Friday, September 12, 2014

cinema obscura: Ken Hughes' "Wicked As They Come" (1956)

The joys of moviegoing/moviewatching can be neatly divided into two camps.  First and foremost, there's the guaranteed joy that comes from watching a favored film over and over and over and over again.

No less important, however, is the joy of discovering a new movie - not something current that just opened at your local cineplex but an older title that's been around for some time, without your even knowing about it.

Falling cozily into the latter camp is a little (and little-known) 1956 gem from Columbia Pictures, "Wicked As They Come," directed by British filmmaker Ken Hughes, whose diverse résumé includes Peter Finch's "The Trial of Oscar Wilde" (1960), The Sherman Bros. musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) and the Alan Price remake, "Alfie, Darling" (1972).

"Wicked As They Come" aired on Turner Classic Movies during its annual Summer Under the Stars outing in August as part of a day devoted to its star, Arlene Dahl.  I caught it quite by accident.  My viewing was totally unplanned.  For the life of me, I can't remember how or why I started to watch it - the film was an unknown entity to me - but I'm glad I did.

It's a keeper.

Filmed by Mike Frankovich's production company largely in London with a British crew and a cast of  Anglos and Americans, "Wicked As They Come" casts Dahl as Kathy Allen, née Allenborg, a restless Boston woman from a deprived background with an indifference to all men.

Kathy sets out to rebuild her life, starting with her eye on Miss Stylewear, a local newspaper-sponsored beauty contest that's conveniently fixed in her favor.

She shrewdly exploits the affection that the newspaper's editor feels for her and, once the contest is over and won, she abandons him and, with her cash winnings, moves to London, where she flits from man to man, each progressively older, wealthier and more prominent, scamming them all.

Kathy's advance is witnessed by another American expat, advertising man Tim O'Bannion (Phil Carey), who is both fascinated and repelled by her transparency. O'Bannion at once wants to expose Kathy, punish her, rehabilitate her and ... ensnare her.

His fascination inevitably turns into obsession.

Sound remotely familiar? Well, the basic core of "Wicked As They Come" is nearly a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" from 1964.

"Wicked As They Come" isn't nearly as accomplished as "Marnie," and, true, there are major differences. Still, there are so many small narrative similarities here that it's difficult to believe that Hitch wasn't a fan of Hughes' modest little film from eight years earlier. ( It should be noted, however, that Jay Presson Allen's script for "Marnie" was based on a novel of the same title by Winston Green, while "Wicked As They Come" was adapted from another book, "Portrait in Smoke," by Bill S. Ballinger.)

Dahl and Carey could be playing prototypes for the characters ultimately essayed by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in "Marnie."  Like Connery in "Marnie," Carey's character keeps popping up in the heroine's life, and there's a sequence in which Carey shows up at the office where Dahl is working that could be a template for the same scene in "Marnie." "Wicked As They Come" even comes with a Hitchcock specialty - the final-curtain psychological explanation, a theory for Kathy's troubled behavior.

Not surprisingly, like Marnie, Kathy's damage was caused by a sexual trauma from earlier in her life.

It's gratifying to see the terrific Carey at last in a rare leading role, and Dahl, an actress who was made for Technicolor, is even more beautiful in black-&-white.

The cinematograher Basil Emmott (a name new to me) achieves a soft, smokey  image here that is gorgeous, and hugely flattering to Dahl, absolutely first-rate.

A little symmetry here:  While "Marnie" is one of those aforementioned favored films that I'd gladly watch over and over and over and over again, and have, its modest doppelganger, "Wicked As They Come," is a decidedly new favorite. Someday, these two will make a terrific double-bill.

Monday, September 08, 2014

cinema obscura: Michael Hoffman's "Gambit"

I've said it before, but it bares repeating: Hollywood routinely makes and releases awful movies - on  a weekly basis, no less - and spares no expense marketing them.

I reiterate this in preamble to the fact that Michael Hoffman's 2012 remake of "Gambit" (material that hardly deserved revamping) is no better or worse than the junk currently littering your neighborhood cineplex.

Actually, it's my hunch that it's probably much better than the movie you paid $50 (including concession "food") to see last weekend.

But someone at CBS Films, its American distributor - someone apparently overpaid to make dubious decisions - decided that the new "Gambit" is an offensive embarrassment, despite its pedigree.  Two years after it toured the rest of the world,  CBS elected to release the movie last April in a handful of cities in America.  If you live in New York, for example, where the film temporarily played, you probably didn't know where to see it because there were no display ads.  (But a belated New York Times review thoughtfully guided potential moviegoers to the Village East Cinema.)

