Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Note: The actor James Shigeta died on July 28 at age 81; this essay was originally published on June 18, 2008 and the initial ten comments were posted during that time period.
Turner's impressively ambitious and nakedly revealing investigation of how the film industry has seen and portrayed Asians in movies has run the gamut as one might expect of the fastidious TCM, capturing some wonderful, laudatory highs and far, far too many lows.
The series kicked off with Cecil B. DeMille's fascinating "The Cheat," a 1915 silent film that introduced the iconic Sessue Hayakawa to Western audiences, and included Yasujiro Ozu's recent Father's Day entry, his 1942 masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki."
In between, there have been titles about the struggles of Asian actors and filmmakers to present their authentic vision, as well as the struggles, too often in vain, of Caucasian filmmakers to portray them.
Forget about the slant-eye make-up applied to the likes of Katharine Hepburn. For the most part, Hollywood's view has been routinely, almost casually, insensitive and decidedly unempathetic.
Joining TCM's Robert Osborne for some serious discussions about such matters has been Dr. Peter X Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans" and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video." And there have been added insight provided by filmmaker Wayne Wang, writer Amy Tan, film scholar Elaine Mae Woo, film producer Janet Yang, actresses Lauren Tom, Ming Wen, Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan and Miiko Taka, among others, and ... James Shigeta.
For a brief, shining moment, the talented and very handsome James Shigeta was poised to be a major Hollywood leading man. In the space of two years, Shigeta was auspiciously showcased in no fewer than five films of impressive diversity - Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959), his debut film; James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon" (1960); George Marshall's "Cry for Happy" (1961); Etienne Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil" (1961), and Henry Koster's film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Flower Drum Song" (1961).
With a line-up like that, Shigeta should have had it made. He was the definition of a matinee idol. But it was to be only temporary.
For some bizarre reason, what seemed to be a flourishing film career came to a halt, with Shigeta spending most of his time playing guest roles on TV series ("Burke's Law," "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Perry Mason" and the like). Apparently, Hollywood wasn't color-blind after all. Later on, he had roles in Charles Jarrott's "Lost Horizon" musical remake (1973), a disaster with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David score; Jack Smight's "Midway" (1976) and, still later, John McTiernan's "Die Hard" (1988). But his movie career, for all intents and purposes, never really got back on track.
What happened? For the life of me, I can't understand why Hollwood - so good at exploiting people - let Jim Shigeta be so criminally neglected. Is it naïve to think there was a whiff of racisim was at play here?
Four of those film films in which Shigeta excelled, demonstrating his versatility, are being aired as part of Turner's invaluable "Asian Images in Film" series, starting early June 19th, at 1:30 a.m. (est) with "Walk Like a Dragon," in which Shigeta plays a proud immigrant in 1870’s California caught in a love triangle with a Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) and a tough cowboy (Jack Lord). Mel Tormé co-stars for director Clavell, the writer who, of course, helmed TV's "Shogun."
At 8 p.m. (est) on June 19th, Turner will screen Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil," a true story about a Tennessee blonde (Carroll Baker) who married a Japanese diplomat (Shigeta) before World War II, then followed him to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film contains, arguably, Shigeta's best screen performance.
Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono," Shigeta's first film, will be shown at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th. In this Los Angeles-set noir, Shigeta plays a detective who finds himself in a love triangle with his partner (Glenn Corbett) and a woman (the late, wonderful Victoria Shaw) who is entangled in their current murder investigation. Not surprising for Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino" was ahead of its time, both for its exploration of racism and its romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman, something Shigeta would explore again in "A Bridge to the Sun."
At 11:30 p.m. (est) on June 24th, Koster's terrific, unfairly underrated "Flower Drum Song" unreels. Full disclosure: This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, largely because it doesn't follow the usual R-&-H forumla. Lacking the team's penchant for pretention and preachiness, this look at Asian life in San Franciaco is modern, lively and quite jazzy. A tale of generational conflicts and hard-dying traditions, the material casts Shigeta, in his last major film role, as a conflicted guy caught between being Chinese and American.
"Flower Drum Song" features an all-Asian cast, save for one Caucasian role - that of a white derelict (Herman Rudin) who robs Master Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) on his doorstep. Nice touch. I love it.
Shigeta, whose deep, natural baritone always added a natural authority to his line readings, did his own singing in the film - an endearing, lilting work that has improved with age. It's terrific.
Note in Passing: The only major Shigeta film missing from Turner's line-up is Marshall's "Cry for Happy," a wartime comedy that starred Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miiko Taka and which paired Shigeta with his "Flower Drum Song" co-star, Miyoshi Umeki.
(Artwork: James Shigeta in his prime; with Carroll Baker in Périer's breakthrough "A Bridge to the Sun"; being interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong during the Spotlight tribute to him at the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in 2006, and Nancy Kawn, aglow in wide screen, in the Hermes Pan-choreographed "Grant Avenue" number from Koster's terrific "Flower Drum Song.")
