Monday, April 24, 2017

Yellow Sky (1948) DVD Review

Yellow Sky is a western starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark. It is very loosely based on The Tempest. As the title card at the beginning tells us, it takes place in “The West – 1867.” We hear sounds of an approaching storm as several men ride on horseback through unfamiliar territory. It is a storm that ends up not coming from the sky, but from within the men themselves. They visit a town and go to a saloon, but they are really there to rob a bank, which they do. As they ride out to the land they’d visited earlier after the robbery, one of them is shot in the chase, leaving six to escape across a harsh desert.

After several days in the desert, and the loss of a horse, they see a town in the distance. (By the way, there are some excellent wide shots of them in the desert, showing the men small against a great landscape.) But as they approach the town, they find it deserted. A sign tells them the name of the town is Yellow Sky. They all collapse in defeat. But soon they realize they are not completely alone. A young woman named Constance Mae (nicknamed Mike) stands over them with a gun. When they ask for water, she directs them to a spring. She lives with her grandfather in a house at the other end of town. Though she is the Miranda character in this story, she’s able to handle herself around men, and is a pretty good shot with a rifle. When she arrived in this area, she was just a baby, according to her grandfather, just as Miranda was young when she arrived on the island in The Tempest. Her grandfather is the Prospero character, but there is no magic in this adaptation. There is no Ariel, and there are no other spirits. There is not even a Caliban. There are some Apaches who arrive, and who are friends with Mike’s grandfather, and who follow his direction.

The six men believe that the Mike and her grandfather are hiding gold, and they aim to take all of it, though James Dawson (Gregory Peck) promises the grandfather that they will only take half of it. He has a change of heart after realizing that the grandfather kept them from being hurt by the Apaches, and decides to only take half as he’d promised. The other men aren’t too keen on that decision, however. And so of course there is some gun fighting. A couple of the men are more comical, especially Walrus, who is like Stephano in his appreciation of the drink.

By the end, Mike and her grandfather have become friendly with a few of the men, and the film has a happy ending. Though the connections to the Shakespeare play are loose, Yellow Sky is actually a really good film.

Yellow Sky was directed by William A. Wellman. The DVD includes three still galleries, including one of the promotional materials, one of production photos and one of behind-the-scenes photos. The film’s trailer is also included.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Thousand Acres (1997) DVD Review

A Thousand Acres is an adaptation of King Lear set on a farm. The film is based on the novel by Jane Smiley, which in turn is based on Shakespeare’s play. In going from book to film, it actually loses more of the elements that tie it to the play. For example, Harold – the Gloucester character – is not blinded in the film; Loren – the Edgar character – doesn’t really have a part; Ginny – the film’s Goneril – doesn’t attempt to poison Rose – the Regan character. As in the book, the film is from Ginny’s perspective, and there is quite a bit of narration from her character. In the beginning she tells us that Caroline – the Cordelia character – left the farm after school and became a lawyer, but that she and Rose stayed on. A problem I had with the book is that I didn’t care for any of the characters. That problem remains in the film version, though there is a good cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Colin Firth.

Larry (Jason Robards), in order to avoid inheritance taxes, decides to form a corporation, and each of his three daughters will receive a third of the farm, and will run the business. Ginny and Rose immediately take to the idea, but the youngest daughter, Caroline, says she’ll think about it. Larry overreacts, telling her: “If you don’t want it, my girl, you’re out. Simple as that.” In voice over, Ginny talks about her father’s pride being hurt. Ginny tries to convince Caroline to accept their father’s offer, but when Caroline shows up at the house, Larry closes the door in her face. So the farm is divided in half, between Ginny and Rose, as Lear’s kingdom is divided in half between Goneril and Regan. But after this, Larry just remains seated at his window, angrily watching how his land is being used, and questioning it.

Ginny and Rose talk about setting rules for their father, especially after Larry ends up in the hospital after a drunk driving accident. A severe thunder storm rolls in, and Larry lashes out at Ginny and Rose, calling Ginny a bitch, and saying he’d rather stay out in the storm than go home. The daughters tell him he’s on his own, and there is a hint of something darker between them. As in King Lear, Larry curses his oldest daughter, “You’ll never have children.” But we don’t like Larry here. And there is no Fool or Kent or Edgar at his side to help us align with him. (There is a Ken, who is the family lawyer, so he is this adaptation’s Kent, but he never puts himself on the line, never risks anything, so he is not like Kent at all.) Larry goes to Harold, saying “They threw me out.” Of course, that’s not true. There are three houses on the property, and Larry lives in one of them. There’s nothing keeping him from going to his house. He stayed out in the storm by his own decision, and then stays with Harold also by his own decision. And because this story is from Ginny’s perspective, the film doesn’t even follow Larry into the storm.

