A hodgepodge of discovery and rediscovery
Herewith are some thoughts on films of varying nature either seen for the first time or re-encountered after a passage of time too long to mention. That the movies remain as intriguing today as when they were first viewed provides testimony not only to their longevity but entertainment value. They are deserving of a wider appreciation beyond that of the cluster of fans the productions attracted in the decades since their original screenings.
LITTLE BIG HORN (1951) -- The western movie was and remained a crowded market during the 1950s, further swollen by the number of similar programs that filled network and syndicated television schedules. In a year when the genre was represented by everything from A-level productions to hour-long second features, it's not surprising that Charles Marquis Warren's LITTLE BIG HORN became lost in the shuffle. A shame, too, in that this reasonably actionful tale surrounding the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's last stand also offers a sobering reflection on duty and courage sincerely presented by its cast of then-lesser known but no less capable actors.
LITTLE BIG HORN opens at Fort Abraham Lincoln in June 1876, where Cavalry Capt. Philip Donlin (Lloyd Bridges) and Lt. John Haywood (John Ireland) are at odds over Donlin's wife Celie (Marie Windsor), who's launched an affair with Haywood in response to her frustration with Donlin's stubborn devotion to the Army and frequent absences on patrol. Fate -- and orders -- land Haywood on Donlin's latest tour of the Montana Territory as the Great Sioux War heats up. Commanded to join Custer's forces at the Little Big Horn River with proof of the natives' superiority in numbers, the patrol is slowly picked off by their shadowy opponents as they race against distance and time to complete their mission. At the end of the trail, the group's surviving members do what they can to stop the opposing juggernaut of allied tribes before Custer's arrival.
Warren's script, from a story by Harold Shumate, is a fictionalization of a real and mostly unknown incident that served as a prelude to the disastrous battle between the ill-fated Custer's forces and the Indians. Between scenes of Donlin's desperate attempt to elude the enemy, the story moves away from the triangle that keeps Donlin and Haywood apart to focus on the hopes and dreams of the soldiers, well-played by such veterans of the form as Reed Hadley, Jim Davis, Hugh O'Brian and Wally Cassell. Hadley commands attention in particular as a onetime officer demoted to sergeant, somberly dealing with the fact that he once outranked both Donlin and Haywood. While Donlin tests the limits of his duty, Haywood, who's more popular with the men, questions the Army's contention that a few lives must be sacrificed to save those of hundreds. His query finds its answer when, after Donlin is killed, Haywood takes command and leads his hopelessly outnumbered crew into a final skirmish.
Bridges and Ireland are solid as the lead antagonists, while Windsor's talents were reduced to serve as window dressing. Otherwise, LITTLE BIG HORN fits snugly between the aspirations of higher-budgeted productions and the less-demanding requirements of its B counterparts. Released by Lippert Pictures, the film is one of several oaters of the period that bear influences of the noir movement, especially in its refusal to provide a happy ending and distort its historical basis. Carl K. Hittleman, who produced LITTLE BIG HORN, had shown a preference for unique westerns inspired by true stories with his two previous efforts for Lippert, I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949, also with Ireland and Hadley) and THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950, with Hadley in support), the two initial directorial efforts of Samuel Fuller.
For Warren (1912-1990), LITTLE BIG HORN represented his debut in the director's chair after service as a screewriter and fictioneer for pulp and slick magazines. He provides the film with a definite sense of isolation for the soldiers as they travel against some breath-taking expanses of plains and mountain ranges. Warren became best-known for his association with two of television's great western dramas, GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) and RAWHIDE (1959-1966), serving as director and producer of GUNSMOKE for its first two seasons until differences with the show's co-creator and associate producer, Norman Macdonnell, prompted Warren's departure. Conversant with other genres, Warren also produced and directed two unusual entries in the horror field, BACK FROM THE DEAD and THE UNKNOWN TERROR (both 1957), for Robert L. Lippert's auccessor company, Regal Films, releasing through Twentieth Century-Fox.
CAREER (1959) -- For its honest exploration of the rare highs and frequent lows of an actor's life, Joseph Anthony's CAREER deserves to be better known than as a lengthy footnote in the resume of Dean Martin, who has first billing but whose character plays second fiddle to Anthony Franciosa's intense portrayal of an ambitious thespian who dedicates himself to his career -- and not surprisingly, loses a lot along the way.
