Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

A Love Letter to STAN & OLLIE (Sony Pictures Classics 2018)


I told you Dear Readers I was going to see STAN & OLLIE when it came to my area, and last Saturday night I did just that. Taking the 22 mile trip down the highway to Swansea, MA to catch the 9:40 showing, I have good news and bad news. The good: STAN & OLLIE is one of the best Hollywood biopic I’ve ever seen, a loving tribute to the classic comedy duo. The bad: well, I’ll get to that a bit later.

The film follows Laurel and Hardy as they embark on a 1953 tour of the UK. The duo is older, in need of money, and Stan is working on obtaining funding for their screen comeback – an adaptation of the Robin Hood legend. Ollie is in poor physical condition due to his massive weight gain, but Stan has persuaded him to do the tour. They’re booked into a succession of second-rate houses, with a rather sparse turnout but the veteran troupers press on, adding some funny new gags to their repertoire.

The new film falls through, as the producer’s unable to secure funding for a Laurel & Hardy movie, but Stan continues to work up new gags for it, stringing Ollie along to keep his spirits up. The team’s wives come abroad to join them, Ollie’s devoted Lucille and Stan’s Ina, though the women aren’t really fond of each other. Things get ugly at a party in their honor, when Stan’s old resentment over Ollie making a film without him (1939’s ZENOBIA) while Stan was involved in a contract dispute with Hal Roach rears its ugly head, and harsh words are exchanged. The two stop talking to each other… until Ollie suffers a heart attack while they’re judging a bathing beauty contest.

The old friends mend fences in a touching scene, but doctors insist Ollie retire from show biz immediately. Stan is forced to try and continue the tour with a new, untried partner, but can’t bring himself to do it. Stan and Ina pack and get ready to return stateside, when a knock on the door finds Ollie, dressed and ready to return to the stage, despite his illness. It’s a chore, but he makes it through, and as they depart for the Irish leg of the tour, Stan lets Ollie know the new film isn’t going to happen. Ollie says he already knew, but let Stan believe he didn’t, because the show must go on!

Some dramatic license has been taken in STAN & OLLIE in order to give the film some conflict. As I told you in last week’s post on WAY OUT WEST, that 1937 comedy serves as the jumping off point for the new biopic. Stan argues with producer Hal Roach on the set, demanding more money and ownership of the Laurel & Hardy films. Didn’t happen. Stan was too much of a professional to cause a scene on a film set, though he did leave Roach during a contract dispute. Since Ollie was under a separate contract, Roach cast him in ZENOBIA opposite former silent star Harry Langdon. There was no animosity because of this, and no later public spat, but hey – can’t have a film without a little conflict, now can we!

Ollie was certainly ill, and did indeed suffer a heart attack on tour, but Stan wasn’t in the best of health either, having troubles with both his prostate and diabetes. There was indeed a ‘Robin Hood’ movie in the planning stages, but it was back in 1947. Be that as it may, STAN & OLLIE works mainly because of stars Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy. These two actors are pitch perfect as the duo, recreating many classic scenes and gags, and while Reilly has been singled out for his performance (deservedly so), let’s not give short shrift to Coogan as Stan Laurel. They are a delight, and both men are entitled to a large round of applause for bringing Stan and Ollie back to vivid life.

Equally good are Nina Arianda as Lucille and Shirley Henderson as Ina; the two women act as almost a second comedy team! Rufus Jones does good work as real-life tour promoter Bernard Delfont (he was the real-life brother of famed  producer Sir Lew Grade), Danny Huston shines in his brief turn as Hal Roach, and film buffs will enjoy cameos by Keith MacPherson as L&H’s perennial screen nemesis James Finlayson and Richard Cant as Harry Langdon.

Jeff Pope’s screenplay has called a “love letter” and “valentine” to Laurel & Hardy, and those are pretty apt descriptions. Though that necessary conflict arises, Pope shows how the boy’s undying affection and friendship for each other conquers all, as when Stan climbs into Ollie’s sick-bed to help keep him warm. I particularly enjoyed a small,  wistful moment when Stan, walking the streets of London, looks up at a movie poster of ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS, knowing he and Ollie will never get back to the big screen again. John S. Baird’s direction is subtle and unobtrusive, the hallmark of a good storyteller. STAN & OLLIE is not only for fans of Laurel & Hardy in particular, or classic films in general, but for fans of good, heartfelt filmmaking.

