The holidays are here (more or less) and MAD About Movies will be on holiday hours the rest of the year. Rather than the regular schedule, with five posts per week, I’ll be posting on a somewhat irregular schedule. I plan to feature some late-2010 movies during the next few weeks, with probably a few Christmas films in the mix.
Enjoy the season and see you again soon.
No. 196 | November 26, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about the newspaper biz
The films featured so far this (extended) week have been stories about reporters—the quixotic, the historic, the wisecracking, and the cynical—with a couple of true-life stories, and a couple that are fictional. Today we have a movie that’s in the category of fiction but is a thinly veiled tale of a real-life figure. A film à clef, if you will. The life of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate who ruled the newspaper world for many years, was the inspiration for the story. In the film he’s called Charles Foster Kane.
The film, of course, is Citizen Kane. You know all about it. It’s the “greatest film ever”—a title that’s an honor but also a distraction. The trouble with being “greatest film ever” is that expectations are raised. Anyone watching the film has one eye on the screen and one eye on history. The best ever, you say? Prove it! It might be simpler if we could enjoy the film for the pleasures it provides rather than argue about its ranking.
Citizen Kane is the story of a man—or better, the story of the search for a man—who himself is in search of something—with neither the search of the man nor for the man successful in grasping what is sought. The narrative hook is “Rosebud,” Kane’s mysterious last word, and the search for Rosebud is an effective way to tell Kane’s story (despite the director’s comment below). But when we see Kane’s boyhood sled burning in the flames in the film’s final scene, we know that’s just a hint—not the answer. There was much more to him than that. He remains a mystery.
Kane, essentially, is a modern-day Faust. He is driven in ways neither he nor others fully understand. Never satisfied with what he has, he yearns for more. Despite his great fortune, Kane is a restless soul, always reaching for that elusive something beyond his grasp. We all can relate to that to a degree. Never quite satisfied, we all want more. But Kane is no ordinary man. Born to dismal circumstances, he was sold into wealth. He amassed more money, fame, and power than most wealthy people could ever dream of. Kane is Exhibit A in the case to prove Fitzgerald’s claim: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Kane is the man who can have anything—except that which will make him happy.
There is more to the film than I have the chance to get into here. The Mercury Players, Gregg Toland’s camera work, the script by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, Bernard Herrmann’s score. The film was the work of an extraordinary team, and the story of its making and its enduring influence have been the subject of countless books and movies, and likely will be discussed for a long time to come.
Above all, the film is the work of Orson Welles. He directed, wrote, and starred in the film, and when we think of Kane we think of Welles. Like the role he played, he was bigger than life, and for all the wizardry that went into making the movie, it is Welles onscreen, in a tour de force performance, that gave life to Kane and untold pleasure to moviegoers across generations.
1. Sight & Sound, the monthly magazine of the British Film Institute, publishes once every decade what many consider to be the most definitive ranking of greatest movies ever. Citizen Kane was #1 in the critics’ poll in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002. Citizen Kane tied for #13 in 1952, the year of the first Sight & Sound poll. What movie was #1 in 1952?
The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1949)
Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
2. In 2002, Sight & Sound polled critics for the top films of the “past 25 years” (1978–2002). Which of the following American movies made the top 10 list (11 films in all with a tie for #10)? (Hint: five made it, five did not.)
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
3. Orson Welles earned his only nomination for a Razzie Award (Worst Supporting Actor) in 1982 for Butterfly, with Pia Zadora (Zadora won a Razzie and a Golden Globe; Welles was also nominated for a Golden Globe). Name the TV personality who won the Razzie as Worst Supporting Actor for Butterfly.
4. Stephen King is first out of the gate announcing his Top 10 films of 2010. What is King’s #1 film of the year? (Keep in mind, it’s Stephen King.)
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Let Me In
5. List the Harry Potter films in order of release.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
No. 195 | November 25, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about the newspaper biz
Ace in the Hole was the intended title of the film but that’s not how it was released in 1951. As director Billy Wilder described it to Cameron Crowe in Conversations with Wilder: “And then one day Mr. Y. Frank Freeman, the head of Paramount—and as the joke goes, “Why Frank Freeman?” “A question nobody can answer”—he decided that the title was bad, Ace in the Hole. So he gave it a new title, The Big Carnival. Idiot.”
A worse fate awaited the film: for decades it was not available on home video. (I know of one bootleg copy that had many hours of play during the blackout.) Criterion finally undid the cinematic injustice in 2007, releasing the DVD of the film—and restoring Wilder’s title.