Posted by joe baltake at 9:59 PM
Monday, July 28, 2014
Garner and his co-star Audrey Hepburn, decidedly not in character for their roles in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour"
James Garner is one of those effortless actors perennially taken for granted during the years, the decades, that he performed in film after film, genre after genre. When he died on July 19, at age 86, one could sense the collective sigh, "Oh, yeah, he was great!," tinged with a little regret.
He wasn't appreciated enough as an actor and one could take from his easy-going manner that he really didn't care about that. In his off-screen life, he had accomplished the things in life that really matter. Jim - it seems right to call him that - was a former Marine who won two Purple Hearts during the Korean War and he was married to his wife Lois for 58 years. Fifty-eight years. And without a single hint of scandal.
As a leading man, he had it all. A model leading man: Tall, dark and handsome. Based on looks alone, he should have been the kind of guy easy to dislike, if it weren't for his easy accessibility and, yes, likability.
Garner and his "Great Escape"co-star, Steve McQueen, were both popular TV actors who managed to break into movies at a time when TV actors had scant credibility/bankability. Garner was a contract Warner Bros. TV player and his boss, Jack Warner, was known for drawing a clear line that divided his feature film players from the TV employees in his stable.
The latter rarely crossed over. But Warner put Garner in "Sayonara," "Darby's Rangers" and "Cash McCall" before lending him out to the Mirisch Bros. for his first serious role in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" (1961). In direct contrast, Garner followed that with a game, spirited turn in the wry Kim Novak comedy, "Boys' Night Out" (1962) for MGM.
Showing his antic side in Norman Jewison's delicious "The Thrill of It All"
Then came 1963, during which he starred in no fewer than four films - the aforementioned "The Great Escape," by John Sturges, Arthur Hiller's "The Wheeler Dealers" and two with Doris Day, Norman Jewison's "The Thrill of It All" and Michael Gordon's "Move Over, Darling." A year later came the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted "The Americanization of Emily," also directed by Hiller. And Jim Garner was no longer just a "TV actor."
Scores of films of varying quality followed, both the known -"Grand Prix," "Victor/Victoria," "Marlow," "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Skin Game" - and the unknown -"The Pink Jungle," "The Art of Love," A Man Could Get Killed" and "How Sweet It Is," with Debbie Reynolds. (That's Jim with Debbie in the photo below.)
Four of of his more interesting efforts were George Seaton's tricky "36 Hours" (1965), based on a Roald Dahl story and co-staarring Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor; Delbert Mann's "Mister Buddwing" (1966) with a script by Dale Wasserman (author of the play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and which Mann shot as a New York indie (despite the MGM imprimatur); his Oscar-nominated role in Martin Ritt's "Murphy's Romance" (1989) and Robert Benton's nifty murder-mix-up, "Twilight" (1980, co-starring Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon.
I also have a very soft spot for "They Only Kill Their Masters" (1972), a playful whodunit romp directed by the ever-underrated James Goldstone and co-starring Katharine Ross and, in her last major role, June Allyson.
Turner Classic Movies is devoting its entire schedule today to Jim, starting ... now.
Garner and Rod Taylor doing very well by author Roald Dahl in "36 Hours"
Posted by joe baltake at 6:00 AM
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Both Jason Robards and Ron Howard made their film debuts in the 1959 Anatole Litvak drama, "The Journey," about a group of travelers from the West stranded at a Budapest airport, detained by an intimidating Major Surov (Yul Brynner, of course) and his seriously armed men.
Robards, then billed as Jason Robards, Jr., played the love interest of the film's female lead, Deborah Kerr, and Howard, age five and then billed as Ronny Howard, was one of the sons of Anne Jackson and E.G. Marshall.
Some 20 years later, after spending those years acting on television and in movies, Howard would become a filmmaker - and he would ultimately direct his former co-star Robards in not one, but two films, "Parenthood" (1989) and "The Paper" (1994). Robards would be the only actor from Howard's past who would appear in any Ron Howard movie.
Andy Griffin? No, he was never directed by Howard, despite their long-standing professional relationship. Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, who appeared with Howard in Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" in 1962? Nope. (It's something that Jones complains about - jokingly - in her cabaret act.) Henry Fonda, the star of "The Smith Family," a short-lived TV series that he did with Howard in the 1970s? Absolutely not. No, only Jason Robards.
The connection has never been acknowledged or addressed by the media, arousing my curiosity. What was it like for Robards to be directed by someone he first met when that person was a just five-year-old? I had a chance to broach the subject with Robards shortly after "The Paper" was made. He answered with only one word: "Surreal."
