Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary.

Even those who love silent film will often acknowledge that when it comes to character-driven, realistic, contemporary drama, talkies have a distinct advantage. But The Crowd makes one very special exception. Here we have reality–or something very close to it–without the aid of the human voice.

The Crowd is not a lost film, but it’s a difficult one to see. Warner Brothers, which owns this MGM title, has never released The Crowd on DVD or Blu-ray. If you want your own legal copy, you have to find an out-of-print, expensive laserdisc or VHS cassette. It’s currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant, but individual titles don’t stay up on that service for more than a few weeks. As far as I know, it’s not streaming anywhere else–at least not legally.

The Crowd follows the optimistic but ultimately disappointing life of John Sims, who comes to New York as a young man to make it big. The first time we see the adult John (James Murray in what I believe was his only starring role), he’s on a ferry to Manhattan, smiling and ready to conquer the world. He tells a fellow passenger (in an intertitle, of course) that he only wants an "opportunity." The look on the other man’s face is priceless.

A reverse shot shows us the Manhattan docks, which leads to a montage of New York City, including a couple of shots where the camera tilts up to reveal the high skyscrapers. Then the camera moves up one of those skyscrapers, and heads inside, where rows and rows of desks fill a vast room (yes, The Crowd influenced The Apartment). Finally, the camera finds John, now earning his living. But he’s just one toiler out of hundreds, eagerly waiting for the 5:00 bell that will let him leave the office.

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That image of the vast, dehumanizing room reoccurs much later in the film, in a surprising context. John has just become a father, and the vast maternity room stretches out with rows of beds. People are born to be lowly workers dreaming of an unattainable better life.

Director King Vidor (who also co-write the screenplay) condemns American society in The Crowd, but he also condemns John, a man whose imagination is greater than his real ambitions. He talks about his ship coming in, but he never seems to seriously guide it into a harbor. He works just hard enough to keep his job, refuses to socialize with his bosses, quits in a moment of anger, and rejects a job offer that feels like charity. And all this from a man with mouths to feed.

Murray gives an excellent performance here, but Eleanor Boardman gives a better one–one of silent cinema’s greatest acting jobs–as his long-suffering wife, Mary. We first meet her as a flirtatious but innocent young woman on a Coney Island date. On her wedding night (on a train to Niagara Falls), she is shy and scared. In a later breakfast scene, her frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment are palpable. She loves John, and you can see that even when she’s mad at him. And he gives her plenty of reasons to be mad at him.

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Boardman married Vidor two years before they made The Crowd. Three years later they divorced. I can’t help wondering if a real troubled marriage helped her understand her character.

The Crowd is a serious film, but it has moments of joy and laughter. The ending is ambiguous. It’s a happy ending, in that John and Mary are happy when we last see them. But the basic problems are still there. Vidor gives you no reason to believe that the happiness will last.

I first saw The Crowd at a Los Angeles museum screening in 1973. It was some 30 years before I could see it again, on Turner Classic Movies. A year or so later, I saw it at the PFA. Last night, almost a decade after that screening, I got to watch it on Warner Archive Instant. Outside of the current, temporary situation, it’s not an easy film to see.

But it’s one that should be seen. Warners should give it a thorough restoration (the streaming version shows serious nitrate degradation in some shots), and make it readily available to theaters on DCP and 35mm. And then they should make it available on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with commentary and extras . And if Warners won’t do it, they should license the film to Criterion, or the Film Foundation, or UCLA, or someone else who doesn’t have to worry about stockholders.

Six years after making The Crowd, Vidor made a sequel of sorts, Our Daily Bread. It’s an interesting picture, but far from a great one. If I was to put The Crowd on a double bill with anything, I would bill it with Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July. Yes, one’s a drama, and the other a comedy. Yet they have some interesting themes running through both.

But for now, just catch The Crowd while you can.

Note: Soon after posting this article, I received the following good news from a Warner spokesperson:

The film has not been released on DVD yet as they feel it needs a restoration, which it will at some point but for now, fans can watch the film on WAI.

Also, the article makes it sound as if the film is only on the short for a short period of time. It’s not. Films do come off and new ones will come up but it’s not as if they are only up for a few weeks before coming down. Also, there is a column on the site noting which films are coming off so fans have notification of this ahead of time at http://instant.warnerarchive.com/browse.html#CF_2461-3426.

Technology, Classic Films, and Mick LaSalle

In this week’s Ask Mick LaSalle column, the SF Chronicle reviewer answered a reader who asked if he could "you name any American movie from the last 20 years that might be for the ages?"

