Showing posts with label Sports in Film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sports in Film. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What I learned from Gentleman Jim (1942)

Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim (1942)
Errol Flynn as James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett

Sometimes it takes a certain message delivered at just the right time to make a big impact. Gentleman Jim (1942) changed my life. And it really shouldn't have happened with this film. If you know me, you know that I avoid historical biopics like the plague, especially ones from the early days of film history. They are usually over-the-top, unrealistic and stretch the truth beyond what seems possible. I don't even know how I came across Gentleman Jim. Maybe I watched it on TCM one day? Maybe I was on an Errol Flynn kick? Maybe I watched it because I love sports movies? If you look at lists of the greatest films of all time, you won't find Gentleman Jim on it. It's a decent movie but it's not one of the best. But when I watched it years ago it taught me one of the most important life lessons that I've had at the forefront of my mind ever since: no one will hand you opportunities, if there is something you want in life you need to make it happen for yourself.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

"There's only the lucky and the unlucky. Those that happened to grab the right moment and those that didn't." - Alexis Smith as Miss Ware

Directed by Raoul Walsh, Gentleman Jim is based on the life of heavyweight boxing champion James J. Corbett. The story starts in San Francisco 1887. Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) lives on the south side of the city and grew up sparring with his older brothers. He and his best bud Walter (Jack Carson) are bank clerks by day and boxing enthusiasts by night. Corbett wants to train at the exclusive Olympic Club and finds a way to get in when wealthy socialite Miss Ware (Alexis Smith) needs help bringing gambling money to her dad. Corbett makes a name for himself quickly as a boxer with potential. Everyone calls him Gentleman Jim for his penchant for wearing finery, outside of the ring of course. His meteoric rise is supported by his boxing enthusiast and fun loving dad Pat (Alan Hale). All the bouts in the ring lead up to the big match with current heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) .

The story is based on Corbett's autobiography The Roar of the Crowd although it takes some artistic liberties. Three studios were interested in the rights for the movie but Warner Bros. won out. Sports editor for the Chicago Herald and Corbett expert Ed Cochrane was a technical advisor on the film. Errol Flynn was trained by junior welterweight champion Mushy Callahan who also doubled for him in some shots, especially those with the fancy footwork. Flynn did a lot of his own boxing. The work was strenuous enough that he suffered a mild heart attack while making the movie.

8 years ago I wrote a piece on this blog called Gentleman Jim and Opportunities. In it I wrote "He's an Irishman from humble origins and we want to see him rise to the very top. Why? Because we want the same for ourselves. We want those opportunities. We want to be the best. We want to overcome our circumstances and triumph." Flynn's Corbett is an opportunist in that he both finds opportunities and makes them when he has no other option.

Skeptics will say, oh you could have learned that lesson somewhere else. And it's not like the concept was new to me. But for some reason this movie really drove it home. Ever since I watched Gentleman Jim I have made opportunities for myself. I learned how to spot good opportunities and not to be scared to try something new, even if it makes me so nervous that I get sick to my stomach and have anxiety for days. I'm always stronger on the other side and I never regret taking the chance. I learned over the years that it's okay to ask. The worst you can hear is no. And now I'm never afraid to ask because it just increases your chances of getting an opportunity you wouldn't have had before.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I bought Gentleman Jim (1942) during one of WAC's 4 for $44 sales. I just had to have this one!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Stay Hungry (1976)

In the 1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the height of his bodybuilding career. By 1976, he had already won the IFBB Mr. Olympia competition 6 consecutive times (1970-1975). Shortly after his 6th win he announced his retirement from bodybuilding. He would briefly come out of his retirement to compete and win again in 1980. In fact, in 1974 he had planned to retire but was persuaded by filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore to compete one more time so they could include him in their documentary Pumping Iron (1977). He had lost weight for his part in director Bob Rafaelson's Stay Hungry and had to train to Mr. Olympia standards in only a few short months. Pumping Iron made Schwarzenegger a household name but Stay Hungry also put him on the map. He won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture and was destined for a career as a major movie star in the decades to come.

