Thursday, January 25, 2018

Hail and Happy (Belated) Birthday to the King :: Presley Punches-Out Prejudice on the Prairie in Don Siegel's Flaming Star (1960)


Nope. I didn’t forget. Always late, but never delinquent: that's my personal finance motto and, turns out, that epitaph also works for terminally late film reviews, too. For it’s that time of year again, where we celebrate my man Elvis Presley’s birthday by throwing one of his fine fractured forays into feature film into the old Bluray player and enjoy the cinematic equivalent of a grilled peanut butter, bacon, and 'nanner sammich. And this year, we’re gonna head out west, where Presley stretches his legs a bit in Flaming Star (1960).


This tragic (and slightly convoluted) tale of an uncivil war that rips a frontier family apart begins with two sons -- half-brothers, returning home to a darkened cabin. And while Clint and Pacer Burton (Forrest, Presley) have pistols at the ready, turns out this greeting of silence was on purpose so those inside, family and friends, could surprise them with a birthday party for the older brother Clint. And while the party appears jovial and everyone seems to be having a good time, things take an uncomfortable turn over slices of cake when a backdoor racial slur in the guise of a genuine -- if patronizing, complement is used on the culinary skills of the Burton boy’s mother, Neddy (Del Rio).



Now, as I mentioned earlier, Clint and Pacer are half-brothers. Seems after Clint’s mother died, their father, Sam Burton (McIntire), took a Kiowa woman for a second wife. And while their relationship began over a trade of tobacco and gunpowder to her father for her, over the last twenty years, love has blossomed and bore much fruit for Sam and Neddy, including a second son, Pacer, a fairly successful spread, a sizeable cattle herd, and a relatively peaceful life in the rapidly settling Texas frontier of the late 1880s. And so, aside from a few ignorant comments, prejudice hasn’t been too much of an issue for the Burtons since they’ve settled down. And when it does, both Neddy and Pacer take the hits in solemn silence until the conversation moves on. But make no mistake, these accumulated hits are starting to take a toll on the both of them.


Thus, the Burtons straddle a line between two worlds, belonging not really to either but maintain a peaceful relationship with both the settlers and the natives -- at least they were until the new chief of the Kiowa, Buffalo Horn (Acosta), sick of his people’s land being encroached upon, goes on the warpath and starts massacring several settlements in an effort to drive these encroachers out, including a group of revelers who returned home from the Burton’s party just in time to be butchered and burned alive most horrifically. And to continue this action, the chief needs more braves and efforts to get Pacer to join them, promising him no harm will come to his family if he joins up -- stress on the "if".


And with that, with suspicions aroused by the Burton homestead being spared while all those around them were burned to the ground, and everyone on the prod on both sides, the Burtons -- especially Pacer, are put between a rock and hard place when asked to swear allegiance to one side or the other. For if they side with the settlers, the Kiowa will wipe them out. And if they side with the Kiowa, the other settlers will have no choice but to consider them hostile and kill them, too. And after a failed attempt to remain neutral, which results in most of their herd being killed or run off, a series of tragic incidents while trying to find a peaceful resolution will force the Burton boys to finally pick a side in this rapidly deteriorating no-win situation...



Back in 1958, 20th Century Fox optioned the rights to author Clair Huffaker’s novel, Flaming Lance; a tale of frontier prejudice in the same vein as Alan Le May’s The Searchers and The Unforgiven. To adapt it to the big screen, the studio turned it over to producer Buddy Adler and director Nunnally Johnson, who helped Huffaker adapt his book into a screenplay under the working title Black Star -- in reference to a Kiowa superstition of recognizing one’s own impending death in the constellations above. In these early stages, Johnson had eyes on Marlon Brando for the role of Pacer and Frank Sinatra for older brother Clint. But several production snags soon followed, resulting in an almost complete turnover in front of and behind the camera,


Sadly, producer Adler unexpectedly died from complications of lung cancer before filming commenced, and so Fox Studios turned the property over to David Weisbart. Around the same time, Johnson also left the project after completing the screenplay for reasons that weren’t very clear. Weisbart, meanwhile, who had cast James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), saw something similar in Elvis Presley’s performance in Love Me Tender (1956); a raw, untapped potential as an actor just waiting for the proper vehicle to exploit it. More of that potential appeared in King Creole (1958); a near breakout performance but, alas, would be Presley’s last picture before being inducted into the army, which, alas again, kinda stalled Presley’s acting career, damaging this momentum permanently if I’m being honest.