The original "Gambit," directed in 1966 by Ronald Neame, was a standard '60s caper flick which paired the then-hot Michael Caine with Shirley MacLaine, who was experiencing one of her rare down periods.  (Universal, the film's producer, would next cast her in one of her greatest roles, "Sweet Charity.")  Caine and MacLaine played a cat burglar and a dancer who team up for a heist of a sculpture that exploits both their talents.

It was all fairly tepid.

The remake teams Colin Firth (an apt stand-in for Caine) and Cameron Diaz (who doesn't play a dancer here, but a cowgirl - don't ask) in the heist of a painting.  They are backed by a trio of A-list supporting players - Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay - and they get to read dialogue written by no less than Ethan and Joel Coen.  This version of the material is a step up from tepid, thanks largely to the way the Coens have fiddled with their script; the odd chemistry shared by Firth and Diaz, and especially Hoffman's off-kilter direction. Which is no surprise. At least, not to me.

Hoffman has always marched to a different drummer, amassing a refreshingly eclectic filmmography - "Some Girls," "Soapdish," "One Fine Day," "Restoration," "The Last Station," "Promised Land" and his Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He's an original.  His new film - no so much.

Both Firth and Diaz have experienced a few career bumps of late, so it's so surprise that they would bump into each other here.  Diaz made a good film that was dismissed - Ridley Scott's "The Counselor." And Firth has made two good films that were dismissed - Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" and Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man." And both have starred in disappointing comedies - Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight" and Diaz in two, "The Other Woman" and "Sex Tape." "Gambit" is another bump.

But it's really nothing more serious than that.  Honest.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

thoroughly awful

I thought enough time had gone by - yipes! nearly 50 years - that I'd give it a second chance.

I'm referring to George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the 1967 pseudo-musical which Turner Classic Movies has disinterred and will air @ 11 p.m. on Monday, September 8th.

But, no, this disturbing curiosity has decidedly not improved with age.

In fact, it's now much worse, particularly considering that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for throwing away Oscars, once saw fit to hand it seven - count 'em - seven nominations, including one for Carol Channing's amateurish supporting turn. (There's a reason why some stage performers never make it as movie personalities.)

Aside from being a prime example of.•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.forced fun•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.
 "Thoroughly Modern Millie" remains jaw-dropping in its blatant racism.

The presentation of Asians here, as personified by the wince-producing performances of Jack Soo and Pat Morita, is unconscionable - almost as unwatchable as Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961).

Of course, this brand of racist entertainment had been tossed off as innocent fun by Hollywood for years.  Consider the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

Of course, it was a different culture 60-70 years ago when "Babes" and "Rose" were produced, but times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made.

What's disconcerting is that "Millie" was produced by Ross Hunter who presented Asians in such a fabulous light six year earlier in Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), a movie musical whose entire cast (except for one Caucasian in a brief supporting role - Herman Rudin, who played the vagrant who robs Benson Fong) is composed of Asian performers exclusively,  Soo among them.

In "Flower Drum Song," Hunter and Koster nudged the talented Soo towards a winning performance that's best described as Martinesque (as in Dean Martin). One can only guess why Hunter and Hill elected to diminish Soo (and Morita) in such a cruel way in "Millie." It remains unacceptable.

Anyway, it's still a lousy movie and its brand of casual racism simply exacerbates matters. And the same goes for "Babes in Arms" and "My Wild Irish Rose."

Thursday, September 04, 2014


I spent most of my decades as a working film critic single-mindedly resisting interviews with movie stars.  It's not that I didn't want to meet and talk with them - I didn't want to meet and talk with them and then critique the movie each one was hawking.  Too awkward.  Impure.

On the other hand, I wouldn't give up the memories of some of the wonderful people I met during this conflicting process and, when pressed, I always mention Joan Rivers as my favorite interview - and without missing a beat.  Hands-down, she was the nicest person I met during an interview situation (David Niven runs a close second), largely because our time together took the form of a conversation, rather than an interview.

Joan asked me as many questions as I asked her. Perhaps a few more.

OK, I'm going to seriously date myself here...

