STEVE McQUEEN: A PERSONAL APPRECIATION

Steve McQueen was born March 24, 1930. It’s a date I remember better than some other important dates that I should remember and with reason. Readers of this blog and personal friends who know me well, know what a fan of Steve McQueen that I am. In fact, it was my adoration of the actor that led in a roundabout way to my writing Lee Marvin Point Blank via my friendship with Marshall Terrill, as explained here.
What I’ve never discussed here is what it was about Steve McQueen that made me such a fan, although I’ve threatened to do so previously. Since he would have been 91-years old on the 24th, I figure this to be as good a time as any.
It began when I was 13-years-old and saw Papillon (1973) in the theaters for the first time. I was aware of him beforehand and seen some of his other films on TV and at the movies but Papillon changed everything. I have to word this carefully but when I was very young I was..how shall I say this….the victim of bullies, to the point in which I figure I may have suffered some mild form of PTSD. I was constantly being picked on and in fights in school and elsewhere. I’ll just leave it at that.
Well, when I saw Papillon, everything changed for me psychologically. I had never experienced anything like it. Beside the fact that Steve McQueen gave a towering performance throughout the movie, it was when he uttered the words, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” that effected me the most. It had never occurred to me before that you could take whatever abuse is dished out and manage to rise above it; hell, even be better for it! Yeah, I know it seems obvious and has been said a million times but the visual example of McQueen in solitary, eating the rancid food given to him and then jumping up on the bars and angrily whispering those words to passing guards, drove it home to me. It was an epiphany!

Steve McQueen in solitary watches the guards pass his cell above him in PAPILLON.

Later in the film, he does it again and to even greater effect which I won’t give away if you haven’t seen the film. Suffice to say, I saw the film over and over again that year and believe it or not, a few days after I saw it the first time, The Great Escape (1963) was aired on TV. Talk about your one-two punch! Everything about the film, and especially McQueen’s performance, was exceptional.

The look Steve McQueen gives the Nazis after crashing his motorcycle in THE GREAT ESCAPE.

However, the scene after he gets hung up in the barb wire trying to jump the fence into Switzerland and the look he gives the Nazis who caught him, was priceless! That did it for me. I was hooked. I hate to admit this but I even got a a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweatshirt, cut the sleeves accordingly, and wore them to school. Gimme a break, I was thirteen!

From that moment on, I could not get enough Steve McQueen: collecting the posters to all of his films, magazine articles, maintaining scrapbooks, soundtracks, biographies, you name it! I remember at one point my grandmother said to me, “What’s the big deal about Steve McQueen? Did he ever cure a disease? Help humanity in any way? He just made movies, for crying out loud!” I tried to explain to her what he meant to me, but again, I was only thirteen. I wished I had the moxie then to really explain it well.

I should emphasize that I was not some kind of weirdo about it, trying to contact him, or stalking him, like some fans do with favorite performers. I just found everything he did fascinating. Being a movie lover, I admire many film stars, in fact, to me the holy trinity of favorites are James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen. Here’s the exception: I like almost all of the films of Cagney and Lancaster but their output was so prodigious, some of their films were not as worth watching over and over again. Not so with Steve McQueen. Granted, he did not make as many films, only 30 in total but, with the possible exception of Le Mans (1970), I found everything he did revelational. Seriously. His choice in projects from the very beginning of his career were amazing to me, whether they were any good overall, or not.

Steve McQueen as Boon Hoggenbeck about to convince young Mitch Vogel with an important life lesson in THE REIVERS.

The Reivers (1969) is a good example. I know for a fact he himself did not care for his performance in it as he hated doing comedy. Not only was he appropriately funny in it, the film contained another revelation in it for me. In order to convince young Lucius (MItch Vogel) in the film to steal his grandfather’s new-fangled automobile, he tells him, “If you ever wanna reach your manhood, you gotta say ‘goodbye’ to the things you know..and ‘HELLO!’ to the things you don’t!” I don’t condone grand theft auto, but the message in the dialogue is something all adolescences should heed in the right context. I know I did.

Naturally, his untimely passing at the age of 50 in 1980 was devastating to me. Luckily, I have some very good friends I was able to confide in and one in particular had the intestinal fortitude to stay on the phone with me that night for hours as I poured my heart out to him. Talk about being blessed!

In the years since he shed his mortal coil, some pretty off-putting things had been revealed about the man. I won’t lie to you, it did change my opinion of him. The worst was the revelations concerning his abusive attitude toward the women in his life. “The King of Cool” was not always cool. I discovered these aspects of his persona when I was older and more mature so I was able to deal with it.

