Celebration is always tinged with sadness in Paisley, Scotland, on New Year’s Eve. Nearly a century ago the town was rocked by the deaths of 71 children at a matinee showing of King Vidor silent film The Crowd (1928) at the Glen Cinema.
It was traditional in those days to pack children off to the cinema on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay” in the Scottish parlance) so that houses could be cleaned and food prepared for the expected visitors that evening. The Glen Cinema was ironically the town’s first licensed picture house. That was in 1910 and equally ironically licensing – the Cinematograph Act of 1909 – was brought in for safety reasons and to control fly-by-night operations in the exhibition wild west of the era.
By 1929, the town had seven cinemas although some mixed movie exhibition with other events and some operated part-time. Apart from the Glen the town boasted the La Scala, the only one equipped with sound, the Alex, West End, Palladium, Rink and Clark Town Hall. Over 700 kids, some as young as three, headed for the Glen to kick off the annual holiday. For some it was their first visit to the cinema. For many it would their last.
Everyone in the movie business knew that the the film used in movies contained a lethal substance – nitrocellulose. “Nitrate film is extremely flammable and once ignited cannot be extinguished because it creates its own oxygen as it burns giving off toxic fumes as it does so,” explained expert Michael Binder. But if people were not killed by a flame that wouldn’t go out or gas that grew stronger by the minute they would die from the one complication common to every fire – panic.
Over 600 people had died in cinema fires, most trampled or suffocated during the panic, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. On the last day of the third decade the toll rose sharply.
In fact, the tragedy should never have happened for the simple reason it was, initially, under control. In those days, once a reel had been screened, it was the duty of the assistant projectionist to take it to the rewind room when it could be rewound, ready for return to the distributor. In doing so, assistant projectionist McVey “small for his age” heard a hissing noise and spotted smoke escaping from the film canister. Aware the film could instantly combust, the brave lad headed for a side exit in the lobby. But it was locked.
So he left it there smouldering and ran through the crowded cinema and upstairs to the office of general manager Charles Dorward. Together they ran back through the cinema, diverting the audience’s attention from the screen. By the time the children turned round smoke had begun creeping in to the auditorium.
Panic ensued. They ran for the back exit. But that was locked. The ones at the back didn’t know it was locked and pressed forward on the ones at the front. The lucky ones broke windows and jumped out into the street.
By the time help arrived, corpses had piled up. Bodies were so tightly wedged together they had to be prised apart.
Alerted by screaming, the town ground to a standstill. The fire brigade and police and passersby rushed to the rescue, removing the canister, helping those still trapped to escape. Buses were commandeered to carry the tiny bodies to an overflowing mortuary. Terrified parents had to enter the mortuary hoping against hope that they would not have to identify their little boys or girls. Other parents were roaming the streets hunting for their offspring.
Despite being given artificial respiration, sixty-nine children were already dead; another two died later. Another 60 children, hysterical and in shock, received treatment, of these 40 were kept in hospital, some with broken bones, others with footprints embedded on their skin or whose injuries were so severe they could not walk again for two or three months.
There was no mental health counselling in those days of course so all the survivors remained haunted by their memories. Like soldiers returning from World War One they would not talk about what they had endured. Some of the older ones just disappeared, quitting school as soon as they could, heading anywhere other than Paisley.
The pain was unimaginable. Three-year-old Margaret Gielty returned home without her two brothers. Hugh Stewart sat stock still in shock in the middle of the panic until rescued. Of the children in his street who had gone to the cinema, ten-year-old William Porter was the only one to survive. Classrooms were decimated. Three-year-old Donald Gribbin was so terrified to go home without a shoe that he returned to the cinema and scrabbled among the sweet-wrappers, orange peel and abandoned clothing until he found it.
After a Government Inquiry new safety laws were passed but flammable film was not banned.
I half-expected paparazzi to leap out from behind bushes such was the anachronistic tone of this tale of royal entitlement and female repression. But I’m glad the plagiarism issues surrounding Kris Kristofferson and The Rolling Stones have been cleared up now that it’s been revealed that “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “As Tears Go By” were originally composed in 1878 for mandolin and harp, respectively.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria lived such a hellish life it’s small wonder she committed suicide 20 years earlier than the history books dictated. Even the invention of the motion picture by an obscure photographer in 1878 – a decade before others made probably spurious claims to have come up with the idea – wasn’t enough to keep her going.
