Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jordyn's List: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

Reverend LaSalle: "I shall pray for you, Bean. This land abounds in ruffians and varmints. Their numbers are legion, their evil skills commensurate."
Bean: "Piss on 'em."

I am almost willing to bet my toes that you have never seen or heard of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Considering it's a star vehicle for Paul Newman, directed by John Huston, and written by John Milius, that is quite a fucking feat. But in spite of the big names attached (and for reasons unknown to me) it fell into obscurity, reduced to a footnote on the epic resumes of the three legends of film.

So how in the hell did I see it?

Call it Fate if you will, but The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was one of the few VHS's my father owned and so it was watched alongside my Disney Animated Features. Ah, yes, another movie from my childhood. It is with a heavy heart that I admit TLATOJRB is the one and only western on Jordyn's Canonized List of Favorite Movies*, but let's see what makes it so damn special, shall we?

The opening title card states Maybe this isn't how it's the way it should have been, as we watch Roy Bean (Paul Newman) cross the Pecos River; the thin blue line that separates law and order from rattlesnakes and bad men. At a nearby brothel/saloon, Bean is robbed by the bandits n' whores within and then dragged behind a horse and left for dead. With the aid of a pretty Mexican girl named Marie Elena (Victoria Principal), he takes his vengeance and then claims the brothel and land for his own and appoints himself as judge.

In the next ten years or so (they're never quite clear on when the film begins), Judge Roy Bean rules over the area with his guns, hanging rope, and loyal marshals -- Bart Jackson (Jim Burk), Nick the Grub (Matt Clark), Fermel Parlee (Bill McKinney), Whorehouse Lucky Jim (Steve Kanaly) and Tector Crites (Ned Beatty), who takes over as bartender and narrator.

It isn't until about halfway through the film when a plot presents itself; Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), a lawyer from the East, comes to claim the land as the rightful owner. But before that, we get cameos from Anthony Perkins, John Huston and Stacy Keach and a lot of scenes with a bear (played by an actual bear named Bruno) that PETA would shudder at if this film were made today.

A character driven western is about as easily found as a plot driven indie film...oh SNAP! While most westerns are about a conflict (i.e. treasure hunting, taking revenge, killing Injuns, protecting Indians, etc.), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a character study and not much else. While Bean is a fairly static character -- determined, stubborn, and a little egotistical -- the people around him, and more importantly, the town of Langtry, mature and grow where he cannot. Ironically, Bean waxes rhapsodic about bringing law, order, respectability, and civilization to Langtry, but with it, he loses his importance because he has an inability to grow with the town.

Along with westerns being very plot/action heavy, they are also sausage festivals. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean isn't a glaring exception but it's take on male-female relationships is worth discussing. One of the more appealing quirks of the Judge is his obsessive yet endearing infatuation of English actress Lillie Langtry (portrayed by Ava Gardner in dozens of posters and in cameo). Time and time again he praises her beauty and talent without ever actually seeing her perform. But because he can't be with the one he loves, he loves the one he's with, Marie Elena, the senorita who saved his ass in the beginning of the film.

In my most recent viewing, I was surprised at how often her character was present on screen even if Victoria Principal isn't given much to do other than watch Paul Newman adoringly, disparagingly, or to react to the goings-on at the Jersey Lilly saloon. Marie Elena's acceptance of always being second to Lillie Langtry is both heartbreaking and understandable; the audience knows as I think she does, when it comes right down to it, the Judge loves Marie Elena more, but it's one hell of a trip getting there.

One could write a senior thesis on the representation of women in the American western, so I will try to keep my conjectures to a minimum. I only wish to say that this movie presents both Marie Elena -- who bears a bastard child to the Judge -- and Lillie Langtry -- a known mistress of Edward VII -- in a positive light and as creatures worth protecting and cherishing despite their hymenlessness.

