22 May 2020

Family Puzzles

I grew up doing jigsaw puzzles with my family. There were puzzles for the whole family that took up a side table or a dedicated board. And there were small puzzles that belonged just to me.

Not only were puzzles part of my family culture but my family had a particular culture when it came to puzzles. I knew families that sprayed completed puzzles with lacquer and hung them, as works of art or trophies. We just disassembled them after a day and a couple of months later brought out another.

One of our strongest family customs, which I credit to my dad, was that we didn’t consult the picture on the box after opening it. We had to build up the picture from memory and the pieces themselves. I didn’t realize how rare this was until I started to participate in the “community puzzle” at my local library and declined to look at the box there.

Together my family got through some fiendish jigsaw puzzles, such as Little Red Riding Hood’s Hood, a circle that was entirely one shade of red. And puzzles got us through a hard time: in the year after my brother died in his twenties, my mother and I did a lot of puzzles silently in the side room.

Five years ago, my dad went to Antarctica. He was in his late seventies, so that was a notable feat. (Since then, he’d been on an Arctic cruise, so maybe not so notable.) He came back with lots of photos to show me on his laptop.

One of those images showed scores of black and white (and orange-beaked) penguins on the slushy gray Antarctic landscape. I looked at that and thought, “That could be a jigsaw puzzle.” A damned hard jigsaw puzzle, to be sure. So I snuck the file onto my thumb drive, sent it off to a company that makes custom puzzles, and gave it to Dad as a present.

This month, four and a half years and one global plague that keeps everyone home later, Dad reported that he had completed the penguin puzzle!

16 May 2020

New Fun with Jack and Bill

In 1935, National Publications issued its first magazine collection of original comics. New Fun was thus the first comic book from the company founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson that eventually became DC Comics.

That magazine basically tried to replicate a Sunday newspaper comics section. It was as large as a tabloid newspaper. Though the interior was all black and white, the company quickly moved to color printing, suggesting that was always the plan.

Most significant for the storytelling, the magazine offered twenty different comics, each on a single page. (Twelve more interior pages were filled with prose and advertising.) Some of those comics ended in gags, but most were serialized adventures. Most were also obvious knock-offs of popular newspaper strips or genres. The stories were aimed at different audiences, from little kids to adults looking for thrills.

The advertising reflected that same hope that the magazine would appeal to a broad audience. There were ads for model airplanes, for example, but also ads for job seekers. There were multiple ads for razor blades, indicating that the publisher expected a significant portion of the readers to be shaving. Some ads were aimed at men and a few at women. As National Publications narrowed its target audience to kids, some of those ads went away while others stuck around for decades.

One of the latter was for Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding lessons. From the start Atlas built his campaign around the graphic story of “The Insult that Made a Man out of ‘Mac’.” A scrawny young man gets humiliated in front of a girl on the beach, builds up his muscles, and returns to beat up that bully—in front of more admiring girls. The art was later redrawn, but the script didn’t change much.

One New Fun page turn later, however, came another bodybuilding ad built around another little story, but with a different message. The Jowett Institute of Physical Culture titled its comic “Jack ‘Puts One Over’ on His Boy Friend!” Girls appear in only half of its six panels (instead of seven out of nine in the Charles Atlas story). The relationship between Jack and his pal Bill is more developed than the one between Jack and Hannah. The institute also offered a “FREE Book with Photos of Famous Strong Men.” A different sort of appeal.

14 May 2020

After Catching The Train

The Train is a 1964 movie about French railroad personnel preventing a German army officer from removing a trainload of paintings from Paris toward the end of World War 2.

In real life, the French accomplished this through the national sport of bureaucracy—demanding extra paperwork, routing the train in a circle around Paris, delaying it at stations for more paperwork, and shunting the freight cars into yards until the Allied forces arrived. But that wouldn’t have made a thrilling movie.

Instead, producer and star Burt Lancaster wanted action. To that end he removed the original director, Arthur Penn, after three days of filming. Penn, coming from The Miracle Worker, planned to emphasize the psychological change in Lancaster’s character, from thinking that paintings are low priority for his Resistance cell to putting his life on the line for them.

Lancaster’s previous film, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, had been a poorly received by critics and paying audiences in America. (It’s now considered a classic.) So he wanted less psychology, more action. And since Lancaster was the producer as well as the star, he got it.

Lancaster sent Penn home and flew in John Frankenheimer, who had just directed him in Seven Days in May. The production shut down briefly while Frankenheimer and his team reworked the script and plotted out new set-pieces.

As a result, The Train has great action sequences. Early on, the movie shows the Allies bombing a rail yard. The crew really blew up that yard with dynamite and permission from the French government, which needed to renovate those tracks anyway. The long shot shows real explosive shock waves rippling through the ground.

Another sequence features a steam engine being derailed to stall traffic on a line. The scene’s famous final shot shows the engine crashing toward us in a wave of steel and dirt ending with one wheel spinning in the air only centimeters in front of the camera. Frankenheimer has talked about how that stunt was only partially planned. The engine came in too fast, it wiped out a bunch of other cameras, and he didn’t realize what he’d captured until he saw the surviving dailies.

