View from the Cheap Seats

Reaching Out

August 22, 2013 - 11:47 am   |   By 

Our topic today was prompted by a conversation I had after my dear friend Bill Thrash’s funeral a couple of weeks ago.  His surviving sister told me that when my pal, about whom I thought I knew everything, was 16, around 1954, in the small southeastern Oklahoma town of Ada, he commandeered a shitload of dimes and tried, to the very best of his ability, to call his hero, Frank Sinatra.

I started thinking then about how many of us have attempted to be in touch with our favorite movie star, director, producer, writer, composer or author?  I used to do that very thing a lot when I was single and bored.

Here are two stories that are so personal that I’ve never written about them before...  [...]

John Randolph is one of the great character actors of all time – you’ve seen him, a moon faced everyman who was equally adept at both comedy and drama.  He’s on my mind a lot these days because he was prominently featured in the John Frankenheimer picture Seconds, which recently received a reverential Blu-ray from Criterion as well as Serpico, Inherit the Wind and many others. 

Seconds (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

Randolph, who was a victim of the notorious Hollywood blacklist, was having career resurgence in the mid 80s – he landed the plum role of Jack Nicholson’s father in the now classic Prizzi’s Honor for director John Huston and had won a Tony award for Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound.  I was planning a trip to New York to see Broadway, so I wrote Randolph and asked if I could come backstage.  I attempted to grease his palm by mentioning I wanted to share a rare VHS copy of what was known to be his favorite film role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s offbeat western There Was a Crooked Man.

Well, I didn’t need the bait – Randolph immediately wrote back that he would like for us to come to a Wednesday matinee of the show and to have dinner with him before the evening performance.  What a delightful human being, soft spoken and very intelligent – turns out our politics were of the same sort and our dislike of the then current president was mutual.  He talked at length about the blacklist, his favorite directors, especially Frankenheimer and Huston; about his wife, who very unfortunately died as they were attending the 1985 Oscars and his deep understanding and love for his particular profession.

We stayed in touch until he died.  Get Criterion’s new Blu of Seconds and watch a master performer at his peak.

Mrs. Lucille Hardy Price

Here’s a story practically no one knows.  It’s too personal.

Oliver Hardy & Lucile Hardy-Price

Laurel and Hardy own my heart.  Even at a small age, I knew they were more than funny men.  They are American – they try their best at everything, there isn’t a mean bone in their communal bodies and they are two men who cannot do without each other.  I collect foreign language posters of their films and I think, sans Louis Armstrong and the American Songbook, they are our greatest cultural export to the world.

In the early 80s, Time wrote a story about residuals and lack thereof and used as their subject Lucille Hardy Price, widow of Babe Hardy.  She, and other family members of actors pre mid 60s, received virtually no funds for use of the artists’ images or likenesses.  I had what I found out later was a public domain VHS tape of the This is Your Life featuring Stan and Ollie and I looked up Mrs. Price’s address in Los Angeles and sent a letter asking if I could give it to her.

What she sent back to me means more to me than just about anything I own – a several page long handwritten letter saying that she would treasure the tape – she didn’t have it – and recounted in great detail her love for her husband and the love that he and Stan shared as friends for over 30 years.  The letter should be in a museum.  She also sent a photo that both had signed before they died and some other personal treasures as well.  Thinking about it today makes me very emotional.

My guess is that people who read this have had similar experiences.  I would love to hear about them.

On Video

Jack Benny is, regrettably, unknown from today’s generation of young performers – oh they’ll mention Jonathon or Rickles, but Benny, certainly one of the leading entertainers of the 20th Century, seems to have been forgotten.  While watching The Shout! Factory’s The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes I was again stunned at this comic master’s act – it’s so funny and sophisticated that I can’t believe these programs were so continuously popular.  Among the guests in this collection in this fabulous box set are Benny’s best friend George Burns, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and, kid you not, Harry Truman.  This box is a treasure. Own it.