Still, despite the heavy drama elements, King Creole was another backdoor musical -- something that sorely chafed the wannabe actor. And then, when Presley’s hitch was up he returned to Hollywood and the big screen with G.I. Blues (1960); another full-blown raucous musical hootenanny. Seems Presley had been reluctant to do G.I. Blues, feeling he was ready to try something with a little more weight to it. Weisbart agreed; and so, Brando was out and Presley was in. To replace Johnson, Weisbart wanted Michael Curtiz, who had directed Presley in King Creole, and who was supposed to direct G.I. Blues only to be replaced by Norman Taurog due to his own health issues. These same issues would prevent Curtiz from doing the since rechristened Flaming Star as well; and so, Weisbart tapped Don Siegel to sit in the director’s chair.


Weisbart, Parker, Presley, Siegel. 
 
Siegel’s Hollywood career began in the mid-1930s, where he worked as an editor -- contributing some dazzling montage sequences in things like Blues in the Night (1941) Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942), a second-unit director on things ranging from Sergeant York (1941) to All the King's Men (1949), and won two Academy Awards for the short films Hitler Lives (1945) and Star in the Night (1945). Then, it was off to the B-Units in the 1950s, where he churned out rock-solid efforts no matter the genre; be it western -- The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Edge of Eternity (1959), hard-boiled action -- Riot in Cell Block 11(1954), The Lineup (1958), film noir -- The Verdict (1946), The Big Steal (1949), and even sci-fi with the seminal tale of alien invaders and red-hot paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).


And while Flaming Star would essentially be Siegel’s first A-picture, it would be far from his last; later teaming up with Clint Eastwood for a series of box-office adventures with Coogan's Bluff (1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Dirty Harry (1971). Strangely enough, Siegel had already directed a musical vehicle for one of Presley's pop-star clones, Fabian (Forte), with Hound-Dog Man (1959) for Fox, who were looking to cash-in on both Presley’s popularity and Disney’s Old Yeller (1957) -- both based on books by Fred Gipson. But despite this ersatz dry-run, turns out Siegel wasn’t quite ready for Presley -- or more to the point, the circus that followed him around wherever he went, directed by the ever present ringleader and head clown -- sorry, “technical advisor”, Col. Tom Parker.


As the story goes, during the subsequent production, Presley mistook Siegel’s distaste for his rambunctious entourage and all their distractions [the practical jokes, the constant games of football, Parker’s constant meddling] as a dislike for him personally, feeling Siegel thought of him as nothing more than a hick and rube, which frustrated the performer to no end despite Weisbart’s assurances to the contrary. And so frustrated did Presley get he decided to play up the perceived offending behavior and passive/aggressively stick it to his director a little bit, too, insisting Siegel drive this country-bumpkin’s brand new Rolls-Royce for the duration of the shoot.


Despite this acrimony, Siegel and Presley did agree on a few things; namely axing the majority of the planned musical numbers. At the star’s insistence, over the protests of Parker, there are only two songs in Flaming Star: the title ballad and "A Cane and a High Starched Collar" -- which Pacer strums and sings as a serenade to his brother and his sweetheart, Roslyn Pierce (Eden), at the birthday party. Thus and so, all of the music is wrapped-up in the first four minutes of the film, which seems appropriate given that after the first four minutes there isn’t a whole lot to sing and be happy about -- and could even be considered a tad distasteful and extremely inappropriate given the tenor and levels of Siegel’s signature viciousness and violence during the escalating Kiowa attacks that follow. (The first one’s a real ass-puckering doozy.)


