The Legend of BILLY JACK Continues! (National Student film Co 1971, re-released by Warner Brothers 1973)

When last we saw Billy Jack, he was dismantling a brood of outlaw bikers in BORN LOSERS . This time around, he’s taking on a whole town’s worth of rednecks as Tom Laughlin’s half-breed ex-Green Beret returns in BILLY JACK, the wildly popular film that combines action with social commentary, and helped kick off the martial arts craze of the 70’s.

BILLY JACK almost never saw the light of day, as Laughlin’s financing was shut off by American-International Pictures. 20th Century-Fox then picked it up, but didn’t think it deserved to be released, so Laughlin went the indie route, under the banner of National Student Film Co. in 1971. Poor distribution and poor reviews caused the film to tank, but the good folks at Warner Brothers saw something in it, and gave it a national release two years later. Young audiences of the day flocked to it in droves, cheering as Billy Jack took on the establishment and kicked their asses, and the studio had an unexpected hit on their hands!

The movie begins as local bigwig Stuart Posner and his boys, including Deputy Mike, conduct an illegal wild mustang hunt for a dog food company on Indian land. Here comes Billy jack, defender of the land, animals, and the downtrodden, astridehis horse and toting a rifle. “When policeman break the law, there is no law”, he says, “only a fight for survival”. The group of poachers back down, because he’s Billy Jack, and they’re not!

Mike gets home to find his wayward daughter Barbara has been retrieved from running away to Haight-Ashbury (where all them damn hippies live!). Not only is she pregnant, she doesn’t know who the father is, so loving dad Mike gives her a punch in the face! She runs away again, passes out in the woods, and is naturally found by Billy Jack, who takes her to the Freedom School, run by progressive pacifist Jean Roberts, where the kids learn to develop their passions for music, poetry, and acting.

Some of the kids head into town, and are harassed at the local ice cream parlor by bunch of toughs who pour flour on the Native Americans, turning them white. Guess who happens to show up? If you said Billy Jack, give yourself a hand! This is a great scene, with Billy Jack doing a real slow burn, his anger building, finally kicking the crap out of the bullies. One of the punks is Posner’s snotty kid Bernard, and the rich father sends his goons after Billy, who gets to strut his Hapkido stuff, including this…

…kick to Posner’s face (doubled for this one kick by Master Bong Soo Han of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE fame). But the odds are against him, and Billy Jack takes a beating by the thugs until the sympathetic town sheriff puts a stop to it. Tensions mount, and the Freedom School students attend a City Counsel meeting in a rowdy, rambunctious Town Hall scene that features an 11-year-old reading a speech on law and order given by Hitler in 1932, a fiery debate on constitutional rights, and insults hurled between the establishment and the kids (Councilman: “When was the last time you cut your hair?” Student: “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”). It’s like something straight out of today’s cable news!

Now comes the Ceremony of the Snake scene, in which Billy Jack has to endure being bitten repeatedly by a rattler in order to receive a vision from his ancestors in the spirit world. Yeesh! Creepy Bernard takes the gullible Miss False Eyelashes for a ride to the lake in his $6,000 Corvette, then tries to molest her while digging for info on Barbara’s whereabouts. You guessed it, Billy Jack shows up (the man is everywhere!), and gives Bernard a choice – get your ass kicked or drive that ‘Vette into the lake! Cowardly Bernard chooses the latter, but gets his revenge by tying up and raping Jean in a brutal scene.

Jean confides in student Cindy, but makes her promise not to tell Billy Jack for fear of a violent reprisal (“Damn your pacifism!”, says Cindy). Barbara gets injured in a horseback riding accident and loses her baby, then Posner, Mike, and company kidnap passive Indian Martin, who they suspect is banging Barb. Cindy brandishes a shotgun and helps him escape, but the rednecks grab her. Yup, Billy Jack pops up out of nowhere and saves her! Martin is hunted down and killed by Bernard, and now Billy Jack, having ferreted out the truth from Jean, is out for blood. Jean tries to stop him, but Billy’s having none of it:

Billy: “You worked with (Martin Luther) King, where is he?”

Jean: “Dead.”

Billy: “Where’s Bob and Jack Kennedy?”

Jean: “Dead”.

Billy: “Not dead, their head’s blown off, because your people (the whites) wouldn’t even put the same controls on their guns as they did on their dogs, their cats, their bicycles!”

And with that, Billy Jack goes into action, catching Bernard in bed with an underaged girl, taking a  gunshot in the abdomen, then icing the punk with one swift karate chop. Deputy Mike comes after Billy, and receives a bullet in the head! Now Billy Jack holes up in an old church as local and state police arrive, along with the requisite media circus. There’s a violent shootout as Billy holds the cops off, but Jean, the sheriff, and a sympathetic local doctor (there’s ALWAYS a sympathetic local doctor in these type of films, isn’t there?) finally persuade him to give himself up. In return, Billy asks for certain conditions to be met regarding the school and the Natives. As our hero is cuffed and led away, the kids all raise their fists in the “Power to the People” salute as the theme song plays in an emotional final scene.

