Friday, April 13, 2012

Luke Askew R.I.P.

Character actor Luke Askew, who appeared in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), passed on 29 March 2012 at the age of 80.

Luke Askew was born on 26 May 1932 in Macon, Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia.

Mr. Askew made his film debut in Hurry Sundown in 1967. In the same year he appeared in The Happening and Cool Hand Luke. He finished out the Sixties appearing in the films Will Penny (1968), The Devil's Brigade (1968), The Green Berets (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Flareup (1969), and The Night of the Serpent (1969). He guest starred on the TV shows The High Chaparral and Mission: Impossible.

In the Seventies Luke Askew guest starred on such TV series as Bonanza, Bearcats, Longstreet, Cannon, Police Story, The Rockford FilesHow the West Was Won, and Hart to Hart. He appeared in the films The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972), Slipstream (1973), Rolling Thunder (1977), and Wanda Nevada (1979).

In the Eighties Mr. Skew guest starred on such television shows as Quincy, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Matt Houston, Airwolf, L. A. Law, and Simon & Simon. He appeared in such movies as The Beast Within (1982), The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), Bulletproof (1988), and Back to Back (1989). From the Nineties into the Naughts he guest starred on such shows as Murder She Wrote, Kung Fu the Legend Continues, Everwood, and Cold Case. He had a recurring role on Big Love. He appeared in such films as Dune Warriors (1991), The Friends of Harry (1995), The Newton Boys (1998), Frailty (2001), and The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005).

In many respects Luke Askew's career can be summed up by two of the earliest films in which he appeared. In Cool Hand Luke he played the cruel prison guard Boss Paul. In Easy Rider he played a stranger who guided Wyatt and Billy to a hippie commune. The two parts were so different as to be completely opposite each other, yet Mr. Askew played each convincingly. He was a versatile actor who over the course of his career played everything from soldiers to cowboys to police officers and played all of them well.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Importance of Silents and Pre-Code Talkies

I will not go into what precipitated it, but yesterday on Twitter a group of us discussed the importance of a knowledge of silent films and pre-Code talkies to classic film connoisseurs. While everyone will have different tastes in film and not every era of film will appear to every classic movie buff, it seems to me that to truly be a classic film connoisseur one must have a working knowledge, if not an appreciation, of silent movies and early talkies.

The plain fact is that silent films and the early sound films hold an importance in cinematic history that will never,e ever be matched, let alone surpassed. It was during the silent era that the language of film was established. It was during the Silent Era that editing and cinematography were perfected. It was very early (The Great Train Robbery dates to 1903) that filmmakers learned how to shoot and edit film so that it not only told a narrative, but that it could do so with maximum emotional impact. By the late Teens and into the Twenties, which I think could be considered the Golden Age of Silent Film, the silent movies had become an art form.  It was during this period that such masterpieces as  Nosferatu (1922), The Gold Rush (1925), The General (1926), The Crowd (1928), and Die Büchse der Pandora (1929). And while much of the language of film had already been established by the mid to late Twenties, there was a still a good deal of innovation, particularly with regards to the genres of film. The General was not only one of the first of the big budget blockbusters (the direct ancestor of Gone With the WindThe Great Escape, and the Star Wars movies), it was also possibly the first action comedy. The Crowd could be considered a forerunner of the kitchen sink dramas of the British, the French Nouvelle Vague, and Italian neorealism. Even the Western genre would be developed during the Silent Era, with such films as The Covered Wagon (1923).

While the Silents before them would establish much of the language of film with regards to cinematography and editing, it would be the pre-Code talkies that would establish the use of sound in film. Here I must point out that this went far beyond the use of sound effects, as it also included the musical score. Perhaps no film was more influential in establishing the importance of the music score than King Kong (1933). The score Max Steiner composed for the film was like none other composed for film. Not only did music punctuate many of the key scenes in the film, but Mr. Steiner made use of leitmotifs and even gave the primary characters their own themes. Quite simply, it was the first modern film score. And while the Silent Era would see the emergence of such film genres, it would be in the days of the pre-Code talkies that such genres as the musical (impossible during the Silent Era), the horror film (it had existed all throughout the Silent Era, but was perfected in the pre-Code era), and the gangster film (like horror movies it had existed all throughout the Silent Era, but was perfected in the pre-Code era) would be developed or refined.

