Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Ambush at Cimarron Pass" and the masculine pleasure of an absurd completist task

Title: Ambush at Cimarron Pass
Released: 1958
Genre: Senseless Western
Notable for: Eastwood's self-described career low
Clint's subliminal message: "Watch! My character can grow!"

Never before in the history of human experience have two people been more thrilled to watch a movie famous only for being bad.

Clint Eastwood himself called "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" the worst western ever made. He told one interviewer it was a low point of his life. Not his acting career, his life. Click here to watch 1974 video in which Clint calls it "almost the picture that made me quit."

Who the hell cares? We almost danced as we sat down with spicy Italian sandwiches to watch.

Excitement springs from the fact "Ambush at Cimarron Pass" is the last of 11 films, mostly steaming turds, that featured glimpses of Eastwood before he had fame or following. Six months after this movie, he landed his TV role on "Rawhide" and became comfortably established.

In other words, from now on we can watch real Clint Eastwood movies. Yee-ha!

The Clint Eastwood Project has been accurately described as an absurd completist task. The most absurd part was bothering to include these first 11 films. Yet we are now glad we did, for two reasons.

Reason one: Enduring these films makes a viewer appreciate how tough, humiliating and frustrating it was for Eastwood (aside from screwing starlets) to establish his career. His was a working man's struggle (again, except for coitus with starlets) and we suspect it helped to shape Clint's iconic appeal to regular guys.

Reason two: It is very masculine to set out to do something stupid and then do it. A man finishes what he starts, no matter how absurd. It feels good.

Perhaps the tingly feeling clouded our judgment but it seemed like Clint exaggerates the wretchedness of "Ambush at Cimarron Pass."

Make no mistake, it's bad. The acting is sometimes laughable. The plot often makes no sense. Indians are portrayed as stereotypical savages. Half the characters, including Clint, are former Confederate soldiers but no one has a southern accent. Everyone in the film sounds like they come from Dayton, Ohio, except for the lone female character. Her main dramatic function is a continual display of cleavage, and she speaks with perhaps the worst Mexican accent ever recorded on film.

But it is not the worst Western ever made. It's not even the worst film Clint Eastwood ever made.

Clint, for the first time, had a central role in "Ambush at Cimarron Pass." He received third billing. He played a young hothead who fought for the Confederacy and remains bitter two years after the Civil War. He and a bunch of fellow ex-Confederates meet up with a patrol of Union soldiers and everyone joins forces to fight bloodthirsty Injuns.

For the first time in Clint's acting career, his character grows and develops. He plays a Mr. Williams from Macon, Ga., who at first says a lot of things like, "He's a liar! All Yankees are liars." Later he gets into a fistfight with the Yankee commander and, for probably the last time in his movie career, Clint is beaten in two punches. That's sad to see. But by the end of the movie Clint comes to recognize and respect the goodness in his former enemies.

He even delivers the last line in a nonsensical final scene meant to drive home the point this was not a story about fighting Indians. It was a story of a divided nation coming together.

"Sometimes you've got to lose before you finally win," Clint says.

Word, dude. Speaking as two males who get to watch "A Fistful of Dollars" next week, we agree.

Next up: Well, you know.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Lafayette Escadrille" and how a boy really becomes a man

Title: Lafayette Escadrille
Released: 1958
Genre: Flyboy adventure
Notable for: A legendary director's last film
Clint's subliminal message: "Thanks for giving my character a name."

Andy celebrated a milestone the day we watched "Lafayette Escadrille" by becoming a man. He was a little distracted.

Normal American society, at least here in bucolic southern Michigan, has no ambiguity about when a boy becomes a man. It has nothing to do with sex or self-awareness or maturity.

Boys become men when they are handed a license to drive. Obtaining the legal power to drive to any destination means obtaining the freedom of mobility that we Americans often confuse for a life of unlimited possibilities.

Andy turned 16 on March 18, 2010. He was in no eager mood to celebrate by watching Clint Eastwood in another ultra-minor role from the 1950s.

"I want to go out driving. By myself," he said.

Andy returned about 45 minutes later with a glow about him.

"How was your drive?" Brad asked.

"Like sex on cocaine."

It seemed obvious that a father should not allow a teenage son to fake expertise on the subjects of sex or drugs. But the phrase did capture a sense of euphoria.

"Don't ever say that again," Brad said by way of fatherly guidance, "in front of your mother."

No one would ever compare watching "Lafayette Escadrille" to stimulation of either a sexual or pharmacological nature.

We held high hopes for this film because it is a war movie made by a legendary director, William "Wild Bill" Wellman. Excitement, or at least action sequences, seemed likely.

Those foolish hopes were dashed.

The Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of American combat fliers who served for France in World War I. Wellman was a member in real life. The squadron had a very high fatality rate, and early in the movie a narrator introduced viewers to characters by telling which ones would later die.

But instead of being a war movie, this is the story of a surly and selfish young man -- played without inspiration by Tab Hunter -- who falls in love with a French girl and finds himself.

Who cares? Hunter's character is unlikeable and his boring odyssey of self-discovery last almost the entire movie. There is no air combat until the last five minutes of the movie. And then the sequence was so muddled we were not sure if any Americans died.

"They made such a big deal at the start of the movie about all those guys dying in combat," Andy said. "And then ... nothing."

Clint received a credit for a change and his character even had a name, George Moseley. But he was still barely more than a walk-on. Moseley was a football star from Yale who had a rivalry with another flier who went to Princeton. His big scene was in a baseball game when Clint, the batter, took off after the Princeton guy, the pitcher, and threw the bat at him. That's pretty much all Clint brought to the table here. Play the video below if you must see this movie magic.

It seems inexplicable that Wellman could make a movie so bad. Evidently it was inexplicable to him, too. According to Wellman's bio on IMDb, he quit making movies after "Lafayette Escadrille" and was "reportedly enraged at Warner Bros.'s post-production tampering with a film that meant so much to him."

This, in short, is not even close to sex on cocaine.

Next up: "Ambush at Cimarron Pass."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Escapade in Japan" and the gay guy in Clint's corner

Title: Escapade in Japan
Released: 1957
Genre: Family fun mixed with travelogue
Notable for: Clint's last uncredited movie role
Clint's subliminal message: "Damn! I'm a walk-on again."

As we settled in to enjoy "Escapade in Japan" with a bounty of delicious laboratory-produced beef-like material from Arby's, the gay issue surrounding early Eastwoodism could no longer be ignored.

But first, let's ignore it long enough to evaluate this movie on its own merits. "Escapade in Japan" is the only film released in 1957 with even a brief appearance by Clint. Only a fool would have predicted he was nearing the brink of Hollywood stardom.

The movie is a mixture of Little Rascals-styled adventures and travelogue shot in Japan. We judge it good family fare.

Two boys, one American and one Japanese, run away together and stumble across many colorful sights. The American boy is 7-year-old Jon Provost, who would later melt a nation's dog-loving heart as Timmy on the "Lassie" TV show. The plot climaxes when two sets of parents separated by a language barrier but united in parental love find their sons. Anyone who needs a spoiler alert for that is beyond hope.

The child stars do not deliver strong acting but they make up for it by being cute. There is a good-natured spirit running through this film because, just 12 years after World War II, it is relentlessly intent on humanizing the Japanese.

Clint's role is entirely forgettable. He delivers two lines as the pilot of a rescue plane searching for survivors of a plane wreck that starts the American boy's adventures. After a fairly substantial role in his previous film, Clint once again has a part so minor he is not listed in the credits. That would never happen again. (Hooray! Because we are sick of it.)

OK, now the gay thing.

"Escapade in Japan" was the fourth and final movie of Clint's career directed by Arthur Lubin, a Hollywood workhorse many sources (here's one) say was gay.

Aside from Clint himself, Lubin is the man most responsible for establishing Eastwood in Hollywood. Lubin played a key role in getting Clint's contract with Universal studios. He cast him in four films through 1957, nearly half of Clint's movie work in those years. Clint's two biggest roles up to this point were both in Lubin films, "Francis in the Navy" and "The First Traveling Saleslady."

Andrew contends The Clint Eastwood Project should not mention that Clint's mentor was gay. He says it looks like we are insinuating a sexual relationship. "That's crap an you know it," he says.

So no, we are not insinuating a damn thing.

But Brad finds the Lubin connection ironic considering Clint was sometimes accused of gay-bashing in later roles.

More importantly, it is entirely reasonable to imagine that without Arthur Lubin , Clint may never have worked in movies long enough to catch a break.

When the world's icon for masculinity might not exist except for the support of a gay guy, that's worth mentioning.

Next up: "Lafayette Escadrille."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"The First Traveling Saleslady" and a low point for masculinity

Title: The First Traveling Saleslady
Released: 1956
Genre: Musical comedy with damn little music and damn poor comedy
Notable for: Being the first movie to give Clint an actual character
Clint's subliminal message: "Shucks, I like girls."

Cruel fate dictated that mere days after winning a coveted Manly Blogger Guy Award we were forced to watch what must be the most unmanly movie ever to feature Clint Eastwood. Even in "Bridges of Madison County" he played an adventurous loner who liked to get laid. Searching for lessons of masculinity in "The First Traveling Saleslady" is like looking for an incandescent light bulb at Al Gore's place.

The movie itself is almost legendarily bad. Carol Channing, one of the stars, was quoted as calling it the picture that killed RKO studios. The movie poster pictured above even misspelled the title.

Supposedly this is a musical comedy but the entire movie has only one song, excluding the painfully insipid ditty that plays over the title sequence. The comedy is, to be generous, strained. The film is set in 1897 and the plot alternates between silly and remarkably silly. One example is the fact almost every male inexplicably falls in love with the star, Ginger Rogers, at first sight.

In a misguided effort to add social relevance, the film has running themes involving the struggle for women's equality and, oddly, the elevation of barbed wire as a savior of the common man. These themes merge at the end, when a gang of angry Texas townswomen breaks into a storage facility, liberates a huge supply of barbed wire and fences the town. The story is just that good.

Do you think we exaggerate the wretchedness? Check out the trailer by clicking here.

Still, this is a major step up for Clint's movie career. For the first time, he plays a character who actually advances the plot a little. He is named in the credits for the second time in a still-inglorious career. And he appears with three major stars -- Rogers, Channing and James Arness from "Gunsmoke."

His role, however, is highly unClintlike. He plays a lieutenant in the Rough Riders, which sounds manly enough, but his function is to serve as Channing's goo-goo eyed love interest. He has one bloodless and undramatic adventure rescuing Channing from bad guys. Other than that, all he does is smile and stare at her. That's right, he smiles. A lot. It seems a strange romance because Channing, whose character is something of a hussy, is nearly 10 years older than Clint in real life and his character played younger than his 26 years. He acts like a teenager who's hot for teacher. After Clint's first onscreen kiss, which is awkward, the viewer is left to assume Channing marries Clint and rides off into the sunset to teach him sex positions.

So, in summation, this movie stars two women and has women's rights as a theme. Clint smiles often and is overwhelmed by a chick. This is no way to celebrate a Manly Blogger Guy Award.

Next up: "Escapade in Japan."