We are grateful to J.R. Jones, author of The Lives of Robert Ryan, for asking Park Ridge Classic Film to be involved in his Robert Ryan Event on May 31, 2015, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Matthew C. Hoffman moderated a Q&A between author J.R. Jones and Lisa Ryan, daughter of actor Robert Ryan. The discussion followed a noon screening of the film noir classic The Set-Up. Just under 200 people attended this screening/book-signing.
On May 31, 2015, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago will be presenting a screening of The Set-Up (1949) starring Robert Ryan. Lisa Ryan, the late actor’s daughter, will be a special guest. In addition, author J.R. Jones will be discussing his new book, The Lives of Robert Ryan (2015). I’ve been asked to moderate a Q&A with both guests.
My own association with Lisa Ryan began in the spring of 2009 when I contacted her about a screening of The Set-Up I was doing for the Park Ridge Public Library. This was a series on Film Noir– my first program since leaving the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in 2004.
The following is a partial transcript of my introduction to The Set-Up on April 23, 2009. Though she was not able to join us in person, Lisa Ryan was generous enough to share some of her memories of her father. (NOTE: Like the flashback within a flashback within a flashback of the film noir The Locket (1946), this written account has me addressing a library audience and reading a letter from Lisa, who writes about her letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which in turn includes a letter from her father.)
Tonight’s film is one I had screened when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre. It was part of a 6-month program called Son of Noir. But my first experience seeing it was on the late late movie on WLS Channel 7, which would often run the B-movies and programmers from the RKO studio. RKO was very much the “House of Noir” as so many of the great low-budget film noirs came out of that studio. A strong case could be made that The Set-Up is the best of the bunch in our current series. It was directed by Robert Wise, who was a terrific visual storyteller. For this presentation, however, I would like to put the emphasis on its star, Robert Ryan, who plays an over-the-hill boxer “one punch away” from the big time.
Chicago-born Robert Ryan was a terrific actor– one of the most underrated in American cinema. He was also one of the heroes of noir because of his portrayals of some truly nasty characters. No one could be meaner gritting his teeth than Ryan, but in The Set-Up, he has a sympathetic role as fighter Stoker Thompson. His career included such classics as Crossfire, Act of Violence, Caught, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Clash By Night, Beware, My Lovely, Odds Against Tomorrow— and those are just the film noirs. Some of his other films include The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock, God’s Little Acre, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, and The Iceman Cometh. Best remembered for playing racially intolerant or psychologically intense characters, Ryan was very much the antithesis off-screen. He was quiet and soft-spoken and a very socially-conscious man– a “solid citizen,” as director Robert Wise described him.
In recent months, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Lisa Ryan, who is Robert Ryan’s only daughter. Though she lives in San Francisco and could not be here with us tonight, she is very much aware of our series and appreciates this screening of her father’s favorite film. Regarding the popularity of film noir in general, Lisa has said her father “would be amazed that Film Noir is such a big deal… sixty years later. I think he’d be totally baffled! My mother told me a hilarious story about being in Paris with my Dad in the early 70’s… and being approached by a group of kids who turned out to be film students. They got down on their knees, on the sidewalk, in front of my Dad, bowing down to him as if he were some religious figure. I don’t know if there are rules about language here, so I’ll just say that my Dad’s comment reportedly was: ‘What the f*** is WRONG with these French people? Are they all INSANE?’… I don’t think he even knew what ‘Film Noir’ was… he took the parts that RKO wanted him to play… and happily for us, some of them were pretty amazing!”
And one of the most amazing parts was in The Set-Up. Robert Ryan was perfectly cast as a small-time boxer since he had been the intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion at Dartmouth College. As Stoker Thompson, he is a heroic figure– the common man– fighting in a world of corruption peopled by those hungry for sensation. Far removed from the boxing world of Madison Square Garden, Paradise City, where the story takes place, embodies the perfect pulp world. It is a place of cheap motels, penny arcades, and shady deals. You can almost smell the sweat and cigar smoke. Here, it seems everyone is down on their luck. But unlike the others, Ryan maintains a quiet nobility. He is reaching the end of the road and he knows it, but he’s got one last chance to prove himself.
The Set-Up was based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The original character of that version was an African-American named Candy Jones. Art Cohn, who had been a sportswriter in San Francisco, wrote the very cynical and unsentimental screenplay. Many of his own personal observations about going to the fights found their way into his script, such as the blind man who follows the action of the fight with the aid of a friend.
