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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

Magic BoxThe Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke (1929-1987)
Milestone Films

Milestone’s series of Shirley Clarke releases is one of the great passion projects of the home video era. That fact is vigorously reaffirmed by the fourth volume, which collects experimental shorts, documentaries, home movies and rare material not seen in decades, and comes close to completing Clarke’s extant filmography on Blu-ray. (The one major piece missing: the Frederick Wiseman-produced The Cool World [1963], which doesn’t have a commercial release from Wiseman’s Zipporah Films.)

Like Clarke’s genre-puncturing and form-stretching The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), the films in Milestone’s fourth volume reveal a filmmaker deeply comfortable with straddling worlds, whether that means embracing the fundamental elasticity of documentary or filming other artistic disciplines — here, theater and dance — in ways that complement their strengths while remaining cinematic.

This compulsively watchable three-disc Blu-ray set begins with a disc of Clarke’s experimental work, including a variety of city-symphony riffs from the ’50s and some mind-bending dispatches from the early video era. Her editing prowess gets an early showcase with Brussels Loops, a compilation of three-minute shorts created with D.A. Pennebaker for the 1957 Brussels World Fair; each bristles with energy whether showcasing feats of American architectural beauty or slyly undercutting consumerist inventions.

The surreal collage of Bridges-Go-Round, presented in several versions, is one of the great avant-garde architecture films, while Skyscraper takes a more straightforward approach to the industrial film. The newly rediscovered Butterfly, with its scratched celluloid and high-pitched soundtrack, is a brief primal scream against the Vietnam War.

Two video pieces feature acclaimed experimental playwright Joseph Chaikin’s collaborations with Sam Shepard (Tongues, Savage/Love), and Clarke’s restless special effects distort the image to fascinating ends. These are singular documents, but the most eye-opening film on the disc might be Scary Time, commissioned by the UN to promote UNICEF giving on Halloween, but banned by the UN for getting too real. Clarke’s use of close-ups and her intercutting between Halloween celebrations and images of famine are disquieting and startlingly confrontational.

Disc two revolves around Clarke’s first passion: dance. Her earliest forays into filmmaking can be seen here, including the unfinished Fear Flight with Beatrice Seckler and her first completed short, Dance in the Sun, starring Daniel Nagrin. Clarke’s continued interest in capturing movement can be seen in the lovely postcard In Paris Parks, presented alongside outtakes and footage from a second, unfinished Paris film.

This disc gets even more interesting with a turn into experimental territory, first seen in the layered imagery and unreal colors of Bullfight, with Anna Sokolow. Footage from the unfinished The Rose and the Players hints at Clarke’s desire to marry some experimental techniques with a narrative told through dance. Four collaborations with choreographer Marion Scott combine modern dance with Clarke’s film and video experimentation.

The final disc could be largely thought of as bonus material, with the bulk consisting of silent home-video footage of Clarke’s childhood, wedding, vacations and her appearance in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (1969). There are two proper films here though, a once-lost children’s adventure short Christopher and Me and the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, which depicts two college speaking engagements from the last year of the poet’s life. The film, which was taken away from Clarke during editing, is certainly on the conventional side, particularly with regards to its obvious narration, but a segment where Frost remarks on the artificiality of documentary-making has Clarke’s fingerprints all over it.

This Herculean feat of film scholarship and curation also looks largely remarkable. Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from a variety of materials, but most of the non-video footage looks convincingly film-like, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity. Damage never surpasses expected levels of speckling and fine scratches. A few highlights: the brilliant, deeply saturated colors of the Brussels Loops and the Paris films, and the excellent grayscale reproduction in Robert Frost, restored by UCLA and the Academy Film Archive. The set is accompanied by a booklet with helpful contextual notes about the films.

Milestone Films / 1929-1987 / Color and black and white / 1.33:1 / 480 min / $119.99

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

If only because his filmography is so full of major works, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams generally feels like a minor one. Anthology films often do.

Still, this collection of eight stories, inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams and folk legends he heard growing up, is a thoroughly enjoyable filmgoing experience, particularly viewed on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which really allows the vivid tableaux to shine in all their colorfully transfixing glory. Even when some of the segments dip into trite sentiment or obvious polemic, Dreams is always interesting to look at.

Focusing on man’s relationship to nature, the fleeting nature of joy, the solitude of creating art, humans’ capacity for regret and their even larger capacity for destruction, Dreams reveals an artist working in a deeply contemplative mode. This is a film rooted in melancholy when it’s not given over to outright pessimism, though by its conclusion, Kurosawa seems to have reached a sense of peace by looking backward.

There’s an otherworldly quality to the early segments that make them especially dreamlike: A young boy (Toshihiko Nakano) disobeys his mother to spy on a fox wedding processional, the figures emerging from the mist in a deliberate, regimented line; an adolescent boy (Mitsunori Isaki) laments his family’s chopped-down peach-tree orchard and receives a visit from dozens of life-size dolls; a man (Akira Terao, who plays the protagonist in the rest of the segments) finds himself nearly paralyzed by a blizzard and receives a visit from the mythical Yuki-onna (Mieko Harada).

The dream logic and airy feel of the early vignettes dissipate as the film turns more overtly political in segments that are plenty surreal, but not exactly dreamlike. A soldier’s encounter with a zombie platoon full of dead men he’s responsible for is haunting and heartbreaking, with a caustic view of the long-term effects of war. Two stories about nuclear war and its aftermath are comparatively heavy-handed.