It was April of 1978 and Joan came to Philadelphia to promote "Rabbit Test," the first and last feature film that she would direct.  It was a comedy (natch) about a pregnant man (played by Billy Crystal) and Joan got the chance to be a one-time auteur on the basis of her teleplays for two popular TV movies, "Husbands and Wives" and particularly "The Girl Most Likely," which provided Stockard Channing with her breakthrough role.

I was Joan's last interview of the day.  She was speaking to a student assembly at the University of Pennsylvania (to talk comedy and also gently nudge them to see "Rabbit Test") and it was arranged by Sam Bushman, the outsized Philly publicist handling Joan that day, that I would meet her afterwards in the student lounge on the Penn campus.

It was very informal, noisy and quite unforgettable.

More than 35 years later, much of our conversation is now a blur.  But I do remember that "Rabbit Test" was hardly discussed and two other points of conversation have also stayed with me.

Joan discussed the plight of her good friend Roddy McDowall, who was allegedly being harassed by the FBI for film piracy.  McDowall's hobby was collecting 16mm prints of major Hollywood titles.  The authorities were threatening to out McDowall who was closeted at the time.

And she was absolutely animated about what she saw as her next movie project - a collaboration with Jim Henson.  Joan had this idea for a black comedy in which The Muppets are kidnapped and tortured. Obviously, that film was never made. But Henson delivered his first feature, "The Muppet Movie," directed by James Frawley, a year after "Rabbit Test's" release.

Our interview ended when Sam reminded Joan that it was time for her drive back to New York.  She offered me a ride to the newspaper office and, as her limo pulled away, Joan lowered the window and shouted in her trademark raspy voice, "Study hard!," hectically waving to the kids in the immediate area.  She had a great voice - something that's rarely mentioned whenever someone writes about Joan Rivers.

A week later, after "Rabbit Test" opened, I received in the mail a photocopy of my (negative) review of the film. It was from Joan.  There was a handwritten note from Joan scrawled across it in red ink.

Seemingly unfazed by the review, she wrote: 

Dear Joe, 

It was lovely meeting you and spending time with you – you were one of the few people I was able to talk to about something other than “Rabbit Test” (death & saving animals, in case you’ve forgotten).

Anyhow,  again,  many thanks.  RT hit #1 in box-office grosses this week – and part of it is due to your kindness.



Note in Passing: Beyond "Rabbit Test," in which she also appeared, Joan Rivers enjoyed only a scant movie career, usually playing herself.  However, she did have one notable role in 1968 - co-starring in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" as one of the people he meets as he spends an afternoon swimming across suburbia. I'm not sure if her scene was directed by the original filmmaker, Frank Perry, or Sydney Pollack who replaced Perry on the troubled production.  Her character's name?  Joan.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

façade: hal ashby's third act

Hal Ashby, who would have turned 80 last September, enjoyed a brief but exhilarating directing career. The former editor (an Oscar winner for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night") helmed eleven narrative films, plus one documentary, in a span of about 15 years.

His debut, 1970's fabulous "The Landlord," was something of a happy accident. Norman Jewison had commissioned Kristen Hunter's novel to direct himself, but pre-production work on "Fiddler on the Roof" sidelined him and he generously handed the material to Ashby, his house editor.

A year later came the seminal "Harold and Maude" which, like "The Landlord," was not immediately embraced by critics or audiences.

This was Ashby's Act One as a budding auteur.

His Act Two was something of a jaw-dropper - rich, beautifully realized films starting with "The Last Detail" in 1973 and continuing with an almost breathlessness with "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There." Much of what is written these days about Ashby revovles around these titles.

Ashby with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on
"Harold and Maude," perhaps his signature film
Ashby's Act Three, however, produced during a particularly troubling time in his private life, is no less interesting. His choice of material was as personal and idiosyncratic as ever and his eye for casting remained fresh and sure. Less sure was his directorial confidence but the shared erratic quality of his final four films only make them more fascinating.

Either by accident or perhaps on purpose, Ashby's work on "Second-Hand Hearts" (1981), "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), "The Slugger's Wife" (1985) and "Eight Million Ways to Die" (1986) mirrored much of the expressionism that John Cassavetes was specializing in at the time.

"Second-Hand Hearts" (aka, "The Hamster of Happiness"), a shaggy-dog tale about losers, offers the singular team of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, who are compulsively watchable here. "Second-Hand Hearts", a lost title, may be genuine Cinema Obscura, but "Lookin' to Get Out" recently made it to DVD in a narratively enhanced version that restores footage excised by Paramount. Ashby managed to take a buddy gambling film here and somehow twist it into something vaguely existential.

