Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: American Friend (1977)



Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Wim Wenders based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kruezer, Gerard Blain, Sam Fuller & Nicholas Ray
Director Of Photography: Robby Muller.
Music: Jürgen Knieper.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is getting a longform TV version from the writer of LUTHER, so let's look at another story in the Ripley series...

One of the things I have realized over the years is that the films you saw when you first *really* got into movies become your favorites because they opened doors in your mind that you didn’t even know existed. Often someone younger than I (that doesn’t take much these days) mentions one of their favorite film... and it’s some movie I think is a piece of crap. Of course, I saw it later in life when whatever door that movie opened for them had already been opened for me... so instead of being amazed at whatever the film did, I compared it to all of the other films that did that and found it lacking. But the same thing happens to me frequently: those young people who had the door opened by their film finally get around to seeing mine and think, “What’s the big deal?” This has taught me to be less judgmental about those films people love. Better that they love films than not love them!

So, in the 70s I caught this film because someone called it “Hitchcockian” and became a fan of Wim Wenders (to this day). This is not the usual Wenders film at all, but I found it fascinating that he actually understood how to make a suspense film: he knew how to use the camera to tell the story and use editing to create suspense. When someone shows that they know how to do something difficult like this, I cut them a lot of slack when they go off and do their own thing in their own style. So I was a fan of his films which are often valentines to America. He can take a 9 year old girl and turn her into the tour guide for America - seeing our world through her eyes... or show us small town life in Texas, or give us a Hollywood full of conspiracies and crime, or the great America road trip... in Germany! But I first discovered him with this Hitchcockian film based on a Patricia Highsmith RIPLEY novel about a normal dad and husband who discovers he is dying of a rare disease and is offered a fortune to leave for his family... all he has to do is kill a guy. A total stranger. A mobster the world would be better off without. Could you kill someone to help your family?



As you can see, BREAKING BAD's concept really owes a lot to AMERICAN FRIEND... the idea of a quiet intelligent man doing terrible things that are against the law to provide for his family because he is terminally ill... and killing a bunch of gangsters in the process... is the basic story of both. In both the lead must keep his side job secret from his wife and kid, and when it is discovered instead of appreciating the *huge* personal and emotional sacrifices he has gone through to provide for his family, they turn against him and he must fight to win them back. The parallels are strong between the two... which makes me wonder why nobody ever mentioned it.

Wenders was a genius for combining Highsmith’s RIPLEY'S GAME and RIPLEY UNDER WATER (the second and third novels in the series after THE TALENTED MR.) and then taking Jonathan's point of view instead of Ripley's. Instead of being the puppet master's story, we get the puppet... who finds himself in over his head just to provide for his family after he dies. The story is filled with twists and turns and has a bit of that 70's stillness used in films like THE PARALLAX VIEW. The film is also filled with music, and a love for The Beatles... and Volkswagen Beetles. Beautifully shot by Robby Muller, with a great score by Jürgen Knieper (who also scored RIVER’S EDGE), the film has a deliberate pace that works for the story...

Jonathan (Bruno Ganz who would later play Hitler in that DOWNFALL movie that you haven’t seen but *have* seen that one scene where Hitler loses it in a million memes) is a picture framer whose wife (Lisa Kreuzer) works for an auction house, and when he is introduced to Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper, I wish it had been John Malkovich who played this role in a remake) he refuses to shake his hand. Ripley feels insulted, and later when a Paris mobster Minot (Gerard Blaine) is looking for an assassin who can not be traced back to the mob, Ripley gives him Jonathan. You see, Jonathan has a rare blood disease may not have long to live. So Minot approaches Jonathan and offers him a second opinion at the most prestigious hospital in Europe... all expenses paid... as long as Jonathan listens to his offer afterwards. Jonathan goes in for the test... and Minot creates *forged* results saying that Jonathan is knocking on death’s door. Then offers Jonathan a job killing a mobster on a train. Here’s the thing: worst that can happen if Jonathan is caught is that he’ll die before trial, and his family will still get the money and be provided for. Jonathan reluctantly agrees... and then goes to kill the man. Except it’s never as easy as you think. This leads to one of the most intense suspense scenes I’ve seen as Jonathan can’t find the right time to shoot the guy... and every second he hesitates is a chance to be caught!



Eventually he kills the mobster, only to find out there are more mobsters to be killed and Minot wants Jonathan to kill a well guarded mobster on a train. (Lots of trains in this film, it *is* by Highsmith who wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN). This time he is *way* over his head and his whole life spirals out of control. One of the things I swiped from this film for my HARD EVIDENCE script that was made for USA Network was the way the protagonist feels he can’t tell his spouse about this problems, when he needs all of the help he can get. Eventually Jonathan admits everything to his wife and they team up to resolve the conflict... though not in the way they thought.

One of the great things are all of the cameos by film directors. Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray (playing the dead painter Derwatt from RIPLEY UNDERGROUND) and Lou Castel. Wenders was a real fan of American noir films and cast his heroes in the film... later he would make a documentary about Ray’s final days.



The film is an interesting hybrid between studio movie and European arthouse, technically really well made but still focusing on character and those small moments (I love when Jonathan is playing with his son or trying to get two halves of a frame to come together. This film along with Wender’s Polanskiesque GOALIES ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK are slick Hollywood style films with that indie bent. He knew how to do dolly shots and crane shots and make a film that looks bigger than it probably was. His other films like ALICE IN THE CITY and THE WRONG MOVE and KINGS OF THE ROAD have a ragged indie feel to them. Oh, and this film landed him a big Hollywood picture, HAMMETT (the dude who wrote THE MALTESE FALCON based on a novel by Joe Gores... though the movie throws out almost everything from the book), and the failure of that Hollywood film lead to the success of PARIS, TEXAS and WINGS OF DESIRE. He’s done some interesting work since then on films like UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and THE END OF VIOLENCE and the doc BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB and he has a new movie out this year.



- Bill

Monday, December 23, 2019

AMAZON MONEY? BUY SOME BOOKS!

Did you get some Amazon money for the Holidays? Why not buy some great screenwriting books?

Forget a friend or a relative who writes? E-books are great because Amazon actually has a "gift" button that will deliver the book to their email box in "gift wrap" from you! No worries about the ebook being delivered on time - you can order it from your phone at your holiday gathering when nobody is looking and it will be waiting for them on their phone or computer. You can claim that you bought it months ago, and who will know?

The new WRITE IT, SELL IT Screenwriting Book on writing Low & No Budget movies is available for pre-order... at $2 off! So if you order it now, you will get it for $7.99 instead of the $9.99 that people will pay for it Next Year.

SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING and the HITCHCOCK They make great gifts, so why not give them to a friend? Or buy them as a gift to yourself. YOU DESERVE IT! (remember - I'm trying to sell books, here!).

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These links all lead to the USA store, if you are in some other country and want to write a review for your country, go to your Amazon website.

