#528) Dumbo (1941)

#528) Dumbo (1941)

OR “The Wonder Ears”

Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (and a bevy of sequence directors)

Written by Joe Grant & Dick Huemer (and a plethora of others). Based on the book by Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl.

Class of 2017 

The Plot: While traveling through central Florida, a circus train is visited by storks delivering babies to all the animals. The elephant Mrs. Jumbo (voiced by Verna Felton) receives a baby boy named Jumbo Jr. The baby elephant, however, is born with very large ears, leading to the other elephants nicknaming him “Dumbo” and mocking his anomaly. Seperated from his mother, and with a mouse named Timothy (voiced by Edward Brophy) as his only friend, Dumbo learns to accept his differences, and eventually discovers that his ears give him the ability to fly. It’s a heartwarming Disney classic that’s sure to…oh crap I forgot about the racist crows! This is why we can’t have nice things.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “charming”, praising its “lovely drawing, original score…and enduring message”.

But Does It Really?: “Dumbo” can be endearing and at times quite heartwarming, but is unfortunately bogged down by some incredibly racist material towards the end. It’s a shame, because everything else about this movie still works 80 years later: the energetic score, the beautiful character animation, and the overall uplifting spirit of the movie. “Dumbo” continues to be a classic, but its racial insensitivity will be its eventual undoing for a modern audience.

Wow, That’s Dated: Well there’s no use ignoring it: let’s acknowledge the elephant…’s friends in the room. The flock of crows that help Dumbo fly are straight up minstrel show stereotypes, complete with offensive African-American dialects. It’s a tough watch, and they dominate the last portion of the film. “Dumbo” may be the number one reason Disney+ has that disclaimer about “outdated cultural depictions”.

Seriously, Oscars?: An instant hit with both critics and audiences, “Dumbo” received two Oscar nominations. Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace took home the prize for Best Musical Score, but “Baby Mine” lost Best Original Song to “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good”. Turns out “Paris” was not written specifically for “Lady Be Good”, leading to a rule change from the Academy.

Other notes 

  • With the financial disappointments of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia“, Walt Disney needed a hit, and it needed to be made on the cheap. “Dumbo” was allotted a budget of $950,000 (roughly 2/3 the budget of “Pinocchio” or “Fantasia”). While typical animated films are in production for 3-4 years, “Dumbo” was written, animated, and completed in less than two years, during which production was interrupted by the Disney animators’ strike of 1941.
  • Of course a movie about an exploited circus elephant would be set in Florida.
  • Wow, Mr. Stork gets quite the intro: a dramatic narrator, a whole song. You know he’s not the main character, right?
  • This is the first Disney voiceover work for both Sterling Holloway (Mr. Stork) and Verna Felton (Matriarch Elephant & Mrs. Jumbo). Both actors would go on to voice a number of notable Disney characters in “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Jungle Book”, and many others.
  • I completely forgot about the circus roustabouts, all of them anonymous African-Americans. They don’t even have faces!
  • Even at 63 minutes, there’s a lot of padding in “Dumbo”. Most of it you don’t mind, however, because the animation is so good, especially the character work on both Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.
  • Between the passive aggressive lady elephants and the super annoying kids, I side with Mrs. Jumbo on this one. Take them all out! Sympathy is very easy when every other character is literally the worst.
  • Timothy Mouse comes across as Jiminy Cricket’s cousin from Brooklyn, but he makes a good team with Dumbo. Also, it turns out the whole “elephants are afraid of mice” cliché is a myth. They’re more afraid of any small creature who suddenly darts in front of them.
  • If this circus is going to exploit its animals, why not exploit the fact that all of them speak fluent English?
  • This clown act has achieved the impossible: it’s actually funny. Shoutout to all the animators and story developers who came up with those gags. My one question: Where’s that clown that gets slapped all the time?
  • In a movie filled with sentimental moments, “Baby Mine” tops them all. It’s a simple, sweet moment between mother and child that gave me legitimate chills while watching.
  • Ah yes, “Dumbo”: the animated classic with underage drinking. Dumbo’s accidental sip of champagne leads to “Pink Elephants on Parade”, aka “Let’s sneak some surrealism into this movie”. It has nothing to do with anything, and it runs longer than it should, but it’s fun to watch these animators cut loose.
  • There are those who defend the crows for their sympathy towards Dumbo and the fun they have singing and dancing, but at the end of the day, they all talk like Stepin Fetchit. Oh, and the lead crow is voiced by Cliff Edwards (a White actor) and was originally named Jim Crow. Ugh.
  • The finale also gave me some chills. Watching Dumbo fly through the crowd is still a thrilling moment, and his reunion with his mother is the movie’s final successful heartstring tug. Now if only we could do something about those goddamn crows…