Jeff Bridges and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stay Hungry (1976) stars Jeff Bridges as Craig Blake, a young businessman in Birmingham, Alabama whose been given the task to buy out the last remaining stronghold in a planned development project: a gym. Craig lives in a relatively abandoned mansion, one he inherited from his recently deceased parents, along with his butler William (Scatman Crothers). He's a wealthy Southern boy with too much time on his hands. He starts hanging around at Thor Erickson's (R.G. Armstrong) gym and gets to know the characters who inhabit the place. There's Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Thor's prized athlete who is competing for a Mr. Universe title. Then there's Franklin (Robert Englund) the grease man and a member of the gym's entourage along with meat-head Newton (Roger E. Mosley). Then there are the two lady trainers, Anita (Helena Kallianotes) the bad-ass karate instructor and Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field) the free-spirited aerobics instructor. Mary Tate is dating Joe who doesn't mind that she moves on from him to Craig. Or maybe not? It's difficult to tell who is with who as the romantic dynamics shift a lot. Craig attempts to bring his new friends into his world of country club cronies which includes his other girlfriend Dorothy (Kathleen Miller) and rival Lester (Ed Begley Jr.). He doesn't quite realize that his two worlds will inevitably clash. He's stuck between two very different existences and must learn to leave the gentile Southern life behind and embrace his true self.

Sally Field and Jeff Bridges

Stay Hungry is a strange and problematic film. Many scenes were unconventional for the sake of being unconventional. This is something characteristic of many films from the era. With fewer restrictions and the Hays Code long dead and buried, filmmakers were game for experimentation.

Things you'll see in this film: Arnold Schwarzengger playing a fiddle, Schwarznegger working out in a Batman costume, Sally Field in her only on-screen appearance in the buff, an attempted rape, a bunch of scantily clad bodybuilders running through the city streets, 5 bodybuilders on top of a bus (see below), a drug-fueled fight including gym equipment, and more.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times said in his 1976 review, "[Stay Hungry] pretends to be more eccentric than it is and to have more on its mind than it actually does." This is pretty much spot on. So much of this film felt forced. Stay Hungry gets in its own way. At its heart this is a movie about being true to yourself and pursuing your passion. I loved the juxtaposition of Joe and Craig's characters. Craig is held back by the Blake name and the country club culture he grew up in. Joe attaches himself to nothing but what he wants to do. He feels no connection to a name nor does he want to be tied down in a relationship. I particularly liked this quote from the film as spoken by Joe Santo:

"I don't want to be too comfortable. Once you get used to it it's hard to give up. I'd rather stay hungry."

A whole movie can be made from this one quote. Stay Hungry tried to do that but didn't quite get there.

I came to this movie because of my absolute love for the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. Charles Gaines who wrote the novel Stay Hungry and adapted the story to film also worked on Pumping Iron. What saved Stay Hungry for me was that one glorious quote and all the bodybuilding scenes. I could cut out the rest of the movie and watch a much shorter version and be perfectly happy.

Stay Hungry is available on Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

Thanks to Olive Films for sending me the movie for review!


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780316355056
June 2017

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is considered one of the greatest sports films of all time. It served as the template for how movies about inspirational athletes would be made. It cemented Lou Gehrig as not only a legend of baseball but an important figure in American history. And Gehrig's final speech, one that demonstrated gratefulness in spite of his dire circumstances, would inspire generations to come. 75 years after it's initial release the film still has the power to move audiences to tears.

“Its greatest achievement was to establish a formidable, continuing physical legacy for Gehrig, almost like an annuity that renews itself with each showing.” - Richard Sandomir

Lou Gehrig had a fantastic career throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the Yankee's first baseman. His records for home runs and consecutive games played are still impressive many years later. Gehrig's life was cut short at the tender age of 37 when he died from ALS. His name would become synonymous with ALS and up until recently it was generally referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It wasn't long after he died when Hollywood realized that Gehrig's story would make for a great movie. But it took Gehrig's widow Eleanor to lead the charge.

