Thursday, May 21, 2020

The 40th Anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back

In general, sequels do not have good reputations. The majority of them are not only considered inferior to the original movies upon which they are based, but often they are considered vastly inferior. For that reason, there are very few sequels that are considered superior to their predecessors, and even in some cases it might be a matter of some debate. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is generally considered better than Frankenstein (1931), but insisting that The Godfather Part II (1974) is superior to The Godfather (1972) can result in arguments. Another sequel that is considered superior to its predecessor is Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), more simply known as The Empire Strikes Back. While there are those who will insist Star Wars (1977) is the better movie, one will find many who will insist The Empire Strikes Back is the superior of the two.

Even before Star Wars (1977) was released, George Lucas had considered the possibility of a sequel. Science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster had been hired to write a novelization of Star Wars (which was credited to George Lucas). As part of his contract he was also required to write a second novel that could provide the basis for a low-budget sequel to Star Wars (1977) provided the film did poorly at the box office. As it turned out, Star Wars (1977) not only proved to be a smash hit, but the highest grossing movie of all time at that time (it is still currently the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, after Gone with the Wind). Given the phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977), a sequel to the movie was most assured.

It was in August 1977 that George Lucas began creating an outline for the sequel, then titled Star Wars: Chapter II. Writing the first movie had not been the most pleasant task for Mr. Lucas, so to write the sequel he hired science fiction writer Leigh Brackett in November 1977. George Lucas planned for the screenplay to be something of a collaboration between him and Miss Brackett, with Mr. Lucas providing her ideas while she did the actual writing. Story conferences for Star Wars: Chapter II began on November 28 1977. During this period George Lucas came up with several ideas for the sequel, some of which would never be used and others which would not be used until the third sequel, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

Leigh Brackett would deliver her treatment on February 21 1978. For the most part Leigh Brackett's treatment was very similar to the film as it was finally produced, with one major difference. In the treatment the characters of Anakin Skywalker (Luke's father) and Darth Vader were still two different characters. In the treatment Anakin Skywalker appears as a Force spirit to train Luke. George Lucas was disappointed with Leigh Brackett's treatment and wanted to discuss it with her. Unfortunately, she died of cancer on March 18 1978 before he could do so.

George Lucas then wrote the next draft of the sequel by himself, drawing upon Leigh Brackett's treatment to do so. It was with this second draft that Darth Vader became established as Luke Skywalker's father, as opposed to being an entirely separate character from Anakin Skywalker. Not only would this revelation entirely change the audience's interpretation of Star Wars (1977), but it would also entirely change the direction of the Star Wars movies. It was also with this second draft that George Lucas decided that The Empire Strikes Back would be the second film in the second trilogy out of two trilogies. It was then that the movie officially became Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. As Star Wars (1977) was now the first film in that second trilogy, it became Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

The Empire Strikes Back premiered at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. on May 17 1980 as part of a benefit for the Special Olympics. It would have its premiere in the United Kingdom at the the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square in London on May 20 1980 as a Royal Charity Premiere. The following day, May 21 1980, it went into general release in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might come as some surprise given its status as a classic and a sequel considered superior by some to the original Star Wars (1977), but The Empire Strikes Back received mixed reviews. Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin gave a largely negative review, writing, "With the revelation that Lucas has such a series in mind, even the genuinely ‘fun’ elements of the first film – its comic-strip eclecticism, its movie-serial dash and narrative tropes – are pedantically filled out and institutionalised, much as the galactic landscape is by effects technology," and "That story counts for less than gimmicks, and characters less than both, might be judged from the lack of resonance in the one narrative revelation, concerning Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker." Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave The Empire Strikes Back a much more positive review, but still dismissed the movie. He wrote, "The Empire Strikes Back is not a truly terrible movie. It's a nice movie. It's not, by any means, as nice as Star Wars. It's not as fresh and funny and surprising and witty, but it is nice and inoffensive and, in a way that no one associated with it need be ashamed of, it's also silly." Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune gave The Empire Strikes Back a much more positive review, giving it three and a half stars and saying, "It's a nearly flawless movie of its kind." Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times and Mr. Ebert's co-host on the TV show Sneak Preview, actually included The Empire Strikes Back in his list of the Best Movies of 1980.

While reviews for The Empire Strikes Back may have been mixed, it proved to be a box office smash. In its first run it earned $181.4 million in the United States and Canada. While this was less than Star Wars (1977), it easily made it the no. 1 movie of 1980. Currently it is still the 13th highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.

In the end The Empire Strikes Back would prove to be a pivotal film in both cinematic history and the history of the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, if The Empire Strikes Back had failed miserably at the box office, it is very possible that there may have been no further Star Wars movies and, quite possible, little in the way of a Star Wars franchise at all. Beyond the fact that the success or failure of the then nascent Star Wars franchise depended upon The Empire Strikes Back, the movie would have a major impact on the franchise in other ways.

Of course, the biggest of these was the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Although common knowledge now, it was one of the most shocking reveals in the history of cinema at the time. Furthermore, it has shaped the Star Wars franchise ever since. The first trilogy was not conceived until George Lucas decided that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, and ultimately the first trilogy would be the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. While the third trilogy would be conceived by people other than George Lucas, the revelation of Luke Skywalker's parentage would shape it as well.

Beyond the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, The Empire Strikes Back would introduce characters who would prove pivotal to the franchise. Chief among these was Yoda, the Jedi master who trains Luke in the movie. Yoda would not only play a central role in the second trilogy, but in the first and third trilogies, as well as Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Lando Calrissian would not be as pivotal to the Star Wars franchise as Yoda, but he would prove to be one of the franchise's most popular characters. He would be the protagonist of a series of novels and appeared in both the TV series Star Wars: Rebels and the final film of the Skywalker Saga The Rise of Skywalker. While bounty hunter Boba Fett would prove to be a popular, his impact on the Star Wars franchise would be less than either Yoda or Lando. He would appear in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and has appeared in a number of novels.

Forty years after its release, The Empire Strikes Back is regarded by many not only as being better than Star Wars (1977), but as being the best Star Wars film ever made. Even among those who do not regard it as being better than Star Wars (1977), it is still respected as one of the best films in the franchise. Certainly, without the success of The Empire Strikes Back, we would not have the Star Wars franchise as we know it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

When people think of Edward G. Robinson, they are inclined to think of his roles as gangsters in such films as Little Caesar (1931) and Smart Money (1931) or his roles in such film noirs as Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945). That having been said, Edward G. Robinson also made comedies, such as The Little Giant (1933), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), and Brother Orchid (1940). Among Edward G. Robinson's best comedies was The Whole Town's Talking from 1935.

The Whole Town's Talking was based on the short story "Jail Breaker" by W. R. Burnett published in Collier's in August 1932. If the name "W. R. Burnett" sounds familiar, it is because he also wrote the novel upon which the movie Little Caesar was based. Despite being adapted from source material by the same author, Little Caesar and The Whole Town's Talking are entirely different types of films. While Little Caesar is a serious gangster movie, The Whole Town's Talking is a fast paced comedy. In The Whole Town's Talking, Edward G. Robinson plays meek office clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones, who aspires to be a writer and has secret crush on his co-worker Wilhelmina Clark (played by Jean Arthur). Unfortunately for Jones, he is also a dead ringer for vicious gangster "Killer" Mannion (also played by Edward G. Robinson. When Mannion breaks out of prison, the soft-spoken Jones finds his life complicated in ways he never expected.

By 1935 Edward G. Robinson had already played several gangster roles and was not eager to play more. When he learned from his agent and gossip columnist Louella Parsons that Warner Bros. was loaning him to Columbia Pictures for The Whole Town's Talking, he was not particularly happy. It was after he read the screenplay and learned that he would be playing dual roles (the meek office clerk and the vicious gangster) that he changed his mind. The Whole's Town's Talking was directed by John Ford, who is not particularly known for his comedies. Author W. R. Burnett said that at story conferences Mr. Ford did not say anything and the author commented, "I don't even know why he took the picture." Regardless, Edward G. Robinson got along with John Ford, as well as his co-star Jean Arthur. In his autobiography All My Yesterdays, Mr. Robinson wrote of Miss Arthur, "She was whimsical without being silly, unique without being nutty, a theatrical personality who was an untheatrical person. She was a delight to work with and to know."

If John Ford seemed uninterested in The Whole Town's Talking as W. R. Burnett thought, it certainly didn't show on the screen. The Whole Town's Talking did very well at the box office, grossing $3.1 million domestically. It also received positive reviews. The New York American called the movie, "...the best thing Mr. Robinson has done since the unforgettable Little Caesar."Andre Sennwald in The New York Times wrote of the movie "Pungently written, wittily produced and topped off with a splendid dual performance by Edward G. Robinson, it may be handsomely recommended as the best of the new year's screen comedies." Variety commented that, "Robinson will derive a heap of benefits from this assignment. It hands him some dazzling moments of acting..."