The real Empress Elisabeth, now that I’ve had to go and look her up, actually did correspond somewhat to the character represented her. She was obsessed with beauty and diet, the exceptionally tight corsets of the title self-inflicted as she strove to keep a 16-19-inch waist. Quite where this kind of mania came from is never explained. Her general depression could have been traced to the death of a daughter but that doesn’t figure in this bold reimagining. I’ve got nothing against movie makers twisting facts for their own convenience, Hollywood did it all the time so why should arthouses audiences escape. But I spent half the time watching this wondering whether anything was real, which would make the whole enterprise some kind of dreamlike experience and would mean she didn’t risk a daughter’s life by exposing her to the freezing cold in the middle of the night because she, the Empress, had a penchant for darkness she wanted the child to learn to embrace.
In some kind of nod to Absolutely Fabulous, it is the child who appears the more grown-up, admonishing her mother for embarrassing her. And in a nod to whatever the Empress gives the middle finger. And naturally she gets hooked on heroin (don’t ask).
Anyway, enough of my moaning, let’s go back to the movie and assume it’s all got a point. Hating her empty life, the Empress exerts authority by feigning a fainting fit to avoid royal duties, keeps her devoted husband waiting, fancies like mad a cousin she doesn’t know is gay, is considered such a suicide risk by the prospective lover that he prohibits her from drowning in his lake.
She is indulged as much as is humanly possible, permitted to take off on her travels at a whim, but attempts to improve the welfare of institutionalised women – some committed for adultery – and visits wounded soldiers (all true, as it happens). While her husband is devoted to her (true), that is not reciprocated (true) and out of kindness she arranges for him to take a young lover (fiction).
This is a movie devoid of drama, determined, as if below the dignity of an arthouse filmmaker, to ignore some of the real facts of her life, namely the complicated politics of the era, clashes with her domineering mother-in-law, that her son Rudolf was the subject of the Mayerling tragedy and that she was assassinated by an anarchist in Italy.
If the point is to show she was an accomplished woman in an era when queens were doormats and submissive wives, that aim is certainly achieved. Elisabeth, beyond keeping her husband waiting at every opportunity, openly argues with him, is a very competent fencer, could have written a book on eating (a Dieting DVD introduced into the proceedings would have been an anachronistic tour de force) as little as possible and the benefits of a healthy regimen.
As a portrait of a complex character it is certainly compelling and as the enigmatic is a tool of the artist, then little in the way of explanation is deemed necessary. But the problem, setting aside the anachronisms, is what we are presented with is a cross between Princess Di and Meghan.
Vicky Krieps (Old, 2021) plays the Empress. Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet, 2019) wrote the screenplay and directed.
But you should be aware my views are very much in the minority and this has largely been acclaimed.
As is by now traditional (well, it’s the second full year) this isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over full calendar year of January 2022 – December 2022.
Jessica(1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge. The film had debuted at No 30 in the previous year’s chart so showed remarkable staying power.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Sergio Leone’s masterpiece now acclaimed as the greatest western ever made. Top class cast – Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards – and one of the greatest scores ever written courtesy of Ennio Morricone.
The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret sparkles as author reinventing herself by writing a sex novel.
Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall as German spy outwitting the British during World War One.
Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Fellini-esque musical with abundant nudity as writer-director-star Anthony Newley tries to unravel the meaning of life.
Father Stu (2022). Under-rated biopic with Mark Wahlberg as unlikely priest.
Blonde(2022). Andrew Dominik’s controversial reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe with Ana de Armas
For a Few Dollars More(1965).Sergio Leone re-teams with Clint Eastwood in the second in the spaghetti western trilogy with Lee Van Cleef as a rival bounty hunter.
A Place for Lovers(1968). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in Vittorio De Sica doomed romance.