Legacy 

  • “Dumbo” was the hit the Disney Studios needed it to be, grossing over 1.3 million dollars. The film was immediately popular, with Dumbo himself slated to appear on Time Magazine’s cover as “Mammal of the Year”. The story was slated for December 8th, 1941, but major news from the day before bumped Dumbo off the cover.
  • Due to the film’s continued popularity, “Dumbo” is often used as a test subject when Disney is contemplating new entertainment mediums. “Dumbo” was one of the first Disney movies shown on television, one of the first released on home video, and one of the first to appear on a streaming service. Thanks to its home video releases, “Dumbo” has never been out of print in the last 40 years.
  • When Disneyland opened in July 1955, two attractions based on “Dumbo” were…almost ready. “Dumbo the Flying Elephant” was delayed a month due to technical issues, and while the “Casey Jr. Circus Train” appeared on the opening day telecast, it was closed immediately afterwards for safety testing, and reopened two weeks later. Both attractions are still working 65 years later, and can be found in Disney parks around the world.
  • “Dumbo” still gets referenced from time to time, typically in a general sense regarding elephants and/or big ears. My personal favorite among the homages: “Operation Dumbo Drop”, one of Disney’s more bizarre “Based on a True Story” movies.
  • Even “Dumbo” wasn’t safe from Disney’s live-action remake juggernaut. Despite the talents of Tim Burton, and an honest attempt to address issues of animal cruelty in circuses, the 2019 “Dumbo” failed to connect with audiences.
  • I have a soft spot for “Dumbo’s Circus”, the weird puppet/animatronic hybrid show that aired on the Disney Channel back in the ’80s. Dumbo Talks!
  • Despite the little elephant’s big theatrical triumph, Dumbo was loaned out to Maroon Studios in 1947 (along with half the cast of “Fantasia”). Allegedly, R.K. Maroon wanted Dumbo and the other characters because “they work for peanuts”.

#527) Putney Swope (1969)

#527) Putney Swope (1969)

OR “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Complying”

Directed & Written by Robert Downey Sr.

Class of 2016

The Plot: When the chairman of an ad agency dies unexpectedly, the board takes a vote for a replacement. Unable to vote for themselves, the board picks Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), the company’s token African-American. As soon as he’s appointed, Swope replaces almost every White employee with an African-American one, and under his management the agency starts producing subversive, taboo-busting commercials. When Swope announces his company will not promote alcohol, tobacco, or war toys, he receives a call from the President of the United States (Pepi Hermine) who considers this business strategy “a threat to national security”. There’s plenty of twists and turns in this counterculture satire from Robert Downey Sr.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “wildly irreverent” and “[a] cult classic from an earlier time”. There’s also quick blurbs from Vincent Canby and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who liked the movie), as well as Wanda Hale (who hated it).

But Does It Really?: “Putney Swope” was nowhere on my radar before starting this blog, and it came out swinging. With its takedown of race relations and corporate America, “Putney Swope” is one of the sharpest satires I’ve ever seen. The film has a lot to say, and while it does run out of steam towards the end, it’s still a funny, unique ride. “Putney” earns its spot on the NFR thanks to its satiric edge, its encapsulation of time and place, and its representation of underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.

Shout Outs: At one point, Putney refers to The Arab as “Lawrence of Nigeria”.

Everybody Gets One: A native New Yorker, Robert Downey got his start making low-budget short films, his absurdist streak meshing well with the growing counterculture movement of the 1960s. While working for an experimental commercial studio, Downey learned he was getting paid more than a Black co-worker who did the same job, which inspired him to write “Putney Swope”. And yes, Robert Downey Sr. is the father of movie star Robert Downey Jr., who as a child appeared in several of his father’s films.

Wow, That’s Dated: Although most of the film’s humor still holds up today, “Putney Swope” is also definitely 1969. Everybody “digs” everything, and there are so many slurs that wouldn’t fly today.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Putney Swope” or any of Robert Downey Sr.’s movies. Although his son has been nominated twice, Robert Jr. has yet to win either.

