MY FAVORITE FILM FIGHT SCENES, PART 2 OF 5

As stated in the first installment, writing Lee Marvin Point Blank gave me a new appreciation for movie fight scenes. In this second installment of my favorite film fight scenes, the 1950s and early 1960s are rightfully represented….

6. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER -1955

(L-R) Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey & MIchael Kidd survery the damage they wreaked aftet their brawl on live TV.

(L-R) Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey & MIchael Kidd survery the damage they wreaked aftet their brawl on live TV.

Let’s be honest, You’re infinitely more likely to see somebody sing and dance down the street then you’ll ever see an intergalactic space battle. Yet the latter rules the current box-office while the former has been relegated to the dustbin of time as being phoney and unrealistic. That’s a shame for many reasons, not the least of which is the amount of talent and ingenuity being wasted by not producing any more original film musicals which was once the bread-and-butter of the industry.
One of the best and least appreciated of the genre was the atypical, It’s Always Fair Weather. Three war buddies vow to remain friends and meet 10 years later only to find they have absolutely nothing in common. Not the plot of a ‘How-are-we-going-to-get-the-show-on’ musical, but an interesting character study that also pokes satirical fun at Madison Ave, professional sports, and most of all that new stranger in the house, television. Gene Kelly had at first thought it would be a sequel to On The Town but opted instead for a dance extravaganza with atheletic Dan Dailey, leggy Cyd Charisse and bite-sized Michael Kidd. I could go on about the greatness of this forgotten classic (it’s the one in which the 3 leads dance with trash-can lids on their feet and Kelly solos on roller skates) but since this about fight scenes check out this movies’ amazing climax. Since all fight scenes are essentially choreographed, who better to show off their prowes in their field than 3 of the best dancers in movie history? Kidd especially shines with rapid movements in, out, down and around the fight but Kelly and Dailey are no slouches. Just watch it some time and see for yourself.

7. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK-1955

Robert Ryan (left) sics his bulldog Ernest Borgnine (right) on poor one-armed Spencer Tracy (center).

Robert Ryan (left) sics his bulldog Ernest Borgnine (right) on poor one-armed Spencer Tracy (center).

Maybe not THE most, but certainly one of the most influential fight scenes in movie history. A brillian study on that all-American virtue known as bigotry, director John Sturges and writer Millard Kaufman slowly turn the screws of tension as middle-aged, one-armed, slightly paunchy Spencer Tracy gets shut out in his attempts to find out what happened to his war-time comrade, Komoko, in the sleepy desert town of Black Rock. The film is brimming with great moments (including several with lower-billed henchman Lee Marvin) but the highlight is without question what happens when bulldog-squeezed-into-a-pair-of-jeans Ernest Borgnine taunts Tracy into a fight.
How could Tracy possibly come out alive? As Steve Allen said to me when I interviewed him back in the 90s: “The moment when poor, one-armed Spencer Tracy finally lashed out as the good guy, elicited from a good neighborhood totally white audience the loudest ‘Yeah!’ I ever heard in my life in a movie. I mean you hear it at football games and such but I never heard a [movie] audience do that before.”

8.THE KENTUCKIAN 1955

Director and star Burt Lancaster (left) lays it on bad guy Walter Matthau (right) in Matthau's film debut.

Director and star Burt Lancaster (left) lays it on bad guy Walter Matthau (right) in Matthau’s film debut.

Burt Lancaster made his directorial debut with this film, and although rarely appreciated in his canon of work, it has one of my all-time favorite fight scenes. Walter Matthau made his film acting debut as Lancaster’s nemesis, taking him on with a whip as Lancaster battles bare-fisted. It’s a western, but unlike most westerns it takes place in the early 1800s, tells the tale of a traveling backwoods single father and his young son and, despite some overly talky scenes, has some phenomonally action scenes. It buils to a fight between Lancaster and Matthau, whom we’ve seen is an expert with a bullwhip while all Lancaster has is bare knuckles. Feel sorry for Matthau, who does make you think he has ol’ Burt out maneuvered….for a little while, anyway.
Becuause former acrobat Lancaster directed the film, he gave himself a rousing end scene in which he races through a pond without cutting away in order to stop his enemy from relaoding his flintlock. Must be seen to be believed.

9. WEST SIDE STORY-1961

Richard Beymer (left) as Tony scrambles to help Russ Tamblyn as RIff (center) against rival gang leader Bernardo (right) played by Geroge Chakiris.

Richard Beymer (left) as Tony scrambles to help Russ Tamblyn as RIff (center) against rival gang leader Bernardo (right) played by Geroge Chakiris.