One of The Train’s most impressive effects, however, is Burt Lancaster. The former circus acrobat could do stunts that few other leading men would try. Early on there’s a single shot in which he slides down a long ladder, runs past the camera so we can see his face, and jumps onto a moving locomotive that carries him back to the camera to deliver his line.

Ironically, Lancaster injured his knee while playing golf during production and had to limp through the final reels. To explain that, Frankenheimer added a scene in which the Germans shoot Lancaster’s character in the leg. And, man, he goes down hard!

Unfortunately, aside from those action sequences, The Train doesn’t have a lot of traction. The most complex character is the antagonist, an art-loving German officer played by Paul Scofield. Lancaster’s hero still makes the transition from skeptic about the paintings to fan, but that shift is never explored. Almost every other character gets killed, but only a couple of those deaths carry weight. The story lost too much in becoming an action movie.

06 May 2020

Looking Back on Claude Jarman’s Hollywood

I read about the child actor Claude Jarman, Jr., before I saw him in a movie, and it wasn’t a complimentary read. The Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards listed Jarman in the category of Most Obnoxious Child Actor.

Though he didn’t have the dubious distinction of winning that award, Jarman’s entry dwelled on his debut performance as Jody in the 1946 MGM adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling.

Only later did I actually see that movie and assess Jarman’s performance for myself. He performed alongside Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, and a herd of young deer selected to play one pet. Clearly someone who doesn’t like sentimental stories about wide-eyed children and animals wouldn’t like that film or Jarman’s performance. I think Peck as a young father carried the picture, but Jarman performed his major role just fine.

Of course, it helped that Jarman looked like the illustrations of Jody that Edward Shenton drew for the first edition of The Yearling. (Scribner’s commissioned more art from N. C. Wyeth for a deluxe edition the next year.) I came away thinking that Jarman’s performance might be a case of careful casting, director Clarence Brown finding a boy who looked and talked just as that one role required. But, if the Golden Turkey nomination was a fair indication, Jarman wasn’t up to any other part.

Later I ran across Brown’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1947), which I’ve written about as one of the precursors to To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t expected to see Jarman again—The Golden Turkey Awards didn’t mention that film at all. It’s a good movie, and Jarman did a fine job as a southern teenager realizing the racial injustice in his society.

Last week I watched John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), discussed here. Again, there was Claude Jarman, this time playing the estranged son of cavalry officer John Wayne. Again, the Medveds didn’t mention this movie. And again, Jarman did fine with his part. It’s not a deeply nuanced role in a film whose biggest strength is the visuals, but he did all that was asked of him, including a crazy stunt.

How, I wondered, did this supposedly terrible young actor keep doing fine in good movies? In fact, Jarman made only about a dozen films in his whole Hollywood career, so for three to stand the test of time is an achievement. (Two more westerns, Roughshod [1949] and Hangman’s Knot [1952], also have fans, but I haven’t seen them.)

To understand Jarman’s work I sought out his autobiography, My Life and the Final Days of Hollywood, published in 2018. It’s a short book, straightforwardly told. Just as the title suggests, it combines Jarman’s own life with the change he saw happening around him during his stint in the movie capital in the late 1940s.

As MGM’s publicity machine trumpeted, Clarence Brown spotted Jarman at his school in Nashville taking down a Valentine’s Day display in 1945. Some versions of the story say Jarman had missed a haircut and was thus sporting a rustic look, suitable for Jody. A photo in My Life and the Final Days of Hollywood casts doubt on that; sent back to a producer in California, that image shows Jarman with hair much shorter than he wore in the movie.

In any event, Brown convinced MGM to bring Jarman and his father out to the coast for a screen test, then to cast the boy as Jody. The Yearling took almost a year and a half to make in Florida and California, released for Christmas season in 1946.

Jarman arrived in Hollywood (technically Culver City) when the studio system was still intact. MGM provided him with a weekly salary, drama lessons, publicity, and acting assignments whether he was interested in those movies or not. He went to school at the studio alongside other child actors like Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, and Dean Stockwell. It didn’t take him long to realize that he didn’t share their interest in acting or being a star.

A lot of successful child performers are naturally short or bloom late, so they can play younger roles. Jarman, in contrast, grew several inches in his early teens, meaning his height and body no longer fit his baby face. As Harry Carey, Jr., recalled, at fifteen Jarman “was 6'2" and weighed about 160 pounds.” That made it tough for MGM to cast him. In fact, in Rio Grande Jarman played a West Point dropout—a significantly older role, albeit one that needed an actor with a young face.

Meanwhile, the studio system was crumbling around him. Between television and the antitrust lawsuit that separated movie studios from cinema chains, the industry changed from assembly line to contingency projects. In 1949, Jarman happily went back to Tennessee. He was a star athlete at his prep school, then enrolled at Vanderbilt. Jarman spent summers or skipped classes to make a few more films, such as Rio Grande, and entered the business world.

Eventually, however, Jarman found himself back in a wing of show biz, running the San Francisco International Film Festival. He started in 1965, before revival cinema was everywhere, and he tapped his Hollywood contacts to bring special guests up from LA. That experience gave Jarman another couple of chapters of anecdotes and a perspective on the movie business that enriches his whole book.

