Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Post (2017), All the President's Men (1976), and All the King's Men (1949)

One cannot watch the movie The Post (2017), out in theaters now, without immediately recalling All the President’s Men (1976), at least for those of us of a certain age for whom the Watergate scandal carved out a huge chunk of our formative years. Making comparisons is inevitable not only between the two movies of the two overlapping scandals of the Nixon years—the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate—but obviously between the Nixon administration and the current scandals in the Trump White House. Film, either consciously or unconsciously, reflects who we are as a society. But there is one great difference in our present day experience with the Trump White House from the Nixon White House:  We are no longer able to be shocked, and we are much more willing to accept scandal as a normal fact of life. Nixon’s offenses and even crimes were far less than Trump’s.  Nixon, for all his odious activities, never committed treason.  For many people, the outrage is gone, and that may mean we have been worn down, dumbed down, or been duped by the cynicism which a former generation considered a badge of honor, eschewing formerly held idealism as a weakness.

That is not to say there are not outraged people today or idealistic people. We have only to point to the hundreds of thousands of marchers in the past year, most notably of this past weekend, which by many accounts broke records of the greatest display of public protest in the history of this country. But our cynicism, which I think we once thought of as being realistic, mature, smart and savvy, maybe even cool, has weakened us. The tough outlook turned out to be a Trojan horse. The enemies of democracy—fascists and demagogues—got past the gate.

Today we will have a look at The Post, and All the President’s Men, as well as the classic film, All the King’s Men (1949).  When All the King’s Men was produced in an era that left us, not unlike the Vietnam era, cynical in the backwash of a long and terrible war, it was a different examination of political corruption that has more to do with our current environment than the early 1970s does.  There was great courage in examining the messianic character who is corrupted by his political office and leads his state towards fascism. World War II just being over, we knew very well the evils of fascism and the ultimate slavery, death and destruction that fascism brings, so it was a little like preaching to the choir, but there was still a courageous aspect to making this movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren because we were in the first flush of the communist witch hunts. Any pushback on a far right candidate suggesting that fascism represented corruption, could bring an instant accusation of being a communist.

We haven’t come very far.  Any protest or comment against the current administration is likely to bring, from many quarters both official and civilian, taunts, intimidation, and even death threats. We may deride the obvious stupidity of the person issuing a death threat for calling Trump an evil piece of garbage, but we must still take it seriously because stupidity is dangerous. In our Goebbels-like era where any charge against the current administration is called “fake news” with blathering idiocy, we must always be on guard for the freedom and autonomy of the Fourth Estate.  Recently a nineteen-year-old jerk threatened to carry out a mass shooting in the offices of CNN.  Presumably, he felt he was gaining celebrity in a heroic act for the sake of his Fuhrer.

The Post, much more than those other two movies, actually is idealistic in its portrayal of journalism as the watchdog of our freedom, and that was a delight and a surprise to me perhaps because of the admittedly nostalgic view we receive of the early 1970s through director Steven Spielberg’s viewfinder. Though the story of how The Washington Post brought out the scandalous Pentagon Papers, which laid out a roadmap for the corruption in the operation of the Vietnam War (the New York Times actually published the Pentagon Papers first) is certainly intrigue enough, the director clearly understood that nostalgia was going to be part of this story for a modern-day audience. It could not help but be so. When we see the fashions, and the hairstyles, the cavernous newsroom of The Washington Post with no computers (for anyone who ever aspired to a journalistic career, the sight of a newsroom is one of the most exciting things in the world, I kid you not) the cars, the phones, any number of items that jump out at us from the background that the art director has put on the set – this is obviously going to suck us in to the time and the mood of the era.  Rather than push them at us with a teasing parody or coyness, the director seems to frankly acknowledge we are going to be interested in the nostalgic aspect of the look of the film and he invites us to look. Some of us were undoubtedly misty-eyed just seeing a mockup of a newspaper scratched over with blue pencil. Yes, there was a time when paste-up and layout actually physically meant paste-up and layout.

I can’t say that Tom Hanks reminded me very much of Ben Bradlee either in voice or demeanor, but he and Meryl Streep worked very well together. It is a film worth seeing not only because of their performances but because of the message of the movie (including a strong streak of women’s empowerment) and because it reflects the scandal of that former era that still resonates to our own.

