Friday, May 31, 2024

JOSEPH PORRO – THE MAN WHO DRESSED ‘TOMBSTONE’ INTERVIEWED! PLUS, I’M INTRODUCING ‘NEWS OF THE WORLD’ AT THE AUTRY!

 


I’LL BE INTRODUCING ‘NEWS OF THE WORLD’, AND SIGNING MY BOOK, AT THE AUTRY ON SATURDAY, JULY 13TH

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks

I was delighted to be asked to introduce a film in The Autry’s long-running ‘What is a Western?’ series. I chose News of the World not only because it is an exceptional Western but, because of the pandemic, so few people had the chance to see it as it should be seen: in a theatre, on a screen. The title, which admittedly doesn’t sound particularly Western, refers to the profession of Captain Kidd, played by Tom Hanks in his first Western. He’s a former Confederate Civil War officer, now barely making a living by travelling from town-to-town with a sheaf of newspapers, reading them to the public. He meets a young girl (Helena Zengel), a former captive of the Kiowa, and is given the unwanted responsibility of returning her to her family. It’s a tale that echoes John Ford’s The Searchers, focusing not on the search, but the challenge of a long-time captive’s return to her former world. The Autry bookstore will have copies of my book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, which I will be signing after the film. The link to The Autry, with all of the particulars, is HERE.

And if you want to buy my book right now, you can get it  HERE.


JOSEPH PORRO – THE MAN WHO DRESSED ‘TOMBSTONE’



Joseph Porro

Joseph A. Porro’s costume design career is astonishing. Since 1985, beginning with no-budget films like Neon Maniacs, Porro has used his amazing design skills and style in a wide range of genres, from horror films like Fright Night Part 2 (1988) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), to crime thrillers like The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015), science fiction like Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996). And there’s his international work. “I’ve spent three years in Hong Kong and seven years in mainland China and India. I'm probably one of the most traveled designers, because early in my career I worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lungren, who didn't like to pay taxes in the United States.” His designs for the 2003 version of The Music Man, and 2020’s The Mandalorian earned him Emmy nominations.  But his most appreciated designs? “I still get fan mail from Tombstone all the time.”  He also designed costumes for the Western comedy Shanghai Noon, and even the unsold pilot for the space western Martian Law. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Jospeh about his wide-ranging career, and especially his Westerns.

HENRY PARKE: I've just been rewatching Tombstone, and I love your work in it. It just doesn't look like any other Western; the costumes just seem to breathe authenticity. I understand that you're from Boston. Is it the movies that brought you to California?

JOSEPH PORRO: No, not at all. My mom was living out there with my uncle and my cousins, and I wasn't doing well financially in Boston. So I went out just to see if I could get some work out there. I said to myself, you have a design degree from Parsons in New York. Maybe you should look into costume design. I was making animal costumes like Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers, actually sewing, in the factory in North Hollywood. And this lady, a designer, drove up in this brand new 450 SL Mercedes, and I was like, wait a minute. I'm on the wrong end of this business. (laughs), I quit the job that day. It was very scary, very lean years, the first years in Hollywood, but I was determined to be a designer.

HENRY PARKE: What was your first costume job? I mean designing, not Bugs Bunny.

JOSEPH PORRO: Near Dark was, probably. I did some stuff that went directly to video, but this was for Catherine Bigelow, who's won an Oscar (for The Hurt Locker). It was a modern-day western vampire kind of thing. Very unique in its day. That was my first decent movie.

HENRY PARKE: One of your earlier direct-to-video films was Neon Maniacs which was written by a high school friend, Mark Carducci.

JOSEPH PORRO: That was my first film as a designer and it was quite a disaster. We didn't get paid. They owed us four- or five-weeks salary and I was living in my car then. That was not my favorite film, but you know, whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

HENRY PARKE: Absolutely true. With Independence Day, Stargate, now The Mandalorian among so many others, you've specialized in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Was that your primary interest in film at that point?

JOSEPH PORRO: I liked movies where you actually designed, where you didn't go to the store to buy the outfit. You actually took a pencil and paper and did your own thing. Which I did on Tombstone, and it wasn't how I originally wanted to approach it. At the time I was hired, Kevin Costner was doing Wyatt Earp, and they were doing Geronimo. So literally every single western (rental) costume was gone. The only place that had any left was American Costume. So I go to Luster Bayless (who owned American Costume). “I've just been hired on Tombstone.” And he sits me in his office and tells me that when hell freezes over is when he will give me a costume for that movie! (laughs) Luster Bayless had interviewed with (writer/director) Kevin Jarre as a designer for Tombstone, and (not been hired).

All the big costume houses were empty, so how the hell am I going to do this movie? I said, I can get Victorian clothes in England. I think you need to put me on a plane because there's nothing here. I said, I'm from a fashion design background, so I ‘get’ manufacture. I was in New York for four years working with the designers, and we made things. So everything was manufactured, and that's why I think it had that look. There's things I would change today. I'm much more persnickety about period men's suits and coats and how they're done. Then I was just happy to get someone to make it. So we built it: we built the whole show. And Kevin (Jarre) wanted it much more Technicolor. He was very into the history. He really knew his shit. He got fired, of course, like a week into it. But he wrote the original script too. I was very sad to see that happen. And then they brought in George Cosmatos. He was a piece of work, that one. (laughs) He'd walk on this new set, he'd turn to the set dresser. He'd go, “You see that painting? You see that chair? When we're done with the scene, I want those sent over to me.” He just cleaned the place out! He said that to me with the sketches, too. He said, “I want all your sketches.” And designers were allowed to keep their sketches back then. Now everything's on a computer, but back then they were all original drawings. And in 40 films, he was the only one ever to say to me, “I want your sketches.” I gave him some, I let him think it was all of them. It was either that or be fired. He was not a nice person, but he liked me. I think he fired about 40 or 50 people. Cleaned house. I don't think he's got a devoted fan club, but he finished the film right, and it did look good.

HENRY PARKE: Did he have the kind of strong feelings that Kevin Jarre did about costumes? Or did he just go with what had been planned?

JOSEPH PORRO: He went with. He said what he'd seen in the dailies totally worked and just stay with it. He wasn't persnickety about what I did. He gave me free rein.

HENRY PARKE: Obviously the costumes for all of your characters were very different. I'm thinking particularly about characters like Curly Bill or Ike Clanton.

JOSEPH PORRO: I built all of it. What I rented from England were background, Victorian costumes for people doing crosses (background extras). I built all the chaps.  We did the hat thing with Stetson. I had a glove manufacturer downtown doing the western gloves. I had guys doing all the hand tooling on different things. Guess who it ended up with? This is the part that's great.

HENRY PARKE: Who?

JOSEPH PORRO: Well, the line producer wanted Luster (Bayless) to be on it. It was some serious kickback kind of thing going on. At the end of the show I was given two days to wrap, and it all went to American Costume. Everything. I swiped one pair of cowboy boots, and Charlton Heston's neck scarf I kept for myself because I paid for it with my own money. American took everything. That would never happen today in a studio film. But back then it was different.

