The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)

Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the respect and admiration of the world, his bravado but a mask for his deep-seated insecurities brought on by his childhood poverty and abandonment issues. He treats the women in his life like dirt, seducing pretty waitress Emma ( Ruth Roman ), leering to her at the beach, “Well, shall we get wet?” (and how THAT quote got through the censors is a miracle!). Forced into a shotgun marriage by her father (Harry Shannon), Midge leaves her to hit the road to boxing glory. Later in the film, after Emma asks for a divorce to marry Connie, Midge brutally rapes her, then violently shoves down his own lame brother when confronted. Yes, Midge Kelly is a total shitheel, and Douglas’s acting will keep you riveted to see what new depths he’ll go to next. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that deservedly won Kirk his first Oscar nomination.

Emma and Connie aren’t the only victims in Midge’s merciless rise to the top. Fight manager Tommy Haley ( Paul Stewart ) takes the creep under his wing and trains him in the pugilistic arts, only to be first betrayed when Midge refuses to dive in a Number One Contender’s Match, then unceremoniously dumped for the lure of big money manager Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten) and femme fatale Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Harris isn’t exempt as Midge seduces his young wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a naïve sculptor unaware she’s being used until Harris teaches her a valuable lesson. Midge even abandons his own mother ( Esther Howard ), arriving too late to visit her before she dies.

Carl Foreman structured his screenplay in circular fashion, with an extended flashback relating the bulk of the story. Foreman, who got his start working on Bowery Boys programmers,  and producer Kramer teamed for some great films: HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE MEN (Marlon Brando’s film debut), CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and the classic Western HIGH NOON, but the writer’s former Communist affiliations got him blacklisted by HUAC. Foreman won the Oscar for 1957’s superb war drama BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, though the statue was given to credited author Pierre Boulle (this was corrected 27 years later, the year Foreman died).

CHAMPION was nominated for six Oscars, including Douglas, Kennedy, Foreman’s screenplay, Dmitri Tiompkin’s  score, and Franz Planer’s cinematography, winning for Harry Gerstad’s stellar editing job. The ultra-realistic boxing scenes were staged by former Light Welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who trained Douglas for the film. Midge Kelly is a repellant character, but Kirk Douglas makes him fascinating to watch, and as in all good noirs, he receives his just desserts in the end, a victim himself of his own lustful machinations. It’s a knockout of a film that pummels the viewer with a barrage of body blows before delivering its fatal punch, and is highly recommended.

Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)

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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and Ned and makes them his prisoners. The Nautilus takes the trio on a fantastic journey to the undersea kingdom, where they encounter everything from cannibalistic headhunters on an unchartered island to a giant squid that attacks the submarine during a gale-force storm.

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The four leads are in top form, especially Kirk Douglas as the rowdy Ned Land. Kirk has a ball playing the rambunctious sailor, and even gets to sing a song, “A Whale of a Tale”. Paul Lukas (Oscar winner for WATCH ON THE RHINE) adds dignity to the part of Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre is sarcastically funny as his sidekick Counseil. James Mason cuts a fine figure as Nemo, the anti-war warrior. Nemo’s a conflicted character; abhorring violence and wishing only to live in peace beneath the sea, yet attacking ships and sending their crews to a watery grave. Of all the screen versions of Verne’s Nemo (Herbert Lom, Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif et al) Mason is by far the best. And let’s not forget Esmerelda, Nemo’s trained seal who bonds with the boisterous Ned.

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This was Disney’s fifth live-action film (the first was 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND) and first under the Buena Vista Distribution banner. To direct, Disney hired Richard Fleischer , son of his former animation rival Max Fleischer (POPEYE THE SAILOR, BETTY BOOP, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The younger Fleischer handles the material well, from a script by Earl Fenton. He had directed several highly regarded noirs (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) before taking on this big-budget adventure, and split the remainder of his career between crime dramas (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, MR. MAJESTYK) and fantasies (FANTASTIC VOYAGE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA).

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. The breathtaking underwater sequences were shot mostly off the coast of Nassau, and involved over 30 crew members to film. The giant squid scene features a larger than life animatronic monster, and still looks better than any CGI- created creature today (don’t get me started!). Walt Disney put together a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that has indeed stood the test of time, as enjoyable now as when it was first released in Technicolor and CinemaScope. One of the all-time classic adventures of the screen, 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA belongs in every film fanatic’s collection.