And now for the bad news (besides the film not getting any Oscar nominations!): while the multiplex had large crowds for AQUAMAN, GLASS, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, SERENITY, and VICE, the showing of STAN & OLLIE I attended played to an audience of one – namely Yours Truly. I didn’t expect a huge turnout, but neither did I expect I’d be getting a private screening! I felt a twinge of sadness about this (okay, more than just a twinge),as STAN & OLLIE is a good film about two great comic talents and deserves to be seen, preferably on the big screen. So if it’s playing at your local theater, do me a favor… go out and support the film. As a lifelong Laurel & Hardy fan, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Stan and Ollie deserve it.

The Real Stan & Ollie on their final tour

Book Review: HANDSOME JOHNNY, The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli, Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin by Lee Server (St. Martin’s Press 2108)

Ever since THE GODFATHER, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Mafia in America. I’ve devoured just about every book on the subject, and consider myself a bit of an expert on this clandestine crime cartel. I believe it was while reading Ovid Demaris’s 1980 THE LAST MAFIOSO, a biography of gangster-turned-rat Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, that I first became aware of the man known as Johnny Rosselli. His story captivated my interest, so when I saw a new biography of Rosselli was on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, I thought it’d make a great Christmas present… for myself! Naturally, I bought a copy, eager to learn more about this man who played a pivotal role in both the Mafia’s rise and the shadowy underbelly of American life in the 20th Century.

Author Lee Server is someone I’m unfamiliar with, which is strange, because his previously released titles sound right up my alley. There’s THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR, a compendium of articles about film noir, pulp fiction, and the like, and biographies of Sam Fuller, Robert Mitchum, and Ava Gardner. Obviously, Server knows the Hollywood turf, and HANDSOME JOHNNY is a meticulously researched account of Rosselli’s life. At times, his prose reminded me of James Ellroy, a perfect fit for this material.

The dapper Johnny Rosselli

Server takes us on a trip down the dark alleys and glittering neon lights of 20th Century America, and Johnny Rosselli was there for it all. The slum kid immigrant who hit the road as a teen; Prohibition in the days of Al Capone; Hollywood’s classic era, where he made friends with Harry Cohn, slept with Jean Harlow, married ‘B’ starlet June Lang, milked the studios with shady labor practices, and even produced a couple of films (CANON CITY, HE WALKED BY NIGHT); the glory days of Las Vegas; political shenaningans with Joe Kennedy; and the ill-fated attempt by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, which may have cost President John Kennedy his life. The famous and the infamous rub shoulders behind this opaque curtain, lifted by Server in a gripping read I just couldn’t put down. You won’t believe some of the names who pop up in HANDSOME JOHNNY, but I’m not talkin’ – you’ll have to pick up a copy for yourself!

Rosselli in later years

My only quibble with Server comes when speaking about Rosselli’s involvement with Eagle-Lion Films, successor to Poverty Row studio PRC. He calls Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR  a “rock-bottom crime drama” and states a “doped-up Bela Lugosi” was on the roster. DETOUR has rightly been hailed as a classic in the film noir canon, while Lugosi only made one pic for PRC, THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine!). But I’m just nitpicking here based on my own personal bias. Gangster buffs, movie gossip fans, political junkies, and history nerds like myself will devour HANDSOME JOHNNY like a platter of calamari washed down with strong bathtub gin, a right-between-the-eyes look at Rosselli the man and a side of America you don’t learn about in school. I highly recommend you buy it on your next trip to the bookstore!

Hollywood Babylon: TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warner Brothers 1958)

Hollywood biopics are by and large more about their entertainment value than historical accuracy. TOO MUCH TOO SOON is no exception. It tells the story of actress Diana Barrymore, daughter of “The Great Profile” John, based on her 1957 best-selling tell-all, and though it pretty much sticks to the facts, many of them have been sanitized for audience consumption. Dorothy Malone , fresh off her Oscar-winning role in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, is very good indeed as Diana, whose true life was much more sordid than fiction, and we’ll get to all that later. What makes the film for me was the actor portraying the dissipated John Barrymore – none other than Errol Flynn !