Test audiences agreed, which is why a third song, "Summer Kisses, Winter Tears", sung while Neddy visits the Kiowa village to try but ultimately fail to get the tribal elders to rein in Buffalo Horn, complete with accompanying braves happily beating on some tom-toms, was laughed off the screen. And rightfully so. Another song, “Britches”, meant to be sung as a commentary on his girlfriend’s wardrobe while Clint and Pacer ride into town, was recorded for the soundtrack but was never staged or filmed.


As it stands then, funnily enough, one could read Flaming Star as another polemic by Siegel on the scourge of McCarthyism, using race instead of alien assimilation to draw the line between “us” and “them”. Here, the Burtons have no answer to the hate and fear-fueled “you’re either for us or against us” ultimatums of allegiance from both sides. Unfortunately, Siegel lays this on a little thick as an interesting premise soon gets hung-up on a very convoluted plot to resolve it with about two too many unnecessary subplots -- looking at you, grab-fanny trappers, and you, kidnapping the town doctor’s daughter to blackmail him into giving medical treatment to Neddy after she is accidentally shot by a lone survivor of the opening massacre, who had been wandering the wilderness for days, when the other townsfolk won’t let him go.


And strangely enough, the film contrives to absolve everyone of their culpability and guilt as both the death of Neddy and Sam are, essentially, accidental, which only makes the bloodshed that follows worse. (Neddy succumbs to her wounds, Sam is killed by a band of renegades looking to join up with Buffalo Horn, not knowing he was under the chief’s protection at the time.) And so, with one parent killed by the settlers and another by the Kiowa, Clint and Pacer finally choose and wind up on opposite sides of this battle. But when a distraught Clint tries to avenge his father, taking out Buffalo Horn, he is gravely wounded. Pacer, who had been riding with the Kiowa, and unaware of what happened to his father, helps his brother narrowly escape and takes him back to the family cabin -- now dark and empty for real in an eerie callback to the opening sequence. And when Clint reveals what happened to their father, Pacer lashes his brother to a horse and aims him for town, staying behind to hold the trailing Kiowa off long enough for him to escape.


Come the dawn, Clint awakens in town, bandaged-up and alive thanks to Roslyn. Knowing his brother needs him, despite his injuries, Clint goes in search of a horse but stops when he and the others spy a lone rider headed into town. It’s Pacer, mortally wounded, who conveys the Kiowa war party will no longer be a problem because he’s killed them all. (Strangely off-screen.) Of course, they’ve also killed him. And while Clint offers to get him some help, Pacer declines, saying he’s seen the flaming star that foretold his death -- just like his mother had, tells his brother not to follow, and then rides off into the wilderness to fulfill his destiny alone.


Unlike Le May’s books or their film adaptation -- The Searchers (1956), The Unforgiven (1960), there is no happy resolution or easy answers to be found in Flaming Star. And while it is a bit of a mess, one thing I can definitely say about Flaming Star is this: it isn’t predictable. From the get go, the star essentially plays the second banana and yet the film is completely dedicated to making the movie about him. I also half-expected a love triangle between Clint, Pacer and Roslyn that, thankfully, never really materialized.


And while on that subject, one of the more interesting tidbits unearthed while doing research on this movie was how Barbara Eden came to be involved in the first place -- make that, second place. Seems Eden was a last second replacement for none other than Barbara Steele. Seems the British actresses’ contract was recently sold to Fox by the Rank Organization because they didn’t know how to use her. Turns out Fox really didn’t know what to do with her either but made all sorts of efforts to mold Steele into some kind of clone of Janet Leigh, including making her a blonde. Flaming Star was meant to be Steele’s first film for Fox, but then, according to which story you believe, Weisbart felt her accent was too pronounced and replaced her, or, she was taller than Presley and that couldn't stand, or, she had a terrible fight with Siegel that got her kicked off the picture and fired from the studio, or, the woman hated where she was, just panicked, and fled -- and fled all the way to Italy, where Mario Bava was waiting to make La maschera del demonio a/k/a, Black Sunday (1960). Thus and so, a true Queen of Horror was born thanks to the tumultuous production of Flaming Star. And for that, Boils and Ghouls, I know I will always be eternally grateful. Wow.


