- The Death Wheelers (1973)
- Endless Night (1972)
- Doomwatch (1972)
- The Night of the Assassin (1970)
- The Kremlin Letter (1970)
- The Best House in London (1969)
- The Body Stealers (1969)
- The Girl from Rio (1969)
- The Candy Man (1969)
Today is Shirley Temple Black’s 85th birthday. The long-retired star and diplomat is likely quietly marking the day with family at her home in Woodside, California, where she remains largely out of the public eye. Alas, a recently launched Twitter account purporting to be hers was revealed to be a fake after it started pumping spam to 10,000 followers who were eager to find out if Shirley still puts animal crackers in her soup. She was honored by Kennedy Center in 1998, a broadcast worth watching for the revelation that the still-charming actress inspired the famously wooden Henry Kissinger to crack jokes and utter the phrase “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in his heavy German accent. In 2006, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Life Achievement Award presented by Jamie Lee Curtis and, in a nice bit of symmetry, Dakota Fanning. Apart from this appearance, she has kept a rather low profile since the death of her second husband in 2005. Although fans worldwide are hoping for a Betty White type comeback, it looks like it isn’t going to happen.
Her 85th birthday is significant because her longevity makes her a living link with Hollywood’s classic era. The long-feuding sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are still among us. But when they were just starting their careers with small parts in 1935, the child start was getting top billing in the title roles of The Little Colonel and Curly Top. Temple is certainly the last remaining female star of a pre-code film (1934’s Little Miss Marker), making her a bridge to the brief period of 1929-34 when Hollywood still allowed itself to make films that were both glamorous and gritty. The only other true Hollywood star to rival her longevity is Mickey Rooney, who also started as a child performer, but had more lucky with transitioning to teenage and adult roles.
Shirley Temple was far and away the greatest child star in the world in her day. She more or less single-handedly save Twentieth Century Fox from financial ruin shortly after she signed with the studio at the age of 5. She was given a bungalow on the Fox lot with built-to-scale furniture and a miniature care. 19 top writers were assigned to crank out Shirley Temple scripts in the race against the onset of puberty. She was the top box-office draw in America four years in a row (1935–38). “During the Depression,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio addresses “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” 64 years since she last stepped in front of a movie camera, Fox reports that Shirley Temple still sells one million DVDs a year. A better sales record than some so-called celebs working today, to be sure.
Temple will likely always retain the unofficial title of greatest child star that ever was. No one has ever come close to achieving her level of popularity, and no one ever will. Tabloids mean that studio publicity departments can no longer manufacture and protect a young star’s public persona. Much-needed laws now restrict how much time a minor can spend on a set. Even with the double allotment allowed to the Olsen Twins, in our age even a stage mother as devoted as Gertrude Temple was cannot legally provide the necessary training to polish the natural talented need to create another Shirley Temple. Only Temple could sing and dance, cry on cue, and remember not only her own lines but also those of her adult costars. Adolphe Menjou, who had already been in films for a full 20 years before taking second billing to Temple in Little Miss Marker, reportedly said “this kid scares me—she knows all the tricks.” The following year, while filming The Little Colonel Lionel Barrymore forgot a line and his 6-year-old costar fed it to him, sending the veteran actor into a violent rage. Both of the older actors would soon be doing what they could to get on the girl’s good side, much like the gruff characters they played until their hearts are softened by Shirley’s character.