Famous faces pop up in several other stories, including Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh, framed alongside Terao’s painter in brilliant fields of color, and Chishu Ryu, who rarely worked with Kurosawa, as a voice of serenity in the film’s lovely closing segment.

Even for those who might be lukewarm on the film, Criterion’s edition of Dreams has a ton to like, beginning with the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. The colors in this transfer are lush and vibrant, with eye-popping reds and yellows especially standing out. In keeping with what seems to be a recent trend, blue colors do tend toward the teal side of the spectrum, but it’s not overwhelming. Grain is beautifully rendered, image clarity and sharpness is strong and the transfer looks impressively film-like throughout. The 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and fairly dynamic.

The extras here are also formidable, beginning with a newly recorded audio commentary from Stephen Prince that is positively packed with information. The only time Prince pauses is to allow us to hear a line of dialogue in the van Gogh sequence; otherwise, he fills every available second with a wealth of information on Kurosawa’s approach, the film’s debt to Noh and Kabuki theater, the cultural and political climate it was created in and the film’s place among Kurosawa’s career.

Also on the packed disc: A 150-minute making-of, featuring tons of on-set footage, from House (1977) director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi (in SD); 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, in which longtime translator Catherine Cadou interviews tons of legendary filmmakers — Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos, Clint Eastwood and Hayao Miyazaki among them — about Kurosawa’s legacy; new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi; and a trailer. A hefty booklet includes an essay by Bilge Ebiri and the script for an unfilmed ninth segment, “A Wonderful Dream.”

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $39.95

ElectraElectra, My Love (Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974)
Second Run

Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, whose work is well represented on the Second Run label, is renowned for his long takes, and that quality is especially evident in Electra, My Love, a reworking of the Greek myth that unfolds in just a dozen shots over the course of 74 minutes.

This transfixing film pushes the boundaries of the medium and emerges as a truly interdisciplinary work, almost as reliant on modes of experimental theater and dance as it is film — though it’s still foremost a cinematic work, as the glorious camera swoops and crane shots can attest to.

The Electra myth is one of the most enduring in Greek mythology, with major versions by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and numerous adaptations since. Jancsó’s take doesn’t deviate from too many fundamental details: Electra (Mari Törőcsik), the daughter of deposed and murdered king Agamemnon is harassed and humiliated by his usurper, Aegisthus (József Madaras), but the arrival of her thought-dead brother Orestes (György Cserhalmi) presents an opportunity for revolution.

Jancsó’s fluid approach to storytelling adds a pointedly political anachronistic conclusion and reframes a familiar story in a fresh way, pushing down the importance of narrative coherence and personal identification with characters to look at the tale from a grand perspective. The film uses hundreds of extras, often in tightly choreographed movement, as Jancsó uses masses of humans to portray oppression’s effect on a population.

Shot entirely outdoors in the Hungarian steppe, Electra, My Love is populated with numerous frames that are as stunning as they are odd — bodies, often nude, huddled together or prostrate or gathered near a pool of blood, a hillside ablaze with candles, a tyrant hoisted atop a giant ball — but even more arresting is the way Jancsó’s camera navigates these scenes, each long take a miniature feat of architecture. Letting these images wash you over you makes for 74 minutes of cinematic ecstasy.

Second Run presents Electra, My Love in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute’s new 2K restoration. The region-free disc presents an image that is very clean, with stable, if somewhat muted colors. Fine detail isn’t remarkable, as there’s a persistent slight softness to the image, but the film looks largely very good, and Second Run’s disc easily outclasses previously available home video versions. The 1.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is just fine at handling the post-dubbed sound.

The one on-disc extra is a new interview with cinematographer János Kende, who shot a number of Jancsó’s films and talks about his working experience with him, the process of shooting long takes and Jancsó’s legacy. An included booklet features an essay from Peter Hames.

Second Run / 1974 / Color / 1.66:1 / 74 min / £19.99

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

Crisscrossing love lives of the wealthy and beautiful are on display in Children of Divorce, almost a perfectly pure confection of silent-film melodrama starring Clara Bow at the height of her powers. Made directly after It (1927), which features Bow’s signature role as an irresistible flapper girl, Children of Divorce is a near-shameless combination of sex appeal and lifestyle porn, hung on an impressively overwrought framework that doesn’t just tug the heartstrings; it threatens to siphon the tears out of your eyes itself.

Lest that sound like a pan, let’s be clear: Children of Divorce is an utter delight, especially if you enjoy ogling the preternaturally attractive visages of Bow and a young Gary Cooper, which come through in stunning clarity in Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray release. Only the second Bow film to get a US Blu-ray (the other being Wings), this disc makes it incontrovertibly clear that Bow knew exactly how to deploy her impish charm for maximum appeal.

Directed by Frank Lloyd, with uncredited reshoots by Josef von Sternberg, Children of Divorce amps up the emotion with a frame story about American children sent to live in a Paris “divorce colony,” a sort of orphanage/summer camp hybrid that allowed newly single parents to go live it up for a while. Adorable moppets with quivering lips make up at least five percent of this film, and Joyce Coad, who played Pearl in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter and stars as the younger version of Bow’s character, looks like she’s trying to crush your heart between her tiny fingers as the camera holds steady on her face.

Flash forward, and Kitty Flanders (Bow), rich heiress and best friend Jean Waddington (Esther Ralston) and wealthy playboy Teddy Larrabee (Cooper) reunite for the first time as a trio since they were kids. Jean and Teddy have a residual mutual attraction that starts to regain steam, but Kitty, egged on by her serially married mom (Hedda Hopper in a brief cameo), is determined to make Teddy her first husband.

