Thursday, January 20, 2011

Film Review: HELLFIRE (1949)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 53

HELLFIRE (1949 Republic) Starring Wild Bill Elliott, Marie Windsor, Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis, Paul Fix, Grant Withers, Emory Parnell, H. B. Warner.  Directed by R. G. Springsteen.

Elliott is a crooked cardsharp whose life is spared when minister Warner takes a bullet meant for the gambler.  In gratitude Elliott vows to honor Warner’s dying wish: that he not only raise the funds needed to build Warner’s church, but do it strictly “by the Good Book”.  Meanwhile female bandit Windsor is being sought by marshal Tucker and vengeful Davis with a $5,000 reward on her head.   Elliott sees the reward money as the means to his goal, but his newfound vow requires non-violent, persuasive methods of capture, limitations her other pursuers don’t have.

“Man by his misdeeds kindles his own hellfire”.  So begins this unusual western that combines born again Christianity with secular feminism, personified respectively by Elliott and Windsor as each tries to atone.   One of the most popular stars in the genre throughout the 1940’s, Elliott was never the most versatile actor, but his screen presence was undeniable.  He made a living playing “peaceable” men who were forced into violence; the twist in HELLFIRE is that Elliott is far from serene at the outset.  In fact, he is seen throwing the first punch before AND after his awakening; becoming peaceable is a constant struggle for this reformed gambler.

The role of outlaw Doll Brown normally would have gone to an actress already under contact to Republic (I.e. Adrian Booth or Adele Mara) but Marie Windsor was cast at Elliott’s insistence.  An expert horsewoman, she did most of her own stunts.  Windsor normally played beautiful bad girls.  In HELLFIRE she’s been pushed to the wrong side of the law in her quest to find her sister who, unbeknownst to her, is married to Tucker.   Windsor looks decidedly unfeminine at the outset, “rides alone” by choice and proves she’s the equal of any man on horseback and with a gun ( i.e. killing Davis’ brother).   Windsor finally flashes her charming side to evade the marshal when he tracks her down, and screenwriters Dorell and Stuart McGowan make the point that going straight is especially difficult for a female outlaw.  Her attempt to reform consists of “honest” work singing and dressing suggestively in a saloon (“where else would a single woman find employment?").  

A western about an outlaw who gets religion sounds like a preachy, tiresome endeavor, but director Springsteen and the McGowans deftly evade the potential pitfalls.  Elliott is no more successful at raising donations from townspeople than Warner is, with his fundraising attempts meeting indifference and contempt in roughly equal measure for most of the film.  His reception improves by HELLFIRE‘s end, but the church remains unbuilt.   The influence of Christianity is shown to be positive (Elliott's life is definitely changed for the better) but limited.  He abandons liquor and gambling, but not his gun.

Genre stalwarts Tucker, Davis, Fix and Withers provide fine support, but this show belongs to Elliott and Windsor, and it’s easy to see why both cited HELLFIRE as a personal favorite.  According to Springsteen, Elliott told him HELLFIRE was “the best picture I’ve ever done”.   I agree, and I also feel that Windsor joins him in giving a career-best performance.  In the end it‘s left up to the viewer whether Windsor‘s life was saved, or just her soul.     

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

As I noted in reviewing ROCK ISLAND TRAIL and CALIFORNIA PASSAGE, Republic's westerns of the late 1940's and 1950's remain largely unreleased on DVD, despite fairly frequent showings over the past decade on Encore's Westerns Channel.  

Why it should be on DVD:

Puzzling why it isn't.  It is arguably Elliott's best remembered and most popular film with modern audiences, and one of Windsor's as well.  

It may not be available on DVD yet, but this Trucolor western is now available for streaming on Netflix Instant.  Well worth watching, HELLFIRE is a true gem and arguably the most glaring DVD omission from Republic.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guest Posting at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, Deuxième Partie

As always, I am honored to be invited by my good friend Rupert Pupkin to participate as a "guest poster" on his blog.  Especially this time, since he's doing something a little different than just inviting his fellow film buffs to list their favorite films of 2010.