Thank you all again.

Bill

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Flashback: My First Agent

A rerun from the first year of the blog...

Another one of those flashbacks that screenwriting gurus hate...

After my first screenwriting career writing Drive In Movies (NINJA BUSTERS) ended, I got a job working for Safeway in their liquor warehouse. Driving a fork lift and Big Joe stacker. I did that full time for almost ten years, writing scripts in my spare time and on my days off. I wrote just under 30 scripts in that decade... and got an agent on one of them.

Now I had a Hollywood agent! Cool! I had sent out about a bunch of query letters - targeting agents in Los Angeles. My thinking was - because I lived out of town I wanted an agent who lived in the same city as the producers. Why should both of us be out of town? I kept hammering the same list of agents with query letters until I got somewhere around 3 positive responses, sent scripts and signed with the first agent to say "yes".

This was a mistake.... but what was tragic at the time I now find pretty funny. I had somehow signed with the worst agent in the world - and every time I thought it couldn't get worse, it always did!

My agent had an LA address - in the San Fernando Valley. The letter he sent me was on cheap letter-head stationary and filled with blotches of white out. I was working on a Commodore 128 computer and my query letters were mistake-free, but this was the mid-1980s and the world was still switching over from typewriters to computers. Many offices still had their big IBM Selectrics and bottles of correction fluid. I figured the agent's secretary wasn't as worried about impressing me as I had been about impressing them. And they were probably using the old stationary for me, and saving the expensive stuff for people who mattered.

My agent (it was cool to say that) asked for 10 copies of the script I'd sent him. I made them up and sent them in 2 shipping boxes. He said he would begin sending them out right away. I went to work every day hoping to come home to that phone call that would change my life. When it didn't come for a few months, I decided to call my agent for a progress report. He answered the phone himself, said the script had gone out and he was still waiting for responses from producers. I told him I had a NEW script, and he asked for 10 copies. I made them up and sent them on my next day off. For a while I was sending ten copies of every new script... and my agent would send them out and we'd wait for the producers to get back. The producers always seemed to be looking for rom-coms or comedies or some other genre than what I'd written. Was he sending them to the wrong producers? He wouldn't tell me who he'd been sending the scripts to... so I decided to help by sending a list of suggestions for each of the scripts I'd already sent him.

After that he began sending me the rejection letters or telling me what the producers had said over the phone. I was getting photocopies of letters from The Thom Mount Company and Silver Pictures and other big companies praising the scripts, usually saying that they were developing a similar project or were looking for a script that could star a particular actor, and make sure that they get a chance to read any new scripts from this writer. Mount and Silver wanted to meet with me, but my agent told them I lived out of town. He took care of sending follow up scripts, and I often disagreed with his choices but at least my agent was actually calling me on a regular basis - cool!

I continued to send 10 copies of every new script, and a list of potential buyers. I read an ad in the back pages of Variety looking for a jungle adventure script... and sent a copy of that ad with my new script TREASURE HUNTER (which originally took place in the Amazon). I pressed him to send them the script, he finally did, and the company wanted to option it! My first Hollywood deal!

It was a German production company, and they weren't going to pay for my airfare or hotel. My agent said he'd do the whole deal himself, but I wanted to BE THERE. So I took the time off from work, bought an airplane ticket and made a hotel reservation, and flew to Los Angeles. I was about to get my big break! Despite the cruddy letterhead, my agent had landed me a deal! I had the greatest agent in the world!

I would find out just how great my agent was when I flew to Hollywood to make the deal. I landed at LAX and waited for my agent to pick me up. Whenever a Mercedes or BMW circled near the arrivals area, I expected it to pull to the curb. They just zoomed past. In Hollywood, presentation is very important - so I knew that he drove a fancy car... even if it leased. I was driving a fairly new blue Ford Taurus at the time (thanks to Safeway Credit Union). Maybe my agent drove a Rolls? Or was sending a Town Car? I kept smiling at drivers whenever a luxury car passed by...

Eventually this beat up old Datsun 4 door pulled to the curb, and my agent swiped all of the junk off the passenger seat so that I could sit down. I had to throw my single piece of luggage in the back seat - he told me his trunk was full (of what?). The passenger window was broken and a piece of plastic tarp had been duct taped over it - it was hot but you can't roll down a piece of plastic tarp. Okay... so my agent didn't drive a pretentious luxury car... or keep his old crappy car very clean.... he probably made up for it with his skills as a deal maker, right?

We went directly to the meeting in Beverly Hills. A small office that I think was on Beverly Blvd. The producer was there, as well as a director. These guys had made a couple of small films with casts from recently canceled TV shows and people like George Kennedy who usually played the sidekick. Their previous film starred George Lazenby - the only one film James Bond. This wasn't going to be a big blockbuster, but was going to be a big film for these guys. I was excited.

When they made their first (low) offer, my agent wanted to take it. I thought we should at least TRY to get more money. Because my agent was playing the good guy, I decided I'd better play the bad guy - I told them when they were ready to make a serious offer, they could contact my agent... and I left the office. My agent was shocked. I got about halfway down the block before the pudgy little producer caught up with me, explaining that was just a starting point in the negotiations.

We agreed on $40,000 with a $5,000 option for six months.

When we got back to my agent's pseudo-car, he chewed me out for making waves - I could have blown the deal! Why did I leave the office and make the producer chase me? Why did I ask for so much money? Why didn't I just let him handle the deal?

As we pulled away from the curb leaving a thick cloud of smoke that drifted over Beverly Blvd, I asked if we'd be going back to his office. "NO!" Instead he'd buy me a celebratory dinner. We'd closed a big deal ($40k is a big deal?) and now it was time to celebrate. Would he take me to Chasens (down the street) where Hitchcock dined? Or Spago? Or Mortons? Or one of those trendy LA places where the stars hung out? "Do you drink?" he asked me. A weird question - but maybe he was going to splurge on a bottle of champagne. Some restaurants had better wine cellars than others. If he was planning on order a bottle of Dom Perignon 1957 (like James Bond) you probably have to select a restaurant that has a bottle in their cellar. "Yeah. I've been known to have a beer or two." "A beer drinker! That's perfect!" Sure - a beer drinker would be more impressed with a bottle of 1957 Dom than a wine connoisseur would. We drove into the luxurious Hollywood Hills...

And over the hills into the Valley. We ended up at this crappy bar near the Van Nuys airport that had beer by the pitcher... and a free Happy Hour buffet. After buying the pitcher and handing me a glass, he pointed to the chicken wings and mini-tacos and said "Dinner!" Not exactly Chasens or Spago... or even Denny's. I ate as many chicken wings as I could, but still ended up hammered and hungry and half-deaf from the airplanes flying right over the bar's roof and landing a few feet away. After happy hour was over, he drove me back to my hotel. I ended up walking down the street to a Denny's and getting an actual meal as soon as he was gone.