Bottom line, I still love his films and watch them whenever I can, I’ve never been fascinated with his personal love of speed like many other fans, which is why I didn’t care for Le Mans. Everything else he did? Hell, I even prefer some of his lesser know films maybe more than his bigger hits, like Soldier in the Rain (1963) Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), and An Enemy of the People (1978).
It’s the films that last. Nothing else matters as much. It’s been over 40 years and it’s as if he still telling us: “Hey, you bastards! I’m still here!”

– Dwayne Epstein

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WHITE HEAT

White Heat (1949), James Cagney’s last gangster film for Warner Brothers, was the choice of Clint Eastwood’s pick for a film deserving of a second look when asked to write about one for the Locarno Film Festival project, Serious Pleasures published in Europe. The project’s editor, Bill Krohn, is a friend of mine who granted me several of the titles to write about.The way it worked was a known director would pick a favorite film worthy of rediscovery, write about why, and then I’d research and write about the film’s backstory. Previous examples posted include The Sand Pebbles, Point Blank, The Hill, One-Eyed Jacks, etc. I was overjoyed to write about White Heat while still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank
Eastwood’s thoughts on White Heat are below in italics, followed by my detailed essay on the film’s production. The images are from several sources since I’ve been a lifelong Cagney fan and have numerous books on the subject.

Title page for my chapter on WHITE HEAT.


THE LAST GANGSTER
In the first scene, a man was disfigured by the burning steam of a train engine. In the last scene, the protagonist fired into a gas tank and detonated an apocalypse. In between, you were treated to countless explosions of violence as gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) went on a rampage. You have never seen such savage lawlessness on screen before; You have never imagined a more vicious American family than Jarrett’s gang. White Heat hits you like a torpedo!
 Raoul Walsh had a lot do with the film’s impact. As a story-teller he was only interested in bigger-than-life characters; good or bad, they had to be exceptional or excessive. Now wonder he found White Heat’s outlaw inspiring. Cody Jarrett was the last gangster, possibly the final incarnation of Public Enemy. He was not the corrupt business type in vogue in the late forties noir, but a tragic figure afflicted with epileptic fits and an Oedipus complex. Walsh’s other good fortune was to be reunited with Cagney, whom he called the best actor he ever worked with. After Bogart (High Sierra), Cagney was one of the rare stars he was able to kill at the end of the movie. When I saw this one in an Oakland theatre, I was about 20 and already a big Cagney fan.
  There was no moral standard in White Heat. The cops remained anonymous, mere instruments of Jarrett’s fate. Compassion didn’t pay either: The gang started unravelling when a wounded accomplice was spared by his appointed executioner. Actually, Jarrett was betrayed by everybody, his wife, his second in command, and especially the undercover agent who befriended him. Everyone but his mother. By contrast, the gangster retained an odd integrity throughout. His one fatal weakness was a neurotic attachment to Ma. Somehow this monster overshadowed all those who surrounded him and you found yourself more interested in his madness than in his punishment. 
  In spite of the dark overtones, Walsh never lost his sense of humor. His fine touches are everywhere: He had Cagney whimper at Ma’s knees during one of his fits, brutally kick Virginia Mayo off a chair, casually shoot a man through a car trunk while munching on a piece of chicken. Later, you saw Jarrett communicating with his dearly beloved beyond the grave, and ultimately confiding: “All I ever had was Ma.” When Jarrett learned the truth about his undercover “friend,” he bursts out laughing. He was like a gambler so driven by self-destruction that nothing mattered anymore. 
   Walsh’s pace was relentless. I had never experienced anything like that before. The most unsettling was that the tone would change suddenly and the black humor veer into grandiose drama. Watch the scene where Jarrett is told of Ma’s death and, like a wounded animal, runs amok across the prison dining-hall until they strap him into a straitjacket. The explosion of rage and despair, expertly choreographed by Walsh and Cagney in a few long takes, is still one of the most powerful scenes in American cinema. So is the end the journey when Cagney yells from the top of the butane tank: “I’m on top of the world, Ma!” before disappearing into a fireball. 

WHITE HEAT
As the screen credit on White Heat states, the original story was by Virginia Kellogg, a former L.A. journalist who had fashioned a sketchy treatment for a gangster yarn inspired by the Denver mint robbery of 1922. Screenwriters Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, newly contracted to Warner Bros., but partnered since World War II, wrote the screenplay and fleshed out the fictional plot and characters.

(L-R) Ben Roberts & Ivan Goff at work on the script for WHITE HEAT.



After the war, darker characters began appearing in American film with new stars (Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark) to play them, and established stars like Clark Gable and Tyrone Power began playing darker versions of their previous screen personas. Ironically, James Cagney had gone out of his way after the war to break free of his Warner Bros. contract and tough guy image to make independent films with warmth and charm, which failed miserably. For financial reasons, he had to return to Warners in defeat to play a character that would top all previous examples of darkness and evil. 

