[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]
Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.
Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirkâ€™s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 Â½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.
It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself into revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film â€“ the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two â€“ that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment. In Soderbergh’s own words: “Let’s put it this way: when people ask me how many films I’ve made, I treat it as one film.”
The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as a single presentation and opened in a limited roadshow run, with both films presented back to back (with an intermission) as a single program, in New York and Los Angeles in December. Its success encouraged IFC to expand the roadshow release to ten more cities, including Seattle, on January 16. I interviewed Soderbergh by phone on Friday, January 9, a week before its Seattle premiere.
Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?
Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.
“I don’t interpret. I don’t transmit any message. I avoid expressing theories and forcing meanings. I reconstruct documents, I offer information which leaves to the spectator the entire responsibility for his own judgments.”
– Roberto Rossellini
This week, Criterion resurrects key productions from Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of historical films directed for television in the final act of his career. Largely overlooked in light of his legendary neorealist dramas and his more intimate dramas starring his lover Ingrid Bergman, these films are could technically be considered historical dramas, but they are nothing like the spectacles that you usually find under this genre.
Criterion releases four of these productions. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy â€“Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces
The film opens on the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who has amassed a fortune in his position. The ambitious and corrupt Fouquet is jockeying to take his place (and enrich himself in the process) and the entire court is full of intrigue and plotting at the Cardinal’s illness, all figuring how to make their power play. Or so we’re told, as this information is all exposition, a dialogue serving largely to explain and explicate everything to the audience. (Rossellini also takes time to explore in detail the state of medical science: doctors passing judgment on the odor and color of the Cardinal’s urine, and prescribing more bleeding. Isn’t it lucky that they’ve measured just how much blood a man can lose and still remain alive?)
[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]
You could say it came as a complete surprise when, on Thursday evening, local TV station KING-TV announced that, according to unnamed sources, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would be put up for sale. The P-I staff had no news of it and the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, would not comment. It could have been a rumor, a hoax or just an incorrect story. At least that’s what many of us hoped. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that news was confirmed and the news made public.
But if the announcement was a surprise, the closing of a Seattle newspaper was hardly unanticipated. Traditional print newspapers have been on life support for years and Seattle was the last city of its size to still have two competing daily newspapers. Both the Seattle Time and the P-I have both been losing money. The two papers appeared to be attempting to outlast the other and be the last paper standing. While the locally-owned Times has a significantly larger circulation (198,741 to the P-I’s 117,572 as of September, 2008, according to a P-I report), it is also deeply in debt and its sale of a number of newspapers in Maine (which are being sold at a significant loss) is running into problems. Many thought that the more financially robust Hearst would be able to hold out longer in the face of losses.
The Hearst Corporation says that if the paper is not sold within 60 days, it will either be shut down or turned into a web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff. A sale in this climate seems unlikely, as the economic downturn has reduced advertising dollars even farther.
I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.
Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.
I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.
Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.
This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.
The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?
The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.
“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …
“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”
– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4
Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.
Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the SinCity graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.
With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.
While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.
Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much â€“ racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality â€“ without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams),a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.
“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)
In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.
Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.
The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).
“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood â€“ the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years â€“ they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.
When I first interviewed Kevin Smith a few years ago, during his press tour for Jersey Girl, I apparently caught him on a bad day. He was tired, distracted, stretched out on a hotel couch and chain smoking with an oblivious reflex. You don’t really expect a connection when you interview a filmmaker or a screenwriter or an actor â€“ it’s usually just another in a long, long line of obligatory promotional obligations for the artist. The best you can hope for is to interest them with a challenging question or a perceptive remark. I can’t say I came through with either when Smith came back through Seattle to promote Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but he was far more engaged in this return engagement interview. It was like kicking back with a guy you just met at a party, relaxed and laid back and without pressure. And he certainly didn’t edit himself for print. His language is what you might call colorful, dotted so offhandedly and naturally with George Carlin’s seven dirty words that you hardly notice it. Until you start transcribing. I published an abbreviated version for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and scrubbed much of that language out of the piece. It’s intact in this full version of the interview, which was conducted a couple of weeks before the release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Did you go to your tenth annual high school reunion?
We didn’t have a tenth but I went to my fifteenth and just this summer they had a twentieth and I went to my twentieth, which they held on a boat. A three-hour tour, kind of like Gilligan’s Island, so that was a little nerve wracking. And it’s the kind of thing where you can’t get off the boat. If you’re like, “This sucks, I want to go home,” you’re stuck, you’re on the boat. Thankfully, it was kind of cool. I didn’t have any adversarial relationships in high school, there was nobody that I was like, “I can’t wait to see this motherfucker and tell him what an idiot he is.” I’m pretty cool with everybody and I stayed in Jersey for years after Clerks so I saw a lot of these people anyway, mostly every month.
