Friday, November 19, 2021

Broken Arrow the TV Series

Native Americans did not fare well during the Golden Age of Hollywood. They did not fare particularly well in the early days of television either. Indeed, the most familiar Native American character to television viewers in the Fifties was probably The Lone Ranger's sidekick Tonto, who was something of a stereotype. Fortunately, things began to change in the late Forties with more sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans in films. Among the films with a more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans was Broken Arrow (1950). It was the success of Broken Arrow (1950) that would lead to the television series Broken Arrow, one of two shows in the Fifties that centred on a Native American character (the other being Brave Eagle).

The movie Broken Arrow (1950) was based on the 1947 novel Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold. Like the novel, the movie was a fictionalized account of the friendship between Indian agent Tom Jeffords(James Stewart)  and  Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler). While Cochise was played by a white actor (as were the other Native characters, with the exception of Geronimo, played by Jay Silverheels) , the movie was progressive for its time insofar as it presented a sympathetic view of both Cochise and the Apache. Not only was Broken Arrow nominated for three Oscars, but it also did very well at the box office. It was the eighth highest grossing film for 1950.

It was in 1955 that The 20th Century Fox Hour debuted on CBS. The 20th Century Fox Hour aired hour-long adaptation of 20th Century Fox movies. Among these movies was Broken Arrow, starring Ricardo Montalbán as Cochise and John Lupton as Tom Jeffords, which aired on May 2 1956. It was this episode of The 20th Century Fox Hour that led to the TV series Broken Arrow. Like the movie and the 20th Century Fox Hour before it, Cochise was once more played by someone who was not Native American. Michael Ansara was a Syrian American of Lebanese descent. Broken Arrow was not the first time he had played a Native American. He had played The Prophet in the 1952 Western Brave Warrior.  On television he had played a Native character on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. For the role of Tom Jeffords, Broken Arrow retained John Lupton from the 20th Century Fox Hour episode.

Broken Arrow debuted on ABC on September 25 1956. It benefited from a particularly good time slot, following the hit Westerns Cheyenne (which rotated with the anthology show Conflict) and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp at 9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central. It then did well enough in the ratings to be renewed for a second season. That second season would be its last. Broken Arrow was rerun on ABC from April to September 1959 as a summer replacement series.

As stated earlier, Broken Arrow was a [progressive show for its time. Its Native American characters were treated sympathetically and they did not speak in the stereotypical broken English seen on many other Westerns. The first three episodes more or less followed the plot of the 1950 movie. For the most part the villains were corrupt white men. An exception to this rule was Geronimo, who appears as Cochise's opponent in a few episodes. Even as Cochise's opponent, Geronimo was treated sympathetically.

Of course, Broken Arrow is a product of its time. Like the movie, to a degree it offers a romanticized,  idealized view of Native Americans. If the show does not cling entirely to the noble savage stereotype, it comes close. A greater objection to the show is that the Native American characters are not played by Native American actors. Sadly, this would remain the norm well into the Sixties.

Broken Arrow would not be the last time Michael Ansara played a Native American. During the 1959-1960 season on the TV show Law of the Plainsman, he played U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart, an Apache who was educated at Harvard after saving the life of a U.S. Cavalry officer. Although it might be better remembered than Broken Arrow, it only lasted one season.

Broken Arrow is not a well-remembered show, but it is a significant one as the one of the first to present a sympathetic view of Native Americans, as well as one of the first to feature a Native American character as one of the leads.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

"California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas

Among my favourite songs by The Mamas and the Papas is "California Dreamin'." The song was written by John and Michelle Phillips in 1963 when they were still living in New York City and John Phillips was a member of the folk trio The Journeymen. The inspiration for the song came from the winter of 1963 in New York City, which was a particularly cold and brutal one. Michelle Phillips, who was born in Long Beach, California and had spent much of her life in the Los Angeles area, particularly missed California. The song, in which an individual finds himself longing for LA during a particularly bitter winter back East, is then to a degree autobiographical.

I have only been to Los Angeles once, but those few days I spent there are enough to make me miss the city at times. It is for that reason I do identify with the song to a degree. That having been said, it comes to my the most not in the winter, but instead in the summer. I tend to miss the somewhat drier, milder summer in Los Angeles when it is overly hot and muggy here! Of course, this means I have to change the lyrics to "California Dreamin'" a bit in my head when I listen to it in the summer.

