Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Away All Boats" and the lesson of grim determination

Title: Away All Boats
Released: 1956
Genre: War at sea
Notable for: Eastwood's last appearance as a studio contract actor
Clint's subliminal message: "Go ahead and fire me because I will make you regret it."

The most amazing thing about the World War II epic "Away All Boats" is it should have been the end of Clint Eastwood's movie career. He should have left Hollywood as an unknown who almost made it in the movies. Then he should have gotten a job in a cement factory, or something of that sort, and spent the rest of his life bragging to people in the local tavern that he appeared in seven movies for a total of about four minutes.

"Hell, yes!" Clint would say at his usual stool at the end of the bar. "I worked with Rock Hudson, Donald O'Connor, John Agar, Richard Boone, George Nader, all the big names. Mamie Van Doren? I did her."

"Away All Boats" was the last film Clint made in 18 months as a low-paid contract actor for Universal Studios. Clint knew Universal did not intended to renew his contract.

His career clearly appeared headed nowhere in those first seven films for Universal. Only once did he play what might be called a character. The rest of the time he had insignificant roles easy to miss unless you watch closely for him.

One of his smallest roles was his last under contract with Universal.

"Away All Boats" is an entertaining but muddled World War II movie. It was billed as a true story but the Navy ship where it is set is fictional. But the really muddling part is the way the ship's captain is presented. For most of the movie, the captain is unreasonable, strange and unyielding. One outstanding moment of unintentional humor comes when the captain must be told the enemy killed "Chip Chee," a pet monkey he picked up to ease the loneliness of command. Then, at the end of the movie, the captain's strangeness is magically transformed into heroism. Whatever.

Clint plays an uncredited role as a medic. He is onscreen for five seconds to deliver one line: "Dr. Bell's waiting for him in surgery, sir."

After the movie was shot, but before it was released, Universal dumped Eastwood's contract effective Oct. 25, 1955.

Ninety-nine percent of us, in that circumstance, would give ourselves credit for trying. We would try not to feel humiliated but we would give up. Judging by film output alone, Eastwood's 18-month movie career was a failure. The studio lost interest in his talents and no evidence existed to suggest he had a future.

But Eastwood did not go looking for work at a cement plant. Trusting knowledge he gained and connections he made in those 18 months at Universal, Clint stuck around Hollywood and kept trying to scrape up roles. Three hard and discouraging years were ahead.

Grim determination is a defining trait of many of Eastwood's classic characters. His film message, over and over, is a real man does not give up when things go bad. He grits his teeth and kicks ass.

Give the dude credit. He gave a good example of how that can work in real life, too.

Next up: "The First Traveling Saleslady."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Star in the Dust" and a taste of hope

Title: Star in the Dust
Released: 1956
Genre: Farmers versus cowmen conflict
Notable for: Clint Eastwood's first Western
Clint's subliminal message: "I think I enjoy swaggering in a hat."

Six weeks into the Clint Eastwood Project it is discouraging to think we still have five more weeks before we can watch an actual Clint Eastwood film. Where's the shooting? Where are the angry stares? Where is the I-don't-give-a-shit-what-you-think attitude?

"This movie gives me hope," Andrew says. "At least it's a western."

Normally we would give "Star in the Dust" about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, but our standards have been so damaged by exposure to crap like "Francis in the Navy" that we elevate "Star in the Dust" to an 8.

Clint's role is again insignificant and uncredited. Five minutes into the film, he meets the sheriff in the street, says good morning and then foreshadows the entire plot by discussing the betting odds on whether the day's hanging will go off as scheduled.

Many moments in the film are stupid and laughable. A janitor-turned-deputy is shot and clutches an invisible wound. The condemned killer in his jail cell has notes in his pockets from the town's leading citizen, who implicates himself in murder. An annoying troubadour wanders the town singing about the condemned man, Sam Hall. This musical distraction is based on a very old folk song, and Johnny Cash later recorded a livelier version of "Sam Hall" that you can hear by clicking here. For the life of us, we cannot figure out why the movie is called "Star in the Dust." The opening credits roll over the image of a star-shaped sheriff's badge on the ground. We expected the sheriff would quit at the end and throw his badge into the dirt, ala "High Noon." But nothing of the sort happens. Any viewer with a brain must wonder if somewhere along the line the filmmakers changed the ending but neglected to change the title.

But who cares? The movie has gunfights, treachery, a hanging and three outstanding fistfights. The best fight was between two women who bashed each other bloody!

For the first time in the Eastwood library, the filmmakers made some evident effort to explore the question of what it means to be a man. The sheriff is a quiet guy with an explosive temper who lives in his father's shadow. He stands up to warring factions in town by showing sympathy to neither. When his girlfriend seems to side with his enemies, he snarls at her and tells a deputy to take her away because, "I'm through with her." The killer turns out to be not completely evil because he shows a little honor at the end and takes his hanging like a man. He refuses a blindfold so he can view his last sunset. The real bad guy turns out to be a powerful banker and cattleman who emasculates himself by, among other things, tricking women to do his dirty work.

All that stuff sounds like a real Clint Eastwood movie. It's nice to have hope.