The next morning I took a taxi to his office before my flight. It was an 8 by 8 room without any windows over a motorcycle repair shop in the slums of Reseda. No secretary - no room for a secretary. With the door closed, the place was like a cave... or maybe like a closet (except for the din of guys using power tools to repair motorcycles). His office might have been in Los Angeles, but it was about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. I found out that his other clients were mostly washed up rock bands from the 1960s - one hit wonders that you didn't know were still around. He was a nice guy, but not much of an agent. I flew back home that afternoon, got my $5,000 check a few weeks later, but the Germans never made the film and allowed the option to expire.

A couple of months later I went to the American Film Market in Los Angeles for the first time (and adventure I'll chronicle later) and I collected a stack of business cards from companies looking for scripts. One particular company had just co-produced their first feature with a Swedish company - a low budget horror movie - and planned on making a couple of films a year. They needed scripts! I'd pitched them one of the scripts that the Mount Company and Silver Pictures had liked, and it was EXACTLY what they were looking for. The VP of Production told me: "Have your agent messenger it to me on Monday." Cool! I had a potential deal with a brand new company with an upcoming theatrical release. I was in on the ground floor.

I drove by my agent's office on the way home and over the din of power tools told him to make sure he messengered a copy of that script to the company on Monday morning. I offered to stay over an extra night and take it myself, but my agent yelled that he'd take care of it. The entire 8 hour drive home I was excited - I probably wouldn't be working at the warehouse much longer! I worked all day Monday on adrenaline (no sleep) but still had trouble falling asleep that night. Every day when I came home from work I expected a message on my machine from my agent that they wanted to buy the script. By this point in time I knew the Southwest Airline schedules by heart and knew the best inexpensive motel in the Beverly Hills area to stay in (the Holloway). I was prepared to fly down as soon as I got the phone call from my agent. After a couple of weeks with no message, I called for a progress report. My agent didn't know anything. I kept calling every week - still no word from the production company. Did they hate the script? Nina Jacobson at Silver and Bess Semans at Mount had loved it. Maybe they were waiting for the release of their horror movie? I called my agent every week for a progress report... MONTHS later he admitted he still hadn't gotten around to sending my script! By that time the film had come out, become a huge hit, and the window of opportunity had closed. Every agent in Hollywood was sending them scripts. The horror film was NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the company was New Line Cinema. Since then they have TWICE paid $4 million for a screenplay... and recently produced the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I fired my agent soon afterwards. By then I had sold COURTING DEATH to a Paramount based company on my own and my second career in screenwriting was about to begin.

- Bill

Thursday, December 12, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: Girl With A Secret

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 9.
Airdate: 11/15/1960


Director: Mitchell Leisen.
Writer: Charles Beaumont based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong.
Cast: Faye Bainter, Paul Hartman, Myrna Fahey, Victor Buono, Cloris Leachman.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “An attache case. A classic ingredient in tales of cloak and dagger. Was the young lady correct? Was it switched on purpose? As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, the contents of that case will soon trap these two young people in a web of terror. Alice, the bewildered bride, doesn’t yet know that her husband’s life will depend upon her silence. She’ll become a girl with a secret. That’s the name of our story. Our principle players are Miss Faye Bainter, Mr. Paul Hartman, Miss Myrna Fahey, Mr. Rhodes Reason, Miss Cloris Leachman, and Mr. Harry Ellerbe. I assure you my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: After a couple of great episodes in a row, we go back to...



At an airport, newlyweds Anthony (Rhodes Reason) and Alice (Myrna Fahey from Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER) wait for their baggage and she talks about the pressure of meeting her (wealthy) inlaws for the first time. When Anthony sets down his attache case for a moment to grab his suitcase, a Stranger sets down his *identical* attache case to do the same and grabs Anthony’s attache case by accident when he leaves. Or was it an accident? Alice seems to think the Stranger did it on purpose. She points out the Stranger to Anthony and says to stop him before he drives away... but Anthony tells her it’s no big deal, he’ll just open the Stranger’s attache case, find his ID, and call him and swap cases later. They’ve had a long flight and Anthony just wants to get home to Pasadena and relax.

When they leave the airport, an evil looking Henchman (Rex Holman) is following them...

On a narrow, twisting road in the hills (probably where the 134 Freeway would end up) the Henchman tries to pass them on a particularly dangerous curve and “accidentally” hits their car, almost forcing them over a cliff! Alice is scared and confused, did that guy *try* to kill them or was it an accident? Seems like weird stuff is happening around her new husband! Why?



The family estate in Pasadena looks oddly like the Munster’s house from the outside (same backlot house), but the inside is a luxurious mansion where the entire family seems to hang out night and day, with Cousin Beatrice (Cloris Leachman) playing the piano for the entertainment of her boyfriend Walter (Harry Ellerbe) plus Uncle Gregory (Paul Hartman) and Aunt Hortense (Anne Seymour) and matriarch Geraldine (Faye Bainter) who is Anthony’s grandmother. The whole family meets the new daughter in law, and give her the normal third degree you would give a new wife... which kind of adds to Alice’s paranoia. Anthony excuses himself for a moment to get the luggage out of the car... but instead goes to the car to open the Stranger’s attache case... which is empty except for a cryptic note... which Anthony decodes!

He starts up the car and goes to the Stranger in a public library... where we discover that Anthony is some sort of spy and the Stranger is a fellow spy, who warns him that the bad guys are onto him. Anthony tells the Stranger that he knows: an attempt was made on his life earlier.

Cut to our evil badguy played by Victor Buono (King Tut from BATMAN), as the Henchman enters his evil lair to report that his attempt on Anthony’s life *failed*. Buono needs to know how much Anthony knows about his evil operation, and keep him from stopping whatever the heck that evil operation is. It’s kinda vague.



Anthony gets back to the Munster House, and nobody seems to notice he was missing. He and Alice are unpacking in their room... when she discovers an airplane ticket in his coat pocket. To Mexico City. She confronts her new husband... is he cheating on her? Anthony quiets her, opens the bedroom door... and there’s the Maid (Esther Dale) listening in on the conversation. He tells the Maid to please keep this little domestic dispute to herself, then closes the door and whispers to Alice... that he’s a spy! He has a secret mission to Mexico City to do things that will help foil Victor Buono’s evil operation... and while he’s gone she must keep his secret. No one can know that he has gone to Mexico City, *no one*. Not even family members. Alice will keep the secret while Anthony is away.

Anthony tells his family that he’s been called back to New York on business for a while, and to please take care of his new wife. Cousin Beatrice is already planning ways to mess with Alice in order to make matriarch Geraldine hate the new bride. And that, folks, is the set up!

And the halfway point.