The honesty stems from the screenplay attributed to James Lee, a former actor whose same-titled three-act drama opened off-Broadway to critical acclaim in 1957. Franciosa, whose own screen stardom was ascending as the curtain fell on the '50s, is Sam Lawson, a World War II veteran who's decided to become an actor in New York, temporarily leaving behind his hometown sweetheart Barbara Nielsen (Joan Blackman). A year later and still unemployed, Sam falls in with a ragtag theater company run by Maurice "Maury" Novak (Martin), whose on-again, off-again romance with Sharon Kensington (Shirley MacLaine), neurotic daughter of an influential producer (Robert Middleton), elevates Maury to a Hollywood director's chair -- with Sam still struggling to get a job.
Barbara joins Sam, they marry and then split up after she loses her first child. Sam continues his quest with the aid of his sympathetic agent Shirley Drake (Carolyn Jones) and survives a disastrous marriage to Sharon, betrayals, disappointments, military service in Korea, blacklisting and the demands of making a living that force him to consider abandoning his profession for a more steady position as a waiter. Maury, also a victim of the blacklist, talks Sam into taking the lead in a new play he's directing, whose off-Broadway success sends it uptown and provides Sam with the career satisfaction he's sought for more than a decade. Asked by Shirley if the struggle was all worth the pain he endured, Sam tells her, "Yes, it was."
Although contrived to heighten the barriers faced by Sam, CAREER remains a compelling, unblinking look at the trials and tribulations of being an actor. And while Sam's character becomes somewhat tarnished by his attempts to get ahead a la Maury's opportunistic influence, our sympathies stay with him as one damned thing after another gets in his way. While Lee (1923-2002) has sole on-screen credit for the script, sources reveal he was assisted by Bert Granet, Philip Strong and the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who no doubt had no hand in Shirley's explanation to Sam that his loss of the lead in a TV show was the result of "good Americans" who raised a red flag over his past association with Maury's seemingly left-leaning theater group. (The forever mercenary Maury later admits to having briefly joined the Communist Party, but only to help himself). Trumbo, who had been selling scripts under assumed names all through the '50s, broke the stigma when Kirk Douglas's production of SPARTACUS (1960) openly listed him as its scenarist.
A Hal B. Wallis production for Paramount, CAREER is among the few directorial efforts of Joseph Anthony (1912-1993), himself an actor who had previously helmed THE RAINMAKER (1956) and THE MATCHMAKER (1958), also film versions of well-received plays.* The film unspools in an efficient and low-key manner, placing most of the interest upon the performers. Franciosa, who had made his screen debut in 1957 with four important pictures (THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT, A FACE IN THE CROWD, A HATFUL OF RAIN -- which won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination -- and WILD IS THE WIND) was borrowed from Fox to play Sam and delivers one of his best performances, netting him the Golden Globe for Best Actor. He is matched by Martin's fascinatingly sleazy delineation of Maury. Having won kudos for his turn to the dramatic in Vincente Minnelli's SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), Martin was then exercising his acting muscles (perhaps not as vigorously as his pal Frank Sinatra) before surrendering to less-strenuous roles in the Rat Pack movies and Matt Helm burlesques. Interestingly, Franciosa capably tackled the Helm role in a short-lived 1975 TV series.
MacLaine, Martin and Sinatra's affecting co-star in SOME CAME RUNNING, does her best with the role of the hedonistic yet needy Sharon, working all the time to make the character human in her least annoying moments. "Sam was the name of the first man I ruined," Sharon tells our hero upon their first meeting. "He's a hairdresser now." MacLaine then rejoined Martin and Sinatra for a gag cameo in the original OCEAN'S ELEVEN (1960). In support, Jones is simply outstanding as Shirley, herself a former actress who ultimately falls for Sam. Her best moment arrives early when, trying to advise her new client on his career path, Shirley reveals how she worked uninterrupted for three theatrical seasons -- and spent the next two waiting for the phone to ring. Wallis may have cast Jones on the basis of her memorable performance as Elvis Presley's ill-fated lover in KING CREOLE (1958).
