The Patron Saint – Preston Sturges

I am fascinated with the work and biographies of the writers, actors, theater folk and filmmakers who came before us and at one time called the stages and streets of New York home.

They are a reminder that “it” can happen for you, me, our friends with a lot of determination and tons of hard work.

Preston Sturges, Source Wikipedia

Preston Sturges was one of us, the first true multi-hyphenate and someone whose work you really should know.

In 1928, he was a Broadway actor, appearing in Paul Osborn’s “Hotbed”. In 1929, his play writing career took off with his plays: a comedy “The Guinea Pig” and the romantic comedy “Strictly Dishonorable.”

“Dishonorable” is notable because it was his first hit earning him over $300,000, which would be about $4.1 million today. It was co-directed by none other than Tony Award namesake, Antoinette Perry.

After a couple of theatrical flops, he did what any good playwright does: he or she goes to Hollywood.

Based on the success of “Strictly Dishonorable” he was able to land work as a freelance writer for Columbia, MGM, Paramount and Universal where he redefined screwball comedies and forever changed screen dialog writing from the stodginess of the early talkies to the more natural dialog we take for granted today.

In 1933, he sold his spec script of “The Power and the Glory” to Twentieth Century Fox. It became a star vehicle for Spencer Tracy and one of the inspirations for “Citizen Kane.” Fox paid him $17,500 (~$315,900 today) and, a then, unheard of percentage of the profits. Sturges would then settle into the studio system earning $2,500 (~$44,800) per week as a screenwriter.

Eventually, he would grow frustrated by how directors handled his dialog. He decided to take control of his destiny and sold “The Great McGinty” to Paramount for $10 (~$168.95 today) and the opportunity to direct, thus making him the first Hollywood writer to direct his own script.

“McGinty” would bring Sturges the very first Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay” in 1940.

The following year, in 1941, Sturges created was his masterpiece with “Sullivan’s Travels” starring Joel McCrea and the insanely beautiful Veronica Lake.

Sullivan’s Travels poster; Source Paramount Pictures

“Sullivan’s Travels” is part road picture and part satire. It is the story of Hollywood comedy director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) who has tired of making of making banal comedies and wants to make a serious picture based on a fictional book about the depression called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The only problem is, he’s rich and doesn’t know the first thing about being affected by the depression. He then dresses as a hobo, finds an open boxcar and hits the railroad. He encounters “The Girl” (Lake and yes, that was the character’s name), an actress about to give up on her dream, who takes pity on him and buys him breakfast.

A few funny bits later, The Girl finds out Sullivan is really a director and joins him on his quest.

What follows was a bold depiction of the depression era that, for those of us born long after it’s end, we can’t even imagine: mobs of starving people, open access to dangerous rail yards, multiple assaults, amnesia, and chain gangs. It also features a rare instance in films of that era where people of color were treated with respect.

Perhaps the most moving sequence of the movie is when Sullivan has his epiphany and realizes that comedy does far more for people than any drama will. This occurs while he is watching “Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto” in Southern African-American church with church congregants and other chain gang members. This sequence was, at the time, considered quite ground breaking. Walter F. White, then Secretary of the NAACP called it a “dignified and decent treatment” of African-Americans in film.

Sturges’ greatest bit of output was between 1939 and 1944 where he wrote and directed seven features of which “Easy Living,” “Remember the Night,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” and “The Great McGinty” are still considered some of the best films of all time and have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sadly, from 1945 until his death, Sturges was unable to recapture the magic of his earlier work despite directing another five films and writing ten.

Preston Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, NYC on August 6th, 1959.

In honor of his memory and the legacy he left, he is our first Patron Saint of Film. Please join me in raising a glass of your favorite beverage to the man who paved the way for all of us creatives to become multi-hyphenates.

Thank you Preston.

Rashomon

Rashomon Poster

Rashomon: It is difficult to start a discussion about this subject because it’s both a film AND a story framework type based on the film.

As a story framework, undoubtedly, you are familiar with a Rashomon story. It is one where there is an event and different characters tell their conflicting versions of that event.

Additionally, there may or may not be a resolution to the story. If there is no resolution, that allows the audience to decide for themselves how the story ends.

It is a nice story framework for TV because the different versions of the event can sit right between the commercials. The notable difference is that TV typically resolves the story by the end of the episode as a matter of convention.