And then as we get farther into the film, we like Larry even less, as it comes out that he sexually abused both Ginny and Rose when they were children. At first Ginny refuses to remember, when Rose raises the subject. Rose tells her: “He didn’t rape me, Ginny. He seduced me.” Of course, this is completely different from the play, but Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange as Rose and Ginny are great in this scene. But as I mentioned, not one of the characters is likeable. In King Lear, you really feel for many of the characters at different moments. Good versions of King Lear will have you in tears. But this film is not at all emotionally engaging, even though it adds breast cancer and hospital scenes in attempts to tug at your heart.

Jess – the film’s Edmund – returns home at the beginning of the movie, and soon it is clear that Ginny is attracted to him. They begin an affair. Later we learn that Rose also has an affair with him. Though he doesn’t behave in a cruel manner as Edmund does in the play, Jess is ultimately unlikeable as well. And even Harold is awful. He insults Ginny and Rose and Jess in a public setting, without provocation, quite unlike Gloucester. And while Harold does reject Jess, as Gloucester rejects Edgar (Edgar, not Edmund), he does it without any real reason. In the play, Gloucester is deliberately fooled by Edmund to reject Edgar.

Caroline and Larry reconcile, as Cordelia and Lear do in the play, but here it is in order to sue Ginny and Rose to get the farm back. So you don’t even like Caroline in this adaptation, as she becomes a sort of villain, or at least the pawn of a villain. For yes, in this version, Larry is a villain. It’s kind of incredible for an adaptation of King Lear to create a dislikeable Cordelia, but A Thousand Acres does just that. Larry does go a little mad toward the end. In the courtroom scene, he believes that Caroline is dead, but calms down when Caroline stands in front of him and guides him off the stand. There are deaths, as in the play, but no one is responsible for anyone else’s death, at least not directly. Pete dies in a car accident after driving while inebriated. Rose dies from breast cancer. Larry dies from a heart attack (but not from a broken heart, as Caroline still lives at the end), but we only hear about it in voice over. It’s not even part of the film.

Interestingly, though this is a King Lear adaptation, the movie keeps the one other Shakespeare reference from the book, a reference to The Merchant Of Venice. Rose tells Ginny that she wants everything their father had, saying that she deserves it. She then says: “Do you think a breast weighs a pound? That’s my pound of flesh.

A Thousand Acres was directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. The DVD contains no special features.

Johnny Hamlet (1968) DVD Review

Johnny Hamlet is an interesting and masterfully shot adaptation of Hamlet, set it in the Wild West. It is known by a variety of titles, and the title on the DVD case is The Wild And The Dirty. The title on the print used for the DVD is Quella Sporca Storial Nel West, but the title that director Enzo G. Castellari gave it is Johnny Hamlet. It stars Andrea Giordana as Johnny Hamilton, Gilbert Roland as Horace, and Horst Frank as Claude Hamilton.

The film opens with a strange dream sequence in which Johnny approaches his father. And in voice over we hear: “To die, to sleep, no more. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.” And then, oddly, we see a man at the ocean’s shore, lifting his arms and reciting some of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be, that is the question/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep/No more. And by a sleep, and by a sleep, to say we end-” It is then revealed that this man is an actor, rehearsing the lines (thus the repeated “and by a sleep”). A troupe of actors has a camp on the beach, and Johnny is asleep among them. He has been calling for his father in his sleep. When Johnny wakes, we hear the actor continue with Hamlet’s speech. This is interesting, because the film not only is an adaptation of Hamlet, but makes references to the play. It is an adaptation of the play in which the play also exists.

Johnny takes his leave of the actors and travels home. On the way, he stops at an underground cemetery to visit the grave of his father, Chester Hamilton, his stone reading, “1811-1865, Willfully Murdered.” Johnny is a soldier, and he was at war when his father was killed, and now feels guilty for not being there to protect him. And yes, there is a gravedigger there. Two men – Ross and Gil – threaten Johnny at the cemetery. Horace arrives to help Johnny. Ross and Gil are this adaptation’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horace is Horatio. Ross and Gil, in this version, never pretend to be Johnny’s friends; nor is there any mention of a shared past between them. Johnny then returns to the ranch (the sign outside reading, “Ranch Elsenor”), and sees his mother, Gerta, and his uncle Claude in a playful embrace. Gerta breaks off from the embrace when she sees Johnny, and runs to him to embrace him. She reveals to us that he’s been gone for three years, and explains to him that everything would have been taken from her if it hadn’t been for Claude.

Johnny next runs into Ophelia, who has been waiting for him these three years. They kiss, but Ophelia is acting a little strangely, telling Johnny that Johnny’s father likes her and knows about the two of them. Before they can work things out, Ross and Gil show up again and engage Johnny in a fight. They get the best of him, at least for a moment, until Horace shows up to help. In this adaptation, Polonius is the sheriff, and he seems corrupt and a bit mean. There is no Laertes in this adaptation (and so you can guess that the ending will be different from that of the play). Horace hands Johnny a crest of the man who killed Johnny’s father – supposedly a man named Santana. The crest was found near the body. Also, we learn that there’s missing gold at the center of the murder in this adaptation.

