“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

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“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

Tyrone Power’s career took a strange turn during the post-World War II years. Although he still managed to maintain his position as one of Twentieth Century Fox’s top stars during the remainder of the 1940s, something happened as the 1950s dawned. Powers still found himself in Grade A movies during that particular decade. But he also seemed to appear in a growing number of standard costume melodramas.

Twentieth Century Fox lent Powers to Universal Pictures to star in the 1953 drama called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. Directed by Rudolph Maté, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” told the story of a New York-born gambler named Mark Fallon, who moves to New Orleans with ambitions to create his own gambling casino. During the riverboat journey down the Mississippi River, Mark becomes the friend and protégé of an older gambler named Kansas John Polly. The pair also run afoul of a crooked gambler and two Creole siblings named Angelique and Laurent Dureau. During a poker game, Mark exposes the crooked gambler. Also Laurent Dureau loses all of his money and his sister’s priceless necklace during the game. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Mark becomes acquainted with the Dureaus’ father, Edmond Dureau. The latter admires Mark and realizes that the younger man is in love with Angelique. Unfortunately, she refuses to acknowledge Mark and sets matrimonial sights upon a friend of her brother’s, banker George Elwood. Mark and Kansas John meet and help Ann Conant, the daughter of an unlucky gambler who had committed suicide. She helps the two friends build their casino, yet at the same time, falls in love with Mark. And both she and Mark become uncomfortably aware that Laurent Dureau has fallen in love with her.

While reading the synopsis of this film, I noticed that it was identified as an adventure film. “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” does feature some action sequences that include a fist fight aboard a riverboat, at least two duels and a murder attempt. But for some reason, I am hard pressed to consider it an adventure film. There seemed to be a lot more drama and action in this film. Especially melodrama. Production wise, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” struck me as an attractive looking film. Being a constant visitor of the Universal Studios theme park, it was easy to recognize some of the exterior scenes from the studio’s back lot. I doubt that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” had the budget to be shot on location in Louisiana. But I still would not describe it as cheap looking for a standard melodrama, thanks to Irving Glassberg’s sharp photography. Even Bill Thomas’ costume designs added to the film’s visual style. However, there was one costume worn by leading lady Piper Laurie that reflected the early 1950s, instead of the early 1850s.

I have no problems with the movie’s performances. Tyrone Powers gave a subtle, yet excellent performance as the good-hearted Mark Fallon, who had not only become enamored of New Orleans society, but also the leading lady. His chemistry with Piper Laurie struck me as pretty solid, but not particularly striking. I think Laurie’s portrayal of the aristocratic and hot-tempered Angelique seemed a bit too fiery . . . and possibly too young for the more sedate Powers. The actor seemed to have better chemistry with Julie Adams, who portrayed the sweet-tempered, yet practical and mature Ann Conant. I found myself wishing that her character was Powers’ leading lady. The lead actor certainly clicked with John McIntire, who portrayed Mark’s close friend, Kansas John Polly. The two men seemed to have created their own on-screen bromance with considerable ease. John Bear gave a very credible performance as Laurent Dureau, the careless, yet passionate young scion who happened to be the leading lady’s brother. Paul Cavanaugh was equally competent as Angelique and Laurent’s elegant father, Edmond Dureau. I would comment on the rest of the cast. But if I must be honest, I found them unmemorable . . . including Ron Randell, who portrayed Angelique’s corrupt husband, George Elwood.

While reading about the film, I also learned that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” was a big hit during early 1953. Leslie I. Carey, even managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Recording for his work on the movie. But you know what? Despite the decent production designs, visual styles and solid performances from the cast, I have a pretty low opinion of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. In fact, I am astounded that this movie was a box office hit. Perhaps that sounded arrogant. Who am I to judge the artistic tastes of others? I certainly do not like for others to judge my tastes or attempt to infringe their tastes upon me. But I have to say that I did not like “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”.

What was it about the movie that I disliked? Seton I. Miller’s screenplay. I found it very ineffective. In other words, I thought it sucked. Exactly what was this movie about? Mark Fallon’s struggles to build his New Orleans casino? His adventures as a riverboat gambler? His romance (it that is what you want to call it) with Angelique Dureau. Apparently, it is all of the above. But Miller’s story struck me as extremely vague and very episodic. The only storyline that remained consistent from beginning to end was the love story between Mark Fallon and Angelique Dureau. And honestly, it did not strike me as a well constructed love story. The problem seemed to be the character of George Elwood. Instead of marrying him earlier in the story, Angelique did not marry him until the final half hour.

