Author Archives: Bill Levy Shares
I have just signed a contract with Bear Manor Publishers to write my second book for them – “Lawman: Remembering a Special TV Western.” The book will discuss this show starring John Russell, Peter Brown, and Peggie Castle that was broadcast from 1958-1962 and explore reasons it is so enjoyable sixty years after it was produced.
I will also be writing a regular movie column for Nostalgic Magazine in Boca Raton, Florida. I am still (since 2001) writing a monthly movie column for New Jersey’s senior publication, 50 Plus.
On Thursday, February 21, 2019 from 9 to 1, I will have a table/booth at Nostalgic Magazine’s “Nostalgic Expo” at the South County Civic Center at 16700 Jog Road, Delray Beach, Florida 33446. I will be available to talk about movies, television, and my books.
Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Previously published in 50 Plus, 11/02
Whenever William Randolph Hearst’s name is discussed in relation to Hollywood, Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane comes to mind. Welles’ 1941 classic about the triumphs and failures of a powerful newspaper tycoon obviously based on Hearst’s life is often listed among the greatest cinema ever made. But Hearst himself was deeply involved in making movies for over twenty years to foster the career of his mistress, actress Marion Davis, and to use film as a forum to voice his political, social, and economic philosophies as he did through his syndicate of newspapers. Of all of Hearst’s motion pictures, the forgotten gem, Gabriel Over the White House (1933) starring Walter Huston, is certainly the most interesting.
Movie historian Leonard Maltin described the film as a “Depression fantasy of crooked Huston elected President, experiencing mysterious change that turns him into Super-president, determined to eliminate racketeers, find world peace. Bizarre, fascinating.” It certainly is bizarre and fascinating. Basically, Hearst and his writers endorsed an American dictatorship.
Throughout its first half, the film is quite successful in making its points. The country’s domestic problems such as unemployment, political corruption, and disregard for the law are depicted vividly, and many of the President’s actions and solutions appear to be, at first, practical and reasonable. But after the government declares war on racketeers, tries them immediately after their capture by military tribunal, and then executes them by firing squad, one gets nervous.
Gabriel Over the White House was directed by Gregory LaCava, photographed by Bert Glennon, and produced for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions by Walter Wanger with a script by Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch based on the play Rinehard by T.F. Tweed.
Considering the film offended liberals for its attacks on civil rights and conservatives for its attacks on Big Business, it was surprising that the film was even made. MGM was responsible for Cosmopolitan’s distribution and publicity, and after viewing an early screening of the film, studio head Louis B. Mayer, refused to have anything to do with it. Only after Hearst threatened MGM productions with negative reviews by Hearst columnist Louella Parsons did Mayer give in.
Gabriel Over the White House is a fascinating film to watch today. Walter Huston is perfect as the corrupt politician before his transformation, and his towering presence and voice nails the role of the driven zealot attempting to save mankind from itself. This eighty year old picture reminds us that many contemporary problems and issues have been around for years. In addition to demonstrating that superior acting and production values can make a ludicrous story credible – there is an unbelievable scene when gangsters machine-gun the White House – this movie offers us an excellent example of how clever, manipulative propaganda can be used in film to sway minds. It also demonstrates that the simplistic belief that an honest man could solve everything has its dangers. Gabriel is certainly not a Citizen Kane, but it is one forgotten gem which should not be forgotten. With all its flaws, it is food for serious thought.
Since 2001, I have been writing a movie column for the monthly New Jersey periodical, “50 Plus Monthly.” Until last year, I focused on reviews of “Forgotten Gems,” overlooked and overshadowed movies from Hollywood;’s Golden Era. Recently , I have been writing critiques of “Reel Gems,” enjoyable motion pictures from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. This past October, I discussed “My Cousin Vinny;” this month, I discussed “They All Laughed.” In the December issue, I’ll review “Prancer.”
“50 Plus Monthly” is available on line, at https://fiftyplusmonthly.com. Enjoy.
After a long hiatus, I’ll be active again on this site. For the past few years, my energies have been focused on completing a project on fictitious celebrity interactions. I have recently completed two manuscripts each containing 100 chapters. The Introduction to the first, MEETS: 100 Fictitious Notable Encounters, is printed below:
There have been scores of speculative stories, books, plays, and motion pictures portraying fabricated encounters between the well-known. Meets will add to that canon. It describes one hundred fictitious meetings spanning the years between 1860 and 2016. Seventy of these “meets” involve only real people; thirty involve at least one fictitious character.
