Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Late Great Brent Briscoe

An argument can be made that character actors are the heart and soul of film and television. The general public usually don't recognise their names, although they almost always recognise their faces from dozens of roles they have played. One of the best character actors of the past 25 years was Brent Briscoe. He had significant roles in such films as Sling Blade (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998), and guest starred on TV shows from ER to NCIS. Like most character actors, I doubt that many people would recognise Brent's name. An exception would be here in Randolph County, where he was born. For us he was a bona fide movie star, and the whole county was proud of him.

Sadly, Brent Briscoe died on October 18 2017 at the age of 56. Brent had a serious fall that led to internal bleeding. This in turn resulted in complications to his heart. It was after a short stay in hospital that one of the best character actors in recent years died.

Brent Briscoe was born on May 21 1961 in Moberly, Missouri. He attended Moberly High School where he played baseball. Brent was very good at the sport, good enough that he received three college scholarships to play baseball. While Brent loved baseball,  his heart was truly in acting. He appeared in plays while still in high school. After graduating from high school in 1979, Brent attended the University of Missouri, Columbia where he majored in theatre. After graduating in 1984 he became an apprentice at the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre in 1985. Afterwards Brent toured with such productions as Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas.

Brent made his television debut as a pizza delivery guy in an episode of Knot's Landing in 1991. During the 1990-1991 season he had a recurring role on Evening Shade as Luther. He also wrote two episodes of the series in 1994. In the Nineties on television he guest starred on such shows as Hearts Afire, Tracey Takes On, Maximum Bob, ER, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He also appeared in the television movie Mulholland Dr. (1999), upon which the feature film would be based.

Brent received his big break in films as repair shop employee Scooter Hodges in Sling Blade. He would have a much greater role in the film A Simple Plan, in which he was fourth billed. Brent played Lou, the town drunk, who with Hank Mitchell (played by Bill Paxton) and Hank's brother Jacob (played by Billy Bob Thornton), discover a crashed plane filled with cash. He also appeared in the films Grey Knight (1993), U Turn (1997), Another Day in Paradise (1998), Break Up (1998), The Minus Man (1999), Crazy in Alabama (1999), The Green Mile (1999), Man on the Moon (1999), and Beautiful (2000).

Brent Briscoe reprised his role as Detective Domgaard in the feature film version of Mulholland Dr. in 2001. That same year he played Sheriff Cecil Coleman in The Majestic. He co-wrote the movie Waking Up in Reno (2002) with Matt Fauser and appeared in it as Russell Whitehead. He also appeared in such films as Driven (2001), Say It Isn't So (2001), Journey of Redemption (2002), Good Cop, Bad Cop (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007), National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), Crazy (2008), The Grind (2009), and Small Town Saturday Night (2010). He made frequent guest appearances on TV show in the Naughts, including such series as The Handler, Deadwood, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 24, JAG, House M.D., Grey's Anatomy, Bones, and Desperate Housewives.

In the Teens Brent had a recurring role on Parks and Recreation as JJ, owner of JJ's Diner, as well as a recurring role on the revival of Twin Peaks as Detective Dave Macklay. He guest starred on such shows as NCIS: Los Angeles, Hell on Wheels, Justified, NCIS, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He continued to appear regularly in feature films, including such movies as Born Wild (2012), Ambush at Dark Canyon (2012), and Term Life (2016). His final completed film, 5th of July, is set for release later this year.

Like myself Brent Briscoe was born in Randolph County, and he was only two years older than I am. It should then come as no surprise that I knew him when we were younger. I did not know Brent well. He attended Moberly High School while I attended Westran, and he was attending Mizzou by the time I began college. That having been said, our paths would cross from time to time. I can definitively say that Brent was a truly nice guy. When he talked with you, he was always genuinely interested in what you had to say. He was not only very intelligent, but also open and friendly. And he was one of the kindest people one could ever meet. Randolph County was proud of him, not only because he made a name for himself as a character actor, but also because he was simply an outstanding human being. In turn, he was proud of the area from which he came. His Twitter handle was BBMoberly.

Of course, Brent was a truly great character actor, and he had a very naturalistic style.  What is more, he could play a variety of roles that were quite unlike himself. Certainly he had nothing in common with his most famous role, that of Lou, the none too bright town drunk in A Simple Plan. Regardless, he gave a bravura performance in the role. While Brent often found himself cast as rural types similar to Lou, he was also often cast as police officers. He played Detective Domgaard in Mulholland Dr.,  Sheriff Cecil Coleman in The Majestic, and a veteran cop in The Dark Knight Rises. In many respects he was perfect casting for the unflappable Detective Dave Macklay on Twin Peaks.  On the TV Western Hell on Wheels Brent gave one of his more remarkable performances in one of his more singular roles. He played trader and guide Jimmy Two Squaws.

