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Archive for the ‘Lee J. Cobb’ Category

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

The Liberation of J.B. Jones – directed by William Wyler. Drama. 102 minutes Color 1970.

★★★★

The Story: In a Tennessee town, two bad cops pursue domination over the black community, while two black members of it seek and achieve retribution.

~

Important violence raises this picture out of the mud flinging of a message film and into an imaginative tale of human fact which has not dated.

Willi Wyler’s films earned more Academy Awards for acting than any other director in history. Usually it is Hollywood-type acting, but he certainly cast his pictures well. The original casting of the Lee J. Cobb lawyer who compromises justice for the sake of social peace was Henry Fonda, who would have brought more scope to the role’s requirements of a basically honest man doing the wrong things for what he thinks are the right reasons.

The real mistake in casting is in placing Lee Majors in the key role of his nephew and neophyte law partner, for Majors has a peculiarly corrupt Hollywood handsomeness to him and gift for histrionics that is truly oaken. Barbara Hershey is fine as Major’s wife, but neither of them have scenes sufficient to make the balancing of the whites dangerous.

Not so the casting of the black actors, which is impeccable. The excellent Yaphet Kotto looms as the sweet-natured avenging angel, and Roscoe Lee Brown brings his storied refinement to the role of the rich undertaker who is divorcing his wife. She is played by Lola Falani who is very beautiful and very gifted as an actor. She moves through a dozen ambiguities in the role of Brown’s young wife, and her skill keeps us away from asking a simple obvious question about her: Why doesn’t she just tell her husband? Fayard Nicholas and Zara Cully bring their piquancy and smarts to open the material up for us into the black world. Watch Nicholas, that dancing genius, turn and waylay that woman with a just blow to the jaw. What timing!

Anthony Zerb plays the principal fool cop, and, like Arch Johnson as the other one, they lose their characters behind their put-on deep South accents, so their human projection is lost behind their stereotype sound. It’s a common foible for actors. All you have to do is listen to Chill Wills here to get what a real country sound does when it rings true.

The film is a fine picture, Wyler’s last, co-directed by Robert Swink, for Wyler was laid up by the Southern heat. As a subject it stands as a recompense for his two cowardly attempts at The Children’s Hour, both of which failed and should have failed. But this is a strong film, interestingly framed and shot by Robert Surtees. It is the first film ever made showing a black man killing a white man. And about time too.

During the filming in Humboldt Tennessee, someone approached Roscoe Lee Brown on the street and said, “How come you don’t talk like other colored folk?” To which Brown replied, “Because when I was young, we had a white maid.” And about time too.

 

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version]

26 Aug

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version] – directed by Sidney Lumet. Courtroom Drama. A hung jury unhangs themselves. 96 minutes Black and White 1957.

★★★★

Three years after the Robert Cummings original TV version, Fonda produced this film, and it didn’t do well – except in Europe where it took off. One wonders why it did not do well here. It was a small film put into huge release, and well publicized with a big star. Perhaps the American public had seen it done quite well on TV already in the Robert Cummings version, and, without subtitles, the Europeans hadn’t. It caught on later.

One trouble, might be Henry Fonda in the Robert Cummings role. Fonda is not an ambiguous actor. He is a good guy actor, so the audience would expect him to win out over this bunch of sweaty bigots, and this would undercut the suspense., Or perhaps Lumet’s treatment of the jurors as individuals, rather than as a mass grouped against Fonda worked less well.

At any rate, we do have Jack Warden stealing every scene by his clever and apt use of props. As to the other actors, Lee J. Cobb, as usual, eventually overplays his hand, which Edward Arnold in the same role, for once, did not.  Jack Klugman is a study in actor-attention, Joseph Sweeny is even better than he was in the first TV version, Walter Abel was more rich and active in reserve than E.G. Marshall who sulks.

The sopping heat of New York City in a summer downpour is not followed through, and is, in any case, a superficial outside pressure. None of them play a frantic desire to get out of that sweltering, un-air-conditoined room.

I did see it in 1957, and I was mightily impressed and moved, partly because of its grimy, paint-peeling setting and un-Hollywoody, Method-type actors,  and the theme of common justice. When critics say a picture has not weathered well or stood the test of time, that probably means that the critic has not. Have I lost my ideals? If so, blame it on me that I now see the fault lines in the piece. How did Fonda buy that knife? How could they calculate that elevated train ride? Why would they notice the glasses line on that woman’s nose?

Well, the charm of the piece is that it is actually a detective story, with Robert Cummings and Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon (in a later TV version) all playing Sherlock Holmes to eleven prejudging Dr. Watsons – while never leaving the room. As a detective story it’s a pretty good one. As a young idealist of 24 I rejoiced to see justice done. Now I am more interested in the truth of the casting, so while there is something to be said for each cast, I prefer Cummings in the leading role over Fonda. Fonda has a beautiful face, but the emotional affect of a small town druggist. I find him flat, dull, and slightly self-satisfied. So his is a prescription rather than a performance. We shall see what Jack Lemon brings to the role. Then we shall know all there is to know, shall we not?

Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 

 

Boys Town and Men Of Boys Town

11 Nov

Boys Town and Men Of Boys Town — Directed by Norman Taurog. A Catholic priest in establishing a boarding school for delinquents in the middle of Nebraska comes up against his financial and personal nemeses. 96 minutes Black and White 1938.

* * * * *

The male movie stars of the 1930s were more beautiful than the female stars, and also more homely, and there is a good reason for it: the Great Depression.  Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney wore Common Man faces and had the common touch. The very plebian Irish mug of Spencer Tracey was Metros answer to the trend, and one wonders what Boys Town would have been like made at its obvious place, Warner Brothers, home of the gangster film. For Boys town is about proto-gangsters whom a well meaning Catholic Priest Father Flanagan took under his wing and for them established a series of farms cum schools which prosper and protect young males to this day, irrespective of race, religion, or ancestry. Warners had some tough crooks, but here the JDs are turned into gutter roses by a shoulder pat. They are played by group of Hollywood child actors so vicious in their technique that they can burst into tears at the drop of clapper. Never have so many cried so much for so few reels. They should have put glycerin on the camera lens and have done with it. Perfectly cast as a solid priest, Spencer Tracy won his second Oscar in a row, and you can see why. Tracy never oversteps the mark by emotionalizing his ideals or sentimentalizing the trites he has to utter.  Fascinating to watch, he is an actor who has carefully compartmentalized himself and gives everything short of the mawkish. His authority derives from the fact that his body is well grounded, and his performance depends upon his responsiveness, rather than his aggressiveness, such that we somehow believe it when others get their Irish up and all he has to do is repeat a request three times in a row for opponents to flutter to the ground as wild leaves before the mighty blast of October. Both movies are on one disc and both were made on the campus of Boys Town and both are worth seeing. Not least for the performance of Mickey Rooney as his enemy in the first and his ally in the second. Rooney has two qualities, one, confidence, and two, a quality so rare that few great artists possess it – Eddie Murphy, Bugs Bunny, Johann Sebastian Bach – drive. So potent is Rooney as a screen presence that for the second film his role of brat gangster must be divided in two. The older he got and the more his status as a star diminished, the greater the actor Rooney became.  He and Olivia de Havilland are the only surviving movie stars of the 1930s, she the ideal Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s A Mid Summer Nights’ Dream, and he, “Oh what fools these mortals be!” naked in a tree, the Puck of Pucks.

 

 

 
 
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