I never had a chance to interview Howard during my career but I've often wondered why Robards was the only person from his professional past who he'd direct. Was there a special connection? Was it the experience of making "The Journey" so many decades before? I'd really like to know.
"The Journey" airs on Turner Classic Movies at 10 a.m. on Sunday (July 27).
Posted by joe baltake at 4:02 PM
Friday, July 25, 2014
The singular director Hal Ashby with his two stars
In its continuing efforts to redefine - and endear - itself to a disturbingly disloyal public, the film musical remains ever resourceful. In one of its incarnations, it resorted to the "song score" as a way to introduce songs to a narrative. You know the drill: Instead of a film's characters themselves singing on screen, the songs are rendered by off-screen surrogates.
The result is essentially the same: We - the audience - learn what the characters feel, and are thinking, through song.
This was a popular particularly ploy in the 1970-80s and is perhaps the template for this form is Hal Ashby's unique "Harold and Maude" (1971) which had iconic Cat Stevens songs laced so enticingly throughout.
The songs of the Bee Gees drive the lovely plot of Waris Hussein's "Melody" (1971), which reunited Mark Lester and Jack Wild, the young stars of "Oliver!" (1968), in the Alan Parker-scripted tale of two best friends and the fetching girl (Tracy Hyde) who comes between them.
And Paul Simon's wonderful songs underlined the pseudo-autobiographical script he wrote for Robert M. Young's "One-Trick Pony" (1980).
There are more, I'm sure, these predecessors of the "jukebox musical," but the titles evade me. Can you suggest one? Or perhaps two?
Thursday, July 24, 2014
In fact, the "film version" of a stage hit was seen as some kind of validation, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the bastardization of one of their own.
Exacerbating this was the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, also inciting the Broadway community.
You're damned it you do and damned if you don't.
Some shows finally made it to the screen after a long delay - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and "Les Misérables."
But there are other titles that have been neglected for several decades.
Say, five decades.
Instead of doing remakes (new versions of "Gypsy," "Carousel" and "My Fair Lady have been threatened), why not be adverturous and committ some longgone, once-legendary stage musical to celluloid?
I'm thinking specifically of two superior shows by composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello" and the endlessly enchanting "She Loves Me"; John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Zorba" and "70 - Girls - 70"; Frank Loesser's masterwork, "The Most Happy Fella," adapted from Sidney Howard's "They Knew What They Wanted," and his underrated "Greenwillow," and Robert Merrill's hugely popular hit "Take Me Along," based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," which caused quite the stir in its day, thanks to Jackie Gleason's star power.
Prior to his death, Bobby Darin had talked about buying "Fiorello" as a starring film vehicle for himself, and Tony Perkins, who starred in the Loesser show on Broadway, wanted to film "Greenwillow" with Jane Fonda (his "Tall Story" co-star) as his leading lady.
And, saddest of all, "She Loves Me" was once the dream project of Blake Edwards who hoped to film it at MGM with Julie Andrews in the Barbara Cook role, but MGM's long-time instability was starting up at the time.
Meanwhile. producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the stage musical of "Zorba," with the original film star, Anthony Quinn, encoring in the title role, that they even took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the Alan Bates role.
It never happened, natch. And neither did the others.
Film them already!
Posted by joe baltake at 3:33 PM
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Ben Brantley’s enthusiastic review in The New York Times.
I could barely remember the film (except for the bit with The Flying Elvises), but the production promised songs by the estimable Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the scores for the much-admired cult musical, "Parade," and the then-imminent "The Bridges of Madison County."
Anyway, the encounter was sheer bliss - and a reminder of exactly what's been missing from musicals both on-screen and on stage. It came to me that the light, fluffy musical - the musical comedy - was long gone, replaced by sober, serious fare in which characters suffer to songs that can't hummed. I'm thinking specifically of "Dreamgirls" and "Les Misérables," shows that decidedly do not invite toe-tapping.
With a cast headed by Tony Danza (in the James Caan role) and terrific newcomers Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley (standing in for Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker), "Honeymoon in Vegas" was a throwback to joys of "Bye Bye Birdie" (the stage production, not the infantilized 1963 film) and "Bells Are Ringing" (both the play and film), musicals that made you feel good. We've had only two film musicals of that sort in recent years - Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" and Phyllida Lloyd's "Mamma Mia!"
Typically, the critics complained. The miserables, indeed.
Note in Passing: There's been no word about the retro "Honeymoon in Vegas" opening on Broadway so far, but with Ben Brantley behind it, I'd say that it's future is fairly certain. I can't wait to see it again.
Posted by joe baltake at 2:16 PM
Monday, July 21, 2014
The "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" number from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - Dale Moreda recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for the film.
There are "dancicals," of course, a separate film form wherein characters sway, spin and skip to music but don't sing. They only dance.
