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Meet Major Donnie Dunagan, who was the youngest Marine Drill Instructor ever. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam, and was wounded several times. During the Tet offensive, Dunagan was shot in the back of the head and in the stomach (among other places), and by the time he retired from the Marines in 1977, he’d been awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
But as a child, Maj. Dunagan had a brief career as a child actor in films like Son of Frankenstein and The Tower of London, which ended after his most famous role as the voice and physical model for the lead character in Walt Disney’s 1944 classic Bambi.
Yeah. Bambi was in the shit. Smoke an ounce to that.
Scottish singer and icon Annie Lennox has only appeared on the movie screen a handful of times, but those appearances are usually quite memorable – like her debut appearance as the fierce, flame-haired Liberty Woman in the 1985 Al Pacino period drama Revolution. Despite an all-star cast that also included Donald Sutherland, Nastassja Kinski, and Joan Plowright, the would-be historical epic was a critical and financial disaster that chilled Pacino’s career for over four years, and the experience was so personally unpleasant for Lennox that she lost enthusiasm for appearing in any other films (though ultimately she would make the occasional cameo here and there, usually as a singer). There is a scene towards the end of the film in which the Liberty Woman is called on to perform a song, but for reasons that are lost to time, Lennox’s magnificent contralto was dubbed over by someone with a rather less impressive voice – a testament (as if this multiple Razzie-winner needed another) to the astonishingly bad judgment of the producers.
Brash, beautiful Patsy Kelly, Hollywood’s Queen of Wisecracks, was born under the name Sarah Veronica Rose Kelly on January 12th, 1910 in Brooklyn. One of my all-time favorite comediennes, she had a rapid-fire delivery and street-smart working-class personality that made her the perfect foil for the blonde bombshell Thelma Todd; the pair made 35 comedy shorts for Hal Roach as his female Laurel and Hardy team before Todd’s untimely death in 1935.
She eventually made the leap to feature-length films, and although she rarely had a starring role, she easily stole the scene whenever she appeared in a film, usually with saucy double entendres and sardonic one-liners delivered out of the side of her mouth.
Despite a seventeen-year hiatus from film after her career began to decline in the 1940s, Patsy found steady work in her later years as a perennial guest-star on TV shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” “The Wild Wild West,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and as a supporting player in 70’s hits like Rosemary’s Baby and Freaky Friday. Patsy was one of the few openly-gay actors in early Hollywood, and made absolutely no secret of the fact that she was a “dyke” and frankly discussed her relationship with actress Wilma Cox, and later, her affair with Tallulah Bankhead.
Happy birthday, Patsy, and thanks for all the laughs!
It’s funny, isn’t it, how polite and cheerful everyone is to one another at the beginning of the new year. There’s a general sense of goodwill in the air. Cheerful greetings and good wishes for a happy new year are freely exchanged between strangers. People are even polite to people who work in the service industry. Maybe it’s the surplus of good cheer and glad tidings that gets built up over the holidays spilling over – or maybe it’s that collective ambition to have the new year produce a new, and better, you.
It’s a fresh start. This will not just be another year, this will be your year. You’ll start that diet. You’ll lose that weight. You’ll get that new job. You’ll finish that painting. You’ll learn how to foxtrot. You’ll quit smoking. You’ll go into therapy. You’ll get that boob job. You’ll find romance. So you can afford to be generous with your good will; you can magnanimously bestow glad tidings upon your fellow man, because this is not the old, crappy, neurotic, unambitious you, it’s the new, improved, driven, indefatigable you, standing at the dawn of a new era of personal growth and fulfillment, ready to step into a world of infinite possibilities and unlimited achievement.
I mean, look at me! I haven’t really so much as looked at this blog for over two years, and here I am writing a post as if this year I’ll faithfully and routinely update this space on a regular schedule, instead of whenever the mood strikes me and I’m not being strangled by depression and I can actually squeeze some words out about something that I find interesting, let alone something that all of you might possibly find interesting. As if I’ll take one of the 12 unfinished drafts that I’ve been fiddling with over the last year and finally get it ready to publish. As if.
It’s the as if that’s so brutal, you know. This was intended to be a blog about movies, but it’s also a blog about depression, and maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to avoid that part of it. I’m disgusted by the world and I hate myself and I find myself slowly shutting myself off from anyone I used to call a friend, and more, not really caring. People I used to think I’d die for just don’t matter to me anymore. That was my mistake. I’d have died for them. But I wouldn’t live for myself. So when I say these things (and think of this as a shift in perspective, I guess) I don’t see them as a negative. I see them as evidence of growth.