Temple’s boundless popularity is hard to imagine today. In John Huston’s 1982 musical film Annie, the red-haired orphan is granted an audience with FDR (played by Edward Herrmann) who is touched by the girl’s optimism. The scene is likely based on Shirley’s real-life visit to the White House, were both the president and the first lady were fans. The scene make one wish that Fox had developed an adaptation of the Harold Gray comic strip for its young star—Temple was forever playing orphans and the girl with circles for eyes was the ultimate one. On the other side of the Atlantic, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) were devoted fans. So great and early was her fame in Hollywood, that her first baby tooth had only just fallen out when she was asked to press her tiny hands into the wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
There was a dark side to her fame. Among the thousands of fan letters pouring in every week were some addressed to her father, from women pleading with him to sire “another Shirley.” Although Fox hired a retried police officer to act as her chauffeur and bodyguard, she was the target of at least two attempted assassinations. In the most bizarre of the incidents, she was singing “Silent Night” live in the CBS studios at Christmas time, 1939, when a woman in the audience pulled a gun and aimed it at the child star. The would be assassin was dragged out before she had a chance to fire a round. It was later learned that he had a daughter who died the same hour Shirley was born and was convinced the child star had stolen her girl’s soul. “The tale seemed understandable to me,” Temple would write nearly nearly 50 years later in her autobiography Child Star. The feasibility of soul transmigration aside, the woman’s calculations pinpointing her daughter’s passing and Shirley’s birth were off by a full year. Fox had faked a birth certificate to shave a year off of the age of its top star.
Her parents would reveal her true age to her as she entered her teens, and she shared it with the public when adjusting her age from 20 to 21 during a highly publicized divorce. She was to have a remarkable childhood. Like many little girls, she idolized Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, but in her case she also got to meet them. But like any other child star, she could not have a normal childhood. Although she had her specially-built bungalow at Fox, she was not allowed to walk around the lot, for fear that too much attention would spoil her. Her playhouse was also her prison. She was also forbidden to do highly lucrative personal appearances, as Fox feared audiences would not want to buy a ticket to see the girl if they had already seen her for free. The other unfortunate footnote of her stardom is that while she made millions for Fox, not much was left for her when her contract with the studio ended. Her father was an investment banker who squandered a good deal on poor investments. Another large chunk was claimed by Uncle Sam.
Although her films are still still selling one million DVDs a year, there are passages in the Temple filmography that are cringe-worthy for viewers of today. There certainly some racist overtones in some of her films. The worst offender is certainly the short Kid ‘in’ Africa, which sees little Shirley popped in a stew pot by African cannibals, also played by children. The actress was still too young to comprehend the meaning. When she and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson where preparing to become the first inter-racial dance couple in American film in The Little Colonel, the famed tap dancer arrived at her hotel for rehearsals. She learned that he was staying in the chauffeurs’ quarters over the garage, but later admitted that she wouldn’t understand the reason till years later.
Going through the comment in the Temple shorts and full features posted on YouTube, the most common complaint seems to be over the “creepiness” of scenes in which the young star appears to be eroticized with short dresses and distinctly adult mannerisms. But that is how she started her screen career, in the low budget “Baby Burlesks” shorts, which feature kiddies in diapers fastened with over-sized safety pins as they play adult roles. In her second appearance in the series, 4-year-old temple mimics Mexican sexpot Dolores del Rio. In Kiddin’ Hollywood she apes on Marlene Dietrich’s vamp persona. The parodies of established sex symbols stopped when she began making features, but they were subject to moral scrutiny. 1935’s Curly Top was banned in Denmark for “unspecified corruption.” Perhaps Danish censors were not amused by a scene in which the girl dances the hula in nothing but a grass skirt and a lei. The novelist Graham Greene was still writing film review to pay the bills in 1937, when he wrote of the John Ford-directed Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie “the owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year.” Fox producer Winfield Sheehan responded to his star property growing up by having her costumed in even short dresses and given more childish roles in an attempt to offset her growing spurts. Greene’s review continues with a now infamous passage:
Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers–middle-aged men and clergymen–respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.
Twentieth Century Fox took seriously the need to protect the squeaky-clean image of its top star and sued for libel. Greene fled the controversy to Mexico, which was to change the course of his career. There may have been some dirty old men seated in the darkness of theaters when Temple’s films lit up the screen. Some also appear in her autobiography. She recalled that Wizard of Oz producer Arthur Freed revealed himself to the 11-year-old after a meeting to discuss her playing Dorothy Gale. But I would prefer to agree with FDR and say that the boundless optimism Shirley Temple radiated on screen helps viewers, both then and today, forget our problems for a time.