Actual movie musicals, however, now routinely eliminate the moves. If you listen to the soundtrack of Alan Parker's film of "Evita" (1996), your imagination runs wild with visions of dust-raising choreography. But watch the film and the only dancing on screen is a brief waltz shared by stars Madonna and Antonio Banderas. And that's about all that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do in Tim Burton's "Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007). (Burton not only dropped all the dances, but for some bizarre reason, also eliminated the musical's chorus as well.)
There's precious little dancing in Phyllida Lloyd's toe-tapping "Mamma Mia! (2008) and none whatsoever in Tom Hooper's funereal "Les Misérables" (2012), even though a choreographer is listed in its credits.
Gone are the days when a film musical's choreographer was as important as its, with Agnes DeMille given carte blanche by Fred Zinnemann for his version of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and Jerome Robbins translating his stage dances to film for "West Side Story" (1961).
And then there are those films whose choreographers meticulously recreated dances from the stage originals - Rod Alexander who restaged Agnes DeMille's moves for Henry King's "Carousel" (1956); Robert Tucker who traced over Jerome Robbins' choreography for Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962), and Dale Moreda who recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for David Swift's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying." (Hugh Lambert also contributed choreography to the stage "How to Succeed," but his contribution was not used in the film version.)
Posted by joe baltake at 7:43 PM
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
John Huston with his younger cast members, including title star Aileen Quinn (center), on the set of "Annie"
As the popularity of the film musical continued to wind down, the studios picked up on an added trend: Not only was the public ostracizing musicals, but critics as well - professionals who, one would assume, have adventurous, open-minded tastes and should know better.
But as they say, never assume.
It became apparent that whenever a new movie musical opened, it would be compared - unfairly - to "Singin' in the Rain," a film which, for some bizarre, irrational reason, became the template to which all subsequent movie musicals would be compared. Yeesh!
So how do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, declare every new movie musical "an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster!"?
Well, you bring in the Top Guns. Which is exactly what the studios did. You hire respected filmmakers, honchos, who critics would never question.
And so it begun, in the late 1970s and early '80s...
- John Huston signed on to direct a really terrific film version of "Annie."
- Sidney Lumet did his part on behalf of "The Wiz."
- Milos Foreman - Milos Foreman! - brought his considerable skills to what is arguably the definitive version of "Hair."
- Sir Richard Attenborough - the operative word here being "Sir" - was given the delicate task of bringing that Broadway darling, "A Chorus Line," to the big screen.
- Francis Ford Coppola, who in his youth did "Finian's Rainbow," pursued the provocative "One from the Heart."
- Martin Scorsese, a veritable savior among critics, dared to try his hand at an original movie musical, "New York, New York."
- Peter Bogdanovich developed his "new Cole Porter Musical," "At Long Last Love."
- Hal Prince, who delighted critics with his off-beat debut movie, "Something for Everyone," decided to follow it up with a little Sondheim piece that he directed on stage - "A Little Night Music."
The ploy didn't work. In fact, it backfired. If critics weren't going to accept a musical directed by the venerable John Huston (abetted by the very qualified Joe Layton), exactly what would they accept?
Posted by joe baltake at 1:44 PM
Friday, July 11, 2014
These musicals are naturally ... musical.
The most obvious case-in-point is Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), which ostensibly chronicles the transition of silent moviemaking to sound films but actually revolves around the making of a film musical. George Cukor's remake of "A Star Is Born" (1954), although not a book musical, also chronicles the production of soundstage musicals.
Other musical/musical films that the public have accepted include Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" (1962), about a con man selling small-town denizens on a boys' band; Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," (1962), about vaudeville and the early days of burlesque; Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (1965) about the von Trapp family singers, and George Sidney's "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), about a rock star's induction into the military.
The respective subjects of each of these films make all the singing and dancing palatable, even to people who say they don't like movie musicals.
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
It's "Guys and Dolls," Jerry, not "Guys and Guys"
Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?
I ask because my wife and I both had fathers who loved musicals, either on stage or on film. No big deal. Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen. A musical was just another type of movie to see. This week, a Western. Next week, a musical. And the week after that, a comedy with Clark Gable and Doris Day. It simply didn't matter. A movie was just a movie - and some variety made movies even better.
The decline of the movie musical can be directly blamed on men who refuse to see one with their wives or girlfriends, who worry that "the guys" might find out and who think their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch Meryl Streep and company cavort in "Mamma Mia!"
This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and her friend Sharon (guest star Paula Marshall) overhear a curious conversation between Jerry and George (Jason Alexander), who are sitting in an adjoining booth in Monk's. They sound like a gay couple and Elaine decides to milk that impression for all its worth, even though Sharon is interested in Jerry and vice versa.
Matters come to a head when George purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival for Jerry for his birthday. One for him, one for Jerry.
Already uptight that Sharon thinks he's gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"
To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"
That episode first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.
Posted by joe baltake at 12:12 PM