HENRY PARKE: Right.

Design for Dana Delany's lilac dress

JOSEPH PORRO: But there was that interesting mix of characters there. Dana Delany was absolutely wonderful. All the ladies, the wives were all great. And Bill Paxton, that first film I did, Near Dark, Bill Paxton was in that. I loved Bill. God, it's so sad he's not with us anymore; such a great guy. Fun, enthusiastic, and he worked your costume, you know what I mean? He got into it, and it helped him become a character; he really was just a joy to be around. Really fun.

I ended up spending literally the whole year with Kurt Russell because I did Stargate with him right after Tombstone. I got to know Goldie (Hawn) pretty well because I'd see her like 20, 30 times at the house for the fittings. She was absolutely lovely. From the crew perspective, boy, Sam Elliott worked the whole room. He knew everybody's name -- the guy who was doing the coffee in the morning, and his wife's name. All the girls thought he was the most charming thing that ever walked, and I thought he was wonderful too.

Billy Zane was an absolute joy, just fun to be around. And so was Powers Booth, absolutely lovely. Stephen Lang, Jason Priestley, Thomas Hayden Church. Michael Biehn was nice, very polite, but he was kind of reserved. What's the name of the other guy who became a much bigger star? Billy Bob Thornton. Yeah, he's a great guy. And so was Charlton Heston. I was kind of in awe. It was originally going to be Robert Mitchum. He couldn't pass the medical; that's the only reason he wasn't in it. And I think it was one of Heston's last films. It was a real joy to dress the guy. Because I was a kid who saw Ben Hur, and he was such a big, big, big star for so long. Planet of the Apes and all these great films he did. He was lovely. He was with his wife every second of the time. And she was a lovely lady. She was by the camera, and as soon as they stopped, she would be with him and she'd go get him a cup of coffee. The two just were very close. You could tell he was having fun. I think it was like a bunch of overgrown kids, playing. And I saw this again when I did Shanghai Noon too. It was like, these really are a bunch of overgrown kids, they get their toy guns and they get on a horse and they get to ride over the hill and shoot the gun, and they're having a ball. It's that kind of environment when you're on a Western. There was only one real pain in the ass on (Tombstone). And you know who that was.

HENRY PARKE: No, I don't.

JOSEPH PORRO: Val Kilmer. And I think he had a lot to do with Kevin Jarre getting kicked out. He didn't think (Jarre) was up to snuff. He stole my father's watch-fob chain, which he was wearing in the movie. He took everything that he could of his (character’s) stuff. He stole the guns that were genuine pistols of the period; a big gun collector was a gun guy on the show. And he brought in the real deal and Val stole 'em. I don't know if those got back, but I called the producer and I said, he's got my grandfather's watch-chain; it's a family piece. I didn't get it back. He said, I'm going to send you a check for a thousand dollars. He had been dealing with props and everyone with Val. I'll tell you one thing he did do well. He was definitely the one who worked out (twirling) the silver cup. I'm the one that supplied the silver cup. I still have it.

HENRY PARKE: I particularly loved Dana Delany's costumes. Was it fun to design for her?

JOSEPH PORRO: It was. We used the Tucson Opera House to build the clothes for her and the other ladies. And the cutter fitter there, the head person, ended up staying with me. She was on The Mandalorian with me. We stayed together for 30 years. Her name is Maggie McFarland. Lovely, lovely lady. And she's still working in Hollywood. I'm retired, but she's still working.

My favorite day on Tombstone was the day that they all rode over the hill -- that big crowd of cowboys. Because that was a big setup, and very early on in production, the third or fourth day of shooting. I was so desperate: how am I gonna get clothes on these guys? And when I saw them all come over the hill and thought, I still haven't been fired! That was my, “I did it!” day. It was one of the toughest films I've ever worked on in my life. It was 18-hour days and a 40-minute drive to that set. The last two, three weeks of shooting Tombstone, the Stargate people wanted preliminary sketches. <laugh>. So then I was getting three to four hours of sleep, because I'd have to do drawings at night. It was a tough show.

HENRY PARKE: Did the success of Tombstone have a big effect on your career?

JOSEPH PORRO: Well, no. You would think I would get 20 westerns after that, right? It doesn't work that way in Hollywood. So many directors liked it, but they weren't Western directors. It was definitely a feather in my cap. And they would be like, oh, he did Tombstone. So it did not hurt my career at all.  And here I am now looking back; it's probably, movie-wise, the one I'm going to be known for, you know? I've done television things that were costume-wise better than Tombstone. Much better.

HENRY PARKE: What was your favorite part of doing Shanghai Noon?

JOSEPH PORRO: The barroom scene in Shanghai Noon is something that I'm incredibly proud of, because that was hysterical. It took three weeks to shoot, as it was like 40 people in the fight, and everything that they've done in every movie for a hundred years with barrooms they did in that one. And they did it with a great sense of humor.


HENRY PARKE: Was doing a comedy Western a lot different from a serious western?

JOSEPH PORRO: No, there was no difference at all. What the joy for me was to actually see Jackie Chan still in his golden years, working at a level of choreography and magic that I've never seen in my life, on anything else. I mean, I worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme and those guys, a lot of action stars early on in the eighties. And none of them could put a show on like Jackie Chan, like him in a fight. His choreography and his sense of humor -- like, I can't believe that he just did that, you know?  <laugh>  I mean, he jumped over this or tumbled -- it's like, what the hell?

 

A Shanghai Noon design for Jackie Chan

HENRY PARKE: When you did Shanghai Noon, did you actually get to go to China?

JOSEPH PORRO: It's the first time I was in China. It was an absolute nightmare: they forgot to get me a Chinese visa. I didn't know I needed a visa because I was just a guy from L.A. I didn't need a visa when we shot in Canada. So here I am at the airport for 18 hours, and Jackie Chan made one phone call and I was let out! <laugh>. He was that powerful. Since Charlton Heston did 55 Days at Peking (1963) the only American to do the Chinese Imperial Court was me, in Shanghai Noon. And I did the full-on court. I did 500 guards, all different levels, with generals. I did the whole royal family, I did a Chinese opera troop, and I did all the servants and the eunuchs. It was roughly 700 costumes to pull those scenes off. My God. And I had 'em all built in China.

HENRY PARKE: Amazing!

JOSEPH PORRO: That it was! It was fun!  <laugh>. And I made friends from that first trip and then, they called me for something else, and I ended up doing seven Chinese movies. I was the American in China doing Chinese movies. I'm so proud of some of them. No one's ever going to see the Chinese movies in America, some of my best work. But they paid literally double what they were paying me in Hollywood. So I took the work, which was bad because that kept me out of the loop in L.A. It kind of took me out of the picture. You need to be seen and be around. It was bad on that level, but otherwise it was great.

HENRY PARKE: We’ve talked about Jackie Chan, but how was Owen Wilson to work with?