Errol Flynn (1909-1959) as John Barrymore

Don’t expect to see the dashing star of CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD here. Flynn (who a year later would release his own tell-all book, MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS) looks bloated, paunchy, and haggard… and it ain’t makeup, folks! Years of carousing and alcohol/drug abuse had taken their toll on the once-athletic star. John Barrymore was Flynn’s idol and the younger actor modeled both his acting and his lifestyle on his hero. The two became friends and drinking companions in a band of Hollywood reprobates known as ‘The Bundy Drive Gang’, along with W.C. Fields , artist John Decker , writer Gene Fowler, actors John Carradine and Alan Mowbray , and others. There’s a famous story about how, after Barrymore’s death from cirrhosis of the liver, director Raoul Walsh “borrowed” the actor’s corpse and propped it up on Flynn’s couch, scaring the beejezus out of him!

Flynn gives a warts-and-all portrayal here, a loving tribute that finds the star even getting to spout some Shakespeare like his mentor. His Barrymore, much like himself, is a washed-up, booze-soaked old ham who’s squandered his talents with his alcoholism and womanizing, yet still manages to exhibit an undeniable charm. Errol Flynn himself was at a low point in his career, no longer the flamboyant screen swashbuckler but still capable of delivering the goods when the material was right. The part of John Barrymore fit Flynn like a glove and he gives it his all. It’s a poignant performance that surely hit close to home for Flynn, yet he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. The romantic hero of countless films died a year later at age fifty after completing the low-budget CUBAN REBEL GIRLS with his then-teenaged girlfriend Beverly Aadland.

As for the rest of TOO MUCH TOO SOON, Malone gives a scorching performance as Diana, who heads to Hollywood to live with the father she (like Flynn) idolized. Signing a contract with ‘Imperial Films’ (actually Universal), Diana meets and marries handsome young actor ‘Vince Bryant’ (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., in reality older actor Bramwell Fletcher, who acted with Jack in 1931’s SVENGALI). The elder Barrymore hasn’t been onscreen in five years (untrue; he worked right up until his death in 1942), and is offered the part of Sheridan Whiteside in the movie version of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (true; Bette Davis wanted him badly, but Jack Warner didn’t). When The Great Profile succumbs to his disease, Diana descends into alcoholism and madness, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Now married to ‘Vince’, Diana’s drinking and neediness escalates. She takes up with tennis bum Johnny Howard, a real rat bastard as played by Ray Danton (the real Howard was ten times worse, and later convicted of “white slavery”). Howard goes through Diana’s money like water, and her mother cuts her off. Diana tries to restart her career onstage, meeting sympathetic actor Robert Wilcox (Ed Kemmer; the real Wilcox once starred in the serial THE MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN), who’s eight months sober. The play flops, and the two are back on the bottle, living in a sleazy hotel. Diana is reduced to doing a vaudeville act doing bad impressions at a seedy strip joint (true). Now destitute, she breaks down when seeing her reflection in a window (a little dramatic license here), smashing the glass, and is arrested and put in a state mental hospital. She’s visited there by author Gerold Frank, who offers to write her life story when she’s released, giving her the chance to begin anew.

The real Diana Barrymore (1921-1960) with Errol Flynn

The real life Diana never did stop drinking or taking barbiturates (a deadly combination, trust me) before her own death in 1960 at age 38. Diana Barrymore was used for her name value on marquees, and is remembered today for her tragic life rather than any films she made. Hollywood always devours its own, and TOO MUCH TOO SOON exploits Diana  once again, bringing to the screen her sordid (though sanitized) story for profit. It’s redeemed only by the performances of Malone and, especially, Errol Flynn.

