Cahiers du cinéma: September 11, 2016.

We were watching movies last night, and a question came up. I don’t remember the exact context, but basically: was The Paper Chase actually John Houseman’s first film?

The answer turns out to be: yes, and no, and it’s interesting.

Before The Paper Chase, Houseman is listed as having an uncredited (and I assume small) role in the film adaptation of Seven Days In May.

But before that, in 1938, Houseman was in something called Too Much Johnson. Just the name sparked immense hilarity among our little group (though to be fair, it was also late) but there’s an interesting story here. Too Much Johnson was never shown in public while Houseman was alive…

As most of my readers probably know, long before he was Professor Kingsfield, Houseman had quite a stage career. Among his other credits, he was a leading member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Welles had an idea: he wanted the Mercury Theatre to do an adaptation of a 1894 comedy, also called “Too Much Johnson”, by William Gillette. But he also wanted to integrate a silent film into the stage production.

Welles planned to mix live action and film for this production. The film was designed to run 40 minutes, with 20 minutes devoted to the play’s prologue and two 10-minute introductions for the second and third act. Welles planned to create a silent film in the tradition of the Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, in order to enhance the various chases, duels and comic conflicts of the Gillette play.

There’s some very funny stuff about Welles editing the film, in his hotel suite, while up to his knees (according to Houseman) in nitrate film. Another of Welles collaborators recalls the film catching fire in the projector, Welles being so absorbed in the editing he didn’t even notice…

“What I remember, most remarkably, is me running with the projector in my hand, burning, trying to get out of the door into the goddamn hallway, and Houseman racing for the door at the same time … while Orson, with absolutely no concern whatsoever, was back inside, standing and looking at some piece of film in his hand, smoking his pipe.”

Anyway, they put the film together and went to stage “Too Much Johnson” at a place called the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut before they took it to Broadway. But there was a problem: the ceiling in the Stony Creek Theatre was “too low” for film projection. So the Mercury Theatre staged “Too Much Johnson” without the movie part. Depending on who you believe, the audience reaction was poor. In any case, Welles shelved the “Too Much Johnson” project before he finished editing it: in later years, he claimed that he’d looked at the stored footage, and it still looked pristine. But that footage was destroyed in a 1970 fire at Welles home, and the movie was presumed lost…

…until 2008, when a copy was discovered in Spain. The film was restored and shown for the first time in late 2013. In 2015, the combined film/stage production was staged for the first time. And now you can watch the 66 minute work print and reconstructed 34 minute edit of “Too Much Johnson” at the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

This is probably too much “Too Much Johnson” for most of you, but I make no apologies for my interest in Welles and his work, and I think this is a great story even without Welles and Houseman.

After the jump, topic changes…

Whiplash: A well-crafted, intense movie with excellent performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller…that I didn’t enjoy. Part of this may have been that it wasn’t intended to be enjoyed, but as an intense gripping drama. Maybe: I found it hard to watch, but that could just have been me.
The other problem I have, though, is that I don’t believe Terence Fletcher could exist. A professor at a leading music school who slaps students in the face? In 2014? Even if Fletcher is a sociopath (and I could buy into the theory that he is) physically assaulting a student doesn’t just get you fired: it gets you a one-way ticket to Rikers. And don’t tell me none of the other students in the ensemble wouldn’t have ratted Fletcher out, given the way he treated everyone: Fletcher would not just be thrown under the bus, but the bus would have backed up and run over him again at least 27 times.
The whole movie strikes me as being there to set up that central scene between Fletcher and Neiman in the jazz club, and the question: how far is too far when you’re trying to nurture talent? That’s a good question. I think I would have liked the movie more if they had dialed Fletcher back to the point where he’s just on the border of going too far: as it is, he’s crossed three different borders and entered a small South American dictatorship without a passport.
It isn’t a bad movie, but a subtler J.K. Simmons performance may have made me like it more.
(And I hate to sound like a writer for Slate, but no, the cymbal wasn’t thrown at Charlie Parker’s head and nearly decapitated him: Jo Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet, not his head. And maybe the distinction matters.)