The film veers quickly from jaunty comedy of flirtation to heart-rending drama as Kitty’s selfish choices have a ripple effect through the years. (On hand to assist the heart-rending: toddler cutie Mary Louise Miller, who played the baby in Mary Pickford’s Sparrows, as Kitty’s daughter.) Because of its short length and Bow’s ineffable screen appeal, the film never crumbles beneath its piled-on emotions, and in the von Sternberg-shot ending, actually becomes quite moving.

Sourced from Paramount’s 4K scan of a Library of Congress restoration, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer on Flicker Alley’s disc is very strong, especially considering the problematic history of the source elements, which were badly preserved. Image clarity and high levels of fine detail are pronounced immediately, with damage largely relegated to fine scratches that don’t overwhelm the image. There are some softer moments later in the film, and an insert shot of a letter being written displays extreme nitrate decomposition — a clue to how badly the film was preserved — but all in all, the film looks great. A newly recorded score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and sounds fantastic.

The major extra in Flicker Alley’s package is the 1999 TCM documentary on Bow’s tumultuous personal and professional life, which provides an excellent overview in an hour. (Despite the legion of online complaints, Courtney Love’s narration is fine.) The doc is presented in standard def. Also included is a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn’s biography (which is not kind to Children of Divorce) and notes on the restoration, score and the TCM doc. A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.

Flicker Alley / 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 71 min / $39.95

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

Suburban dread oozes out of the pores of Private Property, a once lost film from director Leslie Stevens where nastiness bubbles just below the surface for nearly the entirety of this slow-burn anti-thriller. Rediscovered and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the film is probably most notable as the first starring role for Warren Oates, whose timid impotence here is a far cry from the swaggering or subdued antiheroes he played in some of the ’70s most singular American films.

Corey Allen stars as Duke, a maniacal drifter on the road with Oates’ Boots where they’re on the hunt for a place to stay in Los Angeles and some female companionship for Boots, which Duke promises to deliver. Within minutes, they’ve hijacked a ride to stalk the alluring Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife in her first of only two film roles) to her home in the Hollywood Hills, shared with her often absent executive husband.

After finding a vacant house to squat in next door, Duke poses as a handyman and squirms his way into Ann’s life, while Boots is often left over there, only able to watch from a top-floor window as Duke and Ann flirt poolside. Both Boots and Duke are incessant voyeurs, but only one of them is ever able to do anything about it.

The veneer of charm on Allen’s sneering performance is very thin indeed, but it’s enough to appeal to Ann; Manx’s performance has a palpable longing — both sexual and emotional — that’s accompanied by a kind of paralysis. Wealth, status and societal convention have pinned her inside her home, and a reckless decision or two might be her only chance at escape.

Private Property isn’t really a major rediscovery, especially given the expected path it eventually treads, but it’s an enjoyably acrid take on the horrors of domestic living — and worse.

Cinelicious’ 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from UCLA’s 4K restoration, is gorgeous, presenting a detailed, sharp image full of beautiful, well-resolved grain. The noirish film has plenty of dark scenes, but shadow detail remains strong. Damage is minimal. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is clean and free of noticeable defects.

Extras include a newly filmed interview with set photographer Alexander Singer, who had a long career directing television and a few films after getting his start on the set of this and several early Stanley Kubrick films. His personal remembrance is a nice addition to the disc. Film notes from historian Don Malcolm are presented in an included insert, as is a DVD copy in this combo pack.

Cinelicious Pics / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 79 min / $34.99

Man FacingMan Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste, 1986)
Kino Lorber

A low-key Argentinian science fiction film with a modest cult following to match, Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast probably isn’t a Blu-ray upgrade that’s been sitting on many wish lists, but Kino’s release is welcome, particularly since the film never even received a Region 1 DVD.

With a plot that will be familiar to anyone who read or watched K-PAX (2001) — similarities were noted at the time of the later film’s release, but no connection was established — Man Facing Southeast tells the story of two men whose lives become intertwined. One is a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), whose professional acumen and personal failings come right out of some hoary screenwriters’ manual. The other is Rantés (Hugo Soto), a mysterious man who appears in Denis’ mental hospital one day, claiming to be a messenger sent from another planet to save humanity from its own shortcomings.

Soto’s performance is generally guided by a kind of anodyne solemnity, and the movie tends to follow suit, less interested in exploiting any drama out of Rantés’ claims — which Denis reflexively rejects — than weaving philosophical conversations between the two and quietly gawking at his strange behavior, like standing outside every evening to send and receive transmissions from his home planet.

Despite his proclamations, Rantés doesn’t do much for the good of humanity in the film, and his overt acts make for some of the film’s most risible scenes, including one where he helps feed a hungry family in a diner by moving other people’s food psychokinetically to their spot at the counter. The cinematic dullness of fishing-wire gags aside, how does allowing people to get a few bites off a stolen plate before having to flee the restaurant while he creates another distraction help them at all?

The enigmas around Rantés abound, including his relationship with frequent visitor Beatriz (Inés Vernengo) — though a backwards subtitle here gives it away — but they’re moderately compelling at best. I suppose there’s an audience for a less visually and narratively experimental The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I’m not in it.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is certainly going to be an improvement over old VHS copies, but it has some issues of its own. Things begin promisingly, despite some pronounced telecine wobble, with a naturalistic, fairly detailed transfer. There are marks here and there, but nothing overwhelming, and for much of the film, color reproduction is solid. That changes at chapter 8, where suddenly, there are massive color density fluctuations that turn the image into a blobby mess. This lasts for around 10 minutes. Whether this is an elements issue or an encoding one, it’s bad.

