John Wayne, arguably the greatest movie star of the 20th century, died on this day in 1979. Since becoming a star in the 1939 western classic Stagecoach (1939), Wayne ranked as one of the Top 5 box office stars (often at #1) until his death.
I am sad to say that Wayne is starting to recede from our collective consciousness. Many of my film students under the age of 30 have never heard of him. His movies get played less and less on TV. Clint Eastwood is their John Wayne. I wonder if this is how the older generation felt when John Wayne was huge. Did they think Wayne was great but nothing compared to earlier western stars like William S. Hart or Harry Carey (the star Wayne modeled himself after)?
For those unfamiliar with John Wayne he is, arguably, the greatest western star of all time. Eastwood and Kevin Costner et al all follow in his footsteps and mimic what Wayne already did. On the anniversary of his passing, I offer up these ten iconic performances to tell you all you need to know about the Duke (as he was called):
10. Stagecoach (1939)
John Ford’s classic made the western fashionable again and made Wayne a star at the same time. He holds his own against an all-star cast of Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, and Claire Trevor. Wayne’s entrance is one of the most famous in movie history. In one shot, a star is born.
9. The Quiet Man (1952)
John Ford’s Oscar-winning Irish romance finds Wayne searching for his roots in Ireland and romancing his best leading lady, Maureen O’Hara. Funny and romantic at the same time.
8. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Wayne’s first genuine great performance as cavalry commander Nathan Brittles facing both impeding retirement and an Indian war. John Ford again.
7. Red River (1948)
Howard Hawks’ classic cattle drive western finds Wayne channeling Captain Bligh as he mercilessly drives his cattle herd north until he’s forced to face off with his son, Matt (Montgomery Clift).
6. Rio Bravo (1959)
Another Hawks masterpiece, Wayne plays John Chance, an embattled sheriff holed up in his office and surrounded by an army of gunmen looking to free Wayne’s prisoner held for murder. Fabulous supporting performances by Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson. Remade as the urban thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). See the original.
5. The Alamo (1960)
Wayne didn’t want to play Davy Crockett in this his directing debut but it was the only way he could get the funding to make it. Wayne turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Crockett with some of his best scenes ever. His chat by the river with Linda Cristal is one of my all-time favorite movie moments. Wayne’s brilliant (underrated) direction shows he learned quite a bit watching John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Henry Hathaway ply their trade.
4. The Shootist (1976)
Wayne’s poignant final screen performance finds him playing a famous gunman dying of cancer and hoping to live out his final days in quiet. But fame is something he can’t escape even in death. With Ron Howard, James Stewart, and Lauren Bacall. A fitting close to a great movie career.
3. True Grit (1969)
Wayne’s comical turn as marshal Rooster Cogburn earned him his only Academy Award for Best Actor. Henry Hathaway’s film is more entertaining than great but lots of fun. Wayne’s showdown with villain Robert Duvall is one of the great movie moments.
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford’s last great western is a brilliant distillation of the settling of the west as it passed from frontier to civilization. Wayne’s performance is both heroic and tragic, capturing all the nuances and secret heartache of the western hero. Brilliantly supported by James Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Has one of the Top 5 best final lines in movie history.
1. The Searchers (1956)
My pick for Wayne’s best performance. He plays the heroic yet bitter Ethan Edwards who spends ten years tracking down his young niece kidnapped by Indians. The darkest role Wayne ever played is also his richest with shadings and depths he never showed before or since. The ending is one of the most famous in movie history. Another John Ford classic. Should have got the Oscar.
The Big Trail (1930) – Raoul Walsh’s early talkie western was meant to make Wayne a star. Unfortunately, its box office failure sentenced Wayne to nine years in B movies before stardom finally arrived. But it is neat to see the young, raw Wayne: still unseasoned and a bit wooden. The star quality is already there.
The Conqueror (1956) – an infamous and horrible film. Wayne plays a young Genghis Khan in what he joked was an “eastern”. Hilariously bad, worthy of the MST3K treatment. Tragically, the movie was shot near the U.S. atomic test sites in Utah and radioactive dust regularly blew through the location. Most of the major stars including Wayne later died of cancer.
John Wayne laying down the law in Big Jake (1971)
Read Part I HERE.
Yesterday, I started discussing how movies used to be released prior to VHS and DVD. How major studio movies would get the “roadshow” treatment and then move on into general release. Today, I want to discuss the now extinct Second Run theaters that used to be in every town.
Once a movie wrapped up playing in the First Run theaters, it often moved over to the Second Run theater. Every town at 1-2 of them. We used to nickname them “dollar theaters” because you could go see the film there for a buck. If you’re thinking the phrase, “I’ll wait till it comes out on Netflix or cable.” is new, it’s not. Thirty years ago, we were saying, “I’ll wait till it comes to the dollar theater.”
