Saturday, November 24, 2012


Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minoru Chiaki, Bokuzen Hidari, Kamatari Fujiwara
IMDB Entry

Akira Kurosawa is known as Japan’s greatest film director,* known primarily for action-filled films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Roshomon, and Ran.  But early in his career, he showed a different side with Ikiru.

It’s the story about Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a love-level government official toiling at a dull and boring job.  His life is empty, his wife dead, his son not all that interested in him.  When he discovers he has stomach cancer and only a year to live, he is lost in depression.  When he finds a former co-worker, who is now on her own and enjoying life, he realizes he has to break out of his depression and decides to take on small but difficult project:  to convert a vacant lot into a children’s playground.

Takashi ShimuraWatanabe has to battle bureaucracy and the calendar in order to get the playground finished.  Shimura is heartbreakingly good in the role, sad without being maudlin.

The movie has an important message:  that one man can make a difference, even in a small way.  Much of the film shows Watanabe becoming more and more despondent, until he take on his project with the clock running out for him.

Ikiru is often considered one of Kurosawa’s best, but it is not well-known in the US.  It was overshadowed by Roshomon and his next film, The Seven Samurai, and I suspect its long downbeat section turned off audiences who didn’t stick it out to the end.  It also didn’t have Kurosawa’s best-known actor, Toshiro Mifume.  So with an unknown cast, Kurosawa’s reputation was not enough for it to be noticed in the US.

*Other claimants are Yashijiro Ozu and, if you consider animation (and I do), Hayao Miyazaki

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Broken Arrow (TV)

Broken Arrow(1956-60)
Based upon the novel
  Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold
Starring John Lupton, Michael Ansara
IMDB Entry (pretty sparse)

In the 50s, the western was king of TV.  And the major villains of the westerns were the Indians.*  Oh, there were cattle rustlers and outlaws and bank robbers, but the go-to villains were usually the Indians.  Broken Arrow was one of the few shows that portrayed Indians in a positive light.**

It was based upon the novel Blood Brother, about the actual friendship between Tom Jeffords (John Lupton), an Indian agent, and Cochise (Michael Ansara), chief of the Apaches.  The TV show took this further, showing Jeffords working with Cochise for justice for the Apaches on the reservation.

Cochise was shown to be strong and noble.***  Jeffords was a TV western hero, except that he considered Cochise his friend and worked to balance the white man’s laws and desires with those of the Apaches.  He fought against criminals, both white men and Indians. 

Not that all Indians were this way: Geronimo was a frequent villain, though he was described as a renegade who split away from the rest of the Apaches

The title refers to a custom that you broke an arrow it indicate you were no longer fighting with a foe.  Also, Jeffords and Cochise were blood brothers; I bet a bunch of kids from that era took up the idea.

The show was successful enough to run two season, and was rerun another year on ABC to fill programming time.  It certainly was not one of the biggest westerns of the era, but its point of view made it different from the rest.

* “Native Americans” had not come into popular use, so I’m sticking with the 50s term.

**There were examples from the movies.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and other John Ford films were sympathetic, even in Fort Apache, where they attacked the soldiers, but were clearly provoked.  And Key Largo is sensitive to the Seminoles, though that wasn’t in the old west.

***Possibly too much so.  Ansara complained that the role only allowed him to stand around looking noble.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Devil and Miss Jones

Directed by
Sam Wood
Written by Norman Krasna
Starring Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, Edwin
Gwynn, Spring Byington, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, William Demerest
IMDB Entry

There are some actors who are always a delight to see on screen.  For instance, Edwin Gwynn and S. Z. Sakall fit nicely into this category, and also have a propensity of showing up in good movies.  Jean Arthur also fits, as does William Demerest (though mostly due to his work with Preston Sturges).  And all four are in The Devil and Miss Jones.

The movie is a dramatized version of the current reality show, Undercover Boss.  John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is the richest man in the world and the owner of a department store who is concerned that his workers are talking about forming a union.  So he joins the store as a shoe clerk to find out who is behind this – with an eye to firing them.  He meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who shows him the ropes and whose boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) has been fired for labor agitation.

Merrick learns that his conception of his workers is not what he thought it to be, and acts as Cupid for the couple, all while a romance develops for  him on his job.

Charles Coburn was not your usual Hollywood star.  He took up film acting in his fifties, but became a featured player a few years later.  He was a rotund man noticeable for his monocle.*  He plays the plutocrat very nicely as he changes from the rich, uncaring boss to someone who learns that his workers are not his enemies.  He received an Oscar nomination for the role.

Jean Arthur brought her comic presence to the role of Mary.  She was an actress who was able to play tough, but with a touch of strong emotion and was especially good in comic roles like this one. 

Coburn and Arthur are not well known today.  Coburn was usually a supporting player** and most of his films are fairly obscure to modern audiences.  Arthur is better known from her work in classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Shane, but she stopped acting in films after 1953, and rarely appeared on stage or television and became more and more reclusive.***

Director Sam Wood was one of MGM’s most dependable directors in the 1930s and is best known today for his directing A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.  The movie was a success and Arthur and Coburn were teamed twice more.

The biggest reason for the film’s eclipse, though, was the fact the the title was used for a well-known porn film.  The Devil in Miss Jones was one of a group of fashionable porn films in the early 70s.  It is not uncommon to make porn versions of films, but in this case, the porn became better known than the original.****   I suspect this kept the original from being rediscovered, since people knew the X-rated one better.

*Other than Charlie McCarthy, he’s the only actor to become a star wearing one.  It was no affectation:  Coburn had bad vision in only one eye, and saw no reason to wear lenses on both.

**He won his Oscar in 1994 for The More the Merrier.

***Some reports have said she suffered from terrible stage fright.

****Which was pretty obscure when the porn came out.  Because Sam Wood was not an auteur favorite, and Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were not big names, The Devil and Miss Jones did not show up  on the revival circuit.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Great Mouse Detective

Mouse Detective(1986)
Directed by
Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker
Written by a whole bunch, based upon novels Eve Titus
Starring voice of Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Vincent Price, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Alan Young
IMDB Entry

Strange as it may seen now, by the mid-80s, Disney animation was in trouble.  The market for animated films seemed to have dried up, and Disney hadn’t had a big hit in years.  The pace was slowing:  only four animated films in the 70, and the two in the 80s were the bland The Fox and the Hound and the flop The Black Cauldron.  Disney seemed content to make their money by rereleasing their classics to new audiences.

This was unacceptable to new studio heads Jeffrey Katzanbach and Michael Eisner, who gave the green light to The Great Mouse Detective, probably the second most important animated film in Disney history after Snow White.

The story was based upon a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Basil of Baker Street, by children’s author Eve Titus.  In the movie, Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young) is (like most of the characters) an anthropomorphic mouse, and a famous inventor among mousedom.  He’s captured by the bad Fidget (Candy Candido) and taken to the mad genius Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), who wants to use his discoveries to take over the world. Hiram’s daughter Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek), seeks out Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingram) to find her father.  With the aid of Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), they try to thwart Ratigan’s fiendish plan.

RatiganRatigan is one of the great Disney villains, and perhaps the first to have an established name playing the character.  And who could be better for it than Vincent Price.  He has a perfectly entertaining bit of hammy menace, gloriously evil and insisting above all that he’s a very large mouse, not a rat.

In many respects, this is minor Disney, but it was something very important for the studio:  a hit.  And it encouraged Disney to think that maybe animated films could still be their bread and butter.  The faith was paid off three years later when The Little Mermaid (also directed by Clements and Musker) became a smash hit.