After Anthony leaves on his secret mission, Alice is “alone” in the house with all of these strangers... and the Maid, who asks for some hush money or she’ll tell everyone that Anthony has gone to Mexico City. Alice gives her ear rings (which are expensive as heck) to the Maid to keep her quiet... but when Cousin Beatrice notices the Maid wearing Alice’s ear rings she accuses the Maid of stealing them, and this brings in matriarch Geraldine who insists the Maid return the ear rings... and creates a larger problem as the Maid now wants $300 to keep her mouth shut.

Alice brings the money to the Maid... and there is a knock at the Maid’s door! The evil Henchman! Alice hides in the murphy bed folded up against the wall and listens as the Henchman questions the Maid, doesn’t get any answers... so he kills her and then searches the room for some clue as to where Anthony may have flown to... almost finding Alice hiding in the folded up bed! The Henchman leaves, heading back to...



Victor Buono’s evil lair, where Buono is talking to... Walter! Cousin Beatrice’s boyfriend! They have blackmailed Walter into being part of the evil operation and spying on Anthony. It was Walter who gave the information that sent the Henchman to the Maid’s apartment. Twist!

Back at the Munster House, Alice returns and is freaked out... afraid she’ll be accused of the Maid’s murder and won’t be able to tell anyone that it’s all because her husband is really a spy. Walter hammers away at Alice about the murder of the Maid... did she do it? Why did she give the Maid those ear rings? Alice walks out... leaving the rest of the family to scheme. Walter and Uncle Gregory think Alice needs to get some rest and suggest giving her some tranquilizers... Walter wants to give her a whole bunch! Then take her to a friend of his who will give her some sodium penathol so she will tell the truth about the Maid’s murder and the family will know how to handle it. They don’t want to be harboring a murderer, do they? Think of the scandal!



A few weeks later Anthony gets back from Mexico City with all of the info to stop Victor Buono’s evil operation... and asks Grandmother Geraldine where Alice is. Geraldine says...

Alice never gave up your secret. They were going to drug her and make her talk, but Geraldine smuggled her out of the house and to a friend’s place in Los Angeles. She’s safe... and Geraldine thinks she’s a danged good wife.

Anthony gets to the address where Alice is hiding out... and it’s a drug store where she is working behind the counter. Just as they embrace, turncoat Walter and the evil Henchman come in with guns... but the Drug Store Owner shoots them both in the most boring action scene ever on television. Meanwhile Victor Buono is being arrested. Anthony and Alice live happily ever after.



Review: Actually, the problem here is the difference between what works as a thriller on that page versus what works on the screen. I can easily imagine this as a nail biter on the page, but it’s all internal... most of the suspense concerns what the character is *feeling*, and we can’t see that. In a way we have a story like REBECCA, about a shy new bride dealing with her new husband’s secret... and you’d think the hubby being a spy instead of a dreamy rich dude with a dead first wife would, but it doesn’t. Hubby is off screen doing spy stuff in Mexico City... and the only thing close to Mrs. Danvers is Leachman’s character, who is just a stuck up rich girl (instead of a foreboding frozen faced Maid who has the real power in the house). The Maid in this story is old and frail... not much of a physical threat. Also not much of any kind of threat because she knows the secret but really can’t do anything with it. And for a story that’s mostly confined to the family house, there isn’t even the sort of suspense and intrigue from REBECCA or NOTORIOUS. The family is mostly just sitting around doing nothing. None are really threats, no real suspense... Alice is just an outsider when it comes to the family rather than a target.

I suspect the story also loses something from whatever scope the novel may have had versus the confines of a TV budget and shooting schedule. This gets into my Dog Juice Theory: when the story gets smaller you need to increase the “juice” to keep it exciting, and in this case the juice would be suspense. Add to this the stiff acting and massive overacting of the villains (they’re on screen for so little time they only have time to be evil without any time for actual characterization).



So the whole episode comes off as kind of bland and boring, and that car chase scene can’t really make up for it. The suspense set piece with Alice hiding in the Murphy bed is also kinda dull... though there is a moment where she is almost discovered. And the reveal that Walter is working with the badguys is nonexistent! He’s just in a scene with Buono. No *twist* to it. Part of this is the writing isn’t finding ways to amp up the suspense and part is the director, Mitchell Leisen (who’s contract requires his *signature* as his credit), who was a famous director of big glossy studio films in the 1930s to1950s and doesn’t seem to be at home in the thriller genre... even though he directed Cornell Woolrich’s NO MAN OF HER OWN in 1950 (which ended up more soap opera than thriller). Leisen directed episode 3 and this one... and then was off to some other TV show and get that nifty signature title card.

After two good episodes in a row we go off track again with this one... but next week? Karloff takes a role in a weird tales type story!

Bill



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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Flashback: Set Crashing

My buddy Van Tassell and I hung out a couple of years ago after seeing the movie FORBIDDEN POWER at a film festival in Las Vegas. I think Van is my oldest friend - I've known him since I was 18, and when I go home for the holidays we grab beers and see movies.

Whenever anyone filmed a movie in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van and I snuck on the set. Growing up in the East Bay Area - halfway between Oakland and Stockton - San Francisco always seemed like some far off place you only went to on special school field trips or when you went to the zoo on your birthday. Actually, we usually went to the Oakland Zoo on my birthday. I saw San Francisco more in movies than in real life.

So when I started making my own movies on 8mm and Super-8mm, my buddy Van Tassell and I began driving into the city and sneaking onto movie sets... to watch the pros at work.

Van installs carpets for a living (any out of work film guys could always find a job tearing up jute padding and carrying heavy rolls of carpet for Van) and his carpet tool pouch looks EXACTLY like a film grip's tool pouch. This was part of the plan to sneak onto movie sets - look like someone who belongs. So we would dress like grips, filling the tool pouch with film tools.

I subscribed to Weekly Variety, and they printed the films in production. Whenever anything was shooting in San Francisco (a popular location) we'd take a few days off from our day jobs to crash the set. To find out where they were filming I'd call the city permit office and pretend to be somebody from a newspaper covering the film or a caterer who forgot where to send the food truck. They'd tell me where the permit was issued for, but usually it was a vague answer like "They're shooting in the Marina District today" - maybe they didn't believe my story?

So Van and I would pile in his red Bronco - it was used as a picture vehicle in Paul's movie WEAPONS OF DEATH.... the hero's truck - and just drive around the Marina District until we spotted two dozen huge trucks. Then we'd just follow the cables to the set. The key was to be cool and blend in. We looked like grips, but we also had to ACT like grips. A couple of times someone would actually ask us to do something, and we always did it. I actually carried a 9-K light from the truck to where they were shooting on one set.

Van and I became pros at blending in, and we crashed a bunch of sets. Mel Brooks filmed HIGH ANXIETY in San Francisco, and we were there. Don Siegel shot TELEFON and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ and we were there. But the best story is when they shot the James Bond movie VIEW TO A KILL. We didn't know it would become the worst James Bond movie ever - we just knew that James Bond was shooting in San Francisco, so Van and I decided to go out and watch. Dressed as grips.