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is also problematic, featuring intermittent hiss and high-pitched background tone. The overworked saxophone-based score sounds OK, and dialogue is fine.

Kino assembles a nice slate of extras for this disc including three 20-minute-plus interviews with Subiela, Soto and DP Ricardo De Angelis. The Soto interview appears to be archival, but the other two look newly produced. A booklet features a brief director’s statement and an essay by historian Nancy J. Membrez.

Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.85:1 / 108 min / $34.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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R.I.P., Stan Freberg: An Appreciation

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“I once read on the album notes of another recording artist, famous for musical tin-pandemonium, that the successful satirist must love what he burlesques. Nothing could be further from the fact. From Voltaire to Swift to Al Capp, the most successful satire has been born of sheer outrage. Of course, outrage in its natural state is not too saleable. The hard part comes in covering the social message with a candy-coating of humor.”
– Stan Freberg, from the liner notes of his comedy LP “Stan Freberg With the Original Cast”

Stan Freberg, who passed away last Tuesday, was a national treasure. A prodigiously talented comic actor, writer, director, producer, lyricist, and composer, Freberg was the Orson Welles of Satire. Real, genuine, take no prisoners satire as described above, not the toothless, pointless, sophomoric “spoofs” that Saturday Night Live specializes in.

Like any accomplished satirist, Freberg used words like a scalpel to eviscerate the absurdities and obscenities peddled to the public by craven, conscienceless politicians, advertising flacks, network executives, and military hardliners. For example, Freberg wasn’t shy about expressing his contempt for the Vietnam War and the Nixon cronies determined to prolong the conflict. And he expressed that contempt the best way he knew how in a series of anti-Vietnam War radio ads, such as the one where he played a member of the Nixon administration telling an incredulous reporter that they were “winding down the war.” We then heard the volume of the battle sounds in the background being turned down… slightly. The reporter complained that he could still hear the war going on. The administration spokesman finally admitted that the war was just “winding down,” not stopping altogether.

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But when it came to political satire, Freberg was a bipartisan, equal-opportunity offender. In the late 1950s, there was a well-intentioned but clumsy and patronizing attempt at promoting the civil rights movement called—believe it or not—“Take a Negro to Lunch Day.” For Freberg, this was too good a target to pass up. On his 1961 comedy LP Stan Freberg presents the United States of America[1], he turned this into a song-and-dance number called “Pilgrim’s Progress (Take An Indian to Lunch),“ in which a pilgrim politician tries to pander to the Indian vote.

Take an Indian to lunch this week
Show him we’re a regular bunch this week
Show him we’re as liberal as can be
Let him know he’s almost as good as we

Sadly, there are entire generations who have never experienced real satire. Certainly not from the type of the unfunny travesties that pass for film comedies nowadays, usually produced by the likes of Judd Apatow, Seth MacFarland, or the Farrelly Brothers, with their emphasis on moronic penis, boobs, and potty jokes. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is political satire. Apatow’s The Interview (2014) is an adolescent’s idea of political satire. (And a not terribly bright adolescent at that.)

Born in 1926, Freberg grew up in Pasadena, California. He was an avid fan of the radio comedy shows of the 1930s and 40s. “My idols were Jack Benny and Fred Allen,” Freberg once said. Gifted with a flair for mimicry and a variety of funny voices and dialects, it was almost predestined that Freberg’s first major professional gig would be doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, starting in 1946. The many cartoon characters he voiced there included Bertie, one of two scheming mice (opposite Mel Blanc’s wise-cracking Hubie); Tosh, one half of “the Goofy Gophers” (opposite Blanc’s Mac); and Junyer Bear, one third of the Bear Family (with Billy Bletcher as Papa Bear and Bea Benaderet as Mama Bear). Playing a mad scientist, Freberg did a letter-perfect imitation of Peter Lorre’s voice in the Daffy Duck cartoon Birth of a Notion (1947).

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The Looney Tunes character played by Freberg that has remained his most popular among fans is the incredibly dense Pete Puma in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit’s Kin (1952). In it, Bugs saves a young bunny from the puma’s clutches by constantly inventing excuses to invite Pete to tea. Bugs would gesture towards the sugar bowl and ask, “How many lumps do you want?” Falling for it every time, Pete would invariably answer, “Oh, three or four.” At which point, Bugs would produce a large mallet and deliver a dozen or so knocks to Pete’s nogin, producing said lumps. (Freberg also did the voice of the Beaver in Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp.)

Freberg eventually branched out to television, starting in 1949 with Time for Beany, a local Los Angeles kids show created by former Warners animator Bob Clampett. Freberg, along with his future cohort Daws Butler, doubled as voice actors and puppeteers. In 1950, the show started being broadcast nationwide until its conclusion in 1955. The show’s fans included none other than Albert Einstein. Around this time, Freberg frequently appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with another puppet, a moon man named Orville. (While doing a guest shot with Orville on a 1958 episode of The Frank Sinatra Show, Freberg met his wife-to-be Donna, who would also double as his producer until her death  in 2000.) Freberg’s later television work included some one-shot specials, including Stan Freberg presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year (1962) for ABC and The Federal Budget Revue (1982) for PBS. He also made occasional guest appearances on TV series like The Monkees (1966) and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967).

