Marlowe at the Movies Returns!: Bogie & Bacall in THE BIG SLEEP (Warner Brothers 1946)

It’s been a long time since we last visited with Raymond Chandler’s fictional “knight-errant”, PI Philip Marlowe. Way too long, so let’s take a look at THE BIG SLEEP, starring Humphrey Bogart as the definitive screen Marlowe. This 1946 Howard Hawks film was a follow-up to 1944’s hit TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which introduced audiences (and Bogie) to luscious Lauren Bacall . The pair was dynamite together onscreen, and off as well, marrying a year later. Their May/December romance was one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, lasting until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.

For me to try and explain the plot here would be futile, as it takes more twists and turns than a “Balinese belly dancer”. Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood, whose sexy young daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. The General’s other daughter Vivien, a sexy divorcee, is also in trouble. This takes Our Man Marlowe through a maze involving murder, money, and sexy dames by the truckload, all of whom seem to want the sleuth. It’s tough to tell all the players without a scorecard, but that doesn’t really matter. Hawks’ take on Chandler is all about noir style, and the film has it in spades! The hard-boiled, hard-bitten dialog by screenwriters William Faulkner, Jules Furthman , and Leigh Brackett is delivered in that trademark “rat-a-tat” Warner Brothers style by the cast, the dark, moody photography by Sidney Hickox perfectly captures the noir world inhabited by the characters, the studio-bound fog-shrouded streets look marvelous, and everybody’s hiding some sort of secret. Even the opening credits literally scream noir, with Bogie and Bacall smoking cigarettes in silhouette, then placing the burning butts in an ashtray as Max Steiner’s sweeping music plays under the credits.

THE BIG SLEEP was filmed in 1945, but when TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT lit up the screen (and the box office) like a comet, the studio decided to take advantage of its newfound star team and shoot additional scenes featuring Bogie and Bacall. The couple’s pairing was steamier than General Sternwood’s orchid-filled hothouse, their sexually charged banter flowing freer than bootleg gin (check out their “horse racing” metaphors for example!).  I loved the way Bogart tugs at his ear whenever he’s in deep thought, and Bacall’s still sexiness covers the fact she’s fairly new to the acting game at this point in her career. Tongues are placed firmly in cheek as they trade repartee, and if their first film together established them as a force to be reckoned with, THE BIG SLEEP certainly seals the deal.

The supporting cast is more than up to the task of keeping up with Bogie and Bacall’s star power. Twenty year old Martha Vickers (whose noir bona fides include RUTHLESS, THE BIG BLUFF, and THE BURGLAR) is the sexy (there’s that word again!) Carmen, a babyish bimbo constantly biting her thumb like a pacifier (or more likely, an oral fixation!). John Ridgley (who appeared with Bogart on eleven other occasions) has the pivotal role of gambling joint owner Eddie Mars. You can’t have a film noir without inviting Elisha Cook Jr. to the party, and he’s here in a small role as (what else?) a weasel trying to sell Marlowe some information. Young Dorothy Malone made a splash as a book store owner sharing rye (and whatever else gets left to the imagination!) with the shamus. Cowboy star Bob Steele plays ice-cold killer Canino, an archetype he’d return to in Bogart’s 1951 THE ENFORCER. Familiar Faces dotting the dark landscape include Trevor Bardette , Tanis Chandler (no relation to Raymond!), Joseph Crehan, Bess Flowers , Louis Jean Heydt, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey (as Marlowe’s cop friend), Theodore von Eltz, and Ben Welden.

Howard Hawks mastered any film genre he worked in, from screwball comedy (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to wild Western ( RIO BRAVO ), during his fifty-four year Hollywood career. In THE BIG SLEEP, Hawks injects the dark world of film noir with his personal artistic vision, and paints a black & white masterpiece with shadows and light. Bogart inhabits the character of Philip Marlowe like a well-worn trench coat, Bacall is the quintessential Hawks “hard dame”, and the overlapping staccato dialog is filled with a sly, sexy sense of humor. Don’t worry about following the story, just sit back and enjoy Hawks and his stars at the top of their game!

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My Huckleberry Friend: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (Paramount 1961)

(“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” airs tonight, 6/12/17 at 8:00 EST on TCM as part of their month-long salute to Audrey Hepburn.)