Ace in the Hole is a scathing and prescient look at the newspaper business. Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, an out-of-work reporter stranded in Albuquerque who talks himself into a job at the local paper. Cynical and unscrupulous, he gets his chance to break a national news story when a local man is trapped in a cave. Tatum maneuvers to delay the rescue attempt while he milks his time in the limelight. Crowds come, and the victim’s wife (Jan Sterling) seeks to cash in on her husband’s misfortune. She takes up with Tatum, who wins back his old job at a New York paper while playing the hero to the mob that comes to be entertained by the spectacle. All are oblivious to the poor victim, Leo (Richard Benedict), who holds on bravely but not long enough to be rescued.
The film, regarded as a classic today, was not one of Wilder’s box office successes. The director again:
Ace in the Hole was a very peculiar thing. I was very fond of the picture—I got wonderful, wonderful reactions to it from more serious people. But for some reason or other, people did not want to see that grim a picture, that boasted the guy in the hole there, and the reporter, Mr. Kirk Douglas. It was very somber. It was one of my most somber pictures. And they did not believe me that when somebody’s a newspaperman, they are capable of that behavior.
The newspaperman wasn’t the only one capable of that behavior. The public was too. People may not want to admit to such a black-hearted view, but from today’s vantage the film has the unmistakable ring of truth.
No. 194 | November 24, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about the newspaper biz
Often the trouble with lists is not what’s on them but what has been left off. Take The New York Times Presents ‘Smarter By Sunday,’ a new volume I picked up at the bookstore last night. Though the Times does the “presenting,” it doesn’t appear that Times writers wrote the book, which bills itself as a compendium of “essential knowledge for the curious mind.” Each chapter offers a quick review of one topic or another, ranging from China to Shakespeare to languages of the world to the history of physics. Naturally, I found myself paging through the section on film. It was going along fine until I came to its list of ten “Great American Film Directors.” Exactly one director on the list is still living (Coppola), so it’s not exactly breaking new ground. That’s not the problem, though. You see the usual names—Ford, Hitchcock, Capra, Wilder, Wyler—plus a few you might question if they belong on a list of ten. But what had me scratching my head was a name not on the list. How do you put together a list of ten American directors, all but one active between 1930 and 1960, and not include Howard Hawks?
Arguing about lists is an endless task, but I’ll keep this short: Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo. I rest my case.
Hawks was a quintessential American director, and the films he made, in a way, helped define the American character. Other directors may be known as masters of genre or technique, but Hawks, a remarkably versatile director, is perhaps best remembered for the characters he brought to life. The men and women in his stories were tough, savvy, funny. They were confident and optimistic, and in that way, as we sometimes like to think of ourselves, classically American. Above all, they were vital, and that may be why Hawks’s films are so utterly watchable many years later. We recognize the people onscreen, what they want and what they do to go after it. To my eye, those characters would be as at home today as they were at the time the films were made. I can’t think of another director who compares with Hawks on that score.
His Girl Friday is a quick answer to the question, Is a remake ever better than the original? The Front Page, a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, was a hit on Broadway in 1928, and first adapted for the screen in 1931. Hawks changed one character from a man to a woman, added a new title, and made movie magic, creating one of the all-time classic screwball comedies.
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell star as newpaper reporters Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson. Walter and Hildy were once married, but now Hildy has a new fiancé, Bruce Baldwin, a mild-mannered insurance salesman played by Ralph Bellamy. When Walter learns of Hildy’s plans to settle down and leave the news business behind, he does whatever he can to sabotage her plans. Walter is all cunning and easy charm, and Grant’s performance is a marvel to watch. Russell was superb as the star reporter who yearns for the simple life, yet can’t resist the temptations of the big city paper. The story that ropes her in is the saga of convicted killer Earl Williams (John Qualen). The action follows his escape and the ensuing manhunt. The killer has a reprieve coming, while the authorities, especially the mayor, turn out to be crooked, and the wisecracking, cynical newspaper couple, just looking to get the story, help save the little guy.
His Girl Friday is a fast-moving, fast-talking comedy, with a serious side hidden beneath the laughs. The film is famous for its dialogue—characters are constantly talking over one another—an influence on later generations of filmmakers. The film is also famous for being funny and witty in ways we unfortunately just don’t see anymore.
November 10–23, 2010
Feeling under the weather today. See you tomorrow.
I said I’d see you tomorrow, so here I am. For a moment. That dark cloud (in a gender-appropriate pic this time) is still hovering overhead, and sunny skies may still be a few days off. Here’s hoping the forecast improves. The plan right now is to return Wednesday and pick up the week’s theme where I left off. Santé.
I have good news to report. I am feeling better. Though not yet a hundred percent, I seem to have finally shaken the bug that put me out of commission the past week. The not-so-good news, I am suddenly inundated with more things to do than I have time to get to. So, I’m going to move out my return till next week. I’ll pick up where I had left off, continuing with the latest theme, films about the newspaper biz. I look forward to seeing you then.