What’s Up Documentary?

From the awards at Cannes to the documentaries of the fifties.

August 1973By Comments

THIS YEAR’S MOVIE-CROWD CRACK has been, of course, “Make a movie of Watergate? Not without the Marx Brothers.” When life with its absurdities starts imitating fantasy-fiction, let alone art, the fictioneers are up against some pretty stiff competition, as the film Let The Good Times Roll demonstrates.

What documentaries of our crises become for newer generations was demonstrated recently when an eleventh grade history class climaxed their study of the McCarthy era with the 1964 Emile de Antonio-Daniel Talbot Point of Order! and found this brilliant 97-minute culling of the 1954 Army McCarthy hearing kinescopes more thrilling, more marked by drama and tantalizing characterizations than all the fictional political thrillers of their teenage lives.

For life, in the audio-visual technological advances and saturations of the past twenty years, is converted into instant-document and remains, recorded live, for the near-instant generations. And with it all comes not only instant-history but, even more interesting, instant-nostalgia. No, No Nanette? The Big Band Era? Bogey et al? That, my dear, is ancient history.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to yesterday—and come up with Chubby Checker and I Was a Teen-age Werewolf and Elvis getting his sideburns clipped for Army service and the high school kids putting on a do’s-and-don’ts fashion show to demonstrate that clinging sweaters and dungarees were to be eschewed in favor of proper dresses and neat suits, and Jersey City banning rock’n’roll concerts for the sake of public morality, let alone safety.

It’s all there for you to writhe over, wallow in and twist to in Let the Good Times Roll, a splendidly frenetic high-style documentary put together by a coalition of television and film men, conceived by Gerald I. Isenberg who produced the film with 16 working cameramen, three directors and a corps of editors and technicians, all under the aegis of a group of companies, chief among them Metromedia Producers Corp and Cinema Associates. And stars? Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, The Shirelles, The Five Satins, The Coasters, Danny and the Juniors, The Bobby Comstock Rock and Roll Band, Bill Haley and the Comets.

The format is exhilarating, with the focal points performances by these stars within the past year in Richard Nader’s Original Rock and Roll Revival Concerts at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, in Cobo Hall, Detroit and, in Fats Domino’s case, the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. And these performances, brilliantly filmed to capture the musical mystique and the personality of the individual and presented with lush and imaginative special effects climaxing in kaleidoscopic multiple-imagery, are beautifully counterpointed, often on a split screen, with black-and-white original film of the performer in his heydey in the Fifties, providing visual, if not aural, evidence of what the revolutionary sixties have wrought in the very dress and style of even the most middle-aged among us. And in between the actual performances, not only do the stars reminisce a bit for personal nostalgia, but the filmmakers also provide excerpts from Fifties newsreels, scenes from movies (The Wild One, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rebel without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, Don’t Knock the Rock, From Here to Eternity—and that Teen-Age Werewolf bit in the gym), montages from yearbooks and of newsphotos. It’s all fast and furious and fascinating.

Let the Good Times Roll, in 99 minutes, covers in pure cinematics what Grease has been doing off and on Broadway since February, 1972 with such theatrical charm. The film, however, becomes a highly subjective experience and reactions will differ almost Rorschach-test style. At the multi-generation screening I attended, everybody was taken up by the beat and the performance, but when it came to the period references, the young chortled with scornful disbelief, the twentyish crowd seemed overcome with the foibles rather than facts of their childhood (“Lowell Thomas,” asserted one knowledgeable youth near me as a photo of Ed Murrow flashed by), the thirtyish crowd crooned with empathetic memories, and the rest of us—I suspect we got the rather cheering reassurance, as one does from nostalgia, that we manage to survive the worst of times as well as the best.

By contrast the week’s fiction, Robert Aldrich’s The Emperor of the North Pole, is hard, contrived, pointless in its thesis, repulsive in its people, singularly joyless and, above all, incredible in its concoction. Of course it has its rough-and-tumble-adventurous moments, its occasional chill and thrill and a certain stylish spirit—as one would expect from Aldrich, one of Hollywood’s very top professionals. And there is a very good performance by Lee Marvin and a super-bravura one by Ernest Borgnine—as one would expect from each respectively.

The original script is by Christopher Knopf, a television writer with one previous film (The King’s Thief, 1955) to his credit, and reportedly a life-long railroad buff. The last apparently inspired his plot, which involves Marvin as the king of the hoboes, described as A No.1, and the Emperor of the North Pole, who is determined to ride the rails on No.19 through Oregon to Portland in the Depression summer of 1933. Why No.19? Its vile conductor, Borgnine, is literally death on hoboes who dare ride his freight. Knopf, and the company blurbers, choose to see this as “a classic story of conflict—the free man versus the Establishment—made brutal by hard times that drove thousands to riding the rails.” The message is spelled out ahead of time by one of the worst ballads yet to be imposed on a movie, a concoction by Frank DeVol with words by Hal David (lyricist is hardly the word for him, considering the lyrics he contributed to Lost Horizon) about “A Man and a Train,” declaring that a man and a train are alike since they can both travel fast and climb mountains but a train’s caput when it runs out of steam, whereas a man still can travel “on nuthin’ but a dream.”