More mainstream and middlebrow, "The Slugger's Wife," an original screenplay by Neil Simon, comes with an unexpected melancholy with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay, fine performers who never hit the big time, as two people - a ballplayer and a singer not entirely made for each other. The film lingers almost in spite of itself.

Martin Ritt puts in a bit as the wittily named Burly DeVito, manager of the Atlanta Braves, the team for which O'Keefe slugs.

Much more memorable but no less erratic is "Eight Million Ways to Die," an atmospherically sordid character study with Jeff Bridges outstanding as detective who uses booze to self-destruct, seesawing between his planned rehabilitation and the vices that permate his personal/professional lives. Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul are the atypical female leads here.

Ashby's documentary was The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1983). Trailing off towards the end, he directed Neil Young in something called "Solo Trans" (1984); the pilot of Dennis Franz' TV series, ""Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987) and his last, "Jake's Journey," a 1988 British TV film with Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.

He died in in December of that year of liver and colon cancer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

cinema obscura: Richard Quine's "So This Is Paris" (1955)

Richard Quine is largely noted for his work at Columbia, where he started out as a contract player (he was sodajerk Frank Lippincott in Roz Russell's "My Sister Eileen") and then segued into directing there (the musical version of "My Sister Eileen," among others).

He made his directorial debut at Columbia in 1954 with "Drive a Crooked Road" (co-written by colleague and friend, Blake Edwards, one of several of their collaborations) and became a reliable house director there the same year with the marvelous "Pushover" (starring his muse, Kim Novak).

But Quine also ventured out to other studios for such titles as "The World of Suzie Wong," "Sex and the Single Girl," "The Moonshine War," "Hotel" and the film of Arthur Kopit's quirky play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (which starred Russell).

In 1955, the year he made the excellent "My Sister Eileen" for Columbia, Quine was loaned out to Universal for another musical, "So This Is Paris," a throwaway charmer starring a singing and dancing Tony Curtis as an avid, skirt-chasing sailor. With Gene Nelson (on Curtis' right above) and Paul Gilbert (on his left), the film can be mistaken for nothing less than a tracing-over of "On the Town," only set in Paris rather than New York.

The naturally engaging Gloria DeHaven (also above) has the Vera-Ellen role of a showgirl who isn't exactly what she seems to be. Corinne Calvet, the low-rent, G-rated Brigette Bardot of her day, and Mary Corday are the two other gals who team up with the ... gobs. (Quine's movie was alternately titled "So This is Paree" and, yes, "Three Gobs in Paris.")

If you know the drill, you know the rest.

"So This Is Paris" is one of those B-musicals (if there is such a genre) that were prominent during the early- to mid-1950s, when the studios still had expansive music departments and when musicals were still accepted, no questions asked, by audiences. In fact, Janet Leigh, Curtis' wife at the time, starred in two of her own - James V. Kern's "Two Tickets to Broadway" (1951), which happened to co-star DeHaven, and Quine's aforementioned "My Sister Eileen" (1955).

By the way, Curtis played another sex-sick soldier on the loose in Paris in Blake Edwards' difficult-to-see "The Perfect Furlough" (1958) and Leigh teamed up with him (one of their many films together) as a no-nonsense Army psychologist keeping tabs on him by acting as chaperone.

Friday, August 15, 2014

cinema obscura: Carl Foreman's "The Victors" (1963)

George Hamilton (from left), Vince Edwards, Jim Mitchum and George Peppard in "The Victors"

Note: Carl Foreman's anti-war epic from 1963, "The Victors," a lost film, was originally profiled here as a cinema obscura entry on December 6, 2007, in conjunction with a rare screening of the full-length roadshow version on The Military Channel, scheduled for January 19 of the following year. Since then, the film has surfaced in its full version, courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, on March 1, 2010 and is scheduled for a showing at 3 p.m. on tomorrow (Saturday, August 16) at The Billy Wilder Theater of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Is it just possible that, at long last, a DVD release will follow? (Apparently, a DVD has already been released in the UK.) Let's hope so. Below is the original cinema obscura essay and the initial comments posted at that time.

The sole directorial effort of Carl Foreman, the prolific writer and producer, "The Victors" remains one of the most powerful of anti-war films. 