Star Tom Laughlin, director T.C. Frank, and co-writer Frank Christina are all one and the same person. Co-writer Teresa Christina is Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor, who plays the pacifistic Jean. Even the couple’s daughter Teresa gets into the act as a student who warbles a bizarre tune called “My Brother’s Dead”. Of note in the cast is 50’s sci-fi stalwart Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ,  BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA ) playing Deputy Mike.  As opposed to his creature feature heroics, Tobey’s a real S.O.B here. Most of the rest of the cast isn’t well-known, except Bert Freed (Posner) and Richard Stahl (council president). The improv group The Committee (with a young Howard Hesseman, billed as Don Sturdy) play members of the school faculty and engage in some skits.

Say what you will about BILLY JACK: it’s dated, its politics is reactionary, it’s platitudes are self-righteous. Makes no differences to me, I freakin’ LOVE this film! Tom Laughlin scored a bull’s-eye for many moviegoers with BILLY JACK, stating sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. It’s a bold statement, and one that’s not very popular with some, but BILLY JACK is the little exploitation film that made good because it struck the right chord with its audience ( including yours truly), perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the times. Plus I’ve always wanted to use the word “zeitgeist” in a post!

Fashions and hairstyles may have changed, but people are still politically polarized, the establishment still holds all the cards, young people are still as disaffected as ever, and Town Hall meetings are still rambunctious. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and there’s no one willing to stand up  and fight for the little guy anymore.

 

Where are you now when we need you, Billy Jack?!?!

She Was Never Lovelier: Rita Hayworth in COVER GIRL (Columbia 1944)

Bright, bold, and bouncy, COVER GIRL was a breakthrough film for both Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Sultry, redheaded Rita had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years before Columbia Pictures gave her this star-making vehicle, while Kelly, on loan from MGM, was given free rein to create the memorable dance sequences. Throw in the comedic talents of Phil Silvers   and Eve Arden , plus a bevy of beauties and songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, and you have what very well may be the quintessential 40’s musical.

Rusty Parker (Rita) is a hoofer at Danny McGuire’s (Kelly) joint in Brooklyn (where else?). She enters a contest sponsored by Vanity Magazine to find a new cover girl for their 50th anniversary issue. Editor John Coudair ( Otto Kruger ) spots her and is reminded of the girl he once loved and lost (who turns out to have been Rusty’s grandmother, as flashbacks tell us), and immediately signs her up, despite protests from his Gal Friday “Stonewall” Jackson (Arden). Romantic complications ensue when Broadway impresario Noah Wheaton ( Lee Bowman ) falls for her and wants to take her away from Danny. After speaking with Coudair, Danny doesn’t want to stand in her way, and concocts a rift between them so Rusty will quit his nightclub. Wheaton is about to marry Rusty, but Danny’s loyal pal Genius (Silvers) finds a means to put a stop to it. Rusty realizes she belongs with Danny, and our two lovers are reunited.

Yes, it’s your standard “boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy regains girl” plotline, used as a framework to hang the musical numbers on, but done with buckets full of style and glamour. At long last, Rita Hayworth became a superstar after being groomed in films like THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, BLOOD & SAND, and two with Fred Astaire (YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER) that showcased her dancing skills. Her beauty and charms were put front and center in COVER GIRL (though her singing voice was dubbed by Martha Mears), in numbers like “Put Me to the Test”, an energetic, athletic tap duet with Kelly; “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, the Oscar-nominated song featuring a romantic dance by the duo; and the showstopping “Cover Girl”, with a host of cover girls from famous mags from the 40’s (Cosmo, McCall’s, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Redbook, Liberty, Look, et al) followed by gorgeous Rita outshining them all, dancing with a male chorus up a winding staircase as glitter rains down on them all. It’s sheer 40’s movie magic!

Gene Kelly had only made three pictures prior to COVER GIRL, but he was already an established Broadway star. Columbia promised him a free hand in the film’s choreography, and Kelly didn’t disappoint. He, Rita, and Silvers have a habit (in the movie) of going to Joe’s Place every Friday and ordering plates of oysters (or “ersters” as proprietor Ed Brophy calls them, laying on the Brooklynese thick), looking for an elusive pearl that will symbolize a big breaks a’comin’. The trio then break into “Make Way for Tomorrow”, a happy number that has them dancing their way down the streets of Brooklyn, until meeting up with a questioning cop (foreshadowing Kelly’s signature SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN dance). The song is reprised by Kelly and Silvers as a jazzy comic number, but Kelly has a big solo spot in the “Alter-Ego Dance”, a trick-photography enhanced production that finds Kelly, beside himself over Rita, dancing with his superimposed self! It was this athletic dance that made his home studio MGM sit up and take notice, leading to Kelly doing all the choreography in his films, beginning with ANCHORS AWEIGH .