The day Van and I crashed the set they were doing this huge effects scene - burning down City Hall. They had rigged all of these gas explosions on the building. They had Roger Moore's stunt double on a fire truck. They'd hired a bunch of extras to run in panic and some stunt men who would actually catch on fire. It was going to be very expensive, and they could only do it once. Boy did we pick the right day to crash the set!

So, we're doing our best to look like grips - helping ourselves to doughnuts on the craft services table - when we notice these two guys hop the rope and sneak onto the set. Well, that creates a danger to us. If they start checking to see who belongs on the set and who doesn't, we'll be kicked off before they start filming. Van and I come to a dead stop in the doughnut line, causing REAL grips to complain.

These two sneak-ins are wearing warm-up suits and look WAY out of place. They're also laughing - probably a little drunk. Then they see the food and start to come over!

Oh man. They're walking right towards us. Laughing so loud, people are starting to notice them. A couple of big Security Guards hear the laughter, turn and see the two sneak-ins, and move to intercept them... Coming right at us!

Two big Security Guards.
Walking towards Van and me.
We both freeze for a minute, then one of the REAL grips tells us to stop hogging the doughnuts. So we try to move away from the craft services table, but that means moving TOWARDS the two sneak-ins... and those two big Security Guards.

Shit! No choice!
Van and I play it really cool and move away from the table, pretending to be REALLY interested in the sprinkles on our doughnuts. The two sneak-ins brush past us on the way to the food. One of the Security Guards says, "Hey! You two!" Van and I try NOT to look at them, but both of us are wondering if they're talking to us or the sneak-ins. What if the Guards know everyone on the crew and know we don't belong? Can they arrest you for crashing a set?

They two big Security Guards are coming right at us. One puts his hand on my shoulder. Busted!!!

"Excuse me," he says as he moves me aside to get to the sneak- ins. Van and I watch the sneak-ins get rousted by the two big Security Guards. They are told to leave the area... but they hang around on the sidelines.

Close call. Van and I eat our doughnuts and watch the extras get instructions on how to run in panic when City Hall explodes behind them. The extras are told they can't screw up the shot, because they are only going to do it once. Van and I watch as the FX guys turn on their remote controls and they get the Roger Moore stunt guy on top of the fire truck. "This is gonna be cool," Van whispers to me.

Everyone takes their places as they get ready to blow up City Hall. Lights blast on. The director whispers to the AD who yells: ACTION! They start filming. The extras walk down the street calmly. BLAM! City Hall explodes into flames! The fire truck races into the shot...

And the two sneak-ins in warm ups hop the rope, run RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA and yell "City Hall's on fire! City Hall's on fire!" Then they run away, like the rest of the extras... blending into the crowd.

Van and I have been on a dozen film sets and have always stayed in the background. Always played it cool. Always tried to blend in. We can say to friends, "Yeah, we were on the set of that James Bond movie. We watched them burn down city hall." But those two sneak-ins?

They're actually IN THE MOVIE!

- Bill

Thursday, December 05, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: The Merriweather File.

The Merriweather File

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 21.
Airdate: February 14, 1961


Director: John Brahm
Writer: John Kneubuhl based on a novel by Lionel White (Kubrick’s THE KILLING)
Cast: James Gregory, Bethel Leslie, Edward Pimms, Ross Elliott.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: John L. Russell.
Producer: Maxwell Shane




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The lady has good reason to scream. An intruder has broken into her home and made a deliberate attempt to end her life. Is this child’s rubber ball just a prop to seal the broken glass, or does it have a deeper symbolic meaning? Well, the answers to that question and many others are contained in The Merriweather File. That’s the name of our story based on the exciting story by Lionel White. Our leading players are Mr. James Gregory, Miss Bethel Leslie, Mr. Edward Pimms, and Mr. Ross Elliott. As sure is my name is Boris Karloff, this story will lead you through a most fascinating labyrinth of terror. And if you find your way out, well that’s more than I can promise for Anne and Charles Merriweather in the ensuing thriller.”

Synopsis: Night. Someone breaks into the suburban home of the Merriweathers through the kitchen door, turns on the oven and every burner on the range without lighting them, and uses a child’s ball to plug the hole they have broken in the glass of the kitchen door before leaving. The gas fills the house... and Ann Merriweather (Bethel Leslie) asleep in her bed, wakes up suddenly. Goes down to the kitchen and almost passes out before she gets the gas off, then she sees the ball in the window and screams! She runs next door to her neighbor Howard’s house and pounds on the door. Howard (James Gregory) answers in his robe, asks what happened, and Ann says someone tried to kill her. When Howard (a lawyer) wants to call the police, Ann pleads with him not to... she’s afraid it will upset her husband Charles who is away on business. You see, three years ago, after their son was killed in an accident, Ann tried to commit suicide by gassing herself in the over. She’s afraid husband Charles will just think she tried it again. Already Charles secretly blames her for the death of their son and has taken a job where he’s mostly on the road so that he doesn’t have to deal with her. Ann doesn’t want to make things any worse. Howard asks if there’s a gun in the house. Ann says Charles owns a gun, but she doesn’t know where it is and wouldn’t know how to use it. Howard suggests she get a dog for protection...

When Charles (Ross Elliott) returns from his business trip, he buys her a dog... then apologizes for not taking her out, he’s going to play cards with his buddies at the club instead. The next morning he’s back on the road. “Wish I didn’t have to go on the road so often...” Ann goes to bed, and the next morning when she wakes up, he is already gone.

Charles is driving down the highway when he gets a flat tire. Tries to open the trunk to grab the spare and jack... but his key is missing from his key ring. Odd. He flags down a police car, tells the officers the problem, and they call for a mechanic to come with skeleton keys. The mechanic comes, pops open the trunk... exposing the body of a dead guy! The police slap the cuffs on Charles and take him downtown.



Police Station: Charles is being questioned by Detective Giddeon (the ubiquitous Edward Binns) with Howard acting as family lawyer and Ann in the room. Charles says he didn’t kill that guy, had no idea he was in the trunk of his car, and no idea how he would even get into the trunk of his car. When Detective Giddeon asks him where he was the night before, Charles says he was playing cards with his buddies, then went to a bar alone after the club closed, then... well, he doesn’t have an alibi for after the bar closed. He says he was drunk and decided to sleep it off in the car. Sounds suspicious.

Howard asks if he can talk to his client in private and asks Charles about the suspicious sounding non alibi. Charles tells Howard that he wasn’t drinking in that bar alone, he was with his girlfriend... and he was also with her after the bar closed. But he doesn’t want Ann to know. Their relationship is in enough trouble without her knowing that he’s having an affair. Howard says that it may come to a choice between being arrested for murder and ruining your already rocky marriage. Charles says he’ll wait for that time to come to make his decision.

