Tuesday, December 24, 2013

1940 - Badly Rewritten History on the Santa Fe Trail

Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Michael Curtiz the director of among others, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce,Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, King Creole and White Christmas is one of the golden age of Hollywood's great film-makers. A master storyteller Curtiz had a ability to mix humor, romance and drama into classics of the screen.

In one of Hollywood's more successful partnerships, Curtiz teamed with legendary actor Errol Flynn working together on numerous films, including Flynn's signature roles in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was in one of those teamings that Curtiz, Flynn, screenwriter, Robert Buckner and future President of the United States Ronald Reagan, would present the American public with a exciting, action packed, thoughtful, yet in retrospect, insidious rewrite of the years leading up to the Civil War, 1940's Santa Fe Trail.

The West Point Graduating class of 1854.

Flynn plays future Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan is the future Union General and a man with a destiny along the banks of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer. Both men along with their pals, Pickett, Longstreet, Phil Sheridan, their commander Robert E Lee, and a special appearance by secretary of War Jefferson Davis, all stand together against the crazed abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown. Played with messianic certainty by the great Raymond Massey, Brown is determined to end slavery or bring down the Union while trying.

In 1940, there were still living Civil War veterans. James Hard, the last combat veteran wouldn't die until 1953, and Albert Woolson, the last drummer would last until 1956. So while they were certainly dying off in droves by 1940, there were still veterans from both sides around. In 1940, the South was still highly segregated, as was the military and most of the rest of American society. So it is not really surprising that a film about the lead up to the Civil War with sympathies toward the South would get made.

Raymond Massey as John Brown, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It's 1854 and the soon to be graduating West Point class is full of young men who we know will find fame a decade later in the bloodiest of US wars. The leader of the class and the all around most popular member is Jeb Stuart (Flynn) a southerner from a wealthy slave owning family who while personally against slavery but believes that the South should be left alone to end slavery in its own time. Stuart's best friend is George Custer (Reagan), whose jovial personality mixed with his skill as a rider make him (forgive the modern, okay 1970's era, allusions) Sundance to Flynn's Butch.

Another cadet, Rader, played with thuggishness by Van Heflin, an open abolitionist and supporter of political radical John Brown, is a bitter enemy of the wealthy Stuart, and continually taunts the wealthy Virginian about being a slave owner. Rader is confronted by Stuart for inciting insurrection by calling for the abolition of slavery and the two men fight.

Errol Flynn, Santa Fe Trail, (1940)

When brought before West Point commandant, Robert E Lee, Flynn, Custer and crew are "punished" by being sent off to fight insurrection in Kansas while Rader is given a dishonorable discharge.

Meanwhile in what is really a more or less wasted part, Olivia DeHavilland plays Kit Carson Holliday, a proper young lady courted by both Custer and Stuart with old J.E.B. winning her heart. Oddly considering Curtiz is the guy who would direct Casablanca the next year, the romance seems contrived, and though Flynn and DeHavilland normally had great chemistry together, in this one they just don't seem to really connect.

Ronald Reagan and Olivia DeHavilland, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Once in Kansas, Stuart and company come into conflict with the crazed abolitionist John Brown. Brown, looking and speaking like an Old Testament prophet, is determined to see slavery ended by any means necessary and is preparing to begin armed resistance against the union at any time.

Brown and his men have helped numerous slaves escape to freedom. However these ex-slaves, while liking the idea of being free have no idea how to cope with freedom, being unable to even feed themselves. As one ex-slave later tells, Stuart, "If this is freedom I don't want none of it, I can't wait to get back to Texas and juss sit down."

Don't look at me, I didn't write it.

Declaring themselves the "Provisional Government of the United States" Brown and his followers capture the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, but Rader, hoping to win the reward for Brown's capture or death has betrayed the abolitionists plans to the Army. Tasked with betraying Brown at the proper moment Rader rejoins the abolitionist leader, while a standoff against Lee and his Union troops including Stuart and Custer begins.

Stuart is sent to parlay with Brown and gives him terms for surrender. Rebuffed by the crazed abolitionist, Custer then leads the attack on Harper's Ferry, where for reason the film doesn't make clear, the union troops make a cavalry charge on the closed and barricaded building.

Van Heflin and Raymond Massey, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Still as Sitting Bull can tell you, Custer is a heck of a commander and the walls of the armory come down. During the combat that follows, Brown confronts the traitorous Rader, whose treachery stands revealed and kills him. But it is too late for the abolitionist and Stuart captures Brown, who is quickly tried and hanged.

On the scaffold Brown tells the gathered troops that his action at Harper's Ferry has lit the fuse and that soon enough they would be standing against each other brother against brother fighting each other to the death. Then with his messianic complex in full bloom Brown with the rope around his neck, tells the assembled crowd that they are forgiven because they know not what they do.

John Brown delivers his own eulogy, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

After Brown is hung, we cut to a quick scene without much dialogue of Stuart and Kit, now married heading West toward the sunset in a buggy. The end.

