Sunday, 22 October 2017

A Pictorial Tribtue on Joan Fontaine's Centenary

It was 100 years ago today that Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, better known as Joan Fontaine, was born in Tokyo, Japan. Like her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, Miss Fontaine would become one of the major actresses of 20th Century Hollywood. Her film career began in 1935 and her last appearance was in the television movie Good King Wenceslas in 1994. She made 46 feature films and several appearances on television. A number of her movies are now considered classics.

Joan Fontaine has always been one of my favourite actresses. I wrote a lengthy post in honour of her upon the occasion of her death, so I will not go in depth on her career here. You can ready my eulogy of Miss Fontaine here. Instead here I will offer you a pictorial tribute to, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest actresses in American film history.

Joan Fontaine made her film debut in 1935 in the movie No More Ladies, in which she billed as "Joan Burfield". She would not remain Joan Burfield for long, as by her next film, A Million to One (1937), she was billed as Joan Fontaine. She took her stage name from her stepfather's surname. It was also in 1937 that Joan Fontaine had her first starring role. It was in the film The Man Who Found Himself, in which she played Nurse Doris King. Above is a promotional picture from the film of Joan with her male lead, John Beal. Signed to RKO, she would spend the next few years making films for the studio.

Sadly, most of the films Joan Fontaine made at RKO did poorly at the box office. A notable exception was Gunga Din (1939), which was her final film for the studio. Miss Fontaine played the female lead in Gunga Din. Above is a picture from the film of Joan Fontaine and one of the film's male leads, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

After RKO released Joan Fontaine from her contract, she appeared in the Richard Dix Western Man of Conquest (1939).  She then appeared in a minor role in the MGM classic The Women (1939). Fortunately, Joan Fontaine's luck would change. She was cast in the lead role as the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. Rebecca (1940) would establish Joan Fontaine as a movie star, and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film. The above still is from Rebecca.

Arguably the height of Joan Fontaine's career was in the Forties. She followed Rebecca with another film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion. For her role in the film she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Above is a still from the film.

Joan Fontaine would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress a third time for her role in The Constant Nymph (1943).  Above is a still from the film featuring Miss Fontaine and Charles Boyer.

 
Through the years Joan Fontaine appeared in several period pieces. Perhaps the best known period drama in which she starred was Robert Stevenson's adaption of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre.

Although it may not be as famous as Rebecca, Suspicion, or Jane Eyre, among the best of Joan Fontaine's films is Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Today it is among the most highly regarded of her films, and is one of the very few films to have 100% approval among critics on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Sadly, Joan Fontaine's career would begin to go into decline in the Fifties. While she continued making movies, none of them reached the heights of Rebecca or Suspicion or her other early films. Among the movies she made in the Fifties was Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor.

From the Fifties into the Sixties, Miss Fontaine increasingly appeared on television as opposed to feature films. Her final feature would be Hammer Films' The Witches (1966), released in the United States as The Devil's Own.

While Joan Fontaine's last appearance in a feature film was in 1966, she would continue to appear on television well into the Nineties. Like many classic film stars, she even made a guest appearance on the long running show The Love Boat. Here she is pictured with Gavin MacLeod as Captain Merrill Stubing.

Joan Fontaine retired following her last television appearance in 1994 in the TV movie Good King Wenceslas. She died on December 15 2013 a the age of 96 from natural causes.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Late Great Brent Briscoe

An argument can be made that character actors are the heart and soul of film and television. The general public usually don't recognise their names, although they almost always recognise their faces from dozens of roles they have played. One of the best character actors of the past 25 years was Brent Briscoe. He had significant roles in such films as Sling Blade (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998), and guest starred on TV shows from ER to NCIS. Like most character actors, I doubt that many people would recognise Brent's name. An exception would be here in Randolph County, where he was born. For us he was a bona fide movie star, and the whole county was proud of him.

Sadly, Brent Briscoe died on October 18 2017 at the age of 56. Brent had a serious fall that led to internal bleeding. This in turn resulted in complications to his heart. It was after a short stay in hospital that one of the best character actors in recent years died.