The Whole Town's Talking remains not only one of Edward G. Robinson's best movies, but one of John Ford's best films as well. Easily the best thing about the movie is Edward G. Robinson's dual roles as the meek Arthur Ferguson Jones and the brutal "Killer" Mannion. In particular, his performance as Jones could well be one of the best in his career. Mr. Robinson is convincing as the office clerk with a tendency to be overly polite and vacillating. Not only does Edward G. Robinson do a good job in the film, but so do the supporting cast. Jean Arthur is great as the frank but charming Miss Clark. The script, by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, is a remarkable piece of work. The films moves at a good clip, with realistic complications arising from the movie's somewhat implausible premise.

The Whole Town's Talking may not be one of the best known comedies of the Thirties, but it is definitely one of the best comedies of the decade. Benefiting from bravura performances from its cast and a sterling script, it really should be seen more often than it is.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Late Great Fred Willard

Fred Willard, the comedian and actor well known for his collaborations with Christopher Guest and numerous appearances on television, died May 15 2020 at the age of 86.

Fred Willard was born on September 18 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His father died when he was only 12 years old. After his mother remarried, young Fred Willard was sent away to military school. He later graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and served in the United States Army. While he was in the Army he played on the baseball team and he developed an interest in radio.

Mr. Willard studied at the Showcase Theatre in Manhattan and afterwards joined comedy improvisation troupe Second City in Chicago. He formed a comedy team with Vic Grecco. The two of them performed in coffee houses and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Garry Moore Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Pat Boone Show. The team was successful enough that they were even offered a job on The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. Unfortunately, the team broke up. Fred Willard made his first appearance on narrative in television in an episode of the short lived sitcom Pistols 'n' Petticoats. In the late Sixties he also guest starred on the shows Hey, Landlord; Get Smart; and Love, American Style. He was a founding member of the improvisational comedy troupe the Ace Trucking Company in the late Sixties. The Ace Trucking Company were regulars on the variety show This is Tom Jones and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He made his move debut in a 1967 in the movie Teenage Mother. In the late Sixties he also appeared in the movies Model Shop (1969) and Jenny (1970).

In the Seventies, Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Sirota's Court and played the regular role of talk show host Barth Gimble's sidekick Jerry Hubbard on Fernwood 2 Night and its follow-up series America 2 Night. Mr. Willard appeared as a panellist on Hollywood Squares and was a co-host on Real People. He guest starred on the shows The Barbara McNair Show (with the Ace Trucking Company), The Bob Newhart Show, Karen, Good Heavens,m Laverne & Shirley, We've Got Each Other, Tabitha, The Jim Nabors Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,. and Sweepstakes. He also appeared in the mini-series Salem's Lot. He appeared in the movies The Harrad Experiment (1973. as part of the Ace Trucking Company), Hustle (1975), Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976), Silver Streak (1976), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), Americathon (1979), How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), and First Family (1980).

In the Eighties Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived show D.C. Follies. He guest starred on the shows The Love Boat, Mama's Family, SCTV Channel, Trapper John M.D., Spencer, Faerie Tale Theatre, George Burns Comedy Week, Fast Times, Fame, Out of This World, My Secret Identity, and Not Necessarily the News. He appeared in the movies Movie Madness (1982), Imps* (1983), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Moving Violations (1985), Roxanne (1987), and Portrait of a White Marriage (1988).

In the Nineties Fred Willard had recurring roles on Family Matters; Sister, Sister; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman; Roseanne; and Mad About You. He provided voices for the animated TV shows Hercurles and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. He guest starred on the shows Murder, She Wrote; The Golden Girls; Harry and the Hendersons; Nurses; Married with Children; Dream On; The Ben Stiller Show; The New WKRP in Cincinnati; The Jackie Thomas Show; Dave's World; The Mommies; Murphy Brown; Friends; Clueless; Diagnosis Murder; Step by Step; The Weird Al Show; The Wayan Brothers; Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Oh Baby; Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place; City Guys; Just Shoot Me!; G vs. E; Love & Money; Ladies Man; and The Hughleys. He was a guest voice on The Simpsons. Mr. Willard appeared in the movies High Strung (1992), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Permanent Midnight (1998), Elvis Is Alive! I Swear I Saw Him Eating Ding Dongs Outside the Piggly Wiggly's (1998), Can't Stop Dancing  (1999), Idle Hands (1999), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Dropping Out (2000), Chump Change (2000), and Best in Show (2000).

In the Nineties Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived TV shows Maybe It's Me, A Minute with Stan Hooper, Back to You, and Betsy's Kindergarten Adventures. He had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond and was played the recurring role of Officer Brown on King of the Hill. He guest starred on the shows Bette, Ally McBeal, The Fighting Fitzgeralds, Girlfriends, Inside Schwartz, That's '70s Show, Watching Ellie, The Drew Carey Show, MADtv, Come On Over, Pushing Daisies, Free Radio, The Midnight Show, Chuck, and Glory Daze. He was a guest voice on several animated shows, including The Legend of Tarzan, Dexter's Laboratory, Family Guy, The Batman, Kim Possible, Grim & Evil, and The Boondocks. He appeared in the movies The Wedding Planner (2001), Teddy Bears' Picnic (2001), How High (2001), The Year That Trembled (2002), A Mighty Wind (2003), American Wedding (2003), Nobody Knows Anything! (2003), Killer Diller (2004), 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (2004), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Love Wrecked (2005), Date Movie (2006), Church Ball (2006), Ira & Arby (2006), For Your Consideration (2006), I'll Believe You (2006), Epic Movie (2007), Fighting Words (2007), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), Harold (2008), Scouts Honor (2009), Youth in Revolt (2009), School Gyrls (2009), A Very Mary Christmas (2010), and Holyman Undercover (2010). He was a voice in the animated films Chicken Little (2005), Monster House (2006), and WALL-E (2008).

In the Teens Fred Willard had recurring roles on the TV shows Versailles, Review, and Modern Family. He guest starred on the shows The Closer, In Gayle We Trust, Raising Hope, Rob, Breaking In, Hot in Cleveland, Easy to Assemble, Good Luck Charlie, Community, Family Tree, Drunk History, Good Morning Today, You'll Be Fine, Black Jesus, The Birthday Boys, The Bold and the Beautiful, Live from Lincoln Centre, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The 5th Quarter, The Odd Couple (2016), New Girl, Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories, 9JKL, Corporate, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!. He was a recurring voice on the animated show The Loud House. He is set to appear in the TV show Space Force. Mr. Willard appeared in the movies Fred & Vinne (2011), The Magic of Belle Isle (2012), Max Rose (2013), Dealin' with Idiots (2013), The Birder (2013), Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), The Yank (2014), All Stars (2014), Russell Madness (2015), Bachelors (2015), Fifty Shades of Black (2016), Here Comes Rusty (2016), Mascots (2016), Blood Type (2018), and The Bobby Roberts Project (2018).

Fred Willard was certainly prolific, with several careers both in television and in film. And he was certainly a master at improvisation, a skill he put to good use in his collaborations with Christopher Guest. While he could play a broad array of characters, Fred Willard's speciality was playing characters who were, as The New Yorker described them in a July 3 2006 article, "...gloriously out of their depth." In A Mighty Wind he played Mike LaFontaine, the folk group manager still living his glory days when he was on a now forgotten sitcom, Wha' Happened?. In Best of Show he played the none-too-bright dog show announcer Buck Laughlin, who thought Christopher Columbus captained the Mayflower and was puzzled as to why they didn't breed miniature schnauzers larger. in Waiting for Guffman he played travel agent Ron Albertson, cast in the lead of a community theatre production.

Of course, Fred Willard's career went well beyond his motion picture collaborations with Christopher Guest. He had an extensive resumé when it came to television.  On the Laverne & Shirley episode "Dog Day Blind Dates" he played Charles, Laverne's new gentleman friend who turns out to be something unexpected. On The Golden Girls episode "Dateline Miami," he played a former priest who is still a virgin and winds up on a date with the man-hungry Blanche. On the Nurses episode "Friends and Lovers" he played "Crazy Jim," a patient one of the nurses thinks is a doctor.

While Fred Willard played his share of dimwitted characters throughout this career, in reality he was a intelligent master of improvisation. And while many of his characters could be socially clueless, in reality Mr. Willard was a very kind man. In a tweet, Judd Apatow called him "...the sweetest person you could ever meet." Steve Carrell also said of Fred Willard, "He was a sweet, wonderful man." Here I must point out that it was not only celebrities who commented on Fred Willard's kindness. Fred Willard attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, among other events, and as a result I know quite a few people who have met him. All of them had the same thing to say about Mr. Willard--he was one of the kindest people one could ever meet. Fred Willard was both an incredible talent and a very nice man.