Other notes 

  • Downey’s major stumbling block with the production of “Putney” was when the Screen Actors Guild raised concerns about the film’s “sub-standard wages and conditions” for its members. Already on a tight budget, Downey opted to make the film non-Union, meaning that lead actor L. Errol Jaye (among other SAG members) had to leave the production. Downey replaced Jaye with Arnold Johnson, who had such difficulty memorizing his lines that Downey dubbed over his dialogue himself in post-production.
  • Mainly I was just blown away by the bite this movie has. “Putney” is taking jabs at race relations, corporate politics, and modern advertising in a way no one else was in 1969. There’s a little homework that needs to be done to truly appreciate the writing, but the film still has its laugh-out-loud funny moments.
  • Several sources state that comedy legend Mel Brooks appears in this movie. While there is an actor named Mel Brooks listed in the credits for playing the minor character “Mr. Forget It”, I am here to tell you: It’s not that Mel Brooks. At this point in time Mel Brooks was already an Oscar-winning screenwriter and the 2000 Year Old Man; there’s no way he would be making cameos in low-budget indies.
  • My favorite parts of the movie are the commercial parodies. Filmed in color (as opposed to the black-and-white cinematography of the rest of the film), these scenes contain the kind of sharp skewering that SNL would later perfect in their commercial parodies a decade later. Among my favorites: Dinkleberry Chicken Pot Pie. “Oh fuck off, Bert.”
  • Various large corporations in the movie comment on trying to be publicly perceived as morally responsible during politically divided times. You could have written this movie yesterday.
  • Given the film’s episodic nature and marathon of parodies, “Putney Swope” could have easily turned into a sketch comedy movie a la “Kentucky Fried Movie”. The film’s satiric edge prevents that from happening.
  • Shoutout to Laura Greene, the actor who plays Mrs. Swope, and the only SAG member to cross the picket line to be in this movie. Her acting career ended shortly after “Putney”, but hey, she’s on the list.
  • The President of the United States is played by Pepi Hermine, a little person. According to Downey, he wasn’t trying to make some sort of political commentary with this casting; Hermine simply had the best audition.
  • The “If I give you a raise, everybody’s gonna want a raise” exchange between Swope and his White employee is verbatim what one of Downey’s (White) bosses said to his Black employee, thus prompting this whole movie.
  • The German car that Swope is asked to advertise is called the Borman. Get it?
  • Gotta love any movie with a smoking nun (and no, that’s not a typo).
  • One of the new war toys pitched to Swope is the game “Cops and Demonstrators”. Goddamit, why is that the joke that came back around to being true?
  • Sometimes a movie ends and I say something to effect of “What is happening?” or “Wait, that’s it?”. While I had a similar response to the ending of “Putney Swope”, I trust Downey et al enough to admit that it probably just went over my head.

Legacy 

  • After completing “Putney Swope”, Robert Downey Sr. screened the film for several distribution companies. Everyone passed except for Don Rugoff at Cinema V (which distributed fellow underground NFR entries “Nothing But a Man” and “The Cool World”). “Putney” was the first of Downey’s films to get an actual distribution deal.
  • While “Putney Swope” put Robert Downey Sr. on the map, he continued to be an underground filmmaker, albeit a well-known underground filmmaker. Downey’s next movie was “Pound” (featuring the film debut of Robert Jr.), and his last film before his retirement was the 2005 documentary “Rittenhouse Square”.
  • Among the filmmakers who have cited Robert Downey Sr. as an influence is Paul Thomas Anderson, who not only named one of his characters in “Boogie Nights” after Putney Swope, but cast Downey in a small role in the film as well.

Further Viewing: Robert Jr. dipped his toe into documentary/social commentary filmmaking as the subject of the 1993 film “The Last Party”. Mark Benjamin & Marc Levin’s film chronicles Downey as he investigates the major issues of the 1992 presidential election (Back when that was the most important election of our lifetime. How quaint.) While an entertaining takedown of American politics, the film is also a surprisingly touching attempt by Robert Jr. to further connect with Robert Sr.

#526) Top Gun (1986)

#526) Top Gun (1986)

OR “Yvan Eht Nioj”

Directed by Tony Scott

Written by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. Based on the magazine article “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay.

Class of 2015 

The Plot: LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a cocky young pilot in the US Navy. Despite his disregard for safety, he is still one of the best pilots in his unit, and he and his wingman LTJG Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) are recruited for TOPGUN, a program teaching the top 1% of navy pilots dogfighting skills. During his training, Maverick butts heads with fellow student LT Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), woos civilian instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), plays some volleyball, feels the need for speed, and of course, rides into the Danger Zone!