Some of these interactions may involve a common interest; some may involve a romance; some may be whimsical; some may be somber. Many of these encounters are positive; some are adversarial. Taken together, these meetings provide an opportunity to examine the tapestry of Anglo-American history over the past six generations through the eyes and ears of over two hundred fifty noteworthy names and faces.
Readers may be very cognizant, slightly acquainted, or totally unaware of these individuals, and thus each chapter’s references and asides will have varying degrees of familiarity. A coda after each story titled, “Facts among the Fiction,” provides additional information and clarification.
In each of these one hundred chapters, readers will be challenged to identify at least one of the celebrities. There are clues to his or her identity and also an occasional red herring. Many of these episodes include a luminary’s actual words. By the conclusion of the chapter, the identity of the person will be revealed.
Hopefully, after experiencing the “meets” in this book, readers will not only think, “This could have happened,” but “This should have happened.”
Many admirers of John Ford consider his greatest films were made in the late 1930s and early 1940s; these include Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. Other Ford devotees favor his post-World War II motion pictures such as They Were Expendable and My Darling Clementine. Others admire such later works as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I stand with director-Fordian scholar Lindsay Anderson and am most touched by John Ford’s They Were Expendable. Anderson believed that John Ford was the “poet of faith in an age of unbelief” and declared this movie about the American defeats in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II at the time of Pearl Harbor is Ford’s masterpiece, his heroic poem.
Film scholar Lou Sabini and photographer Nicholas Scutti’s “Behind the Scenes of They Were Expendable: A Pictorial History” (McFarland, 2015) utilizes Scutti’s stunning photographs and astonishing recollections of the month he spent in 1945 on location in Florida while the movie was being filmed. The result is a must-read for anyone interested in John Ford, John Wayne, World War II films, and one of the great movies about men and women in war.
This book is an extremely well-organized and sincere and inspired tribute to the movie. It includes a fascinating, detailed overview of the background to the production of the film and also features bios of the actual heroes (John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly) who led the PT squadron which rescued General MacArthur and brought him to safety. There are also bios of the Hollywood stars of the film, Robert Montgomery (who actually commanded a PT boat during the war), John Wayne, Jack Holt, Donna Reed, and Ward Bond. But the core of the book are the photographs and Sabini’s adroit, probing questions of Scutti who was an eighteen-year-old U.S. Navy photographer in 1945. These questions and Scutti’s memories of his experiences interacting with the cast and crew gives the reader an excellent behind-the-scenes view of the filming of this classic motion picture.
The movie, They Were Expendable, features numerous “Fordian moments,” touching scenes that capture and expose a significant moment in time, a perfectly phrased quip, or a revelation of a character’s private and often painful thoughts, sentiments, and memories. Hopefully, this book will propel new audiences to experience this exceptional movie and its special moments. If so, Sabini and Scutti have more than done their duty.
200 pg. $39.95 McFarland www.mcfarlandpub.com 800-253-2187
I recently visited Cong, County Mayo, Ireland where “The Quiet Man” was filmed. A must visit for anyone who relishes John Ford’s classic ode to Ireland. Conan’s pub is still there as is the cottage where the old man (Francis Ford) was “almost” on his death bed.
Walt Disney was responsible for so many cartoon classics. One that is too often forgotten is the perfect Halloween experience for viewers of all ages. This is the “mini-classic folktale,” The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949), featuring Bing Crosby as the singing narrator.
Based on Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, this thirty-three minute short tells the story of Ichabod Crane, the new gangly schoolteacher in the small rural upstate New York hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod soon charms the entire community including buxom Katrina Van Tassel, the original Saint Pauley’s girl and the daughter of the richest farmer in the district. But the local bully, Brom Bones, also wants Katrina and soon a rivalry develops with the teacher winning all the early battles. In the movie’s conclusion, Brom gains his revenge over the superstitious “pedantic pedagogue” with a vivid and terrifying ghost story about a headless horseman.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow utilizes comedy, superior animation, and Bing Crosby to create a memorable movie. There are funny lyrics like this description of Ichabod: “Who’s that coming down the street – are they shovels or are they feet?”; visual humor (the short, heavy-set girl manhandling brawny Brom Bones at the dance); and Bing’s self-deprecating teasing of his own crooning with Ichabod’s “Ba ba ba boom” to a group of swooning female admirers.
The Disney studio’s Technicolor animation successfully balances humor and horror, thanks to the contributions of such craftsmen as Ollie Johnson, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and Wolfgang Reitherman. The bright, colorful early autumn scenes and the frightening climax all exhibit superior primary and secondary characters as well as imaginative gestures, backgrounds, and atmosphere. Crosby’s warm, mellow narration contributes wit, texture, and personality to Ichabod’s character and the entire film. Be it serious or silly, Bing’s soothing voice is always unforgettable while, as Barbara Bauer stated in her book, Bing Crosby: The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, his “charming, casual, crooning style . . . disarms us.”