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Stan Freberg with Orville

In 1951, Freberg started making a series of satirical recordings for Capital Records (initially released in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats). The first one was “John and Marsha,” a parody of soap operas in which a couple appropriately named John and Marsha (both played by Freberg) ran the entire gamut of emotions simply by repeating each other’s names over and over again. The record that really put Freberg on the map, however, was the 1951 release “St. George and the Dragonet,” a retelling of the old legend in the form of a parody of Jack Webb’s seminal cop series Dragnet. Rather than trying to describe this sublime classic, I suggest you watch this rendition of it, accompanied by some superb stop-action animation. (No, I don’t know who did the animation.)

Not surprisingly, these recordings led Freberg to a brief career in network radio, which was then in its dying days. His first series was a sitcom for CBS called That’s Rich (1954), starring Freberg as Richard E. Wilk, who was employed by B.B. Hackett’s Consolidated Paper Products Co. Freberg’s scripts often allowed him to find ways of satirizing popular culture of the period. In one episode, Rich took his girlfriend to a drive-in picture. Unfortunately for them, the picture that night was the most pretentious, overrated, excruciatingly boring western in the history of the genre, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which Freberg gleefully raked over the coals. In Freberg’s audio version, we hear footsteps that seem to walk endlessly down a town boardwalk. The footsteps stop, followed by a knock on a door. The door opens and the irritated inhabitant asks, “Yeah?” The marshal (Freberg doing a dead-on impression of Gary Cooper) says, “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” The door slams shut. More footsteps on the boardwalk. Another door is knocked on and opened by another irritated inhabitant. “Yeah?” “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” Door slam, more footsteps—well, you get the idea. (Howard Hawks also hated High Noon and went on record as saying that his 1959 western Rio Bravo was a deliberate FU to Zinnemann’s film.)

CBS was impressed enough with Freberg to give him his own comedy sketch series The Stan Freberg Show, a 1957 summer replacement series in the coveted 7:30 pm Sunday time slot normally held by Freberg’s hero Jack Benny. Backed up by a cast of comic actors consisting of June Foray, Peter Leeds, and the aforementioned Daws Butler, and with musical accompaniment by Billy May and His Orchestra, vocalist Peggy Taylor, and the Jud Conlan Singers, Freberg continued his assaults on his usual targets: movies, television, advertising, and politics. (The pilot episode’s finale reimagined the Middle-Eastern Arab/Israeli conflict as a rivalry between Las Vegas casinos.)

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(left to right) Stan Freberg, Peggy Taylor, Peter Leeds, June Foray, and Daws Butler

One sketch was a parody of 1935 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, set in the Good Humor Corporation. In “Uninterrupted Melody,” Freberg’s Captain Bligh-like general manager sadistically dooms his ice cream truck drivers/salesmen to be subjected to continual daily repetitions of children’s nursery rhime jingles. (“Not ‘The Farmer in the Dell’!!!”) Finally, the manger pushes the men too far and they revolt, resulting in the manager being “dipped” and trussed up in an ice cream truck, driven mad by the incessant kids jingles. In another movie parody titled “Gray Flannel Hatful of Teenage Werewolves,”  Freberg played Lobo, an otherwise “normal werewolf” who, whenever there’s a full sun, transforms into a Madison Avenue advertising man, cursed to spout inanities like “Let’s roll it all up into one big ball of wax, gentlemen.”

Another of Freberg’s favorite targets was political correctness, decades before it even had a name.[2] One of the recurring bits on the show involved an acrobatic act called the Zazaloph Family. (The gag being, of course, what’s the point of an acrobat act on radio?) Whenever any cast member asked the question, “Zazaloph? What kind of name is that?”, Freberg’s standard answer was, “Swiss…That way we don’t offend no one.” In another classic bit, Freberg attempted to sing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic song “Old Man River,” only to be constantly interrupted by a censor (Butler), who complained that the lyrics were both offensive (“Old Man River” had to be changed to “Elderly Man River”) and ungrammatical (thus “He don’t plant taters/He don’t plant cottin’” became “He doesn’t plant potatoes/He doesn’t plant cotting”).

The series only lasted 15 weeks, thanks to numerous controversies, created by routines like the Middle-East conflict sketch described above, Freberg’s relentless satirizing of the commercial industry, and his frequent battles with the CBS censors, as well as the inability to find a permanent sponsor for the show. (It didn’t help that Freberg refused to allow commercials for tobacco companies.) In later years, Freberg would describe himself as “the last network radio comedian in America.”

Outside of his cartoon voice work, the one medium that Freberg was unable to conquer was motion pictures. Which is probably just as well. About the only way that Freberg could’ve translated his unique comic vision to the film medium would’ve been to make a series of short satirical movies, not unlike the one-reelers that humorist Robert Benchley made for MGM and Paramount in the 1930s and 40s. But, alas, like network radio shows, movie shorts were also a dying breed when Freberg’s career started to thrive.

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Andy Devine and Stan Freberg in
“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

Freberg’s only appearance in a major motion picture was a brief “blink and you’ll miss him” cameo in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In one shot, while a county sheriff (played by Andy Devine) carries on a phone conversation (with Spencer Tracy on the other end of the line) in the foreground, Freberg (as the deputy) sits silently in the background. A few minutes later, we hear Freberg’s voice on a police car radio. That’s it. Freberg also produced television ads for the film featuring members of the cast. (Some would say that the ads were a lot funnier than the movie itself, but we won’t go there. The ads are available among the extras on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo set of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)

In what may well have been his most notable contribution to American culture, Freberg, following the old adage “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” started his own advertising agency called “Freberg, Ltd. (but not very)” in 1957. The agency’s motto was “Ars Gratia Pecuniae” (Latin for “Art for Money’s Sake”). Needless to say, Freberg had difficulty persuading perspective clients that making fun of their products would boost sales more than the traditional hardsell approach. But when his initial radio and television spots successfully yielded the promised results, Freberg had far less trouble lining up clients like Contadina Tomato Paste (“Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?”), Sunkist Pitted Prunes (“Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles! Sunkist marches on!”), and Chun King Chinese Food (a magazine ad with the slogan “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” and a photo of nine Chinese doctors and one Caucasian doctor, played by Freberg).

