Hollywood: In the Beginning

 DATELINE: James Mason & Kevin Brownlow

intolerance

Intolerance Anyone?

To find the 1979 Kevin Brownlow documentary series on the origins of Hollywood is a treat. With the stirring music of Carl Davis, adapted to so many styles over the episodes, you have Brownlow’s research to find many lost clips and footage. The limited series was called simply Hollywood.

Of course, for us, the best part of the series was the narrative voice of James Mason, lending a kind of grandeur to the proceedings.

The first episode, In the Beginning, does indeed have a Biblical echo. After all, film pioneer D.W. Griffith’s epics, like Intolerance, put Hollywood on the map.

The story begins with gangsters in New York and New Jersey disrupting independent filmmakers around 1903. These producers and studios were under constant threats as the Edison company wanted exclusivity.

This led to many film producers to look for a place far from the East Coast unions and controls. It took them to California, to a spot outside Los Angeles, where orange groves dominated the mountain backdrop.

They could find every conceivable film set location within a few miles: from snowy mountains, to deserts, to mountains, to oceans.

In addition, movies required sunshine, as most films were made outdoors (even indoor sets) with open roof for light. Since Los Angeles had over 300+ days of sunshine every year, they had found nirvana.

Within a few years, the world knew the streets of Hollywood from movie settings. It became more enhanced when movie star mansions became the Newport of a new aristocracy. Pickfair was the West Coast Buckingham Palace with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as the ersatz American royalty.

If you want to see how the United States and its silent film industry took over the world of film art, you have Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to thank for this insightful series.

Other episodes looked at morals clauses in the budding business, stuntmen, Westerns, and comedians like Chaplin and Keaton and Arbuckle. If you love movies, Hollywood is the best series on its advent.

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Cold Sweat and Unexpected Chills!

 DATELINE: Partial Classic Movie!

 James Mason Mason holds gun on Bronson.

Usually you can tell when James Mason, grand star of the past, took on roles for the money. He once told mega-movie critic Pauline Kael that these sort of films were candidates for the “ashcan.”

While traversing latest streaming lists of old movies now available, we came across something called Cold Sweat from 1970. It appeared to be a routine Charles Bronson crime thriller. It dated from before Death Wish, which meant it presented Bronson in a less iconic and caricatured role.

As the credits rolled, as there was no trailer, the shock value increased. Though Amazon Prime listed the costar as Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife, the film’s leading lady was Liv Ullmann, fresh off her think-piece and highly acclaimed Ingmar Bergmann art house classics.

Good grief, she plays Jill Ireland in this film! Well, you might as well bring in Laurence Olivier to play Jimmy Olson, cub reporter. Of course, Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland shows up as villain Captain Ross’s girlfriend Moira to round out the lunacy.

Sure enough, the third name on the film belongs to James Mason. Yikes. And what is more, the film was based on a Richard Matheson novel: yes, the man who gave us The Incredible Shrinking Man and so many other classic stories. This was his adventure story, Ride the Nightmare. It is not vintage Matheson.

When Mason showed up in the story, first in a shadowy flashback as a younger man a dozen years earlier, he only makes a background cameo. He is the leader of a villainous gang of prison escapees.

He also plays an American and a Southerner. Yikes, and double yikes. You mean you won’t have Mason doing what he does so well: a modulated, upper-crusty bad guy sucking each line like it’s a morsel of his last meal.

That usually signaled that James Mason was doing a walk-through in what he considered a meritless movie. Here, he dons a blue sailor cap with the rim pulled down. He also pulls down every other word in what appears to be an Alabama twang via Oxford.

Nevertheless, it is an unknown Bronson film with James Mason, Liv Ullmann, Jill Ireland, and a story by Richard Matheson. You could do worse, though Mason and Ullmann were not happy on this movie set, nor with Bronson, until the paychecks arrived.

 

 

Decree, Ripper, & Sherlock Holmes

DATELINE: Solid Sherlock Entry!