The love story was not the only problem I had with the plot for “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. One scene featured the leading characters witnessing a dance number by slaves or free blacks in an area known as Congo Square. I am aware that such performances did occurred in 19th century New Orleans. I found it more than disconcerting that the dancers featured in the movie were white performers in blackface as African-Americans. Mark Fallon’s struggle to build a casino did not come off as much of a struggle to me. In fact, Mark, Kansas John and Ann Conant managed to build the casino within the movie’s second half hour and lose it, thanks to George Elwood’s financial manipulations by the last half hour. Not only did the banker’s financial manipulations concluded the story line regarding the casino in an unsatisfying manner, but the same could be said about how Mark and Angelique’s love story ended. I could go into detail about what happened, but why bother? It would be a waste of time. All I can say is that I found the conclusion of Miller’s story vague, rushed and very unsatisfying.

In a nutshell, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” possessed both a decent visual style and production designs. It also featured solid performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie. But the first-class costume melodrama that Universal Pictures set out to create was undermined by a vague and unsatisfying story written by screenwriter Seton I. Miller. It seemed a pity that within the seven to eight years following the end of World War II, Tyrone Power’s career led him to this.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Ten “The Winds of Fortune” Commentary

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Ten “The Winds of Fortune” Commentary

This tenth episode of “CENTENNIAL” called “The Winds of Fortune” marked the last one set in the 19th century. The episode also featured the end of several story lines – the troubles with the Pettis gang, Axel Dumire’s suspicions of the Wendell family, Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems and Jim Lloyd’s romantic problems with Charlotte Seccombe and Clemma Zendt. 

The range war that the ranchers began in “The Shepherds” finally gasped its last breath in this episode. The last remnants of the Pettis gang (the killers hired by the ranchers to get rid of the farmers and shepherds) make one last attempt to exact revenge against Amos Callendar, Jim Lloyd and Hans Brumbaugh – the three men who had killed Frank and Orvid Pettis in revenge for the deaths of two friends. Naturally, it failed during a gunfight against, Jim, Amos and the latter’s son.

The Pettis gang’s revenge attempt also led to the closure of the story line that featured Sheriff Axel Dumire and the Wendell family. The gunfight at Amos’ homestead allowed one Pettis killer to escape back to Centennial . . . but not for long. Dumire led a manhunt for the escaped killer. And in a dark alleyway, he and the Pettis outlaw mortally shot each other. While the outlaw died right away, Dumire suffered a slow death. Before expiring, he summoned young Philip Wendell for a last attempt to learn the truth about the now dead Mr. Sorenson. Although he failed, Philip expressed grief and remorse over his dead body.

Jim Lloyd and Charlotte Seccombe’s courtship finally led to a marriage proposal from the former. But their engagement encountered troubled waters when Clemma Seccombe returned to Centennial. Unable to get over his infatuation with the seemingly repentant Clemma, Jim breaks his engagement with Charlotte. The latter tries to bribe Clemma to leave town. But in the end, it took a lecture from Lucinda Zendt to convince the latter to leave. And Charlotte finally married her cowboy. Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems finally ended when political turmoil in Mexico finally drove Tranquilino Marquez to accompany his uncle, “Nacho” Gomez to Colorado. “Nacho” never made it, dying from a gunshot wound on the Skimmerhorn Trail. But Tranquilino and a few fellow Mexicans made it to the Brumbaugh farm and became permanent employees. Unfortunately for Tranquilino, good luck became bad during a trip to Denver, where he found himself imprisoned on a trumped up charge by a local bigot with a dislike for Latinos.

As you can see, a great deal happened in “The Winds of Change”. Normally, I would have insisted upon a longer running time than 97 to 100 minutes. But screenwriter Charles Larson and director Harry Falk managed to keep the episode’s pace flowing perfectly without any rush or dragging, whatsoever. Following James Michner’s novel, they also managed to do an excellent job of connecting the final acts of the two story lines featuring the Pettis gang and the Wendells. At the same time, Jim Lloyd’s romantic travails continued during this traumatic time for Centennial.

“The Winds of Fortune” featured at least three outstanding scenes that I need to point out. At least two of those scenes featured deaths of primary characters. Once again, Brian Keith and Doug McKeon knocked it out of the ballpark with their portrayals of Sheriff Axel Dumire and Philip Wendell in a poignant, yet ironic scene that featured the former’s death. What I found particularly ironic about this particular scene is that the characters’ deep affection for each other could not overcome Dumire’s desire to know the truth about Mr. Sorenson’s death or Philip’s determination to protect his parents to the bitter end.

