October 27, 2009

crimson kimono


Today finds me further entrenched in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc box set which comes out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertaintment and the Film Foundation, and for which I had a hugely entertaining interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife. Before I get to her exuberant personality, a few more notes about the movies…

An auteurist’s delight, the set traces Fuller’s career from assembly-line scriptwriter to writer-producer-director tyro. The leap from the innocuously pleasant It Happened in Hollywood (1937) to the delirious noir Underworld U.S.A. (1961) is fascinating, and the drips of his personality discernible in his screenwriting work from Hollywood through Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet (1952) is something of a revelation. Fuller’s blunt-edged prose is handled deftly by Phil Karlson’s hopped-up realism in the latter, while Douglas Sirk’s gleaming surfaces and detached irony are an odd, endlessly fascinating fit for Shockproof, which should be some kind of auteurist case study.

Then there is the full-on eau de Fuller with The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. Kimono is a nuanced take on inter-racial romance shot through with Korean war guilt and stunning location photography of L.A.’s Chinatown. Underworld U.S.A. is all clenched fists and close-ups, documenting the all consuming revenge kick that takes down Cliff Robertson and anyone near him. His tormentors are thrown up as shadows on an alley wall, his own brick-screen idols that he’ll track down one by one with bitter ferocity.

Below the fold is the interview with the delightful Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife for over thirty years and a great thinker and actress in her own right (her film debut was in Godard’s Alphaville), about her late husband’s career in newspapers, the Army, and Hollywood.

What have you learned about Fuller since you completed editing his autobiography, A Third Face?

A Harvard archivist went looking for Sam’s  papers, and he found something that Sam never told me. He was married to Buster Keaton’s wife who committed bigamy. He was 26 years old, had just sold Hats Off! [1936, Sam’s first scriptwriting gig], and she dragged him to Tijuana and married him.  After he found out she was still married to Buster, the marriage was annulled. He never told me. The archivist found the annulment papers and the newspaper announcement. Buster Keaton at the time claimed he was so drunk he didn’t remember having married her.

Sam was so disgusted he never told me. He even cut her face out of a photo. It’s just her and a woman’s sleeve, and he never told me about it. I was shocked. He told me when we met in Paris that he’d never marry or go out with actresses. He hadn’t told me why. He probably forgot about it. He was traumatized by it. So the marriage was annulled, and that’s how he was briefly related to Buster Keaton.

Was Sam’s writing style influenced by his time in the newspaper business? Power of the Press and Scandal Sheet (and later, Park Row), seem to show a strong influence from this time in his life.

Totally. Sam was broken into the newspaper business by John Huston’s mother, Rhea Gore. John and Sam worked at the New York Evening Graphic together, along with Walter Winchell. It was run by Emile Gauvreau, the crazy Irishman with eight beautiful daughters (Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht based their play and film, “The Front Page”, on him). And he was a health nut, he went barefoot from Nyack to New York every day. At the time they called the paper the “Porno” Graphic. And John Huston’s Mom, Rhea, broke Sam into crime reporting. John said he spent more time with his mother than he did. Rhea, even though she divorced Walter Huston and married into a railroad fortune, continued working as a newspaper woman. She was very ballsy, cutting through red tape, bribing cops to get the story. She’s a Sam Fuller character herself.

John didn’t get along with his mother, left the paper, ran off to Hollywood and started writing for William Wyler. He came to Hollywood before Sam. Sam started as a copyboy for Arthur Brisbane, one of the most powerful men he worked for. He was the brain behind William Randolph Hearst, and Sam was his personal copyboy when he was 14. Hearst wouldn’t make a move without him. Sam lost his father when he was 11, and Brisbane was a father figure to him. Sam had a lot of these father figures.

The newspaper office was like his living room, growing up…

Totally! Sam always wanted to run his own paper somewhere in New Hampshire and write his own editorials, and convey his own vision of the world.

What did Fuller think of some of the early adaptations of his work, like Power of the Press?

There’s some great dialogue in that. Like “Freedom’s dynamite, it to be handled with care”! It does sound like him. Scorsese said that Sam was so deeply American, the kind of America that is vanishing. When we lived in Europe together, it always struck me that Sam was innocence abroad. I think he was kind of like a Mark Twain character. Europeans have layers of perversion, and Sam was really innocent there.

What was his relationship like with the studio heads, and how did he manage to get such envelope-pushing material onto the screen, like the relationship between a Japanese-American man and a white American woman in The Crimson Kimono?