Yes, I’m actively trying to care about other people less. Giving a shit hasn’t really worked out for me long-term. Strange as it sounds, I’m trying to care less so I can be better myself. Exercise in futility? Misguided logic? Maybe. Maybe any logic that says we’re anything other than callous self-centered beings is misguided. Doesn’t stop us from trying, though, and that’s the great virtue and the great tragedy of the human race.
If anything drives the human race forward, it’s the unquenchable idea that we actually can be our better selves, the one that we return to at the start of the new year every new year, the one that sends us to gym memberships we’ll abandon in a couple of months and smoking resolutions that we’ll abandon in a couple of weeks. We try. We see the goal just there, so close that it seems that if we only reach out a little further, try just a little harder, by whatever means necessary, we can be our better selves. We need that. It’s good for us. One of the many things that Tyler Durden was wrong about is that self-improvement is masturbation. In fact, quote the opposite is true – it’s wallowing about in the comfortable lie of the inescapability of your neuroses that is the true act of existential masturbation. Striving to be your better self is a boon to everyone around you. You’re the only one who thinks your crappy self is anything other than crappy.
But you’ve got to be realistic about it. Rocky Balboa didn’t go into the ring thinking that he’d win against Apollo Creed and take the championship belt from him. His ambition was a little more grounded and achievable: He just wanted to not get knocked on his ass and embarrass himself on TV. Rocky’s real victory was making it to the top of the stairs. At that moment, he had nothing left to prove. He knew everything he needed to about himself. He wasn’t just a low-level criminal and a washout. He found his better self. Of course, Hollywood can never just let a good ending stand for itself, so we had to get a sequel that actually diminishes the message of the first film with the fantasy wish fulfillment ending that was originally denied the audience. But that first film, taken on its own, actually is quite inspirational.
And I say that even though I don’t really tend to find sports films very inspiring. Winning the State Championship or the gold medal or the bowling trophy is such a fleeting moment of victory. Self-improvement is so much more work than that. Work that you fail at. A lot. You don’t get a shiny medal and then stop – and you wouldn’t want to be that guy, anyway, the one who has a high-school All-State trophy on his mantle that he thinks makes up somehow for the downward slide he’s had since then, as if one moment of glory and achievement can justify a lifetime of slack and indolence. No, it doesn’t work like that. You keep trying, day after day, week after week, struggling with your crappy self, hoping that you’re better than you think you are, striving to find out. It’s not an end goal, it’s a continuing process.
No, I don’t care for most sports films, and I absolutely hate most of the films that people think of when they think of inspirational films, those idiotic stories that try to convince you that if you squint hard enough and think of God, everything will turn out okay in the end. But maybe I’ll approach this new year as if I’m in a noir.
I actually do find a lot of noir films inspiring. Some people think that noir is a celebration of darkness, but it isn’t. Not really. The best noirs are about people who are surrounded by darkness and fighting to get out of it. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they trust the wrong people. I did that a lot, still do, but I’m working on trusting people less. The less you trust, the less you get hurt. And in a noir, putting your trust in someone who doesn’t deserve it can get you killed.
Sometimes they they bad choices and do things for the wrong reasons and get trapped. But they try. If you stay grounded, you just might come through okay. You gotta avoid the classic pitfalls:
Give in to pie-in-the-sky ideas and you’ll get trapped.
Trust the wrong person and you get hurt.
And wallowing in your darker nature will get you killed.
Just like in real life.
The cinematic graveyards are full of noir characters who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, try to be better than they were. Bad people, and stupid people, and people who trust the wrong people meet a bad end in the world of noir.
But as unforgiving as noir can be to the unredeemable guilty, it can show great favor to those sincere about their self-improvement. Noir films go to great lengths to illustrate that the path to surviving life is trying to be better than you are. You certainly can’t just go around indulging every dark, nasty little whim that pops into your head:
Like life, it’s not about whether or not you get there. It’s about making the honest effort. It’s not even about crime and punishment, like in one of those corny square crime pictures with a message. Noir rewards effort. Noir rewards watching your own back. Noir rewards trusting no one. More importantly, noir understands that we are fallible creatures, that anyone, even the best among us, can make a misstep. It’s what you do after you slip up that defines how you’ll end up – in the gutter riddled with bullets, or walking unsteadily into the light of a new day.
Fight hard enough against the darkness and you can literally get away with murder.
Just ask Tom Ripley.
Considering that much of the impact of William Shakespeare’s works lies in the beautiful poetry of his spoken dialogue, it might seem odd to find that hundreds of movies were made of his works during the silent film era. Or maybe not – while that gorgeous poetry is undeniably a cornerstone of the Bard’s cultural endurance, it must also be observed that those plays are overflowing with some extraordinarily visual – and visceral – scenes, packed to the brim with murder and battle and sudden death, and romance and sex and comedy, and all the things that generally make for a riveting story no matter how they’re told. Granted, to really make the leap from theater stage to silent screen, you need writers who can pare those plays down to the barest of essentials, and a director who can build a coherent narrative out of those stripped-down masterpieces.