Also from The Shout! Factory are The Best of Friday, fabulous TV from the early 80s, which featured such stars as Andy Kaufman, Larry David and Billy Crystal; Swamp Thing, an absolute cult classic starring Andrienne Barbeau and Louis Jourdan and directed by Wes Craven; and Alan Rudolph’s oddball musical odyssey Roadie, a personal favorite, starring Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Jr. and more.  Remember the great song, “That Lovin You Feelin,” by Orbison and Emmylou Harris?  It’s from this movie.  Also released on Blu-ray is perhaps the first cult film of my generation, A Boy and His Dog

Smiley's People (Blu-ray Disc)

Twilight Time’s Blu-rays this month continue the company’s appreciation of the great Walter Hill – his latest theatrical offering Bullet to the Head is much better than it was let on to be – by releasing Hill’s classic The Driver, starring Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern.  Add this classic modern noir with Hill’s depression classic Hard Times and you have two of the best films of the 70s.  Twilight Time also has released Brian de Palma’s Body Double.  Remember, when the allotment of 3,000 units of these classics are gone, they’re, well, gone.

From the Acorn Media Group this month, there’s the Blu-ray debut of the BBC miniseries called Smiley’s People, the third book and second film, in the trilogy that began with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Of course, the masterful Alec Guinness plays Smiley and I challenge anyone to start this six hour opus and not be glued to the television screen.

Warner Archive continues its work as the preeminent VOD distributor in the country with their latest releases, Andrew V. MacLaglen’s Mitchell, a post Walking Tall feature starring Joe Don Baker; Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle and a forgotten 70s gem called The White Dawn, directed by no less than Philip Kaufman and starring the late, great Warren Oates.

The Cohen Media group has discovered and released an incredibly rare masterpiece of post war French cinema with the Blu-ray release of The Damned, a 1947 film noir directed by Rene Clement (Purple Noon).  What a find is this!

Finally, those maniacs at Vinegar Syndrome do their dead level best to change the playing field of the cultural world by releasing some drive in cult treasures that are completely engaging – first is the Blu-ray Good Luck Miss Wyckoff, based on a novel by the noted author William Inge, which tackles the themes of some of Inge’s other works such as Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, while also being trashy fun.  Seek this one out.  Also from VS is a double feature of The Sexualist and Wendy’s Palace, which are exactly what you think they are.

I love great film reference books, lately I have been reminded of Danny Peary, whose tomes have educated film goers for decades.  Now, another terrific publication follows the work of the Medved Brothers in the 70s and 80s – Phil Hall’s The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time from Bear Manor Media.  This dude gets it.  Included here are such theatrical curios of my time as The Last of the Secret Agents, starring the comedy team of Allen and Rossi, The Maltese Bippy, starring the comedy team of Rowan and Martin and The Fat Spy, starring the comedy team of Jack E. Leonard and Phyllis Diller.  One minor quibble, however – Mystic River?!?!?!?

Theatricals

I do not have the words or imagination to say the absolutes that should follow a new Woody Allen release – it’s like what Newsweek magazine said about Sinatra when he died – “You could call him the greatest of all time, and he was, but somehow that’s just not enough.” 

Were Blue Jasmine made by a hot young upstart at Sundance, the director would have a three picture deal and would be shooting the newest Iron Man installment – instead, it is written and directed by arguably the greatest artist in American film who has been giving us one of these since about 1968.

Blue Jasmine

This movie is so challenging, so thought provoking and, ultimately, so devastating that one sits in the audience in stunned disbelief that it was even funded and released.  Midnight in Paris was the best film of 2011.  Blue Jasmine will most likely be the best film of 2013.  There is a roll out release of this picture from Sony Classics so seek out and behold.

Also from Sony Classics is the latest from Pedro Almodovar (who some have compared to Woody) called I’m So Excited, a campy sex farce from a true master. 

The summer will be remembered as a season of duds, After Earth was just embarrassing, White House Down was a mess and even Pacific Rim, which did display a level of wit missing from most blockbuster, sci-fi pictures, was treated poorly at the box office.

Elysium, however, is a cut above.  It’s a follow up to director Neil Blomkamp’s imaginative District 9 from a couple years back, and, with strong character development, non-stop action and a few political jabs along the way, it’s the best movie of its type this summer.

Have to also mention that I just got out of a screening for Kick Ass 2 and will be interested to see how it performs – here again we have a young girl talking and fighting like a street thug, with lots of bad language and potty humor to boot.  The movie is a stink bomb, but its place in the current culture is fascinating.

- Bud Elder

 

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