Mason & Plummer

Back in 1979, another tandem of Sherlock and Dr. Watson came in the form of Christopher Plummer and James Mason. You certainly could not find a better pedigree. The film is Murder by Decree, one of the lesser entries in the Holmes movies.

The film deserves a better fate than to be forgotten.

Director Bob Clark (of Porky’s and Christmas Story) surrounded them with a stellar cast of actors (Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Susan Clark, David Hemmings) and some bad set-up minatures of London.

You can expect superior performances—and the Holmes/Watson team is highly watchable, though we took umbrage with Holmes wearing his deerstalker hat in London and showing tears after interviewing a woman in a mad house.

The idea of Holmes chasing after Jack the Ripper is always a staple notion of Victorian crime, though it is not part of the original Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, it seems as if someone decided to plunk down Holmes in the middle of a serious murder conspiracy theory of 1979.

The idea that the Ripper was a member of the royal family has been floated in various situations, but never played for a fictional interpretation with these results.

Blame seems aimed at the usual suspects of conspiracy theory. The culprits here are, once again, freemasons of the 33rd degree who now seem to be covering up the Ripper (other tales make them complicit in UFOs and the Kennedy assassination). With all the top government officials involved, we wondered where Mycroft might be.

In this incarnation, the Ripper plot goes right to Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister. This story seems to support the notion that the monarchy of England deserves to be dismissed. Of course, it is too radical even for Americans.

The politics of religion dominates the story as Catholics and Jews are also made part of the investigation, albeit as victims of prejudice and hate.

 

Salem’s Lot in Life & Death

DATELINE: Stephen King Meets James Mason

Lance, Mason & Friend Lance,  James Mason, & Friend!

When in 1979 we heard James Mason was doing a Stephen King TV movie, we were appalled. We refused to watch one of our perennial favorites demean his career in its last years by doing something as cheesy as Salem’s Lot.

Today we eagerly watch it and devour his every screen moment.

Who would have guessed that James Mason slumming on TV could be so delightful?  With Tobe Hooper directing like he is doing an imitation of Vera Miles approaching Hitchcock’s Bates mansion, you throw in some performers we always liked: Lance Kerwin, Ed Flanders, Elisha Cook, Lew Ayres, Marie Windsor, Kenneth MacMillan and Fred Willard!! What a juicy little horror—just a tad silly around the edges.

It’s a little perverse too. James Mason is the procurer for some kind of Nosferatu in Maine, finding little boys for him to devour. Lance Kerwin seems ripe, but he has eyes only for David Soul. Their smoldering subtext is off the charts in its own way. Did anyone making the movie understand the word ‘latent’?

James Mason and Lance Kerwin share only a couple of glances in their scenes, but it may be that they saw something utterly disdainful in the other.

With an uncut three-hour version of the old TV miniseries now available on streaming, you can sit back and wallow in low-rent horror that remains top-drawer compared to the junk of today. There is no needless blood and/or off-the-computer special effects. Here actors rely on their wiles, not on the blue screen.

James Mason is the full show here, delivering lines with an inimitable throwaway snobbery. Wait till you hear him pronounce, “expertise.”

Most of the movie he is either entering or exiting doorways and looking askance. He clearly enjoyed making a movie with his wife, Clarissa Kaye, and chewing the scenery. You will enjoy it too.

LeCarre’s Deadly Affair

DATELINE:  Cold War Spies

Serpentine dinner

When Sydney Lumet could not use the original name of George Smiley for his spy from the famous book, he came up with Dobbs. However, the man playing Dobbs was the always-brilliant James Mason. He was Smiley in any other name in The Deadly Affair.

As a spy mystery, this movie is the epitome of sophisticated and intelligent drama in the 1960s, down to the Astrid Gilberto theme song.

Few movies would feature a background scene of Macbeth as put on by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as part of the plot. There you’d find a quite young Georgy Girl, Lynn Redgrave, before she teamed up with Mason again in her breakthrough role.