Robert Wise directed the film in real time. In other words, the movie is 72 minutes long and the action of the story unfolds within 72 minutes of real time in the lives of these characters. The film is beautiful in black and white, but for us, it would look even more remarkable shown in 35mm. Many people refuse to watch a black and white film, and that’s a sad mentality to have when films like The Set-Up are so stunning to watch.
It’s also a perfect example of how to edit a film. Modern filmmakers have lost sight of this in their attempts to jolt an audience with fast POV shots and sensory overkill. At 72 minutes, The Set-Up is tough and lean– like a fighter, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his praise of it. Robert Wise knew when to cut and when not to. He knew something about putting a film together having edited Citizen Kane.
Like the ringside audience, we see the fight as it would naturally unfold without the gimmicky camerawork. Robert Ryan, with boxer/trainer John Indrisano, helped choreograph the fight scenes. There’s a realism to it– none of the slow motion close-ups in contemporary boxing films where you see a mouth piece flying through the air after a punch. The fight scenes are very visceral and primal. In The Set-Up, when a character hits the dust of the canvas, you feel as though you are in that ring. The entire film is very realistic, though Martin Scorsese has suggested it’s a heightened reality, like a painter’s view of reality.
The Set-Up is visually a very stark film photographed by Milton Krasner, who had been the cinematographer on last week’s movie, A Double Life. You can see how fluid his camera is and how it captures a sense of place and a sense of the people in just the opening minutes with shifting points of view.
Having viewed it again recently, another thing that struck me was the use of sound in The Set-Up. There is no grand, orchestral underscoring. You hear the ring bell instead of any title music. Sound plays an important role in the film as it sets the mood. It’s one of those movies where everything fits together so well, where every image and sound has a reason for being there.
The film was shot in about 19 days and received excellent reviews when released. It had originally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949 where Robert Ryan received a Best Actor award. Besides being Ryan’s favorite picture, The Set-Up would be Robert Wise’s as well. That’s saying something considering he had made such classics as The Body Snatcher, Curse of the Cat People and, after leaving RKO, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
No doubt if The Set-Up had been a foreign film it would probably have been hailed a masterpiece. But the general perception was that it was simply a great B movie. Only in recent decades, with the rise in popularity and appreciation for film noir has The Set-Up been recognized as an American masterpiece. It is one of the best films ever made about the sport of boxing.
Just the other night, Lisa Ryan sent me this email which I would like to share with all of you… Lisa writes…
This is also probably not useful… but there’s been an ongoing exchange of letters to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle about inappropriate laughter during screenings of classic Noir films at the last big Noir festival here. It’s turned into quite a hot debate– so I thought I’d add my 2 cents– here’s the letter I wrote (so far not published):
Yet another opinion about ‘disrespectful laughter’
Some years back I attended a screening of the classic boxing noir film “The Set-Up” at the Castro Theatre.
I’d only seen it on TV and was looking forward to seeing it on the big screen because A) it’s a great movie, and B) the central character in the story– Stoker Thompson– was played by my father, Robert Ryan.
The end of the film is totally heartbreaking, as a battered and broken Thompson, calling to his wife, staggers out of an alley behind the boxing arena and collapses in the street. His wife (played by the fabulous Audrey Totter) rushes to his side and comforts him as he gazes up at her and says: “Julie, I won tonight. I won!”
It never would have occurred to me– until I saw it at the Castro– that “The Set-Up” was a rollicking comedy. Who knew?
The inappropriate laughter throughout the movie reminded me of a story my father told me about performing ‘Othello’ at a matinee for elementary school children in England in 1967. He told me the story in a letter he sent me from the Nottingham Repertory Theatre:
“We had the last of the school matiness yesterday, thank God. They are a local institution whereby the local schools get a free performance of the current classic– in this case, of course, ‘Othello.’ Shakespeare naturally is sacrosanct, so 6 year old moppets are allowed to watch a play about murder, sexual jealousy, and foul conniving. The results are what you’d expect: we played The Big O to a constant storm of laughter which reached a crescendo in the bedroom scene. My killing of the lady was evidently funnier than the Three Stooges. We did 6 of these horrendous things and I feel that I have paid for all my sins in this world.”
Gee– I wonder why the Chronicle hasn’t printed my letter? It’s only 10 PAGES LONG!
Anyway, I suspect your Chicago audience will demonstrate a lot more class…
About my dad and boxing… it was something he loved that stayed with him his entire life. Wherever we lived he always had a punching bag set-up, and worked out on it every day that I can remember. When we lived in New York he’d go running in Central Park wearing ancient wool sweatpants from his days as a boxing champ at Dartmouth. When I was in high school the sight of my 50-something dad running backwards around Central Park Reservoir, shadow boxing in his 1928 sweatpants was both hilarious and excruciatingly embarrassing.