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Tony Scott, saying he “delivers on all fronts” with “slick, visually arresting action-set pieces”. Tom Cruise’s star appeal is also highlighted. The write-up, however, begins with a weird sentence about how “a wag might be tempted to call this…film ‘The Testosterone Chronicles'”. Where is this coming from?

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “Top Gun” prior to this viewing, and it’s…fine. The flight scenes are extraordinary, but everything else just sits there. Not bad, not great either. Despite these shortcomings, “Top Gun” has continued to be an iconic crowd-pleaser 35 years on. Sure it’s a Popcorn Movie, but it’s also the definitive Popcorn Movie of the ’80s. With a focus on action entertainment, and a plethora of quotable/spoof-able moments, “Top Gun” more than earns its spot among notable American films.

Everybody Gets One: Tony Scott got his start making commercials for his older brother Ridley Scott’s production company in England. Tony was approached with “Top Gun” based on his work helming the vampire movie “The Hunger” as well as a Saab commercial in which the Swedish car is shown racing a fighter jet. This is also the only NFR appearance for many of the film’s stars, including Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, and Meg Ryan.

Wow, That’s Dated: Surprisingly, “Top Gun” doesn’t show off its inherent ’80s-ness the way a “Ferris Bueller” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” does. And call me a wag, but “Top Gun” definitely could have been called “Toxic Masculinity: The Motion Picture”.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1986, “Top Gun” entered the 1987 Oscars with four tech nominations. The film lost three of these nods to “Platoon” and “Aliens”, but “Take My Breath Away” took home the Best Song Oscar. After Berlin passed on performing at the ceremony, the song was sung on air by…Melba Moore and Lou Rawls?

Other notes 

  • Like many a movie based in a branch of the US military, the script for “Top Gun” was subject to approval by the US Navy in order to receive their cooperation (including access to Miramar Base in San Diego, site of the actual TOPGUN program). This resulted in several script changes, including less crashes and more incidents involving human error rather than anything wrong with the Navy.
  • Any movie that brought us the song “Danger Zone” cannot be all bad.
  • Amazingly, I don’t have a lot to say about Tom Cruise’s performance, other than he is very charming in this movie, and has not aged a day in 35 years.
  • James Tolkan gives a nice turn as CDR Stinger, though this begs the question: Didn’t that guy ever have hair?
  • Wow, Kelly McGillis is giving a total 180 from her performance as an Amish mother in “Witness”. For starters, she uses zippers!
  • We have arrived at the volleyball scene which I gotta say, may have been overhyped for me. I went in knowing it was filled with homoerotic imagery (intentional or otherwise), and sure there’s a bunch of fit shirtless guys being athletic but…I guess I expected more? I’ve seen more slabs of meat in my freezer.
  • Apparently the love scene was an afterthought, filmed when preview audiences complained that Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis never “hook up”. The whole scene is silhouetted because McGillis had changed her hair for another movie. This lighting effect ensures that we see how much tongue both of these actors are using, and boy is it gross. More like “Take My Lunch Away”.
  • This is Meg Ryan’s third movie! She doesn’t have much to do, but she delivers exactly what the part of Mrs. Goose calls for. Now what’s it gonna take to get “When Harry Met Sally” on this list?
  • “I feel the need, the need…for speed.” I didn’t realize just how random that moment is. It just kinda happens and then we all move on. Do people quote it because it rhymes?
  • All of the dogfight scenes are giving me flashbacks to when the Blue Angels fly over my neighborhood during Fleet Week. That may be the one annual tradition I’m glad quarantine took away from us.
  • Wait, Tim Robbins was in this? I guess he had his gear on the whole time.
  • “Top Gun” is dedicated to the memory of Art Scholl, a veteran stunt pilot who crashed in the Pacific Ocean while filming second unit aerial footage for this movie.
  • On a lighter note, the end credits also give us a plethora of nicknames from the various pilots who served as technical consultants. Among my favorites: “Bozo”, “D-Bear”, “Rabbi”, “Squire”, “Organ”, “Jambo” and “Jaws“.