Next up: "Away All Boats."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Never Say Goodbye" and the excellence of owning testicles

Title: Never Say Goodbye
Released: 1956
Genre: Sappy pap suitable for a Harlequin romance
Notable for: A complete absence of masculine appeal
Clint's subliminal message: "I'm playing a lab assistant? Again?"

At the heart of the Clint Eastwood Project, now recognized for advanced scholarship by the Library of Congress and the Royal Society of Dudes (London), is a scientific desire to explore all facets of manliness.

And then we must watch "Never Say Goodbye." It's like dialling 911 and asking for paramedics to give us vaginas.

No gunshots. No fights. No monsters or villains. No conflict except the emotional struggle between a noble but wronged wife and a decent but jealous husband.

"It's just a soap opera," Andrew said 15 minutes into the film. He was absolutely right. A stupid, shitty soap opera with a plot divorced from real-world possibility. This sentence from the movie poster says all we care to explain about the plot: "Only in the arms of the man who had shamed her could she win back the love of the child he had stolen!"

Clint's part in his fifth movie appearance is another uncredited bit role. It comes just a few minutes into the film and gives him about 20 seconds of screen time. He's a lab assistant named Will who delivers two lines to the star, Rock Hudson. "Telephone, Dr. Parker," Clint says. And then a few seconds later, "Good luck with your speech, sir." That's it.

Only two interesting things happened in the 95 minutes and 40 seconds Clint was not onscreen.

The first interesting thing was when the leading lady looked at Hudson and exclaimed brightly: "Hamburg is the gayest city in Germany!"

Second on the list of interesting things was the casting of Shelley Fabares at age 11 or 12. She went on to play lots of roles over several decades, including the coach's wife on the TV show "Coach." Fabares also sang the sappy but evidently timeless 1962 hit "Johnny Angel."

Besides that, the movie was deadly dull. It may not be the worst of the first films of Clint's career, but it is the most boring for anyone in search of masculine excitement.

Some people enjoy movies built around feelings. Feelings like jealousy and regret. Those people are called women. (Although we hesitate to call this a chick flick out of fear of insulting the intelligence of every female alive in 1956.)

We, on the other hand, enjoy movies built around events. Events like murder, explosions and bloody acts of revenge and justice. For that we offer no apology. We say only this: Thank you, God, for the testicles. Those things are nice to own.

Next up: "Star in the Dust."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Tarantula" and the crow-killing tension

Title: Tarantula
Released: 1955
Genre: Giant-insect terror
Notable because: Clint never again appears in a science fiction film
Clint's subliminal message: "Here I come to save the day!"

Yet another uncredited bit role for Clint this time has the added indignity of almost completely obscuring his face for the few seconds he appears onscreen. But at least he played a hero for the first time in his meager career.

By all rights, this film should have had no chance to impress us. As we sat down with Hungry Howie's pizza and hit the "play" button, tension filled the room. To shorten a long story of guns and family control, Andrew made plans to hunt crows (or "sky rats" as he so elegantly calls them) with a friend over Brad's profane objection.

"Bullshit," Brad said. "You mean you want to murder crows. I am not letting you hunt anything we don't eat. And we are not going to eat crows."

Andrew rolled his eyes and explained his justification as if his father is mentally retarded. His friend, Andrew claims, traps fur-bearing animals (did I mention we live in the land political correctness forgot?) and uses crows for bait. He supposedly calls crows into shooting range like real hunting, as opposed to blasting them off dead raccoons at the side of the road.

Brad has no idea if this could be true if he is being played for a sucker. Either way, parental authority is slipping away forever.

To our great surprise, we liked "Tarantula" enough to forget about the crows. We liked it right up to the very end.

The plot revolves around a mad scientist who develops a nutrition formula that makes animals huge. Naturally, one of his huge animals is a tarantula spider, which, naturally, escapes and, naturally, terrorizes a small desert town.

The "science" part of the science fiction is sometimes so lame it is amusing. Once a character pointed at a beaker of liquid and said, "Say, is that an isotope?"

Special effects are predictably primitive. Close-up footage of a real tarantula is superimposed in the background of exterior scenes. This makes the relative size of the spider change from scene to scene. Sometimes he looks big as a house and sometimes big as a cruise ship.

A shotgun, machine guns (which we are to believe were part of the standard arsenal of sheriffs in rural Arizona during the 1950s) and dynamite all do no good to kill the spider. Click here for a video clip.

Faced with an insect too powerful to be killed by conventional weapons, the townsfolk call in the Air Force. This is where Clint finally comes into the picture. Sort of.

Playing the leader of an Air Force jet squadron, Clint's face is almost completely covered by an oxygen mask.

"Alright, men, fire two rockets on this first pass," he says.

The rockets blast into the spider and -- nothing. The tarantula does not flinch.

An astute viewer then assumes there must be some secret to kill the tarantula. Maybe a formula to reverse the giantism. Maybe he cannot stand cold, like The Blob. Who knows?

Then Clint and the boys make another pass and drop napalm. The spider burns and the closing credits roll.

"That's it?" Brad and Andrew said in unison. "Napalm does the trick?"

It was an unsatisfactory conclusion but at least Clint, as a representative of American military might, was the guy who saved the town.

He was more successful than Brad's effort to save the crows.

Next up: "Never Say Goodbye."