At a tavern, Horace says to Johnny: “To die. To die is nothing. To live, that’s the important thing.” And the traveling actors from the first scene arrive. Before they enter, we hear one of them say, “The world is a stage,” an idea voiced often by Shakespeare. The players argue playfully about a mishap in another town, referring to each other by their Hamlet character names, which is interesting, since in the reality of this film there is also a real Ophelia. This Ophelia – the actor – has an earring with the same crest as that found by Johnny’s father. Johnny goes to bed with her, and she tells him where she got the earring.

Johnny returns to the cemetery and has the gravedigger (who apparently never has a day off) exhume Santana’s body. They find the same crest on Santana’s belt. Johnny is actively searching for clues as to who murdered his father and is looking for vengeance. So obviously this is different from the play in which Hamlet is told by his father’s Ghost who killed him. He gets his father’s gun from Gerta, and then rides off to find Santana. Bandits lead him to Santana, and there he also finds Claude, and so now is certain that Claude murdered his father. But there is still the matter of the gold, and the bandits take them along on their search for it, followed by Ross and Gil, who are in turn followed by Horace. And we learn that Ross and Gil were hired by Claude, sort of like in the play.

Meanwhile, in a move quite different from the play, Ophelia is murdered and her body is left floating in the river, along with Johnny’s gun. The Sheriff then believes that Johnny murdered Ophelia, and he goes to the ranch to confront him. Johnny, however, isn’t there; he has returned to the cemetery, where the gravedigger is digging Ophelia’s grave. And as in the play, that’s how he learns that Ophelia has died.

Gerta then overhears a man warning Claude that Santana is coming, and realizes her new husband is not innocent. But when she confronts Claude, Ross and Gil shoot her. There is a good moment when Claude is angry with them, showing on some level he did care for Gerta. Gerta is still alive, and manages to get on a horse, the horse somehow knowing to take her to where Johnny has been tied to a cross and left for dead. In this version, it is Horace who kills the Polonius character, not Johnny. Johnny does kill Claude, but in this version Johnny lives (after all, there is no Laertes to kill him), and Johnny and Horace ride off together. Obviously, there are quite a lot of differences from the play, but this adaptation is completely enjoyable.

Special Features

The DVD includes Shakespeare In The West, which is an interview with director Enzo G. Castellari. He talks about his habit of shooting during the day and editing each night. He talks about the music and about certain shots of the film, and he mentions that the real title is Johnny Hamlet, and that the distributor changed the title in Italy to Quella Sporca Storial Nel West. The DVD includes also includes a photo gallery and three trailers for the film. In the U.S. trailer, there is voice over that says, “To kill or not to kill, that was the question.”

The DVD that I own pairs this film with Chaco.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shakespeare Reference in Green Bananas

Michael Drinkard’s novel Green Bananas contains one Shakespeare reference: “Now, while Sylvan stirs with a wooden spoon, Alabama chants: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble. Shakespeare. Now comes the good part. Cool it with baboon’s blood, then the charm is firm and good’” (pages 51-52). This comes because Sylvan is boiling a bobcat skull in a pot, and Alabama wants to disguise it as soup because two girls are coming over.

Green Bananas was published in 1989 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The copy I read was a first edition.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shakespeare References in Franny And Zooey

I decided to revisit J.D. Salinger’s Franny And Zooey, and found that the book contains several Shakespeare references. The first is in the Franny section, and is a reference to Shakespeare himself. Salinger writes, “I mean to a certain extent I think I was perfectly justified to point out that none of the really good boys – Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Shakespeare, for Chrissake – were such goddam word-squeezers” (p. 13). The other Shakespeare references are all in the Zooey section. There is a reference to Macbeth in the footnote: “The remaining five, however, the senior five, will be stalking in and out of the plot with considerable frequency, like so many Banquo’s ghosts” (p. 52). The next is a reference to Romeo And Juliet: “Much, much more important, though, Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter” (p. 65). That’s a reference to Juliet’s lines “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” (Most people, for some reason, quote the less preferable Q1 reading of “By any other name.”) There is also another reference to Shakespeare himself: “That is, we wanted you both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence” (pages 65-55). The final Shakespeare reference is to Hamlet: “At least I’m still in love with Yorick’s skull. At least I always have time enough to stay in love with Yorick’s skull. I want an honorable goddam skull when I’m dead, buddy. I hanker after an honorable goddam skull like Yorick’s” (p. 197).

Franny And Zooey was published as a book in 1961, with the stories appearing in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1957.