Richard Sandomir's new book The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic profiles the making of the movie in great detail. Gehrig died in June 1941 and the movie was released in July 1942. He was still in the public consciousness and with the start of WWII, audiences were ripe for a good story about a homegrown hero. Eleanor Gehrig was instrumental in getting Gehrig's story in front of Hollywood moguls. She was driven both by a desire to support herself and to honor her husband's legacy.

Producer Sam Goldwyn saw more potential in the love story between Gehrig and Eleanor than he did in Gehrig’s baseball career. The problem was Goldwyn knew nothing about baseball. In fact most of the people who worked on the film knew little to nothing about America’s greatest pastime. But what they did know is that Gehrig's story was special and if they played their cards right it would make for a blockbuster film.

The first step in making the film was to find the man who would play Gehrig. An open audition was conducted but it became clear early on that Gary Cooper would be a great fit. There were problems at first. Cooper was older, not very familiar with baseball and was a righty to Gehrig's lefty. But, as Sandomir points out, Cooper playing Gehrig was "a near-perfect marriage of modest, heroic subject and an actor who specialized in modest, heroic characters." The role of Eleanor was important too. Actress Teresa Wright was new to Hollywood but her career was already skyrocketing. She had an Academy Award nomination under her belt and this film would be her first opportunity to shine as a leading lady. With the real-life Eleanor full involved in overseeing the making of the film, there was a lot of pressure on Wright to capture the spirit of Eleanor and to do the film justice.

Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Photo source: Doctor Macro

As is the case with many biopics of the golden age of Hollywood, The Pride of the Yankees plays fast and loose with the facts. However, Eleanor Gehrig made sure that her husband and his sport were portrayed as accurately as possible. Author Sandomir goes into detail about all of the preparation for both the fictional and biographical aspects of the film. There was both the care and neglect to accurately portray baseball. There was an effort to make Cooper look like a real left-handed baseball player (the author adeptly debunks the myth that the scenes were flipped for the camera). I was particularly fascinated with the scenes that didn't make it into the final film. For example, after Gehrig's baseball career ended he had a short stint as a parole commissioner, a part of his life I'm very eager to read more about. A scene in which he is checking in on a parolee dying of cancer was written for the film. However, the film ends with the rousing final speech which suited the movie and made for a more dramatic ending.

I loved reading about Gehrig’s famous “The luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. According to Sandomir, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. There are only snippets from news clips and a bunch of transcriptions that vary greatly. It was never fully transcribed and its very possible that Gehrig had written some of it down but also spoke some lines that just came to him. The film alters the speech and includes the famous line at the very end. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." is #38 on the AFI's top 100 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper - The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There's so much more in this book too. We learn about Babe Ruth's involvement in the movie and his connections to Hollywood. Then there was Lou Gehrig's own, brief and failed attempt at an acting career. There is a wealth of information about the actors, the shooting, the editing, the screenwriting, the film's reception and what happened to the key players years after the movie was released. At the heart of the book is the story of a fallen man who lived the American dream and who's story was shared in a way that ensured his legacy for the rest of the century and beyond.

If you enjoyed The Pride of the Yankees (1942) I implore you to read this book. It's a fantastic deep dive into the making of a classic. My only small complaint about the book is that it does lapse into repetition as well some unnecessary plot description. In some circumstances including the plot makes sense in context but at other points it felt like filler. However, if it's been a while since you've seen the movie the plot points included might serve as a refresher. Sandomir's book is well-rounded and well-researched. It's the story of a movie but it's also so much more than that. It makes for great summer reading. I took this book to the beach with me and lounged with it on my front porch.

This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the good folks at Hachette books for the opportunity to review this book. As a treat for my readers they are generously offering 10 copies of the book for giveaway! The contest runs from now until Sunday. Good luck!