He always carried a framed photo of the lightweight boxing champ “Baby Joe” Gans with him wherever he went. When I was growing up, Joe Gans always occupied a position of prominence in our living room, hanging over the fireplace. I never really thought about Joe Gans until years after my dad died, and when I finally did some research on him I was really surprised to learn that he’d died in 1910!
In the 1960’s my dad added a framed portrait of Muhammad Ali to his boxing shrine.
OK– that’s all I can think of– maybe you can use some of this– have fun!
NOTE: Lisa’s letter was published on May 3, 2009 by the SF Chronicle, though heavily edited.
For more about Robert Ryan, refer to J.R. Jones’ The Actor’s Letter, originally published in The Chicago Reader in the fall of 2009.
Thank you to everyone who came out to support the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series.
For the seven shows this season, we had a combined attendance of 3700! (That’s an average of over 500 people a show.)
Though we only had 217 on May 7 for Why Be Good?, Colleen Moore still beat out the 35 who attended The Avengers: Age of Ultron that same night in Theatre 2!
Alice Hargrave gave a wonderful talk about her grandmother, Colleen Moore. In addition to bringing rare photos which she displayed in the lobby, we also had a short video presentation before the film featuring extremely rare home movies.
We thank you again for all your support and we look forward to seeing you in September when the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series returns! We’ll be posting updates on the website soon.
With the Chicago Art Deco Society…
Jay Warren giving Why Be Good? the sound of the Charleston!
“If you believe in your dreams, your dreams will come to life.” ~ Colleen Moore
On May 7, 2015, the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series will conclude its second season with a screening of Why Be Good? (1929) starring Colleen Moore. The event, which has received national coverage through Turner Classic Movies, will have several attractions including a visit from Alice Hargrave, Colleen’s granddaughter. Today, Colleen is probably better-known to the general public for her “Fairy Castle,” which remains one of the most popular exhibits at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago. In her day, though, Colleen was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She came to symbolize the spirit of the Jazz Age and was the first successful “flapper” in the movies. But that was over ninety years ago. Many will be asking, “Who was Colleen Moore?”
Colleen Moore was born Kathleen Morrison on August 19, 1899, in Port Huron, Michigan. She was the only daughter of Charles and Agnes Morrison. Due to Charles’ various business ventures, the family was often on the move, living in several homes in Michigan. They sometimes summered in Chicago where Kathleen had a favorite aunt. It was during one visit to Chicago around the age of five when Kathleen saw a theatre production of Peter Pan. It would make a lasting impression on her because for the first time she understood what it was like to captivate an audience.
By 1908 the family had relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, before settling in Tampa, Florida, three years later. Her father had a machinery business there. As a young girl in Tampa, she saw many movies and was a fan of the popular stars of the day, especially Lillian Gish. Kathleen always intended not only to be an actress, but to be a star. Her ticket to Hollywood came in 1917 in the form of what she termed a “payoff.” Her influential uncle, Walter Howey, managing editor of the Chicago Examiner, had been instrumental in getting D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation past the Chicago censors. As a return favor to Howey, Griffith invited Kathleen to Hollywood. With her grandmother and mother in tow, Kathleen– renamed “Colleen Moore” by her uncle– took the California Limited west.
Before coming to Hollywood, Kathleen had a screen test done at the Essanay Studio in Chicago to see how her eyes registered onscreen. Though these were the days before color film when such details would not have been picked up by the camera, Colleen had a unique physical feature called heterochromia: she had one brown eye and one blue eye. She passed the test. (In later years, Moore claimed to have been a background extra in some films made at Essanay. It is possible that this could’ve happened earlier during her frequent stays in Chicago with her Aunt Lib.)
These were the early days when Hollywood was not far removed from the citrus groves that had dominated the landscape. In fact, most of the land was still rural. Only a few years before, Cecil B. DeMille had shot the first movie ever filmed in Hollywood, The Squaw Man. One of the first movie sites Colleen saw was the set of Intolerance, which was still standing. At Griffith’s Triangle-Fine Arts studio, she met members of his stock company and was immediately cast in a film. Colleen cites a movie called Bad Boy (1917) as her first screen credit.
In those days, many girls were cast for type. Young actresses who photographed well often played “adults” even though they themselves were only teenagers. During this time, Colleen learned the rudiments of acting– namely, which angles were to her best advantage and, more importantly, to never get upstaged by another actor. After appearing in some program films for Griffith, Colleen worked at other studios including Selig and Ince Studio. She learned comic timing on-screen while working for the Christie Film Company. In these early years she appeared with cowboy star Tom Mix, whom she greatly admired. In her estimation, he was a real cowboy hero, and the West was the romantic place in the world.
