Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Joseph McBride on Screenwriters Who Watched California Go Up in Smoke

Just spotted the major typo on this box lid

Film historian (and my former Roger Corman colleague) Joseph McBride has the credentials to take a broad view of Hollywood history. I’ve been slowly working my way through Joe’s Two Cheers for Hollywood. It’s a massive 2017 compilation of his many articles about the film industry. As someone who has written movies (like Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), worked on movie crews, and reported on movies for major publications, Joe combines an insider’s canny perspective with an intellectual’s smarts.

Right now, all of Southern California seems to be burning. And I’ve just finished the section of Joe’s book that’s dedicated to Hollywood screenwriters who know where the fires start.. I love the fact that writers are given the lead-off position in Two Cheers for Hollywood, because they tend to be the film industry’s most overlooked treasure. (Actors and directors have the glamour jobs, and seem to get most of the public’s attention.) And yet, as screenwriters are fond of reminding us, there can be no filmmaking without them.

Through his varied film industry career, Joe has come to know personally a number of Hollywood writers, including some from the vaunted Golden Age, when the studio system reigned supreme. And he’s done deep research into many others. So he’s the right man to pay tribute to the WGA’s finest, men (and the very occasional woman like Marguerite Roberts) whose words live on in classic films. His entries in this book include profiles of Robert Riskin, who helped Frank Capra perfect what’s been called “the Capra touch,” and Frank S. Nugent, whom he calls “the Quiet Man behind John Ford.” Some of McBride’s subjects lived happy, productive, and lucrative lives, but the bulk of them seemed well aware of the nightmare side of the American dream. Like, for instance, those who ran afoul of the infamous HUAC hearings that led to the blacklisting of some of Hollywood’s best and brightest writers. One of McBride’s own favorite articles, published in 2002 in the Writers Guild magazine, Written By, is called “’A Very Good American’: The Undaunted Artistry of Blacklisted Screenwriter Michael Wilson.” For failure to cooperate with the Committee by naming names of suspected Communists, Wilson was shut out of the industry for fourteen long years. During that span he continued to write, without screen credit, contributing to such major films as Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Another blacklist victim, Abraham Polonsky, is honored by McBride with two selections. The first is a warm obituary tribute published in 1999 under the title, “Abraham Polonsky: A Very Dangerous Citizen.” The second is a discussion of a Polonsky film (he both wrote and directed) that McBride considers to be a masterpiece: 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. This sensitively made action flick, based on a true historic incident from 1909, explores an aspect of early California life of which none of us should be proud. The central thread is the pursuit by Robert Redford, as a local sheriff trying to live up to his father’s legend, of Robert Blake, as a Paiute Indian whose romantic longings lead him into tragedy.

If Polonsky is cynical about the romance of California, so is McBride’s longtime friend Gavin Lambert, whose scripts—like 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover—reveal the nightmare side of California Dreamin’. Lambert, a dapper Englishman fascinated by SoCal and the film industry, published in 1959 a story collection called The Slide Area, suggesting Southern California as a place that is literally slipping away from its residents. Or, of course, going up in smoke.

RIP Robert Evans; In memory of this remarkable showman (in all senses), here's a link to my tribute to the kid who stayed in the picture.  

Friday, October 25, 2019

Law and Order?: Jack El-Hai’s The Lost Brothers

My colleague Jack El-Hai (former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors) loves movies, but he makes his living writing books.  A serious researcher, he has just published his umpteenth work of historical non-fiction. Jack’s books include The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness. There’s also The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, a fascinating inside look at Reich Marshal Herman Göring via his interaction with an American army psychiatrist who was sent to probe Göring’s mental state in the aftermath of World War II. Closer to his Minneapolis home, Jack has written a series of books for the University of Minnesota Press that chronicle various aspects of life in the Upper Midwest. .I haven’t read his Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines, nor his coverage of Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places. But as a parent and an occasional connoisseur of crime fiction,  I couldn’t resist his newest effort. It’s called The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search.

The Lost Brothers is a true Minnesota story, one that began on a chilly afternoon in November, 1951. Three young brothers—aged 8, 6, and 4—left their suburban Minneapolis home to go play in a local park. That was an era we often romanticize as a time when children were free to wander and explore, so long as they were back for dinner. But Kenneth Jr., David, and Danny Klein never came home. Their parents searched, as did the neighbors and an older brother, Gordon, who blamed himself for not going along on the fateful outing. Of course the local police were soon involved too. They stubbornly clung to the theory that the three boys had drowned in the local river, despite the fact that their bodies were never recovered.

Jack has tracked down everything there is to know about this coldest of cold cases. Parents Betty and Kenneth Klein never lost hope that their children would be restored to them, running ads in local papers and annually buying birthday gifts for the missing three. But though their Roman Catholic faith sustained them, and they eventually added four more sons to their family, memories of the lost brothers gradually took their toll. Eldest son Gordon, still alive, continues to be haunted by the loss. And the failure of the police and the FBI to solve the case still rankles local law officers who’ve made it their private mission to find out what happened on that cold November day.

Most disturbing is the fact that the original investigators were so sure of their original conclusion, that the disappearances were the result of a tragic accident, that they barely considered the possibility of foul play. In hindsight, it’s known that some unsavory characters were living in the vicinity of the Klein home, but they have passed from the scene long ago.

If this were a TV show of the Law and Order or CSI ilk, the result would be far different. Someone like Mariska Hargitay, her jaw clenched with determination, would have figured out the missing pieces of the puzzle. Even after all this time, usable DNA evidence would have been recovered, and – following an exciting pursuit – the perp would have been brought to justice. It’s truly a shame that real life doesn’t arrange itself into neat sixty-minute segments, leading to a big, satisfying reveal at the end. Instead, as The Lost Brothers shows us, sometimes what was lost doesn’t get found. But I thank Jack El-Hai for reminding me that life doesn’t always lend itself to tidy endings.