So your reunion experience didn’t inspire you to make your own home porno.
No, it didn’t push me over the top. I had the other career going on. I mean, I can never really think about porn in regards to myself because I would just never want to see myself in a porno.
The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.
That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.
Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:
The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)
These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.
The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)
The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.
Burt Kennedy has a long resume as a director, with such credits to his name as The Rounders, Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Gunfighter. But he started his film career as a screenwriter under contract to John Wayne and made his reputation with four brilliant westerns that Budd Boetticher directed and Randolph Scott starred in: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. I had been trying to get an interview with Kennedy for a long time. All it took, it turns out, was a little help from Budd Boetticher. During my second trip to interview the Boetticher I mentioned my problem in connecting with Kennedy. He simply called him up set up a meeting for later that day, and I raced to catch Kennedy in his home in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles before he left that evening for a rodeo (seriously). I eventually interviewed Kennedy twice, first in 1989 and then again in1994. In these excerpts he talks about his origins and discusses his work with Boetticher beginning with Seven Men From Now, Kennedy’s first produced script. He died in 2001.
I want to ask about your background. I read, in old publicity reports, that you were the son of vaudevillians.
Yeah, my mom and dad were a headline act in vaudeville for 20 years, the Keith-Orpheum circuit. They were dancers. As a matter of fact, they danced in the Webber-Field show in New York in 1911 and Vernon and Irene Castle were in the chorus. And of course Vernon and Irene Castle did dances later on that people could do. My folks didn’t, my folks were just real good dancers, but that’s why they didn’t have the popularity that Vernon and Irene Castle did. They had a great act. And I was born in a trunk.
Born on the road?
Yeah. I don’t really remember much of it. I remember some because I worked in the act when I was about 5 and I think I was a has-been at 7. Vaudeville didn’t just die out, vaudeville just died overnight. I mean radio is kind of still around, you know, it had its heyday and then it went gradually downhill, but it’s still there. But not vaudeville. One day vaudeville was going full bore and the next day pictures took over and all these acts were out of business.
“They can lick you (which they can‘t) or they can fire you, and once you know that you‘re not afraid of anybody.” – Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview
Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The 20 year old kid from a wealthy family decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. That’s the short version.
“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of South America, but his trip stopped short when he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.
When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting adviser on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.
Boetticher worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60 minute Boston Blackie mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.
Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a 12 day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost 20 years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B movie rut.
My first contact with Budd Boetticher was in 1987. I was a graduate student in film studies at the University of Oregon and I thought I was getting his agent’s phone number from the DGA. I found out very quickly that it was his home number when he answered personally. He was an affable man and very forgiving of the enthusiastic student who tried to lure him north from his home in Ramona, California for a retrospective of his films at the U of O in Eugene. “I don’t want to go to a tribute where no one is interested in my films,” he replied in his matter-of-fact, gruff/friendly manner. “Why don’t you come down and visit me here instead?” I did, numerous times, conducting hours of interviews with him between 1988 and 1992. I stayed in touch with him and his wife, Mary, until his death.
In the following excerpts he talks about his films with Randolph Scott and Burt Kennedy and touches on making Arruza. For more on Boetticher’s love affair with bullfighting and the amazing odyssey in Mexico while making Arruza, try to track down his autobiography When in Disgrace, a very entertaining read (and, sadly, out of print).
Spoiler alert: Be warned that Boetticher discusses key scenes and plot points of the films.
You never directed John Wayne in a film, but he played a major part in your life. He produced your breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and he was at least partially responsible for Seven Men From Now. How did you connect on Seven Men From Now?
I was doing pictures at what used to be Selznick studios, I forget what they called it when I was there, and Duke was doing a picture with Ford and he called me in. He said “Bood, I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” so I came over and picked it up at lunch and I read thirty-five pages and I walked back on the set and he was sitting with a bunch of people and I said “Duke, I want to do the picture.” He said “Well Jesus Christ, you can’t read the whole damned script in an hour.” I said “I read thirty-five pages. This is brilliant! I’d like to meet the author.” He said “Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy,” and Burt stood up. We shook hands and I said “Mr. Kennedy, you are a brilliant, brilliant writer. I don’t have to read anymore. I’m so glad I met you.” He said “Oh, we met a long time ago. I played the rabble rouser in A Man From Texas [working title to Man From the Alamo].” He’d been an actor. And that’s what started us. All you had to do was read one of his scripts. Anybody who didn’t like Burt Kennedy’s writing was crazy. The best scene I’ve ever directed in my life, I directed word for word from his script, and that’s when Lee Marvin and Walter Reed and Gail Russell and Randy are in the covered wagon. Marvin says “You know, a funny thing, I knew a big tall good lookin’ fellow once,” and he starts making love to Gail Russell. That was great writing.