For all that, it does not have the shock value that All the President’s Men has – still has. They are bridged, of course, by the incident of the Watergate scandal. At the very end of The Post we see a young security guard walking through a darkened building which we come to understand is the Watergate hotel. He stumbles upon a burglary in progress and he calls for the police. At the showing I attended, the theater was full of Baby Boomers, which was, in one way comfortable because everyone got the same jokes and at the very end of the movie everyone chuckled knowingly at the young security guard because we knew what was going to happen next. At the end of the film, as the credits rolled, everyone applauded. I don’t know if this movie is attracting any younger generations, but I hope so.

All the President’s Men begins at the point that The Post ends: when the young security guard discovers the break-in in progress. The genius of All the President’s Men is that it does not make any political judgment, and interestingly, no background story on the private lives of the reporters—it is a lean and muscular story only about their work and the mystery they have uncovered. Because it is a movie from the era about which it was made, there is no sense of nostalgia. There is no smiling at the lack of computers or the dial telephones; the director shows us current events. We are not looking to see if they got it right, because obviously, they did.

The movie is filmed like a spy novel or a detective story. The reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, had no idea what a hornets’ nest they’ve stumbled onto. The story comes together in bits and pieces, clues and interviews. One of the delights of the movie is seeing a roster of actors who we’ve come to know very well, including Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John McMartin, Ned Beatty, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Allyn Ann McLerie, and others. Hal Holbrook plays the mole nicknamed “Deep Throat,” and Jason Robards plays Ben Bradlee in this version, and won Best Supporting Actor. His Ben Bradlee is more sneering, gruff and barking. Tom Hanks’ Bradlee has more of a twinkle in his eye. It was only in 2005 that the general public finally became made aware that Deep Throat was actually Deputy Director of the FBI W. Mark Felt.

The reporters go deeper and deeper and they are told by Hal Holbrook that in order to uncover the corruption they are going to have to “follow the money.” That saying was coined and made famous by this film.  We have heard it in many investigations since.

The film covers only the first seven months of the investigation by the reporters into the Watergate scandal; it does not cover everything in the book by Bernstein and Woodward, on which the movie is based. Despite the creepy realization that the reporters have uncovered something truly sinister, it is the final moments of the film that pack the most punch—because of the idealistic image that pounds home the message.  At the very end, we see the newsroom and a television on which is broadcasting Richard Nixon’s second inauguration ceremony. We see the reporters in the background typing on their manual typewriters. It is a remarkable image, and a proud one for anyone interested in journalism – indeed, the book of the movie spawned a new generation of journalists which brought, despite the scandal that inspired it, a new wave of political idealism, that what one said and what one wrote and what one believed mattered and would change the world.

The shock comes when the very last shot that shows us the staccato tapping of the unrelenting Teletype. It stamps out pounding letters (the pounding echoes the cannon salutes to the President during the ceremony on TV) in a string of simple declarative sentences listing what happened to the men involved in the Watergate scandal, bulletins of the indictments. The very last line typed out by the ferocious Teletype tells us that Richard Nixon has resigned and that Gerald R. Ford will be assuming the presidency at noon. The Teletype abruptly stops, freezing a moment in time. We look at the typed page and the sudden silence is deafening, and we are in awe that two reporters typing on manual typewriters could have brought down an administration with something so strong – and so vulnerable – as the truth. You can watch that scene here on YouTube.

All the King’s Men is actually even more stark and cynical than those two modern movies. It begins with the character Willie Stark as a small town self-taught lawyer who runs for office with honorable intentions, and by the time he reaches the governor’s mansion, he has become corrupt, bullying, his administration held up by patronage, bribes, and lies. He is a kind of self-styled messianic figure who leads his base of “hicks.” It is said that he is based on real-life 1930s Louisiana governor Huey Long (though author Mr. Warren denies this).

Broderick Crawford won the Best Actor award for his role as Willie Stark. Best Supporting Actress that year went to Mercedes McCambridge, who plays his political aide and one of his mistresses. She is riveting the moment she appears on screen, a forceful, bitter, snide, and shrewd woman who, like most of his aides and Crawford himself, seems to have no moral objective. The only goal is to win. John Ireland plays the young reporter who follows Stark and presents the story to us through his view.  Ireland is corrupted, too, when he joins the staff. His fiancée becomes Broderick Crawford’s next mistress. We might think that at some point, even though their eyes are open to what a monster Crawford is, including his longsuffering wife and adopted son, played by John Derek, they continue to allow themselves to coast in the trail of this mouthy, forceful man’s blind ambition.  He is so oily, he even subverts an impeachment investigation against him.

