VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)

This is the sixth installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

Reckoned by many to be one of the best films about Hollywood, The Bad and the Beautiful is pungent and occasionally acidic, and at the time of its release a clear sign that things were changing in the movie capital. Even one or two years previously it would have been unimaginable for a major studio to release a film quite as disparaging of the people at the top of the heap in movie making.

Of course, sixty years have passed since this film, and much, much more biting and bitter films have been made about the way movies are created. But within the context of its time, and for the quality of its writing and much of its acting, The Bad and the Beautiful is a notable film. I don't find it as compelling as some do, but it's a very entertaining film. In many details it does not match how films are made (at least today), but in essence, in spirit, much of what is at play in this film is still a ripe part of Hollywood today.

Kirk Douglas is Jonathan Shields, a charismatic but unscrupulous producer who has burned every bridge he ever crossed. He asks three former colleagues/friends to put aside their spite for him and help him launch a new film. As the three consider the proposition, we are presented the stories of their individual pasts with Douglas's character. Barry Sullivan is a writer-director whose dream project was taken away from him by his friend Shields. Lana Turner is the alcoholic daughter of a famed actor (read Diana Barrymore and John Barrymore), who is romanced by Shields only in order to get from her what he wants to advance his career. Dick Powell is a novelist whom Shields drags to Hollywood and tragedy. Douglas and Powell, in particular, are good, giving broad and quiet performances, respectively, that are quite true to the types they embody. Gloria Grahame, an actress I like a lot, won an Oscar as Powell's southern-belle wife, though this is scarcely her best performance and her "southern" accent is almost more bull than belle.

Director Vincent Minnelli and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charles Schnee do a very good job with this drama, and the score and photography are rich. The Bad and the Beautiful has lost some of its steel over the years, but it's a very good movie that suggests that there are a lot of people in Hollywood who are either bad or beautiful, or both. That's an over-simple generalization, but it makes for an effective movie.
 

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: CAIN’S CUTTHROATS (1971)

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: CAIN’S CUTTHROATS (1971)

This is the fifth installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

A great deal of effort was apparently put into making this the worst movie ever made. They didn't pull it off, but the effort certainly shows.

It's a Western with rockabilly songs. It's a Civil War-era movie that was originally released with footage of motorcycle gangs edited into it. It's a movie where single bullet holes look like exploding steak tartare. It's a movie with a black character played by the whitest-looking white woman you can imagine. It's a movie with 20 people in the cast, 18 of whom are the worst collective gathering of actors in the history of motion pictures.

Fortunately, one of the other two actors is John Carradine, who could be one of the best actors alive or one of the worst hams ever to set foot on a stage, depending on the material. Carradine, who should have had an Oscar for THE GRAPES OF WRATH and was reportedly a great Hamlet in his day, is in semi-hammy mode here, but it's more or less right for the character, a preacher/bounty hunter. It's one of the larger roles of his late career, when he clearly took anything that came along. If there's anything worth watching in this collection of uncut banjo picks, it's he.

Scott Brady, who is the only other bearable (or recognizable) actor in the cast, is Justice Cain, a former Confederate officer who is worshiped by his troops, but that doesn't keep them from raping his wife and killing her and his son when he refuses to join them in restarting the war, long after the rebel surrender. So Cain sets out to avenge himself on the men he once led, joining forces with Preacher Simms (Carradine), who spouts Bible verses and keeps a collection of human heads in a barrel of brine.

The movie is nowhere near as good as that description sounds. In fact, it's nowhere near as good as choking to death on a drill bit.

But at least there's a chance at one point to see John Carradine in drag. And Carradine, brilliant or hammy, always brightens up a movie.