Another death scene featured “Nacho” Gomez’s death on the Skimmerhorn Trail, while he and Tranquilino journey to Colorado. Although A Martinez was pretty solid as Tranquilino, Rafael Campos gave one last superb performance as the dying “Nacho” recalled the best period of his life – those months along the Skimmerhorn Trail. In fact, his character died near the very spot where he first met John Skimmerhorn in “The Longhorns”. The last scene was the final confrontation between Clemma and Lucinda Zendt and Charlotte Seccombe. Between Charlotte’s determination to pay off Clemma to get her out of Jim’s life, and the latter’s acidic crowing over her hold of said cowboy, the scene crackled with hostility, thanks to the superb acting of Lynn Redgrave and Adrienne La Russa. Christina Raines gave solid support as Clemma’s disapproving mother, Lucinda.

The episode also boasted first-rate performances from William Atherton, who continued his superb portrayal of the solid, yet love sick cowboy Jim Lloyd. Another excellent performance came from Cliff De Young, who shined as ranch manager John Skimmerhorn, in one of his final scenes in which he expressed the blunt truth about the fickle Clemma. The episode also featured fine work from Alex Karras (Hans Brumbaugh), Jesse Vint (Amos Calendar) and delicious performances from both Lois Nettleton and Anthony Zerbe as the conniving Maude and Mervin Wendell.

“The Winds of Change” featured one major problem with me. Ever since “The Storm”, the miniseries usually featured flashbacks that hinted a major character’s upcoming death. Prolonged flashbacks from “The Longhorns”nearly grounded the episode to a halt, as a dying “Nacho” recalled the events of the Skimmerhorn drive. I could have tolerated one or two scenes. But the flashbacks nearly seemed to go on forever.

Despite the never-ending flashbacks, “The Winds of Change” proved to be another outstanding episode of“CENTENNIAL”. Since it became the last episode to be set during the 19th century, it featured the conclusions of several story lines that have been going on since the saga shifted into the 1880s. It was a near perfect finale to what proved to be a rather interesting period of four to five episodes.

Second Look: “PEARL” (1978)

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SECOND LOOK: “PEARL” (1978)

After recently watching the 2001 Michael Bay movie, “PEARL HARBOR”, I decided to watch “PEARL”, the three-part miniseries that aired on ABC back in 1978. Watching it made me realize how many years had passed since I last saw it. 

Directed by Hy Averback and Alexander Singer, and written by Stirling Silliphant; “PEARL” focused upon the experiences and lives of the U.S. military, their families, and some civilians during the few days that surrounded the Japanese Navy’s air attack at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands in December 1941. The miniseries featured a handful of subplots that featured the following cast of characters:

-Midge Forrest, the unhappy and promiscuous wife of a U.S. Army colonel, who is still mourning the death of her only child after many years. 

-U.S. Army officer Colonel Jason Forrest, a strict and bigoted disciplinarian who is despised and feared by the men under his command.

-Wealthy Southern-born U.S. Army Captain Cal Lankford, who is Forrest’s second-in-command and Midge Forrest’s lover.

-Obstetrician Dr. Carol Lang, whose suicidal behavior attracts the attention of Captain Lankford.

-U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug North, a naval officer and military brat who wants to break family tradition and become a civilian.

-Holly Nagata, a Japanese-American journalist for a small newspaper and past childhood friend of Doug’s, who becomes his new love.

-U.S. Army Private Billy Zylowski, a troublesome soldier and talented painter who falls for an inexperienced prostitute named Shirley.

The subplots in “PEARL” seemed so extensive that I thought it would be best to list some (and I mean a lot) of observations that I made it:

*The pettiness of the peacetime military is revealed in great detail, especially the conflict regarding the unwanted Private Finger and a pinball machine.

*The miniseries also conveyed the intelligence and military establishments’ bigotry toward non-whites on Hawaii in great detail. This was especially apparent in the showdown at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel between Dennis Weaver’s Colonel Forrest and Tiana Alexander’s Holly Nagata, which I found particularly delicious.

*I had forgotten that Adam Arkin, who portrayed Private Zylowski, was in this miniseries. His character is an ex-con who had joined the Army to avoid a prison sentence. He is also supposed to be a first-rate boxer. His character strongly reminds me of a New York version of Montgomery Clift’s character in the 1953 movie, “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” – especially his relationship with the prostitute Shirley.

*One of my favorite scenes featured Captain Lankford’s success in preventing Dr. Carol Lang from committing suicide. Good acting from both Robert Wagner and Lesley Ann Warren.