Clyde Geronimi and Jack Kinney directed the movie. Winston Hibler, Erdman Penner, James Algar, and Joe Rinaldi contributed to the script while Oliver Wallace, Gene DePaul, and Don Raye were responsible for the words and music. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was originally half of Disney’s eleventh animated movie, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The other half of this cartoon classic was The Wind in the Willows narrated by Basil Rathbone.
The story has been filmed numerous times. The 1980 TV version with Jeff Goldblum, former football star Dick Butkus, and Meg Foster in the three leads is an extremely entertaining movie while Tim Burton’s inspired and creative Sleepy Hollow (1999) is a beautiful, but gory version with Johnny Depp as a bumbling city policeman investigating a series of murders.
But it is Disney and Bing’s cartoon that remains the standard. Online IMDB movie critic, Ferruccio Bariavento, correctly declared, “It is one of those simple, underrated and forgotten Disney classics from the 40s . . . Ichabod Crane is probably the most original character ever created by Disney . . . his simplicity, charm, and pacific personality are what really makes the difference.” So celebrate Halloween by watching this forgotten gem, and be prepared for thirty-three minutes of pleasurable entertainment.
Interview: Author Bill Levy on Director John Ford’s Acting Company and his new project, Familiar Faces in Unexpected Places
Click below to check out my June 2014 interview with NPR’s Julia Meek where I discuss my book on film director John Ford’s stock company of actors and actresses and my next project, Familiar Faces in Unexpected Places.
Trail of Robin Hood
A Forgotten Gems Column by Bill Levy
© Bill Levy 2013
To celebrate the holiday season, this critique focuses upon an enjoyable holiday-related movie that isn’t as well-known as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife, the various versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life. This “Christmas Forgotten Gem” is Trail of Robin Hood (1950).
This motion picture has nothing to do with the legendary bandit of Sherwood Forest. There’s a sheriff, but he’s a minor character in the storyline; there’s a marksmanship contest, but it involves rifles not bows and arrows; and there’s a character named Sir Galahad, but he’s not a noble knight but a pet turkey. Instead of a sequel to Errol Flynn’s greatest adventure, Trail of Robin Hood is a likeable Roy Rogers B-western that features a Christmas theme, several Christmas songs, lots of action, and an abundance of entertaining silliness.
The plot of this Republic Pictures film involves a retired silent movie cowboy star (Jack Holt) who wants to sell Christmas trees to the needy at cost. A greedy timber baron (Emory Parnell), his manipulative daughter (Penny Edwards), and their evil lumber camp foreman (Clifton Young) attempt to sabotage Holt’s operation, but their schemes are thwarted by a U.S. Conservation agent (Rogers) assisted by Trigger, Bullet, a simpleton-handyman (Gordon Jones) and his young spunky sister (Carol Nugent), and a posse of well-known B-western movie stars including Rex Allen, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Monte Hale, and Ray “Crash” Corrigan.
In his encyclopedia of western films, “The Western,” Phil Hardy describes Trail of Robin Hood as, “one of the most surreal of serial westerns, and all the more charming for it.” This is certainly a bizarre movie. In addition to its irrelevant title, the movie is filled with zany inconsistencies like cowboys prancing around wearing six-shooters like it’s the 1880s while Roy’s romantic interest drives around in a modern convertible. And then there’s Sir Galahad. The film abruptly switches from an action horse opera with numerous fist fights, fires, and chases on horseback (filmed in California’s Big Bear Lake area and the San Bernardino Mountains by Rogers’ favorite director, William Witney) to a musical with Roy and The Riders of the Purple Sage abruptly singing “Home Town Jubilee,” “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny,” and “Ev’ry Day is Christmas in the West.” Then the movie changes to a comedy with Gordon Jones (Mike the Cop in the Abbott and Costello television series) as the bumbling sidekick before the action resumes, and then, suddenly, it’s a Christmas melodrama with Roy and his buddies risking their lives to help those in need enjoy their Christmas. But somehow it all works.
The first “Christmas Forgotten Gem” I ever wrote was John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1948). Although Trail of Robin Hood does not feature John Wayne’s strong presence, Ford’s creative direction, Winton Hoch’s majestic photography, or any significant Christmas symbolism, it does offer four things that Three Godfathers doesn’t: “The King of the Cowboys,” “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” a wintry Christmas snow scene, and that unforgettable pet turkey.