Legacy 

  • “Top Gun” was met with a mixed critical reception, but word of mouth made it the biggest hit of the year, solidifying Tom Cruise as a movie star. Tom Cruise has spent the last four decades making some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and that’s all I have to say about him.
  • Tony Scott spent the next 25 years cranking out well-crafted action movies including “Days of Thunder”, “True Romance”, “Crimson Tide”, and pretty much every action movie Denzel Washington did in the 2000s.
  • The US Navy called “Top Gun” one of the best recruitment efforts of all time, with some reports estimating that Navy enrollment shot up 500 percent in the summer of 1986. Also surging in popularity: Bomber jackets and Aviator sunglasses, a look today known as “The Biden”.
  • An immediate “Top Gun” follow-up was quickly rejected by Tom Cruise, and while another sequel idea stalled after Tony Scott’s death, “Top Gun: Maverick” will finally be reaching theaters in July 2019 June 2020 December 2020 July 2021.
  • “Top Gun” has been subjected to its share of parodies over the years, most memorably in the movies “Hot Shots!” and “Team America”. The “Top Gun” references came full circle in 2013 when the Pixar film “Planes” featured Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer as the voices of two Navy fighter planes.
  • And of course: “Danger Zone”.

#525) Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

#525) Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

OR “Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Agreement”

Directed by Leo McCarey

Written by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson. Adaptation by Humphrey Pearson. Based on the novel by Harry Leon Wilson.

Class of 2014

No trailer, but here’s a recommendation from Peter Bogdanovich, and isn’t that just as good?

The Plot: While on holiday in Paris, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) reveals to his loyal valet Ruggles (Charles Laughton) that he placed Ruggles as collateral in a poker game with nouveau riche Americans Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), and lost. While initially upset by this news, Ruggles accepts his new position as the Flouds’ servant, and journeys back with them to their home in Red Gap, Washington. After a miscommunication picked up by a local journalist, Ruggles is presumed to be a famous British colonel staying as the Flouds’ houseguest, and he becomes a local celebrity. Despite the mistaken identity, Ruggles begins to enjoy America, and wonders if he could make it on his own in this new world.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises director McCarey, and commends Laughton for “pull[ing] off comedy perfectly.”

But Does It Really?: While I question the placement of “Ruggles” on a list of quintessential American film, I did enjoy the film. Overall, “Ruggles” is a fun, harmless bit of entertainment, centered around Laughton’s outstanding comic performance, and aided by an ensemble of reliable studio players. While I can think of another, more iconic 1935 Charles Laughton film that still hasn’t made the NFR cut, “Ruggles” is a pleasant movie from the studio era that is still worth a watch over 85 years later.

Everybody Gets One: Shortly after editing “Ruggles”, Edward Dmytryk got his first directing gig with the low-budget Western “The Hawk”. His career was sidelined in the early ’50s when he became one of HUAC’s “Hollywood Ten”, but he eventually named names and his directing career resumed. Dmytryk is probably best remembered for directing the Humphrey Bogart courtroom drama “The Caine Mutiny“.

Wow, That’s Dated: Besides an opening shoutout to the shortlived National Recovery Administration, this film has the kind of casual racism towards Native, African and Asian-Americans we’ve come to expect from films of the era. Okay, so it’s not 100% harmless and enjoyable.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Ruggles of Red Gap” is one of the rare Best Picture Oscar nominees to only be nominated for Best Picture. “Ruggles” ultimately lost to “Mutiny on the Bounty”, for which Charles Laughton received a Best Actor nod.