Brent Briscoe was born on May 21 1961 in Moberly, Missouri. He attended Moberly High School where he played baseball. Brent was very good at the sport, good enough that he received three college scholarships to play baseball. While Brent loved baseball,  his heart was truly in acting. He appeared in plays while still in high school. After graduating from high school in 1979, Brent attended the University of Missouri, Columbia where he majored in theatre. After graduating in 1984 he became an apprentice at the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre in 1985. Afterwards Brent toured with such productions as Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas.

Brent made his television debut as a pizza delivery guy in an episode of Knot's Landing in 1991. During the 1990-1991 season he had a recurring role on Evening Shade as Luther. He also wrote two episodes of the series in 1994. In the Nineties on television he guest starred on such shows as Hearts Afire, Tracey Takes On, Maximum Bob, ER, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He also appeared in the television movie Mulholland Dr. (1999), upon which the feature film would be based.

Brent received his big break in films as repair shop employee Scooter Hodges in Sling Blade. He would have a much greater role in the film A Simple Plan, in which he was fourth billed. Brent played Lou, the town drunk, who with Hank Mitchell (played by Bill Paxton) and Hank's brother Jacob (played by Billy Bob Thornton), discover a crashed plane filled with cash. He also appeared in the films Grey Knight (1993), U Turn (1997), Another Day in Paradise (1998), Break Up (1998), The Minus Man (1999), Crazy in Alabama (1999), The Green Mile (1999), Man on the Moon (1999), and Beautiful (2000).

Brent Briscoe reprised his role as Detective Domgaard in the feature film version of Mulholland Dr. in 2001. That same year he played Sheriff Cecil Coleman in The Majestic. He co-wrote the movie Waking Up in Reno (2002) with Matt Fauser and appeared in it as Russell Whitehead. He also appeared in such films as Driven (2001), Say It Isn't So (2001), Journey of Redemption (2002), Good Cop, Bad Cop (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007), National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), Crazy (2008), The Grind (2009), and Small Town Saturday Night (2010). He made frequent guest appearances on TV show in the Naughts, including such series as The Handler, Deadwood, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 24, JAG, House M.D., Grey's Anatomy, Bones, and Desperate Housewives.

In the Teens Brent had a recurring role on Parks and Recreation as JJ, owner of JJ's Diner, as well as a recurring role on the revival of Twin Peaks as Detective Dave Macklay. He guest starred on such shows as NCIS: Los Angeles, Hell on Wheels, Justified, NCIS, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He continued to appear regularly in feature films, including such movies as Born Wild (2012), Ambush at Dark Canyon (2012), and Term Life (2016). His final completed film, 5th of July, is set for release later this year.

Like myself Brent Briscoe was born in Randolph County, and he was only two years older than I am. It should then come as no surprise that I knew him when we were younger. I did not know Brent well. He attended Moberly High School while I attended Westran, and he was attending Mizzou by the time I began college. That having been said, our paths would cross from time to time. I can definitively say that Brent was a truly nice guy. When he talked with you, he was always genuinely interested in what you had to say. He was not only very intelligent, but also open and friendly. And he was one of the kindest people one could ever meet. Randolph County was proud of him, not only because he made a name for himself as a character actor, but also because he was simply an outstanding human being. In turn, he was proud of the area from which he came. His Twitter handle was BBMoberly.

Of course, Brent was a truly great character actor, and he had a very naturalistic style.  What is more, he could play a variety of roles that were quite unlike himself. Certainly he had nothing in common with his most famous role, that of Lou, the none too bright town drunk in A Simple Plan. Regardless, he gave a bravura performance in the role. While Brent often found himself cast as rural types similar to Lou, he was also often cast as police officers. He played Detective Domgaard in Mulholland Dr.,  Sheriff Cecil Coleman in The Majestic, and a veteran cop in The Dark Knight Rises. In many respects he was perfect casting for the unflappable Detective Dave Macklay on Twin Peaks.  On the TV Western Hell on Wheels Brent gave one of his more remarkable performances in one of his more singular roles. He played trader and guide Jimmy Two Squaws.