 

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946)

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946)

This is the fourth installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

I don’t usually have a lot of patience for navel-gazing, spiritual-trek, meaning-of-life movies, and I don’t think too many of them have been particularly successful, at least commercially. I put off for years watching this 1946 film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel for just the reason that I didn’t want to spend two and a half hours watching some guy find himself, even if the guy was someone I like as much as Tyrone Power. Well, that delay was a mistake. It’s not for everyone, I’m sure, and it may have faults as drama, but I found The Razor's Edge a richly rewarding experience. Part of that is due to some really exquisite filmmaking by director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer Arthur Miller, a gorgeous score by Alfred Newman, a literate and dramatic script by Lamar Trotti, and some quietly terrific performances by a starry cast including Power, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Elsa Lanchester and others. But part of it is due to the fact that this isn’t just a story of a man seeking his soul and its meaning, it’s a fine mixture of character drama and internal drama, the latter of which isn’t often successfully translated to the screen.

Tyrone Power is Larry Darrell, a World War I veteran shaken by his experiences. Returning to his wealthy home surroundings and the girl he loves, he finds he can no longer settle for a life of avoiding meaning, of mere acquisition and societal “respectability.” His girl, Isabel (an incandescent Gene Tierney), cannot understand why he doesn’t want to “make something of himself,” and thinks he merely wants to have a well-deserved and much-delayed youthful fling, so she sends him off happily to get the wild oats out of his system. But Larry has no interest in oats. He wants to understand why he lived through the war when other men just like him didn’t. He wants to have a life built on meaning, not possessions, a life of understanding rather than mere acceptance of the status quo. And so he sets out on a pilgrimage to follow the path of wisdom, across the razor’s edge.

There is more, much more to the film than Larry’s journey, though that of course is the core of the work. Isabel is astonished to learn that Larry really is prepared to give up the life of plenty that she is so accustomed to, and that he hopes she will join him in doing so. She plots to trap him into the kind of marriage she wants, but isn’t able to. Meantime, the couple’s close friend Sophie, a childhood intimate of Larry’s, has her most happy world torn asunder when her husband and child are killed in an accident. What becomes of poor Sophie is the catalyst in which Larry’s growth is experienced, and it is the source of the highest and most deeply affecting drama of the film.

Tyrone Power came back from the Marines in World War II to resume his career, and he pleaded with Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck to give him more serious and rewarding roles than the swashbucklers he’d specialized in before the war. Zanuck reluctantly complied, and in doing so, gave Power possibly the two best consecutive roles of his career, this and the immediately subsequent Nightmare Alley. Power may well have been the most beautiful man ever born, and it would be easy, though wrong, to dismiss him as just a pretty face. His work in The Razor's Edge is convincing in the extreme. He truly seems to be the seeker he portrays, a man of innate goodness terribly desirous of becoming better. Goodness and internal growth—these are among the hardest things for an actor to portray without drifting into sappiness or cliché, and Power does so extremely well.

Gene Tierney is not merely the female counterpart to Power’s extraordinary beauty, she embodies the sensitive yet shallow callowness of Isabel. We see the qualities that Larry loves about Isabel, yet she commits her mistakes and crimes in ways that stem from an almost innocent inability to let go of how she’s always been told things should be. As a result, Isabel is not a monster or a bitch, not at all. She’s a woman clinging to what she believes is good, but not understanding that it isn’t good at all.

Clifton Webb plays Elliott Templeton in an Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performance. Elliott is Isabel’s uncle, a vain, snobbish, pretentious, yet somehow gentle and likable man, and when his time for comeuppance arrives, we hope to see him spared. It’s a perfectly marvelous piece of acting.

Considering I raised some eyebrows (and hackles, perhaps) a while back by saying I didn’t think nearly as much of All About Eve as I’m supposed to, and not remotely as much about Anne Baxter’s mannered, phony performance in it as I ought to, it might be surprising to learn that I think she deserved the Oscar and Golden Globe she won for her role as Sophie in The Razor's Edge. Something about Baxter’s work has always bothered me, a certain over-earnestness, a deliberateness that spoke of performance rather than recreated life. But none of that applies to her work here. She’s just tremendous. Certainly it’s a role with the kind of range that wins awards, but she plays it with the kind of assuredness and humanity that deserves awards. Sophie is a great tragic figure, and Baxter does her justice.

