Tuesday, August 10, 2010

O Captain! My Captain! (1973, 1976, 1991)

Shout is a rightfully forgotten movie in the John Travolta canon. It was released—barely—in 1991 and occupies a space in his oeuvre between two of his greatest successes, Look Who’s Talking (commercial success, 1989) and Pulp Fiction (commercial and critical success, 1994). Shout is like a mash-up of Footloose and Dead Poets Society, both of which the screenwriter Joe Gayton seems to have studied in exhaustive detail. The story takes place in a repressive small town in which rock and roll music is looked upon as verboten. And the chief proponent of rock and roll in the story is a music teacher played by Travolta, who introduces his students to the new sound’s joyfully rebellious beat.

The story is set in Texas in the very early 1950s just as the term rock and roll was first being coined. Travolta’s character comes to a boys’ reform school in the hinterlands of Texas to lead the student band. Travlota has relatively little screen time in the movie. His character’s obvious purpose is to inspire his wayward students the same way Robin Williams does his prep school boys in Dead Poets Society. Travolta does this by introducing rock and roll music into the Souza March program the band is supposed to be rehearsing for a patriotic town gathering. In the end, he shows his lost boys that rock and roll has the power to transcend race and class and one’s own emotional limitations, the same belief that now fuels such Broadway musicals as Hairspray and Memphis.

The most rebellious student is played by James Walters. After ringing a bell in a church tower to wake up the whole sleepy town, he is arrested and taken to the Benedict Home for Boys. (That Benedict name is a gratuitous nod to the Benedict clan of George Stevens’ 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s, Giant, probably the most famous book and movie about the state of Texas.) The home is run by Richard Jordan, who is the designated heavy here and serves the same tyrannical function as John Lithgow’s minister in Footloose and Norman Lloyd’s headmaster in Dead Poets Society. Of course, Jordan’s college-age daughter (played by the fetching but forever acting-challenged Heather Graham) ends up falling in love with bad boy Walters.

The movie is directed by choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, who created the dances for Flashdance, Dick Tracy and The Marrying Man. He is clearly in love with the Texas landscape and fills his movie with gorgeously empty canvases and honeyed sunsets. His direction, though, is pokey throughout, except, not surprisingly, for the scenes that include dancing. There is a rowdy number set at a roadhouse run by Linda Fiorentino, where some of the Benedict boys show up one night after escaping from the home. The roadhouse features the blues. And when the infectious music sets the Benedict boys and everyone else onto the dance floor in a paroxysm of joy, it shows that music that appeals to the lonely makes people feel a little less lonely when it is experienced as a group. The scene is like the Eddie Barnes painting, "Sugar Shack," brought vividly to life.

In another bravura scene, these same Benedict boys pay a late night visit to the local girl’s school. They are separated by a wrought iron fence that keeps the girls in and the boys out. But when the rock and roll music begins to play, the boys and girls nevertheless pair up and begin dancing in place on either side of the fence. Several of the girls dance as though possessed by the devil. This is Hornaday’s direction and choreography at its most rapturously impressive. And the fact that one of the girls is played by a nineteen-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow (in her movie debut) only adds to the frisson of the occasion.

Back to Travlota: it is interesting to watch him interact with Walters and the other Benedict boys. Having essayed the definitive high school greaser, Vinnie Barbarino, in the seventies sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter, it is touching to contemplate the adult Travolta now playing Kotter to another Barbarino and a new band of Sweathogs. The story ends with Travolta, who turns out to be a fugitive wanted for a crime he didn’t commit, giving himself up to the police in order to face the music and clear his name. His boys honor his brave decision by ditching Sousa and playing rock and roll at the patriotic town gathering. This is the equivalent of the final scene in Dead Poets’ Society in which the students show Robin Williams what he has meant to them by defying the headmaster and climbing on top of their desks. They are led by Ethan Hawke, who addresses Williams with Whitman’s immortal lines, “O Captain! My Captain!” Unable to put a stop to the rock and roll sound of the band, Richard Jordan ends up losing both his boys and his daughter to the siren call of this forbidden music.