“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky” – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

From it’s hauntingly romantic theme “Moon River” to it’s sophisticated screenplay by George Axelrod, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a near-perfect movie. The bittersweet comedy-drama stars Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar nominated performance as Holly Golightly, a New York “party girl” who winds up falling for struggling writer George Peppard. That Hepburn didn’t get the Oscar (Sophia Loren took it home that year for TWO WOMEN) is one of the Academy’s greatest crimes. The film has a very personal connection with me, as I’ll talk about at the end of this post.

We meet Holly emerging from a cab and walking down New York’s Fifth Avenue as dawn’s first rays begin to hit the city. She’s wearing a black cocktail dress and oversized sunglasses, and you know she hasn’t been home all night. One of her many “beaus” is waiting for her at her apartment, a creep begging to be let in, but Holly blows him off. She’s not the kind of girl to let anyone in, metaphorically speaking. Holly knows how to use men to take care of herself, to get what she wants, and isn’t about to allow anyone to own her. She doesn’t even own her cat, a stray “no-named slob” called Cat. He just lives there with her.

Enter Paul Varjak (Peppard), a down-on-his-luck author with one published novel who moves into Holly’s building. Paul has a wealthy benefactor, called 2E ( Patricia Neal ), who pays his way. Paul’s a “kept man”, and the two lost souls hit it off, with Holly nicknaming him ‘Fred’ because he reminds her of her brother. When another “beau” calls on her, banging at her door to be let in, Holly climbs the fire escape to Paul’s apartment. She spies 2E leaving cash on his dresser before leaving, and enters Paul’s bedroom. They sleep together, cuddling, until her nightmares awaken her, and when he pries about the things she said, she leaves.

Paul is obviously smitten with the free-spirited Holly, but their relationship is strictly platonic at first. When Paul finally confesses his love for her, Holly freezes up, turning cold and vowing to marry a rich Brazilian. She equates love with confinement and refuses to be caged. Audrey Hepburn gives a dazzling performance as Holly, outwardly flighty and glib, yet extremely vulnerable on the inside, a frightened child play-acting her way through adulthood in the big city. She’s flirtatious and charming and coy, “a phony, but a real phony”, as Martin Balsam’s character calls her, peppering her speech with French words and holding her extra-long cigarette holder like a magic wand. Audrey combines her naturally girlish qualities with a sexy worldliness, and makes Holly Golightly one of cinema’s most endearing characters.

George Peppard (THE CARPETBAGGERS, THE A-TEAM) has his best screen role as Paul Varjak. Unlike Holly, Paul has allowed himself to become a bird in someone else’s gilded cage, and it’s only after meeting do they learn true love holds the key to their freedom. The two have great chemistry together, and I especially enjoyed the scene where, after selling a short story, they celebrate by “doing things neither one of us has done before”, a series of vignettes that finds them at the venerable Tiffany’s on a ten-dollar budget (with John McGiver sweet as the clerk) and shoplifting Halloween masks from a five-and-ten cent store, ending their evening by spending the night together, which almost ruins their fragile relationship.

There are other fine small performances, in particular Buddy Ebsen as Holly’s older backwoods husband, who shows up in New York to take her home. Ebsen is sad and heartbreaking as Doc Golightly, still in love with this girl-child he married when she was 14, a girl who no longer exists except in his memory. Balsam and Neal are professional as always, and Alan “Fred Flintstone” Reed has a brief bit as gangster Sally Tomato, who pays Holly $100 a week to visit him in Sing Sing and get a “weather report”, which plays a part in the film’s comclusion. Other Familiar Faces include Stanley Adams  , Elvia Allman , Henry Beckman, Beverly Hills, Gil Lamb, Joyce Meadows, Joan Staley, Dorothy Whitney, and two-time Patsy Award winner Orangey as Cat, a talented feline I’ve discussed before (see THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) .

The only drawback is Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s apoplectic neighbor Mr. Yunioshi. He’s goes way over the top with his exaggerated Japanese accent and mannerisms, and his slapstick bits just don’t fit. Perhaps a real Asian actor like Keye Luke or Victor Sen Young could’ve pulled the character off. Rooney doesn’t. He’s just bad. Fortunately, his scene’s are brief enough not to distract from the film’s overall quality.