Freberg’s television ads were virtually miniature cinematic masterpieces. Two, in particular, proved to be especially memorable. One, for Jeno Pizza Rolls, was a parody of the then current TV campaign for Lark Cigarettes, where a camera crew drove around the streets of LA baring a sign that said “Show us your Lark packs” with obvious actors holding up their Larks, all accompanied by Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (better known to the general public as the “Theme for the Lone Ranger”).

In an even more impressive 1970 TV spot for Heinz’s short-lived line of Great American Soups, Freberg created a one-minute tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, starring Ann Miller, who had appeared in several of those classic movies. (It was the most expensive TV commercial ever made at that time.)

 

If, in later years, Freberg wasn’t in demand as much as he had been in the past, he could still take solace in the fact that he’d been an indispensable influence on younger generations of comic artists, including some counterculture performers he would later work with, such as The Firesign Theatre and “Weird Al” Yankovic. And his skewering of intelligence-insulting TV shows, commercials, and movies lived on in spirit on SCTV, the closest a television sketch series ever came to doing the type of sharp, merciless satire that Freberg excelled at. (Could anything be more Frebergian than SCTV’s “Indira,” their classic parody of the Broadway musical Evita?)

Farewell, Stan Freberg. In a day and age when the dreck posing as comedy is deliberately geared to the sensibilities of the most immature cretins in the audience, and genuine wit is virtually non-existent, you will be sorely missed.

 

[1] Often called Freberg’s masterpiece, United States was a satirical look at American history, from Columbus “discovering” America to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

[2] As Freberg revealed in a 1999 interview with Stephen Thompson (The Onion), he had recently taught a class at Young Presidents’ Organization called “Political Correctness: Just Another Form of Censorship?”

Hollywood-Sign-at-Night

Top 10 Movies I Saw For the First Time in 2014

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An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw via https://best-putlocker.com/watch-last-added-online.  So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.You can visit https://freecouchtuner.com/couchtuner to watch best movies and web series. For the best assassin movie go through the link.

Love is a Racket (1932)loveisaracket6Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ann Dvorak

William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds. You can visit Lorraine Music to check more awesome movies.

Northern Pursuit (1943)Errol-Flynn-Helmut-Dantine-Northern-PursuitErrol Flynn, Helmut Dantine

One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…

Cloak and Dagger (1946)cloak-and-daggerGary Cooper, Lilli Palmer

When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.)  The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.

Crime Wave (1954)dt.main.ce.Stream.clsGene Evans, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden

Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.

The Lone Ranger (1956)07_1956 Lone_Ranger_and_TontoJay Silverheels, Clayton Moore

In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect  Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)

The Hanged Man (1964)origNorman Fell, Robert Culp

Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

The Yakuza (1974)vlcsnap-9280052Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum

As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)much-ado-about-nothing-nathan-fillion-600x315Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion

Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)captain-america-winter-soldier-sliceChris Evans, Anthony Mackie

This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)new GOTG header 3-10Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bastista, Vin Diesel (voice)

This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.

assassin movie

Inherit-the-Wind-poster

The Still Relevant Musings of Stanley Kramer

I always tell people that the best part of my job as a writer is talking to people whose work I admire about the work I admire. There’s no better example of that then Stanley Kramer. He agreed to meet with me in November 1994 at the legendary Sportsman’s Lodge. The interview was for my book Lee Marvin Point Blank so consequently, Marvin was the main topic of conversation. Most of Kramer’s thoughts on Marvin went into my book but the opportunity to speak with the pioneering producer/director naturally bled into other topics. That which didn’t go into the book is presented here for the first time. Sadly, he passed away in 2001 (on Lee Marvin’s birthday!) and what survives here are the opinions, anecdotes and cantankerous musings of a filmmaker whose value can never be overestimated.

Skramer

Dwayne Epstein: As a producer, you did a film in 1952 called Eight Iron Men based on a play…

Stanley Kramer: Was Lee in that?

D: Yeah, he was. Do you remember anything about it?

S: No, not very much. But he must have impressed me because I used him several times after that.

D: What would be in a script that would make you think Lee Marvin could play the part?

S: My natural sense of genius. I mean why do you cast? You cast out of ego, too. You see it that way. People say to me, “Why did you use Gene Kelly?” or “Why did you use Fred Astaire in a dramatic part?” or “Why did you make the first picture with Marlon Brando?” Because I felt that I was doing something special.

D: And you were.

S: Not always.

D: You had the guts to at least try something different.

S: Try, yeah. That’s why I got into it.

D: How did Lee Marvin and Brando get along?

S: Not too well. Brando had done Streetcar and a couple of other things. I was the only one who made two films with him that didn’t make any money.

wildone

D: I always thought The Wild One (1954) was a big hit.

S: It was banned more places that it played.

D: Was there a rivalry between the two actors that transferred to the screen?

S: Since they played the heads of rival gangs, they played it that way.

D: Lee hid behind his personality?

S: He created a personality and hid behind it. He wasn’t that way, at all.