CONTEST IS NOW OVER. Congrats to the winners: Vanessa, Keisha, Lindsay, Meg, John, Noelle, Christopher, Christian, Moshe & JT!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Sport Parade (1932)

The Sport Parade (1932) was directed by Dudley Murphy and produced by David O. Selznick for RKO.  It stars Joel McCrea, Marian Marsh, William Gargan and Robert Benchley. The screenplay was adapted from a story by Jerry Corwin and depending on the source Corey Ford, Francis Cockrell and Robert Benchley are all credited in some form for the adaptation. I love films from this era that either have a collegiate theme or a sports theme and since this one had both it was natural selection for my next Warner Archive Wednesday.

Brown and Baker, the best of pals

Athletes behaving badly; that’s a hot topic these days. The machinations of Sandy Brown (Joel McCrea) and Johnny Baker (William Gargan), Dartmouth University football stars, are tame in comparison but still make for interesting drama. Brown and Baker have just finished their University careers and are considered sport legends. They are close friends but their lives and careers split as soon as they leave Dartmouth. Brown is dazzled by the prospects of fame and fortune promised to him by Shifty Morrison (Walter Catlett), a promoter whose appearance is reminiscent of Harold Lloyd and whose visions of millions are equally as laughable. Baker is more sensible. He starts a career in sports writing, a good segue from his hey-days as an athlete. Baker helps Brown when Shifty’s promises don’t pan out by offering him a job at the paper. Baker has the clever idea of tapping into their fame as a pair of top college athletes and they co-write a column entitled “Baker to Brown.” Things are going swell until Brown makes eyes at the newspaper illustrator Irene (Marian Marsh). Trouble is that Baker has his eyes set on her too and he was there first! 

This film could have been so good but in the end it just fell flat. The two main characters are only in college for the first few minutes of the film so the focus is primarily on their post-collegiate careers. This makes for an interesting look at what happens after the limelight has dimmed. However, in The Sport Parade the careers of the two college sports heroes is muddled by a romantic triangle. And the lady in the middle of the triangle isn't all that dazzling.

Joel McCrea and Marian Marsh

Joel McCrea and William Gargan. Best buds at the beginning of their troubles.

Marian Marsh, Joel McCrea and Walter Catlett
I found Joel McCrea's character Sandy Brown a bit confusing. We're led to believe that he excels at many sports. In college he and Baker are the top football stars. Brown also plays hockey and baseball, does some road racing and at the end of the film he becomes a professional wrestler. While there are some athletes who have been able to excel at two sports, it's pretty rare. To be really good at a sport you need determined practicing and lots of it. While incorporating some other sports and exercises will help an athlete succeed, the focus should always be on the one sport. Also, the window of time an athlete has to excel at the sport is limited to incorporating other sports doesn't make any sense. It's nice to think that Sandy Brown can do it all with the magic of Hollywood. I also think they just crammed as many sports as possible into the film to give credence to the title The Sport Parade.

Robert Benchley and his good ole Waltham Watch
It's not a complete wash though! There are several things I really liked about the film including Robert Benchley. He plays a befuddled radio announcer who is having a difficult time keeping track of all the plays in the game. He's also even sure where he is. Benchley appears a few times in the film and I wished he was a more substantial character. However, he's one of a trio of ne'er-do-wells along with Dizzy the drunk sports photographer (Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher) and Shifty the unreliable promoter.

The opening scenes take place in Allston, MA at Harvard Stadium (in the film Benchley says they are in Cambridge but the stadium is on the other side of the Charles River and technically in Allston). Dartmouth is playing Harvard and the film has real footage from the stadium and a college football game. By the time I was 3-1/2 minutes into the movie I froze on this shot and proceeded to freak out for about an hour.

Real life shot of Harvard Stadium and Harvard University in the background.
This was very exciting! Real shots of the Boston area don't appear in many films from this era. It wasn't until Mystery Street (1950) that the area was used as an actual filming location. I know this is just sports footage but it made me happy nonetheless. Did you know that the Harvard Stadium is one of four sports arenas to be registered as a National Historic Landmark? It was built in 1903 and is America's oldest stadium. The photo above is a shot of the steel stands. They were removed in the 1950s and now the stadium is U-shaped.