Notably, Jarman refers to The Golden Turkey Awards at one point in his memoir, mentioning how his costar in Fair Wind to Java, Vera Ralston, was nominated for Worst Actress of All Time. Though he makes a point of saying he never read his own reviews, I can’t help but think he knew about the Medveds’ critique of his own acting career. Which I’ve now come to think of as unfair.

Jarman published his memoir through Covenant Books, a self-publisher that markets itself to Christian authors. That probably limits the reach of the book into physical stores and libraries, but there’s a digital edition available. The book is written and produced at a professional level. (Jarman credits Sloan de Forest with helping him write his story.)

People interested in the history of America’s movie studios should enjoy My Life and the Final Days of Hollywood, not because it reveals a great deal new but because it shows those details through one wide-eyed child’s perspective. Jarman’s Hollywood career was short and in many ways atypical. But he did fine, and he came out fine.

05 May 2020

Rio Grande and Roman Riding

Rio Grande is the third western that John Ford made about the US Cavalry with John Wayne as one of the stars. Ford made it only because the head of the Republic studio demanded another western before financing the movie Ford really wanted to make, The Quiet Man.

As such, Rio Grande was quickly shot, with even more continuity lapses than usual. (Ford always delivered minimal footage so the studio couldn’t edit his movies into something he didn’t want.) There are a few too many musical numbers, and the central story of a cavalry colonel, the wife he won during the Civil War, and the son he barely knew who becomes one of his recruits gets played out but not deeply explored.

At the same time, Rio Grande works. Shot in the Moab Valley of Utah, its visuals are amazing. Wayne and Maureen O’Hara are strong in their roles, and Ford’s usual cast of supporting players enact their usual parts well. The jokes land. The final action sequence is set up by just a couple of shots in the opening montage. The movie might have been a masterpiece if its makers had put more into it, but it’s as entertaining as it needs to be.

One of the most impressive scenes comes early as a sergeant, played by Victor McLaglen, challenges the new cavalry recruits to do “Roman riding,” standing astride two galloping horses. There’s no reason for this to be in the movie but spectacle. That skill never comes back later in the action, but it looks good on screen. And it looks even better when you realize that the actors—Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., and Claude Jarman, Jr.—performed the Roman riding themselves.

Now I knew Johnson got into the movies as a horseman, supplying horses and then doing stunts before becoming an actor. But Jarman started out as a child star in The Yearling. I had to go back in the video to confirm that yes, there’s one unbroken shot of him vaulting onto two horses, standing, and riding off. So I went hunting for the story behind that sequence.

A few years back, Arthur Arnell posted excerpts from a conversation with Carey on a John Wayne discussion site. Carey recalled his and Johnson’s first conversation with Ford about the movie:
The old man sat there for a while, and finally said, “You guys know how to Roman ride?”

I said, “No, sir,” and Ben said, “No, sir,” and Ford said, “You’re going to have to learn it; we’re going to have Roman riding!”

We knew what it was, and Ben being real careful said, “Well, Mr. Ford, how long before we have to know how to do it?”

And he said, “A month.” So Ben looked at me and I looked at him and we both thought, “Oh, s**t!”
The two actors started training. At first it was so difficult that after riding sessions they “had to go to a nearby town to visit a physiotherapist,” Arnell reported. But after three weeks they could show off their new skill to the director.

Ford was pleased. In fact, Carey recalled, “I’d never seen the old b******d so happy.” And he decided, a week before filming, that Claude Jarman should also ride that way.

Jarman was only fifteen years old at the time, though tall enough to play a West Point dropout. According to Carey:
Now he looked like he barely rode at all, but he came out, croupered those horses, jumped up on my team, and went down the road no practice.
So basically the scene in the movie played out just like real life.
Ben said, “Well, Jesus Christ.” We wanted to crawl under a board. And old man Ford said, “Well, Jesus, it took you guys three weeks, for Christ’s sake.”

Ben said, “He’s never been hurt before, Mr Ford.”

Ford said, “What?” He made you repeat everything.

“Well, he’s never been mashed up or hurt, he’s not afraid.”

“You’re goddam right, he’s not afraid!”

So Claude rode, too. He used my team since we only had two. It was unusual for people who had critical parts in a movie to do that kind of stunt, but Ford would do it. We shot that Roman riding sequence right in the middle of the picture, and we were even out Roman riding every morning on location.
Carey added that Jarman, unlike his adult castmates, “felt no ill effects whatever” from standing on horses.

A man named William T. Brooks, who had been on extra on Rio Grande, added some moviemaking details on that discussion site:
They were not attached to the horses, but they did have on black rubber sole tennis shoes. But if you look close the next time that you watch the film, you might see that the horses have “trace straps” holding them together so they would not go in different directions.
And the final word from Jarman’s autobiography:
They seemed as surprised as I was when I stood up without a hitch on my first try! Ben even seemed a little chagrined that I took to trick-riding so easily and was heard to mutter, “The reason that kid did it so easy is that his feet are so goddamned big they just wrapped around the horse’s back!”