Charles remains in custody, and Howard begs Ann to stay in his house tonight. He obviously has feelings for her. She declines, says she has the dog to protect her. That night, the same gloved person in black breaks into her house again, searches for something, and when Ann wakes up and discovers the intruder, they scuffle... and the intruder escapes. Ann screams, Howard hears her and runs over from his house, and Ann tells him, “He came back, and tried to kill me!”



The next morning, Giddeon and several police officers are on the scene. Searching for clues. Giddeon suggests to Howard that Charles may have had an accomplice in the murder who came back to destroy evidence because Charles is in jail. Nobody wonders why the guard dog didn’t bark at the intruder, because no one in this film has read any Sherlock Holmes. When the garbage truck pulls up, Howard asks Detective Giddeon if he could use a cup of coffee and starts to lead him to his house... but Giddeon stops, follows the garbage men to the garbage cans and has them dump the trash. Then Giddeon searches through the rubbish... and finds a gun!

Not just any gun, Charles’ gun... and the gun that was used to kill that guy in the trunk of Charles’ car!

Giddeon grills Charles again, who keeps insisting that he’s innocent and has no idea how the dead guy got into the trunk of his car, or how his gun was used to kill the dead guy. He’s been framed... but, um, still has no alibi for the time of the murder. Oh, and the victim’s name is Jake Carver, does Charles or Ann know anybody by that name? Nope. Howard asks again to speak with Charles privately, and tells him the time has come to admit to the affair and reveal his mistress/alibi. This is *serious*. Charles reluctantly gives Howard the name of his mistress and a note to give her, and Howard goes to find her.

Virginia (K.T. Stevens from the soaps YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS and DAYS OF OUR LIVES) tells Howard that she *was* with Charles that night, will testify to it in court, and it’s a shame that this will end Charles’ marriage, but he has been trying to get a divorce for a while but Ann wouldn’t grant it. When Virginia leaves the room to get ice for her drink, Howard pokes around and finds a picture of Virginia with... Jake Carver!



Howard tells Ann about Charles affair with Virginia, while Ann plays with her wedding band, pulling it off and on (great piece of business!). Ann says she was going over her bank books and discovered that Charles withdrew $3k from their account the night before the murder. Howard assures her that they are going to get to the truth no matter how many lies Charles uses to cover it up! We get the feeling that Howard is now working against his client Charles in order to end up with Ann. Is *Howard* behind the murder and break ins?

Howard has Virginia come forward... and it backfires big time. Seems that $3k missing from Charles’ bank account ended up in Carver’s bank account, and Charles and Virginia may have worked *together* to murder Carver because Charles owed him money. Carver was an organized crime guy, who was a bookie, did loan sharking, and broke a kneecap or two. Howard pulls Charles aside and says he might as well admit to killing Carver. Charles says he *did not* kill Carver, but knew him and owed him money. Paid him the $3k, and that should have been the end of it. Howard thinks the only way to get Charles off is for him to come clean, admit he knew Carver but did not kill him. He’s guilty of cheating on his wife, guilty of owing money to a bookie, but not guilty of murder.

Charles gets on the stand, tells the truth, is found guilty and given the death penalty. He keeps insisting that he did not kill Carver, but they execute him anyway.

Three years later: Detective Giddeon stops by Howard’s house just before Christmas. He’s just come from the women’s prison, where Virginia is very ill and made a deathbed confession: she and Charlie *did not* murder Carver. But she was the burglar who broke into the house and turned on the gas, because Ann would not grant Charles a divorce. And the guard dog Charlie gave Ann was *Virginia’s* dog, which is why the dog didn’t bark when Virginia broke in again, looking for evidence that might clear Charles. Because when the gas thing didn’t work, Charles and Virginia hired Carver for $3k to *murder* Ann, but when Carver showed up that night... Ann was waiting for him with Charles’ gun and shot Carver dead! Put the body in Charles’ trunk, took the trunk key off Charles’ key ring, and framed Charles for the murder she committed. Since she could not have known that Carver was coming to kill her, she must have been waiting to murder Charles! Ann is a cold, calculating, killer! Howard is shocked by this...

Then the front door opens and Ann comes in, kisses Howard, and Howard introduces her as his wife. He’s married to a killer!



Review: This is a mystery masquerading as a thriller, with some nice twists. The issue is the bland direction (again) which removes some of the tension from scenes. That may be due to the rushed schedule of television (though the Alfred Hitchcock Hour often had some great stuff... and in four or five episodes we’re going to have some great stuff here on Thriller). This was the cinematographer of PSYCHO, so they had the skilled DP, they just had to tell him what to do. The twists seem to lose some of their impact due to this pedestrian direction, even though I have to give points for all of the action scenes with the Burglar *not* showing their face or even giving away that it was a woman.

One of the things I found fascinating was the negative characterization of the mistress. Yeah, she’s a mistress... but they purposely make her apartment messy as hell, and when Howard comes over to interview her and there’s a stack of magazines on the sofa, she tosses them *on the floor* so that he can sit down. This is obviously either network censors or the director trying to avoid the network censors. It might be characterization, but she’s in a beautifully decorated apartment.

I loved the way Ann played with her wedding band while Howard told her that her husband had been cheating on her, that was a great touch.

On the whole, not a bad episode but could really have used a more visual touch. I really thought that James Gregory’s character was going to be unmasked at the end as the killer who had set up Charles so that he could end up with Ann... but having Ann as the killer and Howard as the dupe was a nice twist. How long before she kills him?

We are now a third of the way through the episodes.

Bill

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Top Christmas Films



7 years ago, Rotten Tomatoes made a list of the top reviewed Christmas Films... and somehow, DIE HARD only made it as high as #6. We must correct this!

1)  IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

2)  HOLIDAY INN (1942)

3)  THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

4)  STALAG 17 (1953)

5)  MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

6)  DIE HARD (1988)

7)  ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

8)  A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)

9)  TRADING PLACES (1983)

10)  RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

11)  LETHAL WEAPON (1987)

12)  A MIDNIGHT CLEAR (1992)

13)  A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008)

14) WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995)

15)  SCROOGE (A CHRISTMAS CAROL) (1951)

16)  ELF (2003)

17)  KISS KISS, BANG BANG (2005)

18)  GREMLINS (1984)

19)  THE SANTA CLAUSE (1994)

20)  THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947)

21)  BAD SANTA (2003)

22)  8 WOMEN (2002)

23)  BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

24)  WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)

25)  THE REF (1994)

It's cool that Keith Gordon's  MIDNIGHT CLEAR is so high on the list, that's a great movie that few have seen. BATMAN RETURNS? WTF?

And how is CHRISTMAS STORY #8? That film is what the holiday is all about!

- Bill

PS: Still time to buy SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING for your Screenwriter friends and have it delivered by that "whispernet" thing before the holiday!  -->

Special Guest: Harry Connolly on Studying Screenwritng

From 2015...