 

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST (RKO 1947)

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One of my favorite actors, the laconic, iconic Robert Mitchum was born August 6, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Rugged Robert had a wandering spirit, riding the rails in the days of the Depression, and even did time on a Georgia chain gang. Mitchum eventually ended up in California , and was bitten by the acting bug. After small roles in Laurel & Hardy comedies and Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Mitchum got noticed in a series of B-Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His big break came as a tough sergeant in 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But the role that made him a star was world-weary private eye Jeff Bailey in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST.

We meet Bailey running a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California (an homage to Mitchum’s hometown, perhaps?) He has a mute boy only known as The Kid (Dickie Moore) working for him, and a pretty girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston). Life is good until old acquaintance Joe Stefano (Paul Valentine) drops by and tells Jeff his ex-employer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has Ann drive him to Whit’s estate in Lake Tahoe and relates the story of his past in flashback: His real name is Markham. a former private eye once hired by Whit to find errant girlfriend Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathy put two slugs in Whit’s gut and absconded with forty grand. But Whit says he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants Kathy back. Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. She plays along, but knows why he’s there. She confesses she did shoot Whit, but didn’t take any money. The two begin their doomed affair (Kathy: “Won’t you believe me?” Jeff: “Baby, I don’t care” as they embrace). Whit and Joe show up and Jeff throws them off the trail.

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Jeff and Kathy wind up in San Francisco, where they’re spotted by Jeff’s former partner Fisher (Steve Brodie), now working for Whit. The couple gets a cabin deep in the woods, but Fisher trails them. The two men duke it out, when Kathy shoots Fisher. She takes off in the car and leaves Jeff  to bury the body…

Flashback over, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit’s. There he discovers Kathy’s “back in the fold”, as Whit puts it. Whit wants to hire Jeff for a new job, obtaining some incriminating tax papers from Whit’s blackmailing attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). Kathy goes to Jeff alone and tries to explain things, but he bitterly tells her to get lost. Jeff’s sent back to San Francisco to meet Eels’ secretary Meta (Rhonda Fleming), and put the plan in play. Sensing a frame-up going on, he tries to warn Eels. When Jeff goes back to Eels apartment later, sure enough, the lawyer’s been killed. Jeff hides the body in the basement. Jeff sneaks over to Kathy’s, and discovers her calling the building manager about Eels. The scheme has failed, and Kathy tells Jeff she was forced to sign an affidavit stating Jeff murdered Fisher, and had to go along with the plan. Jeff obtains the papers from Whit’s club, and Joe and Kathy call Whit, who puts the word out, and Jeff’s now wanted for two murders. Joe is sent by Kathy to follow the Kid to lead him to Jeff. He’s about to shoot Jeff when the Kid snags him with a fishing hook, and Joe falls to a watery grave. Jeff confronts Kathy and Whit, and tells Whit the truth. Returning briefly to Ann, Jeff goes back to Whit’s and finds him shot dead on the floor. Kathy’s running the show now, and is ready to split with Jeff (Kathy: “I think we deserve a break”  Jeff: “We deserve each other”). As she gathers some clothes, Jeff discretely calls the cops. They drive down the highway when Kathy sees a roadblock. Realizing Jeff’s betrayed her, she shoots him. The car careens down the highway as the cops shoot at it, and both Jeff and Kathy wind up dead.

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Pretty bleak stuff. OUT OF THE PAST can get confusing at times, but Mitchum’s the glue that holds it all together. His Jeff Bailey/Markham is tough but vulnerable, smarter than his adversaries, always with a wisecrack on his lips. Robert Mitchum in that trenchcoat and slouch hat became the symbol of a film noir anti-hero. The sleepy-eyed star’s career almost ended in 1948 after a pot bust, but he returned to the screen for almost another half-century. Some of his best (in my opinion) were HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Marilyn Monroe, 1954), NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), THUNDER ROAD (1958, where Mitchum even sings the title song!), THE SUNDOWNERS (1960), the original CAPE FEAR (1962), EL DORADO (with John Wayne, 1966), RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (as Phillip Marlowe, 1975). He also starred in the popular 1983 TV-miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR. Robert Mitchum had a long and diverse career as a true Hollywood star, and though he died on July 7, 1997, we still have that tremendous body of work to look back on. OUT OF THE PAST isn’t just one of Mitchum’s best films, it’s a film noir masterpiece that has influenced generations, and will continue to do so as long as there are movies to be made. Happy Birthday, Robert!

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