*One of the most painful moments I have ever seen in “PEARL” turned out to be the scene in which Doug North meets Holly’s Japanese-born parents and experiences their silent bigotry. Very powerful scene and great acting by Tiana Alexander, Gregg Henry, Seth Sakai and Marik Yamoto.

*Watching Colonel Forrest and the general’s wife (portrayed by Audra Lindley) dance and fail to enjoy themselves was one of the funniest moments in the miniseries.

*“WHO IS THAT ORIENTAL PERSON WHO SPOKE TO YOU?” – The reason I had typed that quote in caps was to hint how loudly Audra Lindley said it to Dennis Weaver’s character. Unforgettable moment.

*I was disappointed to notice that some of the female extras at the Officers’ Ball sequence failed to look as if they had stepped out of a photo circa 1941.

*Some might take this the wrong way, but I am speaking from a cinematic point of view. The scenes featuring the Japanese Zeroes flying over Oahu looked very beautiful to me. However, I suspect the scenes are stock footage from the 1970 movie, “TORA! TORA! TORA!”.

*Due to Angie Dickinson’s superb performance, Midge Forrest’s speech about the travails of Army officer wives was absolutely marvelous. And it was highlighted by two wonderful lines spoken by Midge:

“Jason, I look at you and see 10,000 chairs.”
“You and I have been at war for the past eighteen years.”

*Another memorable scene featured FBI agents’ warning to Mr. Nagata about his pigeons and threat about imprisoning the entire family. Their warning and threat led to a disturbing moment in which Mr. Nagata kills his pigeons with his bare hands.

*Some of the footage showing civilians evacuating their homes looked as if they had been shot in the early 1950s, instead of a decade earlier.

*It is interesting how Colonel Forrest is so obsessed with the idea of a Japanese-American fifth-column on the Hawaiian Islands. According to two historians, the U.S. government harbored a similar obsession that went back several decades.

*The most painful and heart wrenching moment in “PEARL” was featured in a scene in which Holly grieved over Doug’s body, while Carol Lang looked on, crying. Great performances by both Tiana Alexander and Lesley Ann Warren. There was a follow-up in which Holly visited the Norths, Doug’s family, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Not only was Alexander great in this scene, but also Richard Anderson, Mary Crosby and especially Marion Ross, as Doug’s family.

*In “PEARL”, the U.S. Army seemed to be the major military force for the Hawaiian Islands. But I could have sworn that in real life, the U.S. Navy served that role. Am I wrong . . . or right?

*Dennis Weaver and Robert Wagner have an interesting moment where their characters – Colonel Forrest and Captain Lankford – declare their loathing of each other. But the scene’s pièce de résistance featured Midge’s grand announcement of her intentions to divorce her husband. Her exit proved to be even more spectacular. I felt it was one of Angie Dickinson’s finest moments on screen and she received great support from Dennis Weaver, Robert Wagner and Brian Dennehy.

*Another interesting scene centered on Admiral Nagumo’s (portrayed by actor Sô Yamamura) criticism of his staff for commencing the attack on Pearl Harbor five minutes too early. What the admiral did not realize was that a snafu made by clerks at the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. prevented Japan from officially declaring their intentions to the U.S. government on time.

There were many aspects in “PEARL” that strongly reminded me of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”. Both productions featured an unhappily married and promiscuous officer’s wife, an Army private that was unpopular with his company’s non-coms and officers, another Army private falling in love with a prostitute and a setting featuring before, during and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But there were differences. The U.S. Navy was strongly represented by the character of Lieutenant j.g. Doug North, his father and some of the men under his command. Doug’s romance with the Japanese-American journalist, Holly Nagata, seemed straight from the 1893 short story, “Madame Butterfly”. Whereas the 1953 movie seemed to feature more enlisted men and non-coms, officers also had major roles in the 1978 miniseries.

While many might turn up their noses at the similarities between “PEARL” and “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”, there is an ironic footnote to this whole situation. About less than a year after “PEARL” aired on television, NBC followed up with its own miniseries adaptation of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

After the bleak narrative of “The Massacre”, the fifth episode of “CENTENNIAL”, the following episode is almost a joy to watch. I can state with absolute certainty that “The Longhorns” is one of my favorite episodes of the series.