Former actor Blake Edwards takes the director’s chair, and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S was his breakthrough film. Edwards had created the stylish TV noir PETER GUNN, and his resume reads like a list of Hollywood’s best: DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE GREAT RACE, 10, SOB, VICTOR/VICTORIA, and the PINK PANTHER movies. Axelrod’s script is adapted from a Truman Capote novella, though slightly sanitized for the screen. Holly isn’t actually called a prostitute in the film, but that’s exactly what she is; taking money from men for “favors” (For that matter, so is Paul). Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s song “Moon River”, wistfully sung in the film by Audrey herself, deservedly won the Oscar that year. It was later became a big hit for crooner Andy Williams, and became his signature tune.

True Confessions Time: Many moons ago, I played ‘Paul Varjak’ to a real-life ‘Holly Golightly’. She moved into the apartment upstairs from me, and I met her late one night coming up the steps in a black cocktail dress. She was also a “party girl”, and I at the time was trying to be a writer (unsuccessfully, I may add). There was even a cat involved (his name was Stimpy). Like the film’s character, my ‘Holly’ was a wild thing, supporting herself as best she could, moving from man to man frequently. My relationships at the time were not the model of stability, and neither was I, so I didn’t judge. There was a brief romance, but mostly we’d see each other between partners and curl up together to sleep, two lost souls bonded by our loneliness. But life doesn’t always perfectly imitate art. She became a heroin addict, we drifted apart, and time marched on . Many years later, I heard she had gotten into a jam involving a lot of narcotics and went on the lam from the Feds, her whereabouts unknown. Somewhere down south, or so I was told. She was a sweet, troubled free spirit who always wound up with the wrong end of the lollipop. Wherever you are, my ‘Holly’, may God be with you.

Kicking Off A Trend: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (Warner Brothers 1972)

When FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH first hit the local multiplex back in the day, everybody in the neighborhood was kung-fu fighting, throwing chops and roundhouse kicks at each other, trying to be like star Lo Lieh. Bruce Lee’s movies hadn’t yet made it our way, but David Carradine’s KUNG FU was must-see TV for every adolescent boy (and some of the cooler girls). Pretty soon  chop-sockey action spread all over the city’s theaters, but it was FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH that reached New Bedford, MA first, and has always held a special place in my heart.

Hong Kong action star Lo Lieh plays Chao Chih-Hao, who’s sent to Shen Chin-Pei’s school by his mentor to train further and defeat Ming Dun-Shun’s “gangsters” in a martial arts tournament. Chih-Hao rescues damsel in distress Yen Chu Hung from some bad guys along the way, and though she comes on to him, his heart belongs to his mentor’s daughter Sung Ying Ying. Arriving at the school, Chih-Hao is mercilessly ridden by his teachers and fellow students, especially jealous Han Lung, but he keeps his head down and persists in his studies.

Dun-Shun’s toughest dude Chin Lang comes to the school and threatens Chin-Pei, beating the crap out of all the students and giving Chin-Pei a “dishonorable blow” for good measure. When Chih-Hao hears of this, he goes to the local bar and, after pouring wine over Lang’s head, engages in a fast and furious fight, emerging victorious. Chin-Pei is so impressed by his bravery he decides to teach Chih-Hao the lethal secret technique known as “The Iron Fist”!! Chih-Hao’s hands turn red whenever he gears up to use it, and the siren from the theme from IRONSIDE plays!

The bad guys get wind of this and import some brutal Japanese mercenaries to shake things up.  Han Lung, still jealous of Chih-Hao and Chu Hung’s feelings toward him, sets our hero up, as the mercs waylay him and ruthlessly break both his hands! Nursed back to health by Chu Hung, he trains harder than ever to master the way of “The Iron Fist” and represent the school in the tournament.

The almost non-stop violence and action has a poetic quality to it. Bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and every fight is a well choreographed ballet. There’s also lots of gore, as when Chih-Hao’s old teacher is killed by the mercs in a bloody good scene, or when Han Lung, having failed to stop Chih-Hao, has his eyes ripped out by Dun-Shun’s rotten son. He gets his “eye for an eye” revenge later in a scene shot in a darkened room, reminiscent of American film noir. The final tournament battle’s a dilly, and so’s the ending, an action packed dance of violence sure to please any kung-fu fan.

