, it was one of the first major films to feature sympathetic bad guys.  As played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde may have been thieves and murderers, but you actually rooted for them in their run from the law.  This  totally ran against the movie storytelling conventions that had been in place since the Production Code of the 1930s.

But unique characterizations weren’t what really put “Bonnie and Clyde” on the map.   It was its depiction of outlandish violence.  Up to that point in cinema history, whenever someone was shot, they would normally clutch their chest, utter a few ironic words, and fall down.   For countless westerns, war movies, and gangster flicks, this was the accepted drill.   But “Bonnie and Clyde” broke the mold.  The final scene would become famous for how the two main characters met their maker via a hail of gunfire.    Alternating between slow motion and real time, the audience was forced to watch the carnage with unprecedented detail.  Squibs, spurts of simulated blood, and bodies jerking from the effect of being hit with hundreds of bullets was up on the screen for all to see.

But this was nothing compared to what came a mere two years later.  In 1969, The Wild Bunch was released by Warner Brothers.  As directed by Sam Peckinpah, it was a Western set in Mexico in 1913 and featured a gang of men in the twilight of their careers as lawbreakers.  It was framed by two extraordinary action sequences, one at the beginning of the film, and one at the end (Yes.. just like Saving Private Ryan).

Peckinpah was a talented man with a brutal disposition.   He once claimed he couldn’t direct a film properly while sober.  For him, being drunk and abusing his body was part of the creative process.   He would regularly work 24 hours a day until he was physically unable to continue.  Many of those who worked with him on The Wild Bunch claimed he almost died on at least two occasions while filming.   Sexist, devoid of sentiment, but with a heightened sense of honor, Peckinpah was what we today would could call an extreme “man’s man.”   In addition, he saw violence as an integral part of life.   He viewed film as an elevated art form, and attempted to infuse  projects with his own unique aesthetic.

For The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah took screen violence to an unprecedented level.   The sequence which ends the film involved a massive shoot-out  between our protagonists and a large contingent of  renegade Mexican soldiers.  The Wild Bunch intentionally enters the fight as part of a suicide mission, with the sole purpose of validating their existence by killing as many people as possible.   For nearly 10 minutes the action doesn’t let up, as dozens upon dozens of men are mowed down by machine guns and other firearms.   To this day, it’s hard to think of a film with such a high body count presented in such detail.

But the movie  is also important to film history for another reason.   To film these scenes of carnage, Peckinpah would employ six cameras shooting simultaneously.  Each would use a different frame rate.   Many of the most spectacular shots were shown in extreme slow motion.  But others would be inter-cut with various angles shot at different speeds.   The result was a major contribution to film cutting as its own type of art form.   Peckinpah and his editing team found that they could “extend” or “condense” time at will, by matching different angles to the same action.  By slowing down or speeding up the sequence and inter-cutting it, they could make it last as long or as short as they wanted, regardless of how long it took in real time.  And most importantly, they could do this without disorienting the viewer.

The final film was a triumph.   Film critics hailed it as a modern masterpiece, and its influence on the film industry was felt almost immediately.   But audiences were initially shocked.   They had never seen anything even close to this.   An in-your-face and up close look at death.  It was the opening volley in a new category of cinematic aesthetic.   And while it doesn’t have a formal name, we’ll call it stylized violence.      And it’s effects are still very much in evidence.   The Matrix, Kill Bill, 300, Goodfellas, Die Hard, Total Recall, Shoot em Up, The Transporter, True Lies, The Evil Dead Trilogy, and hundreds other movies  feature scenes of shocking violence, sometimes in complete contradiction to the laws of physics.      Martin Scorcese, George Romero, Sam Raimi, Luc Besson, Paul Verhoeven, Wes Craven, John Woo, Zack Snyder, Stuart Gorden, Quentin Tarantino…these are the names of just a small percentage of contemporary directors which rely on stylized violence to tell their stories.   In fact, you’d be hard pressed to go to any cineplex without finding at least one action or horror film that doesn’t rely on exaggerated violence to deliver it’s brand of entertainment.   And it all started with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch”.

But these weren’t the only noteworthy films released in the 1960s.   In fact, the decade can easily hold its own with the rest of Film History in the number of great films it produced.   So many, in fact, that it would be impractical to list them all.   Here, then,  is a partial list of some of our favorites.   They cover a wide range of genres. Many of them you’re no doubt already heard of, but hopefully there’s a few you may not have seen:

Jason and the Argonauts. Generally considered the crowning achievement of Ray Harryhausen’s career as a stop-motion animator.   For those not familiar with stop motion, it requires taking a model and moving it in the smallest of increments, taking a picture, and then repeating the process….24 times in order to get a single second of film.    “Jason” contains five special effects sequences, all of them an amazing display of the art form.   But the real show-stopper comes at the end when Jason and his crew do battle with an army of animated skeletons.   This one sequence took Harryhausen over six months to create.   The amount of concentration required to simultaneously animate that many skeletons is truly mind-boggling.   (The phone rings, or you answer the door…now where was I?   Was that one skeleton’s arm moving forward, or backward?).   But beyond being a showcase for Harryhausen’s talents, Jason is also literate, fun, and entertaining to watch.   In the early 1990s, Tom Hanks presented Ray Harryhausen with an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to motion pictures.  In handing out the award, Hanks said “Some people claim that “Citizen Kane” is the greatest picture ever made.   But they’re wrong.   That title belongs to “Jason and the Argonauts.”    He may have only been half kidding.    Other worthwhile Harryhausen films from the 60s include  Mysterious Island, One Million Years B.C., The First Men in the Moon, and The Valley of Gwangi.

Psycho. One of Hitchcock’s most famous masterpieces,  Psycho remains required viewing in film history, for all sorts of reasons.   At the pinnacle of his career, Hitchcock was able to put the darkest of visions on the screen in a way that challenged audiences to expect more from the movies.  We could probably do an entire blog post on this one film alone. (And if you stay tuned, we will…).   You start off thinking you’re watching a crime caper starring Janet Leigh.   But you’re not even half way through the film before Ms. Leigh takes that unfortunate shower.   After she’s dispatched via a shocking lesson in the power of montage editing,  the audience is left with no one but this odd person named Norman Bates to relate to.  You’re then put in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with him, even though you know he’s mixed up in murder.   Of course, we all know the real secret that Norman hides.   But Hitchcock toys with us and give us clues throughout the film.   Watch Norman before every scene you supposedly hear or see “Mother.”.   He un-mistakeably does something to show his feminine side or dual sexuality.  In retrospect, some of the bits are so shocking, we can’t describe them in a family blog.   But trust us, they’re there.  Also, notice all the constant references to birds throughout the film.  “Psycho”  is one of those movies which you can watch a dozen times and still find hidden tricks.  It was also the first film to prohibit seating mid-way through theater showings.  And one more piece of  “Psycho” trivia:  It was the first film in Hollywood history to show a toilet onscreen.

The Birds. After “Psycho,”  Hitchcock’s only other bona fide horror film.  Full of memorable scenes, it still has the power to give you goosebumps…and outright scare you out of your pants.  Everyone remembers the graphic bird attacks, but the film is also about emotional isolation and how human relationships are often not as perfect as the movies would have us believe.