Harry Andrews and Kenneth Haigh provide solid support as allies to Mason’s disgruntled, cold spy who learns a man he interviewed pleasantly as a routine security check was not happy and committed suicide shortly thereafter. He is suspicious, rightfully.

Simone Signoret is right off the boat of Ship of Fools, and Maximilian Schell out of Judgment at Nuremberg. You have here something special in the litany of suspects.

John Dimech, one of the young stars of Lawrence of Arabia, made a small appearance here as a waiter at the Serpentine Restaurant. It was a swan song to a promising movie career.

Back then, this was the antidote to James Bond special effects and glamour. It is full of sound and fury signifying ennui.

The script has a couple of glorious hoots among the angst of the characters. It is, after all, vintage John LeCarre and a dandy spy mystery.

 

 

 

Five Fingers: James Mason Chooses the Right One

DATELINE: Classic Spy Drama

crossed Mason

What a joy to re-discover one of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s forgotten masterpieces!

Five Fingers came in-between so many other, better remembered films like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, All About Eve, and the Barefoot Contessa. In 1952, Mank went to Turkey to film the true story of World War II’s notorious spy who sold info to the Nazis. The Germans called him Cicero and were forced to pay him an exorbitant sum for his services, but distrusted him.

Bernard Herrmann supplied the music score.

Once again, Mank assembled the best actors: James Mason, Michael Rennie, and Danielle Darrieux. He had an ear and eye for top-quality British actors.

The Nazis think Mason is one of those arrogant members of the aristocracy. They know the type. In fact, Cicero is the valet to the British ambassador, a brilliant man who states: “The only thing that disgusts me is poverty.” When the head of British intelligence calls him the worst piece of trash, Mason shrugs: “I rather thought I looked like a gentleman.”

Only Mason can deliver lines with aplomb—and Mank gives him plenty of hilarious, cynical throwaways. Mason chews up great dialogue with a voracious appetite for screen fame. His inflections cannot be repeated by anyone.

Mason’s spy is not James Bond, but he makes mincemeat of Nazis and British authorities as he ultimately outsmarts them—his poverty-stricken countess partner and himself.

As a poor cabin boy, Mason’s Cicero once saw a man in a white dinner jacket, high up on his villa’s balcony overlooking the ocean. He was laughing hilariously. It is only at the end of the film, when Mason becomes the embodiment of his boyhood dream, do we find the biting irony of it.

What a movie!

 

Spaghetti Western Throws in Meatballs

DATELINE: Another Ashcanister of Film

When we heard that in 1971 Lee Van Cleef, Gina Lollobrigida, and James Mason, teamed up for a spaghetti Western, we could not resist.

We thought we had seen all of Mason’s singular performances, even those he preferred to relegate to the “ashcan,” as he called it.

Apparently when the script for Bad Man’s River came to him, he was in particular need of cash. Producers feared he would not show up—but he flew in to Madrid a day before shooting.

Mason surely had better offers, but maybe he owed someone a favor. We could not explain it any other way. We know that Lollobrigida received $50,000 for her effort—and felt she was ill-paid for her efforts.

Mason later told press members that just because a movie is made in the middle of nowhere in Spain doesn’t mean someone in England won’t see it, especially if the Rank Organisation decided to embarrass the star.

The film is light and played broadly with an annoying balladeer who finally disappears. After an hour or so, James Mason shows up as one of the many husbands of Gina. The running gag in the movie is that she is frequently a widow, often cheating her spouse unto death.

The story revolves around the fact that all three principals are not to be trusted: well, we would never have guessed that.

Van Cleef seems to have been the subject of more plastic work than Gina. Mason may look youthful for the last time in his career. Perhaps this movie took it out of them.

The producers were at ends when Lollobrigida and Van Cleef clashed on set. To his credit, Mason was the epitome of professionalism. He just wanted to finish this ashcan candidate and get the hell out of there.