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#292 December 27, 2016

Matt writes: With New Year's Eve quickly approaching, movie buffs are already setting their DVRs to record annual broadcasts of Michael Curtiz's 1942 classic, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," featuring its Oscar-winning performance from James Cagney as George M. Cohan. In his Great Movies essay on the film, Roger Ebert reflected on just how large of a departure this role was for the actor.

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The Magnificent Ambersons: What's Past is Prologue

I've always felt Orson Welles' second feature, the memory-movie masterpiece "The Magnificent Ambersons," got a bad rap because: 1) it isn't "Citizen Kane"; and 2) it isn't the perfect creation Welles intended it to be because, as we all know, RKO re-cut and re-shot parts of it, including the last two scenes (which are so not Welles they don't really affect you much; they're like background noise that wakes you out of a deep sleep). Well, OK, "Ambersons" isn't "Kane" -- it's not as much fun as "Kane" (few movies are), but it's every bit as accomplished and it goes deeper into its characters and its evocation of the past. And, yes, I'd give my (fill in portion of anatomy here) to see the lost footage restored (although you can read the cutting continuity of the unfinished 132-minute version Welles left behind when he went to Brazil in March, 1942, and see stills of the missing scenes -- so you can imagine the finished movie, even if you can't actually see it).

All of this is to say that AltScreen has published a long piece I just wrote about this, one of my favorite movies. It begins with a more-or-less shot-by-shot analysis of the nine-minute prologue, and how it sets up everything else in the movie. You can read it here: "The Magnificent Ambersons: The Past is Prologue." The film has only recently been made available on Region 1 DVD (and even then as an Amazon-only bonus with the new Blu-ray of "Kane," though it shows up on TCM occasionally). A few excerpts, to give you a taste:

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Yankee Doodle Dandy: Born on the Fourth of July

Spike Jones - I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy by perruche My Great Movie review of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which won James Cagney an Oscar.

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"It's not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Cher said.

By Roger Ebert / May 7, 1967

To begin with, there was a little girl out in the hallway with long black hair and white bell-bottom trousers. She was sitting on a bench by the elevator, looking across the hallway into a mirror which showed her sitting on a bench by the elevator. So when you came up in the elevator and the doors opened, here was this image of a little girl with long black hair and bell-bottom trousers, looking into the elevator door at you.

At first your mind didn't understand, and you thought maybe this was Cher herself, waiting by the elevator for you, and so you stepped off the elevator, smiling stupidly because you were caught off guard, and suddenly the little girl was behind you, and there you were smiling at her in the mirror, and she was scowling because she thought maybe you were trying to pick her up or something.

It was one of those totally unsettling, absolutely miserable situations. If you were James Cagney you would turn on her and snarl, "Dammit, you're only 12," and mash a grapefruit in her face.

But instead you knocked on the door of Room 640, and Sonny himself opened it, dressed in white bell-bottom trousers and a silk brocade shirt the color of rainbows. Then you heard this wail being sent up from behind you: "Sonnnneeeeeyyy!"

The scream propelled you into the room as Sonny hastily slammed the door. In the room there were two girls with long black hair and white bell-bottom trousers. They looked up at you and you wanted to explain that you weren't the one who had been screaming just now, but it didn't seem that they had heard anything.

"Hi, I'm Sonny," said Sonny. Studying the two girls in the room he singled out one and said, "This is Cher."

"Gratified," Cher said. You saw that she wore a ring that said "Sonny." You edged around to see Sonny's hand, and, sure enough, he wore a ring that said "Cher." All's well.

The girl who wasn't Cher said she would call Room Service.

"Well," you said.

"Now that we've covered that," Cher said.

"How about a drink?" said Sonny.

"I'll just have a Coke," said Cher. "No, Diet Pepsi."

"It must be hazardous to be the idols of teeny-boppers everywhere," you said. "Do you ever wish you could just, uh, walk down the street?"

"Oh, everybody knows us in Los Angeles," Sonny said. "They're used to seeing us. We don't believe in being aloof and above everybody and all that. We try to be natural."

Cher smiled. "The clothes may not look too natural, but out on the coast they don't stand out too much. Here, I guess they look a little eight and a halfish."