Where do I even begin to describe just how much this movie gets wrong?

The gallant future Confederates, Jefferson Davis making a speech about the greatness of America, ex-slaves complaining about the problems of freedom, abolitionists portrayed as America hating revolutionaries, and the only heroic future Union soldier on the scene is freaking George Custer.

And yet, Santa Fe Trail has great acting, especially with Massey's John Brown, a compelling storyline and great action sequences. and is an all around first rate film. Which is problematic.

Some of you might have seen Kevin Willmot's, CSA: The Confederate States of America, the Spike Lee produced "mockumentary" featuring the history of an alternate Earth were the South had won the Civil War. In the movie there are several clips from "classic" films from the 1940's showing happy slaves (played by white men in blackface) and squarejawed movie stars acting in historical dramas. I hate to say it, but Santa Fe Trail feels like a movie from the CSA universe that fell through a wormhole and ended up on our planet.

The scene where the ex-slaves talk to Flynns, Stuart about how they are going back home to slavery after being fed up with freedom is just appalling, especially when taken into the context of the films overall love for the Confederate characters and their ethical "struggle".

Escaped slaves help J.E.B. Stuart while on their way back to the plantation

If you want to watch an good old Western starring a future President alongside a possible Nazi, in a film showing how radical abolitionists almost destroyed the Union, this is the movie for you. Then again Santa Fe Trail (which is for some reason in the public domain), is also a fascinating film that shows the attitudes of the average white Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era and is a valuable film to watch for that reason as well. Don't get me wrong, Santa Fe Trail never quite hits the pure racist levels of Birth of a Nation, but that's still  more a matter of execution then anything else.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

1977 - The Kentucky Fried Movie

Movie Poster - Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

The Kentucky Fried Movie is a very funny film.

Not sort of funny, not kind of funny, not mostly funny. Nope the Kentucky Fried Movie is straight out asskickingly, stunningly, amazingly, fall out of your chair and hope not to dribble all over yourself laughing, funny.

Held together with the very thinnest of plot devices, the Kentucky Fried Movie is a collection of television shows, commercials, coming attractions and the feature presentation, an amazing parody of the Bruce Lee classic, Enter the Dragon, the spot-on perfect, A Fistful of Yen.

A couple of highlights, include Bill Bixby for the National Headache Center, the soft-core drive-in porn parody, Catholic High School Girls in Trouble, and my personal favorite, Henry Gibson hosting the United Appeal for the Dead.

Written by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, the same team who just a few years later stunned the world with the classic socio-economic drama, Airplane, teamed with director John Landis, straight off his debut film, the insightful, Bergman inspired story of lost innocence, Schlock, the Kentucky Fried Movie, probably packs more honest laughs per minute then any fifty average Scary Movie sequels.

And yes, at this point, I'm sure there are 50, and all of them featuring an ever aging Anna Farris.

Even the dumbass, semi-racist jokes stuck in the 1970's work.

Filmed for $650,000, the Kentucky Fried Movie would go on to earn more then $7,000,000 in it's initial release making it one of the bigger movie hits of the year, which is sort of funny when you figure that in today's terms, $650,000 pretty much covers the cost of production t-shirts and hats.

The producers got quite the deal for their money, with Landis directing a clean, professional looking film, that didn't suffer from the earnest, but amateurish film-making that went into previous sketch pictures such as The Groove Tube and TunnelVision. The kind of competent direction supplied by Landis allowed the viewer to relax into the film and enjoy the brilliant writing of Abrahams, and the Zuckers who had spent years developing the material in their comedy group, the Kentucky Fried Theater.

The torrid sexual energy of Cleopatra Schwartz

Evan Kim and Bong Soo Han lead the cast of, A Fistful of Yen, the movie's "Feature Presentation". Like a Mad magazine parody come insanely to life, Yen perfectly parodies the Bruce Lee classic, taking the movie apart scene by scene and milking it for all the silliness they could manage.

Up there with the very best of film comedy, the Kentucky Fried Movie is a low-brow classic that shouldn't be missed.

An easy A+

Friday, December 20, 2013

September 1974 - More Movie Madness

Okay gang here's another pile of movie advertisements from that grand old year of 1974. This batch from mid September were originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.


Ken Shapiro's The Groove Tube (1974)

I saw this re-release of Animal Crackers in the theater, and the boys were way more fun on the big screen.

Very basic Billy Jack ad

The movie theater at the 4 star Broadmoor hotel specialized in films that had already been playing for six  months.

1974 - When you could legitimately call Elliot Gould and George Segal movie stars

Candy Stripe Nurses, not to be confused with the Candy Stripers.

Beautiful poster art from one of the great films, Chinatown (1974)

I only post this ad for the Las Vegas Cinema in Colorado Springs to point out the double X rating.
Too dirty for regular films, but not dirty enough for a XXX

Exploitation cinema at the Drive-in

The original Death Wish (1974) was a sober, serious film about the cost of revenge, the sequels, not so much.