Such a beautiful film. Alain Resnais made Hiroshima Mon Amour around the same time, about a white woman with a Japanese man. The same year an article in an Oxford newspaper dubbed TheCrimson Kimono as “Los Angeles Mon Amour.” The head of the studio said to Sam, why don’t you make the white guy a little bit on the mean side, so we understand why she prefers the Japanese man. And Sam said, hell no. They have a lot of affinities, they’re both nice guys, fought in Korea together, and I’m not making the white guy on the mean side so the bible belt will buy it.

In Forty GunsSam wanted the heroine to die, and at the end he should have to shoot her, the woman he loved. Zanuck said “Barbara Stanwyck is a star, you cannot kill the star.” So Sam had to attach a happy ending. He had to compromise, they all had to. But Sam was a very moral guy. He never lied. He berated himself, undervalued himself. He didn’t want to marry me, saying “I’m 54 you’re 22, I don’t like younger women, ten years from now I’ll be an old fart, I’m a has-been.”  He talked himself out of it. He didn’t promise me anything. Because he didn’t bullshit me, I stayed with him. It’s hard to take, but it’s easier on a relationship. And that was courageous. Maybe it was the courage of a fool, but it worked.

He didn’t promise me lines in his films. I had to give up many of my own ambitions to make the marriage work. Even though Sam was a feminist and worked with women, it’s such a nerve-wracking business. I did squeeze in a master’s degree in literature and taught French for four years, and started a doctorate on Samuel Beckett. But then this White Dog thing happened, and we moved to Europe, and I never finished it. Instead I finished Sam’s autobiography.

Will you go back to the Ph.D.?

No, I’m still intrigued with Sam’s characters. I love Beckett, but there’s something so modern, so way ahead of his time in Sam’s work. I’m intrigued by he got away with it, and through so many ups and downs. Why do they call a European movie an art movie and his movies B-movies?

Howard Hawks bought the rights to Fuller’s first novel, The Dark Page, could you talk about that time in his life?

Hawks bought the novel while Sam was still in the war. I’ve got a letter Hawks wrote to Zanuck raving about Sam’s writing, and he bought the novel. This is one of the items I posted on the fan page for The Dark Page on Facebook. They republished the book last year in Scotland, the same company also re-published No Bed of his Own, by Val Lewton , the producer of Cat People. The first time he saw his book in print was in an army edition of The Dark Page, which ends up as a scene in The Big Red One.

Was Sam upset when Hawks sold the rights to his book to MPI?

Hawks was a businessman, Sam wasn’t. He bought it for 15 grand, and I think he sold it for 100, netting 85. He wanted to do it with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson before it fell through. Of course if you’re a writer and Hawks buys it, and you’re young…

The plot is similar to many of his works,  including his novel Crown of India, where an older man trains a younger man, teaches him the ropes, and then the younger man has to expose the older man, and use his lessons against him. Totally Oedipus. The son always wants to outsmart the father. I’ve seen it with all the young directors that came and almost destroyed Sam, some of them. They always wanted something. There’s no innocence when somebody comes and says, “I admire you.” Sam was a very simple person, he never wanted to become a cult figure. Truffaut said about Sam that he’s simple without being simplistic, and that’s very rare. Well said.

Curtis Hanson was one of the nicest disciples. We knew him when he was 18 years old, when Sam and I first got married, he always knocked on Sam’s window. He wound up spending hours with him. Then there was Peter Bogdanovich. Sam helped him write Targets. Peter acknowledges it, but Sam didn’t want any credit.

Sam had his own father figures, but Sam was a gentleman, a civilized man, and I could see how he handled his Oedipus complexes. He never destroyed these father figures. He had all kinds, from Arthur Brisbane, and later on when he came to Hollywood, Peter Pan – Herbert Brenon, was one of his first. The German director E.A. Dupont, who directed Piccadilly, who helped him on I Shot Jesse James, was another. John Ford was one as well.

What was Sam’s relationship with Ford?

Ford loved Sam as a writer and always wanted to work with him. Sam thought John was the greatest director in the world. He worshipped him. John was very proud of Sam, and would call him every year on D-Day and say, “Fuck the Big Red One!” That was a running gag because Ford was in the Marines. Sam just had an unlimited admiration for him – he’s pure Americana.

Another father figure was General Terry De La Mesa Allen. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was so famous at the time. All the dogfaces, all the soldiers loved him. He fought alongside them. He was so famous John Ford pleaded with Sam to meet him. Sam organized a luncheon or dinner, and I have pictures of Ford with General Allen. When he made the covers of Time and Newsweek, he was so modest. “I’m no hero”, he said, “dead men made me a general.” Listen to that line. Gives me goosebumps.

That sounds like a line right out of one of Sam’s war films…

He influenced Sam the most. All these years of battle, and Sam volunteered for it. People tend to forget, that when Sam volunteered in WWII, he was a writer and an artist. The whole war scene hit him differently than other soldiers. I think that Sam’s nervous system was shaken forever. People forget that he was in every major battle in WWII, including Omaha Beach. And war hysteria never left him. Sam had a very short fuse. People are never the same after an experience like that, for the rest of their lives.