Bullitt. Starring Steve McQueen,  a Ford Mustang, and what is generally considered to be the greatest car chase ever put on film.  Originally, Bullitt was supposed to star Spencer Tracy as an older, sedate detective who liked ice cream cones.  When Tracy unexpectedly died during pre-production, it was decided to give the film a much edgier tone.  Film history was then made when an auto chase became the centerpiece of the movie.   Running some 9 minutes long, with no music, and a (literal) slam bang ending, this incredible sequence is still required viewing for Film History 101.

Doctor Zhivago. Our favorite David Lean spectacle.   Lawrence of Arabia may rank higher on some people’s list, but we prefer “Zhivago”  for its story of doomed love played out against the Russian Revolution.    Full of unforgettable visuals (shot mostly in Spain), it’s simply a beautiful film.   Plus, we like the music too. (We’ll have a separate post on each film in the future…).

The Flim Flam Man.  George C. Scott plays an aging confidence man in the South who takes on a new protege to teach him the ropes.   Simultaneously funny, insightful, and entertaining, the film manages to teach the viewer a thing or two about the true nature of greed.  There’s also a very amusing car chase.

Where Eagles Dare. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play commandos who infiltrate a Nazi occupied fortress high in the Austrian Alps.  Supremely entertaining, it’s full of  intrigue, left turns, and great action sequences.   Our favorite highlight is a vicious fight between Burton and two Nazi double-agents on top of a moving gondola car high in the mountains.   We can also recommend The Guns of Navarone as another top-notch WWII action flick from the same time period.

The Apartment. Billy Wilder’s Oscar winner for Best Picture in 1960.  Jack Lemmon plays an everyman who’s forced to loan his apartment to his heel of a boss so the latter can carry on extramarital affairs.   A perfect combination of drama, comedy, corporate politics, and romance.  It also offers an wonderful lesson on the subject of integrity.

From Russia With Love. Before James Bond became an action figure who did battle with cartoon villains, he starred in some very entertaining movies that at least had some pretense of reality.   Dr. No and Goldfinger are two of the best, and well worth your time.  (We actually like all the Bond films, but just feel the earlier ones were cut from a different cloth).   However, for our list, we’re going with “From Russia With Love”.   Perhaps because it’s the leanest of all the Bond films, and the one where the villains are more than a match for the good guys.  Cold, calculating, and ruthless, and with a well thought out plan, they’re out in front of Bond every step of the way.  When Robert Shaw describe what fate they have in store for Bond on the Orient Express, that’s real sweat you see on his normally unflappable face.   Followed, of course, by one of Hollywood”s greatest fight scenes.   Bond trivia:   Which Bond movie from the 1960s made the most money?   Answer:  Thunderball, which is generally considered the worst of the lot.

Rosemary’s Baby. Mia Farrow gives birth to the spawn of Satan.  But why is this film so riveting to watch?   It’s all talk, with no action, and we never do get to see Junior.   Credit Roman Polanski, who directs his movies based on the accumulation of detail.  In the process, you find yourself sucked into Rosemary’s world, and actually feel the paranoia that she experiences as the impossible becomes more and more real.  Ruth Gordon is a major treat as the intrusive neighbor.  We can also recommend Repulsion as another  superb Polanski film from the 60s that draws its power from psychological horror.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Everything’s big in one of the best large-sized comedies in cinema history.  Every notable film comic in the world at the time had at least a small role in this tale greed, materialism, and a race to find $350,000.  (Just remember, it’s under a big “W”).   Director Stanley Kramer said his aim was to make the ultimate screen comedy.   He might not have succeeded, but it’s close enough for us.

Judgment at Nuremberg. Another Stanley Kramer film that’s a total change of pace from the last.   This one is an extremely thought-provoking work that explores guilt, responsibility, and how things aren’t always black and white, even when it comes to the most heinous of crimes.  A long film, the ending is still hard to forget as the conflict between emotion, reason, and the law is resolved in an unexpected way.  The acting and cast (Spencer Tracy, Maximillian Schell, Montgomery Cliff, and Burt Lancaster et al) are all superb.

The Great Race. Blake Edward’s ode to old style slapstick comedy as Tony Curtis (The Great Leslie) races Jack Lemmon (the evil Professor Fate) from New York to Paris circa 1908.  When Professor Fate actually wins the race at the end, he refuses to accept the prize because he feels The Great Leslie “let” him cross the finish line first without cheating.   He then launches into a diatribe on behalf of all those who feel they never measure up.  Professor Fate may be the “bad guy”, but at least he has integrity.  The movie is pure fun through and through.  It also features Hollywood’s all time biggest pie fight.

The Masque of the Red Death. Vincent Price shines as an evil prince who sells his soul to the devil during the middle ages.  As a result, his castle remains a sanctuary from the ravages of the plague, while the populace outside dies in droves.  Meanwhile,  Price and his guests engage in all types of decadence and debauchery.  That is, until the dark prince comes to collect what he’s owed. The film’s cinematography makes extensive use of color in an extraordinary way.   As such, it’s a rare film that succeeds both as an entertaining horror movie and a work of art.  And with a haunting ending to boot.  Another Poe adaptation in the 1960s  from AIP (American International Pictures) and director Roger Corman which we’re a fan of is The Pit and the Pendulum.  (Especially the final 5 minutes).

The Bedford Incident. An often overlooked Cold War gem.   Richard Widmark plays a no nonsense captain of a U.S. destroyer tasked with shadowing a Soviet sub.  With an ending that will make your jaw drop.

Once Upon a Time in the West. After making a trio of “Spaghetti Westerns” with Clint Eastwood,  Sergio Leone tried to make THE definitive movie for the genre.  This movie is unique in that prior to ever writing a script, the production team first composed all the music.  All of the characters were given their own theme, along with several other scores for different moods in the movie.  Then they wrote the script to match the music.   Sounds odd, but the result is one of the most operatic and beautiful Westerns ever made.  The plot isn’t exactly swift of foot, and there’s a strong reliance on extreme close-ups, but the evocative music makes it all flow together as a major cinematic experience.  Full of incredible visuals, the final film showcases Leone’s keen eye for masterful compositions.  And oh yeah, it also features Henry Fonda playing against type as the blackest of villains.

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead, and Olivia De Haviland all play it to the hilt in this tale of evil in the South.  There’s plenty of murder and mayhem to go around, but what sets this film apart is its heart.  It shows how some people can be made to suffer their entire lives for mistakes they never even made.  The ending in particular is extremely moving.

Night of the Living Dead. It’s hard to believe now how ground breaking this film originally was.   Cannibalism, matricide, and the most shocking of endings…for movie audiences in the 1960s it was like watching a living nightmare that kept getting worse.   It’s also one of those rare films where the low production values actually increase your sense of terror.  Once considered the ultimate in horror, it can now be shown on regular  TV with nary a cut.  But it became just as influential in its own way in the horror genre as “Psycho.”   You can blame (or praise) it for the midnight movie phenomenon of the 1970s, as well as the horde of zombie movies that continue to haunt your local cineplex.