Harvard Stadium - Source

The following is NSFW-ish but my other favorite thing about this movie is seeing Pre-Code Butt. Oh yes, I went there. Pre-Code Butt. Say it with me! "Pre-Code Butt." Pre-Code Butt is elusive and rare. You can only catch a glimpse of it. A glimpse that goes by so quickly you're not quite sure you of what you saw until you play the scene over and over and over again.

You can see the Pre-Code Butt if you look closely enough.

The good folks at Warner Archive have shared a preview clip of the movie which contains some of the shots of Harvard Stadium and the Pre-Code Butt. Here it is for your viewing pleasure!

The Sports Parade (1932) is available from Warner Bros. and the TCM shop

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I rented The Sport Parade (1932) from ClassicFlix.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Steve McQueen: A Passion for Speed

Steve McQueen: A Passion for Speed
by Frederic Brun
Hardcover - 192 pages
ISBN: 9780760342480
October 2011

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (Your local bookstore)

"McQueen will be remembered as one of the finest exponents of speed to ever grace the big screen." - Brun

Steve McQueen: A Passion for Speed is a coffee table book for McQueen fans and car enthusiasts alike. In its 192 pages you'll find beautiful black-and-white and color photographs depicting the actor's passion for racing cars and motorcycles and his enthusiasm for physical sport.

In text written by French journalist Frederic Brun and translated into English by Flo Brutton, we learn about how McQueen's passion for speed influenced all parts of his life including his career as a film actor. The book is divided into six sections with an introduction providing much of the background of McQueen's life, the history of racing and some key figures including John Newton Cooper and Peter Revson. It's followed by 5 chapters each with a different theme: Speed, Physique, Film, Life and Collection. Each chapter starts off with a few pages of text and then continues with single and (almost) double-page spread photographs. These include photos of McQueen in action, candids of him at home, advertisements, movie posters, publicity photos, magazine covers and behind-the-scenes shots. The fun part of reading the book is looking through all the photographs and wishing you could be as cool as Steve McQueen.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter devoted to McQueen's physique, which he kept in tip-top shape with regular exercise. It includes some photos of him exercising at home and some of them are quite revealing of McQueen's physique and unmentionables (oh my!).

Although McQueen was known for having abused his body with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, I admire his dedication to fitness because it's something that is very important in my life as well. McQueen had a home gym and a personal trainer, in a time when it was very rare to train if you were not a professional athlete. McQueen loved swimming, boxing and martial arts and all of his fitness efforts were ultimately to make him stronger and better suited to his greatest passion: racing.

So if Steve McQueen loved racing so much why didn't he become a professional race car driver instead of an actor? Brun explores this in the book. McQueen was a talent on the race track and kept himself in good shape but even he knew that even that wasn't enough for him make it professionally. He needed to be more fine-tuned in his driving skills and lacked some of the finesse of other more talented drivers. Besides, McQueen's career as an actor allowed him time and money to devote to collecting high performance cars and motorcycles and to influence Hollywood to add more racing and luxury vehicles into their movies.

McQueen's passion for speed was one major aspect of his personality that made him so charismatic and cool. Author Brun says:
"speed has the taste of forbidden fruit; the effect of a powerful stimulant, an unstable force set to destroy whoever consumes it. It is this that makes Steve McQueen so dangerously irresistible."
Steve McQueen glamorized racing and luxury cars on screen. The films discussed at length in the book include The Great Escape (1963), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968),  Le Mans (1971) and On Any Sunday (1971). And of course in this book you'll find photos of the famous green Ford Mustang he drives in Bullitt as well as the Porsche from Le Mans.

I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about cars because I don't. I relied on my car enthusiast husband Carlos to translate some of the language in this book for me. You can still enjoy the book even if you're not into cars but knowing the lingo helps, especially when it comes to makes and models.