The state in the movie is unnamed, but it could be any state. It does not take much for certain personalities to become tyrants. But their power always comes from below, their loyal base that slavishly allows the demagogue to rule with an iron hand. Eventually, of course, all fascist regimes fail due to their own suicidal compulsion and paranoia to punish and control, especially their own supporters, to divide and subvert. We saw this in a string of movies in our series on American fascism last summer which began here with The Mortal Storm (1940).

There are certain lines in this compelling movie that echo the political environment today.  One of them, when John Ireland’s mentor, a judge, who is the uncle of his fiancée, berates him for his joining Broderick Crawford’s staff and supporting his corrupt administration despite knowing Crawford is evil.  The judge, played by Raymond Greenleaf accuses Ireland, and Crawford’s base: “You’re afraid to admit you made a mistake.”

Broderick Crawford has assembled his own private security squad.  He has taken over newspapers and radio stations.  He cannot stand criticism.  His quest for power is vindictive and full of conceit.  Interesting how this 1949 old movie parable can have such relevance today, perhaps even more than All the President’s Men or The Post. We note that in this movie, the journalist is complicit.

It is always tempting to look back on a former era and draw parallels. But obviously, no one era is an exact template for another. If we are to adopt the adage that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it, we must also acknowledge that we can’t recreate the mood of the original era that keeps repeating. The cynicism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam was preceded by a truly idealistic era in the early 1960s, and that idealism lingered and helped strengthen the marchers, the reporters, the investigators, all those who stood to bring down corruption. As such, though we may compare the Trump scandals and what will eventually be the inevitable downfall of his presidency to Nixon’s, society as a whole has more in common not with the early 1970s, but not even with the late 1940s which gave us All the King’s Men. I’d like to suggest that we really have more in common socially, politically, economically, even technologically, with the decade of the 1920s.

We’ll talk about that, and the movies that illustrate this, in the coming weeks.

Have a look at trailers for The Post and for All the King’s Men here on YouTube.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Extras - A Life in the Background

Extras line up for a job in Meet John Doe (1941)

Spotting familiar “extras” is fascinating to classic film buffs, and is something we can’t help doing even while enjoying the screen time of our favorite stars.  They may have a minute or two on camera, a single line or none at all, but they contribute immeasurably to the look and tone of a movie.

Last week we discussed Beverly Washburn’s accepting work as a television extra as an older adult despite her early career of starring and supporting roles on film and TV in the 1950s.  Once in a great while, an unknown extra became a star—John Wayne was perhaps the most famous former-extra.  Sometimes they became stand-ins and then graduated to starring roles:  Joel McCrea was a stand-in for Valentino and for Wallace Reid in the 1920s.  Gilbert Roland once served as a stand-in for Ramon Novarro, and Ann Dvorak for Joan Crawford.

The plight of most extras, though, was far from hopeful and could be heartbreaking.  Gone Hollywood, an interesting book of classic film trivia by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz notes that Central Casting, an employment registry for studio extras, came about in the 1920s as a response to the hordes of young people heading for Hollywood in search of fame and fortune.  There were more hopefuls than there were jobs, and the lucky ones sometimes snagged a role through nefarious means, including bribes and sexual favors.  Will Hayes, of Production Code fame, set up Central Casting to circumvent feared scandal when it appeared that a fair number of prospective starlets were actually prostituting themselves for work.

Central Casting established a pool of extras and a more appropriate and professional way for them to acquire work from the studios.  Hundreds were assigned jobs on films every day, but with as many as 15,000 on the rolls, there still weren’t enough roles.  It was also a factor of their employment that they supply their own costumes—street clothes, sport clothes or evening dress for scenes that required them.  The authors of Gone Hollywood reference a 1934 Photoplay magazine article about extras pooling their meager resources and living five and six to a room to share costumes and expenses, and that others were living in Hoovervilles around Los Angeles

They would usually earn an average of $5 per day and overtime, if called for.  The authors report that in 1936, only 58 out of 5,500 men and only 20 out of 6,500 women averaged three or more days of work per week.  One could earn a little more if they were willing to take roles which required them to get wet or fall off a horse.  Certain physical impairments might also be on demand for a particular film, and often there was a demand for extras based on ethnicity or race. 

It is harrowing to recall that, according to the authors, the average yearly income for an extra in the mid 1930s was only $131.36.  Think of this the next crowd scene you see.  Their plight, especially for older extras, was sometimes met with sympathy by some directors and producers, who would throw work their way whenever possible.  MGM casting director Billy Grady organized the Casting Directors Ball to raise money for extras who were ill or in need.