"Eight and a halfish," we said.

"She means Juliet of the Spiritish," Sonny said.

A silence fell.

"The only time you really have to worry about your fans is in a concert situation," Sonny said. "Mass hysteria gets started, and adoration turns to hostility. The best thing to do in a situation like that is, don't panic, but assert authority."

"There was only one case where we got physically torn apart," Cher said.

A waiter from Room Service came into the room and passed out menus. Sonny ordered a hamburger and a tossed salad.

"Dressing?" said the waiter.

"I'll have the Roquefort," Sonny said. "A wise decision," the waiter said. "Soup or appetizer?"

"No thanks," Sonny said.

"I'll have English muffins," Cher said. "No, make that just one English muffin."

"One English muffin," the waiter said "Soup or appetizer?"

"Whoddya think this is?" said Cher.

After luncheon was served, Sonny talked about the events of three and a half years, which have catapulted the couple to stardom.

"I had tried to be a singer on my own, but without success," he said. "When I met Cher, I was a promotion man for a record company. I was fascinated. I thought she was beautiful. I knew at once she'd be great."

"I was going to school at the time," Cher said. "I was attending Montclair, an acting school. I didn't really want to be an actress, but I had no interest in regular school and my parents thought this would occupy my time."

Sonny said he hesitated before asking her to marry him.

"I knew she'd be a star. I didn't want to be the husband in the background while she was famous," he said. "I wrote her a poem, saying goodbye. But then we got married. I knew I had to be as powerful as she was if our marriage was to work. Without Cher, I was nothing as a singer. Together we were everything."

Sonny said they now face their greatest hurdle.

"We have to change from singers to entertainers," he said. "We have to develop an appeal for adults as well as the kids. People don't buy a sound, they buy a personality. Look at Sinatra, Bogart, John Wayne."

He said their current image, based on long hair and mod clothes, is simply an outward appearance.

"I don't see why anybody can object to contemporary clothes if they're neat and clean," he said.

"It's not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Cher said.

"You can dress this way, yet be ambitious, clean, and have good moral values," Sonny said.

"That's what we were trying to say in our movie," Cher said. "If there's a message in 'Good Times,' it's don't sell out."

"We don't make that unhealthy scene on the coast," Sonny said. "A lot of kids are being mislead by Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey. The whole LSD crowd is nothing but a lot of bald-headed teeny-boppers. They're really weirdos."

"That sort of thing wouldn't happen if parents knew where their children were at all times," Cher said.

"That's right," said Sonny. "It's up to the parents. The family has to unite again. There are altogether too many divorces." He said his marriage with Cher symbolizes the possibility that people can be married.

"Not like a lot of these groups," Cher said, "where there's no telling what goes on."

"Let's face it," Sonny said. "We're pros. I'd wear a suit if I had to because I want the business."

From the hallway carne a plaintive cry: "Soonnneeee!"

"I would go bald," Sonny was saying. "I would cut off all my hair to play a role."

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Richard Harris: Don't let it be forgot

By Roger Ebert / June 26, 1974

Richard Harris, dressed from head to toe in black, sprawled on the couch in his hotel suite and sang, not at all badly, a few warmup lines of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." It was afternoon, although apparently not for him, and he was in Chicago with Ann Turkel, his bride of 13 days, to promote a new movie they costar in.

The name of the movie is "99 44/100% Dead," and that is what most of its villains are, after they encounter Harris. Unlike the soap, however, they do not float, and the movie opens and closes with scenes of a macabre fraternity of the deceased: gangland victims encased in concrete and sent to wait at the bottom of the East River.

"The only way to view this movie," Harris explained, "is to see it as sort of a comic strip, to be enjoyed and laughed at on a strictly one-dimensional level. Once you ask yourself the first question about it, you're lost."

Harris plays the world's greatest hit man, who is imported to New York as a big gun in a war between Little Eddie and Fast Joey, or Little Joey and Fast Eddie ("We never quite explain who either one of them is"), and Ann Turkel plays his girl friend. She is a schoolteacher, who drives the getaway school bus.

"I was petrified," she said, looking, however, definitively the opposite on the couch next to Harris. "I had never driven a stick shift in my life before, and they gave me about two hours' lessons and set me loose in Los Angeles traffic."