Onto something for the audio/visual side of things, well, I watched a literally 22 year VHS tape on a 18 year old VCR hooked up to a 13 year old TV, so as you can imagine, what I've seen and heard wasn't all that and a bag of chips. However, in the case of westerns, the grittier it looks the better. As with all westerns made after the advent of color, it has a sepia tone overlaying every frame. The score is haunting, underplayed and not a bit bombastic until the ending where it is called for. Also, if I didn't mention "Marmalade, Molasses, and Honey" a cheesy Andy Williams Oscarbait song, I would kick myself. It's pretty awesome even if it doesn't really fit anywhere in the movie.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a deeper film than one may figure at first glance. As with any film, it is not perfect and suffers from a few pacing problems and a general meandering until the introduction of Frank Gass and the plot. However, it will remain my favorite western and a movie I will force upon anyone who mentions the genre to me.

*No, Back to the Future-Part III doesn't count.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Snow Queen: An Introduction

There are about a million fairy tales in the world, but interestingly, there are only about forty the main populace has heard of. Of course everyone knows Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid (with much thanks to Disney). Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and The Princess and the Pea, are the next notch down, but you still know the stories. And finally, perhaps you might draw a blank on Bluebeard, The Brave Little Tailor, or The Red Shoes, but you've probably heard the titles.

The Snow Queen might garner similar head scratching. It is a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1845. As one of his longest and most imaginative stories, The Snow Queen is often considered his magnum opus. It has been adapted to film/TV 15(ish) times. Just like my Wuthering Heights series, I will be watching these adaptations, comparing and contrasting them, and ultimately deciding on how entertaining and/or accurate they are.

This is mostly for my own enjoyment. I am currently writing a novel adaptation of The Snow Queen and I wanted to see the different ways some of the more difficult plot points were dealt with.

Plot Summary
Once upon a time, The Devil (sometimes a troll) creates an evil mirror that distorts the appearance of whoever looks into it, making them look ugly and magnifying their more unflattering traits. One day the Devil decides to take his mirror to Heaven so he can mock God and the angels, but the mirror instead breaks into a million pieces which are carried on the winds and fly into the eyes of the innocents, making everything they see ugly and bad.

Meanwhile, a little boy named Kay and a little girl named Gerda grow up next door to one another in a city. They spend their idyllic youth growing roses together on the adjoining roof between their buildings. Come winter, Gerda's grandmother (sometimes Kay's grandmother) tells the children of The Snow Queen, the mythical being in charge of all that is winter. She appears at the window and frightens both the children.

Not long after, Kay is struck by a piece of mirror. His personality turns sour and he is especially cruel to Gerda. One night, the Snow Queen appears again and Kay is taken to her palace in the north. She kisses him twice so he can not feel the cold and so he can forget about Gerda.

By spring, Gerda sets out on a journey to find Kay. After floating down a river, a benevolent witch finds her and decides to adopt Gerda against her will. To prevent her from thinking of Kay, the witch magically hides her roses and combs the girl's hair to help her forget. Eventually Gerda flees and meets a crow who informs her that Kay may have recently wed a princess. Gerda soon discovers that it is not Kay, and the princess and prince wish her luck by giving her warm clothes and a gold coach. But as she travels through the forest, Gerda is captured by robbers where she is imprisoned by the robber girl. Gerda tells her story and the robber girl releases her, sending her off with one of her reindeer. Lastly, Gerda meets both the Lapp woman and the Finn woman who offer some sustenance on the last leg of her journey.

Gerda finally arrives at the Snow Queen's palace, which is empty except for a frozen Kay. The boy is working on a puzzle to form the word "eternity". If he succeeds, the Snow Queen promises him all her power and a pair of skates. Gerda embraces Kay and her warm tears melt his heart. Kay begins to cry and the evil mirror piece it dislodged from his eye. The children dance and the puzzle pieces magically form the word "eternity". Without a final confrontation with the Snow Queen, Kay and Gerda leave the palace and return home.