Despite working at Griffith’s studio, Colleen’s only opportunity to appear in one of his major productions came with a small role in his World War I epic Hearts of the World (1918). Unfortunately, her relatively minor part was left on the cutting room floor. Gradually, her career as an ingenue was boosted towards stardom. She found steady work with directors like Mickey Neilan (Dinty, 1920) and King Vidor (The Sky Pilot, 1921). It was Neilan who introduced Colleen to the man who would become her husband, John McCormick. A press agent at the time, McCormick would later become production head for First National Pictures, which was then a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. When First National went into the business of producing films, McCormick made sure Colleen Moore would be one of the first stars they signed. She appeared in a couple films as the lead, but the upper brass at the studio felt she could not carry a film on her own. It seemed to her as though she would remain a “featured player” but never a star.
The turning point in her career came with a story called Flaming Youth (1923), which had been a scandalous, best-selling novel about “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure mad daughters, and sensation craving mothers.” Colleen wanted the role of wild daughter Patricia Frentiss badly, so with the help of her mother (who had since joined her in California), she overhauled her screen image. Gone were the long curls. Afterall, she knew she wouldn’t be another Mary Pickford. The “sweet young thing I was not.” Her mother cut her hair into a Dutch bob. Colleen got the role in Flaming Youth, and with it, she created a new screen type– the emancipated young girl who defies convention. She defined the Roaring Twenties with her bobbed hair, short skirts and rebellious nature. It was Colleen Moore who put this new American type in vogue. As F. Scott Fitzgerald later wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”
Colleen Moore had a wonderfully expressive face that enlivened the movie frame. She was at her best as a comedienne, but she could also handle serious drama as she demonstrated with her performance as Selina in So Big (1924)– her favorite role. Though Barbara Stanwyck would later appear in the remake, author Edna Ferber always believed it was Colleen Moore who did the part justice.
In Silent Star (1968), Colleen’s autobiography, she recalls the early days of Hollywood– the stars she knew and the scandals that were talked about. She also tells of her connection to someone who would go on to become a major star in the 1930s and 1940s: “One day, while I was making a film called Her Wild Oat, I saw among the extras the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen. I suggested we make a test of her. When I saw the test the next day with the studio brass, I was elated. She was even better than her promise. To my shock, the bosses, even John, said, ‘But her teeth stick out in front.’ I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, she’s only fourteen years old. Haven’t you ever heard about braces?’ So they signed her to a contract and sent her to a dentist. Convinced now they had another Corinne Griffith on their hands, the bosses wanted to change her name to something more romantic than her own name Gretchen Young. So I named her– after the most beautiful doll I had ever had, Loretta.”
Colleen’s popularity grew as the decade wore on. By 1926, she was the #1 box office attraction according to an exhibitor’s poll. She was making $12,500 a week. In 1928, she appeared in one of her most famous and prestigious films, Lilac Time, which co-starred a relative newcomer named Gary Cooper. Lilac Time, a drama about World War I pilots, was a huge hit. It was also the first film screened at a theatre newly built in Park Ridge, Illinois, called the Pickwick Theatre.
Colleen with Neil Hamilton in Why Be Good?, a great showcase of Art Deco set design.
By the late 1920s, sound was changing the face of Hollywood. New technology enabled sound to be recorded on disc. It was then played in sync with the movie as it was being projected. Dialogue and sound effects were being heard for the first time in theatres. But before Colleen made her first all-out “talkie,” she appeared in a Jazz Age comedy called Why Be Good? (1929)directed by William Seiter (who would go on to direct Laurel & Hardy’s best feature comedy, The Sons of theDesert). Similar to her earlier roles, Colleen played a character who was a carefree spirit who dared to ask the tantalizing question, “Why be good when it’s so much more thrilling to be bad?” However, what separated Colleen Moore from others like Clara Bow– her box office competition– was that audiences knew Colleen was a good girl at heart. Not only did Why Be Good? present the 1920s flapper in all her glory, but it also showcased a modern architectural style known as Art Deco. Why Be Good? rivals the modern-looking set designs of other great Art Deco films of the era including MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928) starring Joan Crawford.