Book Review: HOPE: Entertainer of The Century by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

He was unquestionably one of the most famous, most recognized persons of the 20th Century, the father of what we now know as stand-up comedy, the first true multi-media star. A patriot and a philanderer, a giver and a taker, a smart-mouthed comic and a friend to presidents and generals. But who was Bob Hope, really? This ambitious 2014 biography by Richard Zoglin attempts to answer that question, a meticulously researched tome that tries to uncover the private man behind the public mask.

with vaudeville partner George Byrne

Zoglin digs deep into the available archives and uses interviews with those that knew him to paint his portrait of the notoriously reticent Bob Hope, reaching all the way back to his hardscrabble beginnings as an immigrant in Cleveland with six brothers, an alcoholic father who was an itinerant stone cutter, and a stern but loving mother who served as the de facto head of the household. Little Leslie Townes Hope was a wild child who spent time in reform school. He entered vaudeville at age 21, working with various partners (including at one point Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters), engaging in songs, dance, and snappy patter. Hope became an emcee for the shows, honing his future stand-up skills to perfection with rapid-fire comic delivery and engaging his audience by breaking the “fourth wall”, a gimmick he’d later utilize in his movie career.

with Shirley Ross in “The Big Broadcast of 1938”

It’s all here: his Broadway successes in ROBERTA and  RED, HOT, & BLUE; his early two-reelers for Educational and Vitaphone; his ascent to ratings domination on radio and television; entertaining the troops in conflicts around the globe for the USO; making Oscar broadcasts must-see TV as a 17 time host. Hope’s film career is well documented, from his first feature THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 where he and singer Shirley Ross introduced “Thanks for the Memory”, to his last starring role in 1972’s dreary CANCEL MY RESERVATION. The book details his marriage to Dolores Reade (née DeFina), a devout Catholic who kept the family together while Hope travelled the world, remaining loyal despite his myriad affairs with showgirls and starlets (Doris Day, Marilyn Maxwell, and Barbara Payton were among his better-known conquests).

Hope was considered a risqué comedian in his heyday, his brash and irreverent monologues frequently getting him in trouble with network radio censors. The wild and zany ROAD movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour caused audiences to howl with laughter at the madcap ad-libbing (and Zoglin uncovers the truth about Hope’s relationships with his costars). But yesterday’s cutting-edge comic quickly becomes today’s establishment shill, as Hope found out with his unpopular stance on the Vietnam War. Caught in a political crossfire and out of touch with the younger generation, Hope was a staunch supporter of both the war and President Richard Nixon, with whom he became an ally and confidant.

Bob Hope entertaining the troops in Vietnam

Zoglin’s book sheds light on Bob Hope’s inner workings: driven by memories of early poverty and his father’s failures, he used humor and performing as a coping skill, and like an addict with a needle or alcoholic with a bottle, developed an addiction to fame, fortune, and the spotlight, unable to stop until well past his prime. Inaction was death to Hope, he had to hear that applause and laughter to validate himself. It’s a fascinating, well written and researched book that belongs on any classic film lover’s shelf.

Book Review: ANDY & DON: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show (Simon and Schuster)

andy1

THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW is one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history, still being run on cable networks fifty-five years after its debut. The show about life in small town Mayberry revolves around the friendship between mellow Sheriff Andy Taylor and his hyperactive deputy, Barney Fife. ANDY & DON not only tells us about them, but about the real life friendship between the two stars, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

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The book shows us the very similar backgrounds of the two comic legends. Both came from poor rural towns (Knotts in West Virginia, Griffith in North Carolina), and had their share of grief and difficulty growing up. The pair met when both were cast in the Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants, and hit it off right away. When Griffith was slated to star in a new sitcom as a country sheriff, Knotts called and asked if he could use a deputy. The rest is television history, as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW became a consistent top ten smash, winning several Emmys for Knotts as klutzy, inept Barney Fife. Even after Knotts left to do movies, the two remained friends until their dying day.

Author Daniel de Vise’ was brother-in-law to Knotts by his third marriage (both stars were thrice wed). He seems a little biased, painting Knotts more sympathetically despite his flaws, while Griffith comes off as kind of a jerk, more Lonesome Rhodes than Andy Taylor. But the book is meticulously researched, as the author interviewed people like Ron Howard, Jim Nabors (Gomer!), Tim Conway, Ken Berry, and various members of the Griffith and Knotts clans, as well as their managers, so the claims may be true. It’s an enjoyable read for fans, and gives us a warts-and-all look at both stars. Through all their triumphs and tragedies, their friendship remained intact, a testament to the warmth you feel whenever Griffith and Knotts share the screen. If you like behind the scenes tales of Hollywood, ANDY & DON is a book you shouldn’t miss.