Thursday, October 31, 2019

I Remember Budd Schulberg

There I was last week watching the classic boxing movie The Harder They Fall starring Humphrey Bogart and written by Budd Schulberg --it was on Turner Classic Movies salute to Film Noir.
And then I sat upright --I remembered I'd interviewed Budd Schulberg at a fancy dinner party in Los Angeles in 1986.
It was the PBS portion of a 15-day tour by visiting TV critics and late on the last night.
I'd been out on sets all day so when I got back to the hotel it was after 8 p.m, and there was only one empty seat left in the vast ballroom.
I looked up and found myself seated next to Budd Schulberg andI instantly discovered why he rarely went on TV talk shows --he had a terrible stammer.
Here are highlights of our conversation.
JB: I remember watching you guest on the Merv Griffin talk show one late night and you told the other guest --Gloria Swanson-- that she'd been the inspiration for one of the main characters in your great novel The Disenchanted.
BS (chuckling): We taped in an old Hollywood movie theatre and afterwards Gloria jumped up, ran out the door and ordered her chauffeur to find a book store open so she could buy the book.
Well, there are lots of used bookstores on Hollywood Boulevard but were they open late nights? I was dubious.
JB:Your memoir of growing up in Hollywood, Moving Pictures, is one of the best books about "the  biz!..
BS: My father B.P. Schulberg ran Paramount Pictures after merging his own studio Preferred Pictures. He had one b ig asset Clara Bow who wasn't much of an actress but boy could she shimmy. I'd play jacks on the landing with her when she came over for a swim but if she lost she'd scream up a storm --a real sore loser. But Clara couldn't stand still --when talkies came in she had to stand still and speak into a big vase where the mike was located and she just couldn't do that.
JB: Then you say your happy family life blew up in 1931.
BS: When papa ran off with Sylvia Sidney who had replaced Clara as Paramount's hottest star. He was 60, she was 21 and, pf course, it didn't last.
JB: And then your papa was tossed out of Paramount by his body Adolph Zukor.
BS:Mean, nasty, and always triumphant over his enemies. He got rid of Jesse Lasky around the same time. For some reason the Great Depression affected Paramount more than any other studio. And Zukor made sure he was the winner in a very nasty power struggle. Papa went on to Columbia which was a Poverty Row studio and things were never the same again.
BS: You write about how B.P. would go one all night  benders of playing poker and almost always loose.
BS: One night he lost $20,000 which is around  a million dollars in today's money. He finally gambled away everything.
BS: You've written feelingly about working with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the 1939picture *(*(*(.
BS: I told the boss Walter Wanger that it needed a quick rewrite and he said "Oh, I've got Scott Fitzgerald working on dialogue in the next room. I'd thought Scott had died, it was years ago that he had a new book. So we went up to Dartmouth together and he got progressively more smashed and finally I did all the rewriting. He'd been one of my heroes but here was a tragic, broken man who just couldn't write the kind of snappy movie dialogue that any third rate writer could have delivered.
JB: Did you know what you were doing when writing your magnificent 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?
BS: I thought I was telling a great story but it rocked Hollywood. MGM head Louis Mayer demanded I be deported as if Hollywood was a separate country. I was toiling for Sam Goldwyn at the time and he ran down the stairs where he saw me and shrieked "Sammy how could you?" Exactly. How dare I tell the truth. I was fired on the spot.
JB: Many producers wondered if they provided the character of Sammy Glick?
BS: Jerry Wald swore it was him and he was mighty proud. But it was a compendium, I had so many bastards to chose from.
JB: I saw the 1959 live TV movie version. It had John Forsythe, Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush and Larry Blydeb as Sammy,
BS: There was also a 1949  TV version. More recently Steven Spielberg had an option on it to do a version with Ben Stiller, But I'm not sure. Steven makes blockbusters, safe, earnest productions but on the bland side.
JB: I recently watched The Harder They Fall, the terrific 1956 movie on boxing and Humphrey Bogart's last movie.
BS: He looked haggard. Coughed incessantly. Was very prickly. It has the wonderful actress Jan Sterling in a rare sympathetic role. Rod Steiger's histrionics could get out of place and I remember Bogey rolling his eyes as Rod ranted on and on. I've always loved boxing. But I don't think our wonderful director Mark Robson did. So there were some clashes over interpretation.  But as Bogey's last film it is an oddity and it did bigger business than On The Waterfront.
JB: Critics say On The Waterfront dramatizes the awful act of naming names.
BS: There was nothing awful about it. I named names, yes, but only people who had already been named. I'd joined the Communist party in the depth of the Great Depression ... then it was overtaken by the Stalinists and everything changed and I left the party.
JB: I'm surprised by what you just told me --Marlon Brando refused to do the Scene "I coulda been a contender"in On The Waterfront (1954).
BS: He told Elia Kazan it didn't ring true and he'd walk if forced to do it. Then it turned out the scene had Steiger pointing a gun at him and Gadge  knocks the gun away and Marlon did it on the first take and it's his signature thing. I saw the story as more an indictment of corruption on the waterfront. we tried selling the story to Darryl Zanuck at Fox and he yelled "Who the talk wants to see a bunch of longshoremen brawling?" So we took it to cagey  Harry Cohn and it won all kinds of awards.
JB: Describe your association with Kazan
BS: He's the rare director who likes and admires fine writing. As long as he staged and also edited Tennessee Williams those plays shone. When Tennesse went it along he had a chain of big flops.
JB: You were just telling me of an attempt to do a new version of A Face In The Crowd.
BS: I watched the rise of such TV icons as Arthur Godfrey who one day turned on his star singer Julius LaRosa and fired him, live on TV. From that I thought of a story of a country and western cowpoke who could indeed manipulate the medium of TV. We had a low budget so Gadge hired Pat Neal who needed the work and used an unknown Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes and he was terrific and so was an unknown from Broadway, Walter Matthau. And it remains my favourite picture.
JB: What about a proposed new version:
BS: I was told Warners wanted a remake with Tom Cruise so they arranged a screening with many directors and screenwriters and at the end everybody just drifted out. I was told Tom Cruise's team said "This is a masterpiece, It can't be bettered or even matched."
JB: After that you seemed to drop out of movie making.
BS: I had a terrible experience with Wind Across The everglades and I even had to direct a few scenes when our director Nick Ray disappeared for a time. So I went back to memoir writing and writing about fighters.  They've even done On The Waterfront on stage. I'm not written out at all, I fully intend to go on and on.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Science Of Fear Will Scare You