Though Colleen found great success on movie screens, personal happiness eluded her. Her troubled marriage to John McCormick was exhausting and took its toll on her. McCormick was an alcoholic who twice tried to kill her while drunk. His bizarre, often erratic behavior eventually led to divorce in 1930. But in the late 1920s, Colleen found a means of escape–a happiness away from home. In 1928, she started creating one of the most enduring aspects of her legacy. A lifelong collector of dollhouses, Colleen set out to build the ultimate “fairy castle.” Though Colleen had been in awe of (William Randolph) Hearst Castle during her many visits to the San Simeon retreat, the idea for the dollhouse came not from the publishing tycoon but from her own father who inspired it. Nevertheless, Colleen insisted her castle would have “the same feeling as San Simeon.”
Her father had conceived it, and with the help of architect Horace Jackson, who designed the floorplan, and decorator Harold Grieve– as well as many others who worked at First National– Colleen’s dream fairy castle became a reality. Cast in aluminum and made up of 200 interlocking parts, the castle was roughly nine feet square (one inch to the foot) with its tallest tower 12 feet high. It was made up of eleven rooms filled with nearly 1,500 objects including miniature books, furniture, and antiques. Every room was inspired by classic fairy tales and legends. Every room told a story. The castle even had its own plumbing and electrical systems. What started out as a hobby became her escape. With the help of friends, the castle grew over the years into a lasting work of art. She finished the castle in 1935. This fantasy world would become more than just a large dollhouse. It not only reflected her persona, but it became a museum unto itself– a repository of art, history, and culture.
Colleen’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago. (photo courtesy of MSI)
By the mid-1930s, Colleen’s career would be finished as well. She had made a handful of sound films, but her favorite was always The Power and the Glory (1933) with Spencer Tracy. She felt Tracy was the finest actor she had ever worked with. It was a dramatic role for her, and though it received critical praise, the public did not accept her in this type of role. Colleen had no desire to return to what she had once been in the 1920s and so bowed out of Hollywood.
After a short-lived marriage to a good friend of hers, Albert Parker Scott, Colleen finally found marital happiness when she met Chicago stockbroker Homer Hargrave in 1936. Homer was a widower with two children whom Colleen accepted as her own: Judy and Homer, Jr. She was introduced to Homer while she was on tour with her dollhouse to raise money for crippled children. At many city department stores across the nation, her castle became a great attraction. The tour eventually raised over $600,000. Colleen married Homer in 1937. As a pre-honeymoon trip, Homer took her to Riverview Amusement Park.
Colleen considered The Power and the Glory her finest film.
It was during her years away from Hollywood that Colleen developed a greater sense of community. She became what she called a “private” person– that is, a person from the private sector outside of Hollywood. Over the years, Colleen remained active. Having wisely invested her money, she wrote a book called, How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market (1969). She also helped found the first Chicago International Film Festival. Colleen remained married to Homer until his death in 1964. In 1983, she married a building contractor, Paul Maginot. They would remain together until her death from cancer in 1988.
Colleen Moore didn’t have the erotic charge of Louise Brooks, another flapper icon who has attained cult status, but Colleen was a bigger star in America than Brooks ever was, and she defined the look of the flapper well before Brooks. Colleen dosen’t have the name recognition of Clara Bow, the “It” girl whose affairs and controversial behavior off-screen added to the public’s fascination with her. Colleen, by contrast, led a scandal-free life, proving that not every star in Hollywood was without values. Though Colleen was the prototypical Jazz Age heroine who broke from conformity in order to have fun, her characters were never decadent. In fact, she always kept her old-fashioned decency in the end. Her sin was of the synthetic variety.
Colleen with Lloyd Hughes in Ella Cinders, 1926.
Due to her immense popularity in the 1920s, Colleen was a trend-setter who shaped fashions and hairstyles. But beyond the iconic look, she was an actress of great energy, humor, and heart. Most importantly, Colleen was a wonderful person in real life who was motivated by charity and who gave back to the community.
With so many of her films out of circulation– only Why Be Good? is commercially available now while some titles exist in lesser-quality dvds– it might seem a daunting task to generate a demand for Colleen Moore. Added to this is the fact that many of her films are simply lost. (Due to the carelessness of a staffer at the Museum of Modern Art, some of her films deteriorated beyond repair.) But there is hope that Colleen will be more than a mere footnote in film history books. Some of her films are surfacing while others exist partially. More recently, the Vitaphone Project has restored and released her last two silent films (with the original Vitaphone sound): Synthetic Sin and, of course, Why Be Good? With the goal of continued preservation as well as proper exposure of those films that do exist, Colleen Moore can again be recognized as one of the great stars in the Age of Silence. We hope that our screening, along with others across the country, will lead to what Alice Hargrave has called a new wave of Colleen Moore interest.
