No. 129 | June 30, 2010
Our theme this week
Howard Hughes and the movies
The Rocketeer is a 1991 film based on a 1980s comic book series set in 1930s Los Angeles. With a storyline mixing old Hollywood and early aviation, it’s no surprise to see an appearance by Howard Hughes. In this film Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) is a secondary character, and he’s more of a comic book figure, as you might expect, than one drawn from real life.
The object of pursuit among various parties is a specially designed, jet-powered rocket developed at the company run by Hughes. The rocket is stolen by gangsters, who hide it in an aircraft hangar while they get away. Stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discovers the device and later uses it to perform a daring rescue at an air show. With the jet pack strapped to his back and a helmet over his head, Secord flies through the air like a souped-up superhero. The crowd is wowed and the press calls the anonymous flier the Rocketeer.
Not only are the gangsters after Secord, so are the Nazis. If the prototype rocket were to fall into the wrong hands, it could shift the balance of power among nations. Or something like that. The bad guys do kidnap Secord’s girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), and that, of course, leads to another heroic rescue for the Rocketeer. The rocket doesn’t survive, nor does one end of the Hollywoodland sign, but world order, thankfully, is restored.
The Rocketeer is a retro adventure story, in a way like the Indiana Jones series, though that’s not a fair comparison. It’s a much more contrived tale, with more action than imagination, and more earnest belief in its own conceits than it rightfully earns. Perhaps a wink and a nod along the way would have been a better approach. It is, in any case, a good-looking film. I have a soft spot for art deco, a motif amply employed, and the cars and the planes and the clothes of the ’30s make for some pretty pictures.
No. 128 | June 29, 2010
Our theme this week
Howard Hughes and the movies
It’s a small miracle that this movie is as good as it is. If the hook came up a pitch meeting, it likely would get a pass. An affable, down-on-his-luck, small-town everyman inherits $156 million from one of the world’s richest men. That’s a heavy load of hokum even for Hollywood.
You can imagine a thousand ways the film could have gone wrong. Yet Melvin and Howard—despite an incredible story, the presence of Howard Hughes, and a protagonist who might have concocted one of the great frauds in history—offers something surprising: it’s utterly believable.
Jason Robards plays Howard Hughes as an aging, crotchety loner, hardly what you’d expect for a famous billionaire, even a mysterious figure like Hughes. When a motorcycle accident leaves him stranded on a desert roadside, he gets a lift from Melvin Dummar, the Good Samaritan with a pickup truck and a song he’s written for Christmas. They ride through the Nevada night as Melvin tells Howard about his life. When the passenger reveals his name, Melvin doesn’t want to be impolite. “I believe anybody can call themselves whatever they want.”
Though both men get their name in the title, the story belongs to Melvin. Paul Le Mat plays the lead (if you remember him from American Graffiti, here he is again in the driver’s seat). The film follows his struggles through a series of jobs and a couple of failed marriages. He never has much luck though he never gives up dreaming. He doesn’t have a pretty life but you can see that quality of his that a guy like Hughes would have found appealing, and worth remembering, some day years later while scratching out his will.
That will, its authenticity, and the court case around it are not the prime focus of the movie. The film is a slice of Americana, a charming riff on luck and misfortune and how the unbelievable might be true—and even if it’s not, it might be worth hoping it is anyway.
Credit for making the film work goes to director Jonathan Demme, while he was still relatively early in his career, and writer Bo Goldman, whose original screenplay won an Oscar. They keep the focus of the story where it belongs, on the life of its accidental hero. The cast is terrific, especially Le Mat, Oscar nominee Robards, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, playing Dummar’s wife. The performances, like the rest of the film, feel genuine, an accomplishment for a true-life tale that might have been more invention than truth.
No. 127 | June 28, 2010
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born in Houston on December 24, 1905. There’s some dispute about the date and place. Hughes claimed he was born on Christmas Eve, but he might not have been the most reliable source. Other accounts have the location as Humble, Texas, a detail that sounds suspiciously like something from a Hollywood publicity department. In any case, he was born with the monogram H.R.H., and perhaps some wishful thinking, if not destiny, was involved in that.
Hughes inherited a fortune at an early age, then headed west to make movies. He made himself into one of the more fascinating figures in Hollywood history. He was a mogul, a director, an aviator, an entrepreneur, a tycoon, a philanthropist, a recluse, and a headcase. He was the type of eccentric that makes today’s tabloid fodder seem like mere poseurs. He was a billionaire at a time when being a millionaire was still a big deal. He had a one-of-a-kind life.