As for our leading man, though the script does him no favors and a few Elvis-isms still leaked through (-- I mean, the whole tiger speech, really?), I think Presley really tapped into something here -- especially with Pacer’s defining “man without a country” character arc. For, despite his entourage and popularity, as the old saying goes, it’s lonely at the top because there is no one who can relate to someone whose popularity is so molten hot it’s impossible to touch let alone comprehend. 


And so, it’s easy to draw a line between Presley the entertainer -- a former dirt-poor hillbilly turned megastar, who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, not belonging to his new social stratus and unable to return to his old, and Pacer the half-breed. No one understands them but their respective mommas, and once they’re gone, so is their moral compass. They are lost, full of anguish, and lonely, with nowhere to go and no one to relate to, no one to confide in, and the only outlet left is to lash out and engage in some pretty self-destructive behavior. And this, this connection, is why I think Flaming Star and Pacer Burnton is often singled out as one of Presley’s finest and most affecting performances.


Siegel, of course, tries to focus this internal conflict, but doesn’t make it easy as he shows us both sides of this debacle -- something he would later abandon with his other anti-heroes. And so, there really are no bad guys in this film -- or good guys either. Everyone does wrong and makes terrible choices no matter how right the motivation. But Presley is helped out immensely by a supporting cast of rock-solid character actors. Steve Forrest never quite reached the heights of his brother, Dana Andrews, but he knew what he’s doing and doesn’t seem to mind letting his co-star take the spotlight -- though by all rights he deserved a little more screen-time. In fact, everyone could’ve used a little more fleshing out, but I’m sure Parker was pressing to keep things focused on his boy. 


Thus, the only other real standout is Dolores del Rio, who nearly steals the movie out from under Parker's ever meddling nose. Also littering the cast and elevating things considerably are John McIntire (-- love the scene between him and Presley, when the father says he’ll still love him not matter what choice he makes), Karl Swenson, Rodolfo Acosta, Richard Jaeckel and L.Q. Jones.


Thus and so, in Flaming Star, Elvis doesn’t really sing, he doesn’t get the girl, and he essentially dies at the end. And while Presley thought this would be a first step toward more serious and straight roles, his fans weren’t all that enamored with this somber and downbeat movie. The film was released only one month after G.I.Blues, which was the second highest grossing film of 1960 while Flaming Star didn’t even crack the top ten. And then, when Wild in the Country (1961) also failed to impress fans or critics, Col. Parker used these back to back box-office disappointments to convince Presley audiences didn’t want to see him act as another character, they wanted to see him be Elvis Presley.


This, of course, led to the Action-Man phase of Presley’s film career, where he basically played himself as a racecar driver, a stuntman, or a deep sea diver (-- all you had to do was change the accessories and move him into a different playset), and a return to the musical slapstick formula, beginning with Blue Hawaii (1961) and Kid Galahad (1962). And from there, the precedent was pretty much set for the rest of his film career and, for better or worse, Presley’s notion of being a serious actor were over and done -- like a flaming star falling out of the sky. See what I did there?


Flaming Star (1960) 20th Century Fox / P: David Weisbart / D: Don Siegel / W: Nunnally Johnson, Clair Huffaker (novel) / C: Charles G. Clarke / E: Hugh S. Fowler / M: Cyril J. Mockridge / S: Elvis Presley, Barbara Eden, Steve Forrest, Dolores del Rio, John McIntire, Rodolfo Acosta

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