If Rita Hayworth was never lovelier here, then Eve Arden was never funnier as the sarcastic, wisecracking Jackson. Her reactions to Rita’s first “animated” audition are priceless, as are her later responses backstage at Danny’s. Phil Silvers is given plenty of comic material as Genius, including a satirical solo song “Who’s Complaining”, spoofing wartime rationing. Phil’s manic comedy brightens the film, and he gets to show off his song-and-dance skills too, with more than a little help from Kelly and Hayworth.

The stylish and terribly underrated director Charles Vidor directs a witty script  (laced with some sly sexual innuendos) by Virginia Van Upp. Vidor would later go on to direct Rita in two of her best, GILDA and THE LOVES OF CARMEN. And you want Familiar Faces, COVER GIRL has ’em by the score! Besides those already mentioned, you’ve got Jess Barker (as the young Kruger during the flashback scenes), Billy Benedict Curt Bois , Leslie Brooks, Stanley Clements, Anita Colby , Jinx Falkenburg (as herself), Thurston Hall , Milton Kibbee, perennial drunk Jack Norton Barbara Pepper , Jack Rice, John Tyrrell, a very young Shelley Winters , and Constance Worth.

COVER GIRL exudes the kind of  Hollywood glitz and glamour you rarely find anymore, made stars out of Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, and is one of the best musicals made in the Fabulous 40’s. Loaded with talent at every position, it’s a must-see for lovers of classic movies.

One in Eight Million: NAKED CITY (Universal-International 1948)

Producer Mark Hellinger, who brought you the film noir classics THE KILLERS and BRUTE FORCE , traveled to the mean streets of New York City to shoot  NAKED CITY, along with director Jules Dassin and a solid cast led by Barry Fitzgerald. The movie, though fiction, is shot in docu-drama style, with Hellinger himself providing narration throughout. It was an attempt to do something boldly different with the genre, and it succeeds thanks to the talents in front and behind the cameras.

Beautiful young model Jean Dexter is found by her housekeeper brutally murdered in the bathtub. The homicide squad, with veteran Lt. Dan Muldoon and rookie detective Jimmy Halloran, gets to work investigating the case. They discover Jean had been seeing a mysterious man from Baltimore named Henderson. The team then begins the slow, methodical process of catching a killer, pulling on the loose strings of Dexter’s life. Their number one suspect becomes lying young wastrel Frank Niles, engaged to Dexter’s model friend Ruth Morrison. Through dogged determination and old-fashioned footwork, they’re led to a harmonica-playing ex-wrestler named Willie Garzah, who leads them on a chase through the gritty streets of New York, winding up on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the real murderer is finally shot down and killed.

Barry Fitzgerald excels as the no-nonsense veteran cop. Lt. Dan Muldoon is a far cry from his Father Fitzgibbon in GOING MY WAY or Michaleen Oge Flynn in THE QUIET MAN , but Fitzgerald still displays that old Irish charm. His partner Halloran is played by Don Taylor, whose star would soon be on the rise in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and STALAG 17. It fell just as quickly, and Taylor turned to directing, helming ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU among others. Howard Duff’s star was also on the rise as the cad Niles; Duff would later star in his own police procedural TV series THE FELONY SQUAD.

Ted de Corsia  makes a most memorable villain as the brutish Willie Garzah. Though Garzah is spotted throughout the film, our first real encounter finds Halloran tracking the thug to his sparse apartment, where he’s stripped to the waste and incessantly working out. After rabbit-punching Halloran into unconsciousness, Garzah takes it on the lam. He’s so mean he even kills a seeing-eye dog along the way before going down in a blaze of inglory atop the Williamsburg Bridge. De Corsia (who also appeared in the noirs LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE ENFORCER, THE BIG COMBO, THE KILLING, and several Westerns) makes Willie Garzah one of the vilest villains in film noir history, and that’s saying a lot!