Zulu. The actual Zulu tribe in South Africa play themselves in this rousing adventure about a completely outnumbered British outpost under attack.  An engaging action flick with multiple battle scenes that play on your nerves.  Also Michael Caine’s film debut.

Dr. Strangelove/Fail Safe. A great double feature about the flip sides of a possible nuclear holocaust: dark comedy, and it’s horrifying reality.  In their own respective manners, both films were way ahead of their time.

Planet of the Apes. Part adventure yarn, part science fiction, and part allegory – the film has lots of elements that anyone who’s ever tried to “reason” with the system can relate to.  The ape makeup is still a marvel after 40 years. It also contains one of the greatest twist endings in Hollywood history (courtesy of scriptwriter Rod Serling, of  “The Twilight Zone” fame).

The Battle of Algiers.   The first “historical film” done in a documentary style.   As such, its “you are there” approach has been imitated by virtually every film that has followed.

The Alamo.  Not a great film at all, but the final battle is still spectacular and worth your time.

Manos: the Hands of Fate. Not so much a recommendation, just an honorable mention as a prime contender for the worst film ever made.  Unbelievably bad acting and long stretches where nothing at all happens has earned Manos a place in the Hollywood Hall of Shame.  It’s also one of the  most popular episodes on Mystery Science Theater 3000.    The producer and director of this mess made a bet in a bar that he could make a movie without any prior movie-making experience.   He won the bet.  But the viewing public paid the price.   BTW:  Manos means “hands” in Spanish.  So, the correct title of the film should be:  “Hands:  The Hands of Fate.”

Hopefully, you’ll fare better with some of these other recommended films from the 1960s:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  Elmer Gantry, The Endless Summer,  The Great Escape,   The Haunting,  Hud,  The Hustler,  The Longest Day, The Magnificent Seven,  The Manchurian Candidate,  A Man for All Seasons,  Midnight Cowboy,  The Misfits,  The Nutty Professor,  Oliver!,  Point Blank,  Seven Days in May, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Time Machine, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Train,  2001: A Space Odyssey,  Wait Until Dark, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, and You Only Live Twice.

As the 1960’s drew to a close, a new chapter in filmmaking was beginning to dawn.   One where the filmmakers were the ones calling the shots, and not the studio execs.   As a result, the first part of the 1970s would see a renaissance in the number of quality films being produced.  In fact, some today claim the decade might just be the all time best in terms of great moviemaking.  Its output even included one film in particular that after “Citizen Kane” is generally considered to be the second greatest American film ever made.   (Some might even argue that it’s THE best).   That’s next in Film History 101.


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Film History 101 (Part 7)

As part of our journey though Film History 101, we’ve now reached the 1960s. Major changes were afoot.  Not the least of which was seeing the entire industry rocked to its core by one film which clearly demonstrated that the studios no longer had complete control over their projects as they did during the previous decades.

We’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, as we saw in the previous post, the release of Ben Hur in 1959 seemed to validate the Old Hollywood concepts of how to make money. Big budgets, big stars, and subject matters that appealed to a mass audience looked like a sure-fire formula. The following year, Kirk Douglas’ independent production of Spartacus added further credence to this line of thinking. Like Ben Hur, it was hugely successful. Spartacus was also the first film to break the Hollywood Blacklist during the 1950s. In order to secure the needed financing, Douglas’ production team needed a finished script in record time. They turned to the super-talented screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been unable to find work the previous decade due to his perceived leftist leanings. Sitting at home in his bathtub, Mr. Trumbo was able to churn out a rough draft of the screenplay in only three days. (Trivia Note: Busby Berkeley was another Hollywood legend who did the bulk of his creative work sitting for hours in a bathtub. It’s not a coincidence that most of the musical numbers he designed took place in giant swimming pools). Everyone liked what they saw from Trumbo, and production got underway with first Anthony Mann, and then Stanley Kubrick as director.

But as Spartacus neared completion, the issue of credit reared its ugly head. The heads of the production team got together to discuss how they were going to properly compensate Trumbo. In previous years, no one had dared incur the wrath of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the few cases that a blacklisted screenwriter had gotten work, the studios had usually come up with a pseudo or a front man for the discredited author. Probably the most extreme example of this was The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real writer was blacklisted. So, the screenplay was credited to French author Pierre Boulle (who also went on to write the original book version of Planet of the Apes). The fact that Mr. Boulle didn’t speak a word of English didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention.

But Kirk Douglas claimed he wasn’t comfortable with this approach. He felt it was “creatively dishonest” —not to mention unfair to Dalton Trumbo. At one point in the meeting, Stanley Kubrick spoke up. He stated in a matter-of-fact tone: “We’ll just say I wrote it. No one will dispute that.” Douglas was incredulous. In a fit of anger, he took it upon himself to challenge the blacklist, and openly credit Trumbo with being the author of Spartacus. ( Years later Douglas would write that Kubrick was undeniably talented. But even by Hollywood standards, he was one talented little s**t).

Due to these types of conflicts, Kubrick later disowned Spartacus, but left his name on the credits. Of course, he would continue on to become one of the most successful directors in the history of movies (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange etc.). But Spartacus did very well…earning lots of money and heaps of critical praise. In the 1990s it was chosen as only the second film to be fully restored by a team of experts led by film historian Robert Harris. It remains a very watchable and enjoyable movie to this day.

But the success of Ben Hur and Spartacus helped set the stage for a nearly cataclysmic event in the film world. The success of these two films didn’t go unnoticed over at Twentieth Century Fox. Five years earlier, “The Ten Commandments” had also made a killing at the box office. Hoping to hop on the “Sword and Sandal” bandwagon, the studio began looking for a similar property. They thought they had one which looked ideal. It was titled Cleopatra.

A remake of a Cecil B. DeMille film from 1932, this new version of Cleopatra was slated to have budget of $2 million, and was going to feature someone who was arguably the greatest movie star in the world at the time: Elizabeth Taylor. She was eventually paid a then record $1 million to appear in the film. Other key cast members included Peter Finch, and Stephen Boyd, (the latter who had played the character of Masala in Ben Hur).

Cleopatra looked like a sure-fire hit. Especially given the track record of similarly themed films. But it was plagued by problems from the very beginning. For starters, most of the film was scheduled to be shot in England. But the chilly English weather wasn’t conducive to growing palm trees or for building sets supposedly set in the Egyptian desert. After a minor fortune had been spent on new plants and props, it became evident that a drier climate was needed. So, the entire production picked up and moved to Italy.

Of course that took time. And during that time, two of the principal leads, Finch and Boyd, had to leave the production because of other commitments. Because they had been in virtually every scene that had been shot, this meant that the previous five months worth of work was now worthless. The production had to start over from scratch. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were then hired as the new leads.

But even after the production began shooting again just outside of Rome, its troubles continued.  Taylor began having a very public affair with Burton and started to not show up when scheduled to shoot her scenes.  At one point, she became extremely ill and had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy.   This led to even further delays, which continued to mount.   As the production stretched on, more and more producers were called in to steer the ship. This led to one script revision after another until no one knew what they were shooting anymore.  Major portions of the film were ad-libbed by the actors, because they would show up for work without having any lines to read.