For example:

  • Police are investigating a robbery, discover the robber’s mask, John and Eddie were at the scene and claim to have witnessed it. Police get their statements
  • Commercial Break
  • John was walking down the street, saw the robber who looked like Eddie knock the guard over the head as he fled the scene heading north
  • Commercial Break
  • Eddie, was across the street, saw someone who looked like John knock the guard over the head and head south
  • Commercial break
  • Cops match the DNA on the mask to John; John gets arrested
  • Roll credits

Now, that is a horrible example and if you’d like to use it, feel free.

As a story type, Rashomon really intrigues me because it allows you to fully explore a number of characters, their actions and motives from different angles.

Should you choose the vague ending, it forces your audience to think about and discuss the dramatic questions you raised.

Is there really any better gift you can give your audience?

When a Rashomon story is done right, it is amazing. For that, I refer you to …

“Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa, 1950

Often cited as the reason why The Academy created the “Best Foreign Film” category, Rashomon tells the story of a bandit who either had consensual relations or raped a samurai’s wife then either honorably duels with or murders the samurai in 12th century Japan.

Happy stuff, I know.

The story is told from the perspectives of the bandit, the wife, the dead samurai through a medium and a woodcutter who witnessed the whole thing.

This is a fascinating study in the use of point of view. Kurosawa purposely did not resolve the story because wanted it to be an exploration of four witnesses accounts of an incident. Rather than he being judge and jury, he incites the audience to do that.

What Rashomon ultimately demonstrates is that, in any given situation, no one person has a monopoly on the truth, even if one was involved in that situation.

For good reason, Rashomon is one of the best films ever made and definitely one you should watch. It does not disappoint.

Rashomon – 1950

Written by:  Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto

Based on “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Main Cast

  • Toshiro Mifune
  • Machiko Kyō
  • Masayuki Mori
  • Takashi Shimura
  • Minoru Chiaki

Academy Award 1952 Honorary Award for “Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film”

100% Rating on Rotten Tomatoes

On lists

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes

Wikipedia

Playing Where? Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix DVD

Films about Writers: Dalton Trumbo

By Tim Lorge
Dalton Trumbo poses an interesting dilemma for me.

On the one hand, his politics are polarizing yet some of his work is amazing.

In the 1940’s, Trumbo was one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood, having written films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, widely considered one of the best war films of the World War Two era.

He was also a communist and one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” who spent eleven months in jail for contempt of Congress and was then blacklisted by the Hollywood studios for 10 years for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Incidentally, this is commonly and mistakenly referred to as “The McCarthy Hearings”. However, McCarthy was not a member of this committee and held separate hearings targeting both communists and homosexuals.

Trumbo was a fan of Soviet style communism. Though, I’m not sure why. Through the years, I have had the good fortune to meet many Russians who grew up under that oppression and, from what they tell me, it wasn’t worthy of admiration. I’ve got to take their word for it because they lived it.

Nevertheless, his work was extraordinary, having won two Academy Awards for his work while on the blacklist for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”. He also wrote the classic Stanley Kubrick directed Kirk Douglas starrer “Spartacus” and “Exodus” directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman. These last two films and with the support Trumbo received from both Douglas and Preminger restored Trumbo to the WGA and effectively ended the blacklist.

I had long forgotten any of the details surrounding the Hollywood blacklist  until 2015 when the movie “Trumbo” was released. It stars Bryan Cranston and is an overly-simplified version of what Trumbo and his family experienced while he was blacklisted. Cranston gives an amazing Oscar nominated performance and, IMHO, should have won Best Actor.

What I found fascinating was Trumbo’s work ethic despite being on the blacklist. He wrote thirty B-movie scripts under various pseudonyms. By Trumbo’s own admission, they weren’t very good. However, I submit to you, if you had the federal government on you back AND most of Hollywood against you, how many scripts could you write?

Oh and he had something about writing in a bathtub… I have no idea what that’s about.

To say the least, Dalton Trumbo is a fascinating man and a gifted writer. Both are definitely worth checking out.

 

 

Films About Films – Fitzcarraldo & Burden of Dreams

The creative process can sometimes seem like moving a 320-ton ship uphill. Sometimes, you actually have to do that.

By Tim Lorge

FITZCARRALDO AND BURDEN OF DREAMS

There are some films in which the production itself was so unbelievable that they spawned a separate film documenting or dramatizing the process.

For some films, to truly understand it, you really need to know the backstory (a.k.a. horseshit) about its production.

Next up, the movie that is said to be one of the most difficult movies ever made, Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” and Les Blank’s documentary on its making, “Burden of Dreams”.