As a side note: When CAREER was first staged in New York, Sam was played by Charles Aidman, Maury by Norman Rose, Sharon by Norma Crane, and in the small role of "A Soldier," Larry Hagman.
* "American Directors," compiled by Todd McCarthy, in McCarthy and Charles Flynn, eds., KINGS OF THE Bs: WORKING WITHIN THE HOLLYWOOD SYSTEM, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975, p. 449.
GARGOYLES (1972) -- Passage of four decades has done little to take the demonic glint from this rugged made-for-TV feature, one of the best horror entries the field of the small-screen movie of the week produced during the first half of the 1970s, when many of the better films appeared. In fact, GARGOYLES, premiered by CBS on Nov. 21, 1972,* topped off a good year for scary films designed for the tube that began the previous January with the broadcast of Dan Curtis's modern-day vampire classic THE NIGHT STALKER on ABC.
Steven and Elinor Karpf's screenplay for GARGOYLES offers a titanic idea on a modest scale, tapping into the then-current trend of films pitting ordinary humans against domination from the beyond. Gargoyles, the film declares, are not simply decorative items on gothic European cathedrals but creatures who come to life every 500 years or so, each time looking to control humans on Earth who manage to destroy most of them before their plans can be realized. A few manage to escape to come back and bug the hell out of us after another half of a millennium.
Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde), anthropologist and author of popular books on the more unusual aspects of human development, is joined by his photographer daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) on a field trip into Mexico, but not before they stop to check out claims by Uncle Willie (Woodrow Chambliss), proprietor of a roadside museum of oddities, that he has something truly strange to share with the scholar. It turns out to be a skeleton of a freakish being that Boley at first dismisses as fake, which Uncle Willie vehemently denies. Agreeing to stay and hear out the old man, Boley and Diana are shaken as the shack containing the skeleton is attacked by something tearing at the roof and walls. A resulting fire leads to Uncle Willie's demise, with Boley and Diana fleeing not only with their lives but with the skeleton's head.
Their car is set upon by a creature before they get to civilization and hole up in a motel operated by boozy Mrs. Parks (Grayson Hall). The creatures return in search of the skull, and we learn they are the latest version of the gargoyles that have sprung to life from eggs secreted in a nearby cave. Their leader (Bernie Casey) represents the kind of gargoyle with wings and a demonic face; the others are without means of flight and eagle-like in aspect. Eventually, Diana is abducted by the chief gargoyle, sending Boley on a desperate rescue mission with the aid of the local police and a group of dirt-bikers (led by Scott Glenn) wrongfully held for Uncle Willie's death. Boley and his meager crew are successful in freeing Diana and burning the eggs of the yet-unborn gargoyles, but the leader escapes with one of his breeders, promising to one day rule the world.
Director B.W.L. Norton made simple but effective use of slow motion to isolate the gargoyles in a world where humans dominate; their movement, backed by the makeup co-created by Stan Winston, sends out a chill. The final shot of the leader flying away in a night sky remains as memorable as it did when it initially aired. Norton also uses shots of desert expanses to heighten the suspense and feeling of isolation as the story plays out. The Karpfs' script summons images of some of the best horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, whose work of a half-century earlier enjoyed a new vogue in the '70s, some of it finding its way into movies and TV. One of the most terrifying segments of NBC's NIGHT GALLERY series (1970-1973) was in the revelation of Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model," a monster somewhat reminiscent of GARGOYLES' misbegotten beings.
The cast tackles the assignment with sincerity. Hall, best-known for her roles on ABC's horrific daytime drama DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) and the two feature films it spun off, lends GARGOYLES with some of its lighter moments until her character's own grisly end is revealed. Casey (voiced by Vic Perrin, the "Control Voice" of THE OUTER LIMITS series of 1963-1965) adds such qualities as curiosity and wonder to his interpretation of the role to help make GARGOYLES a treat for even non-monster movie fans. While many of the best made-for-TV horrors of the early '70s emerged from DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis's stable, GARGOYLES was produced by Roger Gimbel for Tomorrow Enteratinment Inc.
* Entry on GARGOYLES in Alvin H. Marill, MOVIES MADE FOR TELEVISION: THE TELEFEATURE AND THE MINI-SERIES 1964-1979, Westport, Conn.: Arlington House, 1980, p. 115.