His answer was, for the most part, intelligent, but not entirely. And the problems started at the top, when Mick proclaimed that "Movies that depend on technology date poorly…"

If you take that statement literally, of course, all movies date poorly. Cinema, by its nature, depends on technology. There were no movies before the invention of movie cameras, which themselves depended on several other technologies.

And the technology changes all the time. John Ford had to adjust to talkies, three-strip Technicolor, color film, standard widescreen, VistaVision, Cinerama, Super Panavision 70, and plain old Panavision.

The technology used to shoot a movie dates it as much as the costumes. Ever hear someone complain about old movies because they’re in black and wite?

Okay, I do realize that when LaSalle wrote "technology," he really meant special visual effects. And there’s an element of truth to that. If a big-budget movie’s main attraction is the cutting-edge FX, it will date quickly.

But a movie that uses its cutting-edge FX creatively need not go out of date. Look at all the people who hate George Lucas because he replaced the original analogue effects in Star Wars with "improved" digital versions. The effects in 2001 and King Kong still work their magic. People still love George Melies’ work, and special effects don’t get older than that.

Setting aside the issue of technology, it’s impossible to say with any certainly which films will be regarded as classics. That’s why I don’t use the words classic or masterpiece to describe a film (or song, or book) until it is at least 20 years old. I also don’t rate a film A+ until it reaches that age.

Why 20 years? Because by then, you can have college-educated people who can look at the film and love it, even though they have no memory of the society that made it. (20 is also, of course, a nice round number.)

Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia

The best motion pictures span genres and overcome their limits. They open a window into the mind and soul of fully developed, complex, imperfect human beings. They push the artistic and technical limits of the medium. And they do it all while entertaining an audience.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Within the last two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia, two of them in the last three months. But all three concentrated on theatrical presentation–an important part of appreciating a roadshow epic like Lawrence. But Hollywood released many big roadshow blockbusters in the 1950s and 60s, and they all required a giant screen and great projection. What makes Lawrence of Arabia so special?

At its heart, this big, epic adventure studies the enigma of one very strange man. T. E. Lawrence, at least as betrayed here, is a military genius with a love/hate relationship to violence. An idealist, an exhibitionist, and a raving egomaniac, he believes that he and those who follow him can do anything. The fact that he usually succeeds only feeds his already too-high self-esteem. Yet he also knows that, deep down, he can never truly become what he wants to be–an Arab.

During World War I, the British saw Arabia as a sideshow, but also as a potential conquest. It was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had allied itself with Germany. By aiding an Arab revolt against the Ottoman, the Brits could keep the Turks occupied outside of Europe. But helping the revolt was tricky. Well-armed Arab freedom fighters wouldn’t easily become part of the British Empire.

And into this comes Lawrence. First sent to Arabia as an observer, he disobeys orders and pulls off a daring raid. Suddenly he’s a hero, both to the British and even more to the Arabs, whom he truly wants to liberate. But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he must know that his superiors have less idealistic intentions.

I don’t know much about the historical T. E. Lawrence, but I do know that he was gay. That sort of historical fact had be either ignored or danced around carefully in 1962, and the filmmakers rightly chose to dance. Peter O’Toole’s performance is slightly feminine (the Mad Magazine parody was called "Florence of Arabia"). It all makes you wonder about the extremely close friendships he makes with other men.

This film has something very close to an all-male cast. You never hear a woman’s voice, and the only shot of a female face is in a photograph. The few times you see women, they’re wearing vales. Women in the audience have the pleasure of watching O’Toole and Omar Sharif when they were young and gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, Freddie Young’s photography turns Lawrence of Arabia into a visual feast, intended to be served on a giant canvas. The desert never looked so hot, so foreboding, or so enormous. Or, for that matter, so beautiful. Important characters often appear as tiny dots in the distance, emphasizing the size and emptiness of the environment that they inhabit. You can easily understand why Lawrence falls in love with desert life.

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David Lean and his exceptionally talented collaborators took the ingredients of the roadshow epic–long length, lush music (including an overture and intermission music), and a large, wide frame that fills a giant screen–and turned it into a masterpiece. There were bigger epics, and longer ones, but there’s only one Lawrence of Arabia.

Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic

It’s Groundhog Day! I repeat: It’s Groundhog Day!

The movie Groundhog Day first played to paying audiences 20 years ago today. I saw it soon after the release, and fell instantly in love with it. But only now, 20 years later, am I willing to give it my highest rating: A+. I don’t give that rating to new films–or even those only 19 years old.

Nineteen years ago, when everyone was talking about the best films of 1993, the two imagetitles on everyone’s lips were Schindler’s List and The Piano. They were on every critic’s Top Ten list. Everyone assumed that one of those two, most probably (and correctly) Schindler, would take the Best Picture Oscar. Groundhog Day made few lists (only one that I saw), and wasn’t even nominated.