So Marvin’s dream is to outwit Borgnine and he is quite ingenious about it, even when saddled with a callow youth, a non-smoker called Cigaret (it’s that kind of script) who’s a cheat and a sneak and a coward and deserts Marvin in a pinch, though Marvin’s tried to teach him the tricks of the hobo trade. But after a positively disgusting fight, involving two-by-fours, chains and a fire-axe, between Marvin and Borgnine, Marvin tells the young stinker that he hasn’t any “class” and gets rid of him, two hours too late in this two-hour movie.

The youth is played by Keith Carradine who we know can do better, as he did as the cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Borgnine pops his eyes in excelsis, Marvin is as shrewd as he is dirty and Aldrich does what he can with near-train-crashes, leaps, jumps and brawls. But the script bogs them all, its Depression setting irrelevant (certainly to the story of a lifelong hobo), its romanticization of the bum and freeloader juvenile and its conclusion—that the better axe-wielder, rather than the free spirit, gets to ride the train for free—asinine. But I heard a lot of adolescents around me giggling—especially when Marvin practically chops Borgnine’s arm off. It was enough to make my eyes, let alone my stomach, pop.

If you hedge your bets you can always be—well, if not half right, at least semi-justified. But a jury? The Cannes International Film Festival Jury has taken to hedging in a big way, splitting its Grand Prix for the second consecutive year, supplementing its major choice with a “special” jury prize and even, in 1972, with another unspecial jury prize, offering further proof—beyond the various complexities of who can enter what and how in and out of competition—that the festival’s major aim is in keeping a variety of countries happy while promoting the sales of movies to various distributors.

This year’s Grand Prix was all too obviously designed to keep the American and British moviemakers happy and the American distributors happiest and conservative approaches to film alive. With O Lucky Man! ignored, Warner Bros.’ Scarecrow and Columbia Pictures’ The Hireling shared the Grand Prix. A “special” grand prize went to France’s The Mother and the Whore, just as last year’s “special” went to America’s Slaughterhouse-Five after the Grand Prix had gone to two Italian films, one of which, The Mattei Affair, has arrived here a year later to bore us silly. Beyond providing sops to the English-speaking nations, the double award is totally baffling; all the two films have in common is a pair of brilliant performances. Scarecrow is a rambling, derivative, maudlin movie (bound to appeal to European kulcher snobs) that serves only as a vehicle for excellent, albeit freehand and bravura, performances by Al Pacino and Gene Hackman (cited, in fact, by the jury, which then proceeded with its own logic to give the best-actor prize to Gian Carlo Giannini in Italy’s Love and Anarchy).

The Hireling, however, is something else, a beautifully conceived and executed film, immaculate in its every detail and marked by brilliant performances that are, glowingly, a part of the whole. It is a taut suspenseful drama, a painful probing of personal need and fulfillment in a consideration of interclass relationships, and its triumph is its understatement of the issues at its core, the implications throughout of the turbulent emotions beneath the surface and the complete truth, therefore of their final raging eruption.

The elegant screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz is based on a novel by L.P. Hartley, published in England (but not yet, alas, in this country) in 1957, four years after his The Go-Between, which provided us with the superb Losey-Pinter film in 1971. And the novelist’s awareness of social nuance, that was his hallmark, is transferred to the screen in Ben Arbeid’s exquisite production and brought to shattering climax by the terse, innuendo-packed direction of Alan Bridges, who is making his film debut after a series of triumphant BBC television dramas. But it is, of course, the leading players, and Robert Shaw, in the title role, and Sara Miles, who bring the work to its fulfillment.

The period is 1923 in England recovering from the scars of World War I, its class system just a little surface-uncertain after the concerted dedication to king and country, perhaps most clearly among the “county” folk with whom we are concerned. Lady Franklin, who suffered a nervous breakdown after her husband’s death, is being discharged from a nursing home and her “hireling” is the chauffeur who drives her to her mother’s house. It is the chauffeur, however, and not the mother with whom she can barely communicate, who prepares Lady Franklin to return to her own home and helps her to resume the social life she has been unable to face. And it is the development of this delicate relationship that becomes a breath-bating suspense story, that engages one in a compassionate dilemma seldom offered us in such seemingly simple terms.