A Shanghai Noon design for Owen Wilson

JOSEPH PORRO: Oh, dreadful, horrible. Me and my crew wanted to just slit our throats every five minutes we spent with (Kilmer and Wilson), they were that obnoxious. Owen Wilson: you're doing an 1870s western and I've done all these sketches, and we have all these materials that are authentic. I've got actual pieces from the period, to show him how the real shit looked. And lots of black and white photos from the period, and sketches. And he comes in and he goes, "Oh, I was just on Rodeo (Drive) yesterday" -- and he actually talked like this -- “I was just on Rodeo and I saw these white Gucci jeans, and I really feel that is direction we should go in." Could you hear me? 1870s western male lead wants to wear white Gucci jeans? How is he with Jackie (Chan)? Amazing. The two were perfect together. The chemistry was great. How was Val Kilmer in Tombstone? He was amazing. You watch him, and he's the perfect person for this role. Could I stand him? No. It wasn't just me; it was hair and makeup. He drove all of us crazy.

Val Kilmer would just sit in front of the mirror staring at himself like he was a Greek god, and we have five other fittings to do today, and this is a film done on a tight little budget. I’ve got to get shit done nonstop around the clock, and he is sitting there and asking you, can you get sushi in Tucson? I go, you've got 28 (costume) changes; we need to lock them in and do the alterations on them <laugh>. And we didn't know what he was wearing till 10 minutes before he was in front of camera.  Everybody has their tough times on a shoot. And if you're good at what you do, you have a vision, you fight for it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. Take it for what it is, but it's a hell of an exciting business to be in. For every person that's difficult, I had 500 that were a joy. And I never had two days that were alike in 45 years.

AND THAT’S A WRAP!

Happy Trails,

Henry

All Original Contents Copyright May 2024 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 18, 2024

TCM FEST, INTERVIEW WITH ELKHORN'S TR - MASON BEALS, PLUS JOIN ME AND GREATEST WESTERNS EVER MADE AT L.A. BREAKFAST CLUB!



COME TO THE L.A. BREAKFAST CLUB ON WEDNESDAY, MAY 1, FOR ‘THE GREATEST WESTERNS EVER MADE’, WITH TRUE WEST’S HENRY C. PARKE



That’s right, my book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, has been published by TwoDot, and I’ve been asked to speak about it. If you like Westerns, and you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t, and you’re in the L.A. area, we’d love to have you join us, have a delicious breakfast, and you can purchase a book if you’d like. The Los Angeles Breakfast Club is a fascinating organization, started 99 years ago, to promote friendship, and the illustrious members over the years have included all of the studio heads, from Disney to Zanuck, not to mention Tom Mix. You can buy tickets, and learn all about the Club, here: https://www.labreakfastclub.com/event-details/greatest-westerns-ever

I’ve been the Film and TV Editor of True West magazine for nine years, and the book is based on about eighty of my articles. I don’t mean to brag, but here are a few reviews:


“Film and TV critic for True West, Parke presents a collection of his essays that will be a treat for western film fans… There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes detail and also sharp examination of the cultural impact of western films and of the social changes that affected their content… Parke’s enthusiasm is infectious.”

― Booklist


"A great read... a comprehensive, carefully curated look at the western genre on film and television. Chock full of personal anecdotes that bring humanity to its pages."

-- Patrick Wayne, Actor, The Searchers

"Honored to be featured in this new book by Henry C. Parke, film and TV editor for True West magazine. It’s an in-depth, on point, and eclectic review of the Western film and TV genre, from John Ford to Taylor Sheridan. If you love Westerns, you’ll get lost deep in this one."

-- John Fusco, Writer, Young Guns and Young Guns II


Here are links to a couple of places where my book is available:

https://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Westerns-Ever-Made/dp/1493074393?_encoding=UTF8&linkCode=sl1&tag=insptv-20&linkId=40670747d047d3241c54003bcabb179f&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl

https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-greatest-westerns-ever-made-and-the-people-who-made-them-henry-c-%20parke-true-west-magazine/18667151?ean=9781493074396


TCM FESTIVAL BEGINS THURSDAY!

The TCM Classic Film Festival is back in Hollywood, from Thursday, April 18th, through Sunday the 21st, and as usual, they will be headquartered at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The venues where films will be screening are the Chinese Theatre IMAX, several of the Chinese Multiplex Theatres, the Egyptian – newly refurbished by Netflix, the El Capitan, and there will be poolside screenings at the Roosevelt.   Check out their website here -- https://filmfestival.tcm.com/programs/schedule/20240418/

They have, as always, a wonderful array of films that are almost never shown in theatres. While the packages are insanely expensive, if you go on the stand-by line for a movie that isn’t THAT popular, or one that’s in a HUGE theatre, you can often get in: those tickets are only $20, and with a valid student i.d., only ten!


Among the screenings that will be of particular interest to Western fans, on Friday at 9:30 a.m., at the Multiplex 4, they’re showing MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, the 1949 follow-up to SON OF KONG. A western? No, but it stars Ben Johnson, and it’s introduced by John Landis, director of not only ANIMAL HOUSE, but THE THREE AMIGOS! At 12:15 p.m. in the same theatre, Leonard Maltin is introducing the 1936 version of THREE GODFATHERS. This is not the John Ford, John Wayne 1948 Technicolor version. It’s directed by Richard Boleslawski, and stars the movies’ Boston Blackie, Chester Morris in the Wayne role, plus Walter Brennan before he was cute and folksy, and Lewis Stone, when he was playing outlaws instead of Mickey Rooney's father in the HARDY family films. Very tough, very gritty, very good.




That night at 6, still in theatre 4, it’s John Ford’s 1936 film THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, starring Warner Baxter as Dr. Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln, and was sent to prison for it. The cruel prison guard is the great John Carradine, and his son, Keith Carradine, will introduce the film.


Robert Taylor teaches the women to shoot in
WESTWARD THE WOMEN

Saturday morning they’ll be showing a rare 35mm nitrate print of ANNIE, GET YOUR GUN at the Egyptian Theatre. At 6:15 at the Egyptian, it’s WESTWARD THE WOMEN, with Robert Taylor leading an all-female wagon train, directed by William Wellman, and written by Frank Capra – he wanted to direct it himself, but couldn’t get it set up. Its premise might sound cute, but it’s a serious film, beautifully done, and Robert Taylor does some of his best work as a man who truly doesn’t expect many of his charges to survive. If you’d like to read the article I wrote about Robert Taylor’s Westerns for the INSP channel, here’s the link: https://www.insp.com/blog/robert-taylor-hollywood-star-husband-to-barbara-stanwyck-and-cowboy/. WESTWARD is introduced by this year’s honoree for the Robert Osborn Award, Jeanine Basinger. I was not familiar with her until I interviewed Dana Delaney, who told me of her college experience, “Wesleyan is more of an academic school than a theater school. But they had a wonderful film department run by Jeanine Basinger, and that was where I really developed my love of westerns.”