Our Man In Havana: I picked up a used DVD of this at End of an Ear (a really neat store you should visit) a while back. We tried to play it in Lawrence’s Blu-ray player: it wouldn’t play. It would play on RoadRich’s laptop (but we didn’t have a HDMI cable) and it will play on a Windows desktop, but apparently it has some sort of weird farked-up Sony copy protection scheme that keeps it from playing on certain playback devices, as well as keeping you from ripping the tracks using Handbrake on a Windows machine. (Plus, after playing the DVD on a Windows desktop, it left the machine hosed to the point of needing a reboot.)
Fortunately, I have project e, and an external DVD-RW/CD drive for it. After various adventures in finding the right cable for the DVD drive (I really need to label those) and installing Linux software for DVD support (because of the farked-up state of the law with respect to DVD playback) I was able to get a great MP4 rip of “Our Man In Havana” that I can copy to a flash drive and take with me to Lawrence’s (his setup will support video off a flash drive), or play on a desktop without hassle. Or place on a torrent, were I so inclined.
I’m not so inclined, but the point remains: you make it hard for people to give you money and watch stuff legally, and they have lots of motivation to work around your limits and do what they want to do, no matter what the legality is.

Mona Lisa: I bow to nobody in my admiration for the late great Bob Hoskins. I think Michael Caine classes up everything he’s in. I was unfamiliar with Cathy Tyson, but I’d like to see more of her (as an actress, not that way: it looks like she’s done a bunch of British television, but not much that’s made it over here).
I thought this was an interesting and ambitious failure. Without going into a spoilerly level of detail, I didn’t really buy into, or even have any emotional investment, in the relationship between Tyson’s Simone (a hooker) and Hoskins’ George (the fresh out of prison guy who’s hired to drive her around). It feels like Neil Jordan was more interested in making a relationship movie than a crime drama, and the relationship takes up a lot of space. There are good reasons why the relationship is unbelievable within the context of the movie, but those come too late. And the crime drama aspect of the movie (George searching for Simone’s former partner in prostitution) seem perfunctory, as if the studio told Jordan, “Look, nobody cares about this relationship crap. You need to throw in some crime stuff with George. Have him visiting sex shops or something.”
The ending is actually satisfying, at least for me, but it just felt like it took too long to get there. Another ambitious well-crafted film that didn’t click with me. If you want to watch a great Hoskins crime drama, I still say: The Long Good Friday is incredible. I need to watch that again.

Blazing Saddles: Lawrence is on a Gene Wilder re-watch kick. Unfortunately, none of us have Young Frankenstein yet. But he did have Blazing Saddles.
There’s not a whole lot I can say about this movie: hell, it is an acknowledged classic.
But it makes me sad to realize how many of Brooks’ collaborators died young and tragically. Gene Wilder had a good run, yes. But Cleavon Little was 53 when he died of cancer. Madeline Kahn was 57 when she died of cancer. Richard Pryor (who is one of the credited writers on the screenplay) was 65. Gig Young was originally supposed to play Wilder’s role as the Waco Kid, but he collapsed from alcohol withdrawal on the first day of shooting: Young married a 31-year-old woman when he was 64, and killed her and himself three weeks after the marriage. Slim Pickens was just 64 when he died. And Marty Feldman was 48.

Speaking of Marty Feldman, I haven’t watched this yet, but I plan to soon: a documentary on Marty Feldman from British television.

The Wind and the Lion: I love this movie. I love everything about this movie. I want to run off to Morocco with it, marry it, and have children with it.
I’m aware that John Milius plays fast and loose with historical fact. (Among other issues, the real Perdicaris was a man, he wasn’t an American citizen, and only one child was kidnapped with him.) But this is one of only two movies where I’m willing to say: I. Don’t. Care. That’s how good the story is. (The other one, oddly enough, is Spike Lee’s Malcolm X: I thought Lee did such a good job of telling that story that it would work as pure fiction.)

Brian Keith makes a good TR. Sean Connery is always fun to watch (and you almost forget after a while that this is a Scottish guy playing a Moroccan bandit). Candice Bergen is fascinating to watch. She’s asked to balance a half-dozen elements: recent widow, still grieving, worried mom, American citizen who’s not willing to put up with a lot of shit from uppity Arabs, curious, educated and cultured woman who becomes interested in the world she’s suddenly thrust into, and finally…well, not a love interest for Raisuli, but she clearly feels some friendship for him.

(Side note: how much do those Marines at the end suck? Dude, you and your troops got owned by Candice Bergen and two little kids!)

(Side note to the side note: those kids, Simon Harrison and Polly Gottesman, were also really good. It takes a lot for a child actor not to annoy me, and these two didn’t. Polly Gottesman hasn’t been in anything else: Simon Harrison was in Empire of the Sun and it looks like he’s done some British TV.)

And I also get a kick out of the weapons handling in this movie, even if there were some technical limitations that prevented complete historical accuracy. IMFDB page here. Nice to see that two out of four revolvers were Smiths. And that guy at the beginning, cranking off rounds at the raiders with a Bulldog? That was Billy Williams, who was also the cinematographer. (Another side note: the cinematography is stunning. If this ever comes to the Paramount, I am there.)

Long and interesting interview with John Milius at Creative Screenwriting.