This book was published by MotorBooks, a company that seems devoted to putting out coffee table books about Steve McQueen. They have five in total! The others include Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile... Revisited (written by his third wife Barbara McQueen),  Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films and McQueen's Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Winning (1969)

I had set out to watch three classic race car movies and write about each. First was Grand Prix (1966) which was a delight to watch and even though it was long and the plot was rather weak, the three hours seemed to fly by for me. Le Mans (1971) was a horrible, plotless mess. It was fun to watch because of Steve McQueen and because I could easily pick out all the things I disliked and the documentary on the DVD proved to be what saved the whole film for me. Watching Winning (1969) was both a bore and a chore to watch. But this makes absolutely no sense to me. I love the 1960s, I love Paul Newman, and it's an added bonus that his wife Joanne Woodward co-stars as his love interest and I can legitimately hate Robert Wagner because he's the bad guy in the film. Plus there was racing! Winning should have been #winning in my book. But alas, it was not.

So what went wrong? Well, out of the three racing movies, this one had the most plot. Or at least it tried very hard to have a dramatic plot. Paul Newman stars racer Frank Capua who is racing the Indy 500. He falls for divorcee and single mother Elora (Joanne Woodward). They marry and Frank adopts Elora's teen son Charley (Richard Thomas). Elora and Charley, both head over heels in love and admiration for Frank, follow him from race to race. Elora proves to be trouble when she has an affair with rival racer Lou Erding (Robert Wagner). The plot is very choppy, Charley is annoying, to our dismay Newman drinks champagne out of a used popcorn box (ew), and there are numerous slow dramatic shots of pensive Newman alongside cheesy 1960s music. And I seriously wanted to smack Elora upside the head. I mean serious, you chose to cheat on Paul Newman with Robert Wagner? C'mon! The only thing I enjoyed was looking at Paul Newman throughout the movie. Good grief was that man good looking. Those eyes. THOSE EYES! And those chiseled features. He looked like a Roman god.

I wish I had something thoughtful to say about this film. My advice is that if you are looking for a good racing movie from the 1960s/70s era, then skip Le Mans (1971), skip Winning (1969) and watch Grand Prix (1966) instead. 

If you are interested in the early days of race car driving, I highly recommend two silent films. The First Auto (1927), which I've reviewed before, is an excellent film about the early history of cars. The story follows the clash between a father, set in his ways and who doesn't want to give up his horses, and his son who loves the excitement of the new technology. The son, played by Charles Emmett Mack, becomes a race car driving and is involved in a serious accident. Ironically, the actor died in a car accident before filming ended. Legendary race car driver Barney Oldfield makes an appearance in the film. The other film is Speedway (1929) starring William Haines  and Anita Page (I also did a post on this on but not quite a review). I don't remember too many details about the film however it's a fun picture with William Haines as a flamboyant racer who is more interested in chasing Anita Page than he is in taking racing seriously. The racing in both films is real and Speedway was shot on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as was Winning (1969) (and I've been there! woot!).

Have you watched Winning (1969)? If so, what did you think of it? What's your favorite racing movie?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Le Mans (1971)

UPDATE: Stop! Before you leave a comment, read the entire post first. I have some opinions about the film not everyone will agree with but I was as fair as possible. Don't jump to conclusions. Thank you.

Le Mans (1971) is simply a terrible movie. It's more a quasi-documentary Steve McQueen/race car fest than it is an actual film. There is virtually no plot and if you are not a race car enthusiast or perhaps you do not know what Le Mans is you would be confused and bored by the seemingly endless race that lasts the entire film. For those of you who are not familiar with Le Mans, it's a 24 hour endurance race (relay with teams) which takes place every year in the Le Mans region of France. The whole movie centers around Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) the champion racer who is participating in Le Mans in the shadow of the recent death of another racer Belgetti. Belgetti's widow Lisa (Elga Andersen) hangs around the race for some reason, looking forlorn and lusting after Delaney. It's hard to tell if this is really what is going on. Her husband just died and here she is, holding on to the lifestyle and social circle she's grown accustom to which she no longer has a connection. So is Delaney the replacement that will keep her in the race care lifestyle? Who knows. It's Steve McQueen driving a race car. Cool.

