Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mangai! Spaghetti Westerns

Mangai! Mangai! I'm a big fan of spaghetti westerns and enjoy devouring them whenever possible. While not always filmed in Italy and certainly not a focus on Italian culture, the 'spaghetti western' earned it's namesake for the inexpensively-made westerns filmed mostly across western Europe by mostly Italian directors with a mix of Italian, other European and a few American cultures making up the cast and crew. Typically they were filmed in each of their own native tongues then re-dubbed and distributed in other languages thereafter. While the term "spaghetti western" was originally considered a negative slur, it soon garnered a positive connotation as the genre gained popularity. These films gained popularity in the early 60's and continued over the following decade or two, claiming nearly 600 films. spaghetti-western-heroes
Of all of these spaghetti westerns certain Italian filmmakers stand at the top of the heap. The 3 Sergios... Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima. Sollima, still residing in Italy today at the age of 92, is the Italian filmmaker well-regarded as one of the best of this subgenre. But interestingly, he only made three westerns- and all three were filmed in a 2-year period. THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966) starring spaghetti western staple Lee Van Cleef was a huge success, which quickly spurred on the other two... FACE TO FACE (1967), starring Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volonte followed lastly by RUN, MAN, RUN! (1968), which starred Milian again. Tomas Milian is a Cuban-born American character actor who was born in Havana and fled to the States after witnessing his father's (a military general) suicide. After odd jobs and a brief stint in the navy, he was trained in the Stanislavskij method at Ella Kazan's Actor's Studio and his acting career blossomed. You may also recognize him in features that continued long after his spaghetti western successes such as Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), Steven Spielberg's AMISTAD (1997) and Stephen Soderbergh's TRAFFIC (2000).

Sergio Corbucci, known as 'the other Sergio', was so-called as he was both a friend and a working colleague alongside Sergio Leone when he transitioned his directing to westerns. Starting in 1963 with MASSACRO AL GRANDE CANYON, Corbucci made a dozen more films of this western flavor until 1974. But it was his fourth western that succeeded well above and beyond the others, DJANGO (1966).  He worked heavily with actors Franco Nero and Tomas Milian. It was the iconic role of Django (played by Franco Nero who was formerly a gas station attendant before landing this role, originally meant for uncredited co-writer Mark Damon) that was so popular it was copied by imitators countless times over. However, only one Corbucci-approved sequel was ever made, Nello Rossati's DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN (1987)- and it was the only other time Nero himself played Django. The Django role was known as the army coat and hat wearing lone outsider who plays rival gangs against each other against a stark and violent landscape. Cult-turned-pop director Quentin Tarantino was so enamored with DJANGO and the spaghetti western style, he made DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) to showcase a Django character prototype encountering the violent and unjust world of slavery. (For more insight on Tarantino's modern spaghetti western-stylized western, see my take here )
But the most famous director of this Italiano western subgenre is without a doubt, Sergio Leone. Considered the father of the spaghetti western, he was best known for his 'Dollars Trilogy' or 'The Man With No Name Trilogy'...  A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Starring Clint Eastwood in all three films, he found himself on a summer hiatus from his TV series and with strict contract restrictions from taking on any American film roles, he took on the legendary role that launched his film career via Italy. Not unlike Django, Eastwood's character is an atypical western hero. More complex, the man with no name's (although also known as "Joe," "Manco," and "Blondie,") character's morality seems to bend and yield at times leaving us uncertain as to his next move when pitted against various villains. Ultimately, he is the good guy. Or at least the best guy in each scene- in a harsh desert infested with bad guys and bandits. Dressed in a similar hat and poncho for each film, his dress would also reflect the Civil War backdrop. And so the struggle of good and evil persevered.