Over the following year, Cleopatra degenerated into one giant colossal mess. This wasn’t just your normal production which was behind schedule and over budget.  It was a project manager’s worst nightmare.  With horror, the producers began to realize the monster they had created.  As money continued to pour into the production, simply shutting it down was no longer an option.  The control mechanisms from the old Hollywood Studio system were simply gone.  There were so many completion and distribution deals tied to Cleopatra being finished, that if the spigot was turned off, the resulting lawsuits would have easily bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox.  That would have meant the end of the studio.

The executives at Fox realized they had no other choice. They no longer in control of the final product.  Their goal became to reach the finish line, no matter what the cost. The studio began to borrow heavily and to systematically shut down most of their other productions. All available resources were diverted in order to keep Cleopatra from sinking into the Nile. And its price tag just grew and grew and grew. The film had become the industry’s equivalent of a black hole.

Eventually the film was finished at a cost of $44 million. (A mere $42 million over it’s originally approved budget). That made it by far the most expensive film made up until that time. Adjusted for inflation, it would continue to hold that dubious honor for over 40 years. (And if you subtract merchandising subsidies from today’s film budgets, it would still hold the record).

And what of the final film? In viewing the movie, it’s remarkable how little of that money actually shows up on screen. Even the climatic battle of Actium, which should have been a highlight, happens off screen. As far as the actors go, only Rex Harrison turns in a decent performance. And worst of all, at over three hours, the movie is, well, boring. (The original cut of the film was over six hours in length. Watching the story unfold, you can almost feel the pain of the editors trying to make sense out of all the footage).

After several years and with world wide distribution deals, Cleopatra would eventually come close to breaking even. But the film’s troubled production set shock waves throughout the industry. Twentieth Century Fox had survived, but just barely. There were huge hits to its bottom line. And it took years to get its other productions back on track. For the first time in the history of Hollywood, it had been demonstrated just how dangerous an out of control film could truly be. The studios now knew they no longer had complete ownership over their own product. Films were now like fully loaded trains sitting on steep inclines. Once the decision had been given to release the break, it was sometimes no longer possible to stop their progress as they rolled downhill at breakneck speeds. And once they reached the bottom of that hypothetical incline….

For decades the specter of Cleopatra hung over Hollywood. In executive board rooms, the very mention of it’s name became synonymous with the word “Armageddon”. More than one producer shuddered when confronted with a movie that threatened to outgrow its original benchmarks. Executives became very leery of committing to even moderately expensive productions, for fear of losing their jobs.

(Twenty years later, history would repeat itself. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1983 had a production history very similar to Cleopatra. Only this time, the excesses were driven less by production mismanagement as by the oversized ego of the director. “Heaven’s Gate” holds the record for the highest shooting ration for any Hollywood production with over 100 hours of footage shot for every hour on screen. The executives at United Artists which produced the film were acutely aware of the legacy of Cleopatra. They knew instantly that the train was rolling downhill without any breaks, and struggled desperately to stop its progress. But they were unsuccessful. In this case, the end result was the eventual liquidation of United Artists. We’ll discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post.)

But back to the 1960s. The major Hollywood studios were relieved in 1964 when The Sound of Music became one of the industry’s all time top money-makers. After the trauma of Cleopatra, here was something everyone could get behind. A family friendly musical directed by Hollywood veteran Robert Wise. It, along with the success of West Side Story (also by Wise), convinced many that the path to prosperity lay in big splashy musicals.

The mid to late 60s began to see a spate of old-fashioned movies featuring lots of song and dance numbers. My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Dr. Doolittle, Oliver, Paint Your Wagon, Hello Dolly, and Darling Lili are some examples. But all of these films had two things in common: 1) They cost a lot of money, and 2) No one went to see them.

No one realized it immediately, but the end of the classic Hollywood movie was at hand. And with it, the entrenched Hollywood Studio System began to draw its final breath. The old studio heads didn’t know what to think. The ground had not merely shifted under their feet. It had completely fallen away. Counterculture films began to dominate the marketplace. Young people wanted to see movies like Easy Rider and A Hard Day’s Night. Not films made on a Hollywood assembly line. None of the old rules applied anymore. Actors, writers, and directors no longer belonged to individual studios. They became free-agents who signed contracts for specific projects, often jumping from one studio to another. Any sense of ownership over all of the elements in the production process was effectively gone.

Some of the most popular films of the era were made using new techniques that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Easy Rider, for example didn’t even use a script. Production started when Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and the crew showed up at a parking lot one morning. Half of them were high at the time. They just started shooting, and made up the movie as they went along. (Arguing and fighting most of the time). Both they, and the rest of Hollywood, were completely shocked when Easy Rider became one of the biggest hits of 1967.

But as the curtain came down on Old Hollywood, the stage was being set for one of film’s most remarkable decades. In fact, most film historians consider the 1970s to be THE decade for classic films. With the studio control systems defunct, the 70s would see an unprecedented output of great movies. 1974 alone is often singled out as a rival to 1939 in the sheer number of classic films ever released in a single year.

But before we get to that, we don’t want to leave the 1960s without mentioning some of the other great films that decade also produced. That’s next in Film History 101.

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Film History 101 (Part 6).

It was the 1950s.  And in addition to the technological changes discussed in the previous post, the advent of television was forcing management at the major movie studios to rethink their positions. Most studio executives realized that the public wasn’t going to be happy with the same types of movies they’d been dishing out throughout the previous decades. So, they began looking to expand their offerings into more sophisticated fare.

Up until that time, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer had arguably been the most powerful person in town. Under his stewardship, MGM had consistently been the largest and most profitable studio. And Mayer had been amply rewarded.  Amazingly, during the 1930s he was the highest paid executive not just in the film industry, but in the entire country as well. But as Mayer consolidated his power, the studio saw a drop in the variety of movies it produced.  You see, Mayer had a weak spot for splashy musicals and light-hearted fare. He hated anything unpleasant or controversial. So, as the 40s wore on, the studio began to reflect his personal taste more and more. Lassie and Esther Williams  swimming her heart out were two of MGM’s biggest draws. Film Noir, or socially aware films, were a big no-no if a producer wanted a green light from Mr. Mayer.

But as successful as Mayer had been, he was thoroughly despised by his bosses in New York. The executives at MGM’s parent company resented Mayer’s success and the way he ran the studio like his own personal fiefdom. But they couldn’t argue with the revenue reports from the accounting department. So, they kept their mouths shut. This worked fine as long as studio profits continued to climb. But this began to change in the late 40s and early 50s.

As television became more popular, audiences were staying home. And when they did go out, they were looking for more substantive entertainment. Profits started slipping and MGM’s films began coming up empty at the Oscars around this same time frame. Realizing that MGM was losing its grip on both the creative and financial fronts, the executives in New York began to pressure Mayer to change his ways. He ardently refused. Since the studio was still making a profit (even a reduced one), there wasn’t much they could do. Someone with Mayer’s reputation and experience would be impossible to replace outright. But they knew change was needed. So, instead of taking Mayer head on, they tried something different. They sent Mayer a new Production Manager named Dore Schary.