In a very small part near the end, the wonderful Elsa Lanchester is mesmerizing as the social secretary to one of Elliott’s “friends.” Lanchester does as much in five minutes as some of our greatest actors have done in 120.

As in the novel, Somerset Maugham is a character in his own story. Herbert Marshall plays Maugham, a sort of onlooker/narrator/confidante, and does so very well. I confess that, watching this film with Marshall acting in it and Edmund Goulding directing, I could not avoid remembering a hysterically funny story told in one of David Niven’s autobiographies about him and the wooden-legged Marshall falling down a hill while serving as Goulding’s pallbearers and carrying his coffin. It didn’t help me concentrate on the drama at hand, and now it probably won’t help you, either. But it’s a great story.

I’m so glad I finally wised up and saw The Razor's Edge. I felt very good once I had.
 

BEAVER’S LODGE: THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)

BEAVER’S LODGE: THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)

This is the third installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

There was a time when a certain kind of adventure film was popular. The 1960s were its heyday. Sometimes they were realistic, or even drawn from real life. Sometimes they were fanciful. But almost always they were intelligent and enormously entertaining. I haven't seen a new example of that kind of film in 30 or 40 years. Maybe they exist, maybe I've simply forgotten them or never knew of them. But I don't think they make that kind of movie anymore (though I suspect Hollywood thinks it still makes them). I'm thinking of movies like The Dirty Dozen, Von Ryan's Express, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone, and this one, The Professionals.

The Professionals is about four rugged experts in various fields, hired by a rich man to rescue his wife, abducted by a Mexican revolutionary near the Texas border around 1917. Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Burt Lancaster are the charismatic title figures, each particularly well-equipped for one aspect of the mission. Ralph Bellamy is their wealthy employer, Claudia Cardinale his buxom Latina wife, and Jack Palance is the revolutionary, Raza, with whom Marvin and Lancaster once rode. And Marie Gomez is Chiquita, a delectable tough girl, *really* tough, in a way that suggests it's her way of life, not something the script called for her to do.

Accompanied by a jaunty, rousing score by Maurice Jarre, the film by Richard Brooks is delirious masculine fun, an adventure filled with derring-do, witty quips, and just enough pseudo-depth to make it seem like it means something beyond the fun. I can't speak for women, but it's the kind of movie no guy can pass up, no matter how many times he's seen it. They don't make 'em like this anymore. And it's a shame.
 

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

This is the second installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a weekly series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

A guest at a screening of this masterpiece at my home recently literally leaped out of her seat upon seeing the final, transcendentally beautiful stunt executed by Buster Keaton. I've never seen anyone do that except at a horror movie. Our Hospitality is a comedy, without an ounce of horror element. Yet it has heart-stopping thrills, made all the more heart-stopping by the knowledge that it was Keaton himself risking his neck in stunts that no star until the Keaton-inspired Jackie Chan would approach, seventy years later.

The title Our Hospitality refers to a peculiar brand of rural courtesy that says one can't murder a guest INSIDE one's home. The Hatfield-McCoy feud of legend is the inspiration for this story of a young man (Keaton) coming home to claim his inheritance, unaware of the feud between his family and another that will lead anyone in the other family to try to kill him on sight. Invited by fluke into the Canfield family residence, young Joseph McKay (Keaton) learns of the feud and realizes his only safety lies in never leaving. This is the setting for the central comedic sequence of the film, in which the Canfield family is constantly on the ready to shoot him whenever he gets anywhere near an exit door. It's pretty amazing how many brilliant comic variations Keaton is able to play out with the situation.

The earlier portion of the film is wonderful in its own right, both for the masterful comedy of which Keaton was unmatched at creating and for the wonderfully amusing look at 1830, the period in which the film is set. Manhattan's Broadway and 42nd Street intersection is not much more than a pasture, yet people are already complaining about the traffic. Keaton, who in real life was a railroad buff, recreated the first locomotive for this film, and it is both historically fascinating and wildly funny to watch his trip across country on rails that can be moved out of the way to avoid obstacles and which aren't always even necessary for the train's progress.