But two decades later, Schindler is more respected than loved, and The Piano is all but forgotten (which is unfair; it’s an excellent film). Yet Groundhog Day is more loved and respected than both of those serious works put together. No one predicted that in 1993.

I only give the A+ grade to classics, which by any reasonable definition are works of art that has stood the test of time. And we have no way of knowing what new pictures will do that. I picked 20 years as the minimum age for a classic because it represents a generation. A 20-year-old movie can be appreciated by college-educated adults who don’t remember the world in which the film was made. (I also picked 20 years because it’s a nice, round number.)

Not that this is a full-proof system. When they were 40 years old, the better Marx Brothers movies looked like timeless masterpieces. Now, at 80, they’ve lost some of their luster. Their impolite, anti-authoritarian, surreal style fit very well with the 1970s, but less so now.

So what, besides its age, gives Groundhog Day that A+?

Few other motion pictures are as spiritual and as humane, and certainly none that wrap themselves up in the entertaining package of a slick Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, it places its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory. Living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years), he goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out what life is all about: charity and loving kindness.

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And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure, inescapable entertainment. Even in its darkest, most hopeless moments, something comes up to make you laugh–usually Sonny and Cher’s "I’ve Got You, Babe."

The film would never have worked without Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery hits every note and every punch line as his character goes through one change after another. He’s loveable, even when he’s a jerk. We feel his despair as he realizes that he’s trapped and may never get out, and his deepest depression when he wins Andie MacDowell’s love, knowing full well that come the morning, she’ll only remember him as a jerk.

Groundhog Day manages to be both profound and profoundly funny. What else can you ask of a work of art?

The New Parkway screens Groundhog Day tonight at 10:00.

The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Castro, watching one of my all-time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve seen it many times, and over the last few years, always at the Castro. But this time was different. Sony digitally restored the epic this year, and this new version was played off a DCP instead of a film print.

A bit of history: Lawrence of Arabia was recut and shortened multiple times after its 1962 release. In 1988, Robert A. Harris restored the film to something like it’s original cut–with the help of director David Lean and editor Anne V. Coats. That restoration received a major 70mm release, and became the definitive Lawrence. For the film’s 50th anniversary, Sony restored the film again, using digital technology not available in 1988 to better clean up the image. This new restoration follows the 1988 cut.

So how did the digital Lawrence look? As always with this sort of film at the Castro, I sat in the center of the first row. And from there, for the most part, it looked very, very good. The details were clean and sharp, the vistas expansive, and with a visible film look. The dramatic impact of the images were all there.

But it wasn’t perfect. The image occasionally looked over-processed–as if someone was trying too hard to remove a film-based flaw. But these moments, which may not have been noticeable to someone sitting a few rows back, marred maybe five minutes of this nearly four-hour movie.

On the whole, this new restoration improves upon Harris’, which I last saw, at the Castro and in70mm, about 18 months ago. Faded images and cracks in the film emulsion that marred earlier versions are now gone, and the image is much closer to what, I imagine, Lean wanted.

But was this the best way to project this restoration? The Castro’s 2K digital projector can screen an image slightly superior to a pristine 35mm print. But 35mm was never the optimal way to see Lawrence of Arabia. It was always intended for 70mm presentation, and a 70mm frame is nearly three times the size of a 35mm one.

I suspect the film would have looked better in 70mm. The 2012 restoration credits mention 70mm print timing, so I assume that at least one print was struck. I don’t know if Sony is making that print commercially available, and if they have, why the Castro didn’t rent that.

I also strongly suspect that the picture would look even better with 4K digital projection (which has four times the resolution of 2k). Alas, for economic reasons that are understandable even if they’re regrettable, the Castro doesn’t have a 4K projector.

But the folks running the Castro did a crackerjack job presenting the film. Like most big roadshow pictures of its time, Lawrence starts with an overture–music with no image. The houselights slowly faded throughout the overture, plunging the audience into darkness just in time for the curtain to open on the Columbia logo. The projectionist was awarded with applause.

The audience expressed its appreciation throughout. No one thinks of Lawrence of Arabia as a comedy, but it has its moments of dry British wit. The audience laughed in all the right places.

A few weeks previously, I watched Lawrence without a skilled projectionist or an audience. I was at home with the new Blu-ray. It still works on that medium, and still looks great, but the experience didn’t really do it justice.

The Castro will screen Lawrence of Arabia three more times today and tomorrow–at 2:00 both days and 7:00 tonight. Click here for details.

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