Schary had been a producer and executive at RKO, and he had a specific interest in making “message films.” His goal was to make entertaining movies that also explored underlying themes. Racism, poverty, social causes, and the fuzzy line between right and wrong were some of the things that Schary wanted to address through his films. This ran completely counter to the kinds of movies that Mayer liked. Since the late 30s, MGM had built its trademark around musicals and gorgeous productions that flew in the face of reality. Mayer saw no reason to change. But Schary wanted to break new ground. And, in his own way, he turned out to be just as stubborn as the old Hollywood veteran.

After an initial truce, the arguments began. They soon reached legendary proportions. The front office of MGM began to shake everyday from the screaming matches between the two men. Mayer adamantly refused to commit resources to Schary’s type of pictures, but as Head of Production, Schary had the authority to greenlight and oversee any production he chose. It got so bad that the two could not be in the same room together. Finally, one day Mayer picked up the phone and in frustration called New York. “It’s either me, or Schary!”, he screamed.

This was just what Mayer’s bosses had been waiting for. They fired him on the spot. Mayer then began stomping through the front offices, issuing orders to the executive staff and secretaries. Meanwhile, the New York office was busy making phone calls to these same people….reminding them who ultimately signed their paychecks. Mayer then left the studio he had run for nearly 30 years, and headed straight to his lawyer.

Mayer immediately began legal proceedings to regain control of MGM. But no doubt partially due to stress, his health soon began to fail shortly afterwards. He came down with a blood disorder, and passed away a few years later. His final days were quiet ones. Broken and bitter, his final words right before he died were “Nothing Matters.” No event better encapsulated the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

But Mayer wasn’t the only studio executive who passed away in the 1950s. Over at Columbia, Harry Cohn had run the studio with an iron fist since the 1930s. With a strong authoritarian style, and an eye for frugality, Cohn had built Columbia from literally nothing into a major player in the film industry. But in the process, he had become a leading contender for the title of “most hated man in Hollywood.”

It was Cohn who hired the Three Stooges under a 20 year contract for $20K a year…but refused to give them a pay raise once they were making millions for the studio. Cohn regularly bugged film sets, and had a loud-speaker system installed so he could issue spurious commands depending on what he heard.  His office was also near the studio’s front gate. At 5 PM he loved to hang out the window and scream epithets at anyone he saw leaving 5 minutes early…accusing them of being slackers. The fact that some of them had just come off working a 24 hour shift never seemed to faze him. Cohn also kept a private room just off his office. Many of the starlets hired by Columbia were required to perform favors for him on his “casting couch” prior to being extended a contract.

But Cohn wasn’t all bad.  On one occasion, he was informed that an elderly guard on the studio lot was having health problems and was unable to provide for his family. Cohn stopped by for an impromptu visit, and gave the ailing employee a substantial amount of cash.  Then, Cohn promised to fire him if he told anyone.

During this period, no one could argue with Columbia’s output. It’s films began garnering more Academy Awards than MGM, or the other more established studios for that matter. When Cohn died in 1958, it was a major event in Hollywood. Thousands of people turned out for his funeral. Looking at the large crowd that was gathered, Red Skelton quipped the following to a local reporter: “Just goes to show you. Give the public what they want, and they’ll turn out in droves.”

As the 1950s drew to a close, the studios knew that change was in the wind. Audience tastes had shifted, and there was no denying that the double whammy of television and the loss of exhibition chains had made a substantial impact. MGM, once the standard bearer of the industry, was facing bankruptcy. To save the studio, it’s executives decided to embark on a major gamble. They were positive they had a sure-fire property. It was a remake of one of their most popular silent epics: Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur was one of the largest productions and most expensive films ever made. No expense was spared. To start with, MGM hired William Wyler to direct the picture. At the time, Wyler was universally acknowledged as Hollywood’s greatest director. To this day he still holds the record for most Academy Award nominations. His films also hold the record for the most total Oscar wins. Ben-Hur took well over a year to shoot outside of Rome.  Special tours were set up for tourists to visit the production while it was underway. Every day tour buses arrived to watch the on-going spectacle. The Chariot Race alone took three months to film, and used 8,000 extras on the largest set ever built. Hollywood’s legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt, was brought in to oversee the stunts for this one sequence. (If you’ve ever seen Stagecoach with John Wayne…that’s Yakima Canutt who gets dragged along under the team of horses while pulling the coach at full speed. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas re-created the same stunt for Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison Ford pulls himself along the bottom of the moving truck in the chase scene with the Nazis. In Ben-Hur, this stunt was also recreated, but with a much more horrifying conclusion as Stephen Boyd’s character meets his demise under the hooves of the stampeding horses.)

The results were worth it. The Chariot Race takes up approximately 8 minutes of screen time, and today, 50 years after it’s release, remains one of Hollywood’s most awesome achievements.  The action, editing, sound, pacing, and staging of the race all work together seamlessly to produce a thrilling cinematic experience. Before the advent of widescreen televisions, Turner Television used to “shrink” the screen to fit into a letterbox format just for this one sequence. The programmers at the network knew that this was special, and obviously didn’t want the television audience to miss any of it.  Way before the advent of CGI, Ben-Hur’s chariot race remains required viewing for Film History 101 when it comes to screen spectacle.

In fact, MGM’s gamble paid off for the entire picture. Ben-Hur made an enormous amount of money, and earned a then-record 11 Academy Awards. (It would be another 38 and 44 years respectively until Titanic and Lord of the Rings tied that record). It was the biggest, and most talked about film in 1959. As the decade closed, Hollywood’s faith in huge, big budget quality productions seemed to have been vindicated. But, it’s funny how things work out. Only three years later Hollywood would embark on another big budget film that used Ben-Hur as a model for success. But this time, instead of saving a studio, the production would come within a hair’s breadth of destroying one…and in the process rock the entire film industry to its core. This troubled production created a ripple effect that would impact how film productions were approved and developed for over a generation to come. That’s next in Film History 101.

But before we get there, here are some other films from the 1950s you might consider checking out:

Singin’ in the Rain – Generally considered the greatest musical in Hollywood history…which is still a tough claim to argue with. Filled with a half dozen musical numbers, any of which on their own would earn a film the title of “classic.” Before CGI, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were wonders to behold in their own right. One of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 films of all time. If that’s not enough, the movie does a better job showing the difficulties Hollywood encountered converting to sound in the late 1920s than any film history book.

Vertigo – A masterpiece of filmmaking from Alfred Hitchcock, and another member of AFI’s Top Ten List. “Vertigo” is one of those rare films that demands multiple viewings.  And each time you walk away with a different experience. It also means completely different things to different people. Younger viewers will focus on Hitchcock’s storytelling and penchant for suspense. But to an older person, it’s about missed chances, doomed relationships, the cruelty of fate, and one’s inability to change their lot in life.  Never has a movie ending been so unsatisfying, but utterly fulfilling at the same time. Hitchcock’s most dreamlike film, it’s aided immeasurably by Bernard Herrman’s haunting musical score.