In movies, Jordan often played captains of industry or hard men. Or both. He is Michael J. Fox’s overbearing boss in the populist business comedy, The Secret of My Success (1987). And in the 1976 NBC mini-series, Captains and the Kings (the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling), Jordan plays an Irish immigrant, an escapee from the Potato Famine, who arrives in America and claws his way up the capitalist ladder until he, as a freshly minted plutocrat, stands poised to make his son the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States. Any resemblance to Joseph P. Kennedy and the Kennedy clan is purely intentional.

But Taylor Caldwell, author of the bestselling book upon which the mini-series is based, also adds a conspiratorial strain to her story. Jordan’s character, Joseph Armagh, is inducted into a secret society of industrialists who control the nation’s wealth by the covert manipulation of influential politicians. And beyond this, she posits an even more rarefied conspiracy of American and European business leaders who manipulate world affairs in the name of profit. These men give their stamp of approval to Jordan’s son’s presidential bid, then withdraw it when the bottom line indicates that their business interests would be better served by another candidate. In the end, Jordan turns on this secret society. But it is too late. His son is assassinated and Jordan, who has finally learned the meaning of love but has alienated or outlived anyone he could express this to, is left a bereft old man sitting alone in his mausoleum-like mansion. Minus the blood and the grease, it is an ending that anticipates the final act of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

With a huge cast and vast canvas spanning six decades of American life, Captains and the Kings was part of an umbrella NBC series broadcast on Sunday nights to feature mini-series based on best-selling novels. This was the golden age of the mini-series that also produced Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man on ABC. Other bestsellers adapted for the NBC series included Anton Myrers’ Once an Eagle (which many professional military men consider the best book ever written about the career soldier) and Norman Bogner’s Seventh Avenue. The production design of Captains and the Kings is a little on the cheesy side. The opulent interiors look totally unlived in. And most of the exteriors are done on the backlot. A scene set in New York during the Civil War was obviously shot on 20th Century-Fox’s Hello, Dolly set (the elevated subway station, always visible from Pico Boulevard as one cruised past the Fox lot, in the background is a dead giveaway). And the direction is entirely ham-handed, despite some (failed) attempts to emulate Orson Welles’ direction of Citizen Kane. But Joseph Armagh is no Charles Foster Kane, no matter how much the production wants him to be. And this is not just the judgment of hindsight. The direction and production design must have been pretty lackluster by mid-seventies standards, too.

Jordan was born into a wealthy and influential American family. He received his big acting break playing Henry Fonda’s son-in-law in the 1965 Broadway play, Generation (the two men even share several scenes in the mini-series, in which Jordan's character tries to blackmail Fonda's incorruptible senator). But his real acting breakthrough came when he was chosen to play the part of FBI agent Dave Foley in Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). Now this movie is far from obscure. It received excellent reviews when it was first released, although it did mediocre business at the box-office. But since that time, the movie’s reputation has only appreciated and its virtues have recently been enshrined with a Criterion DVD release. So there is no reason to go into it here at length, except to say that Yates’ movie can stand alongside Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and Joseph Sergeant’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as one of the best crime dramas of the seventies.

Jordan’s acting here is astonishing. He plays a weasely FBI agent trying to convince small-time criminal Eddie Coyle (played with great sympathy by Robert Mitchum) to drop a dime on some bank robbers he is supplying with guns in order to escape the prison sentence that is hanging over him. Jordan is electrifying as this canny, manipulative FBI agent. And in one awe-inspiring moment, he does something I’ve never seen an actor do before. In the scene set in a suburban train station parking lot, where he rushes in to bust a gun supplier played by Steven Keats (in a matching live-wire performance and who coincidentally plays the lead in the mini-series adaptation of Seventh Avenue), Jordan’s voice is so charged with adrenaline that the words come out thick and fuzzy. How did he do that? How did he work himself up to this unique emotional state? We will never know the answer. Jordan died of a brain tumor in 1993 at the age of fifty-six. “O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done.”