Old Movie Week

Finally, after three years of waiting, the 1974 version of The Three Musketeers is available on Netflix.  I was very much alive in 1974, but incommunicado as far as media was concerned.  We lived in a small town in the  New Mexico mountains, owned no TV or radio, had no phone, saw may three movies in an entire year, if that much.  Occasionally we heard some news: there was this investigation going on, something about Watergate?  And oh yeah, the President resigned over something.  And life went on in the world of best-sellers and blockbusters, including what some believe to be the definitive version of The Three Musketeers.  It’s fun–a powerhouse cast including Charlton Heston, Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain (how many of those names do you recognize?) and a classic catfight between Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.  Nice opening sequence, great costumes, so-so soundtrack, clever bits including background comments by the King’s dwarfs that cracked me up.  In the end it sort of disappears.  Dumas’ classic work is actually pretty thin on story–I did read it once, but it didn’t have very powerful claws to hold my imagination or memory.  C. S. Lewis wrote that what he missed in it was a sense of place; the action shifted from Paris to London and back with no indication of the character of the locations.  I missed a sense of character.  Athos, Aramis, and Porthos display distinctions–the jaded one, the religious one, and the buffoon–without depth.   D’Artagnon is the naïve enthusiast catapulting himself among them, and for an adventure yarn that’s good enough.  The story just doesn’t hold up for me, and the movie is fun but forgettable.

 For character study, check out A Face In the Crowd.  This is a 1957 movie by Elia Kazan (you know, of On The Waterfront) that didn’t get much attention at the time.  It has its weaknesses, but also some striking moments, especially in the development of the two main characters.  Patricia Neal is Marcia Jeffries, whose uncle owns a radio station in NE Arkansas.  Marcia is bright, ambitious, and enthusiastic; it’s her inspiration to go into out-of-the-way places to capture authentic hillbilly voices to feature on her program, “A Face in the Crowd.”  On a trip to the county jail she stumbles up on a mercurial character named Rhodes who can be persuaded to sing for a slug of Jack Daniels.  From there he launches into an improvised riff that inspires Marcia to offer him his own radio show, billed as “Lonesome” Rhodes.  A swift rise follows, from Pickett, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, to New York City and the big big time, accompanied by the screams of adoring fans and the solicitation of wealthy entrepreneurs and politicians.  All this naturally goes to his head and leads to a bad end.  It’s predictable enough but still engrossing: first as an artifact of the days when campaign managers were just beginning to catch on to TV as a means of manufacturing political persona, and next as a character study of a well-rounded human being who flattens into his own self-image.  And finally, as a fascinating side trip into what Andy Griffith’s career might have been before he became Sheriff of Mayberry.

It would be easy enough for Griffith to portray his character as an amiable dunce (where have I heard that term before?), pumped up by his handlers.  He starts out as a drifter, a skirt-chaser and a bum, sleeping off a bender in the county jail.  But Larry Rhodes is nobody’s fool and besides his natural gift of gab and a sharp sense of just how far he can push the envelope, he possesses an instinctive feel for human character that masquerades as sympathy.  He’s successful because he can connect, not only with the faceless crowds of radio and TV-land but also with Marcia Jeffries.  Marcia is nobody’s fool either: a strong female in a man’s world, meeting obstacles with charm and enthusiasm, she rides Rhodes to the top and then fears she’s ”created a monster.”  With some justification, but she was also his first victim.  The storyline wobbles toward melodrama but doesn’t cross that line, and even though Griffith’s performance is a bit over the top at the end, it gives the lie to the legend of the bland, conformist, Eisenhower fifties.

 Except for one thing: the movie’s view of the American public is as cynical as Lonesome Rhodes’.  We’re all a bunch of sheep out here; all you need to know about us can be read in the ratings and market share reports.  Elia Kazan and screenwriter Bud Schulberg were left-leaning anti-communists, a rare combination in McCarthy-era Hollywood.  They took an admirable and costly stand against communism but, at least in this movie, showed a condescension toward the masses not too far removed from contempt.  If the public is as Kazan and Schulberg portray them, so gullible as to be swept away by cracker-barrel corniness, what’s wrong with somebody like Rhodes profiting from it?  That’s a question scarcely raised.

 One other observation about old movies: sound tracks have sure changed.  When did movies start using a continuous sound track?  The score of old movies is mostly noticeable in its absence, except when clangs into the story at a dramatic moment with a screech of strings.  Some directors, like Eric Rhomer, did without scores altogether.  It’s a bit eerie, like standing a little too close to the action.  Do movie and TV scores today function as insulation from life, or has life itself become something that’s scored all the way through?

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