Hughes has been the subject of many books and films over the years. In her 1967 essay “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38″ (the title is the address of Hughes’s office), Joan Didion reflected on Hughes’s appeal and found something distinctly American:
That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.
David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, had this to say about Hughes’s time in Hollywood:
I think it’s plain why Hughes excites movie people: the daft wealth, the amazing fame, and the yearning to be nothing; the obsession with flying; the taste for hotels, Las Vegas, and bloodless food delivered in plastic bags—this is the little boy’s kingdom; the foolish resort to movies, to running studios, to brunettes, blondes, and breasts. He is the fan who walked in off the street, who made movies and bossed a studio, and who was crazy and hopeful enough to think of having Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, Jean Simmons, Janet Leigh, Faith Domergue, even Jean Peters (the one he married) and so on, into the night. Hughes did what every shy, lonely moviegoer dreams of doing. And he went mad as a hatter, leaving the legend to Clifford Irving and the rest of us.
When it comes to Hughes, it’s no easy task telling fact from fiction. Stories of his life, more than most, are a liberal blend of the two. I won’t aim to settle what’s what, but this week we’ll take a look at part of his legacy—Howard Hughes and the movies. We’ll start today with Hughes the moviemaker, then turn the rest of the week to Hughes the man of myth, in his various incarnations as a character onscreen.
Our theme this week
Howard Hughes and the movies
Howard Hughes took his new bride and his fortune to Los Angeles in 1925, where he began making movies in the last days of silents. A couple of films that Hughes produced earned recognition in the first year of the Oscars. A silent called Two Arabian Knights (1927) was a success at the box office and earned Lewis Milestone the Academy Award for directing a comedy (there were two directing prizes that year). Another silent, a crime drama called The Racket (1928), also directed by Milestone, was nominated for Outstanding Picture.
Hell’s Angels (1930) cost nearly $4 million to make. Hughes not only put up the money, but after hiring and firing a couple of directors, he took the reins himself. A talkie about air combat in World War I, the film was a smash and launched the career of its teenaged star, Jean Harlow.
As producer, Hughes had some notable successes during the 1930s. The Front Page (1931) was the first of several film adaptations of the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. A smart comedy about the newspaper biz, it was nominated for three Oscars. Scarface (1932), loosely based on the life of Al Capone, was a seminal gangster film. Before turning his energies full-time to real-life aviation, Hughes made one more flying picture, a comedy called Sky Devils (1932), starring Spencer Tracy.
Hughes returned to moviemaking in the 1940s, as director (with Howard Hawks in the wings) and producer of The Outlaw, a western about Billy the Kid. The film starred Hughes’s new discovery, Jane Russell. The film is famous for its years-long delay in getting released (it had a brief run in 1943, two years after it was completed, then a longer release in 1946), as Hughes obsessed about his leading lady’s bra and fought with censors about shots of her breasts.
In 1948, Hughes won control of RKO, and he ran the struggling film studio until 1955. Some of his later films include Vendetta (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951), and Macao (1952). Near the end of his movie career he produced another aviation flick, Jet Pilot (completed in 1953, released in 1957), with John Wayne heading the cast.
Hughes left Hollywood and the rest of the world behind, becoming a hermit in his later years. He died on April 5, 1976, on a plane en route to Houston. That’s the official story, though some reports say otherwise.
No. 126 | June 25, 2010
Our theme this week
Heist films generally fall into two groups. The first are the dark, dramatic stories, some of them film noir, with roots that go back to early gangster films. Later came the lighter tales, clever and stylish, aiming mostly to entertain, and often with a comic tone. Like Monday’s featured films (both original and remake), today’s belong to the latter category.
The original Italian Job is a beloved favorite of film buffs and car buffs, as famous for its cliffhanger ending (see below) as it is for giving the Mini Cooper a virtual starring role. The real stars are two icons of British cinema, a young Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, the gangster who organizes the caper, and Noël Coward, in his final screen appearance, as Mr. Bridger, the kingpin who runs his criminal empire from a jail cell. The plot involves an audacious plan to create massive traffic gridlock in Turin, Italy, while Croker’s gang robs a $4 million shipment of gold bullion from an armored car. The Minis are crucial since they can carry off the gold using routes unavailable to larger vehicles—over stairways, on rooftops, and through city sewers. The crooks transfer the loot to a 36-foot Harrington Legionnaire, which takes them into the Alps for their final getaway. Well, almost.
