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Posts Tagged ‘Gunga Din’

“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He’s considered  one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.

After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.

Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”

He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)

He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino.  (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”

Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:

“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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