“That Shaft is a bad mother…”
“Shut your mouth!”
“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”
“We can dig it!”
- – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT
1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon. Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!
The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac Hayes kicks in! There’s a couple of heavy hitters on the prowl for private eye John Shaft… too bad for them! After Shaft throws one of them out of a window, his police frenemy Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi ) wants some answers, including what’s brewing up in Harlem with rackets boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn).
Shaft wants to find out too, and soon discovers Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, possibly by a radical militant gang led by Shaft’s old running buddy Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He’s hired to find her, but when some of Buford’s crew are gunned down by unknown assailants, Shaft finds himself caught in a gang war between Bumpy and the Mafia. Being the ‘bad mother’ that he is, Our Man Shaft enlists the militants to aid him in rescuing Bumpy’s little girl from the mob in a wild climax.
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft is closer in spirit to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer than PI’s like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe . Shaft’s a take-no-crap kinda guy, as quick with fists as he is with his wits, and of course the ladies all love him! He’s got attitude to spare, especially when sparring with white establishment cats like Androzzi. Roundtree went on to portray the super sleuth in two sequels (1972’s SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA) and a brief TV series (1973-74). Some of his other films include EMBASSY (1972), CHARLEY ONE-EYE (1973), EARTHQUAKE (1974), DIAMONDS (1975), and AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981).
Director Gordon Parks was a true renaissance man. He first gained notoriety as a photographer for LIFE Magazine, and turned his autobiographic novel THE LEARNING TREE into a 1969 Warner Brothers film, making Parks the first black director for a major studio production. He was editorial director for ESSENCE Magazine from 1970-73, and an accomplished poet, painter, and musician. Among his other screen works are the buddy-cop pic THE SUPER COPS (1974), THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974, a sort-of Blaxploitation Bonnie & Clyde), and the biography of folk-blues legend LEADBELLY (1976). His son Gordon Parks Jr. was director of another iconic Blaxploitation flick, SUPER FLY (1972).
Parks’ photographic eye brilliantly captures New York at its down-and-dirtiest, and handles the obligatory 70’s sex scenes with taste and discretion. The script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (based on Tidyman’s novel) is righteous, but I know what you’ve all really been waiting for, so here’s that super-cool opening credits scene featuring Isaac Hayes’ super-funky Oscar-winning “Theme from SHAFT”!:
More in the THAT’S BLAXPLOITATION series:
“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”
- -Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD
I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD for quite some time until a recent rewatching. I’ve told you before how much I love a good Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie, and this one is no exception. But as I watched the tale unfold, I began to see the film in a different light. SUNSET BOULEVARD is always called a film noir classic, but this go-round found me viewing it through a lens of horror.
It’s certainly got all the elements of film noir. There’s protagonist William Holden, trapped in a bottomless downward spiral. Gloria Swanson is the femme fatale who ensnares Holden and pulls him into her dark web. The cinematography of John F. Seitz portrays a shadow-world of despair. And we’ve got Billy Wilder directing, the man behind noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, working from his and Charles Brackett’s extremely cynical script. All these ingredients certainly combine for a deliciously dark noir stew, right?
But there are other elements at play, horror tropes just as dark and disturbing. Swanson’s Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star, is obviously insane, driven mad by her tragic descent into obscurity and longing to claw her way back to the top of the Hollywood heap. Norma is the progenitor for all those Grand Guignol Dames to come, from Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson to Miriam Hopkins’ delusional Katherine Packard in SAVAGE INTRUDER . The grotesque former star plies the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) with money and material things (though the seedy scenarist is at first a willing participant), keeping him a virtual prisoner in her isolated home, shared only by her loyal servant Max, who’s not what he seems and may be a bit loony himself.
Speaking of her home, the gloomy, decrepit mansion is run-down and dusty, cluttered with cobwebs and ancient artifacts from Norma’s past. It could fit right in next door to the Femm’s residence in James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE , or Castle Dracula itself! The horror in SUNSET BOULEVARD derives not only from that house, but from the actions of its inhabitants: Norma attempts suicide after Joe, repulsed by her demands for affection, rejects her at a New Year’s Eve party for two. Finally, when Joe finally grows a set and tells her he’s leaving, Norma’s crack-up is complete, and she kills her jilting lover in cold blood. Her grand descent down the staircase and into a madness of no return, carefully choreographed by Max, is chillingly glorious, and worthy of any good horror movie.
