Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)

Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary. Seems Jay’s been stepping on some special interest toes South of the Border, including the CIA. Nick and his partner Hawk make several attempts to free Jay without success, and now it’s become personal. After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold!  Nick finally figures a way to pull it off by creating a diversion and landing a helicopter in the middle of the prison courtyard, and flies away, only to encounter trouble at customs with Grandpa’s murderous agent Cable in the film’s exciting conclusion.

Bronson’s actress wife Jill Ireland plays Ann in their 10th of 17 films together. They may not be Bogie & Bacall, but the couple did have good chemistry onscreen and off, and their marriage lasted until Ireland’s death from breast cancer in 1990. Ann’s husband Jay is Robert Duvall , another actor who came up through the ranks and hit it big in the 70’s starting with THE GODFATHER. Veteran director John Huston pulls the strings as grandfather Harris Wagner in what amounts to a glorified cameo. Another actor/director, Mexico’s Emilio Fernandez, plays the brutal prison jefe. A pre-legal woes Randy Quaid is Nick’s partner-in-crime Hawk, even getting to dress in drag at one point (and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Quaid in drag!). Sexy Sheree North still looks hot as she did in her heyday as Myrna, part of Nick’s diversion scheme. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sidney Clute, Roy Jenson, Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Alejandro Rey , and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE).

BREAKOUT’s director Tom Gries isn’t a household name, but he made some good films, including the classic Western WILL PENNY with Charlton Heston,   100 RIFLES, LADY ICE, and BREAKHEART PASS (also starring Bronson). He was a prolific TV director, helming the TV movies THE GLASS HOUSE (another prison drama that won him an Emmy), the sci-fi saga EARTH II, and HELTER SKELTER, a two-parter about the Manson murder trial. Gries was also the creator of the 60’s WWII series THE RAT PATROL, starring drive-in favorite Christopher George.

BREAKOUT has no pretensions about it’s place as a drive-in movie, despite the cast and budget. In fact, that’s where I first saw it, at a local drive-in in Fairhaven, MA back in the day. It’s one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, and the star looks like he’s enjoying it as much as I did. I think you will, too!

 

Happy Birthday Elvis!: THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS (MGM 1969)

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Elvis Aron Presley was born on this date in 1935. The King of Rock’N’Roll got the older generation “All Shook Up” when he burst on the national scene in 1956 with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”. He also made his first film that year, the Western LOVE ME TENDER, and was an immediate box office sensation. His following three films, LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK , and KING CREOLE, were well done, but after his stint in the Army, and the success of 1961’s BLUE HAWAII, Presley’s 60’s movies followed a strict formula, thanks to manager Col. Tom Parker, with interchangeable titles like KISSIN’ COUSINS, HARUM SCARUM, and DOUBLE TROUBLE.

By the late 60’s, things had changed. The Beatles  were top of the pops, the psychedelic revolution was in full effect, and Elvis hadn’t had a hit record in a few years. The movies were still profitable, but lacked energy. Presley’s 1968 Comeback TV Special put The King back on his throne, and he ready to move with the times. Reportedly, he was offered the Jon Voight part in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which the Colonel adamantly refused to let him do, and Glen Campbell’s role in TRUE GRIT, the Colonel again vetoing on the basis of being billed lower than John Wayne (really, Colonel?). One of Elvis’ last movies was THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, a departure from the usual formula casting Presley as the boss of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 Iowa.

allvip.us Elvis Presley The Trouble With Girls 1969

Elvis is the white-suited, cigar smoking Walter Hale, leader of the troupe of actors, orators, and musicians who pull into the sleepy town of Radford Center. His “Story Lady” who runs the children’s pageant, Charlene, is a union-advocating proto-feminist, refusing to give the mayor’s daughter the lead, preferring the much-more talented Carol. Carol’s mother Nita is constantly being sexually harassed at work by her druggist boss Wilby, and wants a better life for her kid. Young Betty wants to leave small town life behind too, and is eager to get noticed.

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There’s also an illegal blackjack game going on by the riverbank, run by Chautauqua worker Clarence, and when Wilby gets in a fight after accusing the dealer of cheating, his body’s found floating in the river the next day. Clarence is arrested for murder, but Walter discovers Nita did the deed, and finds a way to help her and profit from it by having her confess before a live audience. Charlene is appalled at his exploitation of her, and Walter’s charlatan attitude in general, and quits the company, but sly Walter figures out a way to get her thrown out of town and back on the train for the next stop.

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Walter Hale is a change of pace role for Elvis, as is the film. He does get to sing, but his musical moments are few and far between. His lead Bible Singer gets ill, so he fills in on the traditional Gospel number “Swing Down Sweet Chariot”. He does a bluesy rendering of “Clean Up Your Own Backyard”, and does an introspective “Alone” at the piano near the end. There’s a few bits and pieces of vocalizing, but mainly Elvis acts, and while Walter Hale’s no Joe Buck or Ranger LaBoeuf, it’s certainly different than his usual leading roles, and Elvis does a fine job.