The lady, riddled by guilts of absence from her father’s deathbed and of being at a “stupid party” when her husband dies, is able to talk to the chauffeur, to find stability in his stolidity and inspiration to acquire again the “knack” of living, to “get on with it” beyond her mourning. The chauffeur, a gallant sergeant-major in wartime and an independent civilian (his Rolls Royce is his own, a car-hire business his dream), meets her on a class level, his speech rife with “milady” and nervousness at her insistence on sitting up front with him. He clings to the conviction of status, manufacturing an imaginary family of his own to establish it, declaring that “We all have our places in life, milady.” “The typical thinking of your salt-of-the-earth Englishman,” the lady replies. “We don’t all have our given places. Leadbetter, we make our own.” And thus the door is opened—through which he leads her to reestablish herself with her own class and he, ironically, is led to frustration and heartbreak.

Miss Miles, so obviously an actress who glitters and truly comes into her own under firm directional control (consider her excellence in Joseph Losey’s The Servant and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter in contrast to her debacle in Robert Bolt’s Lady Caroline Lamb), gives her finest performance to date. She makes Lady Franklin a woman of remarkable depth and vulnerability, a creature wracked by her past inadequacy and open to humanity, convinced of that openness and horrified by its results and the realization of the closures of her mind. It is this innocence and its honesty that Miss Miles so superbly portrays, her very loveliness becoming a testament thereto. It is embodied, for instance, in her hesitant return to county activities, presenting a cup, at Leadbetter’s suggestion, at the local boxing club, in her dependence on the chauffeur throughout the occasion and in her then proceeding—again with Ledbetter’s arrangement of the program—to dine with the Captain who is chairman of the club committee and rediscover the pleasures of a shared background. The growth of her relationship with the young man, from her sponsoring his political career to her personal involvement, is as valid as it is inevitable. Miss Miles was cited at Cannes—but the jury gave the best actress award to Joanne Woodward in Gamma Rays/Marigolds.

Robert Shaw, who has never faltered in any vehicle yet seems perpetually to surpass his past perfection (most recently the brilliant Randolph in Young Winston), brings a strength and a depth of passion to make memorable a role that he has stretched far beyond the angry-young man or kitchen-sink qualities for which a lesser actor might have settled. He too provides an honesty of character that is overwhelming; his secret adulation of the upper class goes beyond his conviction about a place in life; he resents as much the fall of idols as he does their elevation. He is the righteous man betrayed, displaced by a lesser man, stung by the realization that he bent his principles to gamble and that he aspired. Own his own car he might—but a hireling he remains, above all a lonely man who dared dream.

The stars, and they are truly in performance, are supplemented by a first-rate cast, with Peter Egan as the captain, Elizabeth Sellers as Lady Franklin’s mother, Caroline Mortimer as the captain’s mistress and Ian Hogg, as Leadbetter’s outstanding partner. The period background—complete with the authentic settings—is subtle, surrounding rather than suffusing the human drama. For it is the very timelessness of The Hireling, its universal truths about the way we use and abuse each other, so often and so sadly unwittingly, that makes it a film of stunning effect and consequence.

Another film shown at Cannes, quite understandably out of competition, is Blume in Love, which could be subtitled “Blume & Nina & Elmo & Arlene,” since it was written and directed by Paul Mazursky who co-authored and directed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969 and apparently has decided that if at first you succeed, do it again. Unfortunately, four years later his particular brand of lifestyle comedy-drama, involving marriage and divorce and sex and pot and psychiatry in Los Angeles, is as dreary and old hat and contrived as its predecessor seemed to me in its time. Once again we’re assured that all is well with middle-class values and, this time, that there’s nothing wrong with a broken marriage that a baby won’t heal, especially since Mazursky hastens to assure us, the baby was fathered by the ex-husband and not by the wife’s drop-out lover. Of course, there’s also a bit of a bow to Women’s Lib—rather peculiarly, since Blume’s wife, insisting on divorce when she finds him abed with his secretary, also insists on keeping their over-furnished house and other goodies; she also admonishes her unborn baby “if you’re a boy you better respect women and if you’re a girl, you better respect yourself”—which seems to me a rather narrow standard for the girls.

Once again Mazursky has a pleasant quartet of actors to carry off his stale social comment: George Segal, looking in full beard like a Second Avenue actor ready for the tea-and-blintzes routine at the Cafe Royale in the old days, is pleasant enough as Blume, the ex-husband who’s mooning about Venice and reminiscing about his marriage; Susan Anspach is very good indeed as the wife in a muddle; Kris Kristofferson is as beatnik a Christian as all get out as the free soul who takes over the wife, and Marsha Mason is more interesting than her role as Blume’s consolation in bed, and Shelly Winters has a bright cameo as a would-be divorcee. Mazursky himself once again appears in a bit role.