My friend Harry Connolly has been writing guest blogs to promote his new (awesome) GREAT WAY Trilogy, and knocking it out of the park with each one. All kinds of amazing insight and information on writing that applies to novels, short stories, and screenplays. He should write a book! So my blog is privileged to host this guest blog...

2019: Harry has a new book, the first in a series - and it just came out! ONE MAN: CITY OF THE FALLEN GODS. I just bought my copy and will dive into it soon! The great thing about Harry's novels is that he creates a vivid world that you can disappear into for a couple of hours before bed (that's when I read). A whole world that is not like our own. Check out his new book or his old ones.

INT. BOOKSTORE - DAY: How Studying Screenwriting Made Me a Better Novelist (Mostly)

Way back in the misty dawn of the 1990s, I was a noob author on the internet, looking for advice.

Boy, did I find it.

One of the earliest places I went searching was from pro novelists. Nice people, but none of the advice they gave me seemed all that helpful. I wanted to know how to put together a really great book, and the responses were, essentially: "Try not to be boring."

Now, this is the ultimate advice. Really, there is no better advice than this. "Be interesting" is the only rule of writing. Everything a writer learns about their craft brings them toward this goal.

But I wasn't looking for that. I wanted to talk dialog. I wanted tips on creating characters and conflict. I wanted concrete rules. That's when I found screenwriting.

Now, this was back in the days of Syd Field, who specified actual page numbers where people should put act breaks. It was very, very rigid. Too much so, honestly.

Not that I knew about Field at first. I was just this guy writing terrible fiction. Some actor friends told me to write a script so they could be in it, and gave it a try. Had I ever seen an actual film script before? Nope. Lots of plays (I studied Modernist Drama in college, mainly because plays are so short) but no screenplays. You can imagine how good they weren't.

Then, while bumping around from one message board to another, I discovered Wordplay.

I think just about every person who goes online is searching for a peer group, even if they don't realize it. They seek out a circle of friendly voices who share their interests, enthusiasms, and ambitions. Someone to cheer them on or buck them up. Someone willing to tell them they're full of shit.

Just as important are contrasts. The horror writer has a lot to learn from the kitchen sink drama writer, and vice versa. The woman who wants her name on big budget summer tentpole movies has a lot to learn from the woman writing arch indies. They define themselves and their work by their differences. And they can argue.

God, how we argued. Antagonists, flashbacks, outlining: it was an endless competition of ideas, and while I argued passionately, I was wrong as often as I was right.

But what did I learn in all that back and forthing that I'm still using today?

1) The elegant flourish. There's an early scene in Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run where a movie producer complains about an Ivy League playwright he's hired. The script he turned in had a 20 page scene where a husband and wife argued, bickered, and fought, and the playwright insisted every line of dialog was necessary to establish the man's contempt and the dismal state of their marriage. The producer brought on another writer, a guy with barely a high school education. New guy throws out the argument entirely and writes a new scene: The husband and wife are on an elevator. A pretty young woman gets on, and the man takes off his hat.

That was it, a single moment that encapsulated the situation perfectly. Short, simple, telling. I've been searching for ways to do that in my own writing ever since.

2) Hurry up! One of the first things screenwriters at the time were told was that any dialog over three lines was too long. (And script formatting is really narrow for dialog.) Get to the point without being on the nose, then get out.

The same was true for scenes. Start late and end early. Get to the conflict, then the next, then the next. Anything that didn't move the story forward had to be cut.

Novels can be a digressive form, with characters telling little stories about their lives, or doing the dishes, or stopping for coffee with an old friend. That's not a bad thing, and I certainly don't mind reading digressive books. I don't like writing them, though. I try to keep the story moving, and I inevitably get editorial notes asking me to slow things up and take a little more down time.

3) Be the expert. This was a hard one, because it doesn't mean what a novelist would assume it means. It's not an injunction to study sword-fighting before writing a duel, or to interview a bunch of cops before writing a procedural. That advice ought to be so obvious that nobody should need it. This means to be an expert in your own storyΓÇöto know it inside and out.

In fact, this came from the Wordplay column called You're The Expert; the reason screenwriters are supposed to be experts is to effectively respond to studio notes. That's not an issue for my type of writing, but when I'm stuck on a scene, or unsure what direction the plot should go, I ask myself what a really great would do. How would [extraordinary author] write this scene?

It's a surprisingly effective way to break through a block, and research has confirmed that people are more creative when they imagine themselves to be someone else. Research requires actual expertise, but creatively it helps to have the pretend kind.

What about that "Mostly?" There's one aspect of novel writing that studying scripts didn't prepare me for, and it wasn't what I expected. If you watch the opening of The Godfather, you see an amazing outdoor wedding partyΓÇöthe people, the decorations, the food, all of it. In a script, that's covered by the words EXT. WEDDING PARTY - DAY or whatever. A novelist has to do the work of the art department, the wardrobe department, casting, and all the rest.

But I expected that. What I didn't expect was the profound difference in the way prose text operated. In a script, the text doesn't have a lot of flow because so much of it is instruction. Scene headers, dialog names and parentheticals, "legends", all of them break the flow of the narrative and dialog.

Prose has none of that. Not only is the text very linear, it comes in a flow that's largely unbroken (with the exception of chapter headers or asterisks scene breaks). That task of stringing words together into sentences, then tying sentences together into paragraphs, then arranging paragraphs properly, it a lot like beadwork, and it was the biggest hurdle I faced. While revising first drafts, I found sentences in the wrong order, paragraphs that repeated exposition, unnecessary prepositional phrases, and worse.

Learning to control the flow of text and the transitions between sentences over page after page of prose, instead of in small bursts of narration, was the skill that elevated my game to earn a publishing contract and a career.

Obviously, it isn't absolutely necessary for novelists to study screenwriting; plenty of pros have done well without it. One of the strengths of the novel format is the extraordinary variety of styles and subject matters. Nothing really matters except that one rule I mentioned at the top.

But I'll always be wedded to the stripped-down, full-speed-ahead aesthetic of the script, and I'll always be grateful to the screenwriters (including my host here) who taught me what I needed to know to become a pro novelist.

Now watch me gently segue into a note about my latest, blurbed "Epic Fantasy that reads like a Thriller" by Greywalker author Kat Richardson.

The Way Into Chaos Cover

Have I mentioned that it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly? Bill wrote a review of the entire trilogy. You can also find out more about that first book on my website.

If you want to see the fast-paced style I've been talking about, you can read the sample chapters I've posted on my blog.

Thanks for reading.

BIO: Harry Connolly's debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly's Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it's the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.

In case you missed any of Harry's other guest blogs...

My Favorite Bit.

Why Talent Is Evil.

My Superpower As A Writer.

It's Dangerous To Go Alone.

Failing On Your Own Terms.

The Most Difficult Part To Write.

Experts Vs. Bumpkins.

Always Blame Yourself!

And the books:

Click covers for more info!