Fade In(1968). Burt Reynolds disowned this romance filmed against the backdrop of making the Terence Stamp western Blue but it’s better than he thinks.
The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role. Top film for 2021, so demonstrating the ongoing popularity of films based on the author’s works.
The Sisters (1969). Complicated menage a trois that borders on the semi-incestuous starring Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg.
Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt. Another film with legs – it was No 3 in the 2021 annual chart.
Water Gate Bridge / Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022). Another epic, non-stop action from the Chinese point-of-view in a sequel to one of the most famous battles of the Korean War.
Harlow (1965). Carroll Baker as the blonde bombshell who rocketed to fame in 1930s Hollywood.
Baby Love (1969). Morality tale as orphaned Linda Hayden tries to fit into an upper-class London household.
Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchockian thriller set in the South of France with adulterous Jean Seberg suspected of killing her lover.
Secret Ceremony (1968). Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in atmospheric Joseph Losey drama.
Lady in Cement (1969). Gangster’s moll Raquel Welch steals the show in Frank Sinatra’s second outing as private eye Tony Rome.
Subterfuge (1968). Suzanna Leigh steals the show as a sadistic henchwoman trying to prevent Gene Barry uncovering a mole in M.I.5.
P.J. / New Face in Hell (1967). George Peppard taken to the cleaners as down-on-his luck private eye.
The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar. This was No 6 last year.
The Gray Man (2022). Spectacular Netflix misfire with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans as rival assassins and Ana de Armas adding some spice.
The Brotherhood (1968). Martin Ritt Mafia drama sees siblings Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord falling out.
Some Girls Do (1969). Richard Johnson returns as Bulldog Drummond battling archvillains Daliah Lavi and Beba Loncar.
Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier treats racist patient Bobby Darin. Very unusual imagery.
The Double Man (1967). C.I.A. operative Yul Brynner battles Russian espionage in Switzerland with Britt Ekland providing the glamor.
Operation Mincemeat (2022). Re-telling of “The Man Who Never Was” World War Two plot that duped Hitler over Sicilian invasion plans.
Orgy for the Dead (1965). Bizarre cult horror tale where most of the female characters appear to be auditioning for a nudie film.
Texas Across the River (1966). Alain Delon acts against type in Dean Martin comedy western.
This goes under the heading “fascinating snippet” rather than “shameless plug” and although it does refer to one of my books and is outside my normal bailiwick of the 1960s I thought you might be interested in what was showing at a provincial town – rather than New York or London which got the movies months ahead of anywhere else – seventy years ago, December 1952, long before, outside of White Christmas, anyone was making movies that targeted Yuletide as a subject.
Paisley, about 12 miles outside of the much larger Scottish metropolis Glasgow, had eight cinemas in 1952 with 13,000 seats to serve a population of 93,000. Six of the picture houses were devoted to first run and two to second run. If I say so myself, one of the delights, apart from the 120 illustrations, from the book – Paisley at the Pictures, Part III: 1952 from which this information is drawn – is that the appendix lists every movie shown, month-by-month cinema-by-cinema.
Only two of the smallest cinemas, the West End, in the town center, and the New Alex, about a mile away, and which often shared product, were screening what we would reocgnise today as Xmas pictures. Despite being animated features from Disney, the epitome of the holiday movie, neither program ran for a full week, in part because that was rare at these particular houses but also because a movie aimed at kids depended on matinee business and often turned off the adults venturing out in the evening.
The first three days (Mon-Wed since films didn’t show on Sundays) were devoted to Cinderella (1950), supported by Tim Holt western The Mysterious Desperado (1949). On the Thu-Sat portion of the week it was Alice in Wonderland (1951) backed by another Tim Holt western in the same series, Riders of the Range (1950). While this represented a repeat showing for Cinderella, it was the first screening of Alice in Wonderland.
Modern exhibitors would be shocked at Disney pictures being allocated not just such a short run but also not being snapped up by the town’s biggest houses, but Disney was far from the distribution powerhouse it is today.
So, neither was regarded as the top film over the two-week festive period. That honor went to pictures showing at the town’s biggest cinemas, the Kelburne, Regal, Picture House and La Scala, all except the first running along the main thoroughfare. Films here ran for a whole week mostly with a supporting feature.