Did he ever talk to you about his battle experiences, or was it something he kept to himself?

No, he talked about it constantly! That’s why people thought he was a macho guy, but Sam was very sensitive, he cried before me when we saw a film. And I think he was covering up his sensitivity by talking like he did, about killing Nazis and such. He really suffered for the rest of his life from war hysteria.

You acted in Dead Pigeon On Beethoven street, one of his lower budgeted European productions (for German TV)…

It was Pulp Fiction twenty years before Pulp Fiction. Sam always wanted to make a comedy, and this was a private eye spoof made for German TV. Sam couldn’t make a realistic German film about German cops. What does he know? And what is realism anyway? Wim Wenders said you should strike the world realism from the dictionary. At the time they had the Profumo Affair, where two call girls brought down the English government. So Sam wrote me a part of a girl who sets up politicians and blackmails them. At the time, Fassbinder, who was so obsessed with American cinema, he showed Sam that he made a Western. And it was awful. He showed it to Sam, in Cologne.

Never released?

No. And Fassbinder wanted to play the part of Charley Umlaut in Dead Pigeon, but they had already cast the role. The English loved it, they thought it was funny, it played at the London Film Festival. But the French, they expected Sam to make a straight film noir. You always get pigeonholed. Because Sam fought in WWII, he was punished for it. He had to do straight film noir. They wouldn’t let him do comedy, and he had such a great sense of humor, and such a great sense of the absurd.

Thieves After Dark was booed at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, when John Cassavetes got the Golden Bear for Love Streams. But John loved the film, and we wound up spending the whole night with John and Gena Rowlands eating herring and drinking beer. And he said, “I loved the picture”. And I guess the French didn’t like the idea of Sam making comments about French unemployment. I saw it again, and it’s a very good film. They have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. I remember when I was there, and they called John Ford a fascist. I just hated it. After I met Sam I saw Shock Corridor with a friend of mine who was a movie critic, and he said “Fuller is a genius, but he’s a fascist”.  Sam was the opposite of a fascist.


October 20, 2009


For the next two weeks I’ll be knee-deep in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc set being released on October 27th by Sony Pictures, in association with Martin Scorsese’s heroic film preservation organization, The Film Foundation. It’s a doggedly auteurist production that traces the contours of Fuller’s entire career, presenting five of his writing gigs (It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Adventure in Sahara (1938), Power of the Press (1943), Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet 1952)) along with two lesser-known directorial efforts (The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld, U.S.A. (1961)). In this marketplace it’s downright courageous to release these later subterranean slices of Fuller, and just about saintly to include some of his early writing jobs. As the juvenilia of other great artists like Picasso are studied in the context of his life’s work, so should the early scribbling of this brusquely unique American. Without an institution like the Library of America to preserve and present a director’s work in the proper context (instead of being thrown to the wind in various star-themed sets), it’s up to studios to flog their geniuses, and their priorities clearly lie elsewhere. So much of the credit to this release must lie with Scorsese and his Film Foundation, who also released the essential Budd Boetticher Collection last year, and produced the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics set due November 3rd.  In convincing Sony to release these films in cleaned-up masters, he’s keeping the spirit of serious film appreciation alive.

The earliest film in the set is a sprightly little comedy spiced with melancholy, It Happened in Hollywood(1937). It was Fuller’s second credit in Hollywood, after he wrote the scenario for Hats Off (1937), an elaborate bit of slapstick he conceived for Boris Petroff, who directed Mae West’s variety shows on Broadway. In his autobiography, A Third Face, he says about Hats Off that, “the finished film had just about nothing to do with my original story. Petroff fashioned a movie that made people forget about their problems. I’d wanted to expose man’s foolish belligerency.” That characteristic, foolish belligerency, is what pops up again and again in these early screenplays, regardless of the damage done to his scripts by the studios. Each film in the set, to varying degrees, contain a vague anti-authoritarian streak, whether the conservative mulishness of Richard Dix in It Happened in Hollywood or the violent resentment of Paul Kelly in Adventure in Sahara. But let’s start with the former, which is one of the minor delights of the set.

Directed with studied reserve by Harry Lachman, it’s a self-reflexive bit of Hollywood fantasy. He wrings a couple of surprising effects out of the material. The first is the opening, which shows Dix rescuing Gloria Gay (a luminous Fay Wray) on his noble horse Toby. It’s unclear that this is a film-within-a-film until the laughter and cheering of kids fill the audio track. Then the camera slowly pulls back from the screen and into the children’s hospital where Bart is holding court to an enraptured crowd. This clever shot establishes the construction of Bart’s image, how it is shaped by the frame and his fans outside of it. He is not a free man.