I remember on The Wind and the Lion, Candy Bergen said, “I can’t believe that just some surfer wrote this.” I said, “Smile when you say that.”

No Name on the Bullet: We’ve been watching a few Westerns recently, and will probably be watching more. This is a fairly obscure one that i picked up because Audie Murphy, but I think all three of us enjoyed the heck out of it. It’s short (one hour 17 minutes) and tightly plotted. And there’s nobody else in it who rings a bell with me. (Charles Drake, the other lead, apparently knocked around Hollywood for a long time as one of those “Hey, it’s that guy!”)

Murphy’s character, John Gant, is a gunfighter and hired killer. His speciality is goading his victims into drawing on him, and then shooting first; that way, he claims self-defense and gets off. He comes to a Western town and is initially befriended by the town physician/part-time blacksmith (Drake.) But Gant’s reputation precedes him, the citizens begin to wonder who he’s there to kill (and is it one of them?) and unrest breaks out.

I commend this movie to your attention. As I said, it is tightly plotted, well written, and Murphy is quite good as a smart, somewhat cultured, and possibly amoral man. (Or does he have his own code of morality?)

There are two elements of the movie that I want to specifically highlight:

1. There is a scene where the citizens (including Drake’s doctor) decide to confront Gant and either force him to leave town or kill him. Gant meets them on the stairs of his hotel and gives the following speech:

There are many of you! Yes, you could kill me. If you’re willing enough. But it’s only fair to tell you that I’ll kill you, Stricker. And you, Dutch Henry. The physician. His father. And there might even be time for you, storekeeper. You surprise me, physician. I didn’t expect to see you running with the pack. You’ve come against me once. Now I warn you: I’ll stay here until I’m ready to leave. I use my gun for money, and I don’t like to work for nothing. But you trouble me again, and I might have to break my rule. That’s my prescription, physician. You’d better get it filled.

I’m not suggesting that anybody plagiarized anybody else. But this speech reminds me a lot of one of the three climaxes in Stephen Hunter’s Hot Springs. (If you’ve read the book, you know the one I’m talking about.) Again, no accusation of impropriety intended, but if I ever get to meet Mr. Hunter (and I really want to) I plan to ask him if that scene was an influence.

2. Tam had an interesting post last week about due process of law (complete with “Archer” reference!). She’s right; of course she’s right, I don’t think you can argue her point generally.


Before the hotel showdown, there’s a scene between Drake’s doctor character and his future father-in-law, a former judge slowly dying of consumption. Gant has already disabled the town sheriff, arguably in self-defense (“Why didn’t you kill me?” “I wasn’t paid to.”) The doctor bemoans the fact that they can’t use due process of law to force Gant to leave town.

Judge: Too bad about Buck. He was a good sheriff.
Luke: We’ll never find another one like him. And I wouldn’t blame him if he resigned.
Judge: And now you want to know what to do?
Luke: Well, with Buck helpless, we’ve got to do something. Because if we don’t…well, I’ve told you the way things are in town.
Judge: (coughs) You know, I’m getting tired of coughing.
Luke: I’m sorry, Judge. I wish there was something else I could do.
Judge: You’ve done all you can. Luke, I haven’t sat on the bench in ten years. The laws on the books may have changed, but the law itself hasn’t. Law is the manifest will of the people, the conscious rule of the community. And when the mechanics of law enforcement break down, they must be re-established.
Luke: Nobody would take Buck’s job now.
Judge: Of course not. So it’s up to the citizens as a whole.
Anne: You mean vigilantes, Dad?
Luke: That’s mob rule. I don’t like it.
Judge: It doesn’t have to be.
Luke: Usually winds up that way.

This is an interesting speech, and not just because of events later in the movie.

Law is the manifest will of the people, the conscious rule of the community. And when the mechanics of law enforcement break down, they must be re-established.

Of course law is what separates civilization from barbarism. But aren’t there times when law, and law enforcement, break down, and have to be re-established? I’ve been mulling that over in my head since Tam posted.

It’s easy to say law is what separates civilization from barbarism. But which was more barbaric: Skidmore, Missouri before or after Ken Rex McElroy’s death? Here, it seems to me, is a situaion where the mechanics of law enforcement broke down, and the people took it upon themselves to re-establish those mechanics.

(Is the growth of concealed carry a response to “the mechanics of law enforcement breaking down”?)

It is rare, but it happens, and sometimes I think it is happening more and more: due process of law and the mechanics of law enforcement seem to be breaking down. Should we as citizens be working to re-establish those? And is that work barbaric? Are we being barbaric to preserve civilization? Or am I wrong, and this is destroying the village in order to save it?

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