Other notes 

  • Paramount bought the film rights of “Ruggles” specifically for Charles Laughton, who in turn recommended Leo McCarey to direct based on his recent successful string of comedies such as “Duck Soup“. Production was delayed so that Laughton could play Mr. Micawber in MGM’s “David Copperfield”, though he was dismissed after two days of filming (some say at Laughton’s insistence, some say at the studio’s insistence). Despite Laughton’s early return to Paramount, “Ruggles” was still delayed because Laughton returned with a completely shaved head (Micawber is described as hairless in the Dickens novel). Paramount made MGM pay for delays while they waited for Laughton’s hair to grow back.
  • Oh man, Laughton’s great in this. He does such a wonderful job playing it totally deadpan, mixed with some occasional character growth to keep the bit from going stale. The opening sequence between Ruggles and Lord Burnstead is a master class in comic timing. This all being said, speak up Laughton! I can’t hear you half the time!
  • Charlie Ruggles is very good in this movie too, but that must have been a confusing time on this set. You couldn’t call for “Charlie” or “Ruggles” without both him and Laughton showing up. Attention must also be paid to Mary Boland, excellent as Egbert’s put-upon wife, and Maude Eburne as Effie’s fun-loving “Ma”.
  • It’s nice seeing Zasu Pitts in a talkie. Most of Pitts’ NFR representation is for her silent work as an ingenue, and in “Ruggles” we see the beginnings of the dependable second banana she played for the remainder of her career. And she gets to play the awkward love interest! She’s still got it!
  • Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene: Ruggles, as part of his new knowledge of America, reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a roomful of visibly moved bar patrons. It’s a speech about the inalienable rights and equality of all Americans, and the hope that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” So, ya know, fantasy.
  • When Ruggles announces he wants to open a restaurant, Egbert suggests that it be called “A horse’s something”, which is immediately shot down. I’ll try not to be offended.
  • Roland Young is giving Laughton a run for his money in the mumbly Brit department: I can’t understand him either! He’s throwing away every line! Young was still a few years away from perhaps his best known movie character; Cosmo Topper in a series of MGM comedies.
  • Overall, I liked “Ruggles” and its harmless look at the American dream, with an immigrant being welcomed with open arms and successfully opening their own business. Different times indeed.

Legacy 

  • The 1935 “Ruggles” was itself the third film adaptation of the 1915 novel (and the first with sound). A fourth remake followed in 1950, renamed “Fancy Pants” and starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, the latter who apparently decided immediately afterwards “Let’s try television.”
  • Charles Laughton considered “Ruggles” one of his favorites of his own movies, and called the Gettysburg Address sequence “one of the most moving things that ever happened to me”. Laughton recited the address on numerous occasions after “Ruggles”, including on an Abbott & Costello hosted episode of “The Colgate Comedy Hour”. I’m assuming “Comedy” had the night off.
  • Leo McCarey’s best work as director was still ahead of him, including fellow NFR entries “The Awful Truth”, “Make Way for Tomorrow“, and “Going My Way”.
  • “Ruggles of Red Gap” gets the occasional mention by film buffs. A shoutout in the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” led to a young Edward Norton discovering the film, which he now includes as one of his favorites. Thanks for getting the word out, Other Hulk.

And with that unnecessarily condescending Marvel reference, we conclude Year Four of The Horse’s Head. Thanks to each and every one of you for making 2020 easily the most successful year for the blog so far. We’ll be taking the holidays off, but will return in the new year for Year Five and a new roster of classic movies. Until then, please stay safe and take care of each other.

Happy Viewing,

Tony

#524) The Magnificent Seven (1960)

#524) The Magnificent Seven (1960)

OR “Yul Never Walk Alone”

Directed by John Sturges

Written by William Roberts (but really Walter Newman). Based on the film “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni.

Class of 2013

The Plot: A small Mexican village is being terrorized by the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang. The villagers decide to take action, crossing the border to buy weapons. They encounter gunslinger Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) who convinces them to hire gunfighters to ward off the bandits. Aided by fellow gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), Adams recruits four more lowlifes (Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter) and one young hotshot (Horst Buchholz) to join the cause. And if any of this sounds familiar, just replace cowboys with Sengoku era samurai and you’ve got another movie classic.

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights the film as “a springboard for several young actors” and singles out Elmer Bernstein’s “vibrant” score. There’s also an essay by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince.

But Does It Really?: Overall “The Magnificent Seven” is…fine. Not quite firing on all cylinders compared to other westerns, but iconic enough to warrant eventual NFR inclusion. Part of the problem is that every story and character element from “The Magnificent Seven” has been done to death in countless other movies (“Three Amigos” comes immediately to mind), to say nothing of the Kurosawa film they’re lifting everything from! “Magnificent Seven” is an engaging watch with a top-notch cast, but I’m still putting it in the “Minor Classic” category.

Everybody Gets One: Although credited as the sole screenwriter, William Roberts was brought in to do rewrites of Walter Newman’s script when Newman refused to be on-site during filming in Mexico. When Roberts went to the WGA for a screen credit, Walter Newman took his name off the picture. Speaking of screenwriters: by virtue of his source material credit, this is technically the only NFR appearance for legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite the film presenting Mexicans in an overall positive light to appease local censors, native Brooklynite Eli Wallach plays the lead bandito, in an acting process I’m calling “Method Stereotyping”.