Sunday at 9:30 a.m. in the Multiplex 6 they’re showing 1932’s LAW AND ORDER, the first talkie version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, starring Walter Huston as Wyatt Earp, and Harry Carey as Doc Holliday, introduced by Brendan Connell Jr., C.O.O. of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.


And at 3:15 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, see the premiere of the 70mm restoration of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, introduced by the director of THE HOLDOVERS, and two-time Oscar-winner for scripting SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS, Alexander Payne.

 

MASON BEALS – THE MAN WHO WOULD BE TEDDY ROOSEVELT


ELKHORN, the new INSP series which airs on Thursday nights, stars Mason Beals as 25-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, a well-educated, socially prominent urban up-and-comer with a happy homelife and a growing political career, who saw his life shatter when, in one day, his mother died of Typhoid, and his wife died giving birth. Determined to rebuild his life, the frail, sickly young man abandons east coast city life and travels west, settling in the Dakota Territory.

Mason Beals, who plays Teddy has, to put it mildly, followed a non-traditional route to stardom. His self-generated career began as a reaction to desperate boredom. “For about nine months, I lived in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, in this town called Bonners Ferry. That’s because my dad had traded a Jeep for an acre and a half of property. My parents wanted to live debt free, so we built this place that looked like Noah's Ark, and lived there when the building was three-quarters finished. We were really trapped inside in the wintertime, and my younger brother and I were as bored as could be. I was just chopping and stacking firewood all winter, and I just started making YouTube videos, doing silly little vlog type things, and eventually started making stuff that was more scripted. That's where I learned how to edit and shoot.”

Mason Beals as Teddy Roosevelt

When his family moved back to his hometown of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the performing bug had bitten him, “but there wasn't much of an acting scene out there, so if you wanted to act, you had to make your own stuff.” He moved to Austin, “and I worked for a production company as an editor, as a shooter, sometimes producing, directing, and continued to make short films,” until his final move to Los Angeles, when he “started to do work with other people.”

Unlike many men his age, the Western genre is not foreign to Mason. “My dad’s a really big movie fan. He’s a blue-collar guy, did hardwood floors for 30 years.  I was reminiscing about how we were going to Blockbuster every week, and I remember he and I had watched 3:10 TO YUMA for the first time and I just loved it. And TRUE GRIT is great. So there were a handful of westerns, and I always enjoyed them. And now having done one, anytime I watch a Western, it's very much like, now I know how the sausage is made a little bit more. So it's very fun to watch it from that angle; they’re such a fun genre.”


He credits his father’s example in preparing to take on the responsibility of playing a lead in a series. “A hard work ethic is needed for something like this, and I definitely got that from my dad. I did hardwood floors with him for a good period of time. I mean, he's just the hardest worker that's ever graced this earth, and so learning from him, it teaches you a little bit of grit, and learning how to be a little bit rough and tumble, going with the flow of things. Keeping a positive attitude when things go wrong; he would always keep a good demeanor. That kind of psyche skill.”

In what ways was does Mason think he and Roosevelt are alike? “You know, when I was reading about his time (in Elkhorn), he talked about how scared he was when he came out here. And he said, by pretending to not be afraid, he became not afraid. I really did relate to that, because the role is intimidating in a lot of ways because he's such an icon. It's definitely an adventurous kind of a shoot. I really relate to the fish out of water element. I was bullied in school and TR was bullied.”

Teddy at his wife's deathbed

Mason brought some Western-ish skills with him, but others he’s had to learn as he goes. “Horseback riding was definitely new for me. Even though I had grown up around people who had horses, I just had never had the opportunity. But it was a pretty quick learning period; I had just a handful of lessons, and then the experience came just being on-set. I learned a lot; I feel very comfortable on horses now in a way I didn't really think I was going to. I'm kind of a coward in a lot of ways. Riding, that's probably the biggest skill that I've like taken away from this. But I grew up shooting guns, growing up in Idaho.”

 

AND THAT’S A WRAP!

Coming in the next Round-up, my interview with TOMBSTONE costume designer Joseph Porro!

Happy Trails!

Henry

All Original Contents Copyright April 2024 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

 

 

  

Monday, April 10, 2023

Richard Dreyfuss Goes West to Yellowstone City!


His thoughts on Murder at Yellowstone City, his other Westerns, American Films in General, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Particular

By Henry C. Parke

Richard Dreyfuss, an Oscar winner for The Goodbye Girl, beloved for Jaws, American Graffiti, Close Encounters and so many more, has finally made a Western movie.  It’s about time: after all, the American history enthusiast is a Civil War reenactor.  “Why wouldn't I be? When you realize how heavy their packs were, and what they did with all that weight on them, it's astounding. We made America to build a different and better country than any other country had ever tried. I have a great deal of pride, however badly we might have done it. I call it an imperfect miracle.”

Isaiah Mustafa and Richard Dreyfuss

In Murder at Yellowstone City, a forlorn former goldrush town in Montana gets a sudden influx of hope when a man dynamites the old mine, and creates a new gold strike!  Then a freed slave (Isaiah Mustafa) arrives in town just as the gold striker turns up dead.  Gabriel Byrne is the law, Thomas Jane is the pastor, and Anna Camp is his wife. Richard Dreyfuss is the Shakespeare-quoting saloon proprietor. Produced by RLJE Films, distributed by AMC, Murder at Yellowstone City is available on AMC+, for rent or sale through Prime, and on DVD and Bluray.  “What appealed to me about the film was that it was a kind of metaphor for America,” Dreyfuss explains. “About people who had come to America, who were being given a second chance.”  It’s actually Dreyfuss’ third chance at a Western; the first two were for television.

   

Svetlana and Richard Dreyfuss on the red carpet

The Big Valley episode, Boy into Man, was a star-turn for young Dreyfuss as a boy trying to protect his younger siblings when his mother disappears.  And in addition to the Big Valley stars, his mother was Diane Ladd, and he was directed by Casablanca star Paul Henreid.  “I worked with Barbara Stanwyck, and that's no small thing: she's part of my innermost fantasy of what it's like to be a movie star. And when I got to work the first morning, she had been there since 4:00 AM, and the crew made it crystal clear to me that they were Missy's crew and they were proud of it. And they didn't want to hear any criticism of Missy. And I had seen every film she'd ever made. So my tongue cloved to the roof of my mouth for most of the time that I was on that show.”

Richard Dreyfuss, Lee Majors, Darby Hinton 
and Margot Jane on The Big Valley

“I walked in and there was Paul Henreid, and I said, ‘Oh my God, it's an honor to meet you, Mr. Henreid.’ And he then asked the question, which is always answered with the actor's oath. The question was, do you know how to ride a horse? And I said, ‘I was raised on a ranch outside of Las Vegas: of course I do!’” Actually, he grew up in Brooklyn. 

There was a scene where Dreyfuss had to drive away in a buckboard with his younger brother and sister beside him.  On the day of the shoot, Dreyfuss pulled the wrangler aside, “And I said, ‘Excuse me, how do you do it?’ And he went, ‘Oh my God, this is really hard, and you've got two little kids sitting next to you on this wagon.’  So I was terrified, and I put the two kids on the buckboard and they yelled, Action!”