The style that remained consistent for these spaghetti westerns was uniquely edgy. A definitive departure from the predictable American westerns so prolific at that time and had been for decades, this new look was fresh with excessive violence, high style, sharp editing, unexpected characters and innovative musical score. The score was one of the most influential contributors to the signature spaghetti western approach. Italian composer Ennio Morricone scored Leone's Dollars Trilogy films, including the distinctive whistled theme of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, and Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, plus so many more of these Italian westerns including those of Sergio Sollima and Sergio Corbucci.  
The spaghetti western is an acquired taste. I've found that people tend to either love them or hate them. But you can't deny it's enduring influence. If you've never seen a spaghetti western, I highly recommend starting with Leone's trilogy. You'll see why it launched Clint Eastwood's film career from the small screen to the big. Also it illuminates Tarantino's choices in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) plus others of his films that show this influence. And if you'd prefer a small serving of this tangy Italian cinematic dish in a humorous and entertaining format, you must check out the animated RANGO (2011). Be sure to look for that 'man with no name.' You'll see his familiar face.          
->Throughout this month, The Nitrate Diva blog aka @NitrateDiva is hosting the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Inspired by her love of Italian film culture (and by a San Pellegrino bottle- no really, see her post, and follow all the other wonderful entries there:, the @NitrateDiva is showcasing posts celebrating any aspect of Italian culture via film. Although there are a plethora of more obvious choices to bring honor to this splendid genre, my first thought was of my enjoyment of what has been coined the "spaghetti western."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Night with Maureen O'Hara

Recently, my husband and I drove to the birthplace of John Wayne of Winterset, Iowa. Every year, the entire town holds a big gala to commemorate the Duke's birthday with a 3-day series of special events which takes place the weekend closest to his birthday anniversary (May 26, 1907). I'm not gonna lie, I'm a fan of really good classic westerns. Ergo, I'm a John Wayne fan. But when I discovered this particular year's theme and special guest, we simply HAD to go see... Maureen O'Hara.
THE Maureen O'Hara herself was this year's special guest. When I told my hubby that we could see not only a real classic film movie star for a mere $125 benefit dinner ticket, but the Hollywood legend Maureen O'Hara, there was no hesitation. At the onset I knew with Ms. O'Hara's age of 92, this could likely be my only opportunity to see her as it may very well be one of her final public appearances. But there were many aspects of this Maureen O'Hara themed festival that appealed.

One of the major attractions of this event was the film line-up. The local theater- simply named the Iowa Theater- hosted a daily screening of all five of Maureen O'Hara's films she co-starred with her favorite leading man, John Wayne... John Ford's THE QUIET MAN (1952), Andrew V. McLaglen's MCLINTOCK! (1963), George Sherman's BIG JAKE (1971), John Ford's RIO GRANDE (1950) and John Ford's THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957). But oh, THE QUIET MAN. Of all of these splendid films showing as part of this grand spectacle, I simply HAD to see this one on the big screen.

