Friday, October 23, 2020

Foul Ball?: Baseball at the Movies

As I write this, my Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays are tied after the second game of a COVID-era World Series. Both their championship games so far have been heaven for baseball fans, featuring home runs galore, as well as circus catches, stolen bases, and heroics on the mound. Of course both teams badly want to win, but the Dodgers are seeking redemption for the bruising 2017 World Series in which the Houston Astros (or, as I like to think of them, the Houston Asterisks) launched an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that gave them the essential edge over my hometown boys in blue.

 Baseball has long been considered America’s game, so it’s hardly surprising that it reflects both aspects of the American character: the idealistic and the crass, the dreamer and the schemer. And baseball movies, of course, have also reflected this duality. The 2013 film 42 -- starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as the forward-thinking team owner who made him major league baseball’s first Black player -- is filled with a sense of hope. Two years earlier, Moneyball focused on baseball’s pragmatic side, zeroing in on the 2002 Oakland A’s and their cagey strategy for building a winning team through modern Sabermetric research.

 Back in 1992, A League of Their Own coupled baseball with budding feminism, in telling the story of an all-female professional baseball league that briefly emerged when the men were away fighting World War II. This film, starring Geena Davis as a star player and Tom Hanks as her beleaguered manager, gave us a maxim that still holds true (well, usually): “There’s no crying in baseball.”

 A stadium in a cornfield functioned as a symbol of reconciliation with the past in one of everyone’s favorite baseball movies, 1989’s Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner starred both in that film and in a 1988 flick that captured baseball’s sexy side. Remember Bull Durham? It hilariously pinpoints the way ballplayers are catnip to a minor-league baseball groupie played to a fare-thee-well by a luscious Susan Sarandon.

 Sex and baseball also mix, though more innocently, in the Hollywood rendition of a Broadway musical hit, Damn Yankees (1958). It’s the movie that asks the Faustian question: would you sell your soul to defeat baseball’s most hated team for the American League pennant? The sex angle of course is worked by Gwen Verdon, who – as the tantalizing Lola – is trying to seduce a good Joe on behalf of her boss, the Devil.

 Damn Yankees is marked by an innocent quality that puts it right in line with other Technicolor 1950s musicals. But other baseball films confront more directly the possibility of evil at the ballpark. One is John Sayles’ 1988 account of the Black Sox cheating scandal that marred the 1919 World Series. It’s called Eight Men Out, and it’s not too easy to locate.

 By contrast there’s the sometimes-inspired sometimes-annoying 1984 film rendition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural. Malamud, whose literary success stemmed from later stories about New York Jewish shopkeepers and scholars, began his career with a strange work blending baseball with Arthurian legend. Robert Redford (who else?) is the heroic but flawed baseball player with the magic bat and the near-fatal wound from long ago. This modern-day King Arthur, the mysterious star of the New York Knights, fends off a corrupt team management while also coming to terms with the women in his life. The filmmakers, desperate to make some sense out of Malamud’s meanderings, changed his ending. The result is lovely to look at, but I balk at finding it meaningful.



Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dancing in the Dark: the Irreplaceable Tommy Rall

Today, with movie musicals largely a thing of the past and Broadway shuttered for the foreseeable future, I can’t help worrying about the talent we won’t be seeing anytime soon. Who will follow in the footsteps of terpsichorean masters like Tommy Rall, the stage and screen dancer of the 1950s who passed earlier this month at age 90? (Rall breathed his last in Santa Monica, my home town, which boasts several major hospitals and seems to be—alas—a good place to die.)

 Until recently I didn’t know Tommy Rall’s name. But when I discovered he was one of the seven Pontipee boys in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, he was (to quote Cole Porter) all right with me. Seven Brides, which had once seemed like good family fun, is less appealing now, given its nod to the mythological rape of the Sabine women in explaining how six rollicking redheaded backwoods Pontipees (faced with a distinct female shortage) manage to find marriage partners by abducting the local ladies and holding them prisoner until winter melted into spring. The MGM production is at pains to keep sex at bay and make clear that these young women really love these guys, despite their wild and crazy ways. Still, in an era when we’re focusing on sexual coercion, the storyline remains a tad disturbing.

 The glory of Seven Brides, of course, is its dancing, epitomized by the barn-raising sequence in which the townsmen vie with the Pontipees to show off their masculine charms. All the dancers, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, are marvelously spirited and agile. (They include Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame, as well as New York City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise. A young Julie Newmar, billed as Julie Newmeyer, is the tallest bride-to-be.) But in re-watching this delightful footage, it’s clear that Tommy Rall (as the hot-headed Frank) is the first among equals. He’s the one with the bright red shirt, the tall black boots, and the look of furious intensity. As a stage and screen dancer, Rall could be not only balletic but acrobatic, shedding none of his machismo while moving to music. It didn’t hurt that he was a capable singer too.