When I lived in Charleston WV, the Second Run theaters were the State Theater and the South Theater. When I lived in Pontiac MI, they were the Huron Theater, the Keego Theater, and the Clarkston Cinema (my most favorite movie theater of all time).
When Second Run theaters weren’t playing a long running hit moved over from a First Run theater, they were usually premiering the movies considered not worthy of a First Run release: B-movies like action films, sci-fi, horror, risqué comedies, or non-Disney family films. I saw Halloween (1978), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) at the State. Benji (1974), The Muppet Movie (1979), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) premiered at the South.
Second Run theaters could also specialize:
ART HOUSE THEATERS
Showed foreign and independent films. In the Pontiac area, those were the Maple and Main Theaters. Because of their niche, most of these theaters are still open.
Showed non-Disney films. Back in the 1970s, Sun Classic Pictures made such family fare as The Life & Times of Grizzly Adams (1974), Winterhawk (1976), and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1977) as well as quasi-documentaries like The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) and In Search of Noah’s Ark (1980).
There was one family theater in Charleston called the Towne Theater. It was only open for Saturday matinees and it only showed The Little Prince (1974) for years and years and years. (I still have never seen it).
Yes, you used to have to go to the theaters to see pornography and the ads for such films ran in the newspapers right alongside the regular theater ads, proudly showing they were rated X, XX, or XXX. In Charleston, the Lyric Theater was the Adult venue. Deep Throat (1972) and Debbie Does Dallas (1978) were the blockbuster porn movies of the time but VHS killed off the Adult movie theater in the 1980s. Why be seen going into one of these theaters when you could watch in the privacy of your home? (Hence the reason the Lyric is burning in the photo).
Like regular movie theaters, Drive-In Theaters had their own class system. There were the Drive In’s that played the major hits. There were the ones that played the B-movies, and there were the ones that played the C-movies or the soft-core films (not porn but close) now typical on late night cable.
Drive-In’s were a culture onto themselves. The province of a) families with kids because you usually paid by the car (you could also bring your own food in), b) people on dates, and c) teenagers looking to party. You arrived around sunset, paid, drove up to a speaker, parked your car, lowered your window a little bit, and hung the speaker on the glass. The sound sucked but most Drive-In regulars were not there for the movie. You could watch the film, hang out with your friends around the picnic tables at the concession stand, or make out in the privacy of your car, truck, or van. More of my friends lost their virginity at a Drive-In than any other outdoor spot.
There used to be movie theaters that showed nothing but classic movies and people went to see them because they were not cut up by commercials as they were on TV and not available any other way. In the Detroit area, the Merrie Melodie Theater and the Punch & Judy Theater played nothing but classic films. So did the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. In Charleston, the West Virginia Cultural Center opened its theater every summer to screen classic films for free. That’s how I first saw Citizen Kane (1941), Show Boat (1951), An American In Paris (1951), and many many others.
Once a movie was officially out of all theaters, the studios used to transfer them over from 35mm to 16mm and rent the films out to college campuses. When I went to college in the early 1980s, the Friday Movies in Dodge Hall were the BIG campus activity every Friday because it was our first opportunity to see a film since it had left the theaters the year before. The auditorium was always full.
Same for classic and foreign films. I used to head up the Cinematheque Classic and Foreign Film group in college and we would show those films in the same auditorium on Sunday nights. The film arrived at the campus media center on Friday. I picked it up and carried it to Dodge Hall and loaded it onto the projector myself. On Mondays, I returned the print to the media center who mailed it back to the studio. This all died with the arrival of VHS.
Second Run theaters don’t exist anymore either. Their place in the release schedule was taken first by video stores and now by Pay Per View and Netflix.
NEXT WEEK: HOW MOVIES USED TO BE RELEASED PART III: TELEVISION
Before there were iPads and iPods, before Netflix and DVDs and laser discs and VHS tapes, people had no control over where, when, or how they got to see a movie. Everyone understood this and everyone knew the pattern when a movie got released. So how did it work?
Major movies did not immediately show up at a theater near you. Maybe eventually they would but only months after the fact. Instead, they would get what was called a “Roadshow release” (something reserved for expensive, epic, or Oscar-worthy films). The movies would first show only in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. After a few weeks there, they would play one theater in each major city across the country. You actually had to travel to see the movie. Some of the earliest memories of my Indiana childhood are of being left with a babysitter while my parents drove down to Indianapolis to see Roadshow screenings of How The West Was Won (1963) , My Fair Lady (1964) , The Sound of Music (1965), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Ticket prices were a few dollars more than usual. You would have to reserve your tickets in advance just like going to a play and you were actually assigned a seat in the theater. Souvenir programs and the soundtrack album could be purchased in the lobby. The movie always had an overture, an intermission, and exit music when you walked out. Depending on how successful it was, a movie could stay in Roadshow release for months on end.