“The Massascre” ended with Englishman Oliver Seccombe’s return to the West and his declaration to start a ranch in Northern Colorado on behalf of a major British investor, one Earl Venneford of Wye. Upon Levi Zendt’s recommendation, Seccombe hires John Zimmerhorn, the son of the disgraced militia colonel, to acquire Longhorn cattle in Texas and drive them back to Colorado. Upon his arrival in Texas, John meets a Latino cook by the name of Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez, who recommends that he hired an experienced trail boss named R.J. Poteet to lead the cattle drive to Colorado. Poteet hires a few experienced hands such as ex-slave Nate Pearson, Mule Canby and an ex-thief named Mike Lassiter to serve as cowboys for the drive. He also hires a handful of inexperienced young hands that includes a sharpshooter named Amos Calendar and a former Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Bufe Coker. To avoid any encounters with Commanche raiders and ex-Confederate bandits from Kansas, Poteet suggests to John that they travel through a trail established by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving that would take them through the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) and New Mexico. Before leaving Texas, Poteet hires one last cowboy – one Jim Lloyd, who happens to be the 14 year-old son of his best friend who was killed during the Civil War.

One of things that I like about “The Longhorns” is that it is filled with characters trying to make a new start in life, following the chaos of war. Most, if not all, are outsiders. For example:

*Jim Lloyd is the only cowhand on the drive who is under the age of 16.

*John Skimmerhorn has to deal with the reverberations of his father’s murderous actions in the last episode.

*”Nacho” Gomez is the only Latino and has to constantly deal with comments about his use of beans in his cooking.

*Nate Pearson is the only African-American on the drive and a former slave.

*Mike Lassiter is a former thief who uses the drive to clear his name and start a new life of respectability.

*Bufe Coker is the only Easterner (from South Carolina) with very little experiences in dealing with the West.

The ironic thing about “The Longhorns” is that instead of constant conflict between the cowboys, all of them managed to form a strong bond during the long drive between Texas and the Colorado Territory. This strong bond is formed through a series of shared experiences – battling the environment, Native American raiders and Kansas bandits; along with humorous stories around a campfire and sensible wisdom from the experienced hands. One of the episode’s long-running joke are Lassiter and Canby’s recollections of an eccentric named O.D. Cleaver. The drive not only introduced one of the miniseries’ major characters, Jim Lloyd; but also the strong bond formed by the cowboys that would end up having consequences in future episodes.

If viewers are expecting “The Longhorns” to be a 90-minute version of the 1989 CBS miniseries, “LONESOME DOVE”, they will be in for a disappointment. “The Longhorns” is basically a contribution to the narrative and history of “CENTENNIAL”, not a major storyline. The relationships formed in the episode does have consequences on the story . . . but that is about it. I certainly did not expect it to be another “CENTENNIAL”. In fact, I was too busy enjoying the episode to really care.

When I said that I enjoyed “The Longhorns”, I was not joking. One, it featured one of my favorite themes in any story – long distance traveling. Two, I enjoyed watching the characters – major and minor – develop a strong camaraderie within the episode’s 97-minute running time. And thanks to screenwriter John Wilder and director Virgil W. Vogel, the miniseries featured some strong characterizations, allowing many of the actors to shine. I wish I could pinpoint which performance really impressed me. This episode was filled with some strong performances. But if I had to be honest, the performances that really impressed me came from Dennis Weaver as the tough and pragmatic trail boss, R.J. Poteet; Michael St. Clair as the young Jim Lloyd who in a poignant scene, eventually realizes that he will never see Texas and his family again; Cliff De Young, who continued his solid performance as the very steady John Skimmerhorn; Glynn Turman as the warm, yet competent Nate Pearson; Greg Mullavey as the gregarious Mule Canby; Rafael Campos as the tough, yet friendly “Nacho” Campos; Les Lannom as the slightly caustic Bufe Coker who is also desperate to start a new life in the post-war West; Jesse Vint as soft-spoken, yet slightly intimidating Amos Calendar; Dennis Frimple as the enthusiastic, but odor-challenged Buck; and Scott Hylands, who gave a very entertaining performance as the verbose teller of tall tales, Mike Lassiter.

For an episode that is considered part of a miniseries called “CENTENNIAL”, I found it interesting that it featured the setting in question in only two minor scenes. One of them featured the cowboys arrival in the vicinity of Centennial. The other and more important scene featured the continued feud between Seccombe and immigrant farmer Hans Brumbaugh. Both Timothy Dalton and Alex Karras played the hell out of this brief scene, reminding viewers that the hostility between the two is destined to spill over in a very ugly way.

What more can I say about “The Longhorns”? I loved it. I loved it when I first saw it and I still do. It featured long-distance traveling, strong characterizations and a strong, yet steady narrative. Both Virgil Vogel and John Wilder, along with the cast made this episode one of the most memorable in the entire miniseries.