Shirley Temple’s small part in Stand Up and Cheer! won her a overnight fame. Variety christened her the “unofficial star” of the otherwise unremarkable film. That sent producers scrambling to find larger roles for her. Although she was under exclusive contract with Fox, director Alexander Hall persuaded her to audition for the best kid roles in years in a script adapted from a Damon Runyon story. Legend has it that Hall approached the Temple family at the Brown Derby restaurant and the very next day Fox executive Winfield Sheehan called Gertrude Temple to his office to warn her never to do anything behind his back again. But he did agree to loan out the young star, charging Paramount $1,000 a week while continuing to pay Shirley $150 per week and $25 to Getrude to do her daughter’s famous curls.
Adolphe Menjou, the nominal star of the film, disliked working with children. It probably didn’t help that when he forgot a line his 5-year-old costar reportedly asked the director “is it too late to replace Mr. Menjou on this picture?” As shooting progressed, it became clear that the little girl was not only going to steal all the scenes she shared with Menjou, but she was going to steal the whole movie. Eventually she won over Menjou, as she would with his character, a hard-nosed gambler, and later costar Lionel Barrymore and director John Ford. She did in fact steal the film, which became a big hit. Paramount offer Fox $50,000 to buy out her contract. Sheehan, recognizing a good thing we he say it, said “nothing doing.”
Although this is the film that made the young actress a star, it a pretty atypical Shirley Temple film. Although Temple would soon become the face of wholesome entertainment, a few minutes into the film I realized I was watching a racy pre-code film. Sure enough, Little Miss Marker was released June 1, 1934, exactly one month before the strict enforcement of the production code went into effect. The script would have been subject to revisions if it had been released later. It is based on a story by Damon Runyon, who populated his literary world with gangsters, bookmakers and gamblers, many of them based on people he rubbed elbows with in real life. As the title character, Temple is left as a “marker” or collateral for a bet on a fixed horse race by her father. She is orphaned when he dies before returning, not by wandering out in front of a truck, but by committing suicide. The girl is taken in by Menjou and her babysitters are an assortment of thugs and nightclub sirens. They’re a bad influence on the pure little girl, who give up fairy tale daydreams in favor of gangster slang. There are also a number of zippy one-liners in the script that probably wouldn’t have survived the censor’s pencil under the code. In the final scene, she is laying on hospital operating table on the brink of death. The hardened gangster Big Steve (Charles Bickford) has been coerced into giving a blood transfusion. “Your blood is giving her life,” the doctor explains in some pretty flimsy film pseudo-medicine. “Does that give you a kick? Giving life?” “Giving life?” Bickford ponders, implying that he is more used to taking life. It is a line that surely wouldn’t have been allowed by the code, which dictated that all crimes, seen or implied, have to be punished. Instead, Big Steve is redeemed by the end of the film, having saved the life of the innocent girl.
So despite having Temple in the title role, this is by no means a family film. And yet Little Miss Marker establishes the template that would be used again and again in her subsequent films. An orphan girl is boundlessly optimistic, in spite of dire circumstances she finds herself in. Her sheer adorableness soften the heart of a cranky old man (or occasionally haughty old spinster), who wants to give the little girl a home. Characters competing for the right to adopt her pop up again and again in her movies. In Bright Eyes her character is even named “Shirley” so that when Charles Sellon says from his wheelchair “I am starting legal proceedings to adopt Shirley,” he is verbalizing the secret desire of every man and woman in the audience in 1934, whether they had children of their own or not. Indeed, it was not always such a secret desire. Many moviegoers in the ’30s believed Shirley was an actual orphan. Women wrote to the actress’s father, a banker, pleading with him to father “another Shirley” with them. Harpo Marx met child actress before her widespread fame when she visited the set of Duck Soup, most likely when she was lent by Education Pictures to Paramount for the Randolph Scott Western To the Last Man. Harpo did more than pose for pictures with the little girl. He reportedly offered her family $50,000 to adopt her. It sounds a bit creepy today, but Harpo was just one of the first of many to be charmed by the little girl, both on screen and off.