Pioneering director Erich Von Stroheim as Max was no stranger to horror, having appeared in both THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI and THE LADY AND THE MONSTER. Von Stroheim’s career took a nose dive in the talkie era due in large part to his excesses behind the camera; his 1932 QUEEN KELLY is shown during the film as Swanson watches herself, fascinated with her own onscreen image. Another fun part of the movie for me, having nothing to do with the horror aspect, is seeing silent stars of the past in small roles. Norma plays a weekly card game with Buster Keaton , Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, who Joe callously calls “her waxworks”. And Cecil B. DeMille , who was instrumental in Swanson’s career, plays himself in a poignant scene while filming SAMSON AND DELILAH (Henry Wilcoxon has a cameo).
So is SUNSET BOULEVARD a film noir, a horror movie, or some kind of hybrid? Cameron Crowe, in his book of interviews with director Billy Wilder, asked whether he considered the film a black comedy, to which the maestro replied, “No, just a picture” (1). Anyway you slice it, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a bona fide classic of American cinema, a film that can be viewed on many different levels, and enjoyed on all of them.
“Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there… in the dark”
-Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD
(1) from “Conversations With Wilder” by Cameron Crowe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.
Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.
Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.
I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.
MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?
Lee Marvin didn’t get many chances to show his comedic side; in fact, I can only think of two off the top of my head: the John Wayne/John Ford outing DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) and the 1976 spoof THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (I’ll be charitably silent about 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON!). Then there’s the comedy western CAT BALLOU, for which Marvin won an Oscar in the dual roles of drunken, broken down outlaw Kid Shelleen and hired killer Tim Strawn. Marvin’s marvelous, but if the truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Marvin to play a hard drinker and a macho tough guy… there’s a little bit of Lee in both personas!
We know we’re in for a good time right off the get-go when the fabled Columbia Torch Lady morphs into an animated, six-gun packin’ cowgirl, a sure sign not to take things too seriously. CAT BALLOU concerns prim young Catherine Ballou returning to Wolf City, Wyoming to become a schoolteacher only to find her father’s ranch being threatened by the railroad company. When her father is killed at the hand of silver-nosed Strawn, Cat seeks revenge on the railroad along with her compatriots Clay Boone, a cowardly cattle rustler who’s hot for Cat, Clay’s Uncle Jed, who passes himself off as a man of the cloth, and ranch hand Jackson Two Bears. Cat hires a gunslinger of her own, the notorious Kid Shelleen, whom she’s read about in dime novels. What she gets is a broken-down drunk who literally can’t hit the side of a barn without a few belts in him!
Cat and company ride out to the infamous Hole in the Wall to meet the fearsome Butch Cassidy, who’s not so fearsome any longer… Cassidy and his gang are all old and decrepit now! But Cat’s determined to avenge her father’s death, starting by pulling off a daring train robbery. Then it’s on to railroad boss Sir Harry Percival, where she disguises herself as a hooker named ‘Trixie’, and winds up accidentally shooting the lustful old codger, arrested for murder, and sentenced to hang…
Marvin first appears rolling out the back of a stagecoach, and proceeds to steal the show with his comic antics. He’s half in the bag most of the time, but my favorite scene occurs when Shelleen tries to sober up and get back in shape for a showdown with Strawn, assisted by Two Bears. He takes a bath for the first time in years, then is strapped into a corset and dons his old gunfighter clothing and pearl-handled Colts ready to do battle with the enemy. The fact that Marvin plays both Shelleen and Strawn means that Lee Marvin actually ends up gunning down himself! The Academy should’ve given Lee two Oscars for that!
Jane Fonda stars as Cat, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to outlaw queen. The movie was made during Jane’s formative film years, and the surprise hit did a lot to boost her stock as an actress to be reckoned with in the future. Jane fits right in with the Western milieu, as befits the daughter of oater favorite Henry Fonda . Michael Callan (Clay) and Dwayne Hickman (Jed) get their best screen roles in this one, and Tom Nardini (Two Bears) is a favorite of mine from AIP exploitation fare like THE YOUNG SAVAGES and THE DEVIL’S 8. John Marley plays Cat’s dad, Reginald Denny is villainous Sir Harry, and sagebrush vets Bruce Cabot , Arthur Hunnicut (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen , and Burt Mustin appear in small roles.