Once a Roadshow movie was put into general release, it often was edited down. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Alamo (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were each trimmed by a half hour for their general release. Greatest Story Ever Told went from 3 hours 42 minutes for its NY and LA premiere to 3 hours 19 minutes for its Roadshow release to 2 hours 21 minutes for its general release. Often times, the cut footage would not be restored even when the movie was shown later on TV. The only way to ensure you ever saw the whole film was to go to a Roadshow screening.
By the late 1960s, resistance to the increased ticket prices and a lack of quality films made Roadshow releases fall out of fashion. They were gone entirely by the early 1970s. Sending a movie straight into General Release became the norm..
General Release meant the movie premiered in theaters around the country at the same time. Most major cities had around a dozen movie theaters; medium-sized cities had 2-3; and each theater in town had its own unique specialty. Major releases would play in a town’s First Run Theaters. When I lived in Charleston WV, blockbuster hits like Jaws, The Towering Inferno, and Star Wars played at the large Capitol Theater. The other First Run theaters were Plaza East Cinemas 1 & 2, the Village Theater, and the Virginian Theater. Family films (and Disney films in particular) always played at the Kearse Theater, once the major vaudeville house in town. In large cities, foreign films and independent features would play at the local “Art House” theater – usually not so opulent and a little shabby.
Even how people attended the movies was different. You didn’t show up for a particular showing. You went to the movies regardless of what time the movie started. You may walk in a half hour into a movie or an hour. You then watched the film to the end, waited for it to start again and watched until you got to the scene where you first came in. The candy counter served up only soda, popcorn, and candy.
How long a movie stayed in the First Run theaters depended entirely on how big a hit it was. Huge hits could stay in theaters for months. E.T. opened in June 1982 and was still playing in first run theaters at Christmas. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was still in first run theaters a year after its release.
If you liked a film, you rushed back to see it many times because you wouldn’t know when you could see it again. If a movie was not a hit, it most often left the first run theater after two weeks and disappeared seemingly forever.
Hit movies would find themselves transferred over to the so-called Second Run theaters. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss those (now extinct) types of theaters which included Family Theaters, Art House Theaters, Revival Theaters, Drive In Theaters, and, Blue or Adult Entertainment theaters (yes, porn used to play in theaters!).
TOMORROW - PART II: SECOND RUN THEATERS & DRIVE IN MOVIES
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
Such Great Heights by Iron & Wine
A song for soulmates. I've found mine. I hope you find yours.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Writer Fred....er........Paul (George Peppard) has his creative thoughts interrupted by the girl of his dreams, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), singing one of the best songs of all time.
Garden State (2004)
Andrew (Zach Braff) and Sam (Natalie Portman) exploring the infinite abyss.
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be? by the Cavaliers
One of the great one hit wonders. Cheesy & romantic at the same time. One of the great "ride in the car" songs.
So the WGA made the expected waves last week by releasing their list of the 100 Best Written TV shows of all time. These lists always end up being highly subjective regardless of how large the sample. Works of art inherently strike people in different ways just as they strike generations in different ways Contemporary shows are overvalued. Older shows get dismissed by younger generations who cannot see their influence.
A few caveats:
1( When it comes to TV, I prefer comedy shows, mostly because they are more able to break new ground and push the envelope of what is acceptable or not. Also, when I was younger, I watched my share of cop shows, doctor shows, and lawyer shows and, frankly, got my fill of them. Too by the book & too depressing. They hold zero interest for me now.
2) The shows we watch during our formative years (ages 15-25) tend to be the shows that imprint themselves on our minds as “the best ever.” (same for books, movies, and music). I'm sure my list reflects that.
3) I have tried to limit the list to shows that proved most influential.
So with all those caveats aside, here is my list of the best written TV shows of all time. There are 25 because I could not narrow it down to just 10. They are alphabetical because I could not rank one above the other.
All in the Family (1971-1979)
Had its finger on the generational fault line of America in its time. Took on more divisive issues than any other show. Could not get on TV today. Part of CBS’s Hall of Fame Saturday night line up.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
Quirky and zany and absurd while still making us love their characters. Part of CBS’s Hall of Fame Saturday night line up.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
Very few shows have had such a small yet versatile cast. There was nothing they couldn’t do. Part of CBS’s Hall of Fame Saturday night line up.
I tend to favor the Diane years over the Rebecca years but grew to love all of these characters. As funny, comfortable, and warm as the bar of your dreams. "Norm!!!"
Favorite episodes: "Coach In Love" & "I Do, Adieu"
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
The original home & workplace comedy. Feels as fresh today as 50 years ago. The only anachronism is Rob & Laura’s twin beds.
Green Acres (1965-1971)
Brilliantly absurd with some of the wildest plots & characters ever.