D: What was he really then?

S: Soft. Sensitive. Easy to hurt.

D: You saw that side of him?

S: I lived that side with him. I must have done about five pictures with him.

D: How would that sensitive side show itself?

S: Well, sometimes with another actor or actress. Sometimes with a director. It would depend. He wanted to do a good job much more desperately than his personality indicated.

D: So there was a sense of insecurity about him?

S: Sure, but he was very talented.

D: Having worked on The Caine Mutiny (1954), would you say there was a comparison between Bogart and Lee Marvin?

S: I don’t think so.

D: How would they be different?

S: Well, Bogart was a star incarnate, from the beginning. First time I ever got together with Bogart, for example, was in Hawaii, The Beachcomber’s Restaurant. There was a bout eight of us at the table and the film was starting rehearsals the next morning. We had all been settled in there for about three or four days. Around 11:00, I looked at my watch and said, “For all the guys that have to work tomorrow, I think it’s time to turn in.” Bogart said, “Wait a minute. What do you fancy yourself to be? Who are you, the producer of this picture? For Christ’s sake, dictating the time to go to bed and everything, that’s ridiculous! What’s your function here?” Fortunately, I thought of a line. I said, “My function is to see that recalcitrant actors get to bed on time.” He looked at me and just stared at me. Then, he broke out in a laugh. He said, “Okay.” That was all just before we started The Caine Mutiny.

D: Do you remember if Lee Marvin got along with Bogart, because I know he was enamored of Bogart?

S: Right, he was. I don’t remember. Too many other things going on.

D: The first film you directed, Not As A Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin had a small part in that. What was it like working with him then? It was a pretty volatile cast with Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford….

S: I don’t recollect. You’ll have to make it up.

D: [laughs] I won’t do that. Some critics said Gene Kelly was miscast in Inherit the Wind (1960). I thought he was wonderful in that.

S: I did, too. It’s hard to find reasons for that failure of that movie except I know some of the reasons. United Artists never went all the way down the line with it, to open it and do it, exploit it. It needed that. I thought Tracy and March would carry it, you know?

D: They were like titans.

S: They were titans, too. They had respect. That was a wonderful experience for me. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. When I was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), everybody said, “Christ, this will fold like an accordion.” Yet, they stood opposite each other. The guy kissed the girl in the opening scene.

D: The world didn’t come to an end.

S: No, maybe if it had we’d have made more money. If you have any personal questions, feel free to ask me.

D: What do you look for in a script? Obviously, you have a certain style of filmmaking like all great directors do…

S: No I don’t.

D: I think you do. I think you have a film that says Stanley Kramer on it.

tracy

S: How do you…That’s why I made a picture, the picture I made was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963). That’s not a Stanley Kramer picture.

D: Right, since every now and again, you got to break the mold. No question about that. But chances are, if there’s a film that says Stanley Kramer on it, it’s not going to be a light piece of fluff. You tackled tough subjects mostly…

S: I didn’t think they were so tough when I tackled them. I made them because I believed in them and visualized it and thought, “Well, I could do this. Make a great thing out of it.” Doesn’t always turn out that way. That’s what makes a Christian out of you.

D: What do you look for in a script when you read it?

S: I don’t look for anything in particular. Surprise me! Shock me! Stun me! Intrigue me! Do something! I don’t know whether it jumps off the page but maybe I can visualize something. Chances are, if it jumps off the page, it wouldn’t be very good.

D: Did you ever think of directing a play instead of just films? You seem to be a very good actor’s director.

S: Who told you that?

D: No one. That comes just from watching your films. You give great showcases for actors in your films.

S: Well, then the film would be the showcase. But, nobody ever offered me a play script and I never thought of one so…I’ve directed stage productions, workouts, locally and so forth.

D: Interesting. When you cast Burt Lancaster as the judge on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, was there a chance of casting Lee Marvin in that or any role in the film?

S: I’m sure I did along the way. Maybe there was some reason why he wasn’t in it. See, I had Tracy near the end of his life, since it was an all-star cast, I did that so I could get try to get an audience where it all jelled, because it never did sufficiently. We got an audience but not enough. Lancaster was a replacement. That part was set and agreed to and all negotiated out for Olivier to play. He got married. He married Joan Plowright. He said, “Unless you can postpone the picture for four months, it’s out.” I couldn’t. At any rate, Lancaster was one of those nasty…It didn’t work entirely because everybody else had a background of being German; Schell and all the defendants. But Lancaster read it and wanted it. I didn’t like the accent he played with.

D: He tried.

S: He tried and he performed pretty well.

D: You produced John Cassavetes’ first studio film, A Child is Waiting (1963). I’m guessing he preferred his own independent projects so he wasn’t crazy about the experience.

S: He wasn’t crazy about the experience because of me, probably. We had difficulties. He was a talented fellow. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put him in the job. But I had a self-centered idea about films. There can only be one dominant and you can’t do it by conference, by agreement. One guy has the concept and the driving force. That’s what I always felt to be true, anyhow. Cassavetes was young, unregimented, not accustomed to listening, and I was in his ear a lot. It was a project I would have done. I was busy on something else. The reason I didn’t direct it is I made the project go up to that point but it was the kind of subject most people wouldn’t be interested in, anyhow. We used a lot of people from the hospital

D: Burt Lancaster played the head of the hospital but would you have considered Lee Marvin for Lancaster’s role as the lead?

S: Yeah, I would have considered Lee Marvin for anything. I thought he was a hell of an actor.

D: Do you recall if you did or not for that role?