Jack Warner, who had dubbed Cagney “The Professional Againster” because of their constant bickering, conceded the boxoffice prospects when Goff and Roberts lobbied him to bring in Cagney to play Cody Jarrett and entered into negotiations with Cagney’s business partner, his brother Bill. Bill Cagney struck a deal which required Warners to pay off the heavy debt Cagney Brothers Productions had incurred in independent projects, and James Cagney returned to the studio he had once vowed he would never work for again.

The only bright spot was the prospect of working with some of the contract players who had become lifelong friends. The studio promised to give a role to one of Cagney’s closest friends, character actor, Frank McHugh. According to Cagney “I asked for him and Warners ‘yessed’ me and ‘yessed’ me until the first day of shooting, when they told me they just couldn’t get Frank. I found out later Frank had never been asked…It was a typical example of sacrificing quality for time and money.” 

(L-R) Edmond O’Brien and James Cagney between scenes.



When it came to saving time and money, the studio had the perfect man for the job. Raoul Walsh, who had made two masterpieces for Warners with Cagney [The Roaring Twenties & The Strawberry Blonde] had a well-deserved reputation for driving actors hard, shooting fast and denying retakes, partly for budgetary reasons but mostly because he didn’t want the actors to lose their freshness and spontaneity. Like the hero of the prewar Cagney-Walsh collaboration The Roaring Twenties, and many other heroes of Walsh films, Cody Jarrett is doomed by fate and betrayed by a friend, but these themes were turned on their head in White Heat, where Edmond O’Brien’s character betrays Jarrett out of necessity, and Jarrett’s death is a comfort to the viewer instead of a tragedy. 

Even though White Heat was not the first gangster film to venture out of the urban jungle — Walsh’s High Sierra had done so previously — in this respect the film set a precedent for Cagney. With White Heat he not only left the mean streets of New York for the mountains of California, but pulled his heists as if he were in the Old West by robbing trains and company payrolls (Goff and Roberts working title was “The Last Outlaw”). Cagney also looked different in White Heat; instead of losing weight before the start of production as he had for previous roles, the actor, now middle-aged, allowed himself to look genuinely paunchy onscreen for the first time. As Raoul Walsh said later of his cast, “Virginia Mayo was a beautiful girl. Cagney was a nice guy, but he ate too much.” 

Raoul Walsh & Cagney in 1939 during the making of THE ROARING TWENTIES,



An historical bone of contention concerning White Heat has been whose idea it was to make Jarrett a mother-fixated psychopath. Both Cagney and Walsh have stated publicly that the idea was theirs, but the first draft of Goff and Roberts’ script had already borrowed heavily from the story of Ma Barker by rolling all of her sons’ traits into Cody Jarrett.

Cody Jarrett having one of his fits as Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) tries to comfort him.



Other ideas can be attributed to Cagney, who was fond of “sprinkling the goodies along the way” — adding touches like the scene where Jarrett sits on his mother’s lap, which Walsh encouraged him to do when the actor wondered if audiences would accept it. In another scene Virginia Mayo, who played Jarrett’s slutty wife, recalls, “Jimmy said, ‘If I kick the chair out from under you, will you fall back on the bed and not hurt yourself?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can do it — it’s easy.’ So we did it. We did it in one take.” 

Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo) gets read the Riot Act from her husband Cody.



When Jarrett is told in the prison mess hall of his mother’s death, he goes into a psychotic rage. A very reserved, quiet man off-camera, Cagney had no problem doing the scene n front of the cast and crew, and even invited guests to watch the filming — accomplished again in one take. “For that particular scene,” he recalled, “I knew what deranged people sounded like because as a youngster I had visited where a pal’s uncle was in a hospital for the insane. My god, what an education that was! The shrieks, the screams of those people under constraint! I remembered those cries, saw that they fit and called on my memory to do as required.”

Critics and audiences loved what ultimately became the penultimate gangster film for the formerly socially-conscious studio, which now showed its hero as unredeemable. The film received only one Academy Award nomination — ironically for Best Original Story, by Virginia Kellogg, who had very little to do with the actual film. Cagney, who had wanted to be remembered as a song-and-dance man, became a psychotic to a whole new generation of filmgoers. “Although it turned out to be a good picture in a number of ways,” he later said, “It was just another cheapjack job.”

Orson Welles thought otherwise. After he and Peter Bogdanovich re-watched White Heat together, the two spoke about film acting versus stage acting. Welles said: “Look at Cagney. Everything he does is big, and yet it’s never for a moment unbelievable because it’s real. It’s true. He’s a great movie actor and his performances are in no way modulated for the camera. He never scaled anything down.”