Indeed, in my opinion to dismiss silent films or pre-Code talkies is essentially to dismiss some of the greatest films ever made. Many films of the silent era are works of art that could probably be appreciated by modern audiences if they were only given a chance. As pointed out earlier, The General is both one of the early blockbusters (while it did poorly at the box office, it did cost a mint) and possibly the first action comedy. It is a rather sophisticated film that combines comedy with poignancy, romance, and action. The Crowd could well be as close to kitchen sink drama as the United States ever came, following a young New York City office employee as he gets married and then struggles with financial problems, marital difficulties, and tragedies. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is best known for director Sergei Eisenstein's innovative use of montage, but it would also prove influential in the development of action films. Even today Metropolis (1927) is a technical marvel to behold, but it was also one of the first (if not the first) science fiction film about a futuristic dystopia.

I rather suspect modern audiences might actually appreciate many of the pre-Code talkies than many of the films made later in the Thirties. Free of the strictures that would come with the rigorous enforcement of the Hays Code, filmmakers were free to deal with subjects that would later be forbidden under the Code, not to mention to tell their stories in a much more realistic fashion. Indeed, it is for this reason that many  of the talkies made between 1930 and 1934 seem much more modern than films even made ten years later. During this period when film was relatively free of the Code, several classic films emerged. Indeed, it was during this period that the horror film, a genre that had been around since the 1890s, really came into its own. James Whale's classic Frankenstein (1931) would not only establish the look of Gothic horror films for decades, but it would also establish many of the tropes of the horror genre as well. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) may well be the best adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale ever made. Not only did the film have the benefit of Fredric March's incredible performance, but it was able to include some fairly strong sexual content (mostly in the form of Miriam Hopkins' character, Ivy Pearson) that one does not see in the 1941 film made just ten years later. Many of these early horror films are intense even by today's standards. Island of Lost Souls (1933), an adaptation of H. G.Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, caused a furore in the United States when first released. It remained banned in the United Kingdom until 1958, when the BBFC finally passed it with an "X" certificate.  Much like horror movies, gangster films had existed in the Silent Era, but they really came into their own in the pre-Code era. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarfare (1932) all became classic and also established many of the tropes of the genre.

While the horror film had existed since the 1890s and gangster films nearly as long, it was with sound that the musical became possible. The genre swiftly came into its own. In fact, by 1933 one of the greatest musicals of all time would be made--42nd Street. This is the musical that established the cliché of a girl from the chorus emerging as a star after the lead breaks her ankle. Despite having created this and other tropes of musicals, 42nd Street feels fresher than many musical made in the past twenty years. There are classic songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. There is choreography by Busby Berkeley. And there is a screenplay filled with witty dialogue, one-liners, and sexual innuendo that would vanish from the screen for the next thirty years. 42nd Street was not the only classic musical to emerge during the pre-Code Era, as there was also Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), and Let's Fall in Love (1933).

In the end, many might be surprised by the number of classic films that were released in the pre-Code years. Beyond those named above, there was also Duck Soup (1933), The Front Page (1931), Baby Face (1933), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Red Dust (1932), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Design for Living (1933), and many others. Both the Silent Era and the pre-Code era produced many great films that modern audience really should see.

Of course, I realise that everyone has different tastes. Silent films require the reading of title cards, something everyone may not particularly like doing. And I know everyone may not care for the lack of spoken dialogue. I also realise that not every pre-Code talkie is necessarily going to be a great film, even when it may be well known. In the early days of talkies the film industry was still learning how to deal with sound. For that reason many films seem rather static for this reason. A perfect example of this is Dracula (1931), which almost comes off like a filmed stage play. Here I have to ask people to give silents and pre-Code talkies a chance. One can learn to appreciate title cards and the lack of spoken dialogue. And I must point out that not every early talkie is Dracula.

It was during the Silent Era and the pre-Code era that film became a true art form. It was during this period that much of what we take for granted today in movies was developed. It was also during this period that many truly great films were made. If one truly wishes to be a connoisseur of classic film, then I think he or she must really seek out and see such films. I also think he or she must develop an appreciation of them. Even if he or she prefers films made a little later, he or she must appreciate the fact that it was with the silents and the pre-Code talkies that film came into its own. Without them we would not have the classics from later years.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of Stu Sutcliffe's Death

It was on this day fifty years ago that Stu Sutcliffe died from a brain haemorrhage at the young age of 22. For those of you who have never heard of Stu Sutcliffe, he was the legendary fifth Beatle. For a brief eighteen months Mr. Sutcliffe was the band's bassist. While he may be best known for his tenure as one of The Beatles, he was also a talented painter. His art was displayed at an exhibition in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and he sold at least one painting before he joined what would become the most famous rock band of all time.

Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Liverpool on 23 June 1940. He was attending the Liverpool College of Art when mutual friend Bill Harry (later the founder of Mersey Beat) introduced him to John Lennon. Messrs. Lennon and Sutcliffe soon became best friends. It was perhaps an eventuality, then, that he would join John Lennon's band. John Lennon and Paul McCartney talked Mr. Sutcliffe into buying a Höfner President 500/5 bass guitar so that the could play bass in the band. It was then in January 1960 that Stu Sutcliffe became a member of The Beatles.

As their bassist Stu Sutcliffe would join his fellow Beatles when they went to Hamburg. It was while in Hamburg that Mr. Sutcliffe met Astrid Kirchherr and the two became involved in a relationship. In November 1960 the two became engaged. Stu Sutcliffe would remain with The Beatles until June 1961, when he left the band to continue his studies in art and so he could remain with Miss Kirchherr. He enrolled at the Hamburg College of Art. He studied under pop artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Unfortunately, Stu Sutcliffe had started having headaches and developed a sensitivity to light. Doctors were unable to make a diagnosis and even suggested to Mr. Sutcliffe that he return to England where he could check into a hospital with better facilities. Instead of returning to England, Stu Sutcliffe remained in Germany where his condition worsened. On 10 April 1962 he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He died on the way there. The cause of death was later revealed to be an aneurysm in the right ventricle of his brain.

While others have been members of The Beatles (the most notable besides Stu Sutcliffe perhaps being former drummer Pete Best), it is quite possible than Stu Sutcliffe had more impact on the band than any member besides John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It was during an afternoon in Renshaw Hall bar that John Lennon, John's future wife Cynthia, and Stu Sutcliffe thought of names for Mr. Lennnon's band similar to Buddy Holly's "The Crickets," leading to the creation of the name "The Beatles." It would also be through Stu Sutcliffe that the other Beatles would meet Astrid Kirschherr. Miss Kirschherr would take some of the earliest photographs of The Beatles. She has also been credited with creating The Beatles' mop top. She disagrees, pointing out that many German boys had the haircut and that Stu Sutcliffe adopted it. The others then followed his lead. When Mr. Sutcliffe left The Beatles, he lent his bass to Paul McCartney with the agreement that Mr. McCartney did not change the strings on the bass around (Mr. McCartney is left handed, so he simply played the bass upside down).

It has often been common for the media to characterise Stu Sutcliffe as a bad bassist. This may well be due to the book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away in which Allan Williams claimed that when The Beatles auditioned for Larry Parnes at The Wyvern Club in Liverpool, Mr. Parnes would have employed the band if only they got rid of Stu Sutcliffe.  Larry Parnes himself has denied this, stating that the reason he did not hire The Beatles was their lack of a regular drummer. Bill Harry, friend to both John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe and founder of Mersey Beat, thought Mr. Sutcliffe was a competent bassist. Another friend of Stu Sutcliffe, Klaus Voormann (bassist for Manfred Mann and a session musician for many musical artists) thought that Mr. Sutcliffe was a great rock 'n' roll bass player. British saxophonist Howie Casey, who played with The Seniors in Hamburg, has said that Mr. Sutcliffe was a great live bassist. Even former drummer Pete Best has said that Stu Sutcliffe was a good bass player. It would seem that while Allan Williams characterised Stu Sutcliffe as a bad bassist, most musicians and others who heard him play thought he was at least a competent, if not a good bass player.

It is perhaps a moot point whether Stu Sutcliffe was a good bassist. The evidence of his talent for art really cannot be questioned. As stated above, even before he joined The Beatles, Stu Sutcliffe had a painting displayed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. He sold that painting for the then unheard of sum of £65. Eduardo Paolozzi regarded Mr. Sutcliffe as one of his best students and very gifted. Stu Sutcliffe's earliest artwork was in the realm of kitchen sink realism. It was not long before he would turn to abstract painting. Indeed, many of his later works resemble that of American abstract expressionists. His painting, "Hamburg Painting No. 2," would later be purchased by the Walker Art Gallery. His artwork would also later be displayed at the Victoria Gallery and Museum. While some might claim that interest in Stu Sutcliffe's art is largely due to his status as the Fifth Beatle, the fact that he had actually had artwork displayed and a painting sold before The Beatles even became famous would seem to prove otherwise.

Had John Lennon never met Stu Sutcliffe, the history of The Beatles would have been very different. In fact, for all we know they might not have even been named "The Beatles" and they might never have worn their famous mop top hairstyles. While it is difficult to say what would have happened had he lived, it also seems very likely that Stu Sutcliffe could have become a very famous artist. In fact, it seems quite possible that had he lived, Stu Sutcliffe would have been famous even if he had not joined The Beatles. He may have only been a good bassist and that may have all he ever would have been, but the was already a great painter.