North by Northwest – Another one of Hitchcock’s best, and an immensely entertaining experience.  There’s never a dull moment as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint criss cross the country chasing, and being chased, by foreign agents. James Mason and Martin Landau shine as ruthless, but completely charming, bad guys. I t all culminates on the top of Mount Rushmore, but with lots of other classic scenes along the way. It also has this great bit of movie dialogue by Cary Grant (paraphrased): ” I can’t allow myself to be killed. I have two bookies, several bartenders, and an ex-wife who depend on me for a living!”

Night of the Hunter – Written by film critic James Agee, this stunning film is the only one ever directed by the actor Charles Laughton. From the opening minute, it grabs the audience in it’s allegorical depiction of good and evil. Robert Mitchum plays a psychotic preacher who travels along the Ohio river murdering for money. One one hand he has the word “Love” tattooed, on the other, “Hate.” (Spike Lee payed homage to the character by having someone with the exact same tattoos in his film ‘”Do The Right Thing”).  Two children realize the danger that’s in their midst, but all of the adults are clueless.  Filled with wonderful expressionist images, the film also has many unforgettable scenes of delicate beauty. Roger Ebert once wrote of it:  “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores, it holds up… well after four decades.”

On the Waterfront – It’s too bad so many people only remember Marlon Brando today as such a loon. During the 50s, he really shined as one of America’s greatest actors. He’s simply superb in this gritty film, which takes place in the real world. Shot on location and not in some Hollywood studio, it’s definitely not your typical Hollywood fantasy.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – The first of David Lean’s “thinking man’s spectacles”. The climax where they blow up the bridge just as the train crosses it is right up there as one of Hollywood’s most spectacular pre-CGI sequences.

Roman Holiday – Another winner from William Wyler. Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar winning debut as royal princess on the lam in Rome with newspaperman Gregory Peck.  Completely charming…with more than a casual similarity to Notting Hill, as well as a host of other movies which followed.

The Enemy Below – Robert Mitchum again…this time as the Captain of a destroyer in a duel to the death with U-Boat commander Curt Jurgens. Both protagonists are evenly matched, and at times it’s tough to even know who to root for.  If you like submarine movies, we can also recommend Run Silent Run Deep from the same time frame.

The Vikings – A rousing adventure flick, which was filmed on location in the Norwegian Fjords to spectacular effect. Full of great fight scenes, including a memorable siege on an English castle. With Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine.

Marty – Speaking of Ernest Borgnine, he’s just great as the homely butcher approaching middle age in this Best Picture Winner from 1955.  Has a lot to say about the dating game, peer pressure, conformity, and how non-beautiful people live their lives. (I guess that’s 95% of us).

Curse of the Demon – One of our all-time favorite old horror movies. Dana Andrews plays a cynical newsman investigating the mysterious deaths surrounding devil worshipper Niall McGinnis. In the original movie, it’s left to your imagination whether the supernatural was really involved. But when the studio heads saw the final product, they felt it was missing something. They wanted to see the “Demon.”  So, the special effects department got a stuffed monkey, added some fangs, put it on a bicycle and shot it motoring down a table top. This then became the demon of the film. It sounds like the makings of a disaster, but for some reason, it completely changes the tone of the movie and puts it into classic status. The audience knows from the get go that Dana Andrews is playing with fire, and that this demon isn’t something to mess with (he does look pretty cool, despite his humble origins).  When Niall McGinnis meets his gruesome end at the conclusion of the movie, it’s completely horrifying, but utterly apropos.  Directed by Jacques Tourneur, one of Val Lewton’s proteges, this movie perfectly blends the genres of film noir and terror.  Highly recommended if you’re into old–but literate–horror movies.

A Place in the Sun – Montgomery Clift gets girlfriend Shelley Winters pregnant, and then meets and falls in love with rich girl Elizabeth Taylor. A great example of the adult themes that Hollywood began to tackle in the 1950s, with lots of wonderful directorial touches. Very watchable and involving as Montgomery has to grapple with temptation and responsibility, as well as some very immoral decisions.

A Night to Remember – Not a Hollywood film, but the best movie version of the Titanic disaster before James Cameron came along. Gripping English film where the emphasis was on facts and details. As such, it’s still riveting, even without the neat CGI effects. (Still technically impressive for it’s day, though).

Some Like it Hot – Gene Siskel thought this was the funniest movie ever made. There’s no denying it’s entertaining. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis join an all girl band to escape the mob…and quickly hook up with Marilyn Monroe –who’s never been better. Full of great moments, double entendres, and sexual satire. There’s a lot to savor here. That, plus one of the greatest ending lines in movie history (courtesy of former silent movie star Joe E. Brown).

Them! – The 1950s was also known as the decade of the BEM (Bug Eyed Monster). There are so many worthwhile films to choose from, but we’ll go with this one to represent the entire genre.  Giant ants are found in the New Mexico desert after the first atomic blast. They then migrate to the sewers in Los Angeles, where they continue to wreak havoc. One of the earliest films to exploit the public’s fear of atomic energy, it has a literate script, lots of suspense, and is extremely well constructed plot wise. Aside from the giant ants themselves (who are just very well done giant puppets), the real star of the film is scientist Edmund Gwen, who gives a great solemn speech at the end about the possible horrors that mankind has unleashed upon the world in “the atomic age.”

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad – Another one of our all time favorites…because it never fails to remind one of what it feels like to be a kid. The first color film made by stop motion master Ray Harryhausen, it’s full of great sequences that bridge the gap between the safety of childhood fantasies, and the dangers of adulthood. Our personal favorite scene is the one where the cyclops rips a dead tree out of the ground and uses it as a giant battering ram to crush the sailors. Thrilling and horrifying at the same time, it’s all perfectly timed to Bernard Herrmann’s thundering score. It’s hard to underestimate the contributions of Harryhausen to film history. Most of the fantasy filmmakers of the 70s and 80s (e.g. Spielberg and Lucas) worship his movies…and it’s no stretch to say that without Harryhausen, there would have never been a Star Wars or Jurassic Park.  Special effects have come light years since Sinbad, but Harryhausen was the first to show that well-done visual effects could be superstars in their own right. Other Harryhausen movies from the 50s include: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles to Earth, It Came From Beneath the Sea, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.  All are required viewing for fans of stop-motion animation. (But Harryhausen still had more movies to come in the 60s and 70s….most notably Jason and the Argonauts ).

House of Wax – The first color movie shot in 3-D, and perhaps the best of them all.  Why? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t rely on 3-D effects to tell a good story. And that’s probably because the producers made a major mistake when they hired the director. You see, Andre Toth only had one eye.  He didn’t know what 3-D looked like, so he didn’t go out of his way to put a lot of gratuitous “in your face” shots in the picture.  Vincent Price is excellent too (as always).

Plan Nine From Outer Space – Well, ok, maybe not a movie we recommend you watch, but it’s a hoot if you’re into bad movies. Widely considered the “Worst Movie Ever Made”…this is a true classic in the world of bad cinema. It’s one of those films that exerts a certain kind awe as you marvel at it’s ineptitude. Once seen, it’s hard to forget. Indeed, the laughs keep coming, even after multiple viewings. Just a small sample of the delights you’ll encounter…..the tombstone that bends when one of the actors trips over it…the woman who runs across the street to escape the zombies. On one side, it’s nighttime…but magically becomes daytime when she gets to the other side…the shower curtain in the airplane cockpit…the steering mechanisms obviously made of cardboard…the paper plate flying saucers hanging by visible wires…the gratuitous use of stock footage….the fact that the main couple in the film have the same furniture on their patio as they do in their bedroom…the policeman who keeps scratching his head with the business end of his revolver….and let’s not even get started with the unbelievable dialogue.  Of course, the film is also famous as Bela Lugosi’s final film. He died 2 days into the shoot.  Rather than discard the footage, the director (the infamous Ed Wood) shot the rest of Lugosi’s scenes using his wife’s chiropractor. To hide the clever switch, as well as the fact that the stand-in was a foot taller than Bela, the new actor spends the entire movie with his cape held in front of his face. You may not buy the fact that this unbelievable film was a major “achievement” of the 1950s…but to this viewer, its sheer lunacy has still never been topped. (But there are plenty of other contenders from around the same time period. For laughs, we might also mention The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews).

Of course, this partial list of films from the 1950s barely scratches the surface. Here are some other movies from that decade you might find worthwhile…

Kiss Me Deadly, Forbidden Planet, Witness for the Prosecution, The Searchers, Sunset Boulevard, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gun Crazy, War of the Worlds, The Seven Year Itch, The Sweet Smell of Success, Paths of Glory, The Ten Commandments, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and Shane.

Stay tuned…the next installment of Film History is on the way…


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Film History 101 (Part 5)

Back in the early 1950s, Hollywood was also faced with some major decisions. The much vaunted Hollywood Studio System had been the model for controlling the industry for over 20 years, and up until that point, had been extremely resilient. But the advent of television had brought change. Conventional wisdom at the time was that movies couldn’t last. Why would anyone pay money to go out to see a film, when they could stay home and be entertained for free?

Looking back, it’s easy to see how unfounded some of those fears were. For starters, a lot of early television was well…pretty bad. Technical limitations resulted in stagy dramas, silly variety shows, and lots of talking heads. Not that there wasn’t charm, innovation or effort there. You just had to make a special effort to look for it. One show that did hit the mark was ”I Love Lucy”. In some markets you can still find it on cable almost any day of the week. But one thing that set Lucy apart from the other shows of the time was it’s technical superiority. And that is usually credited to director of photography Karl Freund, who learned his craft working on classic films like Dracula, The Mummy and The Good Earth. Freund helped pioneer the technique of shooting with three cameras simultaneously…a procedure that’s been the standard on virtually every television sitcom since.

So, it wasn’t as though television took Hollywood by surprise. The film industry had proven itself to be immensely profitable throughout the Depression and Second World War. Studio heads saw television as an immediate threat to their respective empires…and for once decided to be bold. In order to keep seats filled in the theaters, they wanted to give audiences something they couldn’t get from a television set at home. So, they started looking at alternate technologies. And the first one they hit upon was also based on three cameras….just like Freud’s innovative work on I Love Lucy.

In 1952, This is Cinerama opened at “The Broadway Theater” in New York City. It was the first commercially viable widescreen film process. Three cameras were employed to shoot the scenes, which were then projected side by side by side using three separate projectors. The end result was a screen that was nearly 3 times the width of a standard movie screen. This is Cinerama was basically a travelogue showcasing things like Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon, water ballets, and rides on rollercoasters. In many ways, it was the forerunner of modern IMAX movies. At the beginning of the film, a man walked out on screen, announced this new cinematic breakthrough and ended with the phrase “THIS IS CINERAMA!!”. The screen would then expand to it’s wide format, and the audience was off on it’s tour of widescreen images. (In 1981, John Waters spoofed this opening in his film “Polyester.” That film also had an introduction for the new process with an expanding screen, but it was shot in what Waters called “Odorama.” Audiences were handed scratch and sniff cards in the theater. When a number flashed on the screen during the movie, you scratched and sniffed the appropriate spot on your card, and were treated to the smell you witnessed on the screen at the time).

This is Cinerama caused a sensation. Shows in New York were sold out for several years following it’s premiere, and Hollywood took notice. The rush was on to create full length feature films in widescreen formats. But Cinerama had severe technical limitations. For starters, as we previously mentioned, you needed to shoot scenes with three separate cameras simultaneously. Which made portability a huge issue and necessitated the use of a huge crew.  Second, to show the movie, you needed to project three different rolls of film onto a single screen at the same time. This meant that the images needed to be slightly “blurred” where the different screens overlapped in order to create the illusion of a single image. If one of the reels broke, or even lost a single frame of film, there was no way to easily re-synchronize all of the projectors. Finally, due to the projection process, the screen in Cinerama theaters needed to be “curved” to help create the angles needed for the seamless integration of all three images.

For these reasons, Cinerama wasn’t practical for mass distribution. In fact, there were only two regular feature films ever made in this process: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How The West Was Won. (The latter wasn’t even made until 1962. It’s got some wonderful visuals, great action scenes, and is worth watching just for all the “stars” in the film. The buffalo stampede sequence, and the fight atop the rolling logs on a moving train are particularly impressive. Yvonne DeCarlo’s –better known as Lily Munster’s– husband worked as a stuntman on the film. He was severely injured when several of the logs fell on him during filming). So, in lieu of Cinerama, the search was on for another widescreen process that would give the same illusion of wide vistas…but one that would use a single camera and projector.

The first widely accepted widescreen process to follow with these conventions was called CinemaScope. Using advances in lens technology, it was able to “squeeze” a wide image onto a standard film frame, and then have a projector “blow it back up” and re-project it onto a wide screen. The Robe was the first film released in this format in 1953, with others to soon follow. How to Marry a Millionaire, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , The Seven Year Itch, Oklahoma, The King and I, Garden of Evil, Forbidden Planet, East of Eden, The Girl Can’t Help It, Carousel, A Star is Born, Ride the High Country, and about a hundred other films were shot using this process.

Other widescreen formats followed. Some of the most popular included Todd-AO, VisaVision, and Panavision. Todd-AO was invented by Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband. The most famous film made in Todd-AO was Around the World in 80 Days, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1956. (Todd was unfortunately killed in an airplane crash two years later). VistaVision found even wider use in the 1950s. It had the unique characteristic of moving the film sideways through the camera. That way, a larger surface area was used to capture the image. It too was used for many classic films. Alfred Hitchcock employed VistaVision for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Other VistaVision films included The Searchers, The Ten Commandments, War and Peace, and High Society.

There were several other widescreen film formats. In fact, given the fact that there are well over a hundred different formats out there, this admittedly superficial discussion only scratches the surface. (Apologies hereby go to all the cinematographers and professional camera people reading this). Today, Panavision is the most common format seen in your local cineplex. As a standard, it’s not quite as wide as Cinerama or Cinemascope, but still won’t fit on a standard television. Because starting in the late 50’s, when the studios started selling the rights to television, they quickly realized they had a problem: None of these new movies were going to fit the televisions of the time. And that leads us to a quick (and hopefully coherent) discussion about aspect ratios and letterboxing. (Please bear with us.)

Psychologists have done studies which have determined that when it comes to square shapes, humans seem most comfortable with images that are 3 units high by 4 units long. In shorthand, if you divide the three into the four, you get the number 1.33. This is referred to the aspect ratio of the image. And it just so happens to be the size chosen for most of the first motion picture films. It remained the standard from the 1890s up until the 1950s. When television came along, it copied this same aspect ratio for the images it projected.

So far, so good. But with the advent of new widescreen films, much wider aspect ratios came into play. Panavision’s aspect ratio is 1.85 to 1. CinemaScope’s was 2.35. And Cinerama was a whopping 2.66. If you put a CinemaScope image on a 1.33 TV screen, you’re missing nearly half the picture. Even with modern Panavision films, your loss is about what most people give up in their paycheck to taxes: 30%. So, in the old days, if you put a movie on TV, you had two choices. You could electronically “pan and scan” back and forth across the image as it was being transferred to TV (very annoying), or you could shrink it to fit in the smaller frame. This second option had the undesirable effect of leaving large black bars, or empty space at the top and bottom of the TV screen. This became known as the “Letterbox” effect. Until the advent of high resolution home formats like laserdiscs and DVDs, this was a major problem for home cinephiles. Resolution on standard TV broadcasts were pretty so-so, and VHS tapes were grainy enough to begin with. Giving up portions of the precious picture to the color black didn’t sit well with people who wanted quality images.

But even before the growth of home theater, old movies on television presented lots of unintentional laughs for one’s entertainment. Some “pan and scans” were pathetic. We remember lots of Westerns with two cowboys talking in front of a desert vista. All you saw at both ends of the picture were two noses sticking into the frame, with a landscape of cactus and mountains on the screen.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that even with some of the wide screen processes, the actual shape of the physical film frame never actually changed. It was still 3 by 4.  And as film stocks became more sensitive, it was no longer necessary to “shrink” down the image and blow it back up. Instead, the cameraman would “mask” the top and bottom of the film frame, thinking that when it was shown in a theater the projectionist would recreate the mask by using the shutter gate to cover those parts of the frame.  In simple terms, the “widescreen” was just the part in the center. Which was great if you were directing a movie, because it allowed the crew to hide microphones, dolly wheels, mattresses, and even the occasional technician in the covered up space at the top and bottom of the frame. The trouble came when these films were shown on TV. Instead of dealing with pan and scan issues, the television station simply showed the entire frame, thus exposing parts of the film the audience was never supposed to see. Woody Allen’s Sleeper and the film Walking Tall were well known for all of the microphones in the shots. But it wasn’t necessarily the fault of the cinematographer.

Luckily with DVDs, HDTVs, and plasma screens, such problems are rare these days. People have come to accept letterboxing as the proper way to view a film. In fact, we’re actually dealing with the opposite problem, namely how to show old TV shows and movies shot in the old 1.33 aspect ratio on widescreen TVs. Now, either the black bars are on the side, or depending on what viewing mode you’re in, the screen is automatically “stretched” to fill the wider aspect ratio. To be fair, this isn’t always noticeable, except during credit rolls and slow tilts, when the slight distortion becomes evident. In any event, it’s a vast improvement over the way it used to be.

OK.  Enough digression.  There were also other fun technological experiments going on during the 1950s as the studios attempted to lure audiences away from television. Another “innovation” that took off at the same time as widescreen was 3-D movies. With the release of Bwana Devil in 1953, many claimed that a new era had dawned at the movie theater. Subsequent films followed, including House of Wax, Dial M For Murder, It Came From Outer Space, and the infamous Robot Monster. (That’s the one where the monster is a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head. After having wiped out mankind, he spends the entire moving lumbering around Bronson Canyon in L.A. trying to locate the only family who escaped his clever sneak attack on the Earth.) Luckily, audiences quickly recognized 3-D for what it really was: a gimmick which subsequently became box-office poison for serious films. Unlike widescreen, it died a relatively quick death as a feature film format, and was relegated to amusement parks and specialized venues.  (But inexplicably seems to be making a major comeback lately…).

Of course, no discussion of movie innovations would be complete without a quick mention of The Drive-In. Partly as a result of the public’s desire to view larger pictures, theater owners decided to move outdoors.   The popularity of the drive-in can be traced to both the desire for wide-screen (big) films, as well as the growth of independent exhibitors after the Justice Department ordered the film studios to divest themselves from the exhibition business.  The Drive-In became a staple of American life…offering cheap family entertainment (no sitter required) and a measure of privacy you couldn’t get in a standard movie theater.   They became a major attraction for teenagers who just got their driver’s license…and were looking for places to go on dates.   Of course, having one’s own car also made it easier to sneak in extra patrons and a case of beer (or two).   Some Drive-Ins even specialized in “dusk to dawn” shows that offered multiple films that literally ran all night.

As such, widescreen films weren’t necessarily the mainstay here.  One of the new “mini-studios” that was formed during the late 1950s which focused exclusively on the youth market was American International Pictures, or AIP. Headed up by Jim Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, they specialized in youth-oriented pictures made on shoe-string budgets. They were also two of the first producers to let marketing considerations take precedence over content. Jim Nicholson would think up a catchy title and ad campaign for a movie…and then they would hire a director and scriptwriter to make a film that met those specifications. Typical AIP titles included The Day the World Ended, The Creature From the Haunted Sea, Earth vs. the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Beach Blanket Bingo, and a slew of other films with similar themes. AIP was the first studio to buy the American rights to most of the Godzilla movies from Toho Studios in Japan. Until portable cameras came along, AIP also used to hold the record for the shortest shooting schedule for a feature film. The Terror with Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff was shot in an astounding two days.

Even so, AIP knew it’s audience, and was adamant that despite the fact they weren’t out to make Gone With The Wind or Citizen Kane, they would never cheat their patrons. Because of this, their pictures almost never lost money. One great story concerned the making of AIP’s The Beast With a Million Eyes. Like almost all AIP films, it was made on a non-existent budget.  When director Roger Corman delivered the film to AIP headquarters, Nicholson and Arkoff viewed the film and found to their dismay that the monster was never seen on screen. They called up Corman to demand an explanation. Corman shot back angrily that he didn’t even have enough money to make a cheesy monster costume.  So, he had the actors “pretend” they saw a hideous creature. To Nicholson and Arkoff, this was unacceptable. With a movie titled The Beast With a Million Eyes, they knew their audience would expect to see “The Beast.” So they took a tea kettle into the AIP lunchroom. Using a screwdriver and a hammer, they punched around 10 holes in it, filled it with water, and put it on the stove. When the water boiled and steam started coming out of the holes, they rounded up a cameraman to shoot the teakettle up close and out of focus. They then spliced the footage into the movie in the scenes where “The Beast” was seen. Years later, Arkoff joked that he knew this would please their audience. He just hoped they never noticed that the number of “eyes” punched into the tea kettle didn’t add up to a million.

Luckily for film history, most of the rest of Hollywood realized that “gimmicks” like this weren’t going to be enough to attract audiences. What was really needed were good stories and quality productions. And there was no shortage of either during the 1950s. Looking past some of the films mentioned above, a higher degree of sophistication began to take place during the decade which coincided with a changing of the guard at most of the major movie studios. The result was a large number of films that still hold up today as great movies. That will be the next part of Film History 101.


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