Perhaps the most famous of these not famous actors was Bess Flowers, who we’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time, known as The Queen of the Hollywood Extras. She worked in the background from the early 1920s through the early 1960s, in more than 350 films, as well as television.  She was one of the founders of the Screen Extras Guild.

 Gone Hollywood.  Finch, Christopher and Linda Rosenkrantz (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.) 1979.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Beverly Washburn's Reel Tears

Beverly Washburn’s memoir, Reel Tears - The Beverly Washburn Story chronicles the career and private life of an actress remembered primarily for her children’s roles and her amazing ability to cry on cue real or “reel” tears in scenes that were moving and natural.

We discussed Beverly’s appearances here in Old Yeller (1957), Shane (1953), Here Comes the Groom (1951), and the television show The New Loretta Young Show (1962-63) – which particularly showed her deft ability in both comedy and drama as a teenager. Beverly relates many anecdotes about her childhood career (which fortunately was a pleasant experience for her and which she remembers fondly) as well as the many stars with whom she worked. Jack Benny was particularly kind and was like an uncle to her.

There are two aspects to her story that I find especially interesting – first, that the roles seemed to dry up for her in her twenties. Though this is often the case for child actors – that there is a difficult transition to adult roles – it’s hard to accept how someone as talented, well-connected, and photogenic as Beverly Washburn should fall into this too-common problem. I think if I had to bet my money on anybody making a seamless transition to adult roles, it would be this exceptionally talented young woman.

The second aspect to her story that intrigues me is how in later life, after many years of being out of business, with both her and her husband supporting themselves with a string of retail and fast food jobs when employment opportunities in their own fields went scarce, Beverly returned to acting as an extra on television.

To be an extra is to occupy the lowest tier in the acting profession. It is one not always appreciated by fans (except, of course, for classic film fans – we notice everything) or even, it seems, by the industry. Her agent, who was not happy about her deciding to go for work as an extra, told her to use her married name so that she wouldn’t be recognized. As she notes, “It’s an honest job and necessary to filmmaking, but few extras ever rise above that. It’s almost the stigma: once an extra, always an extra. And extras aren’t always treated with a lot of respect.”

Ms. Washburn, now in her 70s, still occasionally works, but has come to enjoy appearing at autograph shows, where she interacts with fans and meets old friends and colleagues – including Tony Dow, with whom she appeared as a guest on Leave It to Beaver, Paul Petersen of The Donna Reed Show, and many former child stars of 1950s and 1960s television.

The memoir, published by BearManor Media, is gentle, upbeat despite a career and life that did not always run smooth, and the “Take Two” re-issue includes quite a lot of photos, including lobby card images and even scans of her contracts and filming call sheets – the kind of ephemera particularly appealing to classic film buffs. (Which, interestingly, came from her old missing scrapbook that was recovered by a friend off eBay!)

I would have liked to have seen more detailed anecdotes about particular films and television shows in her early career, but she was only a child, and for most of us, our childhood memories are a blur of us standing center stage in a world we barely comprehend. Ms. Washburn takes a warm, friendly, unassuming command of center stage as a child; it is her adult career which left her drifting with much less control. Still, a journey that led her from being the darling fodder of teen movie magazines to doggedly continuing her craft as an extra shows a love for the profession, a rare sense of humility, and perseverance that is admirable.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Mary Astor - 1930 portrait

This is Mary Astor in a portrait from Stars of the Photoplay, a book of photos of Hollywood stars published by Photoplay Magazine in 1930.  The brief biographical note mentions is she 5-foot, 5 inches tall, weighs 120 pounds, and became a WAMPUS star in 1926.  At the time of this photo, she had been recently widowed when her husband, director Kenneth Hawks "was killed in an airplane accident over the Pacific" while filming Such Men are Dangerous in January 1930.  His brother was director Howard Hawks.

By this time, Mary had been a silent film star for nearly a decade, would have a long career ahead in "the talkies."  Three more marriages awaited her, a scandal that nearly ended her career, and a couple of fascinating books she would write about the whole shebang.  We discussed Mary Astor in this post on her remarks about her career and Hollywood.  We covered her work here in Claudia and David (1946) and in This Happy Feeling (1958)

But this sepia-toned, come-hither shot featuring those lowered, large eyes under pencil-thin brows comes in the middle between her silent screen work and The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Great Lie (1941), Dodsworth (1936) and all the greater films of her career, the films for which we remember her.  Here she is 24 years old.  She has already experienced so much.  So much is still ahead of her.

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