One fun aspect of CAT BALLOU is the presence of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels acting as a Greek chorus throughout the film. If Cole’s velvet voice sounds a bit gruffer than usual, it’s because he was suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him, four months before the movie was released. The pair stroll along singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, written for the film by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which also earned the film an Oscar nomination. Frank DeVol’s score, Chris Nelson’s editing, and the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated, as well. Director Elliot Silverstein marks his feature debut; he would go on to helm only five others, including the Richard Harris Western A MAN CALLED HORSE. Straddling the fence between comedy and Western can be tough, and most are played too broadly, but in CAT BALLOU Silverstein and his game cast (especially Marvin) and crew make it work, and it’s one of the genre’s best. This CAT is sleek entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!
I’ve professed my love for W.C. Fields before on this blog , and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is undoubtedly my favorite Fields flick. This inspired piece of lunacy is The Great Man’s commentary on getting films made in Hollywood his way. In fact, Fields wanted to title the movie “The Great Man”, but Universal execs nixed the idea, instead using a line from POPPY, his stage and screen hit. The change caused Fields much consternation, quipping that the movie’s overlong title would be boiled down on movie marquees to “Fields – Sucker”!!
The film’s plot (and I use that term as loosely as possible!) has Fields playing himself, delivering his latest script to Esoteric Pictures head Franklin Pangborn . The story he’s concocted may have the long-suffering Pangborn rolling his eyes, but it’ll have you the viewer rolling on the floor – with laughter! He and his niece Gloria Jean are travelling to a remote Russian village in a plane with an open air compartment in the rear when W.C. knocks his bottle out of the plane, so of course he dives after it, landing on the mountaintop home of beautiful Ouliotta Hemogloben, who’s never seen a man before.
After introducing Ouliotta to the kissing game of “squiggulum”, he then encounters her Amazonian mother Mrs. Hemogloben, played by Groucho’s favorite foil Margaret Dumont , and her saber-toothed Great Dane (Fields calls her “a buzzard if there ever was one”). Escaping the 2,000 foot mountain via hand basket, he goes to a cantina, where he engages in drinking shots of goat’s milk with Leon Errol . Finding out the old dame is worth a ton of money, Fields and Gloria return to the mountain top so he can marry her, only Leon gets there first (thanks to Mrs. Hemogloben’s pet gorilla). The two love rivals vie for Mrs. H’s affections, until Fields gives Leon the boot (literally!), but Gloria talks him out of wedded bliss so just the two of them can hang out together…
At this point Pangborn tears up the script in utter disgust, and a dejected Fields goes to drown his sorrows at an ice cream parlor, looking directly at the camera and informing the audience, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon, but the censors cut it out… it’ll play just as well”, resulting in a wild ride with Fields driving a woman to a maternity hospital (she’s not even pregnant!) that’s straight outta Mack Sennett in his Keystone heyday!
It’s all just an excuse for Fields to engage in his peculiar brand of buffoonery: being harassed by Universal’s resident juvenile comedy brats Butch & Buddy, sparring at a diner with buxom waitress Jody Gilbert (dubbing her “blimpie pie”), croaking out the tune “Chickens Have Pretty Legs in Kansas”, and indulging in some of his best one-liners (think in your best W.C voice while reading):
When Gloria asks why ‘Uncle Bill’s’ never been married: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the only thing I’m indebted to her for.”
“Drown in a vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?”
To a stewardess asking a hungover Fields if he’s airsick: “No, somebody put too many olives in my martinis last night.”
Gloria Jean, Universal’s teenaged thrush, looks like she’s having a grand old time as ‘Uncle Bill’s’ niece, and gets to sing four songs in her sweet soprano voice. Pangborn gets plenty of comic moments of his own as the sourpuss Esoteric Pictures honcho, and the cast features Familiar Faces Irving Bacon, Mona Barrie, Anne Nagel, Minerva Urecal, Dave Willock, and the skeletal Bill Wolfe. Fields’ long-time mistress Carlotta Monte, who wrote the excellent book “W.C. Fields & Me”, has a bit as Pangborn’s secretary, and you can clearly see how much she enjoys Bill’s humor. Many changes were made by Universal to the original story by Otis Cribblecoblis (yeah, that’s Fields), and the screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin. But neither man ever wrote anything quite as funny as this (though Neville did pen the Bela Lugosi classic THE DEVIL BAT , filled with unintentional humor!), and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is pure, undiluted W.C. Fields, The Great Man at his surrealistic greatest!
(This post is part of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON , happening right now, so follow the link and have a good time!!)