Instead, Mr. Pupkin asked me to provide a list of interesting films I saw for the first time IN 2010, which gave me a much more interesting list to compile.  I limited my list to films released prior to 2010, and found that my list had lots of obscurities, cult classics, bona fide classics, and a couple of baddies that were released between 1933 and 2009.

So, check it out.  And while you're there, partake in Mr. Pupkin's January archive, where you'll find similar lists from lots of other film bloggers who love digging for hidden cinematic treasures almost as much as I do.

Number 53 is next....and thanks again for the invite Rupert!

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Horn Section Salutes: Butterfly McQueen (1911-1995)

Some sources give the date as today, while most print encyclopedias pre-dating the internet give it as tomorrow, January 8th.  Regardless of which is correct (I lean towards the latter, as does Stephen Bourne), it's time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the late, great Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen. 

Born in Tampa, Florida to Wallace and Mary MacQueen, she is best known for her portrayal of Prissy in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.  Unfortunately, her magnificent performance only led to more stereotypical 1940's film roles that were far beneath her talents in the unenlightened film industry of her day.  Butterfly McQueen was the antithesis of such characters offscreen.

Remembering one particularly insulting line she was asked to deliver in 1943's I DOOD IT, Ms. McQueen said it best: "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business.  But after I did the same thing over and over, I began to resent it.  I didn't mind being funny, but I didn't like being stupid."

Unlike many in the same position, Butterfly McQueen announced she would no longer accept such parts in 1946 and then left Hollywood the following year. Although McQueen's career had (and would continue to) encompass radio, stage and television, it also led to some lean years for the actress.  At various times after her greatest screen success she would work as a tour guide, Macy's employee, dishwasher, waitress, dance teacher, community theatre manager and paid companion for an elderly woman.

Butterfly McQueen enjoyed a career resurgence in the late 1960's onstage with roles in CURLEY McDIMPLE and the Broadway productions THREE MEN ON A HORSE and THE FRONT PAGE, then resumed her film career with small roles in THE PHYNX (1970) and AMAZING GRACE (1974).  The year after her appearance in GRACE, McQueen earned her Bachelor's in Political Science from New York's City College---at age 64

More stage roles followed (notably, the national tour of SHOW BOAT in 1979-80) along with plum roles in the made for TV productions POLLY (1989) and SEVEN WISHES OF JOANNA PEABODY (1978), for which Butterfly McQueen won her first Emmy Award.  

There's a lot more to be said about Ms. McQueen, and as has been the case on other salutes, a mere blog post is insufficient space.  I  highly recommend Stephen Bourne's excellent book Butterfly McQueen Remembered to learn more about this talented and unique actress, singer, dancer and social activist.

Sadly, Butterfly McQueen was killed in a fire in her home on December 22, 1995 at age 84. 

Happy 100th Butterfly, and R.I.P.

Butterfly McQueen on Armed Forces Radio Service Jubilee, circa 1943 (?) with Ida James:

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Film Review: THE COMIC (1969)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 52

THE COMIC (1969 Columbia) Starring Dick Van Dyke, Michele Lee, Mickey Rooney, Cornel Wilde, Pert Kelton, Nina Wayne, Gavin MacLeod, Barbara Heller, Jeannine Riley, Ed Peck.  Directed by Carl Reiner.

Ex-vaudeviller Dick Van Dyke (as Billy Bright) takes 1920’s Hollywood by storm, first by stealing the show in director Cornel Wilde’s two-reelers, then by stealing leading lady Michele Lee away from Wilde. With cockeyed second banana Mickey Rooney and Lee providing able support, Van Dyke starts his own production company.  Rapidly rising from two-reelers to features, Van Dyke is the hottest comic in the land by 1926, but it all comes crashing down on the talented but self-destructive comic.   Lee divorces Van Dyke for repeated infidelities (taking his infant son) and after this drives him to alcoholism, Hollywood divorces him for erratic behavior (on and off the set), myopia and creative stagnation.  After fading into obscurity, Van Dyke gets a second chance at stardom late in life, but the passing of 40 years doesn't help his humility or perspective.