Be Afraid: The Science Of Fear revs up the day after Halloween which is entirely appropriate.
You can catch it Friday November 1 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things.
Director Roberto Verdecchia on the phone tells me he first thought about the subject after his last Nature Of Things documentary on household insects seemed to incite fear in a whole lot of viewers.
The nature of fear  it seems is somewhat of a mystery.
And there's the suggestion some amount of fear could actually be good for us.
So he set about trying to find the nature of fear.
 He visited with a young motorcycle stunt rider who seems not at all fazed by  the stunts he must clearly execute to avoid injury.
There's the strange case of Miriam who with pulverized with fear over chickens.
We see how a therapist helps her until in one shot she is petting the very hen that caused her such misery.
Then there's the lady who is terrified of heights. Pills can help but she also needs to work through her problems with a therapist
I liked the segment on haunted houses--you would never ever get me inside one all the years I visited at the Canadian National Exhibition's Midway.
Some visitors would leave the haunted house feeling exultant they had confronted their fears --and survived.
But I would go on some of those gravity changing rides and yell and scream and really enjoy myself.
For many --not me-- the mere anticipation of fear is something they actually enjoy.  Our emotions get aroused but then rational behaviour sets in.
Some fears it turns out are good for us. It seems we're born with some senses of fear as a segment on babies demonstrates.
Women are four times as afraid of spiders and snakes than men.
And then there's the odd case of a woman who has no fear --it's due to an illness in her amygdala.
"She's not shown because we were fearful people could take advantage of her," Roberto explains to me.
"But we show she certainly has no anticipatory feels of fear no matter what."
It was only in a controlled experiment when she was deprived of oxygen for a second that fear appeared.
"It's an example of more than the amygdala controlling fear patterns."
By the way this hour may be filled with scare inducing moments but it ends on a bright, calm moment. Turns out some fear is necessary to survival for us all.
MY RATING: ****,