Darby Hinton, the boy in the wagon, remembers, “He only had to go three or four feet, pull up, and stop.  But when they said action, he did the only thing he’d seen in the Westerns.  He yelled “Yee-haw!” and they took off!” 

Dreyfuss recalls ruefully, “And away they ran!  Cut! Cut! Cut! I was out of control,” he remembers with a laugh.  “They were afraid that I was gonna kill these kids.”  The wranglers eventually caught up with the wagon, got control of the horse, and brought them back.” Henreid was furious with me. And he said, ‘Do you know why you got this part from me?’ I said, ‘I did a good reading?’ And he said, ‘No!  It is because you said it is an honor to meet you Mr. Henreid!’”

Dreyfuss got through the show somehow, “And at the end of the show, Barbara Stanwyck came up to me and she said, "You know, you're the best actor that's ever guested on this show." And walked away. And I believed her, and I did something I'd never done before, or since. I invited my family and my friends to watch it with me. And I realized, as we all were watching, that what Barbara Stanwyck had done was to say to herself, ‘If I don't say something nice to this kid, he's gonna blow his brains out because he's such a terrible actor.’ So she said this nice thing, and I watched that performance, and I wanted to chop my tongue off. But it certainly did provoke me into being better.

“I did the first Jewish Gunsmoke.” “This Golden Land” won the Mass Media Award from The National Conference of Christians and Jews.  Hal Sitowitz’ script was nominated for a Writers Guild award for Best Episodic Drama. Dreyfuss plays a Russian-born Jewish son who is furious with his father for refusing to bring charges against the three cowboys who killed his brother. Here he gets to ride horses and fire shotguns. It felt good to play a Jewish character in a western, “in the sense that, yeah, I'm Jewish and I like being Jewish. And so it was an opportunity to kind of flaunt my being Jewish. But I didn't think it was a particularly subtle, well-written script.”

Growing up, Westerns were not Richard Dreyfuss’ primary focus. “I was a fan of movies, sound American films. What my daughter disdainfully calls ‘black and whites’. I had probably seen every movie ever made by an American studio between 1931 and ’60, I knew everything about everyone. I used to set my alarm for three o'clock in the morning and watch A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy. And I would sit this close to the TV so I could keep it quiet, but my mother would inevitably wake up and come down the hall looking very much like the Wreck of the Hesperus. She would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘Spencer Tracy.’ And she said, ‘I'll get some cheese.’ And we would sit there together and watch Tracy, and [Charles] Laughton movies, and wow: they do not make them the way they used to.

“You know the story about when the Germans occupied Paris? They said to the film theater owners, we’ll give you a week to play anything you want. And then the German films will come in. And every theater in Paris played Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And at the end of the occupation, every theater in Paris again played Mr. Smith. You know why and I know why.  I once was the keynote speaker to a room of about a thousand people, and Jimmy Stewart. And I described Jimmy Stewart as a metaphor for America, that he was the perfectly innocent American before the war. And I was specific about saying, in Mr. Smith, there's this scene when he meets Claude Rain's daughter. And he's so nervous, he keeps dropping his hat. It's hysterical. And then he went to war, a very real war. His war was from the sky. And when he came back, he never made another innocent American film again. And he never made a film that blamed the Indians for everything. He was a complicated guy. At the end of that luncheon, I was on my way out, and his daughters ran up to me and said, our dad can't talk to you right now because he's crying. But he wanted you to know that he never knew that anyone had ever watched him that closely. And I thought, God, this guy's been a star since 1934. And he didn't know that people watched him that closely.”

AND THAT'S A WRAP!

I hope to see many of you good folks starting this Thursday at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood! It has the best Western representation in years, beginning at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with the premiere of the restoration of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo! And yes, the lovely star Angie Dickinson will be there! They'll also be showing the great noir Western Blood on the Moon, the great musical Western 7 Brides for 7 Brothers -- Russ Tamblyn will be there (!), plus the great silent Western Clash of the Wolves, plus The Wild Bunch, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre!

And the following weekend, it's the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival! It's a wonderful free event -- if you'd like to attend, go HERE for the official website. And be sure to visit the Buckaroo Book Shop at the Festival, where you can meet your favorite Western authors, and hear their presentations.  Click the  Rendezvous with a Writer Facebook Page link to get the details!

Happy Trails,

Henry

All Original Contents Copyright April 2023 by Henry C. Parke. All Rights Reserved



  

Monday, November 28, 2022

TOM WOPAT ON HIS INSP ‘COUNTY LINE’ MOVIES, VITAGRAPH -- THE PERFECT GIFT BOOK FOR THE MOVIE-HISTORY LOVER, I’VE GOT A BOOK DEAL, AND MORE!

TOM WOPAT – NOT JUST A GOOD OL’ BOY


TOM WOPAT ON HIS INSP ‘COUNTY LINE’ MOVIES, BEING LUKE DUKE, HIS WESTERNS, AND MUSICALS

By Henry C. Parke

On Monday, November 28th, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, the second of INSP’s County Line movies starring Tom Wopat, County Line: All In, will play on INSP.  It’s also streaming on Vudu, and is available to purchase on Amazon.

No disrespect to Waylon Jennings, there’s nothing wrong with being a good ol’ boy, but fans who know Tom Wopat by his portrayal of rural characters in movies like County Line and series like The Dukes of Hazzard may be surprised to learn that he’s also a major Broadway musical star. Tom certainly has his country credentials, growing up in Lodi, Wisconsin, “On a farm.  Every other farmer had a little dairy farm.”  But his goals would soon draw him beyond his state’s border, and he credits Wisconsin’s education system for preparing him.

TOM WOPAT:  Back in the sixties. you remember when Kennedy said we we're going to the moon in nine years?  We did, you know. I think that our schools in Wisconsin were exceptional, in that decade especially. And I was fortunate enough to have really fine music teachers, even when I was a little kid.  The local music teacher kind of took me under her wing and encouraged me to learn songs and do solos. And then a guy from North Carolina came to the University of Wisconsin, and he, again, took me under his wing and taught me. I sang opera, I sang German Lieder art songs. I had a really wonderful musical education in our little high school.

HENRY PARKE: So you were first attracted to music, rather than acting?

TOM WOPAT: Definitely. I did my first musical when I was 12.  I kinda learned acting just in self-defense (laugh). I started getting better and better parts and, when I went to the University, (I did) West Side Story, and Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar -- I played Judas in that. It was amazing. And also there were guys that, again, took me under their wing. I was directed towards the summer stock theater in Michigan, where I could get my [theatre actors’ union] Equity card. After I got my Equity card, I took my ‘68 Chevy and 500 bucks and two guitars and drove to New York.