Based on the career of Tom Mix, it follows Tim Bart (Richard Dix, drawling as if his tongue were bathed in molasses), a hugely popular silent Western star who flops upon the transition to sound. With his ranch about to be sold, the only thing rooting him to Hollywood is the adoration of his sole remaining fan, an infirm boy who calls himself Billy the Kid. In a wild attempt to make Billy’s wish come true and meet all of his silver screen heroes, Bart gathers a menagerie of celebrity stand-ins and arranges a faux star-studded bash, a clever bit of burlesque celebrating Hollywood’s unseen working class. The affected hauteur of the Marlene Dietrich impersonator while rejecting a morose fake-Clark Gable is particularly amusing.

Lachman achieves a surreal carnival effect at the stand-in party, especially on a slow tracking shot down the dinner table, as W.C Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Victor McLaglen impersonators cavort and mug as if they were in an old vaudeville routine. Fuller’s touch is all over this film, especially in its skepticism towards the idea of heroism and the idealizations that surround it (Fuller’s original title was Once a Hero). Tim Bart’s heroism is a clear construct, a virtue built by the studios and disposed of when technological advances make other stories more appealing. His aura is built by the production machine, and just as easily destroyed. There’s a devastating montage of all of Bart’s paraphernalia getting incinerated, cardboard cut-outs and sheriff badges going up in flames. That it was based on the story of Tom Mix gives the whole enterprise a feel of a low-budget valediction, and Bart’s improbable resurrection as a star at the end can be forgiven as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy for that faded star. Fuller is credited as screenwriter on the film along with Ethel Hill and Harvey Fergusson.

Adventure in Sahara is an altogether different story, a dire little tale of mutiny in the French Foreign Legion. C. Henry Gordon plays a sadistic commander who drills his soldiers to death. Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) hears of his brother’s death at this fascist’s hands, and enlists to seek revenge. He succeeds in leading a mutiny, kicking the officers out into the desert. But Gordon returns, and someone will have to pay… The film was directed rather anonymously by D. Ross Lederman, and the script was written by Maxwell Shane, as Fuller receives only a story credit. Aside from Wilson’s anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian bent, very little of Fuller’s personality shines through. The film twists itself in knots trying to show respect for military protocol as well as individual freedoms, and it turns into ideological mush. Gordon gives a deliciously hammy performance however, answering all questions with a beady eye and a crick in his neck. Fuller’s anecdote about his inspiration for the story is more entertaining than the movie itself:

He [Sam Briskin, head of Columbia] asked me if I could write an adventure movie for the studio. He may as well have been asking me if I could bake a seven-layer cake…. I took out a cigar and slowly prepared to light it, buying a few moments to figure out a way out of this mess. Briskin never took his beady eyes off me. I lit the cigar, blew the smoke out of my mouth, and proudly announced, “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” ‘Who the hell are they?’ snarled Briskin.

While working on his novel, The Dark Page, Fuller was knocking out scripts on the side to make a living. One of these was 1943’s Power of the Press, directed by Lew Landers, original story by Fuller, screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews. This film stands as a curious precursor to his ode to journalism, Park Row(he was previously a crime reporter for the New York Evening GraphicThis film, mediated by Landers and Andrews, replaces his snarling wit with a series of moralistic speeches about the perils of isolationism. It is about a publishing magnate, John Cleveland Carter, who has a late change in heart about his yellow journalism practices, which threatens the domain of an oily fifth-columnist, Rankin. Gangland killings ensue, and after the dust settles, it’s a mild-mannered power battle between Rankin and Guy Kibbee, who plays a Horace Greeley worshipping small-town editor with whom Carter endowed his paper.

There are an endless number of comparisons to Rankin and his goons with Nazis. They run the place “like the Gestapo”, Rankin’s assistant is “a Himmler” and so on. The flavorful performances, Lee Tracy’s soulless managing editor first and foremost, prettify the propaganda machinery, but it eventually grinds to a halt with a series of static monologues about free speech and the dangers of isolationism. Fuller’s politics were probably similar at the time, but he would have never staged them so slowly or humorlessly. The only character with a whiff of Fuller’s life force is Eddie (Gloria Dickson), Carter’s secretary and the brains behind Kibbee’s goal to clean up the New York Gazette. She bulldozes through the publisher without a thought to her status or role, simply following her impulse.  Gloria is a little stiff as a performer, but if you squint hard enough, you can see the outlines of Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns.

Next week I’ll (hopefully) have an interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife, as well as a discussion of the remaining titles in the set.