Producer Sir Run Run Shaw had been involved with movies since 1927, and his Shaw Brothers studio was the largest in Southeast Asia. This was their first stateside hit, and opened the floodgates for the kung-fu genre here in America. Bruce Lee would soon take over as the world’s #1 Martial Arts star, and stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would follow in his footsteps. But FIVE FINGER OF DEATH (also known as KING BOXER) is the film that started it all, and it still holds up well today, despite the really bad dubbing. Then again, that’s just part of what makes these chop-sockey movies so much fun!

A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

Happy Birthday Vincent Price: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (AIP 1960)

I’ve covered Vincent Price’s film work 17 times here, which must be some kind of record. Can you tell he’s one of my all-time favorite actors? Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. The elegant, eloquent Price was also an avid art collector and gourmet cook of some note. He’s justifiably famous for his film noir roles, but Price etched his name in cinematic stone as one of filmdom’s Masters of Horror.

Price starred in his first fright film way back in 1940 with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS . But it wasn’t until 1953’s 3-D outry HOUSE OF WAX that he became tagged as a horror star. Later in that decade, he made a pair of gimmicky shockers for director William Castle ( THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , THE TINGLER), and in 1960 began his collaboration with Roger Corman on movies based (loosely, mind you) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first in the series, 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, helped usher in (sorry!) a whole new genre of horror…  Vincent Price Movies!

The story: a rider approaches a fog-shrouded, gloomy, decaying mansion. He’s Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon), betrothed of Madeline Usher, come to fetch his fiancé. Bristol, the Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), tells him Miss Madeline is ill and confined to her bed by brother Roderick. Enter our star, a blonde Price, as Roderick, a sensitive, tortured soul who suffers “an affliction of the hearing… sounds of an exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. Roderick warns Phillip to “leave this house” and forget about Madeline, for “the Usher line is cursed”, afflicted with madness.

Madeline (Myrna Fahey) arises from her sick-bed to greet Phillip. The beautiful but haunted girl is “obsessed with thoughts of death”, and leads Phillip downstairs to the family crypt, filled with dead ancestors and two coffins waiting for the last living Ushers. Roderick appears, and upstairs he later explains to Phillip the wicked legacy of his forbearers, whose macabre portraits hang on the walls of the house of Usher. He intones that “the house itself is evil now”, the sins of his family “rooted into its stones”.

Madeline dies following an argument with Roderick, dies, unable to take the strain of her situation. She’s buried in the family crypt, finally at peace… or is she? Bristol lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, and a frantic Phillip rushes down to the crypt to find her coffin locked! He takes an axe to the lock, only to discover the casket’s empty! The angry suitor, axe in hand, confronts Roderick, demanding to know where she is. Roderick confesses she lives, telling Phillip, “Even now, I hear her, alive, deranged, in fury… twisting, turning, scratching at the lid with bloody fingernails… can you not hear her voice, she calls my name!”….

A subdued, understated Price left his trademarked ham at the table to play the tortured Roderick Usher. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Price hams it up (see the Dr. Phibes films  , for example), but he could tone things down when the role warranted it. The cultured actor was a Poe aficionado, and his performances in this and the subsequent Corman/Poe films rank among his best work. This was also Corman’s first movie with scenarist Richard Matheson, who does a bang-up job despite taking some liberties with the source material. Surprisingly (or maybe not), American-International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t like the idea, wanting Corman to stick to their profitable low-budget double features. “There’s no monsters”, he complained, and Corman had to explain that “The house IS the monster” before being given the green light*. The rest is horror history.

If Boris Karloff was the King of Horror and Lugosi its Dark Prince, surely Vincent Price has an exalted rank in the horror hierarchy as well. High priest, perhaps? He and his British compatriots Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who was also born on this date) kept the torch of Gothic horror burning well into the 1970’s, before gore and slasher shockers started dominating the marketplace. Happy birthday, Vinnie, and thanks for the nightmares!

(BTW, those weird paintings of the family Usher were done by Burt Shonberg, a little known artist whose feverish works have never been truly appreciated. Since Vincent Price was an ardent collector of art, here’s a sampling of some of them. I think Vincent would approve!)

*according to the book “The Films of Roger Corman” by Alan Frank, pg. 88 (BT Batsford Ltd, 1998)

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.