That’s one of the reasons that the 1908 Percy Stow film version of The Tempest is so remarkable. Taking a three hour play and chopping it down to twelve minutes while still keeping a more or less recognizable thread of the story is quite a feat – though it still helps immensely if you’re familiar with the play. But what really makes the production stand out is how visually interesting the whole thing is to watch. Not content to simply film on a sound stage, Stowe takes the camera on location to film some scenes, and combines them with an interestingly designed set and some rather impressive special effects for other scenes. The result is a dynamic telling of the story that certainly doesn’t drag, but still manages to convey a lot of the story in its short running time. If the film has a drawback, it’s that none of Shakespeare’s text made it onto the title cards, but that’s a very small complaint indeed, given the ambitious nature of the production and how well it succeeds on other levels.
By contrast, when legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith decided to bring The Taming of the Shrew to the screen, he went in completely the opposite direction, not even making an attempt to keep the story intact. Instead, standing at the fountainhead of a great Hollywood tradition that continues to this day, he stripped out everything that was, to his mind, non-essential – like most of the plot -and opted instead to craft the play into something more to his liking. Like a slapstick comedy.
How well does it work? Well, that depends on how much you like slapstick – and how much of a stickler you are when it comes to Shakespeare. Working with about 10 minutes of film, Griffith doesn’t exactly stick to what little of the script he retained. The whole thing reeks more of the Keystone Kops than the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.
But for all that, this is a very funny piece of film that careens along at breakneck pace. Silent movie icon Florence Lawrence, generally regarded as America’s first bona fide movie star (she was Canadian). makes for a beautiful, funny, and fierce Katherina, and honestly, you might find yourself too busy snickering at the pratfalls and comic brawling to really register the fact that there ain’t much Shakespeare in this Shakespeare adaptation. And hey – it’s only ten minutes or so.
Not quite as wild as The Taming of the Shrew, and not quite as visually interesting as The Tempest, but still quite a lot of fun to watch, is the 1909 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which marks that play’s first appearance on the silver screen. Like The Tempest, the makers of this delightful diversion wanted to cram as complete a story as possible into a 12-minute running time, but this production opts for detailed intertitles in order to explain the plot as opposed to the rather terse intertitles of the earlier film. Strangely, this version also ditches the fearsome fairy king Oberon in favor of a new character, Penelope, to quarrel with Titania and send Puck about his mischief.
Why did they make the change? Could they find no suitable actor for Oberon? Were they trying to accommodate the inclusion of a producer’s niece? Or was the idea of a husband, as a prank, magically tricking his wife into an adulterous affair to teach her a lesson a bit too, ah, European? Alas, we shall perhaps never know.
But the real delight in the film is 13 year old Gladys Hulette. As Puck she is charming, playful, and delightfully naughty. It’s a star-making performance, and indeed she did graduate to a rather successful leading lady career in silent film, although most of her body of work has unfortunately been lost to time and bad storage techniques. In point of fact, no complete version of this film is known to exist, with most available versions cut off about a minute or so too soon, ending on Bottom telling the wild tale of his night of romance with the fairy queen while stuck with a jackass’s head. Hopefully, a more complete version will turn up in somebody’s basement or attic – I’m just dying to know how the story turns out.
Sir Frank Benson’s 1911 film of Richard III, which he starred in as well as directed, was one of a series of filmed performances of Shakespeare’s plays that included Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, though the rest of these films seem to have been lost to the sands of time. It’s a shame, because this film is well-acted and easy to follow, thanks to concise intertitles that even retain choice quotes from the play’s text to embellish the action on screen. Of particular note is the interesting handling of Richard’s bad dream the night before the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field, where he is tormented by the ghosts of those he has murdered, thanks to his guilty conscience and the magic of some decent special effects.
Though this is far from being a complete presentation of the play, clocking in at less than half an hour, the longer running time does allow for a few narrative flourishes and more engaging set pieces than the shorter films that preceded it, giving the whole affair what must have seemed at the time a bit of an epic flair.
Sadly, we’ll never know what silent Shakespearian gems we’re missing out on, as so many have been lost or destroyed, as it is with far too many of the movies from film’s infancy – an estimated 90% of films made before 1929 are forever lost to us. But what survives gives us an interesting insight into the early days of cinema, when artists struggled against the limitations of the technology available to them to deliver some dazzling entertainment to the public.
They say, blood will have blood.