A sad footnote to the film is the early death of its other female lead, Dorothy Dell, who was killed in a car accident just one week after its premiere. She was only 19 years old. Dell is a fine actress in her role as the gangster’s moll who bonds with the little girl. She reportedly got along well with the girl on the set, and encouraged Menjou to get on her good side. In the film she is given the heartbreaking task of preventing the little girl from finding out that her father has died. Shirley’s real parents would do their best to delay the news of Dell’s death reaching their daughter.
I never thought I would sit through a movie about cockfighting. But after seeing Dillinger and Two-Lane Blacktop last year, I now count Warren Oates among my favorite actors. And, as with Two-Lane Blacktop, I had the chance to see one of his films on the big screen, at a cinema here in Tokyo that has been re-releasing all of Monte Helman’s films.
Cockfighter is indeed about illegal cockfighting, and the men that pit roosters against each other to the death in barns, riversides, hotel rooms and the governor’s mansion. Even before the film was released, is garnered controversy, with activists petitioning then governor Jimmy Carter to stop the filming. The finished film was banned in the UK, where it still can’t be shown. Steps were reportedly taken to prevent the animals from hurting each other too much, and none of them actually died in the filming. But today, the bloody fight scenes are difficult to watch, especially one composed of slow-motion close-ups.
Every scene either shows a brutal cockfight or the preparation for the next one. But the film is about more than the outlaw sport. Oates plays a man obsessed. He refuses to speak a word, although he does talk in his sleep. He was once certain that he would get the medal for cockfighter of the year, which comes directly from the governor, despite the sport being illegal. He consented to a warm-up match in a hotel room and lost his prize rooster and his only chance for the medal. His opponent, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells him “you got two problems, Mansfield, you drink too much and you talk to much.” And just like that the decides not to utter another word until he does get that medal. Although Oates does provide voice-over narration, he has to act the entire film without speaking. The challenge creates a perfect role for him, and he crooked grin and soulful eyes go a long way.
Stanton is as good as always here, and there is an appearance by a very young Ed Begley Jr., and character actor Richard B. Shull is enjoyable as the partner who takes care of the business side of the bets. But the film really belongs to Oates. In one scene, his character is forced to go back to his hometown after losing his car and trailer on a bad bet. Before long an old girlfriend comes to pay a visit. They stand on the front porch. She talks, pleading with him to finally make a commitment. He only gives her pained squints. When her mother, waiting in the car, gives an impatient honk, Oates explodes in a ball of energy, dancing across the lawn, jumping onto the roof of her car and pounding on the windows by way of a greeting. This one little not only captures the title character of this film, but also Warren Oates’ range as an actor.
I started off 2013 the same way I started off 2012, by watching a movie at Toho Cinemas in Roppongi Hills, one of the few cinemas in Tokyo which is open on New Year’s Day. I wasn’t particularly interested in the new Hobbit film, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice and after covering a press conference with Peter Jackson and company, I was interested in seeing the high frame rate projection for myself. Reportedly the film is only being played in the high frame rate on 400 screens around the world, and it appears a big chuck of them are in Tokyo, so I thought I would take the opportunity while I could.