S: Probably not because Lancaster was a much bigger name. Some of those subjects needed a symphony of names. It’s always a confining thing. See, in the early days, Marlon Brando had never made a film, and that was good. Kirk Douglas hadn’t done anything, and that was good. There were other people. Jose Ferrer was not known in films. Gary Cooper was but Grace Kelly hadn’t. I had used a lot of people exciting in those days. Then, I began to switch cast, vis a vis Astaire or Gene Kelly, that kind of thing…dancers [laughs].

fools

D: On Ship of Fools (1965), how did Lee Marvin get along with Vivien Leigh?

S: I don’t know if there was anything personal going on between them. I would be the last one to ask about that. But, he got along very well. After all, he was a queer duck. Meeting him for the first time, for an actor who’s supposed to be playing with him, it must have been an experience for her, too. I’m sure it was.

D: Would you say there was a mutual respected for each other’s talent?

S: The respect that he had for her was unbelievable. What her respect was for him, I don’t know.

D: How did Lee Marvin get the part in Ship of Fools?

S: I picked him. If you ask me on what basis, I don’t know. Usually, casting is a feeling. [pause] I can’t stress enough that he was really two people. He had an outer facade and this terrible, sensitive, introspective underneath. How do you deal with that, as an actor? It’s not easy. He was very respectful of Vivien Leigh. The first scene they played together I remember very well because of Marvin. He came into the dining room, crossed the room and sat down at the table.

D: That’s right.

S: How do you know that’s right?

D: I’ve seen the movie several times. Wasn’t it the scene where he’s at the table and she comes in and he doesn’t get up for Vivien Leigh who sarcastically says ‘don’t get up.’?

S: You’ve seen it more recently. At any rate, he worked out the lines, how to cope with it and then did me the honor of discussing it. He often did that, very often. This was always deep with him because either he had something profound to say which people ought to listen to — he always seemed to be so surfacely amuck or rough. When you bear that, when you lifted the curtain and looked behind it, there was a lot to see.

D: So you’re saying there was much more depth to the man then people realized?

S: Not only much more depth but he was sensitive underneath. His sensitivity he protected as best he could. I always gave him credit of his intelligence. I remember…let me think a minute. I constantly had a feeling he left too soon. I think he had a lot more to say and do, I really feel that. I don’t think he ever crested, is what I mean

D: Have you seen a film in recent years and thought Lee Marvin could’ve done it?

S: Well, it wouldn’t be that obvious. I made a picture once called On the Beach (1959). Fred Astaire played a scientist in it. Everyone said, “What the hell is Fred Astaire doing in this? Can’t visualize it.” I visualize it somewhere along the line. I think he came through very well. It would be the same with Marvin. If Marvin, for example, played a hard…I often look for a role for something like a football coach or a college instructor so I could use him and stand out from that.

D: Well, Anthony Quinn in RPM (1970) was a college instructor. Did you consider Marvin for that role?

S: I don’t remember that. It was a gigantic failure. That’s what I remember most.

D: It was a game effort.

S: Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that. I’ve had a lot of game efforts [laughs].

D: During Ship of Fools, anything else in particular about it that stands out in your mind?

S: Well, I had a conglomeration of people in the film, as you know. It was the one and only experience I had with an actor named Oskar Werner. He happened to be one of the great actors of all time. He and Spencer Tracy, but I only made one picture with Oskar…He was very difficult for everybody. I made a pact with him. If our objectives, our high objectives were up there and clear to both of us, he’d get rid of all this crap and go for it, which he bought and did. Many times he would do something and say to me something he never said to anybody: “What do you think?” That was a big concession for him.

D: How did he get along with the other actors?

S: Fairly well. He and Signoret, I got together and made a pact with both of them. They made a pact with each other: Drop the resentment and the dislike and let the roles dominant.

D: Seemed to work. Their love scenes seemed very believable.

S: Of course. So many other things I was satisfied with most of the way. I remember one day I had a scene with Vivien Leigh and she was drunk, she was playing it. It occurred to us, on her walk down the ship’s corridor, do something, the Charleston. Just suddenly broke into it like it was on her mind. And she did it and went off quickly. Then she went on her way to the cabin. That was my idea. I want credit for that one!

D: What are you doing with yourself, lately?

S: I’m preparing to make a picture, yeah. That’s one of the things I’m doing. I also wrote another book.

KRAMER

D: Anything you can tell me about the upcoming film?

S: Well, I can tell you it’s present time. I have two projects. The first one, I’d like to be the story of modern Soviet Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a good love story. I got to bring it up to date. Changes every month.

D: Any casting in mind?

S: Well, the guy who’s dogging me the most is Max Schell. Last time Max Schell and I got together, he won the Oscar. This is very special, too. Good love story.

D: You mentioned a new book. Is it on filmmaking or your own experiences?

S: Well, running through it is film anecdotes, motivations, agonies, prejudices.

D: Any of the later films that weren’t necessarily hits with critics or audiences, say, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) that you may have reconsidered casting?

S: I don’t recall, maybe. In terms of casting, you have to have a big enough ego and I had it. You visualize something, you get an idea, a thought, and you follow it through against the current. If it comes off, great. If it doesn’t, you made a mistake.

D: So, you’re saying casting against type worked for you a lot better?

S: No, it didn’t work a lot better but it worked, sometimes. Not always.

D: Can you think of an example where it failed?

S: Yeah, but I won’t tell you.

D: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair. That seems like a good note to end on.

S: All right. Hope you got enough.

D: I sure did.

 

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