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

I Remember Diahann Carroll

The news of the passing of Diahann Carroll caught me off guard.
I'd known the black super star had been in declining health in recent years but I was astonished she was 84 at her passing --I always thought she was a bright, vibrant personality who could do it all --as the star of the pioneering sitcom Julia and later the elegant seductress of Dynasty.
I first interviewed Carroll when she was preparing toped as the star of the Canadian production of Sunset Boulevard in 1984. I later followed with several telephone conversations.
Here are highlights of our conversation:
JB: You are about to come the first black Norma Desmond. How does that  feel?
DC: Oh, I' m always breaking the rules, I guess.
JB: You also starred in the first sitcom to star a young black woman who wasn't a domestic --Julia which ran on NBC for three seasons which began in 1968.
DC: The first season we were up against Red Skelton on CBS and It Takes A Thief on NBC so the competition was always fierce. We stayed there for three seasons --in the third season we knocked out Red and went up against CBS's Her Haw. It was deemed revolutionary in its day and the only way I got through it was with the support of veterans Lloyd Noland and Lureen Tuttle. We had great guests stars --veterans Ezra Stone and Don Ameche  not only acted they also directed episodes. We were making a big statement of equality --I played the widow of a Vietnam veteran. Not a great show but a landmark nevertheless.
JB: How did you get started?
DC: Well, I was born in the Bronx, daddy was a subway conductor. I grew up wanting to be a singer and my parents reluctantly agreed that I could try but if over time I couldn't do it then I'd finish my university degree in sociology.
JB: Then you won a TV talent show on Chance Of A Lifetime?
DC: Yes, that was so long ago it was on the old DuMont network. I was also on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on CBS. I sang at the Latin Quarter and then in 1954 I was signed for the musical Carmen Jones. Otto Preminger was the director and the stars were Harry Belafonte and the wonderful Dorothy Dandridge, Otto screamed a lot and Dorothy screamed right back at him. You have to remember there was fear among movie producers about highlighting black females. Dorothy's career was tragically short because she just couldn't get any traction and it preyed on her.
JB: Later on you were also in Porgy And Bess starring Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. I've never seen this movie but I'm told your voice was dubbed.
DC: I was told my voice was tools and I was dubbed. I thought it was crazy. Qe started rehearsals with the great director Rouben Mamoulian who had directed the stage original. Then a gigantic fire resulted in destruction of all the huge sets on the Goldwyn lot.  We started over with --you guessed it --Otto Preminger who yelled even louder. I wasn't a fan of the finished product.  And these days the Gershwin estate won't permit it to be shown or so I'm told.
JB: I first saw you singing at the Imperial Room of the Royal York hotel  circa 1971 and realized you possessed one of the greatest voices. I had to review and interview such stars as Julie London and Peggy Lee who had the talent to just sing without much amplification.
DC: I loved singing in those clubs. I was told when Dorothy came to sing at the Imperial Room she asked "Where am I staying" and became tearful when told she'd have the penthouse suite.
JB: In fact she dropped to her knees and kissed the floor. In the American hotel supper clubs she had to stay at a black residence e such was the segregation of the times. But I'm wondering why you think the age of the luxury supper clubs has passed.
DC: In America it's scary. You have to dress up, go downtown after dark and there's violence everywhere. And some of the newer singers just don't have the skills to sing in such an intimate setting and hold the audience. They rely on amplification and just plain singing is foreign to them.
JB: I've listened to the cast album of No Strings, the brilliant 1962 Richard Rodgers, starring Richard Kiley and you in great voice. And I wonder why it never became a movie.
DC: They tried. Ray Star
 bought the rights but an interracial love story?No way! Ray tried to change the girl into a Eurasian and announced Nancy Kwan as the new lead. I felt devastated. But there was such a storm of controversy among the black community that he backed off and the project was shelved.
JB: But you did some movies, prominent ones.
DC:Paris Blues (1961) was a cute thing set in the jazz world starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and I was aired with Sidney Poitier who I almost married --what a mistake that would have been. Then Old Otto phoned me and signed me for Hurry, Sundown which starred Michael Caine and Jane Fonda. We shot in St. Francisville county, Louisians, home of the KKK. I received death threats, so did other cast members. It was all very scary, much more interesting than the actual ploy.
You always made TV acting a part of your career.
DC: I did them all but always as a guest star, never the series star.
JB: Tell me the story of joining Dynasty in 1984.
DC: Esther Shapiro who created the soap told me she had always been aware there was no prominent African American star.I told her I'd love to join but as an upscale character. And she came up Dominique who is half sister  to Blake played so well by John Forsythe.  The clothes were fantastic but are sometimes uncomfortable because they are so bizarre. I wondered what Joan Collins would make of all this. But she is a professional, she understands a series needs new characters to continue. And she knows everything about camera lenses, lighting. I loved playing this black bitch and I also got to co-star on seven episodes of the spinoff series The Colbys. And it made mr a name with all the younger audience who didn't know about Julia.
JB: You then joined the cast of Lonesome Dove in 1994 shot in Alberta.
DC: It told the true story of the American west. We're usually written out of the official story and its important to keep the record straight.
JB: And now you're a black Norma Desmond. I remember catching Diana Sands in Saint Joan and after a few moments the fact she was black seemed irrelevant --she was such a force.
DC: We're still in rehearsals. It's a new theatre the Ford way out in suburban Toronto. I saw the movie and I also saw a clip from the Tonight show where Gloria Swanson sang a so g from a musical version that never got fully produced. So far I'm walking up those d-d stairs so often I wonder if I'll survive. What I've been through in my career I think I'm finally ready to play this one, it has one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman.
NOTE: After her triumph in Sunset Boulevard Carroll returned to TV series work --she was on 25 episodes of White Collar (2009-14), and seven episodes of Grey's Anatomy (2006-10).
DIANNE CARROLL DIED ON ()()()(). She was 84.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