The final third of the film is a thrill-seeker's paradise. On the run from his enemies, Keaton finds himself adrift in a cascading river along with the girl he loves (the daughter of the enemy Canfield clan). Keaton's attempts to save himself and then his girl from the spectacular waterfall toward which they race is one of the great comedic stunt sequences of all cinema.

It's difficult for me to pick my favorite Buster Keaton film, but this is usually the one I show to people I want to convert to Keaton idolatry. I've never known it to fail. The word classic gets thrown around a lot—maybe not as much as the dreaded awesome, but far too frequently, nonetheless. But this is a genuine comedy classic. It's awesome.


 

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE

VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER’S LODGE: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE

This will be the first installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a weekly series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINATTI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

I love this movie. Let's get that out of the way before I start in on a rant about studio stupidity.

This film is about hobos riding the rails of Depression-era America. It was made and originally released as Emperor of the North Pole. After initial screenings, Twentieth Century Fox executives feared that audiences might think the title indicated a Christmas movie (!) or an Arctic exploration story and so shortened the title to Emperor of the North, a change that made little sense in terms of audience expectations and none at all in light of the fact that "Emperor of the North Pole" is a hobo term used extensively throughout the film. To be emperor of the North Pole, in hobo jargon, is to be king of the road. To be emperor of the north means some idiot is in charge of the title.

This is a tough little picture, directed by Robert Aldrich, no stranger to tough little pictures (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). It is written by Christopher Knopf (a true gentleman, by the way), reportedly from stories by Jack London. It stars Lee Marvin as the toughest 'bo on the rails and Ernest Borgnine as the meanest man ever to run a train. Keith Carradine is a windy, self-important, and callow kid who thinks he can play with the big boys. Borgnine's Shack is the conductor on #19, a freight train plying the rails of the Pacific Northwest. His driving passion is to prevent hobos from stealing free rides on his train, and he's willing to kill and maim to stop them. Marvin, as "A-No. 1," decides to ride the 19 and show Shack just who is Emperor of the North Pole.

nullMarvin is just about perfect in this gritty film. His makeup, his wardrobe, his demeanor, everything about him screams 1930s tough guy on the bum. There's no glamor to this star turn. The same can be said for Ernest Borgnine, though glamor admittedly was never his strong suit. Borgnine was one of the most decent men in Hollywood, but when he played a heavy, there were few nastier fellows in the business. His intensity and cruelty as the obsessed Shack are brilliantly delineated. Keith Carradine is irritating as Cigaret, the peacock kid who thinks he's as tough as they come. But he's supposed to be irritating, and it's a fine performance.

This is also one of those films that pulls together a passel of great character actors (Elisha Cook Jr., Malcolm Atterbury, Charles Tyner) and leaves one wondering where all the wonderful, familiar faces that used to populate Hollywood films have gone, and why we don't see such collections of comfortably resonant characters so much anymore. (I think I know why, but that's corporate talk, for another discussion.)

Most of the action takes place on board the train, and some of it is harrowing. Of particular note is the fact that most of the leading actors put themselves at some extended risk in the making of the film. Long before CGI special effects made such things meaningless, it's clear in this movie that it really is Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine, and Charles Tyner walking, running, and clambering on, around, and UNDER a speeding train. Surely safety measures were taken, yet it's wonderful to see shots where one misstep could have cost a star, not a stuntman, his life–even as it's good to know nothing like that happened.

Aside from my disgust with the stupidity of the title change, and a couple of too-cutesy moments in the music and a river baptism scene, Emperor of the North Pole is a favorite of mine, an exciting film as tough as old leather and as harsh as the era it depicts. And it's got Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, two of the hardest hard cases in movies, going head to head. It's a great ride.