Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ELI WALLACH (1915-2014) - A Tribute
Eli Wallach was one of those stealth actors. Never really a star, certainly never really a leading man, but always interesting and enjoyable to watch. As a working actor, with a career in film spread out over a half century (and then some), he also has a sort of stealth career in some ways, winding up in a great many iconic and memorable films.
Needless to say, he will always be remembered for his, shall we say enthusiastic performance in 1966's ultimo classico western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film may have put Clint Eastwood over the top as a star, but I suspect it's Wallach's over the top performance as the amoral Tuco (the Ugly) that people remember most vividly. Having just recently watched that particular film again, it really does belong to him. Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are all cool, stony silence, but Wallach tears into his role like Tuco would tear into a bottle of whiskey - as though it might be the last chance he gets to enjoy himself, so holding back is not an option.

My personal favorite film of Wallach's has him as a much more restrained but no less dangerous character, the intellectually curious but extremely violent hitman Dancer in The Lineup (1958). It's a great crime film, and the role of Dancer allowed Wallach to play a deeply flawed, multifaceted character that is a clear notch above the usual crime picture villain. If you've never seen it, it's absolutely worth checking out.

Of course, Eli Wallach had already made an indelible impression with his very first film role a couple of years earlier, in the controversial and condemned (by the Catholic Legion of Decency) classic, Baby Doll (1956). With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, and direction by Elia Kazan, Wallach got handed a hot potato straight out of the shoot with his role as the slimy yet-not-entirely-unlikable Silva Vacarro. I don't know that I'd agree with the Legion of Decency about the film's moral laxity, but there's no denying its steamy Southern soap opera entertainment value.

Working in both TV and film, Wallach kept busy, and the classics kept coming. In 1960, he was in the beloved western, The Magnificent Seven, second billed after Yul Brynner, and appearing with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. The next year, with his next film, Wallach hit gold again, co-starring in 1961's The Misfits. It should be needless to say that this film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and also featured Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter. It's also heartbreaking and beautiful.

The would-be epic How the West Was Won came along in 1962, and, though not a very good film, it is notable as one of the few feature films to be shot in the ultra-widescreen Cinerama process. (Also appearing in it were his Baby Doll co-stars, Caroll Baker and Karl Malden.) Following this were supporting roles in two Peter O'Toole vehicles, Lord Jim (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966). Later in 1966 came Tuco, and Wallach's cinematic immortality was assured.
Still, he never stopped working. Wallach appeared as Mr. Freeze on the campy Batman TV series in the 60s...or co-starring with Dean Martin in the lightweight comedy How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968)...Returned to the spaghetti western genre with Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971)...And even found himself at the very gates of Hell in The Sentinel (1977). You might spot Eli Wallach on an episode of Kojak, in the pretentious and preposterous all-star trainwreck Winter Kills (1979), or co-starring with Johnny Cash in a made for TV movie like The Pride of Jessie Hallam (1981). His career spanned many years, many genres, and many mediums.

Eli Wallach always kept busy, kept acting, almost right up until the end. It seems clear that Eli Wallach loved his craft, and was indeed very good at that craft. He may have never been a big, big star, but he certainly earned a place in the heavens - though the odds are running 5-to-1 that Tuco would be headed for the Other Place.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

HERB JEFFRIES (1913-2014) - A Tribute
When I saw the headlines that Herb Jeffries had died, I knew immediately who he was. I'm guessing that not a lot of people would have had that instant recognition of his name. But before I could get to a place of thinking, Aw, Herb Jeffries died!, first I had to go through a moment of, What? You mean Herb Jeffries was still alive?
Though Jeffries had a career that spanned over seventy years, and was woven through the film and music industries in various ways, he is certainly best remembered as the star of a handful of race films in the 1930s - in this case, a handful of all-black cast westerns. I've seen four of the five westerns he starred in, and what they lack in production values they more than make up for in uniqueness and historical significance.

Now, from all available articles, it's clear that Jeffries was somewhat unclear (intentionally, it would seem) about his ethnicity. From my perspective, it's simplest to say that he was of mixed heritage, but, when he made the western race films in the 1930s, he identified himself as being black. True or not, that was a claim that would stick, if only for the fact that, given the nature of race relations at the time, it probably never would have occurred to anyone that someone would say they were black if they weren't.

So, taking Jeffries claim at least somewhat at face value, and given the undeniable fact that he starred in five race film westerns, in my opinion, his place in American cinematic history is unique and worth noting. I mean, I can't think of any other singing black movie cowboys from the 1930s - can you?
But Herb Jeffries lived a life that was interesting even if you ignore the five westerns he starred in. He also appeared as a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, scoring a hit with the song "Flamingo." Through his Ellington connection, he appeared in Jump for Joy, an all-black revue in 1941, which also featured Dorothy Dandridge and Big Joe Turner. Jeffries continued to record and tour well into his nineties!

His career in front of the camera, though sporadic, continued into the 1990s, with both film and TV work. Behind the camera, he directed a 1967 nudie movie, Mundo Depravados, which starred his the woman who was then his third wife, the iconic stripper and exotic dancer, Tempest Storm.

Circling back to the westerns again, in 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well.

When you look back at the 20th century, it's pretty easy to imagine that millions of little boys at some point said that they wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, and live to be one hundred years old. When a lot of those boys got a little older, more than a few of them probably fantasized about marrying a famous exotic dancer, too. Well, Herb Jeffries did all of that, and a lot more. Talk about living a full life!
In a few months, we'll see the release of the new James Brown biopic. Is it too much to hope that some day we might also see a film about the long and fascinating life of Herb Jeffries? His story is perfect material for the biopic treatment. Hopefully, someday, the Bronze Buckaroo will ride across movie screens again. In the meantime, I'm going to try and track down the 2008 documentary, A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.