Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
Sunday Dinner And a Movie From Big!Lots
On alternate Sunday evenings for the past 10-years, it’s been my pleasure to dine with friends, both of whom I consider to be highly cineliterate. These outings have become bi-monthly vacations from cinema, with the added benefit of exceptional conversation and grub, including my lower-North County renowned mashed potatoes. Also on last Sunday's menu, turkey wings, watermelon, macaroni and cheese, and a splash of Johnnie Walker.
The evening’s video selections invariably come from my “vault” and are by no means top-shelf items. On the contrary! I love late-period Bob Hope movies (his cue card-enhanced television work from that era is even more mind-altering), but hate sitting through them alone. Why should I be the only one to suffer? Last year, after enduring How to Commit Marriage, Cancel My Reservation and, The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell, my friends became insistent that their Sunday evenings remain “Hope”-less. For the first time in ages, I felt a ski-nose on my back and decided to turn the tables and deploy Hope as my ace in the hole. If the other 3 films were that unthinkable, surely Hope would be a shoo-in.
Of the four choices, Bob "For Paramount” Hope was the only one that didn’t make an appearance in the DVD tray.
Sifting through the stacks of recent Big!Lots DVD finds, I pulled 4 titles including The Ghost Breakers, one of Hope‘s most consumable early vehicles, this one co-starring Paulette Goddard and the inimitable Willie Best. If you have yet to use Big!Lots for your DVD supplier, give them a look. At any given time they have hundreds of factory sealed discs for $3 to $5 bucks a pop. Believe it or not, I’ve found everything from Godard, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Herzog to Woody Woodpecker, a box-set of color Superman TV episodes, and large chunks of Charles Bronson Cannon-fodder.
Aside from The Ghost Breakers, the other three selections were all purchased sight-unseen over the past few months. The first to meet with our disapproval was Arabian Nights (1942), a splashy Technicolor adventure yarn made to cash in on the success of Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad. The film was a hit, it earned 4 Academy Award nominations, and the first of 6 Universal Pictures to successfully pair Montez and Hall. Other than Cobra Woman, Robert Siodmak’s delirious Nazi propaganda piece, this is the only picture starring the Technicolor twosome I‘ve seen. We bailed after approximately twenty-minutes of well-appointed mannequins reciting stilted dialog before handsomely painted backdrops.
Pic #2 was Love is All There Is, a “buoyant, wickedly funny comedy” (at least according to the New York Times) from the husband and wife team of Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna. Not exactly on par with Comden and Green or Gordon and Kanin, Renee and Joe’s Lovers and Other Strangers is a modest independent production that yields big laughs. As per custom, the cover art for Love is… suggested other films reminiscent of the one you’re about to rent or purchase. This 1996 release promised something akin to a big, fat Italian wedding meets Romeo and Juliet, with a “funny twist.” That should have been the first red flag.
In my defense, how many times in our lives do we get the chance to see William Hickey, Abe Vigoda, Connie Stevens, Dick Van Patten, Lainie Kazan, Paul Sorvino, “and introducing Angelina Jolie” appearing on the same credits shingle? This could have been titled Laughter and Other Strangers. We waited about two reels for Jolie to appear, before consulting the eject button and settling on the final solution. If given the choice between early-Hope and a saddle-sore Duke, all trails led to Chisum.
John Wayne appeared in over 160 pictures, and by now I thought that I had covered just about every scrap of celluloid in the Wayne archive. With the exception of the excruciating string of apprenticeship oaters produced between The Big Trail (1930) and Stagecoach (1939), I have made it my business over the past few years to catch up with every film featuring The Duke, and Big!Lots has acted as both a source of inspiration and pusher.
There was Trouble Along the Way, which cast Wayne against-type as a single-father doing shtick with kid sensation Sherry Jackson. And what about Reunion in France, a romantic, WW2 propaganda melodrama, directed by the generally capable Jules Dassin, that pits Wayne against Joan Crawford!? Duke, who doesn’t show up until late in the picture, plays second-fiddle to Crawford and a stiff named Philip Dorn. Alas, a fistfight between macho Wayne and the even more mannish Crawford never ensues. Nothing in the Wayne canon, with the possible exception of Rooster Cogburn, another attempt to pair Wayne opposite a sexless legend (Katherine Hepburn), comes close to touching the awfulness of this Reunion.
There are no womenfolk to speak of in Chisum and even less to crow about when it comes to staging and storytelling. Even more than Wayne’s creaky ten year apprenticeship period, I have done my best to avoid the dreaded “Big A Period” (1968-73), named after 6’-7” director Andrew V. McLaglen. With the help of idiot cards taped to the walls of sets, John Ford guided Andy’s daddy, ham-fisted actor and two-fisted drinker Victor McLaglen, to an Oscar in The Informer.
Andy worked as an assistant director on numerous John Wayne productions, starting with Budd Boetticher’s The Bullfighter and the Lady. Prior to his foursome with The Duke, Andy earned the distinction of directing the most episodes of both Gunsmoke and Have Gun - Will Travel. I haven’t laughed along with the The Hellfighters since the week it opened and, at the time of their release, had no interest in The Undefeated, Chisum, or Cahill U.S. Marshall. I now own copies of all 4 and up until 2 days ago, didn’t have the guts to crack the shrink-wrap on 1 of them.
If repetition is the key to learning, the lyrics to Waylon Jenning’s Ballad of John Chisum is a master class, stunning in their simplicity: “CHISUM, JOHN CHISUM. CHISUM, JOHN CHISUM. CHISUM, JOHN CHISUM, etc.” McLaglen’s touch further illuminates the forced simplicity; one can sense the breakneck zoom shots hours before they arrive. With a paucity of action and enough transitional picture-postcard vistas to outweigh a stack of coffee table books, Chisum plods along, running down as many notions of historical veracity as it raises.
Loosely based on the Lincoln County War of 1878, the film boasts cameos by Billy the Kid (Peter’s look-alike brother Geoffrey Deuel) and Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). It also features many of The Duke’s real-life cronies including Ben Johnson, Hank Worden, Bruce Cabot, John Agar, Richard Jaeckel, both Chris and John Mitchum and Forrest Tucker. Tuck and The Duke had been drinking buddies since the latter took his first on-screen punch from Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and the right-to-the-jaw he receives from Chisum, JOHN CHISUM, was the only time we used the reverse button on the remote for study purposes.
By the time it was over, one friend lay snoring, curled up in the fetal position, the other half-watching over the screen of her iPad. I don't think it wise to pack Cahill or The Hellfighters if I want a return invite.
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- The Title or Trailer Game III: The List is Life — Feb. 2, 2012
- Hope for the Holidays — Dec. 12, 2011
- 10 Ways for Michele Bachmann to Tell the Difference Between John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy — June 28, 2011
- Picture Story: Grand Opening of the Newly Refurbished Coronado Village Theater — June 24, 2011