This film has very little dialogue. So little that the first 37 minutes of the film contain no dialogue spoken by any of the characters. All you hear is the occasional announcer. The remaining 69 minutes has some dialogue but not much.  So why watch this film? For the setting, the fancy shots of real race care driving and for Steve McQueen. McQueen loved sports and he loved racing. After his famous chase scenes in Bullitt (1968) and The Great Escape (1963), it seems inevitable that McQueen would do a movie completely devoted to race car driving.

The 1970s was the most varied and the most sparse decade in Steve McQueen's film career. Le Mans was produced by Solar Productions, McQueen's production company run by himself and business partner/friend Robert Relyea. By 1970, McQueen had become one of the world's most recognizable talents and a hot commodity for film studios. He also become one of the most difficult actors to work with. Le Mans really should have been Day of Champion (1966), produced by Warner Bros., starring Steve McQueen but it wasn't meant to be. Instead Grand Prix (1966)  starring James Garner was made and Day of the Champion was put on the back burner. Relyea eventually made a deal with CBS's Cinema Center Films to do 3 pictures with Solar Productions. It was a deal I'm sure CBS came to regret.

According to Steve McQueen biographer Marc Eliot, a $5 million dollar insurance policy was taken out on McQueen's behalf were something to happen to him during the filming of Le Mans. Although Solar Production and McQueen were virtually broke, McQueen, banking on his fame, managed to get a good deal out of making Le Mans. Initially that is. However, there were many problems. The director John Sturges, was sick of McQueen's antics on set and the constantly changing script (whatever there was of one) that he abandoned the picture. Le Mans was hemorrhaging money. Pretty much all of Sturges' scenes had to be tossed, CBS' Cinema Center pulled out, McQueen's salary was cut, people were fired and the filming just plain stopped. CBS's Cinema Center took it back on after a few weeks with a new director on board. Lee H. Katzin took over but was restricted heavily by McQueen's demands. Katzin stuck with the production to the bitter end, bless him. By the end of filming, the editors had a mess of a movie to piece together, McQueen ended his business and personal relationship with Relyea forever and McQueen's marriage with Neile was on life support. The film was a critical disaster, didn't make enough to cover it's costs and it quickly disappeared from theaters.

I do hope this movie is released on BluRay, because although it's a terrible film I really do think it should be restored. It's aesthetically and historically important given the footage of real racing and Steve McQueen's iconic status in the history of film. The quality of the DVD is as bad as the plot of the movie. If you are a courageous soul and do brave watching this film on DVD, you will be rewarding by a very nice Speed Channel documentary about Le Mans (1971) hosted by McQueen's son Chad McQueen. I'd say it's better than the actual film. (Update: Le Mans is available on Blu-Ray).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Grand Prix (1966)

There is no film quite like Grand Prix (1966). It is the quintessential racing movie and while it's not the best film out there we are very lucky to have it. Grand Prix was made during a golden era of race car driving, when Formula 1 was glamorous, safety in driving wasn't all that important, race car drivers were rock stars and racing teams were owned by individuals or car companies not corporations looking for another advertising opportunity.

Grand Prix (1966) was directed by John Frankenheimer and stars James Garner as Pete Aron. The cast also includes Eva Marie Saint, Antonio Sabato, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Toshiro Mifune and Jessica Walter. Originally, the studio wanted Steve McQueen for the principal role of Pete Aron and Frankenheimer wanted an unknown. McQueen had signed up for the role, however, he did not see eye-to-eye with producer Ed Lewis and during their meeting together McQueen decided to bail out on the movie. James Garner, who expressed a lot of interest in the role, got to play Pete Aron in the end, not knowing that his rival (McQueen saw him more as a rival than vice versa) had wanted to play the part. McQueen would have been amazing in this film, considering he was the quintessential sporting bad boy of the 1960s. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. James Garner proved he could drive the race cars well and I believe he did a decent job as Pete Aron.