It was one of Columbia's major productions of 1963 - a three-hour (plus intermission) roadshow production for which the studio harbored Oscar fantasies. The studio's other big Oscar bid that year was Otto Preminger's equally sprawling "The Cardinal." But while "The Cardinal" has surfaced on VHS, Laser and DVD, "The Victors" continues to sit on some shelf at Sony.


Shot in widescreen and black-&-white by Christopher Challis and boasting a huge international cast, "The Victors" works essentially as a series of short stories about the various members of an infantry squad as it treks from Sicily to Germany during the final weeks of World War II, crosscutting their interpersonal relationships with those they share with the enemy and with assorted women. Foreman, who wrote his own script, keeps his film big and hulking, while also managing to concentrate on the human interest in his vignettes.

Peter Fonda, for example, pops up as a soldier obsessed with saving a puppy from the ravages of war; Eli Wallach plays a harsh sergeant who has his face blown off in combat;  George Hamilton is a G.I. disillusioned when the woman he falls for becomes a prostitute; and, in the finale, Albert Finney appears as a drunken Russian soldier whose face-to-face encounter with the disgusted Hamilton neatly sums up the insanity of war. (A bit of trivia: Romy Schneider, pictured left, played Hamilton's love interest and, although her name remained in the credits, her role was completely deleted from the film when CBS aired the movie for the first time in the late '60s.)

The best moment in the film, for my money, is the stark sequence when a young American deserter is executed in the snow while Frank Sinatra's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background.

There's more, but I haven't been able to see the film in years and it is quickly disappearing from my mind.

As a writer, Foreman worked largely with producer-director Stanley Kramer, penning both including "Home of the Brave" (1949) and "The Men" (1950). His last film in tandem with Kramer would be the Fred Zinnemann-directed "High Noon" (1952), whose release coincided with Foreman's "hostile" testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His refusal to cooperate ultimately led to his blacklisting.

Foreman would continue to write movies, using assorted pseudonyms (including Derek Frye) and often without taking credit at all. It was pretty much known that he wrote the screenplay for David Lean's 1957 Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kwai," although credit would go to Pierre Boule, the French author who wrote the novel upon which "Kawi" was based. Boule subsequently took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, although the Academy would honor Foreman for his contribution in 1985, following his death from brain cancer the year before.

As a producer, Forman was responsible for such fine films as "Born Free," "Young Winston" and, best of all, John Dexter's 1970 "The Virgin Soldiers," another vivid (and lost) anti-war film starring Hywell Bennett (and whatever happened to him?), Lynn Redgrave and Nigel Davenport.

But, for me,"The Victors" remains his towering achievement.

Friday, August 08, 2014

bernstein, sondheim & spielberg

Steven Spielberg pretty much confirmed an on-going rumor - that he will remake "West Side Story" - on a recent edition of ABC's "Good Morning, America." Appearing in tandem with Oprah Winfrey to promote Friday's opening of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," which they produced, Spielberg was asked about the rumor and said that the project is in the works.

"West Side Story" would be Spielberg's first film musical, following the lead of his occasional collaborator, Tom Hanks, whose Playtone company was behind Phyllida Law's "Mamma Mia!" (2008).  That's if one doesn't count "1941" (1979), a criminally underrated film (especially in its 146-minute director's cut) that moved like a songless musical. (See the USO dance sequence.)  "1941" should have been a flat-out, full-fledged musical.

Anyway, as someone who isn't a fan of the original 1961 WSS (although, full disclosure, I loved it as a kid), this is awesome news.

Aside from the performances of Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn and, of course, the Leonard Berstein-Stephen Sondheim score, the first movie version of "West Side Story" is something of a trial to endure.  True, the film won ten Oscars that year, including Best Picture. And, true, most newspaper TV listings routinely rate it with four stars. And, true, it's a  staple of Turner Classic Movies. But everything in-between the songs and dances is fairly awful - unwatchable actually. Blasphemy, right?

The problem is Ernest Lehman's script by way of Arthur Laurents' book for the play.  Lehman was way to faithful to Laurents' contribution.  The dialogue, which Lehman kept intact, is particularly arch.

Critic Sam Adams put it best in his critique of WSS (in one of its DVD incarnations) for Philadelphia's City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win." Amen.

Tellingly, on GMA today, Spielberg sung praises of Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics, but said nothing of Laurents' book.  Hopefully, that means that the script and dialogue will be overhauled for the remake.  I assume that the project's one other key contribution, Jerome Robbins' landmark choreography, will be retained/restaged for the new film.