If there is a theme between last week and this, it would be: film masters who, in one way or another, have suffered for their art.

The case could be made that Welles brought his suffering upon himself, in part, because of his arrogance. Herzog’s suffering, if he considers it so, is because he wants to tell a truthful and accurate story.

1982’s “Fitzcarraldo” is about Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) is a (very German looking) Irishman who wants to bring opera, specifically Enrico Caruso, to the Peruvian Amazon in the early Twentieth Century. To do that, he needs to build an opera house.

To get the large sum of money he needs to build the opera house, he decides to harvest rubber from a swath of land that is almost impossible to reach by boat due to a long section of rapids and, of course, the indigenous people who want nothing to do with outsiders.

To get to the land, he has to portage (carry – didn’t know the word before this article), well, he got the locals to portage, a 320-ton boat over a steep, 40-degree hill.

To say the least, Herzog is a stickler for authenticity.

He shot the film on location in the Amazon AND actually moved a real 320-ton riverboat up and over the hill; no special effects were used at all! He actually moved a huge riverboat up and over hill!

I should note that there was a Peruvian rubber baron by the name of Carlos Fitzcarrald from whom Herzog drew inspiration for this film. Fitzcarrald actually executed natives if they didn’t help dismantle and carry a boat over the mountain. However, according to Herzog, it was only a 30-ton vessel broken up into fourteen or fifteen parts or, 2-tons per part.

This alone would be reason to watch Fitzcarraldo. However, we have to discuss the 1983 BAFTA winner for Best Documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”.

If Burden didn’t exist, I don’t know if Fitzcarraldo would be as legendary as it is.

We have the 320-ton boat, three of them actually, one of them has to get up the hill. We see how that was done and it is AMAZING.

Let’s go back to before the moving of the boat.

Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were originally cast as Fitzcarraldo and his assistant, respectively. They shot about forty percent of the film, Robards contracts dysentery, has to fly back to NYC and his doctor orders him not to go back – he’s out. Jagger has a Stones tour to do, so, he’s out too.

Herzog now has to recast and get more money and oh yeah, the leaders of one of the local tribes are pissed that Herzog didn’t pay them off obtain their permission so they burned down their camp and all the sets.

Now, these are some of the highlights and there are so many more problems.

On its own “Fitzcarraldo” is an amazing piece of work. However, since we are talking about thirty-three years ago, as I mentioned last week, it would help you understand the picture better if you watched “Burden of Dreams” first.

Werner Herzog is a true giant of independent film. There is really no one quite like him. His vision and dedication to authenticity, particularly as evidenced in Fitzcarraldo, is something to which more filmmakers should aspire.

I encourage you to do the same.

Incidentally, once every year or two, Herzog runs what he calls the Rogue Film School [http://roguefilmschool.com/]. It is, according to Marie-Françoise Theodore’s article [http://www.indiewire.com/2014/09/12-things-i-learned-at-werner-herzogs-rogue-film-school-69693/] on IndieWire, quite the experience.

He is also running a filmmaking class on Masterclass [  https://www.masterclass.com/classes/werner-herzog-teaches-filmmaking ] later this summer. I hope to have an article for you on that after it launches.

The Cinema Show – Films about Films

Citizen Kane, RKO 281 and “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”

There are some films in which the production itself was so unbelievable that they spawned a separate film documenting or dramatizing the process.

I’m not talking about a middling DVD extra. I’m talking an actual documentary made by someone other than the studio.

For some films, to truly understand it, you really need to know the backstory (a.k.a. horseshit) about its production.

There are many and we’ll cover some of them. Our first is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made because it is the greatest fucking movie ever!

Yes, everyone says it and it is easy to discount that fact.

However, I ask you to consider this.

At the age of 24, if you had intimate details about the private life of the largest media tycoon in the world, a man who could crush your life, career and art, would you as an artist be willing to write that story, get it made and spend the rest of your life dealing with the fallout from it?

Orson Welles had that information on media magnate William Randolph Hearst and did just that.

Hearst’s power and influence is really quite unimaginable today. No one wields as much power over the media as he did. Rupert Murdoch is nothing compared to Hearst.

Every frame of Kane is steeped with jabs at Hearst. As detailed in Filmmakers Thomas Lennon (the documentarian not Lt. Dangle of Reno 911!) and Michael Epstein’s PBS documentary “The Battle over Citizen Kane,” when Hearst got wind of this, he was none too pleased.