You see, THE QUIET MAN was repeatedly shown to me from a wee age in my family as sort of a "how-to" guide of our Irish heritage. For those who have never met me or in case you've been living under a rock, you may not realize that I'm quite proud of my Irish roots. I can claim Irish on both sides of my family (Mom's side- O'Donnells from Donegal and Dad's side- O'Sullivans from Kerry.) It was my grandmother on my Mom's side that started this tradition of watching THE QUIET MAN as I listened to her stories of our Irish family and as she would share photos of our ancestral cottage in the tiny town of Cashleenan in Donegal (see below). With her vibrant red hair, ivory skin, high cheek bones and take-no-malarkey attitude, I soon began to equate my grandmother and our Irish family stories as the embodiment of Maureen O'Hara and THE QUIET MAN.
And while my husband is a mix of English and Finnish, he has been 'aspirational Irish' long before he met me. Early in our courtship, he revealed that he was convinced that I must be a selkie. Unfamiliar with the selkie folklore? It's the Irish myth of the seal that can change into human form once on land. When in human form, the female selkie is a raven-haired, fair-skinned beauty who makes a devoted wife and mother after falling in love with a human. But selkies eventually become restless; longing to return the freedoms of the Irish sea. It's said that their human husbands bury the selkie seal coat and keep it hidden to prevent their selkie wives from returning to their former lives. Romantic and melancholy- very Irish. For a great film on the selkie legend, I recommend John Sayles' THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994). So when I excitedly displayed my restless spirit to my husband because I was itching to go see Maureen O'Hara in Iowa and said there would be Irish music, Irish dancing and undoubtedly some Irish drinking, he was on-board.
Work and kid commitments precluded us from enjoying the entire 3 day stay. But we knew if hit the road bright and early on Saturday morning, we might just make it to THE QUIET MAN screening. We raced across the cloudy prairie highways for the almost 4 hour trip and made a tardy entrance. I was especially thrilled to join our fellow twitter classic film pals as a major perk to this grand adventure... fellow Kansan and #TCMparty co-host Trevor aka @tpjost, Eliz aka @VintageEliz, Summer aka @bucephalus02 and Kaci aka @kacik11. We've enjoyed Trevor's company several times prior for the wonders of silent film that our state offers but this was our first face-to-face with the other fun film-loving twitter pals who also trekked across the Midwest to this quaint Iowan town. I was giddy as we sat in the dark, packed theater; watching Maureen O'Hara's favorite film, directed by her fave director, along with her fave co-star John Wayne and the charming cast of characters like Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald and Ward Bond.
Afterwards, we met our friends out front and set plans for the evening's big gala. After my husband and I enjoyed lunch (hubby happily gulped down the John Wayne special chili) at an adorable little old-fashioned diner, we got all decked out back at the hotel for the special evening. Wading through a sea of reserved tables, we found our way to an available table way in the back corner. Shortly, everyone in our band of O'Hara groupies was seated and after a scrumptious meal, the program began.
 Upon seeing a glimpse of Maureen O'Hara's entrance, we were absolutely beside ourselves. It didn't matter that she arrived in a wheelchair or that she was a woman in her early 90's, here was a real-life classic film movie star in the very same room- a vibrant and larger-than-life legend. During a live auction segment of the evening to benefit the O'Hara foundation, my fellow gal pal groupies and I sneaked up to the side stage area where we attempted fairly unsuccessfully to take photos of her, as it became increasingly apparent a photo and autograph opportunity would never come. We each boldly smiled and charmed our best with security to get a direct view past through the roped VIP section. After a delightful succession of a few speakers like John Wayne's daughter, a parade of bagpipers, Irish songs, and Irish dancing, we finally got to hear words spoken from our guest herself. She was as beautiful, classy, and sassy with that charismatic humor as ever. She was... thoroughly Irish.
When the program was over, we hurriedly lined-up to catch a closer view as she exited. She was completely generous as she smiled at each of us, even reaching out, touching our hands. Because I was fumbling with my iphone in an attempt to photograph the close-up moment, I got a passing cheerful comment out instead of an actual hand press- and no photo. Eliz and Kaci announced they may never wash their hands. Our responses were misty-eyed and stunned.

The best way to end the evening? At an Irish pub, of course. Our star-struck caravan drove over to a local Irish pub, appropriately named Little Dublin. With live Irish music playing in the background, the cozy wood-paneled tiny pub was the perfect setting for imbibing while recounting the evening's magical moments with friends. At one point I set my Guinness down long enough to teach the techniques of a basic Irish jig, as we see John Wayne's daughter Aissa squeeze past us. Later my husband and I shared stories of how we met and fell in love (Gawd, how does anyone tolerate us?!) then Kaci points out Maureen O'Hara's grandson Conor, just a few feet away. What a memorable night! 
Indeed, it was an experience we shall never forget. And just so I could have a souvenir to take home in addition to my cherished memories, my sweet husband secretly bid on and won a beautiful brooch from the Maureen O'Hara collection in the silent auction and set it in front of me before the end of the program. What a lucky Irish gal I am...