But one never knows.

The original film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, until Robbins was unceremoniously dropped from the production.

Of the Oscar wins for the film, the most questionable went to supporting players Rita Moreno (who, at age 30, was too old for her role) and George Chakiris (at best, a competent actor).  Unbelievably, they won over "Judgment at Nuremberg's" Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift.

In a recent interview, Moreno claimed that everyone expected Garland to win for "sentimental" reasons.  No, everyone thought Garland would win because she deserved to win.  Ditto Clift.  And the fact is, Moreno and Chakiris won only because "Wests Side Story" swept the Oscars that year.

Everyone drank the WSS kool-aid prior to the 1962 Oscarcast.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

façade: James Shigeta, matinee idol

Note: The actor James Shigeta died on July 28 at age 81; this essay was originally published on June 18, 2008 and the initial ten comments were posted during that time period.

Turner's impressively ambitious and nakedly revealing investigation of how the film industry has seen and portrayed Asians in movies has run the gamut as one might expect of the fastidious TCM, capturing some wonderful, laudatory highs and far, far too many lows.

The series kicked off with Cecil B. DeMille's fascinating "The Cheat," a 1915 silent film that introduced the iconic Sessue Hayakawa to Western audiences, and included Yasujiro Ozu's recent Father's Day entry, his 1942 masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki."

In between, there have been titles about the struggles of Asian actors and filmmakers to present their authentic vision, as well as the struggles, too often in vain, of Caucasian filmmakers to portray them.

Forget about the slant-eye make-up applied to the likes of Katharine Hepburn. For the most part, Hollywood's view has been routinely, almost casually, insensitive and decidedly unempathetic.

Joining TCM's Robert Osborne for some serious discussions about such matters has been Dr. Peter X Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans" and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video." And there have been added insight provided by filmmaker Wayne Wang, writer Amy Tan, film scholar Elaine Mae Woo, film producer Janet Yang, actresses Lauren Tom, Ming Wen, Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan and Miiko Taka, among others, and ... James Shigeta.

For a brief, shining moment, the talented and very handsome James Shigeta was poised to be a major Hollywood leading man. In the space of two years, Shigeta was auspiciously showcased in no fewer than five films of impressive diversity - Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959), his debut film; James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon" (1960); George Marshall's "Cry for Happy" (1961); Etienne Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil" (1961), and Henry Koster's film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Flower Drum Song" (1961).

With a line-up like that, Shigeta should have had it made. He was the definition of a matinee idol. But it was to be only temporary.

For some bizarre reason, what seemed to be a flourishing film career came to a halt, with Shigeta spending most of his time playing guest roles on TV series ("Burke's Law," "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Perry Mason" and the like). Apparently, Hollywood wasn't color-blind after all. Later on, he had roles in Charles Jarrott's "Lost Horizon" musical remake (1973), a disaster with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David score; Jack Smight's "Midway" (1976) and, still later, John McTiernan's "Die Hard" (1988). But his movie career, for all intents and purposes, never really got back on track.

What happened? For the life of me, I can't understand why Hollwood - so good at exploiting people - let Jim Shigeta be so criminally neglected. Is it naïve to think there was a whiff of racisim was at play here?

Four of those film films in which Shigeta excelled, demonstrating his versatility, are being aired as part of Turner's invaluable "Asian Images in Film" series, starting early June 19th, at 1:30 a.m. (est) with "Walk Like a Dragon," in which Shigeta plays a proud immigrant in 1870’s California caught in a love triangle with a Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) and a tough cowboy (Jack Lord). Mel Tormé co-stars for director Clavell, the writer who, of course, helmed TV's "Shogun."

At 8 p.m. (est) on June 19th, Turner will screen Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil," a true story about a Tennessee blonde (Carroll Baker) who married a Japanese diplomat (Shigeta) before World War II, then followed him to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film contains, arguably, Shigeta's best screen performance.

Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono," Shigeta's first film, will be shown at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th. In this Los Angeles-set noir, Shigeta plays a detective who finds himself in a love triangle with his partner (Glenn Corbett) and a woman (the late, wonderful Victoria Shaw) who is entangled in their current murder investigation. Not surprising for Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino" was ahead of its time, both for its exploration of racism and its romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman, something Shigeta would explore again in "A Bridge to the Sun."