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Presley’s surrounded by a cast of pros. Marlyn Mason (Charlene) is best known for her TV roles. Sheree North (Nita) was a 50’s starlet in HOW TO BE VERY, VERY POPULAR and THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS, and later appeared as The Duke’s ex-love in THE SHOOTIST Edward Andrews (Walter’s assistant Johnny) is always good. Dabney Coleman’s at his sleazy best as Wilby. Nicole Jaffe (Betty)may not look familiar to you, but you’ll recognize her voice… she’s the voice of Velma from SCOOBY DOO! (Frank Welker, who voiced Fred, is also in the cast) Anissa Jones (little Carol) was Buffy on TV’s FAMILY AFFAIR.

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There are some fun cameos here. Vincent Price plays the erudite Mr. Morality, giving the crowd a lecture on the evils of sin as only Price can. John Carradine pops up as Mr. Drewcolt, a Shakespearian actor (Betty: “Do you think Romeo and Juliet had pre-marital relations?” Drewcolt: “Only in the Des Moines company”). Carradine even gets to recite a snippet of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet”, which must’ve pleased him no end! Joyce Van Patten is comical as distance swimmer Maude, who discovers Wilby’s body.

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THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS is entertaining, though anachronistic in places (all the women wear mini-skirts, for example), a solid comedy-drama that gave Elvis Presley a chance to break out of the formulaic “teen musicals” he was getting too old for anyway. There was one more movie on the way, CHANGE OF HABIT with Mary Tyler Moore, before his film career ended, with only a couple of tour documentaries in the 70’s before his tragic death in 1977 at age 42. Elvis left an indelible mark on the world of music, but in movies only a handful tested his mettle as an actor. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS tries to break the “Elvis movie” mold, and will satisfy even non-Presley fans. Happy birthday, King Elvis, long may you reign!

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)

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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that went, ‘I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them’ “.  Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada in the year 1901, a thriving city in a changing world. He’s come to visit his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), and get a second opinion. Hostetler examines him and gives Books the bad news, ” You have a cancer…advanced”. The doctor can’t do anything to help his friend, except give him Laudanum for the pain. Describing how the end will come, Hostetler says, “I don’t think the death I just described to you is the one I would choose”.

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Books decides to spend his last days in Carson City, taking a room with widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her restless son Gillom. The young man idolizes Books when he finds out his identity, treating him like rock-star royalty. Others in the town aren’t so welcoming, including Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), an ornery cuss whose brother was killed by Books. News of the celebrity in Carson City spreads, with faro dealer Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brien) and local tough guy Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney) wondering how they would fare against the dying gunfighter.

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Others seek to cash in on Books’ pending demise. Newspaperman Dobkins (Rick Lenz) wants to write up a series of articles on Books’ colorful career, only to receive a gun in the mouth and a boot in the ass for his nerve. Former flame Serepta (Sheree North) wants to marry him and trade in on his name.  Undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine in a wonderful cameo) offers a free funeral, hoping to put Books’ body on display, but ends up paying Books. The doomed Books, who only seeks to die with dignity and honor, devises a plan once the pain becomes too great to bear. He has Gillom invite Pulford, Sweeney, and Cobb to join him Monday morning for a last stand that’s tensely staged… and comes with a surprise twist.

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Don Siegel  directed THE SHOOTIST with his usual style, handling the well-stocked cast of veterans. Bacall, Boone, Carradine, and Stewart had all costarred with The Duke in films past, making this a sort of last round-up for them all. Bacall is particularly good as the widow Rogers, who despises Books at first until she learns he’s dying of cancer (Bacall’s first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart, died of the disease). Then her Christian charity shines through, and though she disapproves of his former lifestyle, the two gain a mutual respect. Ron Howard has what’s probably his best film role here, a long way from Opie in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and Richie in HAPPY DAYS. The superstar director of today gives a terrific performance, having honed his acting chops by working with so many legendary actors and directors in his career. Gillom is a young wastrel with no solid direction in his life until he meets Books. His involvement in the final shootout scene evokes strong emotions in anyone who watches this film.

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The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale is full of memorable dialogue. I love the use of language in this film, it has a poetic quality to it that separates it from the usual Wayne Western. The actors all deliver their lines with conviction, and it’s no surprise considering that marvelous cast. Besides those I’ve mentioned, Scatman Crothers also shines in his small role. But it’s John Wayne who dominates the show. The Duke may move a little slower, and his voice may be ravaged by time and illness, but he’s still The Duke. The cancer that eventually killed him hadn’t been detected yet, but somewhere in the back of his mind I’m sure Wayne knew THE SHOOTIST would be his last cinematic stand. His final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards:

(One trivia note: Charles G. Martin plays the man who guns down Wayne. The Duke also bit the dust onscreen in only six other films. Can you name them?)

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