I grew up a “Navy brat”, often accompanying my dad to bases in Newport, RI. and Bethesda, MD. I’d hang out at the Enlisted Men’s Club he ran, watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons with the sailors while dad did the books. I remember going aboard ship plenty of times, and saw one of my first movies with the crew on Family Night (the Cary Grant/Doris Day flick THAT TOUCH OF MINK). So naturally, I have a soft spot for nautical tales, and one of my favorites has always been MISTER ROBERTS.
The film marked Henry Fonda’s return to the screen after an eight year absence. Fonda had starred in the original Broadway production to great acclaim, and his performance is imbued with his own experiences during WWII. Douglas Roberts is a lieutenant (j.g.) assigned to the cargo ship Reluctant in the South Pacific, run by the vain, tyrannical Captain Morton (James Cagney ). The crew loves Roberts, who always sticks up for them against the martinet Morton. But Roberts longs to see combat, and despite his weekly letters asking for a transfer, he’s always shot down by Morton, who needs Roberts’s expertise to further his own career.
Roberts’s best friends are Doc (William Powell), a wise old soul whom he confides in, and Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), a callow braggart who looks up to Roberts (but is scared to death of Captain Morton!). The men of the Reluctant haven’t had liberty in a long while, and tensions are rising. Roberts bribes an old pal with a bottle of Scotch to get them to a port where they can blow off steam, but Morton, learning of the ruse, refuses to let them go ashore.. that is, unless Roberts agrees to stop writing his letters and carrying out his orders to a tee. Roberts, knowing how much it means to the men, accedes to the captain’s wishes, with orders not to tell the crew about their little bargain.
Having sown some wild oats on the island (and getting the Reluctant thrown out of port in the process!), the men notice a change in Roberts’ attitude, and peg him as just another officer bucking for promotion. They begin to give him the cold shoulder, until a radio broadcast announces the war in Europe has ended. Roberts finds a way to celebrate by tossing the Captain’s beloved palm tree overboard, incurring his wrath, and the two have a heated shouting match, which unbeknownst to both is being broadcast over the loudspeaker. The men realize Roberts is one of them after all, and forge documents to get Mr. Roberts that transfer he’s longed for. After awarding him a handmade “Order of the Palm” for his valor, Roberts finally gets to see combat. Later, a letter sent to Pulver reveals the final fate of Mister Roberts…
Fonda, who won a Tony for the role in 1948, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, but Jack Lemmon was, winning for his comic performance as Ensign Pulver. It was Lemmon’s breakthrough role, and he makes the lazy, incompetent Pulver into a likeable character, an all-talk-no-action goofus who redeems himself at film’s end. Cagney, as the villain of the piece, gets to show a bit of his comic side as well… you’ll laugh hysterically when Morton learns his palm tree is gone! Powell, in his last film, balances out things well as the cynical realist Doc.
The rest of the cast includes many Familiar Faces. Young Betsy Palmer (FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Mrs. Voorhees) is quite a hottie as a nurse Pulver tries to put the make on, without success. The crew features actors like Nick Adams , Frank Aletter, Tige Andrews (of TV’s THE MOD SQUAD), Philip Carey , James Flavin, Martin Milner , Gregory Walcott , and John Ford Stock Company players Ward Bond, Danny Borzage, Harry Carey Jr, Ken Curtis, Jack Pennick, and baby-faced Patrick Wayne.
Ford started the film, but a disagreement with Fonda led to an argument in which the volatile director punched his star in the face. The contrite Ford, who’d been friends with Ford since the 1930’s, began to drink heavily on the set, but it was a gall bladder attack that took him off the picture. Veteran Mervyn LeRoy took over, filming close as possible in the Ford style, and Joshua Logan shot some retakes. Just who shot what has long been a basis for speculation among film fans, but we do know Ford was responsible for the casting of Lemmon, and his stock players. Fonda and Ford, who made a total of seven movies together, never spoke to or worked with each other again.
MISTER ROBERTS doesn’t get much acclaim these days, but due to my background I find it a very entertaining film. It’s fairly true to life aboard ship, and the four stars alone make it worth watching for film buffs. Anchors aweigh!
(This post is lovingly dedicated to my father, who served in the Korean War and was deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He passed away at age 39, just short of making twenty years in service to his country. He was a good ol’ boy from South Carolina, a Navy boxing champion, and loving husband and father. This one’s for you, Dad.)
R.L. “Rocky” Loggins, Jr. (1930-1969)