The Honeymooners (1955-1956)
Greatest cast in sitcom history. Its plots became templates for all future sitcoms.
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
Single-handedly invented the sitcom: the format, the conventions, and how they are shot.
Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)
The perfect family show full of humanity & warmth while not skimping on the unexpected dangers in the world.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
Mary Tyler Moore surrounded by the perfect supporting cast. Part of CBS’s Hall of Fame Saturday night line up.
Made us laugh. Made us feel the horror & insanity of war. Far superior to the original movie. Part of CBS’s Hall of Fame Saturday night line up.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Absurdist perfection. Generated more quoted lines & sketches than any other show.
Outlandish like a dream. “My name’s Larry. This is my brother Darryl. This is my other brother Darryl.” Greatest final episode in sitcom history.
Night Court (1984-1992)
The perfect judge presiding over the perfect cast of come back artists. “50 dollars plus time served.”
Northern Exposure (1990-1995)
A little peace of heaven in Alaska. Each episode made me appreciate the wonder of friendship & of being alive.
The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
Two great actors at the top of their game. Witty and acerbic.
Saturday Night Live (1975- )
It’s had good years & bad years; great casts & bad casts. But when it was on, it was magic. Has produced more stars than any other show.
The Simpsons (1990- )
After 23 years, we are all residents of Springfield. "Duh!!!!!!!"
Started out as a satire of soap operas. Achieved the ultimate satire by turning its characters into human beings that we cared and cried for.
Star Trek (1966-1969)
Had a few bad episodes but the best ones were ground-breaking.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Gene Roddenberry’s follow up is actually superior to the classic series.
Favorite episode: The Best of Both Worlds
The funniest assortment of loveable losers. “Hey, Nardo!”
Favorite episodes: “Jim Gets a Pet” and “On the Job”
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
More episodes have passed into our pop culture than any other show.
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
David Lynch made humor & horror go together like cherry pie & a great cup of joe.
“The owls are not what they seem.”
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975)
Forget Downton Abbey. This is the original and most influential.
Miniseries need not apply but the best written ones are:
Band of Brothers (2001)
East of Eden (1981)
I, Claudius (1976)
Lonesome Dove (1989)
Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)
The Awakening Land (1978)
Which do you think are the best IYHO?
As you can from the box on the right, I am reading Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno (2013). I am enjoying this much more than his previous book, The Lost Symbol. Robert Langdon is again running around a major city and using ancient works of art to solve the world-threatening predicament he has found himself involuntarily placed in. So it is just like the other Brown thrillers! Not as great as The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons but definitely worth a look. Impossible to read this without seeing Tom Hanks as Langdon (I saw him as Langdon before he starred in Da Vinci Code). I am seeing Andrea Riseborough as Sienna. She was about the only thing that impressed me in Oblivion.
Like most avid readers, I have more than one book going. It is impossible for me to read just one at a time. The others are:
The Lost Prince (2012)
by Selden Edwards
The sequel to Edwards’ debut novel, The Little Book (2006), picks up the story of Weezie Putnam where the last book left off. She’s a society woman with foreknowledge of how the 20th century will go, and using that knowledge for the betterment of humankind. As you well know, I love time travel stories. I’m a sucker for stories that play around with history. I’m a sucker for a good romance. This book has all three, and is superior to its predecessor. I strongly recommend both.
The Complete Peanuts,
By Charles Schulz
I am a Peanuts fanatic. I was Charlie Brown growing up. I still have a little bit of Charlie Brown inside. When Fantagraphics Books started publishing the complete comic strip in 2004 (two years per volume) I was hooked. This particular volume is fun for me because I had stopped reading the comic strip by this point (I was in college and no longer into childish things). Being older now, I’m not so concerned with childish things. Just what still makes me laugh and cry. And the brilliant Charles Schulz is still doing that.
A History of the Western World, Vol. 1 (1974)
By Bryce Lyon, Herbert Rowen, & Theodore Hamerow
The textbook for my Western Civilization AP class my senior year of high school. I absolutely loved reading this back then. Learned so much about history and the world. This books was a real eye opener and I really hated having to turn it in at the end of the year. About a year ago, I started searching for it on the Internet even though I didn’t know the title or author. Amazingly, I was able to locate it pretty much right away and found both it and Volume 2 were for sale on eBay for only five dollars. It was an instant sale. I don’t read this every day. I use it more as background and a chance to relax when I’m stressed. That’s right, I relax by reading history textbooks.
Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors & Publishers (2009)
By Scott Norton
Because I’m always looking to improve.
What am I going to read next?
Carrie (1974) By Stephen King
Never read it. Love Stephen King
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 (2012)
By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Love Alan Moore!
Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011)
By Robert K. Massie
Massie is one of my all-time favorite writers! And I love Russia.
What are you reading?