Seriously, Oscars?: While not a critical or box office hit, “The Magnificent Seven” did manage one Oscar nomination for Elmer Bernstein’s score. Despite its now-iconic status, the score lost to Ernest Gold’s composition for Otto Preminger’s “Exodus“.

Other notes 

  • “Seven Samurai” was released in Japan in 1954, and was one of the most successful films of the year. A 1956 US release was well received, and two years later Yul Brynner purchased the rights for an American remake. After a few attempts to get the film off the ground (including directing it himself), Brynner sold the rights to The Mirisch Company, but retained his leading man status, as well as casting approval. Director John Sturges was hired based on his work in such films as “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”.
  • Ah yes, the Russo-Ukranian cowboy Chris Adams. The screenplay explains Yul Brynner’s accent with one line mentioning that Chris is…Cajun?
  • While not a movie star at this point, Steve McQueen was known to American audiences for the TV western “Wanted: Dead or Alive“. When the show wouldn’t give him time off to make “Seven”, McQueen faked a car accident and claimed he needed time off to recuperate, therefore freeing him to make the movie.
  • Stories of an on-set rivalry between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are apparently true. McQueen was given permission from John Sturges to add bits of business to make up for his character’s lack of dialogue, which Brynner perceived as upstaging. Although the two never worked together again, McQueen and Brynner reconciled shortly before the former’s death.
  • I get why Yul Brynner was so upset, my takeaway from this movie is Steve McQueen’s natural star power. He’s so casually charming in this film, almost as if he stumbled onto the wrong set and is just playing along.
  • James Coburn was a diehard fan of the original “Seven Samurai” and lobbied hard for his role in the film. Thankfully, his friend and former Los Angeles City College classmate Robert Vaughn was already cast in the movie, and recommended Coburn to the producers.
  • Here’s a real problematic element for you: the women of the town are hidden before the Seven arrive for fear they might get raped. Chris’s response: “Well, we might.” What?
  • Robert Vaughn is great as something you don’t see too often in movies: a cowboy with PTSD. He doesn’t do much in the first half, but when the time comes he’s going to do something and you know it’s going to be good.
  • Are there a lot of day-for-night shots in this movie, or does it all take place on a very cloudy day?
  • No disrespect to Horst Buchholz (who is giving me a German Anthony Perkins vibe), but I’m not digging his Chico character. Granted, the movie is trying too hard to make Buchholz the breakout star. Not happening, Mirisch Company.
  • Charles Bronson is another one of those actors who I know mostly through later parodies (looking at you, “Simpsons”), but it turns out he’s giving a skilled performance here that’s a far cry from his imitators. To them I say, “No dice.” (which he may never have actually said).
  • [Spoilers] The shootout finale is an exciting payoff, but I was not expecting so many of the Seven to be killed off. No wonder they didn’t come back for the sequels.

Legacy 

  • “The Magnificent Seven” was not a hit in America, but fared better overseas. The film’s stateside popularity grew over time thanks to repeat viewings on television.
  • Among the film’s first fans was Akira Kurosawa, who bestowed John Sturges with a ceremonial sword as a congratulatory gift.
  • Sturges would reunite with Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson three years later for another classic action movie with an iconic Elmer Bernstein score: “The Great Escape”.
  • Despite its lackluster first outing, “The Magnificent Seven” spawned several sequels. 1966’s “Return of the Seven” featured Yul Brynner as the only returning cast member, followed by entirely different casts for 1969’s “Guns of the Magnificent Seven” and 1972’s “The Magnificent Seven Ride”.
  • CBS aired a “Magnificent Seven” TV series in the late ’90s, which featured guest appearances by original cast member Robert Vaughn.
  • “Magnificent Seven” got a full remake in 2016 with a cast including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke. By most accounts it was…fine.
  • Yul Brynner would riff on his gunslinger image from this film playing a robotic cowboy in “Westworld”. Now if only they had made him do gratuitous nude scenes…
  • But of course, the main takeaway from “The Magnificent Seven” is the score. Elmer Bernstein’s work got a second life in 1963 when it was used for Marlboro cigarette commercials. Many films and TV shows have needle-dropped the theme over the years, and it’s referenced at the start of the 1967 song “Sweet Soul Music”. Spotlight on Arthur Conley, y’all.

Further Viewing: I had every intention of watching “Seven Samurai” in addition to “Magnificent Seven”, but a 3 1/2 hour movie? Come on, Kurosawa, I just got through “Empire“.