While Brent was very good playing in dramas and very good in playing cops, he also had a knack for comedy. Among his most memorable performances for me was a humorous turn on House, on which he played a farmer with leg pain in the episode "Three Stories". He was one of the best things about the comedy Double Take, in which he played an emu farmer determined to collect the reward for capturing a fugitive. And, of course, he was soft spoken diner owner JJ Lipscomb on Parks and Recreation. In many respects JJ was the role that was closest to Brent in real life, quite simply a truly kind hearted guy. As good as Brent was in more serious roles, I think I sometimes look forward to his comedic roles the most. Even when a particular film might not be that good, he always was.

As I bring this post to a close, I want to say that my thoughts are with Brent's family and friends, many of whom I know personally. The press release regarding Brent's death described him as "a class act", and I certainly have to agree. He both a wonderful person and a truly talented character actor. He may be gone, but he will not be forgotten, particularly here in his home county.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Joan Fontaine in Frenchman's Creek (1944)

 (This post is part of the Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema)

Joan Fontaine may be best known for the many dramas she made throughout her career, from The Constant Nymph (1943) to Tender is the Night (1962). That is not to say she did not make films in other genres. She appeared in comedies (1945's The Affairs of Susan). She appeared in thrillers (most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion). She even appeared in a horror movie (Hammer Films' The Witches). Joan Fontaine also made her share of adventure movies, some of them quite famous (Gunga Din and Ivanhoe).  Among the adventure films in which Joan Fontaine appeared was one based upon a book by the author of Rebecca, the film that had made her a star. Frenchman's Creek (1944) was a very faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

Frenchman's Creek centred on Dona St. Columb (played by Joan Fontaine) and is set in Cornwall during King Charles II's reign. Unhappy with her life with her husband, Harry St. Columb (played by Ralph Forbes), in London, Dona returns to their home in Cornwall. There it turns out that the estate is being used as the headquarters of a notorious pirate  Jean Benoit Aubrey (played by Arturo de Córdova), known as the Frenchman. Bored with her life, it is not long before Dona falls in love with Aubrey, to the point that she dresses as a male and joins his crew. The plot might remind some of Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 film The Wicked Lady, but aside from being period pieces the two could not be more different. The Wicked Lady was a sexually charged bodice ripper that caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Frenchman's Creek is much closer in spirit to such American swashbucklers as Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), albeit one with a female lead. Indeed, the villain, Lord Rockingham, is even played by Basil Rathbone.

Not only was Frenchman's Creek very much an American swashbuckler, but it was also a very lavish one. With a budget of $3,600,000, it was the most expensive film that Paramount had made up to that point. Over 46 sets were built, including the Cornish village of Fowey. Well over 2000 props were used on the film. Over 1000 of those props were made in Paramount's shops.  Raoul Pene du Bois, who had worked on Flo Ziegfeld's shows on Broadway, designed the costumes for the film. As might be expected of so lavish a film, Frenchman's Creek was shot in vivid Technicolor.

At the time that Frenchman's Creek was made, Joan Fontaine was under contract to David O. Selznick. Selznick loaned her out to Paramount for the film, a situation she did not particularly care for, especially given he would keep half her salary for the movie. Worse yet, she did not get along well with her leading man, Arturo de Córdova. Mr. Córdova was a major star in Mexico, and Frenchman's Creek was only his second Hollywood film (after 1943's Hostages). Being a little shorter than Miss Fontaine, he had to wear lifts in his shoes to make him appear taller than her. Not only did she not get along with Arturo de Córdova, but Joan Fontaine did not get along very well with director Mitchell Leisen either. She even dismissed him as being "mostly known for his musicals".

Regardless, Frenchman's Creek had an impressive supporting cast. Indeed, it is the only film outside of the "Sherlock Holmes" series in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appear together. Cecil Kellaway played the St Columb estate's caretaker, William.

Frenchman's Creek was released on September 20 1944. For the most part its reviews were positive, although with a few caveats. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times gave the film a good notice over all, although noting, "to be sure, it is somewhat slow in starting." Harrison's Reports referred to it as "A good costume entertainment" and also noted it had some "slow spots". Variety also gave it a positive review, although it noted that "The performances are sometimes unconsciously tongue-in-cheek" and "The scripting [from the novel by Daphne du Maurier] at times borders on the ludicrous..." Over all, critics thought Frenchman's Creek a lavish, fun film that could not be taken too seriously.

While Frenchman's Creek received good reviews over all, it did not do particularly well at the box office. The film was the ninth highest grossing film for the year and it made a respectable $3,500,000.  The problem is that with a budget of $3.6 million, Paramount really did not make a profit from the movie. Quite simply, if it had cost  a good deal less, it could rightfully be considered a hit.

Seen today I rather have to suspect most viewers would agree with the critics in 1944. Frenchmen's Creek is a very lavish film. The costumes are exquisite and colourful. Its art direction is incredible. It should come as no surprise that it won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Colour. George Barnes's cinematography is incredible. Quite simply, Frenchman's Creek is a beautiful film to behold.