When I got to New York, it was pretty quick. I got there in the fall of ‘77, and by the spring of 78 I was in an off-Broadway musical. I left that one to go to D.C., where I played the lead character in The Robber Bride Room, the Bob Waldman musical. I left that to go back to Broadway and replace Jim Naughton in I Love My Wife. So within six or seven months of being in New York, I was on Broadway in the leading role.

HENRY PARKE: When you were doing so well on Broadway, why did you go to Hollywood?

TOM WOPAT: To quote Larry Gatlin, they made me an offer I couldn't understand (laugh). It was shortly after I finished an off-Broadway run in Oklahoma. I read for Dukes, and that afternoon they called and said, you want to fly to LA and do a screen test? I said, I guess so. I don't know (laugh), I'm just a farm boy from Wisconsin. So I packed up a few things in a paper bag and got on a plane. And 10 days later, we were shooting in Georgia.  I mean, I went from Wisconsin in the fall of '77 to New York, and was on Broadway in the summer of 78. And in the fall of 78 we were making the Dukes of Hazzard.

Tom Wopat and John Schneider

HENRY PARKE: That's amazingly fast.

TOM WOPAT: Yeah, it was a bit of a whirlwind. When I found out I got the part, I was more frightened than relieved. I had just put my toes into the water in New York City, doing Broadway, and then all of a sudden I gotta go and do a role in an action series. I had no idea how to approach television. It's a different ballgame than being on stage.  But I figured I'd make a little money and go back to Broadway, but not so: Dukes was a big hit immediately. So then I moved to LA for a few years.

HENRY PARKE:  You mentioned going to Georgia to shoot. I thought the series was shot at Warner Brothers in Burbank.

TOM WOPAT:  We shot five shows in Georgia, and it was a little grittier, a little more adult show than what it ended up being. They started preaching to the choir a little bit. And some of the scripts got fairly cartoonish for a while. We even had a visitor from outer space in one episode (laugh), which is really bizarre.

HENRY PARKE:  How did you get along with John Schneider? 

TOM WOPAT:  I’ve got six brothers, but I count John as number seven.  I really, really enjoyed my time. I enjoyed our cast. Our cast was very close and still is, really a nice bunch of people.

HENRY PARKE: You worked with two of my favorite actors in that regularly, Denver Pyle as Uncle Jesse, and James Best as Sheriff Rosco Coltrane.

TOM WOPAT: Terrific actors, terrific. And Sorrell Booke [Boss Hogg] might have been the best of the bunch.  Denver and Jimmy probably had more visibility, but Sorrel was kind of ubiquitous for a while. He's in What's Up, Doc? He was on M.A.S.H. And he was a really, really talented guy. All three of them were very talented and very helpful to the younger crew.

HENRY PARKE:  Why did you and John Schneider famously walk out?   

TOM WOPAT: Well, they [the Dukes producers] sell all the dolls and the cars and all that merchandise stuff, and we were supposed to get a pretty good taste of that.  But the way they did it is they had a series of shell companies.  So they would buy the company that made the toys, they would buy the company that licensed everything. They were making half a billion dollars a year, and we were getting a check for a couple of grand. So we thought we were being cheated. And unfortunately, that's the word we used in our lawsuit, and they took umbrage to that and then sued us. In retrospect, it might not have been the best bunch of decisions that we made. However, it was the first time that two stars of a show had walked out together, and that meant something to other actors in the business.  We didn't really get a raise (laugh). They just dropped all the lawsuits. And we did get a couple of new writers, and I was able to direct a half a dozen episodes. I very much enjoyed that.  We had a little more control of the artistic input into the show. I mean, that could be an oxymoron for Dukes of Hazzard, but John and me, we had a lot of skin in the game. We were out there every week doing this stuff, and they kept shortening the shooting schedule.  And they wanted to use miniature cars and barns and stuff. They were doing stunts that weren't stunts, filming stuff with toys and presenting it like it was real. And that was kind of an insult. So, for one of my last episodes, I took out all the miniature stunts that they were gonna do, and I put in footage from earlier shows, different angles of jumps and crashes that we did that weren't used.  We had this huge backlog of stuff like that, and I put it to good use. And John got to direct; John directed the final one. In retrospect, we may have shortened the life of the show a little bit with our walkout, but you know, hindsight's 20-20. We moved on and had a lot of success. I started making records, and from 1991 until 2013, I was probably in a dozen different shows on Broadway.

HENRY PARKE:  Including your first historical Western role, as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. 

Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat

TOM WOPAT:  We had so much fun!  Bernadette Peters is the perfect leading lady, and I worked with her for almost two years.  That's really the high point of my Broadway career.   Then Glengarry Glenn Ross opened up a whole different territory of parts to me. People were not aware that I had any range. They're used to seeing me as the big dog in a musical. And in Glengarry, I was the patsy, I was the one who got taken advantage of. That was interesting; that was hard. Because I'm so used to playing the hero.   Playing somebody that gets skunked, it's not a feeling I wanna walk around with all day (laugh), but I've had other interesting parts. I did a thing with Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful. That's the last time I was on Broadway.

HENRY PARKE:  And you played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

TOM WOPAT: Oh man, what a dream cast. Nathan Lane was Nathan Detroit, Faith Prince was Miss Adelaide, Josie de Guzman was Sister Sarah.  One of my favorite parts is playing Billy Flynn in Chicago, because he shows up late and leaves early, and he wears one outfit.

HENRY PARKE:  In 2010 you did the film Jonah Hex, which is certainly an edgy Western --somewhere between historical and steampunk.

Tom Wopat in Django Unchained

TOM WOPAT:  It's like, metaphysical.  I read for it and they decided I could wear a dental prosthesis and (laugh) pull it off. That was kind of a complicated situation. I think they went through three directors getting that thing filmed.  We worked in Louisiana.  I enjoyed it. It wasn't the most fun I've had; I'll tell you the most fun I’ve had doing a Western was Django Unchained. Oh my gosh. That was great. Basically, my part [as a U.S. Marshall] is kind of a one- trick-pony, but what I did in the movie is exactly what I did in the audition.  Tarantino was very, very gracious. People don't know, but Tarantino used to study acting with James Best. [Tarantino] would take a bus up from Torrance, and he would have a class on Thursday night, and then Jim would let him sleep in the classroom.  Then he would come over to Warner Brothers the next day, I think he's 18, 19 years old, and hang out on the set being one of Jim's guests. So now he has a habit of using TV stars in his films; like Don Johnson was so super in Django. I enjoyed Longmire, another Western.  I'm playing kind of a villain in a sense. It's always implied that I'm taking money from the oil companies to let them do what they want in my county. That was a quality organization. And one of the producers was the daughter of one of the people that worked on Dukes at Warner Brothers.



Tom Wopat in Longmire 

HENRY PARKE: You shot Django at Melody Ranch.

TOM WOPAT:  Right, the Gene Autry place.

HENRY PARKE:  As a singer, did you feel any Gene Autry vibes there?