I was told that this film wouldnI never got around to seeing Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was the only member of my group of friends in high school and college who wasn’t into J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. As such, I don’t know the difference between a hobbit and an dwarf, an elf and a troll, a wizard and a necromancer. The film assumes the audience knows all this, and the story was not intrigue enough to make me want to learn or even care. I found myself trying to recognize actors beneath all of the latex noses and scraggly wigs and waiting for the next sweeping shot of the New Zealand countryside, which were indeed stunning. I am a big admirer of Andy Serkis’ work, both in his traditional roles in Burke and Hare and Brighton Rock and his performance capture role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But it seemed like I was waiting for three hours for his Gollum to appear. Since Tolkien’s novel is being stretched out over three films, now I feel locked into watching the next two installments just to have a since of closure.
At the press conference in Tokyo, exactly one month ago, Jackson was very happy to talk about the film’s 48-frame-per-second high frame rate, complaining that the 24-frame-per-second standard that was set with the introduction of talkies was only barely good enough at the time, and has been dragged out for over 80 years. His enthusiasm made me interested in the technology and the film. But that was before I tapped into the seemingly endless stream of negative publicity on HFR projection. New York Magazine’s Vulture site has compiled a categorized list of opinions from film critics. What they are saying is not exactly complimentary, and audiences have been less kind, going online to say the movie caused headaches or nausea. It was enough to make me wonder what I was getting myself into when I slid on my 3D glasses.
Many of the complaints about the high frame rate are valid. It makes the film look like a video game, a soap opera on HDTV, a making of featurette on an actual film, or a nature documentary. It also makes imperfection in the sets and makeup obvious. All of these are true. At its worst, the technology makes scene of Bilbo and company walking through a wood in broad daylight does look very much like a HD nature documentary of modern-day explorers of looking for a cave-dwelling bats. But high frame rate works very well for the epic battle scenes and the CGI shots featuring Gollum. This made me think that the cause of the problematic scenes was a lack of proper color correction which would have lent the entire film more visual unity.
I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2012 the same way I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2011: watching a classic film at a theater in Tokyo that specializes in screening classic films. Last year it was the Astaire-Rogers lighthearted romp The Gay Divorcee. This year it was a rather more serious film.
I remember watching Mrs. Miniver a few years ago, before starting this blog, but I must not have been following it very closely because I didn’t remember just how good it was. It is obvious that the film was intended as wartime propaganda. Director William Wyler wanted to use the film to portray the plight of ordinary British citizens, who were being bombed almost nightly by the Germans, and win the sympathy of America, which hadn’t yet entered the war when the film went into production. Everything changed when America did enter the war. The script was revised, scenes were reshot and President Roosevelt even got involved, ordering that post-production be sped up so the film could be used to boost morale on the American . When the film was finished, Roosevelt co-opted the vicars moving speech which closes the film, asking that it be broadcast on the Voice of America radio program and having it translated into a variety of European languages and air-dropped over the enemy. As a work of propaganda, Mrs. Miniver lauds the heroism of ordinary English people, in historical events such as the Evacuation of Dunkirk, which I hadn’t known about, and I guess the average American in 1942 wouldn’t have known much about.
But the film is still powerful today, long after its propaganda purposes have ended. The power of the film comes from the focus on a single village, where the biggest news before the start of bombings is that there is a new contender to the trophy in the annual flower show. The handful of characters that are introduced are painted in detail, making their sacrifice clearer. Combat is never shown, except for a brief scene of fighter plane crashing into a tree. Heroism comes from the home front. The scene of the Miniver family huddling in their bomb shelter as shells explode overhead, shaking tinned food to the floor is truly frightening. This is because those thrown into harm’s way are not pilots and soldiers, but mothers and children.
There are weaknesses in the film, mostly because it was set in England but produced in Hollywood. At the time the Hollywood community was suffering a shortage of British actors, many of whom had gone back home to “do their bit” for the war effort. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, plays the head of the family and doesn’t even attempt a British accent. Teresa Wright, an American, tried, but not very successfully. On the other hand, we have Greer Garson, who deserved the Best Actress Oscar she won for the title role. Dame May Whitty is just as entertaining as she is in Gaslight and The Lady Vanishes, and her role has a little more dramatic depth than anything else I have seen her in.
Since the end of the year is upon us, I was thinking of compiling a short list of my favorite films of 2012. But I realized that I haven’t actually seen too many films that were completed this year. Most of what I watch is at least 30 years old. I loved Hugo and The Way, which I saw in theaters earlier this year. But they were actually first released in 2011 and 2010 before very delayed arrivals at theaters in Tokyo. With only two days left in the year, I thought I had better squeeze in another film from 2012 and it was either For a Good Time Call.. or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Set in a suburban high school in the early ’90s, this film adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own hit novel, draws obvious comparisons with John Hughes’ 80s high school dramas such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. While those films always focused on socially awkward teens or kids from the wrong side of the tracks, they did so mainly for for comedic value. Perks, which distances itself from its era by 20 years, takes a much more somber approach. The wallflower of the title is a freshman who is more than awkward. He has serious psychological problems, having survived the death of his favorite aunt and the recent suicide of his only friend. When he bonds two misfit seniors, high school seems bearable for a while. Although Emma Watson, as the girl he develops his first crush on, is the only box office draw in her first major role after Harry Potter, her American accent is inconsistent at best, and she is doesn’t come across on screen as beguiling as the central character sees her. The real star of the show is Ezra Miller as the gay teen Frank, who suffers through a relationship with the schools closeted quarterback who will sleep with him but not acknowledge him in public.
Miller’s performance is wonderful, and the whole film is beautifully, poignantly shot. Joan Cusack is great as the psychiatrist at the mental hospital where Charlie winds up, and it was nice to see special effects master Tom Savini in a rare acting role as a shop teacher. But large chunks of the second act where a bit boring for me, probably because I was in high school at the same time and had many of the same experiences. Listening to The Smiths and Cocteau Twins? Check. Saturday night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Check. Mixed tapes made and received from girls. Check and check. The trio of misfits take themselves very seriously, as do most high school students. When Charlie saying “at this moment we are infinite,” would be enough to make me roll my eyes, if I hadn’t felt the same way when I was in high school.
I really enjoyed the French comedy The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe when I saw it two years ago, and thought would never have to bother with the American remake starring Tom Hanks. But news came yesterday yesterday that actor Charles Durning had died. Although I have already seen literally dozens of his films, I wanted to remember him by watching one of his films that I hadn’t seen yet. And this is one of the many, many films Durning appeared in.
This remake follows the original story very closely. Some scenes are almost shot-for-shot copies. As in the French film, an innocent man is tapped as a red herring as part of games between two fighting factions of the intelligence agency. Durning plays the corrupt head of the C.I.A., who schemes to defend his position from an even more corrupt agent played by Dabney Coleman. I think there was a law in the early ’80s that a film couldn’t be made in America without offering a role to Dabney Coleman. What is so enjoyable about the French film is how oblivious the man with mismatched shoes is, not only to his footwear, but to the fact that secret agents have combed over every inch of his apartment. Pierre Richard does a wonderful job of of playing the daydreaming, hopelessly romantic concert violinist. Tom Hanks, whose career was just really starting to take off at the time, didn’t have the same quality and just comes across as a bit dim-witted. But even at that stage Hanks was obviously a hard working actor, and convincingly pantomimes playing the violin as clearly does some of the stunts in the big bike versus car race at the climax. The depiction of spies is cartoonish, probably intentionally so. But overall the film lacks the silliness that made the original so entertaining. Lori Singer plays the love interest, the spy who falls for the man she is spying on. Although she conforms to the 80s concept of beauty, her performance as a cool headed spy looks more like sleepwalking.
Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the film are between Charles Durning and his underling played by Edward Herrmann. They don raincoats and umbrellas to talk under the lawn sprinklers, the only place where the bugs do not pick up their conversation. Herrmann’s character is the moral voice, feeling guilt over the fact that the person he chose at random from the passengers at the airport might be killed. No one else at the C.I.A. seems to mind.