 Scrolling through the invaluable YouTube, I’ve located clips of Rall in such Fifties musicals as Kiss Me Kate, where he romances Ann Miller’s spritely Bianca and vies with none other than the young Bob Fosse for her hand. (Check out Rall’s comic duet with Miller to Cole Porter’s “Always True to You in My Fashion.”) There’s also a primo competition dance, full of leaps, twirls, and tapping, between Rall and the smaller, slighter Fosse from 1955’s musical version of My Sister Eileen.

  Needless to say, Bob Fosse moved on from Hollywood to evolve into a major Broadway choreographer and director, ultimately winning an Oscar for his work on Cabaret and becoming a legend in his own time. Addicted to drink and drugs, he burned out in 1987 at the age of sixty. Rall, who played a quieter role in the entertainment world, lived thirty years longer. Though the Fifties was his great era, he was still flourishing in 1968, showing both his classical poise and his ability to keep a straight face while partnering Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl’s hilariously unorthodox version of Swan Lake.

 His talents earned the respect of such great movie dancers as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. And his name meant enough on Broadway that someone named Frederick Brame borrowed it without permission to try to advance his own dance career. Hail and farewell to the real Tommy Rall.


Friday, October 16, 2020

John Steinbeck at the Movies

 The writer John Steinbeck was a man of many contradictions. He was known as a poet of the Central California coast, but he lived out his later years in New York City. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but academic types tended to look down on his body of work. He was loved by many readers for his tender appreciation of the common man, but he also had a strong  misanthropic streak. That’s why his most recent biographer, my colleague William Souder, calls his deeply-revealing book Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck.

 Despite his celebrity, Steinbeck was not a man who felt comfortable amid the movers and shakers of Hollywood. (This despite the fact that the woman who became his second wife, Gwen Conger, worked on the fringes of showbiz. Their affair began while John was holed up in a place called the Aloha Arms, supposedly learning the movie business.) Steinbeck’s interest in making films was piqued when his rollicking little tale of life among the paisanos of Monterey, Tortilla Flat, sold to Paramount Pictures for $4000. In the 1930s, this was a huge sum, and his initial thought was to bank it for the future and continue to live frugally with his first wife, Carol. But at this point in his career, Steinbeck was starting to become noticed in a big way. His powerful bestselling novella, 1937’s Of Mice and Men, made a big splash on Broadway, and became the source of his first actual screen credit. The 1939 film version, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, and Lon Chaney Jr., was nominated for four Oscars including best picture. Happily, the adapters remained faithful to the book, though an earlier director-producer, Mervyn LeRoy, had tried to persuade Steinbeck that the film would be stronger if Lennie did not in fact kill Curley’s wife, but only got blamed for it. (There’ve been several additional film versions since, including one from 1992, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, who also directed.)

 Once Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Hollywood fame was assured. The 1940 film, directed by the great John Ford, starred Henry Fonda as a memorable Tom Joad. Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her heartfelt turn as Ma Joad, and Ford was honored for his direction.  Fans of the novel lamented the loss of Steinbeck’s lyrical interstitial chapters but Steinbeck himself was pleased by Ford’s gritty focus on his characters. When viewed today, the film remains moving, but Gregg Toland’s black & white cinematography, effective though it is, can’t truly convey the rural landscape on which Steinbeck’s characters live and work.

When Steinbeck’s final great novel, East of Eden, appeared in 1952, Hollywood was waiting. Elia Kazan was tapped to direct the 1955 version of Steinbeck’s epic family tale. It is best known for launching the career of James Dean, who crackles with on-screen electricity in his rows with his stern father (Raymond Massey) and his passion for his brother’s eager young fiancĂ©e (Julie Harris). The film’s widescreen color cinematography gives a glimpse of the land that Steinbeck held so dear, but lacks the power of his rich opening description of his birthplace, which begins as follows: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.”  


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Farewell to Gene Corman, Roger’s Kid Brother

 I’ve just learned the sad news that Gene Corman has left us at the age of 93. Both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter published respectful stories detailing Gene’s years as a talent agent and as the producer of such ambitious World War II films as Arthur Hiller’s Tobruk and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, In 1982 he won an Emmy for producing a TV movie, A Woman Named Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. But most of Hollywood, I suspect remembers Gene as Roger Corman’s younger brother. And so, of course, do I.

 I first met Gene circa 1973 at Roger’s New World Pictures: he was sharing a corner of Roger’s rather shabby Sunset Strip penthouse suite on behalf of his own small company, Penelope Productions. Here’s what I remember best: Gene’s unforced friendliness to one and all, his thick glasses, and the vivacious blonde wife (Nan) to whom he was married for 65 years.  On an ultra-hot day, when our office quarters felt like a steambath, Nan blithely invited Gene’s secretary and assistant to forget about business and come over to their Beverly Hills digs for a swim. (We employees of Roger hardly received a similar invitation from our hard-driving boss)

 I once wrote that “what’s most interesting about Gene is the way he diverges from the family code of personal austerity. Everyone who’s known the two Cormans remarks on the contrast in their lifestyles. Roger’s tastes run to contemporary minimalism, and his homes have always reflected this; Gene has lived for years in an venerable Beverly Hills Tudor-style house replete with antiques. Roger prides himself on wearing the same nondescript clothing for decades; Gene owns an array of handsome pullover sweaters. Gene was the family’s first art collector, bucking [their father] William Corman’s fears that paintings and sculpture were an extravagance, and much too risky to be considered a worthwhile investment.”