TOM WOPAT:  No. But you feel the vibes of his horse that's buried there standing up -- you know that?  He buried Champion standing up. We had a good time. One notable thing that Tarantino does is, when you go to the set, you check your phone. There's no cell phones on the set.  Which I thought was genius, and it's not brain surgery to do that.  You want everybody focused on what they're supposed to be doing, not checking their email.

HENRY PARKE: Right. And there's way too much of that on sets these days.

TOM WOPAT:  When I was doing A Catered Affair one time, there was a kid down in the front row and he was looking at a cell phone and I was like six feet away.  I'm sitting at a table right at the edge of the stage and I just looked down there and I just shook my head back and forth and he put the phone away.

HENRY PARKE:  I was surprised to realize that the first County Line movie you made for INSP was four years ago.

TOM WOPAT: Yeah, it was a while back, and it was actually their first action movie. Their previous movies had largely been romcoms, maybe with a little bit of drama to them.  Ours was the first action one. I had so much fun. I had such a great time. And then, they asked if I wanted to do two more, two sequels back-to-back. I said, yeah, you bet. So we filmed them down in Charlotte and around there. And again, a lot of fun, the most fun, really, I've had since Django or Dukes. Because in these shows I'm kind of the big dog, the leader of the pack and I enjoy being able to set the tone on the set, and making sure everybody has a good time. So I take the cast and crew out bowling, or I'll bring in a big pot of chili that everybody has to have a taste of, or make ribs for everybody. I enjoy that kind of hosting situation, and being the alpha male.  It's not probably the most attractive thing to be the alpha male, but (laugh) I enjoy it.

HENRY PARKE: And you need one.

TOM WOPAT: Usually there's a leader on the set. When we were doing Dukes, the leader on our set was a director of photography, Jack Whitman, may he rest in peace. He set the tone. He had come from shooting Hawaii 5-0, so him and his crew had all come from Hawaii. And there was a certain vibe on the set that was focused but gentle. And erudite. He was a real leader in a very soft-spoken way. He was a good guy to learn from.

HENRY PARKE: For folks who haven’t seen the first County Line movie, and don’t know your character, Sheriff Alden Rockwell, what does the title refer to?

TOM WOPAT:  There’s a café, basically a diner, that sits on the county line, on the road.  There's a line that runs down the middle of the café, a line drawn across the table exactly where the county line is, so if I have a beer, I have to put it in the other county, because we don't drink in my county.  There was cooperation between me and the sheriff in the next county [Clint Thorne, played by Jeff Fahey], and we had actually served together in Vietnam as Marines, so we’re heavily bonded. 

HENRY PARKE:  I don’t want to give away too much, because it’s a good mystery as well as a rural crime story.

TOM WOPAT:  It's a little bit like Walking Tall. 

HENRY PARKE:  Yes. Alden Rockwell became a widower in the first film.  And the diner’s proprietress, Maddie Hall, is played by Patricia Richardson. 

Patricia Richardson

TOM WOPAT:  And Pat Richardson has a really nice quality. It gives you a sense of comfort to see somebody that you know and recognize. I mean, being kind of my girlfriend and also running a diner and looking after my health, there's a comforting part of that. I think one of the real attractions of Dukes to families is that it's about family, and it's about taking care of your family, and making sure that nobody comes to harm. And when we're talking family, we talk extended family. So if Boss or Rosco got their tail in a crack somewhere, Jesse would make sure that we helped them out of it. I liken it to The Andy Griffith Show.

HENRY PARKE:  Oh, I can see that immediately. In the County Line films Abby Butler plays your daughter, and it’s a very interesting and very unusual relationship between you two, with her as a recently returned Iraq War vet. 

TOM WOPAT: Well, she's a pistol, man! She didn't take any guff off me. I'm proud of her for joining the service, but I'm frightened for her at the same time.

HENRY PARKE: Right.

TOM WOPAT:  There's that one scene in the original County Line where we're out on the porch and breaking down pistols that we've just taken from a bunch of nefarious dudes. And I asked the director, I said keep this in a two-shot. Because it really works, and any cuts back and forth would be more of a distraction than a help. If you look at old movies, a lot of the really good scenes are shot in a two shot.  They let you decide who you want to watch for the reactions and who you want to listen to. It's not like [single close-up] ‘talking heads’, which television in the eighties got into a lot. We had a lot of fun making County Line and we had just as much fun making these two new movies.

Tom Wopat and Kelsey Crane

HENRY PARKE:  Someone who’s new to the mix is Kelsey Crane, who plays Jo Porter, who is now the sheriff across the county line.

TOM WOPAT:  She's terrific. She's got a lot of talent and she also has the moxie to know how to work a set and how to let people do their jobs without getting in their stuff. Cause a lot of actors will kind of try to be the center of attention all the time. And that gets pretty old.

Tom Wopat and Denim Richards

HENRY PARKE:  If there are going to be more County Line movies, or possibly a series, the determining factor will probably be how audiences relate to your character.  Why do you think viewers will keep coming back?

TOM WOPAT:  Because Alden is the kind of a guy who, if he sees an injustice, he's gonna try and do something to make it right. Whether he really has the power to do that, the agency to do that, that doesn't matter. He's going to do what he can, legally, mostly.


THE PERFECT GIFT FOR THE MOVIE-HISTORY LOVER:

VITAGRAPH – AMERICA’S FIRST GREAT MOTION PICTURE STUDIO


BY ANDREW A. ERISH 

ARTICLE BY HENRY C. PARKE

 

NOTE: The videos you’ll see embedded throughout the article are not merely clips, they are complete films, some running just three minutes, others nearly half an hour.

While most film biographers and historians set out to teach you more about the films and personalities you’ve already grown to love, educator, historian and author Andrew Erish has set himself a more ambitious task: he seeks out the film pioneers who have been undeservedly written out of the histories.  The depth and detail of his research is astonishing, and his prose is accessible and entertaining.  With his previous tome, the fascinating Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, he told of the life and work of a film pioneer whose name belongs alongside D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille.  He wants to save Vitagraph from the same sort of obscurity. 

The output of this initially Brooklyn-based movie studio was remarkable.  “They were leading the way,” Erish explains.  “From 1905 on, they were producing more movies than anyone else in America. They were the first to consistently release a film a week; then it became two films a week until, by 1911 or 1912, they were releasing six shorts and one feature every week. It's just an astounding output, and covering every kind of movie imaginable.”

The men who formed Vitagraph were unlike any of the other movie moguls.  Sam Goldwyn was a glove salesman. Louis Mayer was a nickelodeon theatre operator. They all came to movies from business.  But not Vitagraph’s J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith.  “They started out as vaudeville entertainers.”  Both English immigrants, who arrived in America at the age of ten, Smith was a magician, ventriloquist, and impressionist.  Blackton was a cartoonist and quick-sketch artist.  “They understood the aesthetic that ruled vaudeville, which was a variety of entertainment that would appeal to the widest possible audience, with something for every segment of the audience. And understanding firsthand what audiences reacted to, as stage performers, they had insight that really no mogul coming after them had; they had experience.”