Without further ado, here are The Mamas and the Papas with "California Dreamin'."

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Smoke Signals (1998)

Hollywood has not exactly been kind to Native Americans. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Native American characters appeared almost exclusively in Westerns (Key Largo was an exception).  To make matters worse, Native Americans were almost always played by white men, and the portrayals were more often than not outright stereotypes. While Hollywood still has a long way to go in its treatment of Natives, things have improved somewhat in the past few decades. The movies Powwow Highway (1989) and Smoke Signals (1998) featured Native Americans in modern day settings and as full-fledged characters rather than stereotypes. What is more, the characters were played by Native Americans.

Indeed, Smoke Signals is singularly important in the history of Native Americans on film. It was the very first film to be written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans. It remains one of the few films with a primarily Native American cast. While Native Americans had directed films before (James Young Deer and Edwin Carewe in the early years of American film), Smoke Signals was historic in the extent to which Native Americans were involved in its production.

Smoke Signals centres on two young  Coeur D'Alene Indians, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Victor is handsome and athletic, if a bit angry at life and his circumstances. Thomas is an eccentric storyteller committed to the traditions of the Coeur D'Alene. The two grew up together, but do not always get along due to the difference in their personalities. When Victor's father Arnold (Gary Farmer) dies in Phoenix, Arizona, Victor and Thomas make a road trip form the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation to bring back his ashes. The trip proves to be filled with self-discovery for both young men.

Smoke Signals was based on the short story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie from his book  The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Director Chris Eyre had read the book and contacted Sherman Alexie about the film rights. While others had approached Mr. Alexie about the film rights before, he gave his consent to Mr. Eyre as he wanted the first film adaptation of his work to be directed by a Native American. While Chris Eyre directed Smoke Signals, it was Sherman Alexie who wrote the film's screenplay

Smoke Signals was developed through the Native American and Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute. The Sundance Institute was founded by Hollywood heavyweight Robert Redford to support independent filmmakers. The Native American Indigenous Program was started in 1994. Given it was developed through the Sundance Institute, it should come as no surprise that Smoke Signals premiered on January 16 1998 at the Sundance Film Festival. At the Sundance Film Festival Smoke Signals took away two trophies and was nominated for another. It won the Filmmaker's Trophy and the Audience Award. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Smoke Signals  would win many more awards. Smoke Signals also received good reviews and what is more, it did respectably well at the box office for an independent film.

Of course, Smoke Signals would not have had nearly as much impact had it not been a good film. Fortunately, it is a great film. Much of this is due to the cast. Both Adam Beach and Evan Adams give fantastic performances as Victor and Thomas respectively. Irene Bedard is remarkable as Suzy Song, a friend of Victor's father Arnold. All of the performances in the film are first rate, and the fact that Native American characters are played by Native American actors gives the film an authenticity it might not have had otherwise.

While the performances in the film are great, much of what makes Smoke Signals a superior film is its script. Smoke Signals subverts several Native American stereotypes. The phrase, "It's a good day to die," long associated, rightly or wrongly, with Native Americans is toyed with throughout the film. At one point Thomas remarks, "Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast." Randy Peone, the DJ on the reservation's radio station KREZ, says on the radio, "It's a good day to be indigenous!" Thomas and Victor discuss which historical Native Americans would have been good at basketball and even create a song about John Wayne's teeth (which they maintain are never visible). Smoke Signals also deals with such issues as domestic violence, alcoholism, child abandonment, and the sometimes dysfunctional relationships between fathers and sons.

Smoke Signals is historic with regards to Native Americans on film, it can be enjoyed as a coming of age movie by individuals of any ethnicity. It is by turns funny, touching, and even tragic, but it is always entertaining.

Monday, November 15, 2021

First Films Announced for the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival

After two years of being a virtual event because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the TCM Classic Film Festival is returning to Hollywood.

Among the films being shown are new restorations of films. These include the world premiere of a new restoration of Giant (1956) and theatrical premieres of new restorations of A Star is Born (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Of course, the TCM Classic Film Festival is known for celebrating the anniversaries of classic films, so it should come as no surprise that there will be a 90th anniversary screening of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcee (1934). In celebration of Doris Day's 100th birthday is a special screening of the film The Pajama Game (1957). Also being shown are the classic musical It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Key Largo (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the kungfu comedy Drunken Master II (1994), and the Sammy Davis, Jr. film A Man Called Adam (1966).