Remembering Buck Jones and the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942

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Today is Buck Jones’ birthday (b. Dec. 12th 1891) and although his name might not be familiar to modern movie audiences the much loved B-movie cowboy was once one of the most popular western stars in Hollywood. Jones began his career in silent films and successfully transferred to making talkies while working with some interesting talent including directors John Ford, William Wellman, W. S. Van Dyke, James W. Horne, Lambert Hillyer and Kurt Neumann and fellow actors such as John Wayne, Carol Lombard, Tom Mix, Gabby Hayes, Lon Chaney Jr., Susan Fleming, Anita Louise and Buster Crabbe (just to name a few). At the height of his fame (roughly between 1925 and 1938) Jones was making 6-8 films a year and his likeness, along with his white horse called Silver, could be found in comic books and on advertisements for many products that appealed to kids including Schwinn bicycles, Post breakfast cereals, Royal Crown Cola and Daisy air guns. His fan club, affectionately known as The Buck Jones Rangers, boasted over three million members and at one point in his career Jones was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and supposedly received more fan mail than any star.
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All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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There Must Be a Lone Ranger

lonebothOne of this summer’s biggest misfires, The Lone Ranger was green-lighted in 2008, began shooting in 2011, came in with a $250 million budget, and cost about $150 million to market. For all of that effort and money, it has yet to break $100,000,000, according to the IMDB.

While promoting the movie, star Armie Hammer revealed the problems the cast and crew experienced during production. Just before principle photography began in New Mexico, Disney shut down the movie to force producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to wheedle down the budget from $260 million to $215 million. When the ball finally began rolling, Mother Nature interfered via severe rainstorms with 70 mph winds, a snowstorm, and even wildfires, edging the budget closer to the original costs. During the summer, the temperatures soared passed 100 degrees, slowing down productivity. Sadly, a stuntman was killed during production, casting a pall over the shoot. When, the crew suffered from an outbreak of chicken pox, some joked that The Lone Ranger seemed to be cursed.

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The Hawks Report #2: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

He sat in the audience of High Noon, fuming.  He didn’t like the way Gary Cooper slunk through the town unable to muster any allies for his heroic stand against Evil.  He thought it was unmanly.  And after shaking his fist for a while and muttering oaths under his breath, he realized that he wasn’t accomplishing anything just venting his rage at the screen.  So he went to work, to make his own movie, as a deliberate rejection of High Noon.

When it appeared in theaters, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo claimed to be based on a short story by “B.H. McCampbell,” which makes it sound impressive.  In fact, “B.H. McCampbell” was Hawks’ daughter Barbara, and her “short story” was just some spitballing about how cool it would be if some gangsters had a bunch of  dynamite in crates and some good guys came along and shot up the crates to make them blow up.  Which is, indeed, very cool.  But that little bit of business aside, writers Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett were really tasked with making a manlier version of High Noon, with the same character types in the same situation but in which the sheriff doesn’t get all wishy washy and scared and whatnot, but just stoically goes out and kicks some ass.

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 2)

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This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

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Delving Into Delmer Daves

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Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-Ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as  “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.

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The Cahn Film Festival

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As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles (check here for the full list). So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.

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George Sherman, Director of Westerns

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When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced “Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw (1939).

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Identity Thief: Cheyenne (1947)

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I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded  The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.

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The Legend Was Never Fact

westopenerRecently, I showed Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to my film history class. Porter was known to base his flickers and one-reelers on the newspaper headlines of the day. As I explained that Porter likely got the idea for the film from the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance drifted through my mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But, during the heyday of the Wild West, fact was completely lost in the interweaving of history and myth.

The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. By that time, the Wild Bunch had disbanded and Butch and Sundance were lost in the wilds of Argentina. But, the gang’s 1899 robbery of a Union Pacific train was already legendary. Newspapers carried wood engravings based on photos of the railroad cars destroyed by dynamite, while papers circulated the first-person accounts of mail clerk Robert Lawson, who was inside one of the cars. In 1900, members of the gang robbed another Union Pacific train in Wyoming, blasting the safes with dynamite. At the end of 1901, gang member Kid Curry was arrested, though he escaped in 1903—all of which played out in the pages of the newspapers. The dynamite, hapless mail clerk, and train uncoupling depicted in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by the Wild Bunch’s exploits, which in turn were perpetuated through the film.

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DYNAMITED TRAIN CAR IN ‘GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY’

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