Grand Prix was a way to showcase the different Grand Prix races of Europe and to celebrate Formula 1. But with any movie, there has to be a plot. The story, which anchors the movie and makes it more than just a lot of glamorous shots of races, follows 4 race car drivers. There is the American Pete Aron who is in trouble with his sponsor Ferrari when he crashes into his fellow team racer British Scott Stodard (Brian Bedford), whose life seems to be already in shambles even more so now with a serious injury. Aron finds a new sponsor in Japanese business man Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) and also has sort of a fling with Stodard's estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter). That affair made absolutely no sense to me, I think they could have just cut it right out. The third driver is the French Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) who is at the end of his career and although married, falls in love with magazine journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). The last driver is fun-loving Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) who thinks he his immortal, fears nothing and has a lazy fling with a race car groupie. The love affair between Sarti/Montand and Frederickson/Saint was the only one that made sense and had some heart to it. The others seemed forced and a lazy way to add sex into a sports film. However, when you compare this film with Le Mans (1971) which has no plot and Winning (1969) which has a boring plot, Grand Prix's plot looks amazing!

All of the principle drivers, except for Brian Bedford, did their own racing. They were trained at a legendary racing school in England and James Garner proved to be the most talented in the bunch. To provide as much realism as possible, Frankenheimer shot everything on location, used real drivers and had actors do the driving. Stunt doubles and dummies were used for the dangerous crash scenes. The film follows each of the major Grand Prix races in Monte Carlo, France, Belgium, England, Netherlands and Italy. Frankenheimer basically takes us on a trip through Europe! Cameras were mounted on cars for POV and over-the-shoulder shots. There are some shots that are so realistic looking you almost feel like you are in the driver's seat. Race sequences were choreographed by the legendary designer Saul Bass who also did the title sequence and the different montages (splits of the screen with multiple images or the multiplication of a single image across the screen). The title sequence takes place in Monte Carlo and includes shots of the different race cars and drivers getting reading for the first Grand Prix race. Attention to detail is key in this film. Frankenheimer and his crew knew that in order to get cooperation from Formula 1 drivers and companies like Ferrari (their headquarters is featured in the film, it was no small feat to get access to it), they needed to respect the sport, to show it as truthfully as possible and to place close attention to details. In the first race in Monte Carlo at the beginning of the film, every single sound you hear is as accurate as possible. They even did a special recording of two drivers, who were familiar with the Monte Carlo track, in which they did all the gear changes for the race to match what it would sound like. All the races in the film are on the real Grand Prix tracks.

In James Garner's memoir, he devotes a chapter to racing and how preparing for and film Grand Prix developed his love for racing cars. Because he did all his own driving in the film, he was at risk for injury and he had an accident on set.
"Toward the end of the shoot, I did a fire stunt with butane bottles that I ignited with a switch in the cockpit on the final turn. When I crossed the finish line going about 120, I slammed on the brakes and threw another switch to put out the flames. But something went wrong and the car erupted in a giant fireball. I scrambled out of the cockpit as the crew blasted me in the face with fire extinguishers and smothered me in an asbestos blanket. I wasn't hurt, but it shook me up. The producer wasn't happy that I'd done the stunt and neither was Lloyd's of London. They canceled my policy, and for the rest of the picture I drove without insurance."

When I say there is no film quite like Grand Prix, it's because it was lucky we got Grand Prix in the first place considering all the obstacles Frankenheimer had to face in making this 3 hour racing epic! If you enjoy sports films as I do, watch Grand Prix! It's all about the ambience. The glamour, the racing, the sights and sounds. Saul Bass' design, Maurice Jarre's score and Frankenheimer's direction make the film a beauty to behold. Just don't pay attention to the plot and you'll enjoy it!

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook