Remembering Bruce Lee on his 75th Birthday


Here we are . . . still talking about him. And for good reason. He tried to live what he believed. When you see him on screen you’re not just seeing a performance, you’re seeing the real human being.” – Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter.

Tomorrow, November 27, marks what would have been Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday if he hadn’t died in 1973 after suffering a fatal cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to pain medication. Lee was an incredible athlete, inspiring teacher, thoughtful philosopher and sensitive poet who was responsible for popularizing martial arts in America and broadening our narrow perception of Asian actors. Despite many personal hurdles and professional disappointments, he was able to overcome industry racism and establish a new kind of Hollywood action hero who was admired by millions around the world. Lee’s death at the young age of 32 was a great loss to us all but his family, friends and fans have kept his legacy alive and today he remains a recognizable pop culture figure as beloved and admired as Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.


Twilight of the B-Western: White Horse, Black Hat


C. Jack Lewis saw a lot in his 84 years. A Marine Corps veteran of three wars, he was also a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo” who spent decades on the fringes of Hollywood. A fan of Westerns since childhood, he broke into screenwriting just as the B-Western business was collapsing, thanks to the arrival of television. He managed to sell a few scripts for budget stars like Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown, but would spend the majority his career as a journalist for horse and army publications (he was the founder of Gun World magazine). During that time he met all of the stars of his youth as they sank down the Hollywood food chain, making a living as extras on TV Westerns or as special attractions at traveling circuses. In his affecting memoir White Horse, Black Hat, published in 2002 by Scarecrow Press, Lewis wrote thumbnail portraits of these faded stars, a collection which captured the end of the B industry and the itinerant careers of the low-budget cowboy.


Life Advice from Douglas Fairbanks


TCM’s evening programming tonight spotlights silent film star and original action hero Douglas Fairbanks. If you tune in you can catch him in The Good Bad Man (1916), The Half-Breed (1916), The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1924) beginning 8PM EST and 5PM PST. Coincidentally, I recently finished reading a great new biography about Fairbanks titled The First King of Hollywood by author Tracey Gossel. The book is one of the best actor biographies I’ve read in recent years and provides an extensively researched, extremely thoughtful and informative look at one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the silent era.

I learned a lot about Fairbanks from Gossel’s book that I didn’t know before. One of the more memorable takeaways was discovering his progressive views on race that greatly impacted the films he made. I was also impressed by the depth of his lifelong friendship with Charlie Chaplin and disappointed to learn that his relationship with his son (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) was so strained. In addition, it was a treat to discover how he expressed himself with the written word in passionate love letters to his wife and fellow screen icon, Mary Pickford. And I was even more surprised to learn that Fairbanks had written some inspirational self-help books in association with his friend and personal secretary, Kenneth Davenport.


Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.


I Am Also A Fugitive From A Chain Gang: Hell’s Highway (1932)


In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).


Bayou Breakout: Cry of the Hunted (1953)


After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.


Pulling the Strings: What Every Woman Knows (1934)


When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.


Ship of Fools: The Long Voyage Home (1940)


From L to R around table: Thomas Mitchell, Billy Bevan, John Ford, George Schreiber, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Barry Fitzgerald. Behind John Ford are Joe Sawyer, Bob Perry, Jack Pennick, John Qualen, and Ernest Fiene. Danny Borzage is playing the accordion.

The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first  movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted.  In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.


Makeup vs. Acting


The recent gangster biopic Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as real-life organized crime boss Whitey Bulger, a fixture in Boston’s criminal underworld from the 1960s through the 1990s. Depp gives an intense performance as the ruthless mobster, who was legendary for his unpredictable behavior and violent methods. The actor embraced the role, mastering the South Boston accent and adopting street-tough mannerisms. I recommend Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace; Crazy Heart) whose realist style serves the story well.


Thrill Kill: 10 to Midnight (1983)



Charles Bronson’s association with the exploitation mavens at Cannon Films started with Death Wish II (1982), and continued through six years and seven more movies of profitable urban bloodshed. The second of these was 10 to Midnight (1983), a ultra-sleazy slasher film in which Bronson’s morally dubious cop attempts to protect his daughter from a loony who commits murders in the nude. Now out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), it’s a lowest-common-denominator product that gives the people what they want, and what they wanted in 1983 was healthy heaping of gently jogging nudity (male and female), a few spurts of blood, and Bronson looking constipated, apparently.

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