RCAF Is No More

The CBC caused much consternation the other day by announcing it was cancelling the venerable comedy sketch show Royal Canadian Air Face.
'My neighbour heard about the news and asked me "I thought that one was gone long ago."
I had to explain to her that indeed the weekly half hour series RCAF was gone but a New Year's Eve special had been running for some time.
By contrast NBC has constantly revived and re-invigorated Saturday Night Live as a case study in keeping a well regarded series going.
But CBC these days is trying to ditch as many of its older shows in a misplaced economy drive.
These days only two founding members of RCAF are still around: Don Ferguson and Luba Goy.
They've added to the roster other, younger comics but it's tough when you're only around once a year.
The real reason is CBC's determination to get out of producing entertainment shows.
And also RCAF doesn't travel well abroad --the rest of the world couldn't care less about Canadian humour.
For this reason CBC last year cancelled Ron James's annual one man show that usually ran on New Year's Eve. and last time out garnered a cool million viewers.
It seemed to be made for $1.99 and James was usually the whole show.
So what if it hit 1 million or so viewers? It didn't fit CBC's idea of what it should be doing.
Other shows like Murdoch Mysteries are kept around because they sell well in other countries and still fare fairly well at home, too.
So this New Year's will be the last time RCAF goes at it.
Some RCAF series are on video but just try finding a copy these days.
And just for the record the great RCAF team originally included Roger Abbott, John Morgan and Dave Broadfoot --all deceased,
CBC these days is out of the production field except for national newscasts.

Friday, October 11, 2019

A Kandahar Away Is Must See TV

A Kandahar Away is a complete surprise --a compelling but beguiling documentary about one man's decision to honour his home town of Kandahar by building a war memorial in another Kandahar --a Canadian prairie hamlet so small the entire population is 15 people.
This is one of those must-see productions we can still occasionally catch on Canadian TV.  The premiere is on Documentary Channel Saturday October 20 at 9 p.m.
It's a true life exploration of the emotional gulf that divides generations and was beautifully directed by Canadian filmmaker Aisha Jamal.
She also co-stars in the true life saga of her  articulate  and sensitive father  Abdul Jamal who remembers the days in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he grew up before being forced to migrate with his family to Canada.
Somehow Abdul discovered there was a second Kandahar in Saskatchewan and his heart ached so much for his home town he planned a trip with his family to explore this hamlet --it was named by Canadian soldiers returning from the war but in recent decades has deteriorated into a few habitable homes and nothing else.
The Jamals journey to this place with their five children who have grown up in Canada and have Canadian sensibilities.
All are surprised he wants to build a war memorial to the fallen Canadian soldiers --158 soldiers have died in the conflict which seems never ending. But he also wants to honour Afghan civilians who died in the war.
What do the few residents of Canada's Kandahar think of this? Some seem surprised or even bemused --they rarely see tourists at the best of times.
Aisha is such an accomplished filmmaker she makes us care for Abdul and his quest.
She also appreciates the skepticism of her siblings who wonder why build a monument in a place tourists never visit.
There are wonderful portraits drawn of the local Kandaharites -the mayor, the old man who spends winter snowed under in his tiny cabin and  the coffee shop waitress among others
We see the townsfolk  kicking up their heels at a local dance--they seem so accepting of the newcomers in their midst.  Abdul even gets to propose his plans to a surprised Canadian general Rick Hillier.
See, nobody wants to discourage him. Most of his children are silently opposed to the plan. They figure Abdul must discover reality of the situation for himself.
What Aisha has done is paint a vivid portrait of generational conflict --we all come from other countries and retain a vivid if misleading image of what it was like back then.
Abdul must confront reality for himself. His children must respect his deep wishes.Aisha has caught all the ups and downs of their journey beautifully.  The theme is universal --one man's dreams and home sickness confronting the harshness of  reality.
Says filmmaker Jamal: "I started this film without knowing how it would end. There were endless surprises particularly the wonderful way the Canadian residents of Kandahar took to my family. And it's a voyage that still continues."
As of air date Adbul Jamal remains determined to build his war memorial in the Canadian hamlet of Kandahar.
MY RATING: ****.