At the same time, however, it is not a film that can be taken seriously. Frenchman's Creek does have its moments of camp. That having been said, it is a very fun movie to watch and it does feature some fine performances. Joan Fontaine, having up to that time played more passive heroines, gives one of her livelier performances as the more assertive Dona St. Columb. As might be expected, Basil Rathbone makes for a great villain as the charming, but devilish Lord Rockingham. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nigel Bruce to Ralph Forbes, give admirable performances. Perhaps the only weak link in the cast is Arturo de Córdova. He gives a somewhat lacklustre performance as Jean Benoit Aubrey, to point that one wonders what Dona sees in him beyond a means to escape her rather ordinary life. Indeed, there would seem to be very little in the way of chemistry between Joan Fontaine and him.

Today Frenchman's Creek does not necessarily rank among Joan Fontaine's best known films, but it is worth watching for being able to see her in a very different role from many of those she played in the wake of Rebecca. It was finally released on DVD in 2014 and it occasionally appears on Turner Classic Movies. While it might not be a classic on the level of Rebecca or The Constant Nymph, Frenchman's Creek is a bit of escapist fun that those who enjoy period romances might particularly like.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

In many respects Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a very singular film. It could be considered film noir, but it also has elements of Westerns. At the same time it was one of the earliest Hollywood motion pictures to feature Asian martial arts. As unique as Bad Day at Black Rock must seem today, it was even more unusual when it was first released in 1955.

Bad Day at Black Rock was based on the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin, which has appeared in the January 1947 issue of The American Magazine. It was writer and actor Don McGuire who came across the story and thought that it could provide the basis for an interesting motion picture. He optioned the story for $15,000 and then adapted it as a screenplay. Director Don Siegel, who was then working at Allied Artists, took an interest in Mr. McGuire's screenplay and wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the lead. Unfortunately for Don Siegel, Allied Artists passed on the screenplay. Don McGuire then took his screenplay to Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM. Don Schary had spoken out against the interment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, so the fact that the screenplay dealt with bigotry against Japanese Americans appealed to him. At the same time he needed a project for legendary star Spencer Tracy. Don McGuire's original screenplay was then rewritten by Millard Kaufman with Spencer Tracy in mind for the lead role.

Unfortunately Spencer Tracy was not particularly interested in Bad Day at Black Rock and did not want to do the movie. To even get Mr. Tracy to read the screenplay, Dore Schary told him that Alan Ladd had expressed an interest in it. Here it must be noted that there is no evidence that Alan Ladd ever saw the screenplay. It is unclear precisely how it was decided that the lead character played by Spencer Tracy, John J. Macreedy, would have only one arm, but it was ultimately the idea of playing a one-armed veteran of World War II that interested Spencer Tracy in the movie. To give John J. Macreedy some fighting prowess, he was made an expert in karate, something rarely seen in American films of the time.

Initially Richard Brooks was hired to direct Bad Day at Black Rock. Unfortunately, he would prove problematic as a director. Among other things, he referred to the screenplay as "a piece of s***" to Spencer Tracy himself. Mr. Brooks was fired and Dore Schary brought on John Sturges as the film's director. In contrast to Richard Brooks, John Sturges was very happy with the screenplay and even called it "the best screenplay he ever had." He spent hours discussing the project with screenwriter Millard Kaufman.

Ultimately, Bad Day at Black Rock would prove to be historic for several reasons. It was the first film at MGM to ever be shot in Cinemascope. It would also be the last film that Spencer Tracy would make for MGM, the studio at which he spent most of his career. As mentioned earlier, Bad Day at Black Rock  would also be among the very first American films to feature Eastern martial arts. In fact, the Legion of Decency and various state censorship boards were not particularly happy with one scene in which John J. Macreedy uses karate. Ultimately, the Legion of Decency would class the film as suitable for adults and adolescents.

Bad Day at Black Rock was released in January 1955 to largely positive reviews. Variety wrote of the film, "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times found a few flaws with the film, but liked it over all. If anything, Bad Day at Black Rock may be even more highly regarded today. At Rotten Tomatoes 96% of its reviews are positive.

Bad Day at Black Rock is at the same time a very simple film and a sophisticated film. John J. MacReedy gets off the train in Black Rock in order to give a Japanese American a medal for his service during World War II. Unfortunately he finds himself in a town that is highly distrustful and suspicious of him. While the film never deals directly with the interment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps during World War II, bigotry against Japanese Americans is at the centre of the film's plot. Indeed, in many ways Bad Day in Black Rock is as relevant as ever, dealing as it does with racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

At the same time Bad Day at Black Rock addressed another issue of the era, one that had also provided the inspiration for the classic Western High Noon (1952). The Fifties was the era of the Hollywood blacklist, which essentially denied employment to those even suspected of having Communist ties. Sadly, many of those affected by the blacklist had no real ties to the Communist Party whatsoever. Regardless, in Bad Day at Black Rock John J. MacReedy faces a similar problem as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon--a town that is largely uncooperative with him and even at times hostile towards him.

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Spencer Tracy, Best Director for John Sturges, and Best Writing, Screeplay for Millard Kaufman. Spencer Tracy won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in a tie with the cast of A Big Family (1954).

Today Bad Day at Black Rock remains highly regarded and is considered a classic. It is also one of Spencer Tracy's best remembered and most highly regarded films. Indeed, today it is difficult to see anyone else in the role of John J. MacReedy than Spencer Tracy.