At 11:30 p.m. (est) on June 24th, Koster's terrific, unfairly underrated "Flower Drum Song" unreels. Full disclosure: This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, largely because it doesn't follow the usual R-&-H forumla. Lacking the team's penchant for pretention and preachiness, this look at Asian life in San Franciaco is modern, lively and quite jazzy. A tale of generational conflicts and hard-dying traditions, the material casts Shigeta, in his last major film role, as a conflicted guy caught between being Chinese and American.

"Flower Drum Song" features an all-Asian cast, save for one Caucasian role - that of a white derelict (Herman Rudin) who robs Master Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) on his doorstep. Nice touch. I love it.

Shigeta, whose deep, natural baritone always added a natural authority to his line readings, did his own singing in the film - an endearing, lilting work that has improved with age. It's terrific.

Note in Passing: The only major Shigeta film missing from Turner's line-up is Marshall's "Cry for Happy," a wartime comedy that starred Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miiko Taka and which paired Shigeta with his "Flower Drum Song" co-star, Miyoshi Umeki.

(Artwork: James Shigeta in his prime; with Carroll Baker in Périer's breakthrough "A Bridge to the Sun"; being interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong during the Spotlight tribute to him at the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in 2006, and Nancy Kawn, aglow in wide screen, in the Hermes Pan-choreographed "Grant Avenue" number from Koster's terrific "Flower Drum Song.")

Monday, July 28, 2014


Garner and his co-star Audrey Hepburn, decidedly not in character for their roles in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour"

James Garner is one of those effortless actors perennially taken for granted during the years, the decades, that he performed in film after film, genre after genre.  When he died on July 19, at age 86, one could sense the collective sigh, "Oh, yeah, he was great!," tinged with a little regret.

He wasn't appreciated enough as an actor and one could take from his easy-going manner that he really didn't care about that.  In his off-screen life, he had accomplished the things in life that really matter.  Jim - it seems right to call him that - was a former Marine who won two Purple Hearts during the Korean War and he was married to his wife Lois for 58 years.  Fifty-eight years. And without a single hint of scandal.

As a leading man, he had it all.  A model leading man: Tall, dark and handsome.  Based on looks alone, he should have been the kind of guy easy to dislike, if it weren't for his easy accessibility and, yes, likability.

Garner and his "Great Escape"co-star, Steve McQueen, were both popular TV actors who managed to break into movies at a time when TV actors had scant credibility/bankability.  Garner was a contract Warner Bros. TV player and his boss, Jack Warner, was known for drawing a clear line that divided his feature film players from the TV employees in his stable.

The latter rarely crossed over. But Warner put Garner in "Sayonara," "Darby's Rangers" and "Cash McCall" before lending him out to the Mirisch Bros. for his first serious role in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" (1961).  In direct contrast, Garner followed that with a game, spirited turn in the wry Kim Novak comedy, "Boys' Night Out" (1962) for MGM.

Showing his antic side in Norman Jewison's delicious "The Thrill of It All"

Then came 1963, during which he starred in no fewer than four films - the aforementioned "The Great Escape," by John Sturges, Arthur Hiller's "The Wheeler Dealers" and two with Doris Day, Norman Jewison's "The Thrill of It All" and Michael Gordon's "Move Over, Darling."  A year later came the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted "The Americanization of Emily,"  also directed by Hiller. And Jim Garner was no longer just a "TV actor."

Scores of films of varying quality followed, both the known -"Grand Prix," "Victor/Victoria," "Marlow," "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Skin Game" - and the unknown -"The Pink Jungle," "The Art of Love," A Man Could Get Killed" and "How Sweet It Is," with Debbie Reynolds. (That's Jim with Debbie in the photo below.)
Four of of his more interesting efforts were George Seaton's tricky "36 Hours" (1965), based on a Roald Dahl story and co-staarring Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor; Delbert Mann's "Mister Buddwing" (1966) with a script by Dale Wasserman (author of the play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and which Mann shot as a New York indie (despite the MGM imprimatur); his Oscar-nominated role in Martin Ritt's "Murphy's Romance" (1989) and Robert Benton's nifty murder-mix-up, "Twilight" (1980, co-starring Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon.

I also have a very soft spot for "They Only Kill Their Masters" (1972), a playful whodunit romp directed by the ever-underrated James Goldstone and co-starring Katharine Ross and, in her last major role, June Allyson.

Turner Classic Movies is devoting its entire schedule today to Jim, starting ... now.
 Garner and Rod Taylor doing very well by author Roald Dahl in "36 Hours"