Biggest attraction of the season, courtesy of the fact it was simultaneously playing the La Scala and the Regal, was Gregory Peck nautical number The World in His Arms (1952) directed by Raoul Walsh. This was supported by the fourth in the popular series Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952) starring Marjorie Main.
The Kelburne was screening comedy western sequel Son of Paleface (1952), with Bob Hope and Jane Russell re-teaming, but considered strong enough to be presented as the solo offering, no supporting feature ensuring more screenings. Although having what you might expect to be an out-and-out winner, the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Pat and Mike (1952), the Regal covered its back by supporting this with John Huston’s critically-acclaimed The Red Badge of Courage (1951). This was despite Tracy being on a box office roll following the success of Father of the Bride (1950) and its speedy sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951).
The following week audiences were offered interesting choices. The La Scala played it safe with British romantic comedy Penny Princess (1952), rising star Dirk Bogarde billed below top-billed American Yolande Donlan. Crime adventure The Whip Hand (1951) directed by William Cameron Menzies provided the support. The Kelburne presented comedy Dreamboat (1952) with Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers plus, surprisingly, a French-made film Let’s Go to Paris (1950).
The Picture House was fanning the flames of the sci fi boom with a double bill of Red Planet Mars (1952) and German “shockumentary” Strange World (1951), forerunner of Mondo Cane, while the Regal had John Wayne battling Communists in Big Jim McLain (1952) with B-picture film noir The Secret of Monte Carlo (1951).
It might also come as something of a shock to find the cinemas not overwhelmed by one, or two, big movies as would be the case today.
I’m sure you’ve all already bought Paisley at the Pictures Part III: 1952 so there’s no need to plug it, and I’m sure you’ve done enough Xmas shopping to last a year, but just in case here’s the link.
The only thing Hollywood liked better than whooping with delight over a hit was crowing with delight over a flop. In the 1960s you couldn’t move for hindsight. And far from it being the end of the decade that Hollywood was kicked in the financial teeth, mostly from over-investment in musicals, there was also a sea of red ink at the start.
Comparing budget with rentals returned to the studios (i.e. their share of the takings once cinemas had taken their cut of the box office gross) produced a league table that nobody wanted to scale.
Atop the pillar of shame, sitting on a monumental $18.1 million loss (reached by comparing budget to U.S. rentals – see Note below) was the last of the Samuel Bronston epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by Anthony Mann and starring Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd.
You won’t be surprised to find Cleopatra (1963), driven to publicity heights by the ruckus over the adulterous affair of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in second place. If it hadn’t cost so much – $44 million – it might have easily turned a profit since box office rentals were a massive $26 million. But you can’t deny the arithmetic that meant this showed an $18 million shortfall, and therefore on paper a staggering flop.
Not far behind was Doctor Dolittle (1967), one of the biggest musical fiascos in an era of musical disasters. Although Oscar-winning Rex Harrison was the star, audiences couldn’t be persuaded it was anything more than a glorified Disney-style picture for children, and it lost $15.8 million.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) should have been the greatest box office story ever told had director George managed to inject a bit more humanity into the sanctimonious retelling. Without a box office miracle this came in short by $13.1 million.
And no prizes for guessing that Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), with Marlon Brando stranded on an island by Trevor Howard, found income did not go far enough to offset cost. It underperformed to the tune of $12.6 million..
Star! (1968) must have seemed like a safe bet given Julie Andrews’ last three musicals had turned hefty profits. But it was so off the pace that it fell $10.8 million shy of break-even.
Bond producer Harry Saltzman was astonished, not to say humiliated, to discover there was such little appetite Stateside for an all-star version of how The Battle of Britain (1969) was won. Hadn’t every Hollywood movie insisted that war pictures only succeeded with a prominent Yank in the cast? One of the biggest hits of the year in Britain, it would still have to go some to overcome a $10 million discrepancy.
The problem with Hollywood was it was greenlighting projects that had to do phenomenal business just to reach a profit. And although Barbra Streisand’s debut Funny Girl (1968) had struck box office and critical gold, even she could not save Hello, Dolly! when it racked up such high costs. The downside was $8.8 million.