Chaos Magic Darkness











PS: Lancelot Links will be on *Tuesday* this week!

Bill

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: 42nd Street

Busby Berkeley was born on November 29, 1895 - so the anniversary of his birth was a few days ago. Why not look at one of his movies?

I always manage to get the plots to 42nd STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 mixed up, because both have amazing Busby Berkeley dance numbers and both share the same casts and both deal with survival during the Great Depression... so instead I'm just going to look at both films: 42nd STREET this week and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 next week. You might wonder why a guy who has a book on writing action movies is a huge fan of Warner Bros musicals from the 30s, but that would be thinking in cliches... so stop that right now! Oddly enough, the big set pieces in Busby Berkeley films have much in common with big action set pieces in today’s films... and probably even more in common with martial arts films (since both deal with graceful physical actions). There is an amazing stunt in 42nd STREET that is better than anything I’ve seen outside of Jackie Chan movies. But my main love for these films comes from their gritty reality base... these are movies from the Great Depression *about* the Great Depression. While MGM was turning out glossy fantasy musicals, Warner Brothers was known for gritty social issues film... and that extended to their musicals. Just as I love the WB long haul trucker movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and their film about guys stringing power lines across the country MANPOWER, these musicals are about real people struggling to pay the rent and doing hard physical work (dancing).

Busby Berkeley basically reinvented the musical with his amazing production numbers, and went from Broadway choreographer to film choreographer to director of film musicals to... director of THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, one of the best crime films of the 1930s and probably John Garfield’s best film. After that, he invented Carmen Miranda’s hat of fruit before heading to MGM where he directed Ester Williams’ *underwater* dance numbers.



42nd STREET

Directed by: Lloyd Bacon (SAN QUENTIN, BROTHER ORCHID)
Written by: Rian James and James Seymour based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.
Musical Numbers by: Busby Berkeley.
Songs by: Al Dubin & Harry Warren.
Starring: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Alan Jenkins, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers.

Best Picture nominee.

Warner Baxter gives an Oscar calibre performance as famous stage director Julian Marsh who has lost *everything* in the Stock Market Crash *then* discovered he has health problems and may not have long to live. Basically, he’s screwed unless he can get a job, and his medical condition makes it impossible for him to get hired. Baxter manages to look and act as if every moment on screen may be his last while still playing a very physical strong willed man. He pulls off playing weak and strong at the same time.

Struggling Broadway producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (the always pessimistic Ned Sparks) discover that Broadway star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels, 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON) has a wealthy boyfriend Abner Dillon (the pudgy Guy Kibbee) who would do *anything* to get her into bed... even produce a Broadway show! These two schemers put together the pieces of the show, including director Marsh. But they need to cast 40 girls for the chorus, and that’s where we meet our protagonist Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a girl who literally just stepped off the bus from the Midwest with dreams of being a Broadway star. She brings her luggage to the audition!

The other girls at the audition are old pros, and make fun of Peggy and play cruel jokes on her (like telling her the casting will be done through the door to your left, which is the men’s room). But sending her to the wrong room results in her meeting perpetual Juvenile lead Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) in his underpants (this film is pre code, which means there is no shortage of chorus girl side boob, under boob, top boob, and barely covered by a lace undergarment boob... so Powell in his BVDs is equal time.) Lawler takes Peggy under his wing and does his best to prevent her from walking in on any other men in their underpants. Peggy is the #40 pick for the chorus line.



Because this is precode, the chorus girls don’t just jiggle a lot, they also make no bones about sleeping around (that seems contradictory). Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) has slept her way to the chorus line, and because she is sleeping with the Assistant Director, she instantly becomes the understudy. Where the other girls in the chorus have unfair advantages, Peggy only has her talent and determination. She practices harder and longer than any of the other girls, and passes out from exhaustion at one point. When she comes to, the first thing she does is try to get back to rehearsal. She’s a trooper! Soon Annie and the other chorus girls grow to respect her and accept her.

But a romance threatens the show. Star Dorothy Brock *hasn’t* slept with investor Dillon, despite him continuing to drop subtle hints like “I did something for you, now you need to do something for me.” The reason why: Dorothy is still hung up on her old boyfriend Denning (George Brent) who is flat broke and kind of her kept man. The producers fear that their investor will discover that their star is sleeping with this other guy instead of him and pull all of the money. When Denning decides to try and break up with Dorothy and find a manual labor job in Philly, he begins taking out Peggy... which pisses off Lawler. Kind of a double love triangle. All of this comes to a head when the show does a try out in Philly... and Dorothy discovers Denning and Peggy have hooked up.

Dorothy gets drunk the night before the big out of town opening... and breaks her ankle. Now we get two amazing story beats almost back to back. With Dorothy in a cast, Anytime Annie becomes the lead in the show. She has slept her way to the *top*! But when they break the news to her of her big break, she says she’d love to play the lead... but her main talents are *not* singing and dancing, and that kid off the bus Peggy is the best dancer in the show... Peggy should play the lead. Director Marsh goes to Peggy and tells her that she is now the lead, and coaches her basically around the clock until opening night. And when he leaves, Dorothy enters. Dorothy faces off against the woman who stole her man *and* stole her part... and you know this is going to be the cat fight to end all cat fights. Except, Dorothy tells her that no matter how Dorothy may feel about her, Peggy now has the lead in the show. Dorothy was once the understudy who had to step up to play the lead, and now it is Peggy’s turn and she needs to make the most of it. This is Peggy’s chance to become the star she has always dreamed of becoming, and Dorothy encourages her to *go for it*. Two unexpected story beats in a row!



Of course, Peggy gives it her all and the show is a success, and she ends up on Billy’s arms in the end... and the man who comes to Dorothy’s side while she’s injured is Denning... and when Dillon realizes that Dorothy isn’t going to sleep with him, he notices all of those hot young chorus girls like Anytime Annie and gets the booby prize. As in, those jiggling boobies.

The film is filled with amazing dance numbers, along with the signature Berkeley shot where every single beautiful chorus girl gets a close up... but the most amazing number is a long continuous take during the 42nd Street song that moves throughout a street set going inside and outside buildings, craning up and going through a 2nd story window to see a scene of domestic violence as a man beats a woman, she pushes him away, climbs out the window onto the ledge and *jumps* all the way down to the street where a dancer catches her and then dances with her. I look at that stunt and wonder how many dancers they went through before they got the take right. She freakin’ jumps off a 2nd story ledge and a guy *catches her*. It’s *pavement* below (hard surface so they can tap dance). These days no one would do a stunt that dangerous. It’s crazy!

The great thing about 42nd STREET is that it not only shows the gritty side of Great Depression life where people struggle to keep a roof over their heads *and* has these lavish completely visual dance numbers that are pure spectacle *and* show that hard work and determination pays off.

Bill

Thanks to Warner Archive, now on beautiful BluRay!

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