Erish makes a convincing case that Blackton created the first animated films.  “There's absolutely no doubt about it,” he asserts. “A lot of history books mistakenly credit, a Frenchman named Emile Cohl, but Cohl's first animated film was made after Blackton had already made four or five. And Cohl's very first film is actually aping a film which Blackton had made a year earlier.”

Below is Blackton’s wonderful 1907 film, The Haunted Hotel. 

The Haunted Hotel – 1907 dir. Blackton

While Blackton was pioneering animation, “Smith, on the other hand, was very interested in making action-oriented films, and great with moving camera ideas and staging dramatic moments and action to their greatest effect, in real locations, so that these stories would appear more real. And if he was staging something at a steel mill, he would photograph at real steel plants, and put real steel workers mixed in with his lead actors, and it all looked real.” 

They excelled in Westerns, eventually. “The very first Westerns Vitagraph made were in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And they're really bad, there’s just no getting around it. But they had a great story guy named Rollin Sturgeon, who they promoted to director. The guy had such a strong story sense and such a strong visual sense, and they sent him out to Los Angeles to open up a second studio, primarily to make Westerns. He made a film about the Oklahoma land rush called How States are Made.  When the starting cannon is fired, he covers everything in an amazing, extraordinary wide-angle shot that starts with an empty hill.  And you start to see the crest of the hill is covered in these little dots.  Then they start to move down the hill and you realize these are people on horseback, covered wagons, the horse-buggies -- they're all coming towards the camera. That shot lasts over three minutes and it's absolutely stunning to let it play out in real time in a single shot.”

How States are Made -- 1912


While Thomas H. Ince is credited with “inventing” the Western, and the studio system (and for dying on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht while sailing with Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin), his younger brother Ralph Ince was one of Vitagraph’s finest Western directors. “I think Ralph Ince is second only to [D.W.] Griffith (for) his contributions to the language of cinema.  In The Strength of Men, with the two guys shooting the rapids with no protection, and then fighting in the midst of a real forest fire! It's in front of your eyes, the way it would be if that dramatic story were really happening for real.”

The Strength of Men – Ralph Ince -- 1913



Vitagraph also excelled in comedies, creating the first great movie comedian with John Bunny, here seen assisted by fourteen-year-old Moe Howard!

Mr. Bolter’s Infatuation – John Bunny -- 1912


Another huge comedy star was cartoonist-turned-actor Larry Semon.  Although his hilarious sight-gag comedies are forgotten in America today, “Around the world, Larry Semon's movies have been shown, non-stop to this day on TV in Spain, Germany, throughout South America, and Italy.” 

You can watch Semon perform with a yet-to-team Stan Laurel…

Frauds and Frenzies – Larry Semon, Stan Laurel --1918



… and Oliver Hardy.  If you’re offended by black-face jokes, you can skip Hardy.

The Show – Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy – 1922 Norman Taurog



While the story of the demise of the Vitagraph company is by turns infuriating and heartbreaking – they barely survived into the sound era -- their influence on film is inestimable.  Many of their discoveries went on to notable careers both in front of and behind the camera.  “Edward Everett Horton made his first movies at Vitagraph, and became a big silent star. Adolph Menjou started at Vitagraph, playing suave, debonair characters. Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard of Oz, got his start in Vitagraph movies, as a much younger man, back in the teens. And Larry Semon hired a young guy who had directed one or two films, a kid named Norman Taurog, to be his co-director and co-writer. And Northern Taurog went on to have an illustrious career. He directed Bing Cosby and Bob Hope, he directed six Martin and Lewis movies, he directed nine Elvis movies – he was Elvis' favorite director.”

Vitagraph is the winner of the 2022 Peter C. Rollins Book Award and received an award from the Popular Culture Association as one of the best books of 2022.  It’s available directly from The University Press of Kentucky, in hardcover and paperback, here: https://www.kentuckypress.com/9780813195346/vitagraph/

It can also be ordered from independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

I’VE GOT A BOOK DEAL!!!!!!!!!

I am thrilled to announce that I am writing a book for TwoDot Publishing!  Tentatively entitled The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, it will feature many of my articles from True West magazine.  It’s the perfect Christmas gift – but not this Christmas.  It will be in book stores in the spring of 2024.  

THE INSP ARTICLES

Just about a year ago, the very fine folks at The INSP Channel, whom I’ve known for a decade, and written for a little bit, hired me to write a couple of articles about Westerns for them every month.  I’ve been having a great time doing it, although between writing for them, and being the Film and Television Editor for True West magazine, I am sure you can understand why The Round-up has been appearing less frequently than it used to. 

One really exciting thing that has come from this was to chance to interview John Wayne’s son, Ethan, on camera.  I’m including below a link to that interview, and links to several of my INSP articles enjoy!

ETHAN WAYNE INTERVIEW:

w

ROBERT TAYLOR

https://www.insp.com/blog/robert-taylor-hollywood-star-husband-to-barbara-stanwyck-and-cowboy/

LANA WOOD INTERVIEW

https://www.insp.com/blog/exclusive-interview-with-lana-wood-child-star-of-the-searchers-with-john-wayne/

KATHARINE ROSS AND SAM ELLIOT

https://www.insp.com/blog/katharine-ross-and-sam-elliott-marriage-careers/

REDFORD, NEWMAN, AND GEORGE

https://www.insp.com/blog/redford-newman-and-george/?utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&mi_u=a53c941bef4f26da066e8b43bd542dac4f7d4aa4&_hsmi=223373055&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9u5a1POqAkJUmj5-acWe7hQ2uqDPvfq6xoKeDFNl_IU_kisDRtZglcWJBc8fB08X&fbclid=IwAR0L1CTWJn3jfFYfWiOAzwxnz2Acf1Thyffg1zmpvb_IzXrniWqxG4YAi4s

JOHN WAYNE AND JAMES ARNESS - WHEN THE STARS ALIGN

https://www.insp.com/blog/john-wayne-and-james-arness-when-the-stars-align/?utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ddom0520&mi_u=%25%25emailaddr%25%25&_hsmi=213805588&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8WdYG89h0ACFnY5hsam7usu14ojQcTfqAPuo_uWTHfO_0NjUhbaeFlGKLdUyC9ZFk46i2sxSUiwM7YbjAuikuqfXDpjOfZ3CbNUVgXcIEPRphq_b8&utm_content=213805588&fbclid=IwAR21saXKfQ-vXHEyCBRguGzUJhueMeq2rSuaNqtctgXyciqyimMeFHGRdSc

…AND THAT’S A WRAP!

What better possible way to follow up my interview with Tom Wopat?  I’ll be talking with John Schneider about Dukes of Hazzard, his Westerns, and his new movie, To Die For.  Please check out the December 2022 issue of True West, with my article on the best mountain man movie ever made, Jeremiah Johnson!  And if I don’t get to post before the holidays, have a very merry Christmas, a happy Chanukah, a happy New Year, and a joyous anything and everything else that you celebrate!

Happy Trails,

Henry

All Original Content Copyright November, 2022 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved