Daily Archives: February 23, 2020

Hooray for Hollywood, Part 1

5 Random Films from the American Film Institute’s 2007 List of the 100 Greatest American Films and Their Comic Connections 

1. Casablanca (#3) 
No one making Casablanca thought they were working on a great film. Sure, there was A-list talent involved all around, but the 1942 drama about gin joints and beautiful friendships was made on a tight budget, shot in a few short months and released with no more fanfare than any of the hundreds of other movies that came out that year. Despite that, it was nominated for eight Oscars and won three (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay), and since then it has consistently topped most lists of great American films.

Pick a reason why it’s so beloved. Bogart and Bergman crackle with chemistry in one of the greatest romances caught on film. The screenplay brims with passion, humor and classic lines we’re still quoting today (“Here’s looking at you, kid”… “We’ll always have Paris”… “Round up the usual suspects”). The casting is flawless, with every actor down to the extras playing their parts to perfection. Even the movie’s signature song, “As Time Goes By,” is so iconic Warner Bros. later adopted it as its official anthem.

What’s interesting about the film is that there are no real villains (except for the Nazis, but they exist more as a plot device than anything else). Rick’s not a bad guy, just someone who’s not interested in getting involved in other peoples’ problems (“I stick my neck out for nobody”). Ilsa is genuinely torn between the two men she loves. Capt. Renault appears corrupt on the surface — “Your winnings, sir” — but he’s only doing what everyone else does in Casablanca: whatever it takes to survive in a world where no one knows for sure which way the winds will blow next.

But I think the reason why the film still resonates is Rick’s choice at the end (no sense saying “spoiler alert,” I guess). There’s no real reason why Ilsa has to get on the plane; Laszlo can still lead the resistance without her. But Rick knows that asking her to stay with him in Casablanca means asking her to choose certain danger over her safety — and because he truly loves her, he can’t let that happen. He puts the greater good ahead of his own desires. And that kind of personal sacrifice in a crazy world like ours amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

For 1969’s Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos #72, writer Gary Friedrich came up with a story that placed Capt. Sawyer, the officer in charge of the Howling Commandos, in a flashback adventure that takes place during the events of Casablanca. He even instructed artists Dick Ayers and John Severin to draw the guest-starring characters to look like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and the rest of the Casablanca cast.

As recounted by Roy Thomas in Alter Ego #6, the issue was heavily edited and redrawn when Marvel editor Stan Lee, fearing a lawsuit from Warner Bros., ordered changes to the script and art. Even with those changes, though, it’s obvious to anyone familiar with the film what Mike and his Marrakesh establishment, “Mike’s Chicago Bar,” are meant to represent. “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…”

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (#20)
Fun fact: when it came out in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was considered a flop by RKO Radio Pictures, failing to make back its production budget during its initial theatrical run. While some film critics praised its message of hope, many more dismissed it as sentimental fluff, or even communist propaganda. In fact, a 1947 memo from the FBI decried the film for its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’… a common trick used by Communists.” (Those sneaky Communists!)

So how did it become a holiday classic? A clerical error caused the film to fall out of copyright between 1974 and 1993, allowing local television stations to air it for free during that time. And with many hours of programming to fill over the holidays, those stations played this movie a lot. And why not? Not only does it offer Jimmy Stewart at peak Jimmy Stewart levels, the film’s point about how every life matters and we’re all in this together are the kinds of messages that more people need to hear no matter what time of the year it is.

With so many people aware of the story of George Bailey and the angel who shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, it’s no surprise comic writers have often turned to the same “what if this character had never existed” plot in their own stories.

Case in point: the slightly silly “It’s a Wonderful Legion” from 1998’s Legion of Super-Heroes #100. As it begins, Brainiac 5 is a little peeved. “All my work, all my talent, wasted on these children! It’d be better off if I never was!!” Well, now, who just said the magic words? “You may call me… Clarence,” says our mysterious visitor. And of course Brainiac 5 is smart enough to know how these stories are supposed to turn out, so he rolls his eyes and proceeds with the “shock” of seeing a world that’s miserable without him.

Turns out he sees exactly the opposite: without him, there’s a Silver Age-style world where the Legion are all kids in a “hero club” and “that putrid little Koko” (a monkey that’s overly attached to B5) is now a super-intelligent being who hosts his own late-night talk show.

This simply won’t do, and Brainiac 5 chooses to go back to the old reality to “make them essentially as miserable as they make me.” Strike up the band, Clarence! “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind…”

3. The Sound of Music (#40)
“Nonsense.” “Corny.” “Icky sticky.” “Sugary.” To say that contemporary critics were universal in their love for 1965’s The Sound of Music would be a lie. Pauline Kael called the film “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat,” while Judith Crist wrote it was designed for “the five to seven set and their mommies.” Roger Ebert claimed he never saw it; whether that’s true or not, he never included a review of the film in any of his books about cinema’s greatest movies.

But perhaps the most stinging rebuke came from Christopher Plummer — Captain von Trapp himself — who dismissed the film as “The Sound of Mucus” for decades and expressed his bafflement over the film’s continued popularity. “I was a bit bored with the character,” he said in interviews. “It was a bit like flogging a dead horse.” (He conceded during a cast reunion on Oprah’s show in 2010 that he could see why it was such a beloved movie.)

Truth be told, the producers had to do a lot of convincing to get Plummer for the role. When Hollywood looked to create a film version of the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, there was never any question that the role of Maria would go to Julie Andrews — especially after they saw her performance in Mary Poppins.

Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner, Sean Connery and Richard Burton were some of the big names considered to play Captain von Trapp, but producer Robert Wise was set on Plummer, who turned down the offer several times before he relented.

In retrospect, you can see where Plummer was coming from. Up to that point, Plummer was an actor’s actor, a veteran of Broadway and Canada’s Stratford Festival who took on Shakespearean roles like the leads in Hamlet, Henry V and Othello… and now he was being asked to sing sappy love songs (well, move his lips while Bill Lee did the singing) in the Austrian Alps. Even if the film wasn’t all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, it’s easy to see why Plummer didn’t see the role as the right fit for him.

Plus, you know… Nazis. Notwithstanding the huge success of Springtime for Hitler, it’s a generally known fact that musicals and Nazis don’t tend to mix well together. In fact, the play’s inclusion of Nazis as protagonists almost sunk the film when it played in Germany, with one local manager for 20th Century Fox going so far as to cut the entire third act following the wedding to avoid showing any Nazi symbols on screen. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and German audiences saw what audiences around the world saw: a disgusted Captain von Trapp taking down a Nazi flag he finds flying at his home and ripping it in half. It’s a powerful scene about one man’s refusal to bow to fascism, a scene that hasn’t lost its power to inspire 55 years after the fact.

Regardless of what the critics or Plummer thought, the uplifting film was destined to be a smash. It was the highest-grossing film of 1965 and came in No. 1 at the box office for 30 out of 43 weeks that year; to date it remains the most commercially successful movie musical ever made. “Sound of Music” tours of Salzburg still continue to this day, and screenings of Sing-Along Sound of Music — complete with audience members dressed as nuns and the von Trapp children as they sing along to the music — have become an international phenomenon. Not bad for an “icky sticky” film.

 

Shall we dismiss the art of memes as casually as Plummer dismissed the artistry of films based on stage musicals? No. No, we shall not.

The film’s ubiquity in pop culture makes it a popular target for meme creators, especially those who enjoy the contrast between the opening number “The Hills are Alive” and today’s slightly more cynical brand of superhero. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night…”

4. Spartacus (#81)
It seems fitting that a film about the life of a Roman slave fighting injustice helped bring a little justice into the real world.

As the story goes, Kirk Douglas — after failing to win the title role in 1959’s Ben-Hur — was looking for a similar script when an executive at his film company handed him a 1948 novel titled Spartacus. He was drawn to the story of a former gladiator who leads a slave revolt against imperial Rome, and he put up his own money to buy the film rights. Universal agreed to finance the film (for a then-whopping $12 million, or $106 million in today’s dollars) after Douglas persuaded Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov to lend their gravitas (Latin for “big-time acting chops”) to the show.

There was just one problem. The book’s author, Howard Fast, was tapped to create a screenplay from his novel, but he struggled with the format. With a tight production schedule bearing down fast, Douglas hired veteran screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to punch up the script, which Trumbo did in two weeks.

Trumbo intended to write under the pen name Sam Jackson, on account of his blacklisting. Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s, and because of that he was one of several entertainment professionals subpoenaed in 1947 to appear before Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating whether Communist agents and sympathizers had been planting propaganda in American films.

Though Trumbo had disavowed the Communist Party, he refused to name names and was cited for contempt, serving 11 months in prison. After his release, he was blacklisted by the film industry and had to write scripts under assumed names — even Oscar-winning ones, like his screenplay for 1956’s The Brave One.

After gossip columnist Walter Winchell outed Trumbo in early 1959 as the screenwriter for Spartacus, Douglas and Universal had a decision to make. They could avoid protests by distancing themselves from Trumbo and giving the writing credit to someone else, or they could challenge the blacklist and stand by their man. As Douglas recounted years later, he said to Trumbo once the film was finished: “Not only am I going to tell them that you’ve written it, but we’re putting your name on it.”

It was a big risk. Though the blacklist wasn’t as potent as it had been at the start of the 1950s, anti-Communist feelings were still running pretty strong (especially after Castro’s taking of Cuba that same year). Universal had invested a lot in Spartacus, and a boycott of the film based on the writer’s political leanings would have been a disaster.

In the end, though, things turned out fine. Critics raved about the spectacular battle scenes, the film won four Academy Awards, and Spartacus became Universal’s biggest moneymaker up to that point. And when President-Elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines set up by members of the American Legion protesting the film, blacklisting was all but over.

“All my friends told me I was being stupid, throwing my career away,” Douglas said. “I wasn’t thinking of being a hero and breaking the blacklist. It wasn’t until later I realised the significance of that impulsive gesture.”

Like a lot of “epic” movies from that time, Spartacus got its own Dell comic adaptation, in 1960’s Four Color #1139 (“still 10¢”). Along with stills from the movie and a one-page history lesson on “military leaders of the later Roman republic,” the book offered a highly condensed version of the story (understandable, considering the film’s three hour-plus run time).

The book also plays fast and loose with the film’s script; for instance, the scene where Spartacus refuses to take the knife offered by his sadistic trainer plays as the exact opposite in the book, with Spartacus taking the weapon and being quickly defeated as an object lesson to the others. The book also changes how Spartacus and Varinia first meet — which makes sense, considering how Dell’s editors were likely extremely wary of introducing the concept of rape to their young readers, even the film’s veiled version of it.

Pencils and partial inks were by future Marvel heavyweight John Buscema, who was well-known to Dell at the time thanks to his work on Roy Rogers Comics, The Cisco Kid, Life Stories of American Presidents, and other film adaptations. “I AM SPARTACUS!”

5. Do the Right Thing (#96)
The title of Spike Lee’s 1989 film comes from “Da Mayor” (Ossie Davis), who offers Lee’s thoroughly unimpressed Mookie that bit of advice early in the film. By the end of the film, we might be tempted to ask if Mookie did in fact do the right thing at a crucial moment at the end of the film. But asking the question assumes there even is such a thing as “the right thing” in the circumstances presented by the film.

For most of the film, Lee’s Mookie is a passive protagonist: he’s not dedicated to his pizza delivery job, he doesn’t behave like a dependable partner or father, and he doesn’t seem to be passionate about much of anything — certainly not as passionate as Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is about his music, or Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) passion for black representation on Sal’s (Danny Aiello) wall of fame.

In a way, the film echoes Mookie’s character: for the first two-thirds of its runtime, it meanders, switches tones, and refuses to focus on any one storyline, instead going back and forth between small vignettes of life in a lower-income Brooklyn neighbourhood on the hottest day of the year. We see the old men chatting on the corner, the pizzeria owner serving up slices, local teens opening a fire hydrant, a boom-box owner playing “Fight the Power” as he goes down the street…

…and then, like Mookie, the film is shocked into action by an act of violence that seems to come from out of nowhere. But as we look back on the events of the film, it’s easy to connect the dots and see the sparks that led up to that fateful moment where Mookie does… well, if not the right thing, then certainly something. And sometimes, when there are no easy answers, something is all you can do.

When the film was released, many critics said that it was a dangerous film that could incite black audiences to riot, a charge that Lee dismissed — “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films” — while pointing out it’s interesting how more attention is paid to the property damage done in the film than the act of violence that preceded it.

Because of the film’s pivotal scenes, it’s tempting to view Do the Right Thing as a product of one filmmaker’s anger about racism in America. But that’s not the prevailing emotion: as Roger Ebert wrote in his book The Great Movies, “[Lee] made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides, but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.”

Among other reasons, Do the Right Thing also stands out as the first film to feature Black Panther… of sorts. In one scene, the character known as Punchy is shown holding a Black Panther comic, and later in the film he even mentions the Marvel character by name (“Black Panther eat pizza, we eat pizza”).

I haven’t found anything that explains why Lee chose to feature Kirby-era Black Panther comics as props in the film; perhaps it was as simple as wanting to give a shout-out to a piece of American culture with special meaning to the black community.

One thing’s for sure: he’s on record loving the Black Panther movie: “I’ve seen it four times,” he said in 2018. “And I will say, I look at the world now differently — before Black Panther and after Black Panther.”