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07 May 2005

Tyrone Power vs. the Meaning of Life

This is a Test to see if my brother is reading my blog. He watched "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) with Tyrone Power as el Grande Z, Basil Rathbone (as The Villain), and Linda Darnell the other night.

In the original "The In-Laws," the CIA loony (Peter Falk) drags this very confused and disoriented New Jersey dentist (Alan Arkin) to visit a Central American dictator. As they wait for the door to open, the CIA loony warns the dentist: "Now look, el Supremo has a scar, there's this thing on his face, and he's very sensitive about it, so whatever you do, just pretend you don't even notice it, okay?"

The door opens and the Dictator greets them.

The dentist stares fixedly at a distinctive large scar on the Dictator's face. His eyes bulge out. He can't look away. The dentist blurts:

"a Z ??????????"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Hmmm Tyrone ... I've sorta grown to like him. When the Studios weren't looking, when they were distracted elsewhere, he reached for goofy, quirky scripts that called for what acting skills he had -- and I'm coming to the conclusion they were considerable -- and very much de-emphasized his Leading Man Handsome Looks. He didn't seem to mind roles that challenged his audiences or threatened to make them uncomfortable. His family background was in legit theater, and whenever Hollywood wasn't hot for him, he did stage stuff -- six months as "Mister Roberts" in London, that was typical of him.

"Nightmare Alley" is one of my all-time favorite movies. It's one of the only movies I'd be tempted to re-make, not to improve it, but because Tyrone made it such a dynamite film, I'd like to challenge myself to see if I could pull off the intense emotional effects of the original. I can say no more. You would be best to rent it but not read anything about it, to see it on its own terms.

The other Power standout IMHO is a big-budget Hollywood screwup of "The Razor's Edge" (1946), but that's okay because Maugham's novel sucked to begin with, so I didn't expect Power et al to make a silk purse out of this mystical transcendental sow's ear.

What's remarkable about it in spite of itself is that it's the first Hollywood biggie to tackle the very un-American anti-Western-Hemisphere question WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE??? WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT??? YOU MEAN IT'S NOT ABOUT BIG EXPENSIVE CARS???

This ordinary, even initially shallow Indiana guy named Larry joins a volunteer ambulance-driving corps (I think that's what Hemingway did) and gets All Shook Up in the trenches of France in World War I, and after the War, the world just doesn't make any sense to him anymore, and he needs to get the answers to these questions, and people keep telling him that he's going to have to go to the Mysterious East for the answers, so he goes to India and yadda yadda.

No matter how they screw up the Answers, it's fascinating because it's just such an Unexpected Question for a big-budget Hollywood movie with Big Stars. I wouldn't at all have a stroke if you told me you watched it and puked or were downright offended. (Maugham claims he wrote it after meeting a real guy like Larry.)

Power's "Razor's Edge" is doubly fascinating to me because, in the first wave of huge popularity after "Saturday Night Live," Bill Murray re-made it, in Techno-Amaze-o-Vision, Dolby Quadruplex Sound, and Popophonic Popcorn, superbig budget, cast of thousands, on location on three continents, yadda yadda. At this moment Bill Murray was regarded only as a slapstick clown, and I just went for the carnival freak show.

I was quite amazed. He carried it off far better than Tyrone did (but I think the script and studio shackled several cannonballs to Tyrone's performance), and the re-make (IMHO) just radiated not with slapstick laughs (he does, early in the film, impersonate a seal) but with the real look and feel of a real guy who really would like a few answers.

Tyrone's Larry makes The Quest for Meaning look smooth and graceful, dignified and orderly. Bill Murray's Larry has a far more authentic quality: If you try to pull a stunt like this with Your American Life, you can expect most of the time to smell like fresh fish and have both Americans and French people laugh at you.

You can fill my pickup truck with all the flaws in the movie, but it's actually one of the most gentle-spirited, even thoughtful films I've ever sat through. (Don't make it a double-feature night, the Human Soul cannot endure two big-budget Hollywood movies about The Meaning of Life in a single evening.)



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