Hollywood’s First Action Hero

His education was no higher than elementary school. He could  hunt, trap, shoot, and ride horses with the best. He broke a wild bronco when he was a mere lad of 11. As a 6-foot-tall sixteen-year-old he started bronc riding. At 17 he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. When he ventured to Los Angeles he befriended a few stars who marveled at his prowess. He made a few movies. Then he won more than a handful of rodeo championships. He returned to Hollywood and became a legend.
He is cinema’s FIRST ACTION HERO.

If you’re a film fan you’ve seen him hundreds of times, but don’t know his name. If you’re a true film buff you not only know his name, you understand how important he was, and still is, to stuntmen everywhere. His name was Yakima Canutt.
Yak, as he was called, reigned in Hollywood in it’s early years. He started off as a lead actor, but a broken nose and a flu damaged voice meant his days as a lead would be seriously challenged by the advent of sound. Taking advantage of his knowledge of horses and rodeos, he began developing ‘stunts’ and stunt equipment. The stunts wowed audiences. The equipment saved lives and money for the studio executives. Yakima Canutt became a music sought after commodity.
In 1932, Canutt met John Wayne. A friendship and a working relationship developed that changed both. Canutt and Wayne developed a way of fighting on screen that made them look more realistic. Wayne lifted much of his on-screen persona from Canutt. Their fate was sealed with Wayne’s ascendancy in STAGECOAH, where Canutt was his stand in. Remember he did all his stunts without any CGI, what you saw is what he did. Canutt would also double for Clark Cable in SAN FRANCISCO, GONE WITH THE WIND, BOOM TOWN.
He soon became a well respected second unit and action director. Here are a few of the films he acted as the action/second unit director
– the jousting scenes in IVANHOE
– action sequences for Kubrick’s SPARTANS
His career was long and lustrous. He created and patented several safety devices for stuntman, but what he is best know for his action sequences in BEN-HUR. His chariot race sequence is still considered one of the best, if not the best.
Cinema’s FIRST ACTION HERO died at the age of 90 in 1986.


The Plants That Ate Earth (Day)

For this Earth Day, thinking about films with plants seemed a natural. When you think about plants who have starred in films your mind pulls up images of all those Disney, gorgeously photographed fantasies. They are fantasies because the shots they took rarely occur, well, naturally.

But that’s not what pops into our slightly twisted cinematic mind when plant movies are mentioned. Nope,  pods are, and not just any pods, but Kevin McCarthy’s pods. Yes, it is ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ That’s where we begin a discussion on sentient plant movies.
‘Invasion’ came out in 1956 and was directed by Don Siegel. Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter starred in a tale of pods from outer space taking over humans and rendering them emotionless. Most analysts insist that it was an allegory on Communism or at least McCarthyism. However Siegel has said that you can read anything you want into the film, but the reality is that some people are ‘just pods’. By that he meant some folks succumb to a ‘group think’ and divorce themselves from the emotions that makes one a human. I suspect that if Siegel were making films they would center on a post-apocalyptic zombie invasions.

Going deeper into movies about sentient plants, ‘Day of the Triffids’ also stands out. Based on a 1951 book by John Wyndham, the movie was made in 1962 with musical movie standout Howard Keel as a  sighted man in a world where nearly everyone else has been blinded by strange meteors. The meteors brought spores that turned in large, walking blood sucking plants – Triffids. The film has Keel fighting to stay alive in this post-apocalyptic world, moving from one secure location to another. It is the story of walls protecting what’s left of humanity, not unlike one of the earliest pieces of Western literature, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’.
‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is a very early Mesopotamian story where a fabled, perhaps real king, named Gilgamesh does many wonderful things to advance civilization. One wonder he did was build the walls of Uruk. These walls protected the people. More importantly the walls kept bad things out, not only invading hordes, but nature. The Western concept of civilization versus the forest is first codified. The duality of the two has remained a central tension in Western civilization. Humanity needed to be protected by that which lurked in the forest whether it be the big bad wolf, witches, giants, trolls, monsters and even plants.

The Western world’s underlying philosophy has been that nature is something to be conquered, controlled. As civilization advanced, this polarity has grown wider, and to many, created an imbalance. The imbalance has now created enough tension that Hollywood can use it to make films. Humanity’s hubris and arrogance has resulted in ‘nature’ rebelling to put the balance back in its rightful place.  Films like ‘Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” or Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” are prime examples of how this tension or imbalance can play out on the screen.

The next time plants are ready for their close-up, we’ll look at how the ancient story of the Green Man motif plays out in such films as ‘Swamp Thing’ and even ‘Robin Hood’.

“Rear Window” Revealed

Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW is one of the classics. The story about a wheel chair bound photographer looking out into the courtyard of his urban dwelling and what he sees is great cinema.

Jimmy Stewart plays the photog while a very beautiful Grace Kelly plays his gutsy, faithful girlfriend. I have always had a small problem with her role. What the heck is she doing with a man many years her senior? She cold do so much better.

But that’s not what this is about. What this is about is Jeff Descom. Jeff using Photoshop’s After Effects painstakingly recreate a time lapsed full screen version of what Hitchcock revealed looking out the rear window of Stewart’s apartment.

Watch it and marvel at Descom’s talents and, more importantly, the talents of Alfred Hitchcock who once stated that presentation was more important that content. Perhaps he is right. Now the question is, will Descom’s idea start a trend that other Hollywood classics get a similar treatment?