While Brent was very good playing in dramas and very good in playing cops, he also had a knack for comedy. Among his most memorable performances for me was a humorous turn on House, on which he played a farmer with leg pain in the episode "Three Stories". He was one of the best things about the comedy Double Take, in which he played an emu farmer determined to collect the reward for capturing a fugitive. And, of course, he was soft spoken diner owner JJ Lipscomb on Parks and Recreation. In many respects JJ was the role that was closest to Brent in real life, quite simply a truly kind hearted guy. As good as Brent was in more serious roles, I think I sometimes look forward to his comedic roles the most. Even when a particular film might not be that good, he always was.

As I bring this post to a close, I want to say that my thoughts are with Brent's family and friends, many of whom I know personally. The press release regarding Brent's death described him as "a class act", and I certainly have to agree. He both a wonderful person and a truly talented character actor. He may be gone, but he will not be forgotten, particularly here in his home county.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Joan Fontaine in Frenchman's Creek (1944)

 (This post is part of the Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema)

Joan Fontaine may be best known for the many dramas she made throughout her career, from The Constant Nymph (1943) to Tender is the Night (1962). That is not to say she did not make films in other genres. She appeared in comedies (1945's The Affairs of Susan). She appeared in thrillers (most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion). She even appeared in a horror movie (Hammer Films' The Witches). Joan Fontaine also made her share of adventure movies, some of them quite famous (Gunga Din and Ivanhoe).  Among the adventure films in which Joan Fontaine appeared was one based upon a book by the author of Rebecca, the film that had made her a star. Frenchman's Creek (1944) was a very faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

Frenchman's Creek centred on Dona St. Columb (played by Joan Fontaine) and is set in Cornwall during King Charles II's reign. Unhappy with her life with her husband, Harry St. Columb (played by Ralph Forbes), in London, Dona returns to their home in Cornwall. There it turns out that the estate is being used as the headquarters of a notorious pirate  Jean Benoit Aubrey (played by Arturo de Córdova), known as the Frenchman. Bored with her life, it is not long before Dona falls in love with Aubrey, to the point that she dresses as a male and joins his crew. The plot might remind some of Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 film The Wicked Lady, but aside from being period pieces the two could not be more different. The Wicked Lady was a sexually charged bodice ripper that caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Frenchman's Creek is much closer in spirit to such American swashbucklers as Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), albeit one with a female lead. Indeed, the villain, Lord Rockingham, is even played by Basil Rathbone.

Not only was Frenchman's Creek very much an American swashbuckler, but it was also a very lavish one. With a budget of $3,600,000, it was the most expensive film that Paramount had made up to that point. Over 46 sets were built, including the Cornish village of Fowey. Well over 2000 props were used on the film. Over 1000 of those props were made in Paramount's shops.  Raoul Pene du Bois, who had worked on Flo Ziegfeld's shows on Broadway, designed the costumes for the film. As might be expected of so lavish a film, Frenchman's Creek was shot in vivid Technicolor.

At the time that Frenchman's Creek was made, Joan Fontaine was under contract to David O. Selznick. Selznick loaned her out to Paramount for the film, a situation she did not particularly care for, especially given he would keep half her salary for the movie. Worse yet, she did not get along well with her leading man, Arturo de Córdova. Mr. Córdova was a major star in Mexico, and Frenchman's Creek was only his second Hollywood film (after 1943's Hostages). Being a little shorter than Miss Fontaine, he had to wear lifts in his shoes to make him appear taller than her. Not only did she not get along with Arturo de Córdova, but Joan Fontaine did not get along very well with director Mitchell Leisen either. She even dismissed him as being "mostly known for his musicals".

Regardless, Frenchman's Creek had an impressive supporting cast. Indeed, it is the only film outside of the "Sherlock Holmes" series in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appear together. Cecil Kellaway played the St Columb estate's caretaker, William.

Frenchman's Creek was released on September 20 1944. For the most part its reviews were positive, although with a few caveats. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times gave the film a good notice over all, although noting, "to be sure, it is somewhat slow in starting." Harrison's Reports referred to it as "A good costume entertainment" and also noted it had some "slow spots". Variety also gave it a positive review, although it noted that "The performances are sometimes unconsciously tongue-in-cheek" and "The scripting [from the novel by Daphne du Maurier] at times borders on the ludicrous..." Over all, critics thought Frenchman's Creek a lavish, fun film that could not be taken too seriously.

While Frenchman's Creek received good reviews over all, it did not do particularly well at the box office. The film was the ninth highest grossing film for the year and it made a respectable $3,500,000.  The problem is that with a budget of $3.6 million, Paramount really did not make a profit from the movie. Quite simply, if it had cost  a good deal less, it could rightfully be considered a hit.

Seen today I rather have to suspect most viewers would agree with the critics in 1944. Frenchmen's Creek is a very lavish film. The costumes are exquisite and colourful. Its art direction is incredible. It should come as no surprise that it won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Colour. George Barnes's cinematography is incredible. Quite simply, Frenchman's Creek is a beautiful film to behold.

At the same time, however, it is not a film that can be taken seriously. Frenchman's Creek does have its moments of camp. That having been said, it is a very fun movie to watch and it does feature some fine performances. Joan Fontaine, having up to that time played more passive heroines, gives one of her livelier performances as the more assertive Dona St. Columb. As might be expected, Basil Rathbone makes for a great villain as the charming, but devilish Lord Rockingham. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nigel Bruce to Ralph Forbes, give admirable performances. Perhaps the only weak link in the cast is Arturo de Córdova. He gives a somewhat lacklustre performance as Jean Benoit Aubrey, to point that one wonders what Dona sees in him beyond a means to escape her rather ordinary life. Indeed, there would seem to be very little in the way of chemistry between Joan Fontaine and him.

Today Frenchman's Creek does not necessarily rank among Joan Fontaine's best known films, but it is worth watching for being able to see her in a very different role from many of those she played in the wake of Rebecca. It was finally released on DVD in 2014 and it occasionally appears on Turner Classic Movies. While it might not be a classic on the level of Rebecca or The Constant Nymph, Frenchman's Creek is a bit of escapist fun that those who enjoy period romances might particularly like.


Monday, 16 October 2017

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

In many respects Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a very singular film. It could be considered film noir, but it also has elements of Westerns. At the same time it was one of the earliest Hollywood motion pictures to feature Asian martial arts. As unique as Bad Day at Black Rock must seem today, it was even more unusual when it was first released in 1955.

Bad Day at Black Rock was based on the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin, which has appeared in the January 1947 issue of The American Magazine. It was writer and actor Don McGuire who came across the story and thought that it could provide the basis for an interesting motion picture. He optioned the story for $15,000 and then adapted it as a screenplay. Director Don Siegel, who was then working at Allied Artists, took an interest in Mr. McGuire's screenplay and wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the lead. Unfortunately for Don Siegel, Allied Artists passed on the screenplay. Don McGuire then took his screenplay to Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM. Don Schary had spoken out against the interment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, so the fact that the screenplay dealt with bigotry against Japanese Americans appealed to him. At the same time he needed a project for legendary star Spencer Tracy. Don McGuire's original screenplay was then rewritten by Millard Kaufman with Spencer Tracy in mind for the lead role.

Unfortunately Spencer Tracy was not particularly interested in Bad Day at Black Rock and did not want to do the movie. To even get Mr. Tracy to read the screenplay, Dore Schary told him that Alan Ladd had expressed an interest in it. Here it must be noted that there is no evidence that Alan Ladd ever saw the screenplay. It is unclear precisely how it was decided that the lead character played by Spencer Tracy, John J. Macreedy, would have only one arm, but it was ultimately the idea of playing a one-armed veteran of World War II that interested Spencer Tracy in the movie. To give John J. Macreedy some fighting prowess, he was made an expert in karate, something rarely seen in American films of the time.

Initially Richard Brooks was hired to direct Bad Day at Black Rock. Unfortunately, he would prove problematic as a director. Among other things, he referred to the screenplay as "a piece of s***" to Spencer Tracy himself. Mr. Brooks was fired and Dore Schary brought on John Sturges as the film's director. In contrast to Richard Brooks, John Sturges was very happy with the screenplay and even called it "the best screenplay he ever had." He spent hours discussing the project with screenwriter Millard Kaufman.

Ultimately, Bad Day at Black Rock would prove to be historic for several reasons. It was the first film at MGM to ever be shot in Cinemascope. It would also be the last film that Spencer Tracy would make for MGM, the studio at which he spent most of his career. As mentioned earlier, Bad Day at Black Rock  would also be among the very first American films to feature Eastern martial arts. In fact, the Legion of Decency and various state censorship boards were not particularly happy with one scene in which John J. Macreedy uses karate. Ultimately, the Legion of Decency would class the film as suitable for adults and adolescents.

Bad Day at Black Rock was released in January 1955 to largely positive reviews. Variety wrote of the film, "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times found a few flaws with the film, but liked it over all. If anything, Bad Day at Black Rock may be even more highly regarded today. At Rotten Tomatoes 96% of its reviews are positive.

Bad Day at Black Rock is at the same time a very simple film and a sophisticated film. John J. MacReedy gets off the train in Black Rock in order to give a Japanese American a medal for his service during World War II. Unfortunately he finds himself in a town that is highly distrustful and suspicious of him. While the film never deals directly with the interment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps during World War II, bigotry against Japanese Americans is at the centre of the film's plot. Indeed, in many ways Bad Day in Black Rock is as relevant as ever, dealing as it does with racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

At the same time Bad Day at Black Rock addressed another issue of the era, one that had also provided the inspiration for the classic Western High Noon (1952). The Fifties was the era of the Hollywood blacklist, which essentially denied employment to those even suspected of having Communist ties. Sadly, many of those affected by the blacklist had no real ties to the Communist Party whatsoever. Regardless, in Bad Day at Black Rock John J. MacReedy faces a similar problem as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon--a town that is largely uncooperative with him and even at times hostile towards him.

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Spencer Tracy, Best Director for John Sturges, and Best Writing, Screeplay for Millard Kaufman. Spencer Tracy won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in a tie with the cast of A Big Family (1954).

Today Bad Day at Black Rock remains highly regarded and is considered a classic. It is also one of Spencer Tracy's best remembered and most highly regarded films. Indeed, today it is difficult to see anyone else in the role of John J. MacReedy than Spencer Tracy.


Saturday, 14 October 2017

Trevor Martin Passes On

British actor Trevor Martin died on October 5 2017 at the age of 87.

Trevor Martin was born on November 17 1929 in Enfield. Growing up he acted in several school plays. Following his national service, Trevor Martin enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1953 he won the Carleton Hobbs Radio Award, which led to three 18 month contracts with the BBC Radio Drama Company.

After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he helped set up the Guildhall Players. He played three summer seasons at Peter Bull’s Perranporth theatre in Cornwall. He made his television debut in the TV production Tomorrow Mr. Tompion! And About Time Too! in 1958. In the late Fifties he guest starred on Trouble for Two. The Splendid Spur, Scotland Yard, and Sheep's Clothing. He starred in the series Three Golden Nobles.

In 1962 Mr. Martin first worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, an association that would last for forty years. In 1963 he became a member of Lord Laurence Olivier's company with the beginning of The Royal National Theatre. He appeared in the feature film Othello (1965). He had a recurring role on the TV series Orlando and was a storyteller on the classic show Jackanory. He guest starred on such shows as The Men from Room 13, Sherlock Holmes, No Hiding Place, ITV Play of the Week, Mogul, ITV Playhouse, Doctor Who, and Z Cars. He appeared in the 1970 television production Edward II.

In 1974 Trevor Martin became the first man ever to appear as The Doctor from Doctor Who on stage. The play was Doctor Who and the Daleks in the Seven Keys to Doomsday and it debuted at the Adelphi Theatre in London. It ran for four weeks. A tour had been planned, but never took place. In the Seventies Mr. Martin guest starred on such shows as Van der Valk, Special Branch, Within These Walls, Victorian Scandals, and Armchair Theatre. He appeared in the film Absolution (1978).

In the Eighties Trevor Martin had a recurring role on Coronation Street. He appeared in the mini-series A Brother's Tale. He guest starred on Angels, Mitch, and Inspector Morse. He provided a voice for the movie Krull (1983) and appeared in the movie Three Kinds of Heat (1987). In the Nineties he guest starred on Taggart, Dangerfield, Harry Enfield and Chums, Ain't Misbehavin', A Certain Justice, A Wing and a Prayer, and The Ambassador. He appeared in a TV production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He appeared in the film House of Mirth.

In the Naughts Mr. Martin guest starred on such shows as The Bill, The Romantics, Doctors, and Whitechapel. He appeared in the film Babel (2006). In the Teens he guest starred on Dead Boss and Call the Midwife.

He also appeared in the 1993 Doctor Who radio drama The Paradise of Death and the 2003 Doctor Who audio drama Flip-Flop.

There can be no doubt that Trevor Martin was a very talented actor. He also had an incredible voice. There should be little wonder that not only was he the first actor to play The Doctor on stage, but one of the first Time Lords (aside from The Doctor himself, as well as his granddaughter Susan) to appear on Doctor Who (it was in the serial "The War Games"). Over the years he played a wide array of roles, including Earl of Lancaster in a TV production of Edward II and Parson Tringham in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He had a long career in stage, playing in everything from Becket to Troilus and Cressida to The Crucible.

Gilbert Roland: Latin Legend

Gilbert Roland as The Cisco Kid
The Golden Age of Hollywood was not particularly golden for Hispanic actors. If one was not particularly handsome, he might find himself playing a number of Mexican bandidos and buffoons. If one was particularly handsome, he might find himself playing a succession of stereotypical Latin lovers. It took actors of considerable talent to break free of the stereotypical roles in which the Hollywood studios insisted on casting Hispanic actors. Among the actors who was able to break free of the stereotypes was the extremely talented Gilbert Roland.

Gilbert Roland was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico on December 11 1905. His father, Francisco, was a bullfighter who had immigrated from Spain. In fact, young Luis had intended to follow in his father's footsteps as a bullfighter, but his destiny would take him in another direction entirely. When the Mexican Revolution began it was only a matter of time before Ciudad Juárez would become caught up in it. Francisco then moved his family to safety across the border to El Paso, Texas. Sadly, El Paso would not be a particularly pleasant experience for young Luis. There he faced anti-Hispanic bigotry. To cope young Luis escaped into the movies, spending any money he had to attend the cinema. Of course, being Hispanic he had to watch from the balcony, which was reserved "For Coloured People Only."

Having to sit in the balcony at movie theatres was the least of young Luis's worries, as he faced racism on a daily basis. He was once beaten for not knowing every single word of "The Star Spangled Banner". Regardless, he persevered. He became a newspaper boy and still later a messenger boy.  It was while he was a messenger boy that he was in an accident that would change his life. A car hit and almost killed him, and it took him a long time to recover. When his father went to perform bullfights in Tijuana, he took Luis with him. Luis stayed at a ranch outside San Diego, California, where he met actor Chris-Pin Martin. Chris-Pin Martin told Luis he could get work as an extra in Hollywood. Luis wound up hired to play a cowboy and then an American Indian. He later joked, "All day I chased myself on horseback for three dollars and lunch. My baptism in silent movies."

Luis found it difficult to make a living as an extra, and to make ends meet he eventually took a job answering fan mail for actor Antonio Moreno. In 1922 his knowledge of bullfighting got him a job as a dresser's assistant in order to get Rudolph Valentino ready for the bullfighting scenes in Blood and Sand (1922). Both as an extra and in bit parts, young Luis would appear in some memorable films. He was an extra in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). He was a matador in The Spaniard (1925).

It was an agent named Ivan Kahn who would get Luis his big break in films. He got him a bit part in The Midshipman (1925), which starred Ramon Novarro. By coincidence, Ramon Novarro's family had known Gilbert Roland's family before they had moved from Mexico. It was Ivan Kahn who suggested that Luis adopt a stage name Mr. Kahn's suggestion was George Adams. Instead Luis created a stage name by combining the last names of two of his favourite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. Luis Alonso then became Gilbert Roland.

Gilbert Roland received his first big break in a supporting role in the film The Plastic Age (1925) starring Clara Bow.  Curiously, Mr. Roland's first major role would not be a Hispanic character, but instead the very Northern European Carl Peters. It would be his role as Annibale in The Blonde Saint (1926) that would draw him his first overwhelmingly positive reviews. He was signed to Untied Artists and cast right away as Armand Duval in the studio's adaptation of Camille (1926). Unfortunately Gilbert Roland's first male lead role would prove to be a bit of a double-edged sword. While it guaranteed larger roles in movies (often the lead role), it also meant that he would spend a good deal of time playing stereotypical Latin lovers. Indeed, when Rudolph Valentino died, some in the Hollywood press declared Gilbert Roland as Valentino's successor.

While Gilbert Roland would play more than his fair share of Latin lovers, he would play other sorts of roles as well. In fact, not only were many of the characters he played over the years not lovers, but often they were not Latin either. In Men of the North (1930) he played Louis Le Bay, a French Canadian falsely accused of a gold theft. In Universal's Spanish language version of their adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection (1931), he played Prince Dmitri Nekhludov. In The Woman in Room 13 (1932) he played Victor Legrand. Like many Hispanic actors of the era, Gilbert Roland was often cast in roles of ethnicities that did not originate in Northern Europe. In addition to the various Frenchmen he played, he played the Arabic roles of Kasim and his evil twin Hassan in the serial The Desert Hawk (1944). He played another Arabic character, Achmed Abdullah, in Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Perhaps because his father had been a bullfighter and Gilbert Roland had aspired to be one, he may well have been his best in adventure movies.  Indeed, his most famous role may well have been that of The Cisco Kid. Gilbert Roland was only the second Hispanic actor to ever play The Kid, after Cesar Romero. He took over the role of Cisco from Duncan Renaldo in 1946's The Gay Cavalier. He would go onto appear in five more Cisco Kid movies. In addition to the Cisco Kid movies, Gilbert Roland was also a popular choice for casting directors when it came to swashbucklers. He played Captain López, the sea captain of archvillain Don José Álvarez de Córdoba in The Sea Hawk (1940). In Captain Kidd (1945), he played Kidd's navigator, Jose Lorenzo. He was one of the stars of the obscure swashbuckler The Diamond Queen (1953).  He appeared in two episodes of Zorro as the villain El Cuchillo. He appeared as Don Alejandro Vega, Zorro's father, in the 1974 TV movie Zorro.

As might be expected, Gilbert Roland appeared in several Westerns over the years, beyond the Cisco Kid franchise. He was the lead in Thunder Trail (1937), based on Zane Gray's novel of the same name. He had a significant role in Anthony Mann's Western The Furies (1950) as Juan Herrera, close friend of rancher's daughter Vance Jeffords (played by Barbara Stanwyck) and her ally against her father. He would also have roles in such Westerns as Bandido! (1956) and The Last of the Fast Guns (1958). Not surprisingly, he would appear frequently on television Westerns, including Wagon Train, Bonanza, Frontier Circus, Gunsmoke, The High Chaparral, and Kung Fu. Later in his career he appeared in several Spaghetti Westerns, including Any Gun Can Play (1967), Johnny Hamlet (1968), God Was in the West, Too, at One Time (1968), and Sartana Does Not Forgive (1968). Unlike many Latin actors of the Studio Era, Gilbert Roland was fortunate in that he was almost never cast as stereotypical bandidos. That having been said, he played many military officers and aristocrats over the years.

Gilbert Roland's last role was in the Western Barbarosa in 1982. He died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 88.

Sadly, Gilbert Roland would spend much of his career acting in B movies. When he did appear in an A picture, it was generally in a supporting role. This is not to say that he did not give many great performances over the years, and it was not unusual for Mr. Roland to outshine a movie's leads. In The Last Train from Madrid (1937) he gave an admirable performance as the fugitive Eduardo de Soto. In Juarez (1939) he played Colonel Miguel Lopez, who would eventually betray Maximilian and his forces. The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) gave him one of his very best roles, that of agnostic Hugo da Silva who nonetheless is friends to children who wholeheartedly believe in the miracle of the lady of Fatima. In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) he played womanising actor Victor "Gaucho" Ribera. Even on television Gilbert Roland was capable of great performances. One of the best episodes of the Western anthology series Death Valley Days was "A Kingdom for a Horse", in which Gilbert Roland's played Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II. It was one of his finest television roles.

During a period when Hollywood was content to cast Hispanic actors as bandidos, Latin lovers, and buffoons, Gilbert Roland was able to overcome stereotypes and play a wide variety of roles in his career. Over the years he played everything from military officers to matadors to pirates to murder suspects. He could play heroes and villains equally with ease. Even though Hollywood never utilised him to his full extent, Gilbert Roland left behind a long list of great performances.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Late Great Bob Schiller

Television writer Bob Schiller, who with his creative partner Bob Weiskopf, worked on some of the greatest sitcoms of all time, died on October 10 2017 at the age of 98.

Bob Schiller was born on November 8 1918 in San Francisco, California. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he wrote a humour column for the university's paper, the Daily Bruin . He enlisted in the United States Army in 1940, where he was a humour columnist for Stars and Stripes. He also produced comedy variety shows for the troops. In 1945 he went to work on the radio show Duffy's Tavern. He remained there for four seasons. He also worked on such radio shows as  The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Abbott and Costello, The Mel Blanc Show, The Jimmy Durante Show, and December Bride. It was in 1950 that he made the transition to television, writing for The Garry Moore Show.

The Fifties saw Mr. Schiller complete his transition from radio to television. He wrote for such shows as The Red Buttons Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and All Star Revue. It was in 1953 that he formed his professional partnership with Bob Weiskopf. Together in the Fifties they worked on such shows as That's My Boy, The Jimmy Durante Show, December Bride, Professional Father, The Bob Cummings Show, I Love Lucy, and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The two of them served as story consultants on The Ann Southern Show.

In the Sixties Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf developed the classic sitcom The Lucy Show and also wrote several of its episodes. They served as producers on the sitcom The Good Guys. They wrote for such shows as Pete and Gladys; The Red Skelton Hour; The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show; Love, American Style; The Carol Burnett Show; and The Flip Wilson Show.

In the Seventies Messrs. Schiller and Weiskopf served as producers on the sitcoms Maude and All's Fair. They wrote episodes of the shows Maude, All in the Family, and Archie Bunker's Place. In the Eighties they wrote episode of the shows Checking In, Sanford, Comedy Factory, He's the Mayor, and The Boys, as well as the pilot W*A*L*T*E*R.

Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf were two of the greatest television comedy writers of all time. They were equally at ease writing for sitcoms and for variety shows. They were responsible for some of the best television episodes ever made, including "Lucy's Italian Movie" on I Love Lucy (in which Lucy stomps grapes), "Uncle Paul's Insurance" on Pete and Gladys (in which Pete is afraid to ask Uncle Paul to get him insurance), and "Edith's 50th Birthday" on All in the Family (for which they won an Emmy). What made Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf so great as comedy writers is that they could write both slapstick and both verbal humour. Indeed, in their prestigious career they worked on shows that emphasised physical humour (I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show) and shows that relied more on verbal humour (All in the Family). Few writers produced as much quality television as they did.