Always happy to put up another ad for Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

One of my favorite Pacino roles, Serpico (1974)

Sexy fun and adventures with, The Truck Stop Women!!

Cosby and Poitier's first team-up, Uptown Saturday Night, a huge sleeper hit in 1974

1976 - Barbara Diehl and the R. Crumb Christmas Porn

R Crumb's Carload O'Comics, second printing, Bélier Press (1976)

Once upon a time in the distant year of 1976, my mother, Barbara Diehl, and her sisters Maris and Cindy, along with their numerous children had gone to the city of Denver to enjoy the Christmas holiday in the Larimar Square shopping district where they held a yearly celebration honoring the works of Charles Dickens.

People in costume walked the area caroling, chestnuts roasting, a puppet show production of a Christmas Carol played every hour, bitter hot chocolate with peppermint sticks to drink, the air was cold and sharp and there was a nice dusting of snow on the ground, but the sky was a rich, deep, blue. A perfect all American Christmas scene filled with families shopping, children laughing, people still wearing their red, white and blue sweaters at the end of this bicentennial year.

In this idyllic setting my mom more or less unknowingly, bought me porn.

Dale Steinberger, The Jewish Cowgirl, originally published in Big Ass Comics #1 (1969)

These days Robert Crumb is a world famous artist with a huge body of work behind him, most recently a fairly brilliant adaptation of the book of Genesis. But in 1976, Arcade was just getting started and Weirdo was a decade away, still Crumb with his deeply neurotic, highly explicit exploration of his own sexual dysfunctions, was already an internationally famous figure.

I had just turned 14 that Christmas, and while being a comic fan I had heard of Crumb and the undergrounds, I hadn't actually been exposed to them yet. We were in a bookstore when I saw, sitting on a remainder table, a copy of R Crumb's Carload O'Comics. Looking around to make sure my mother or my aunts weren't looking I opened the book and started reading some very strange stuff.

A Gurl, originally published in Big Ass Comics #2 (1971)

Back in 1976, collections of comics, let alone undergrounds comics were very rare. There had been a bunch of histories of comics written during that era, and Marvel had begun the "Origins" series, but it still just wasn't common. So I dived on the book when I saw it, especially as it had a topless girl on the cover. I only got to peak for a second or two when my mom turned the corner and I quickly put the book down so that I didn't get busted. I moved on to a different part of the store and figured that was it for me and this strange, and fascinating little book.

Good lord...NO!!!!!!!

Carload O'Comics has numerous sexually explicit comics packed inside of it's pages. And being from Crumb, pretty unhealthy sexually explicit comics at that. Certainly nothing a mother would want her 14 year old, reading, I'm sure.

Because of that, I have to admit that I was quite surprised to find a brand spanking new copy of R Crumb's Carload O'Comics under the tree that Christmas morning.

My mom, bless her,  had seen me looking at the Crumb book, and once I had moved on, and obviously, clearly, absolutely, without actually looking at the cover, let alone noticing the naked Angelfood McSpade on it, bought me the book.

Mom was not always on top of things when she was distracted.

I only bring it up because I was moving some books on my shelf and ran across my copy, that I don't think I have looked at in at least 30 years. I'm a fan of Crumb and if you like his early stuff, this book is certainly the collection to find, but as interesting as I once found it, having seen what Crumb has grown into as an artist, most of the material just seemed sadly lacking.

Doesn't matter though, this is a book I'll keep on the shelf until my dying day. After all it's not every day a man gets a dirty book from his mother. And those kind of presents, well those kind of presents, you hold on too.

Merry Christmas one and all.

Robert Crumb, self-portrait (1969)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

1980 - Times Square

UK advertisement for Times Square

Ran across this great looking newspaper ad for the 1980 New Wave classic, Times Square.

Okay, maybe calling it a New Wave classic isn't really the right term, but this 1980 teen film introduced a generation of mid-western American kids to music that wasn't Molly Hatchet or Foghat.

Throw in a small but over the top performance from a post-Rocky Horror Tim Curry, makes for a fun time at the movies.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2010 - The Dead

The Dead (2010) UK Poster art

Just finished watching what was a first rate Zombie B-picture, 2010's, The Dead.

Written, directed and produced by the brother team of Howard and Jonathon Ford, this story of an American mercenary, slowly making his way across a zombie infested West Africa impressed me with its solid performances by actors Rob Freeman and Prince David Oseia, effective plot, decent special effects and some downright creepy walkers.

This is a quiet film, with limited dialog, but that quiet works in the movies favor as the slowly shuffling dead continually appear whenever a person actually stands still. The tension never breaks and you can feel the exhaustion on the characters.

It was good to see a production that recognized the limitations of its budget and work around them with good acting and a decent script. The zombies are slower then Romero's, but they are always there and they never stop. Creepy, effective and scary, a first rate film.