Yeah, it’s a favorite and since there’s very little I can add about this classic that hasn’t been said already a million times, I’ll just go on about what it means to me personally. Oh, other than it’s another example of a movie still chided for being less beleviable than a superhero franchise simply because street gangs don’t go around dancing the mean streets of NYC. Right. But caped crusaders do. Please!
Anyway, when I was a kid and first saw the knife fight ballet, it scared the hell out of me! Seriously.  I bought into the film’s premise completely and since I was just a kid, I picked sides. Russ Tamblyn as Riff was a favorite since seeing him in Tom Thumb and then seeing the gymnasitc dancing he did made him even more a favorite. I still recall being on the edge of my seat during that knife fight and my pounding heart jumping into my throat at the outcome. I really didn’t expect it and watching it today, it still gets to me. Sure, they’re dancing in the fight but it makes it no less belevable to me. I recall George Chakiris once saying that Jerome Robbins taught him the difference in dancing between just movement in step and movement as character and geez, does it show in this sequence. Watch it again and you’ll see what I mean.
Oh, one more  afterthought:  Tamblyn and Chakiris have remained friends through the years and recently, Tamblyn underwent open heart surgery. Apparently it was touch-and-go but when they wheeled him out of post-op one of the people Tamblyn saw nervously awaiting the outcome, was Chakiris. They locked eyes and Tamblyn smiled, held up his hand and snapped his fingers. Is that cool or what? I guess Riff was right: “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way….”

10. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE-1962

Henry Silva (left) as a VERY savvy houseboy and Frank Sinatra (right) do battle.

Henry Silva (left) as a VERY savvy houseboy and Frank Sinatra (right) do battle.

If a paranoid cold war thriller can be considered perfect, than this is the one.  Why they thought it neccessary to remake it 2004, is beyond me. Well, they didn’t ask me so there you go…..
Anyway, from the very first scene this one grabs you. The opening (suggested to director John Frankenheimer by Frank Sinatra) sets the tone for the unrelenting weirdness to come, all the way up to and including the amazing ending. In the midst of the strange doings, Korean War vet Frank Sinatra, frsutrated over the nightmares he’s experiencing, confronts one of the people in his nightmare, Korean houseboy Henry Silva (!?) Both being combat vets, they tangle in hand-to-hand-combat while Sinatra desperatley tries to extract needed information from Silva. It’s a fight scene that is filmed, edited, and performed in a highly stylized format for the early 60s and consequently, still packs a wallop. A true stand-out in films in general but especially for a film already brimming with stand outs.
I remember seeing an interview Barbara Walters did with Frank Sinatra late in his life in which they toured his Palm Springs home. They then settled in by the pool in which Walters noticed the giant Queen of Diamonds shimmering in the cement beneath the crystal clear water. She then asked Sinatra, “Is that a symbol from your Vegas Rat Pack days?” Sinatra smiled at her and said, “Actually, Barbara, it’s from a film I made years ago called The Machurian Candidate….”
I hate a journalist who doesn’t do their homework.

Share

CHARLES CHAMPLIN, 1926-2014

L.A. Times film critic and arts editor Charles Champlin died last Sunday at the age of 88 from complications involving Alzeheimer’s Disease. Being a lifelong movie fan, as a rule, I’ve never been a particular fan of most film critics, but Champlin was an exception. I found the more well-known critics to be pompous, pretentious and more often than not, just plain wrong about the films they reviewed. For the most part, that exception was Champlin. He wrote of films from a place of appreciation, and was generally less stuffy and esoteric than many of his contemporaries. To me, that translates to a simple yet all encompassing difference: He genuinely liked movies.
When I was in the earliest stages of researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, I traveled with fellow biographer Marshall Terrill (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American  Rebel) to Lone Pine, California, for the annual film festival held there. It was a rather small town affair for anything deemed a film festival, yet there were a surprising number of interesting guests and speakers. Marshall told me to be prepared to catch a good interview on the fly so with tape recorder at the ready, I did just that. Since Lee Marvin had filmed the likes of Stranger Wore a Gun and Bad Day Black Rock in Lone Pine, I was fortunate enough to speak with such co-stars as John Ericson, John Mitchum, Anne Francis, and several others.
At one point, I found myself simply having chat with Charles Champlin. When I told him I was working on a book on Lee Marvin, he began giving me his thoughts on Marvin, at which time I asked if hed be willing to go on record. He simply nodded as I fumbled with the tape recorder. Below is the transcription of that all too brief conversation which was already at full steam by the time I hit ‘RECORD.’ Enjoy…..