The unlikely casting of three non-singers – Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg – in the principal roles of Paint Your Wagon (1969) seemed an act of incalculable hubris, but surprisingly, the musical did better than expected, not enough to turn the corner into profit, but losses limited to $5.5 million in the U.S. part of the course.
In tenth place was a second Samuel Bronston miscalculation, 55 Days at Peking (1963). Why would American audiences be interested in an obscure war in China even if Charlton Heston took top-billing? Such disinterest ensured it fell $5 million short of the target.
Overruns on John Wayne’s pet project The Alamo (1960) meant he ended up in debt. His fans were disinclined to line up for a roadshow, which put the dampers on the launch. Hollywood was stunned that a John Wayne movie lost money – $4.1 million – it was such a career rarity.
Another Bond alumni Albert Broccoli took the financial tumble this time when Dick Van Dyke failed to work his Mary Poppins magic in another musical aimed more at children than adults, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968).
Three other pictures ended up in the red as the result of over-expenditure. The Bible (1966) missed break-even by $3 million, Spartacus (1961) by $1.7 million, and another musical, Camelot (1967) starring non-singer Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave by $1 million.
But if Hollywood thought it had weathered the worst of the financial storm it was in for a shock the following year when top-heavy star vehicles hit the skits. Waterloo with Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer lost $23.6 million, The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery and Richard Harris $9.9 million and The Only Game in Town toplining Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty $8.5 million
NOTE: It’s entirely possible that once you calculated a movie’s long tail all these films turned profit. The foreign performance of films on initial release often out-grossed their domestic revenues, especially if roadshown in Europe. Revenue from half a century’s worth of countless television sales in countless countries followed by satellite, VHS, DVD, satellite, syndication, Blu-Ray and streaming had the potential to turn any loss into profit.
But there was a proviso. Generally, what a television station paid for a movie depended on its initial gross, box office seen to be indicative of public demand – and of advertising interest . The leasing of Cleopatra first time round to U.S. television, for example, added an extra $3 million to the coffers but that small screen executives were willing to pay such a record sum was driven by the vast numbers that had seen it at the cinema. And, to a large extent, future response to these movies still appeared to depend of how well they had done or how well they were known – a long-term version of word-of-mouth – at the time of their initial release..
On initial global release Cleopatra probably closed the gap between profit and loss but I doubt that would be the case for The Fall of the Roman Empire or The Greatest Story Ever Told or Doctor Dolittle or Mutiny on the Bounty. While The Battle of Britain was a huge success in Britain and in countries belonging to the British Commonwealth, I doubt it went into the black. But something like Spartacus or Camelot or The Alamo or Paint Your Wagon, which ran for a year in roadshow in London, most certainly turned a profit on overall worldwide receipts.
SOURCE: “Big-Buck Scorecard 1956-1987,” Variety, January 20, 1088, p64, 66.
Wonderful upbeat performance from Frank Sinatra lifts this out of a misogynistic pit where women were either dumb, desperate to get married or passive-aggressive harridans. Bachelor playboy Alan (Frank Sinatra) has more women on a string than there is string. When younger brother Buddy (Tony Bill) moves in, Alan introduces him to the fun ways of the world, not expecting Buddy to be such an apt pupil.
Alan keeps main squeeze Connie (Barbara Rush) dangling while, pretending to have Hollywood connections, making hay with actress wannabe Peggy (Jill St John). He also keeps customer Mrs Eckman (Phyllis McGuire) sweet in transactional sex fashion and there’s no shortage of other women liable to appear out of the woodwork.
Meanwhile, his boss, apoplectic father Harry (Lee J. Cobb), goes around screaming at everyone, berating Alan for his lifestyle and moaning at harassed wife Sophie (Molly Picon). Most of the time it looks like it’s going to swerve into a more typical English farce with various women being hidden out of sight from various other woman or Harry or an equally apoplectic cuckolded husband (Dan Blocker).