Frank Moreno, longtime New World head of sales, explained to me in late 1998 the essential distinction between the brothers: “Gene is going to enjoy every minute of life, and Gene’ll spend whatever it takes to do it.” Paul Almond, a later New World business executive, put it this way: “Gene was a total sport. Gene would pick up a tab. Roger never picks up tabs.” There may well be a significant link between Gene’s personal warmth and his liberal attitude toward money, which stand a world apart from Roger’s emotional reticence and tight-fisted approach.

 Former Corman folk differ on how well the brothers got along. When they were working together on low-budget drive-in flicks like Beast from Haunted Cave, tempers occasionally flared. But Gene proved his mettle when Roger and company traveled to Southern Missouri, just over the Arkansas border, to shoot The Intruder, a raw account of a mysterious rabble-rouser (a pre-Star Trek William Shatner) who shows up in a Southern town that’s grudgingly complying with a school desegregation order. The subject was a bold one in 1961. Threats of violence abounded, and law enforcement officers were frequently seen snooping around the set, where a number of the minor roles were being filled by locals. Roger, directing a movie about which he cared deeply, was wary of distractions. So Gene, in his role as executive producer, was charged with fast-talking the film company out of possible legal jams. Somehow they survived unscathed.

 When I was at New World Pictures, Gene was going through his blaxploitation period. I never had a hankering to see films like Darktown Strutters or The Slams.  But I always wished him well.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Great George Remus: Bootleggers Go Hollywood

The general public, it seems, didn’t think much of Prohibition. During the years between 1920 and 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the manufacture, sale, and consumption of most alcoholic beverages illegal throughout the land, many Americans had a strong hankering for a stiff drink. The unintended consequences of Prohibition, which was introduced as a way to improve American social norms, have been chronicled by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in a lively video documentary that first appeared in 2011. In trademark Burns fashion, the three segments combine historic footage, commentary from experts, major actors (including John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tom Hanks) taking on the voices of essential Prohibition figures, and dramatic narration (by Peter Coyote). Music also plays a key role: both period recordings and an evocative jazz score by Wynton Marsalis. The first episode, A Nation of Drunkards, explains the evolution of the temperance movement in the U.S., with Patricia Clarkson featured as the indomitable Carrie Nation.  The second, A Nation of Scofflaws, focuses on the criminal element that thrived in the new “dry” environment. Finally, A Nation of Hypocrites charts the move toward repeal.

 Naturally it’s that second episode, with its cast of bootleggers and other gangster types, that proves the most exciting. Even back in the day, while thugs and federal agents were shooting it out in the streets of many American cities, moviegoers flocked to see flicks in which audacious law-breakers occupied the leading roles. First came 1931’s Little Caesar, with Edward G. Robinson as gangland boss Caesar “Rico” Bandello. Such was the film’s popularity that it was quickly followed by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) and then Paul Muni trying on the persona of Al Capone in Scarface (1932). None of these guys could be considered admirable—and the public loved them.

 In Burns and Novick’s series, Paul Giamatti lends his voice to the portrayal of millionaire bootlegger George Remus, known as the Bourbon King for his success in transporting Kentucky’s finest to thirsty patrons all over the U.S. I had never heard of Remus before watching this show, but he proved to be unforgettable. Starting as a pharmacist, Remus evolved into an attorney whose skill at getting off clients faced with murder raps was nothing short of remarkable. Once Remus had segued into bootlegging on a grand scale, he found himself rolling in riches. On December 31, 1921, he staged a spectacular -- and of course liquor-fueled -- New Year’s Eve party at his Cincinnati mansion. All the male guests received diamond stickpins as party favors, while women were given keys to new luxury sedans parked outside. But the star attraction was his spectacular marble swimming pool, into which his beautiful second wife Imogene swan-dived at the height of the festivities.  

 About six years later, Remus’ legal talents again came in handy. Discovering that while he’d been cooped up in prison, Imogene had squandered his hard-earned dough on a lover who was a federal prohibition agent, he gunned her down in cold blood. On trial for his life, he somehow got off scot-free. Bob Batchelor’s The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius tells the whole sordid story in much detail. Batchelor, a colleague of mine in the Biographers International Organization, ends his book with some fascinating theories. Remus, he feels, may have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for the enigmatic central character in The Great Gatsby. I’m not wholly convinced, but Remus will always remain for me a Jazz Age figure of exhilarating complexity.