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at Lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Champlin:…I could put you in touch with Frankenheimer.
Epstein: I would love that!
C: Because you know they did Iceman Cometh and Iceman Cometh is one of the best things Lee Marvin ever did. But I think they worked together two or three other times, at least in live television.
D: Right. I was just going to say that I think they did some TV together.
C: Yeah. And John was a terrific admirer of Lee Marvin’s.
D: I know he took a lot of flack in the beginning for casting Marvin and not Jason Robards, which everybody anticipated him doing. He said in an interview at the time that he didn’t want somebody who knew the part inside and out and wouldn’t add anything new to it.
C: That’s exactly right. It made sense. Marvin was an interesting man. In some ways a tragic figure. You always had the feeling about Lee Marvin that there was more work that should have been done.

Lee Marvin as 'Hickey' in Frankenheimer's film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

Lee Marvin as ‘Hickey’ in Frankenheimer’s film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

D: Capable of a lot more than…
C: He’ll be remembered for Cat Ballou. But it’s a problem that actors always have. I remember interviewing Robert Ryan once. Of course, they were both in Iceman
D: Several films; The Professionals
C: ….Dirty Dozen. Ryan said, “I made 75 films and all but three of them were dogs.”
D: That’s a great quote. I remember reading that.
C: Of course, it wasn’t true. Ryan brought great dignity to everything he did. He was one of those actors that couldn’t do anything wrong.
D: Terribly underrated.
C: I told John Ericson here that the first laser disc I bought was Bad Day At Black Rock because I thought Ryan was just wonderful. His villains were heroic, too. It’s nice to go both ways. He dared to go both ways.
D: I thought he was most….he was like evil personified.
C: Absolutely right. Like I said, Marvin was a terrific actor, too.
D: What quick thought come to mind when you think of Lee Marvin?
C: I have one of those memories of Lee Marvin explaining in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools how he never made it in baseball because he couldn’t hit a curve.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

D: Curve ball low and inside, to Michael Dunn. Great scene.
C: That’s my memory. I never did an interview with him, to my knowledge, that I can remember. Cat Ballou of course was just a classic piece of film acting and film making, really. It was a wonderful idea. It’s Elliot Silverstein’s best film by far. There’s no question about that.

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin had a great versatility. Probably, he tended to get typecast, I suppose in those action roles because he did have a kind of lean and hungry look about him. But he was a good actor. I just think that all actors are the victims of what they can do. I think there’s so many. Maybe Ryan, too, is a causality of a system that puts you in a certain niche. Then it’s hard for you to get a decent role.
D: Maybe more so than Marvin because Ryan never seemed to have the kind of choices in roles that Lee Marvin did.
C: Yeah, well that’s true. Thank you very much.

Once I turned off the tape recorder, Champlin was as good as his word and did indeed put me in touch with Frankenheimer. Naturally, I wished I had spoken with Champlin at greater length but still feel very fortunate to have the time with him that I did. Yet again, another example on my part of not appreciating my luck at the time. He will be truly missed.

Share

LEE MARVIN’S PARENTS HELP PROMOTE BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

1955 was a VERY busy cinematic year for Lee Marvin with no less than eight different movie appearances in theaters across America at the time. The first release was probably the most memorable, as January 7th saw the release of the now classic, Bad Day at Black Rock. The making of the film is explored rather extensively in LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK via exclusive interviews with screenwriter Millard Kaufman and costar John Ericson (pictured below on the far right).
Shown below is an extremely rare instance of Lee Marvin’s parents getting involved in their son’s film promotion, which is not something they often particpated in. The event likely involved their participation as they lived very close to Kingston in nearby Bearsville in upstate New York’s scenic Hudson River Valley. They may have even done it more often had they been asked, since they were both still only in their fifties and professionally well-versed in the realm of public relations. Courtenay’s writing for film and fashion magazines and Monte’s work in sales in both Florida and New York’s agricultural sales markets gave them creedence.
The caption on the back of the press photo reads as follows: “January 24, 1955, far left is Kingston NY mayor Frederick H. Stang and his wife, followed by Monte and Courtenay Marvin, parents of Bad Day at Black Rock costar Lee Marvin who are all on local radio to promote ‘Go to the Movies Month in Kingston.’ The film was the premiere of Kingston’s remodeled Broadway Theater of the Walter Reade Theater chain. John Ericson is pictured far right.”

parents

Lee Marvin’s parents, Monte & Courtenay Marvin, helping to promote Bad Day at Black Rock.

The question is, where was Lee? Probably filming one of the many films he made but had yet to still come out that year!

Share