But, with considerably more sophistication than that, the story takes the more interesting tack of character development. Alan, who might appear to be sitting pretty, woman at his beck and call, a glorious modern apartment, cocktails on tap, is brought up sharply by his brother’s delight at such a shallow life. Alan gets to play Hollywood honcho with Peggy while Connie delivers an ultimatum that threatens to bring Frank to his senses though, naturally, he believes it’s all hooey.
The fraternal business is well done, instead of the normal rivalry genuine affection and the older sibling offering guidance, though primarily in how to get drunk and get off with women rather than anything that might otherwise stand him in good stead. Though you might argue that being shown how to dress, and how converse with women, and organise a fun party might be as much education as a young gentleman in the Big Apple required.
Playwright Neil Simon, the toast of Broadway at this stage, exhibited such a keen sense of structure that the story never sagged. Any time that appeared a remote possibility, instead of a stranger coming in a la Raymond Chandler with a gun, it’s Harry stomping all over the place. There are some good catchphrases, genuinely funny moments, and some great lines, the best, I have to confess, from Peggy who bemoans the fact that she was stranded in a hotel room with Alan at a ski resort by all the snow outside. Redeeming factor: her homely kind of dumb serves narrative purpose, making the otherwise unbearably charming Alan come across as a heel.
This is quite a different Sinatra, like he’s channeling his record persona, none of the anguish, dramatic intensity or Rat Pack bonhomie he brought to other pictures. Often you hear of actors just playing the same character or a variation thereof, but this ain’t a Sinatra persona I’m familiar with and brings verve to the whole shebang.
Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968) gives in to overacting. You can see how that loud style might work on the stage, but it’s less effective here. Jill St John (Tony Rome, 1967) is very good as the uncertain beauty, who could be incredibly seductive if only she could work out how, and not quite a victim either, and still managing vulnerability. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) is wasted, though. Set up as a modern woman, she collapses at the first sniff of marriage, though framing her eyes in a mask of light in a taxi cab is about the only compositional mark of any note.
Quite what possessed director Bud Yorkin (Divorce American Style, 1967) to stick in the title song in the middle of the picture is anybody’s guess. Norman Lear (Divorce American Style) wrote the script but you can hardly go wrong with a Neil Simon template.
End up: it’s mostly about family and people coming to terms with themselves and each other.
I certainly couldn’t have done it without you. This time last year I averaged 1,000 hits a month. Now it is over 4,000. To quadruple my figures in just one year is beyond my wildest imagination.
When I began this Blog I had no expectations. I certainly lacked the social media skills to artificially inflate my figures.
I started the Blog because in writing about individual films for The Gunslingers of 1969 and beginning the research for The Magnificent 60s: The Top 100 films of a Revolutionary Decade, I realised that without some other outlet there would be hundred of films from my favorite movie decade that I could never write about. A Blog devoted to the movies of the 1960s seemed a reasonable proposition.
I began with three Blogs a week but my enthusiasm for the era was such that I was pretty much watching a movie a night, not to mention the two or three contemporary films I saw on my Monday trip to the cinema. So it just seemed more sensible to publish a Blog a day rather than build up a mountainous backlog.
Initial reponse, two or three hits a day, was more in line with my expectations, but when, suddenly, I was receiving over 50 hits a day I reckoned I was on to something, that there was an audience out there as eager as I to find out how good (or bad) films of the Sixties films were. When I passed 100 views a day, I was over the moon. My daily average now stands at 131, but there have been days when the figure has topped 200.
I’ve scarcely scraped the surface of the 1960s and I plan to keep going, bolstered by your continued support, until there is nothing left to review.
So thanks very much and I wish you the compliments of the season.
Normal service will resume tomorrow.
PS I hope you don’t feel duped by the use of the It’s a Wonderful Life poster. In the first place, it’s outwith the chosen scope of the Blog. In the second place, I couldn’t add anything to what’s already been said about the movie. And in the third this Blog always has at least one illustration and I felt this best conveyed my mood at being able to write a Blog for an appreciative audience.
Having complained about lists and then recanted when one of my favorites got the nod at the top of the heap, I’m doing the same again.
The recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Directors Poll did the unthinkable and placed Once Upon a Time in the West ahead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which, virtually since release, had been anointed the top western of all time. The critics who participated in the Critics Poll, which ran concurrently with the Directors Poll, were not, I hasten to add, quite so convinced. According to the critics, the John Ford picture was still top dog, ahead of the Leone masterpiece in second place. But in a battle between directors, who make a living making pictures, and critics, whose only skill is writing about them, I know which side I would come down on. And in any case I had long sided with the directors on this issue.
A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)
New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.
The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the west, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.
That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.
Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonic and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.
There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim back the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.
No character is more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out West, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realise she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.
Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-up don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.
And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.
The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.
If you live in the U.K. you should get the opportunity to see this once again on the big screen because the British Film Institute, which coincidentally owns Sight & Sound, is planning to screen all the 100 films in its latest poll. Other countries might take note.
I thought we were done with lists – all those Top 50, Top 250 and, just to ring in the changes and go post-modern, Top 28 or Top 113 or whatever. When everyone knows they are so easy to manipulate – social media polls in particular or simply by who is allowed to vote.
Maybe it felt time to challenge the authority of the recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade-poll especially in some bizarre fit of whatever the top movie (Jeanne Dielman… 1975) was a) one I had never heard of and b) hardly anyone had ever seen and c) was deemed better than Vertigo (1958) and The Godfather (1972) and three-quarters of the other hallowed movies on the rival Variety chart.
But, as ever, I fell into the trap. The minute a poll chimes with your own views, then of course that’s deemed worthwhile and correct.
So this is esteemed trade magazine Variety getting into the act.
And it’s not Vertigo (1958), the dethroned Sight & Sound champ, at the top of the heap but Hitchcock’s other rule-breaker, Psycho (1960).
You can always tell the movie education of critics by their choices. I doubt if the current Variety bunch have sat their way through all the movie classics of the last century the way their predecessors, including many of the older contributors to Sight & Sound; you’re talking the difference being maybe half a century of movie-watching. That’s a lot to ignore out of ignorance.
Anyway, I’m not much interested in all the other decades and there are certainly some interesting/unusual/odd/flabbergasting choices which might have other critics in an uproar or at the very least achieve the expected soundbites/soundbytes.
But the 1960s comes out pretty good, although there’s no room for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). The elegiac gets the nod over the operatic, The Wild Bunch (1969) No 41 on the list and no place for Sergio Leone. Also out in the cold The Searchers (1956) and in its place – at No 34, the highest western on the chart – another Ford classic Stagecoach (1939).
In order, the 1960s winners are: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – at No 7 and therefore top sci fi movie of all time. Among the top foreign pictures of all time is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) – at No 18 and one spot above The Godfather Part II (1974). Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) – at No 23 – takes the comedy gong.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) wasn’t ever going to be the top gangster film not with two Godfathers and Goodfellas as the competition but still it slots in at No 27. Fellini’s 8½ (1963) grabs the 33rd spot, just below Vertigo. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – at No 38 – is beaten to the top historical epic spot by Seven Samurai (1954) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) docks at No 44; Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960) at No 50; and Mia Farrow giving birth to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is named best horror picture. Best spy picture? It’s a shoo-in for “Bond, James Bond” in Goldfinger (1964).
The Sound of Music (1965) can’t beat The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) but frankly I’m astonished it made the cut – at No 87 – since for the last six decades it’s been blown many a critical raspberry. Two rungs below is Catherine Deneuve in Luis Bunuel’s sex drama Belle de Jour (1967). Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) tops the assassin stakes at No 93. Top pop music picture is A Hard Day’s Night (1964) with the incomparable Beatles at No 96. Propping up the bottom of the list is The Graduate (1967).
Not that I should be doing Variety’s work for it, but the 1960s came joint-second in terms of the highest number of films charting from a single decade.
Should you be so inclined to check out the full Variety chart, you’ll find it here.
Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.
Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.
Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.
Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”
Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.
Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.
Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.
Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes. The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.
Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.” Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.
Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.
When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for
Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.
Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”
But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”
But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests. He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.
The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.
Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift – than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.
Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”
Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish. Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.
In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.
This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.
Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”
Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968, it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes, was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.
Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.
SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.