"You almost killed the camera crew, luv," said Harris.

"I almost turned us over," she said. "They had a stunt man in the back, but I can't figure out how he was going to help me."

"He was scared shitless," Harris observed.

Their movie, which has been directed as sort of a cross between Steve Canyon and Fearless Fosdick, is a very flatsurfaced, exaggerated, popart fantasy by John Frankenheimer, whose other credits include "The Manchurian Candidate."

"When he sent me the script," Harris recalled, "I got to the line that said, 'This town isn't big enough for both of us,' and I threw it aside. What the hell kind of line is that? It went out with the 1930s. But then I thought if the script's so bad, what's a class director like Frankenheimer doing sending it to me? So I picked it up again, and got the joke. It's a comic strip put-on, done perfectly seriously."

It is the latest of a great many movies, most of them ("This Sporting Life," "Man in the Wilderness," "Camelot") successful for Harris, but it's Ann Turkel's first role. She's a Westchester County girl, daughter of a clothing manufacturer, who did a lot of modeling and television commercials before Frankenheimer saw her screen test, liked it and put her opposite Harris. Casting about for the most original question I could imagine, I asked if it had been love at first sight.

"Not exactly," said Ann, a tall and slender brunet with wide eyes and, sigh, lots of other qualities. "Actually, first sight was five years ago. We met then, but Richard doesn't even remember."

"I had my head up my . . . in the clouds," Harris explained.

"When he found out that I'd been cast for the movie, he wanted me fired," she said.

"There are too bloody many good actresses unemployed already, so why give this unknown a job, was my line," Harris said.

"There was an item in one of the London papers, all about Ann Turkel vs. the Ogre," Ann said.

"I looked up ogre in the dictionary and I didn't like it one bit," Harris said.

"We were both in London at the time and scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on the same flight," she said. "I was so frightened of Richard I changed my ticket to tourist class to escape him."

"That was unnecessary," Harris said, because I bloody well didn't fly back at all. Then Frankenheimer called me up and told me to stop being a bloody fool and trust his judgment, because he'd seen the screen test.

"By the time I finally walked on the set, I was feeling rather guilty, and so I sort of helped her, you know, and we became friends. But she still had her boy friend back in London. One day, after about six months, we were sitting by the pool, and I said, 'Ann, dearest, do you think there's something going on between us and we don't know about it?'"

"Maybe it's a case of opposites attracting," Ann said.

"That's it," said Harris. "She used to go out with tall, sleek, wellgroomed men, and I went out with buxom blonds. There are thousands of girls on the streets like the ones in Hollywood today, but not many girls of the more elegant type, refined . . . I think Annie has a real gift."

Their next movie together might be a sequel to his very successful "Man in the Wilderness," he said. That one grossed around $15 million and was about a civilized English man surviving in the wild.

"I almost got killed on that one," he recalled. "I was suspended from the top of the tepee for the manhood ceremony, and the rope broke and I fell. I could have landed in the fire or impaled myself on a buffalo horn, but I missed and landed between them. Remembering my early training in tavern brawls, I sprung quickly to my feet, because when you're on the floor, they kick you. Only THEN did I pass out."

Harris, it's been noted, is very likely the only living actor who has starred not only in a Doris Day picture ("Caprice") but also in a Michelangelo Antonioni picture ("Red Desert"). I asked if he brings the same acting techniques to both kinds of movies.

"The only advice I ever got on acting that did me any good," he said, "was a long time ago when I was just starting out and I made a picture in Ireland with James Cagney. It was called 'Shake Hands with the Devil.' I'll never forget, one day, Cagney summoned me to his suite at the Shelbourne Hotel for a couple of drinks.

"And then be said, 'Kid, you'll do OK. You'll make it.' Harris was doing his Cagney imitation. 'But remember this: When you're in a movie and they want you to go from one place to another, walk in a straight line. A straight line. That's how they'll know you're the star. Too many of these goddamned English actors are walking in curves all the time!"

Richard Harris at the Toronto Film Festival, 2001. (Photo by Ebert. Mentioned in obituary below.)

In Memory: Richard Harris.

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