He sent influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (think TMZ but with WAY more power to destroy people) to find out all she could about the film and obliterate it before its release.

When that didn’t work, Hearst tried to coerce the heads of the other Hollywood studios.

That didn’t work either. Hearst’s newspapers set about trashing the film and libeling Welles upon its release. Non-Hearst papers, however, gave it positive reviews.

In the end, the audiences of 1941 ultimately rejected Kane and it bombed.

With the death of Hearst in 1951 and advent of TV in the 50’s, Kane began its ascent to legendary status.

The story of Citizen Kane is a frame story that opens with a media tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s last words “Rosebud.” This sends an intrepid reporter on a quest, to find out what Rosebud means.

“RKO 281” was a dramatization of “The Battle” that HBO produced in 1999.

There are some criticisms about “The Battle” and, in turn “281,” claiming Welles and Hearst weren’t as similar as portrayed and that the “Hollywood legend” of Rosebud being a nickname Hearst had for his mistress’ clitoris wasn’t true.

Whether either is true or not, I have no idea. Considering the venom with which Hearst pursued Welles and Kane, I can certainly see it as plausible.

My preference is to watch the backstory on the films first, then watch the film. I find that it makes the viewing of the original film that much more compelling.

If you are a lover of film and have never seen these three, you must.

Citizen Kane – 1941

Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles – Original Screenplay; John Houseman, Roger Q. Denny and Mollie Kent – Uncredited, Contributing Writers

Directed by: Orson Welles

Main Cast:

  • Joseph Cotten
  • Dorothy Comingore
  • Agnes Moorehead
  • Ruth Warrick
  • Erskine Sanford
  • Everett Sloane
  • Paul Stewart
  • Orson Welles

Academy Awards: 9 nominations, 1 win.

On lists

  • 1001 Films
  • #1 AFI Top 100 ‘07
  • #1 AFI Top 100 ‘98
  • #4 WGA 101 Greatest
  • 1989 Addition to National Film Registry, one of the first 25 selected

 

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes

Wikipedia

Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase

 

The Battle Over Citizen Kane – 1996

Written by: Richard Ben Cramer & Thomas Lennon

Directed by: Michael Epstein & Thomas Lennon

Main Cast

  • David McCullough (host)
  • Orson Welles (archive)
  • William Randolph Hearst (archive)
  • Richard Ben Cramer (narration)

Academy Awards: 1 Nomination for Best Documentary Feature

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes n/a

Wikipedia

Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase

 

RKO 281 – 1999

RKO 281 Trailer

Written by John Logan; Based on “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon

Directed by: Benjamin Ross

Main Cast

  • Liev Schreiber
  • James Cromwell
  • Melanie Griffith
  • John Malkovich
  • Brenda Blethyn
  • Roy Scheider
  • Liam Cunningham
  • Kerry Shale

Awards:

  • Golden Globe, 2000 Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television
  • Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special
  • Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes

Wikipedia

Playing Where? Netflix DVD, DVD Purchase

The Cinema Show: 1,852 and Counting

I have had one thousand, eight hundred fifty-two sexual partners and they were all glorious!

No, I’m kidding. How would I ever find time to drink and write? Plus, I’m a whiskey man so, there’s that.

I’m talking movies!!

I have a list of 1,852 (and counting) movies that you should see in your life. It’s extreme yes, however, if you are a cinefile, you have probably seen many of these.

This started simply enough. In the Summer of 2014, Mandy from xoJane set all the filmmaking sites abuzz with “Bill Hader’s 200 Films Every Comedy Writer” should see from Mike Sacks’ book “Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers”.

I have to say, it spanned the history of film and was amazing!

To my surprise, I had seen about 75 of them. I now had to see the rest so into the Netflix queue they went.

I then had a realization. These were just comedies and those that claimed to be. What about dramas?

I started poking around and came across the AFI Top 100 Lists.

One was the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Quotes”   list. It’s all the quotes we’ve all seen used and abused mostly from the opening montages of awards shows.

•    “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” – All About Eve
•     “Stella! Hey, Stella” – A Streetcar Named Desire
•    “Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’” – Casablanca
•    “Are you talkin’ to me” – Taxi Driver

Again, I realized outside of the clips, I hadn’t seen most of them so I added them to my list.

In its latest iteration, I have 1,852 movies on this list. I have since found other lists to add but here are the initial lists I’m using:

•    2003- 2014 editions of “1001 Films to See Before You Die”     (Listed in alphabetical order not a ranking)
•    Oscar Winners and Nominees for Best Original Screenplay
•    Oscar Winners and Nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay
•    Films on the National Film Registry
•    AFI Top 100 list from 1998
•    AFI Top 100 list from 2007
•    AFI’S 100 Greatest Movie Quotes
•    AFI’s 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time
•    AFI’s 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time
•    AFI’s 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time
•    WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays List
•    Of course, Bill Hader’s 200 Essential Movies Every Comedy Writer Should See

If you were to watch one of these per day, you’d be finished in over 5 years. That’s a lot of movie watching so we should get to it.

Without further ado …

All About Eve – 1950
Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Notable Cast
•    Bette Davis
•    Anne Baxter
•    George Sanders
•    Celeste Holm
•    Hugh Marlowe
•    Barbara Bates
•    Gary Merrill
•    Thelma Ritter
•    Marilyn Monroe

Academy Awards – 14 nominations/ 6 wins

On Lists
•    1001 Films
•    #28 AFI Top 100 ‘07
•    #16 AFI Top 100 ‘98
•    #5 WGA 101 Greatest
•    1990 Addition to National Film Registry

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042192/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1000626-all_about_eve/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_About_Eve

Playing Where? Amazon, iTunes, Netflix DVD & Vudu

Description
Aging Broadway diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis) hires ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) as her assistant and let the cat-fighting begin! Plus, you put Celeste Holm in a movie and I’m there! OK, most probably won’t say that but she had an amazing career appearing opposite some of the biggest stars of her era.

A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951

Screenplay by Tennessee Williams
Adaptation by Oscar Saul
Based on his original play: “A Streetcar Named Desire” Tennessee Williams

Directed by Elia Kazan

Notable Cast
Vivien Leigh
Marlon Brando
Kim Hunter
Karl Malden

Academy Awards – 9 nominations/ 4 wins

On Lists
•    1001 Films
•    #47 AFI Top 100 ‘07
•    #45 AFI Top 100 ‘98
•    #19 AFI 25 Greatest Film Scores
•    1999 Addition to National Film Registry

www.imdb.com/title/tt0044081/
www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1020333-streetcar_named_desire/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Streetcar_Named_Desire_(1951_film)

Playing Where? Amazon, iTunes, Netflix DVD, Vudu

Description
One of Tennessee Williams’ finest, with superb film direction by very same director of the Broadway play Elia Kazan. At the end of her rope, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) moves in with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law (Marlon Brando) then … complications arise.

Casablanca – 1942

Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Notable Cast
Humphrey Bogart
Ingrid Bergman
Paul Henreid
Claude Rains
Conrad Veidt
Sydney Greenstreet
Peter Lorre

Academy Awards – 8 nominations/ 3 wins

On Lists
•    1001 Films
•    #3 AFI Top 100 ‘07
•    #2 AFI Top 100 ‘98
•    #32 AFI 100 Most Inspiring
•    #1 WGA 101 Greatest
•    1989 Addition to National Film Registry

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1003707-casablanca/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casablanca_(film)

Playing Where? Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Netflix DVD, Vudu

Description
As political thrillers go, they don’t get any better than this. Jilted American ex-pat and political neutral Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs a nightclub and casino in Vichy French and German occupied Casablanca. After obtaining transport papers from Signor Ugarte (Lorre), his jilter, Ilsa Lund (Bergman) shows up with her husband fugitive Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Henreid ) looking for a way to escape the Nazi’s.

Taxi Driver – 1976

Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Notable Cast
Robert De Niro
Jodie Foster
Harvey Keitel
Cybill Shepherd
Albert Brooks
Peter Boyle

Academy Awards – 4 nominations/ 0 wins

On Lists
•    1001 Films
•    #52 AFI Top 100 ‘07
•    #47 AFI Top 100 ‘98
•    #32 AFI 100 Most Inspiring
•    #43 WGA 101 Greatest
•    1994 Addition to National Film Registry

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075314/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/taxi_driver/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver

Playing Where? Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Netflix DVD, Vudu

Description
In all candor, I did not get this one. I find Vietnam related pieces hard to grasp. But, it is a classic and has wonderful cinematography of 1970’s New York. De Niro play Travis Bickle a Vietnam Vet who drives a cab at night and is disgusted by the world and saves Iris, a teenage prostitute played by a then 13-year-old Jodie Foster. I probably have to watch this again.

I hope you like this week’s selections. Let me know what you think.