Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 July 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Four

J. Lee Thompson's What a Way to Go! is a very strange fantasy film indeed. This is obviously a vehicle for Shirley MacLaine, and she is lovely and hilarious, so that makes perfect sense. It is also a star-studded extravaganza of nonsense. In it, MacLaine marries four different men all of whom are impossibly, insanely wealthy – Dick Van Dyke, then Paul Newman, then Dean Martin, then Gene Kelly. All of this is ridiculously silly, but charming enough. And the art direction and costumes are fittingly over the top and inventive. Extra points for Paul Newman, who appears shirtless for most of his scenes in the movie.

Here, Newman conducts his painting machines before being killed. You had to be there.

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The Fall of the Roman Empire is pretty much garbage from start to finish. It is a disastrous, epic mess lasting three hours and forty minutes and not making a bit of sense. This is an Anthony Mann movie, but it is really a Samuel Bronston movie – the guy behind King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) – and so it is obsessed with grandeur and pageantry. In one of the opening sequences, we watch two dozen different kings from all over the Roman Empire come pay their respects to Marcus Aurelius, who isn't even in Rome but is in some Gothic outpost that is basically an overgrown hunting lodge. The idea is absurd and it goes on for like twenty minutes. This is whatshisname, King of Cappadocia, and now here is the ruler of Armenia, and oh here is the King of Nubia. Are you kidding me? Who cares? I guess if I want to look at a parade of horses and costumes this is worth something, but mostly not. The Fall of the Roman Empire actually has several sequences like this. Obviously in 220 minutes they have time to work in a lot of stuff, but the plot itself is excruciatingly boring. We alternate between absurd fight sequences, pageant sequences, and then scenes of quite, "very important" drama.

Sophia Loren is in this (she was, apparently, in three Oscar-nominated films in 1964), as is Stephen Boyd, who played Messala in Ben-Hur, and Christopher Plummer, who plays the Emperor Commodus. And while we are on Ben-Hur, this film wishes it were Ben-Hur, and wishes that so much that it has a chariot race sequence with Stephen Boyd! It is a total rip off of the legendary chariot race in William Wyler's film. I will say that the one thing for which this nonsense was nominated is its score, which is an amazingly gorgeous achievement by Dimitri Tiomkin. This has a great cast, but it is an epic mess in the tradition of giant epic sword-and-sandals messes like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Quo Vadis? Awful.

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Larry Peerce's One Potato, Two Potato is not nearly as bad as The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it is also a very different movie. This is a story of a legal battle that doesn't know it's the story of a legal battle. The director apparently thought One Potato, Two Potato was something of a comedy, and its title seems to think so too. The movie is comedy length and staged like a romantic comedy for a good two thirds of its running time. But then stuff gets really serious.

The plot of One Potato, Two Potato is that a young white woman's husband abandons her and their small child. She asks for a divorce and he is, like, off in Brazil and never comes back. She, meanwhile, falls in love with a black man and they decide to marry (against the advice of his parents; hers are maybe dead? I forget). Things are going well, for the most part, and they have a kid and the original kid is doing great, loves her grandparents, etc. But then husband number 1 comes back and decides that he wants the kid back. Now, this is clearly a case where the father completely abandoned the kid, but the court actually is interested in hearing this man's case – get this – because the new father is black and so somehow the environment is not healthy for the kid. See what I mean? Very serious, actually for 1964. And the last five minutes of the movie are actually very powerful drama. But that emotional power is not earned and so it doesn't land. The film hasn't treated things seriously enough for this actually to work. It's a bit of a failure, though its heart is in the right place.

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And then there's Cheyenne Autumn, which is a John Ford movie about the killing of many many Native Americans. Ford tries to take the native side in this movie, after having done precisely the opposite for the previous 25 years, but this movie is an epic, bloated, self-important mess. And then there are these other complaints that I had:
  • All of the Indians are played by Latinos and Italians. Justifiable, perhaps, in 1964, but... actually no, never mind. It isn't justifiable. It might be different if they looked at all like Native Americans, but they all just look like uncomfortable white folks in Indian drag.
  • There is this twenty minute sequence right before the intermission, in which Arthur Kennedy and Jimmy Stewart show up (even though they are not in the rest of the movie) to play a series of cartoony scenes showing how silly white people were out west when it came to Indians. This is an absurd sequence only tangentially related to the movie, and because it comes right before intermission it seems important. It isn't. But it is so typical Ford.
  • It just keeps going. This mess was 154 minutes long.
  • ...And actually it's all about the white people after all. Richard Widmark has a lot of feelings and so do Caroll Baker and Karl Malden and Patrick Wayne and Edward G. Robinson. It may be that the Indians in the film make serious decisions and struggle to make the decisions they make, but if they do, we don't really see it. It is all filtered through the white folks.
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While we're being racist, there's also George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which is actually pretty hard to dislike. It's a charming little fable that I really found delightful. At the center of the film, of course, is a mysterious Chinese "doctor", played by Tony Randall in a typical yellowface costume. So there's that. But I am here to report that this movie is actually not terrible, despite the racist portrayal at its center.

Honestly, why does he need to be a mysterious Asian character in the first place? Like, since when do all mysteries need to come from the "East"? Are there no mysterious white people for Tony Randall to play? Can he not just play your typical American charlatan, coming into town to cause trouble and bring people together? The film sort of plays with this idea, I suppose. For one, Dr. Lao always pronounces his own name "Dr. Loh" (rhyming with dough), and everyone else in the movie calls him "Dr. Lao" (rhyming with cow). And then in the middle of the movie, in conversations with (the beautiful) John Ericson, Dr. Lao stops speaking with his Chinese accent and speaks in a perfect mid-Atlantic dialect like any good New York actor from the period. In other words, the film doesn't need its racist construction, so why it uses it is sort of baffling.

The rest of the film is just plain delightful. There is a silly plot about a town and having faith in the town or some such. And then Barbara Eden falls in love with John Ericson (very sensible of her, I might add). I was into it.

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Are we done yet? (We're not.) Four more.