Adelaide Klein & Grover Burgess as the grieving parents

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”, and it seems there are also as many Familiar Faces roaming its streets, many of whom make their Silver Screen debuts. Among the throng of humanity you’ll spot cast members Dorothy Hart, Frank Conroy, and House Jameson, and in smaller bits Jean Adair, Walter Burke Paul Ford Kathleen Freeman , Bruce Gordon, James Gregory , Robert H. Harris, Enid Markey (who was Tarzan’s first Jane opposite Elmo Lincoln back in 1918!), John Marley, Arthur O’Connell, David Opatoshu, Nehemiah Persoff, Molly Picon, and John Randolph. A special Cracked Rear Viewer round of applause goes to actors Adelaide Klein and Grover Burgess as the victim’s parents; their few scenes are brief but packed with such raw emotion I felt I just had to give them a shout-out!

circa 1944: Polish-born American photographer Arthur Fellig (1899 – 1969) with his Speed Graphic camera. He was known by the police as ‘Weegee’ for his ouija-like prescience of crime scenes and disasters. In fact he kept a radio in his car tuned to the police frequency, and was often able to reach the scene before the police themselves. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

The screenplay by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald was inspired by a book of photographs titled NAKED CITY by famed photojournalist Weegee , noted for his uncompromising pictures of life in the urban jungle. The film earned two Academy Awards, for William Daniels’  stark cinematography and Paul Wetherwax’s precise editing, and spawned a later television show in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The score is credited to both Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner, but who is responsible for what I just don’t know. NAKED CITY was Mark Hellinger’s last film; he died of a heart attack while watching the final cut three months before it’s release. He certainly went out on a high note, as the film has become one of the most influential of its ilk. The New York locations make this a must for history buffs and film buffs alike, giving us an up-close-and-personal look at a bygone era as well as one of the greatest films noir of all time.

The real star of “The Naked City” – The big Apple circa 1947

 

A Blast From The Past: Make Mine Freedom

Happy Loyalty Day from your friends at Through the Shattered Lens!!

Through the Shattered Lens

Hi there!

Well, it’s May 1st!  Not only is it International Worker’s Day but, here in the United States, it is also Loyalty Day!

What are you supposed to do on Loyalty Day?  To be honest, I’m not really sure.  I actually didn’t even know there was such a thing as Loyalty Day until about two years ago.  I guess I’ll spend this Loyalty Day as I spent previous Loyalty Days, ironically commenting on the fact that it’s Loyalty Day.

So, with all that in mind, here’s a rather odd blast from the past (1948, to be exact) called Make Mine Freedom.  It’s a cartoon about why America rules and the rest of the world sucks.  Woo hoo!  Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!  USA!  USA! USA!

As for the cartoon itself, it’s charmingly odd and will be best enjoyed by people who have a sense of humor…

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Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.

 

My Reason to Watch WILSON (20th Century Fox 1944)

Normally I wouldn’t watch something like WILSON, producer Darryl F. Zanuck ‘s 1944 biographical box office flop about the 28th President of the United States. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But when I turned TCM on last night, there was Ben Mankiewicz introducing the film, so I decided I’d watch a little. I ended up watching the whole thing, and while it’s not very exciting, I did get engrossed in the movie, but not for the story.

The film itself follows the life and career of Woodrow Wilson, and his rise from President of Princeton University to Governor of New Jersey to U.S. President. How much is truth and how much fiction, I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that character actor Alexander Knox is a dead ringer for Wilson, and pretty much carries the film with his statesmanlike manner. Ruth Nelson plays first wife Ellen, who dies a tragic movie death, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite good as Wilson’s second bride Edith, who takes charge when the president suffers a stroke.

The main reason I stayed up to watch WILSON was the marvelous supporting cast of character actors, a veritable Who’s Who of Classic Films! There’s Thomas Mitchell as Wilson’s trusted aide Joe Tumulty, Charles Coburn as economic advisor Dr. Holmes, a very young Vincent Price as Treasury Secretary McAdoo, an almost unrecognizable Sir Cedric Hardwicke as political rival Henry Cabot Lodge, Thurston Hall as Jersey Senator “Big Ed” Jones, Eddie Foy Jr. as Eddie Foy Sr. (who else?), plus Sidney Blackmer, Three Stooges nemesis Symona Boniface, Francis X. Bushman, Gino Corrado, Marcel Dalio, Francis Ford , Reed Hadley, Charles Halton, John Hamilton, Cy Kendall, George Macready, Edwin Maxwell, Isabel Randolph, Roy Roberts, Dewey Robinson, Ian Wolfe, Will Wright, and a host of other Familiar Faces. Keep a sharp eye peeled for quick cameos from James Cagney and Robert Cummings. I didn’t spot Bess Flowers, but I’m sure she’s in there somewhere!

At around the movie’s midpoint, we get vintage newsreel footage of America preparing for World War I (the war to end all wars, remember?), and history buffs can get glimpses of historical figures like King George V, General Blackjack Pershing, and Teddy Roosevelt, along with silent stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, and Al Jolson pitching in for the war effort. So while WILSON the movie didn’t exactly hold my interest, staying up to play “Spot the Classic Stars” certainly did. If you’re a classic movie buff like me, you’ll have yourself a ball!