“Made it, Ma! Top o’ the world!”



– Dwayne Epstein.

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS OF LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK

Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQs), has become a popular aspect to most websites, and this one dedicated to underscore my book Lee Marvin Point Blank, is now no exception. Don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it until now but a recent transaction with a friend on social media gave me the idea. I’ve since amassed enough frequently asked questions I thought this a good time to address them. So, with that in mind…

Cover of the trade paperback that includes a quote from Leonard Maltin and a starburst heralding some exclusive additions.


1. How did you come to write about Lee Marvin?
I get this one a lot. Short answer is that of course, I’m a fan. Long answer is slightly more involved. Marvin is just one of my personal favorite actors that include the likes of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and most of all, Steve McQueen. I’ve read a lot about all three actors so when the biography entitled STEVE McQUEEN: PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN REBEL came out in 1994, I had to read it. Having done so, I decided to try to contact the author, Marshall Terrill, to discuss a few aspects of his book. Much to my surprise, he responded and when he was next in L.A., we met up. A casual conversation turned into a friendship that exists to this day. Because I had a journalism background, early on he asked me if I ever considered writing a biography? I responded, “Yeah, you wrote it!” Since Marshall had a marketing background, he then proceeded to discuss possibilities based on what would sell and who has not had a definitive bio done about them. Enter Lee Marvin. I told him I’d think about it and he persisted so that over time I became fascinated with the research I was uncovering. Eventually (almost 19 years later!) it came into existence.

My copy of Marshall Terrill’s book that he inscribed: “It’s been a real pleasure to meet someone with the same zeal that I do for Steve McQueen. You really know your stuff. I’d really like to see you pursue a book on Lee Marvin. The timing is right and there’s no one better qualified to write it. Please keep in touch as I think you are incredibly well-versed in movies, which makes for great conversation. Take care, Best wishes, Marshall Terrill  2/15/94.



2. Did Lee Marvin ever attend any USMC reunions, why or why not? 
According to Lee’s first wife, Betty, he did maintain contact with his war buddies but didn’t particularly care to go to any reunions. Despite his sincere efforts towards promoting and helping the Marines throughout his life, the idea of reunions was something he was not fond of being involved in. As he told Johnny Carson one night, “I went to a few reunions but after awhile, you get bored hearing the same old war stories.”

Lee Marvin happily hands over a check for a USMC charity in support of his favorite branch of the service.



3. Why is there no mention of what Lee’s daughters are doing and why didn’t you interview them?
There is mention of what his daughters, Courtenay, Cynthia and Claudia have been doing in the bibliography entitled Posthumous Events Related to Lee Marvin. As to interviewing any of them, I did speak with each of them but none of them wanted to go on the record about their father which of course, is their choice and I respect it. Luckily, their brother Christopher did agree to be interviewed as well as write the poignant Afterword to the book.

Pictured here at Cynthia’s 1982 wedding are (L-R) Christopher Lamont Marvin, his sister Courtenay Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin, Cynthia Louise Marvin Michaels, Betty Marvin, and youngest of the four siblings, Claudia Leslie Marvin.


4. Is the story of Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) saving Lee’s life during WWII true? My agent, the late Mike Hamilburg, once called me up and asked me this as a friend of his said it was true. I told him exactly what I had written in a blog later on about the same subject involving such urban legends as found here. In other words, despite it’s nagging persistence, it is not now nor has it EVER been true. 

5. Who were Lee Marvin’s favorite and least favorite actor to work with in his career? 
Marvin was a professional and veteran of countless performances so he basically learned to get along with pretty much everybody he worked with. If he had a favorite actor my guess would be Toshiro Mifune, his costar in Hell in the Pacific (1968), of whom his admiration was immeasurable. 

At the press conference for the Japanese premiere of HELL IN THE PACIFIC, Marvin admires Toshiro Mifune as he fields a reporter’s question.

As to who was his least favorite actor to work with, well, that question got answered a while back but still worthy of this FAQ blog in terms of symmetry. The answer can be found here.

6. How come your book doesn’t have a filmography?
Ahh, but it does. It’s just not done in the obvious way of previous film biographies. There’s one of several bibliographies in the back of the book, and in the one entitled Important Dates in the Life of Lee Marvin ALL of his film (and most TV) appearances are listed. 

7. When does your next book come out and what’s it about?
Been avoiding this one for a quite a while now. The answer is….well, that will be in the next installment of Frequently Asked Questions *wink, wink*

There you have some of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve come across over time. Naturally, if any of your questions were not addressed, by all means feel free to ask them here and I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks!
– Dwayne Epstein

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