With THE COMIC, the star and director are most successful in creating a long, superb montage of “classic” silent two reelers with titles like SAVED BY A SAP and MAIN STREET MENACE.  Showing impressive athleticism and skilled at pantomime, Van Dyke gives you reason to think he might have become an even bigger star if he‘d been around in the Twenties.  Particular homage is paid to Van Dyke’s idol Stan Laurel; one short clearly recalls Laurel’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE, and check out the “freak” ending (a Laurel and Hardy staple) in NOTHING BUT THE TOOTH.

Teaming for the first time in three years after THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Van Dyke and director Carl Reiner also show a mutual desire to present more provocative material than television allowed them.  Just a year later, Reiner would push the envelope much further with WHERE’S POPPA?, and Van Dyke would further attempt to redefine his Disney-friendly image with Norman Lear’s COLD TURKEY.   Billy Bright may have been created as a tribute to Keaton, Laurel and Langdon, but he’s far more flawed than any of them offscreen.  Actually that’s an understatement--Van Dyke’s Bright has literally no redeeming qualities.

From the moment he arrives in Hollywood, Bright is self-centered, stubborn, ill-tempered, opportunistic and consistently thoughtless regarding others' feelings.  After being granted a second chance in his senior years, he obnoxiously blames everyone but himself for his fade into obscurity and even provides thoroughly delusional spin doctoring from the coffin  (i.e. “I allowed people to walk all over me“) that is always contradicted by what we’re seeing onscreen.  Other than one throwaway line early describing Bright’s father as an alcoholic who ended up poor, there’s no attempt by the screenwriters (Reiner and Aaron Ruben) to probe the cause of the comic‘s faults.  It is commendably fresh that the audience is never really supposed to like (or even pity) Bright, but in making him so relentlessly rotten Van Dyke and Reiner also create a one-note character who wears out his welcome before the closing credits.

While not entirely successful, THE COMIC remains intriguingly unique and well acted by a solid cast.  In addition to excelling at the silent slapstick, Van Dyke proves that he’s up to the challenge dramatically.  His Bright is hardened and callous to the end, but it's to the actor's credit that you still feel some sympathy at the film's most uncomfortable moments (i.e. his Steve Allen Show appearance, complete with bewildered and dismissive fellow guests).  Unfortunately the execution of the film's final third is marred by old age makeup that ranges from somewhat unconvincing (Van Dyke’s) to virtually nonexistent (Lee and Wilde).   Only Rooney’s looks right.  The modern audience may also be put off by a needlessly stereotypical portrayal of Bright Jr. (also Van Dyke) which seems to serve no purpose other than allowing a lame punch line from Bright Sr.

So…..why isn’t this on DVD yet?

Van Dyke’s attempts to move into edgier fare failed at the box office in 1969-1971. Ironically, he would have his first bona fide success in this vein after moving back to TV---in the ABC Movie of the Week THE MORNING AFTER (1974).

The film was originally titled BILLY BRIGHT after its protagonist before being changed to the thoroughly pedestrian THE COMIC.  The more distinctive title may not have helped, but it couldn’t have hurt.

Why it should be DVD:

THE COMIC isn't fully realized, but the montage of Billy Bright’s creative peak is lovingly created.  This sequence alone is be worth the price of admission.

Van Dyke fans will see his finest dramatic performance, and he is very well complemented by beautiful Michele Lee as his wife and irreplaceable screen partner and a great Mickey Rooney as the Ben Turpin-inspired “Cockeye” Van Buren.  Watch closely for a lot of familiar faces throughout, notably Ed Peck, Mantan Moreland, Fritz Feld, Pert Kelton and a pre-JEFFERSONS Isabel Sanford.