“I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
What:Why Be Good? (1929) DCP restoration Jay Warren of the SFSC will provide the organ accompaniment! When: May 7, 2015 7:30 PM Where: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL Who: Special Guests: Alice Hargrave & the Colleen Moore family!
And The Chicago Art Deco Society!
Silent star Colleen Moore opened the Pickwick Theatre in 1928 with a showing of Lilac Time, but now she’s back to close out our second season of the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. Why Be Good? (1929) played last October at the Chicago International Film Festival, and now this wonderful Jazz Age comedy comes to the suburbs!
Alice Hargrave, Colleen’s granddaughter, will be our special guest along with other members of Moore’s family. Alice will introduce the film and be available for a Q&A after the feature presentation.
For decades, Why Be Good? had been considered a lost film until a recent restoration by the Vitaphone Project preserved it for future generations. Not only is Why Be Good? a great comedy revealing its star at her best, but it’s also a terrific showcase of Art Deco set design. Due to the connection to Screen Deco, we’ve also invited the Chicago Art Deco Society to join us this evening.
Don’t miss our last show of the season! This will be a fun event for the community and we’d love to have you there. (1920s “flapper” costume optional.)
1. Big screen! We will be presenting this spectacular movie on the big screen– the way it was meant to be seen. Regardless of what size TV you may have hanging on your wall at home these days, nothing compares to experiencing it in an awe-inspiring theatre filled with hundreds of people.
2. Charlton Heston. Heston is one of the great movie legends whose films ranged from Touch of Evil (1958) to Planet of the Apes (1968). But he is best known for the many epics he starred in. Heston was an almost mythic figure on the screen, so there was no one better suited for roles like Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956). Today’s historical concoctions (Pompeii, Son of God, et al.) often feature modern-looking actors who appear to have been pulled from the pages of GQ magazine. But Heston belonged to the pages of history.
3. Chariot Race. Judah Ben-Hur’s horse race against his old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), remains one of the greatest actions sequences in film. It can be argued that it is the greatest sequence ever edited together. (Sorry, Battleship Potempkin.) Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt and Andrew Marton directed this second-unit sequence in which Charlton Heston trained for weeks in order to properly drive a chariot.
4. Music. The score by Miklos Rozsa is considered his finest composition and won him an Academy Award. Anyone who has seen the movie before or owns an album or cd of this amazing score can appreciate its grandeur and sweep.
5. Sets. Everything about Ben-Hur looks epic. It was the most expensive movie made up until that time, costing MGM $15 million dollars. The most famous set is the Circus Maximus arena in which the chariots race. It is astounding what Hollywood craftsmanship could build and accomplish (aided by some brilliant matte paintings). Today’s epics, by contrast, rely heavily on CG effects where most of the action is in a computer. But nothing can replace the realism of actual recreations. Sets and location work add to the actor’s performance, creating an element he or she would not feel if acting in front of a green screen.
6. William Wyler. Wyler was at the helm of some of the finest productions to come out of Hollywood including Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Wyler wanted to out-DeMille DeMille and succeeded in making an intimate epic that didn’t allow the scale to dwarf the characters.
7. Best Picture.Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s been noted that Ben-Hur ushered in a modern-style of filmmaking, breaking away from conventions associated with the studio system. Ben-Hur‘s visual compositions and lighting (photographed by Robert L. Surtees in the new “MGM Camera 65″ process)– as well as its editing– set it apart from most of what 1950s Hollywood was releasing at that time.
8. Great epic. There were many epics made in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which dealt with religious or Biblical storylines. Though the main plot follows the relationship of a Jew and a Roman, the film is also A Tale of the Christ. The story of Jesus is dramatically and reverently interwoven with the life of the (historically) fictitious Ben-Hur. The film not only deals with the tension between Romans and Jews but also covers the last days of Christ. Like other epics, it is filled with majesty and spectacle, but it is a testament to the filmmakers that such a large-scale production could be made with such intimate detail and nuance.
9. Comparison to 2016 remake. Next year will see the release of another Hollywood remake of a classic film. Afterall, the chariot race would be so much better if it were computer-generated, right? (Why doesn’t Hollywood remake the failures like The Silver Chalice instead?) We can’t call the new Ben-Hur lackluster until it comes out, but we doubt it will measure up to the 1925 version much less the ’59 one.
10. Transcendent viewing experience. One of the most rewarding theatre experiences I’ve had in recent years was seeing a 35mm presentation of The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Portage Theatre (sponsored by the Northwest Chicago Film Society). Though our presentation is a DCP (digital) restoration, the image will look beautiful. Not every movie we see in a theatre is an “event” movie, but Ben-Hur is surely one of them. Once in a blue moon it will be screened in a theatre, and when it does we should take advantage of the opportunity. Ben-Hur is a work of great power that has influenced filmmakers and inspired audiences for 50+ years. It is a special experience one will not soon forget.
Park Ridge came together on March 19 for another big event at the Pickwick Theatre. We had a crowd of 613 patrons for our Beatles Night. Everyone who came out to support us had a great time– and got their money’s worth. We had two guests, a cover band, a raffle, and a book-signing.
Thank you to Beatles author Robert Rodriguez, who not only performed in the pre-show music onstage but did a book signing after the show. Thank you to all the members of the band The Time Bandits (Mike, Dennis, Tony, and Robert) for a great performance. We’d also like to thank Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro. Mark introduced A Hard Day’s Night with Robert, and he also did a Q&A with the audience after the movie.
We are extremely grateful to Jared at Allegro Music Center in Park Ridge for doing the (emergency) set-up on the stage.
The Time Bandits perform before the film screening…
The trailer to Yellow Submarine made a surprise appearance…
The winner of our Beatles basket, Noreen Gallagher!
Program Host Matthew Hoffman with Movie Hostess Allison
With the Classic Film Series staff…
Visit our Photo Archive for more great images from this night!
What: Ben-Hur (1959) DCP presentation When: April 1 (Wednesday), 2015 7:00 PM Where: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL What Else: Prelude music by organist Jay Warren at 6:30 PM Screening as part of theCinema of Transcendencefilm program.
WHAT:A Hard Day’s Night (1964) DCP presentation WHEN: March 19, 2015 7:30 PM WHERE: Pickwick Theatre, Park Ridge, IL WHO: Beatles author Robert Rodriguez* will join us to introduce A Hard Day’s Night. His band, “The Time Bandits,” will perform onstage from 7:00 to 7:30 PM! Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Mark Caro will also join us to lead a Beatles Q&A after the movie. WHAT ELSE: We will raffle off a Beatles-themed prize basket! (Raffle tickets are only $1/5 for $4. )
*Robert Rodriguez is the award-winning author of five books on The Beatles, including the acclaimed Revolver; How The Beatles Re-Imagined Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along with British journalist Richard Buskin, he is the co-host of the podcast, Something About The Beatles. He appears regularly at the annual Fest for Beatles Fans in Rosemont as well as fan gatherings around the country and local libraries, presenting three separate audio-visual programs on their history.
“Remember, as was once told me, ‘Life is to give, not to take.’” ~Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (1935)
In 2015, we look beyond the veil of our existence as we take a spiritual journey through the movies. Cinema of Transcendence is an original program that explores the role of spirituality and faith in classic Hollywood. When audiences think of the image of God on film, they might recall directors like Cecil B. DeMille, who was famous for the Bible stories he brought to the screen. Others might remember composers like Miklos Rozsa, whose musical scores brought a spiritual power to many epics from the 1950s.
In a modern age that is often cynical and skeptic, Cinema of Transcendence seeks to uplift and inspire with a positive image of religion. These films reflect the exalted virtues of love, forgiveness– and the kind of courage born in Heaven. They project a translation of God’s Word through a Hollywood perspective. If these films have historical shortcomings, they nevertheless remain faithful to the spirit of the Word.
Movies inspired by the Holy Bible go back to the very early days of the silent cinema. At the turn of the 20th century, several short films depicted the passion play. The biggest commercial and artistic successes, though, were made by filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille, whose 1927 version of The King of Kings remains one of the great triumphs of religious storytelling. DeMille also made the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments (a film he would remake in 1956.) Other directors with notable contributions to the subject include D.W. Griffith (Intolerance, 1916) and Fred Niblo (Ben-Hur, 1925). Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (1928) was a “part-talkie” disaster film produced by the Warner Bros. studio.
H.B. Warner as Jesus in the most reverent and beautiful screen version of Christ in DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927).
Films that touched upon the Divine were evident during Hollywood’s “pre-Code” era of the early 1930s when adult subjects were treated with a frankness that shocked the general public. The moral outrage of various civic and church organizations would force Hollywood’s Production Code to be enforced in 1934. But before that time, there were many films that mixed religion with vice. The Sign of the Cross (1932) is a notorious example of Cecil B. DeMille shocking his audiences with sexual imagery. But the sin depicted was in equal parts balanced with a powerful message about faith and pure love. Other pre-Code films of the era with spiritual themes and motifs include Safe in Hell (1931) and Gabriel Over the White House (1933).