Interval was not invited to Cannes but I bet it would win the Grand Prix at the International Cosmeticians Film Festival on behalf of its leading players, kudos from the Mexican travel bureau on behalf of its postcard-scenery and explorations of ruins and lots of laughs from anyone of minimal sophistication who’s obliged to sit through it. A couple of professionals—Gavin Lambert, whose credits range from Inside Daisy Clover to adaptations of Sons and Lovers and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and Daniel Mann, whose long career goes from Marty to Willard— wrote and directed this fiasco, which one only can conclude is a tailor-made vanity production for one of the screen’s great beauties, Merle Oberon, and her fiance-protege, Robert Wolders.

Miss Oberon, whom the reference books slot at 62, and Wolders, who hasn’t hit record books yet but looks as if he’s in his mid-thirties, are involved by Mr. Lambert in the story of an allegedly forty-plus mystery woman, wandering around the world to recover (flashbacks tell us) from accidentally driving into her husband and winding up in a loony bin, who runs into this kid painter who’s been “making love without love” to teeny-boppers and falls for her. Her passion is such she starts to flee Mexico but comes back to take her happiness only to find her beloved whoring around. He calls her “old,” she kills herself and he is very sad.

This kind of kvatch really went out with the Eisenhower administration. The only point of interest is the way in which Miss Oberon’s facial beauty is displayed in close-up, glistening with cosmetics and painstakingly angled to look like a plastic mask; at a distance, the more frequent placement, her figure, while not quite schoolgirlish, is indeed most attractive. But the Oberon eyes do peer out—and one weeps for our deprivation of seeing how her unforgettable loveliness matured with just a touch of gray, perhaps, in the coal-black waist-long hair that is draped over pillows and swirled into dazzling upsweeps. That all have skirted the chance to tell the story of a May-December romance with some hint of honesty is the regret. As Mal, incidentally, Wolders sports almost as much pancake and eyeshadow as Miss Oberon, along with a need for speech therapy as far as diction and intimations-of-Brooklyn-past are concerned, and he seems just a wee bit long in the tooth, let alone the muscle-beach physique, to be the “boy” of the script.

There are, for the audience as well as for the actor, those moments of perfect conjunction, when the actor and the role are suddenly one in a unique yet universal creation, and somehow neither would exist without the other.

This rare and essential union is one of the hallmarks of Save the Tiger, John G. Avildsen’s new film that, despite its flaws, stands as a remarkable achievement for its writer, Steve Shagan; its director; and, perhaps above all, its star, Jack Lemmon. Lemmon’s Harry Stoner is Ensign Pulver grown up—and ground up in the survival struggles of the past 20 years. He is the every man of the pre-World War II generation that had ballplayers and statesmen as heroes and loved the brass and the drums of the big bands, that survived the horrors of a war that had a passionate point—and indeed “passion” is a key word throughout—and went on with the goal of independence, prosaically put as “meeting a payroll instead of a paycheck.” And it is that generation’s present condition that is the filmmaker’s concern, one they explore to initially depressing but retrospectively purgative effect, if there is purgation in having so many of our own realizations articulated, both for ourselves and for the young who may gain insight where hitherto they have held contempt.

Save the Tiger is evocative of the Arthur Miller and Paddy Chayefsky approaches to the middle-class dilemma. Indeed, Chayefsky’s and George C. Scott’s Dr. Bock, of Hospital, is Stoner’s peer. Stoner is a garment manufacturer, a decent man whose decency cannot survive in a world without rules, without a memory of the past, with a reverence only for the material present and no hope or dream beyond another season. Harry is The Man in the Grey Silk Italian Suit—comparable to 1956’s Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, whose wartime “horror” was a bastard child left behind and whose business problems are solved by the glories of integrity .Harry is haunted by the blood-soaked beach at Anzio, where bikinis now blossom-and Harry has to solve his business problems by the morality of a society that has forgotten the ditch at My-Lai and takes Watergate in cheerful post-inauguration stride.

There are flaws, the occasionally obtrusive mechanics of the plot, the heavy-handed explanations of the title (it should be obvious that we—not just Harry—are also an endangered species) among them. But for me these are overshadowed by the literacy of the screenplay (which assumes not only that we can read and write but also that some of us are over 30), the excellent supporting performances and the superlative achievement of Lemmon—and, above all, an examination of what is eating away at the soul of our society. This is Shagan’s first script (it has since been published as a novel), Avildsen’s best film to date and, for Lemmon, a triumphant celebration of his twentieth year in films, proving himself an actor of fine versatility.

Related Content