The unresolved end works like a charm, and Paramount, to its credit, never made a sequel. Thirty-four years later, though, it released the remake. Same title, same showcase for Minis, same sort of armored car robbery during a traffic jam, but a different story. The Italian job of the title is set in Venice and is only the prologue to the main plot. A successful heist and aquatic getaway is spoiled when one of the crooks double-crosses the others. A year later, in Philadelphia, the team reassembles, then travels to California with plans to recover the gold they had rightfully stolen. Bring on the armored car, the Minis, and—hard as it is to imagine in Los Angeles—a traffic jam, and one more heist later, the gold is the hands of the crooks who deserve it. A hit film, though not the landmark of the 1960s original, The Italian Job remake stars Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, Donald Sutherland as John Bridger, Charlize Theron as Bridger’s daughter, Stella, and Edward Norton as Steve, the inside man. Others rounding out the team of thieves are Jason Stratham, Mos Def, and Seth Green.
The two films make for an interesting comparison of how the times, and Hollywood, have changed. For the remake, the budget, the effects, the action have all grown bigger. The characters, not so much. Still, it’s not a bad piece of entertainment, though not nearly as memorable as the original.
Interested in how that cliffhanger ending might be resolved? Brit scientists are on it.
“Handsome Rob. Premier wheel man. Once drove all the way from Los Angeles just so he could set the record for longest freeway chase. You know he got 110 love letters sent to his jail cell from women who saw him on the news?”
—Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), The Italian Job (2003)
1. Virgil Thomson is the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for a film score. What was the film?
2. Dennis Hopper never won an Oscar but he was nominated twice. Name the two films for which he earned his nominations.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Easy Rider (1969)
The American Friend (1977)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Red Rock West (1993)
3. John Wayne starred in five films directed by Howard Hawks. Name the one film of Wayne’s from the list below that was not directed by Hawks.
Red River (1948)
Rio Grande (1950)
Rio Bravo (1959)
El Dorado (1966)
Rio Lobo (1970)
4. Three about Toy Story 3!
a. When his toy friends reset his mode at Sunnyside Daycare, Buzz Lightyear begins speaking …Russian? …Spanish? …Hindi?
b. Lotso assigns Buzz and his friends to …the Butterfly Room? …the Silkworm Room? …the Caterpillar Room?
c. The animated short film playing in theaters before Toy Story 3 is called …Black and White? …Day and Night? …Merry and Bright?
5. The promotional artwork (below) for a picture opening this week fails to show the faces of the two megastars appearing in the movie. That’s odd, to say the least, considering the many millions of dollars the producers spent on casting those two so they’d attract people to theaters. Name the movie and the two stars.
No. 125 | June 24, 2010
Our theme this week
Sexy Beast generated plenty of buzz when it opened in the U.S. in mid-2001, much of it for Ben Kingsley’s performance as a psychopath who won’t take no for an answer. I thought the hype was a little overblown, but it’s a good, solid, entertaining film. It’s vulgar and violent, and has an odd comic edge. I rather liked Ray Winstone’s character, and among heist scenes in movies, this one had a novel twist.
Winston plays Gal Dove, an ex-con living in Costa del Sol with his wife. Dove is retired, and wants to be, but he gets an invitation from Don Logan (Kingsley) to join him for (yes, that staple of the genre) one last job—a bank heist in London. Dove turns down Logan but Logan makes it clear that the only acceptable answer is yes. That’s a problem. Logan is so unhinged you can never be sure what he’ll do, and his volatile, profanity-spewing, likely-to-blow-at-any-moment temper makes him an utterly watchable villain. While he’s in the movie, that is. But he’s too nasty a creep to last.
Dove still has to deal with Logan’s boss and agrees to go through with the heist, a somewhat ludicrous job involving drilling into the bank vault from the neighboring Turkish bath. It makes for some memorable images, and a good metaphor for Dove—who’s underwater and unable to breathe. He needs the heist to go well, not for the riches, but just so he can be done with the life of crime.
Kingsley earned an Oscar nomination, one of his four, and got the lion’s share of the film’s famously juicy dialogue. The script had an exceptional number of f-words and c-words; many hundreds, in fact, and someone apparently has counted them. In that respect, Sexy Beast didn’t borrow from heist films of the ’50s, which broke new ground but still conformed to Production Code standards (at least in Hollywood). Brits, however, seem to have a certain talent for that kind of language.