Some of the best literary translations in the mid-1930s featured strong themes about redemption and noble sacrifice (A Tale of Two Cities, 1935) as well as forgiveness and charity (Les Miserables, 1935). Dante’s Inferno (1935) tells a modern day parable with a recreation of the Hell from Dante’s famous poem, The Divine Comedy. The nightmarish imagery from this largely overlooked film is an impressive achievement in art direction.
A vision of Hell from Dante’s Inferno (1935).
The Word of God has been told using legend (the Holy Grail in The Light in the Dark aka The Light of Faith, 1922), allegory, (The Passing of the Third Floor Back, 1935 (UK), Strange Cargo, 1940), history (Last Days of Pompeii, 1935, The Crusades, 1935, Joan of Arc, 1948), and through films dealing with visions and miracles (TheSong of Bernadette, 1943).
Many films in the 1930s and 1940s offered positive images of church clergymen and priests. Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938) and Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) are just two of the many fine examples of how Hollywood defined the priesthood.
One of the most remarkable films of the 1940s is One Foot in Heaven (1941) starring Fredric March as a Methodist minister in early 20th century America. This is one of the most intelligent and uplifting family films from Hollywood’s golden age. One Foot In Heaven remains the primary source of inspiration for Cinema of Transcendence.
Fredric March in One Foot in Heaven (1941).
Other films that have glimpsed the eternal include Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), which sought an earthly transcendence for society itself. Though not an overtly religious film, Lost Horizon is one of the most soulful films to come out of Hollywood. The Razor’s Edge (1946) presented the main character of Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) on a spiritual search for the meaning of life. These films and others have featured characters seeking a mental and spiritual transcendence. Society and the individual could reach beyond and become something far more than what we are now.
A subcategory of spirituality is a group of films that could be classified as angels and demons. Movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) featured strong religious elements even though the films themselves were not directly about religion. Several fantasy films offered a more playful take on religious concepts. Actor Claude Rains managed to play an angel in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and a devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946).
Spirituality onscreen permeated many genres, from horror (The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, and The Walking Dead, 1936) to Westerns like 1950’s Stars in My Crown. Actors one might not normally associate with religion appeared in some very unusual but remarkable films including Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Gaucho, 1927), Boris Karloff (The Walking Dead, 1936), and even Errol Flynn in The Green Light (1937), a melodrama based on a novel by Lutheran minister Lloyd C. Douglas, author of Magnificent Obsession (1935).
But it was the 1950s that saw the greatest stories ever told on movie screens. Audiences could now witness the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the birth of Jesus Christ not only in color– but in widescreen. In an effort to bring audiences back to theatres—and away from television—many new widescreen formats such as CinemaScope turned the movies into spectacles.
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956).
Two of the most popular films from the 1950s are The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). The Ten Commandments, DeMille’s final film, has become a television tradition with its perennial showing every Easter. The force of the film’s storytelling and the strength of its convictions have towered above every version made since. Ben-Hur, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was a remake of the famous silent film and contains the most spectacular horse race in film history. Ben-Hur would also become the most honored Biblical epic with 11 Oscar wins.
Other important Christian films from the 1950s and 1960s include Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Big Fisherman (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Two of which, The Robe and The Big Fisherman, were the works of author Lloyd C. Douglas.
Throughout the history of religious cinema, there have been many that have challenged our beliefs and notions of holiness. Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931) features Barbara Stanwyck as a fake evangelist milking the multitudes. It also offers a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy that can be found in any local congregation. Night of the Hunter (1955), now recognized as a masterpiece in visual storytelling, presented a murderous preacher (Robert Mitchum) whose religious fanaticism is counterbalanced by the genuinely spiritual presence of Lillian Gish. These films as well as others like Elmer Gantry (1960) present a darker vision of faith based on the wayward motivations of its practitioners.
Films with religious themes continue to be popular to this day, even against the forces of modernity. However, most of these faith-based efforts are artistic failures. What Christian cinema markets today, both theatrically and on cable, is often condescending and simplistic. In addition, modern reinterpretations of the Bible– as well as satirical religious films– have only widened the gap between the reverence of the past and the irrelevant present. Nonetheless, the values and teachings of the Judeo-Christian faith have had great success manifesting more subtly in unlikely places. Themes of temptation and redemption– and an all-powerful guiding force– have surfaced in many genres, from children’s fantasy to popular science fiction.
Cinema of Transcendence is a series about discovery, revelation and, we hope… illumination.
Cinema of Transcendence runs from March 5 to June 4 at the Park Ridge Public Library. To learn more about the spring series and to see the complete schedule of films, please visit the official series blog: Cinema of Transcendence.