|Dirty Harry (1971); High
Noon (1952); Rosemary’s Baby (1968); Ninotchka (1939); and Alice in Wonderland are all indebted to
the unsung heroes of 2002.
Last winter in this column we told readers we believed
it was important to celebrate some of the unique but unheralded
talents lost in the preceding 12 months. We’re doing it again—and
once again this survey is not meant to be a comprehensive list,
but rather a small tribute to a few of the gifted film artists whose
passing in 2002 received little attention from the U.S. media. Even
here, space constraints make it impossible to profile all who deserve
to be covered, so what we have instead is a personal selection of
moviemakers whose work we particularly enjoyed over the years.—MM
For the actor James Gregory, 90,
if steady stage and TV work kept him from having as prolific a film
career as he deserved, he still delivered some knockout big screen
performances. Most famously, he portrayed the title role in The
Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s scathing tale
of political assassination. As the manipulated, self-aggrandizing
Senator Iselin, Gregory created a character that is a devastating
hybrid of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon (his physical resemblance
to Nixon is quite eerie). A vastly different role was his portrayal
of the militaristic gorilla General Ursus in Beneath the Planet
of the Apes. By exaggerating his trademark swagger and inimitable
voice, Gregory parodied his own screen persona and seemed to thoroughly
enjoy doing so, spewing out campy lines like “The only good
human is a dead human!”
The director William Witney, 86,
spent his long and prolific career making cliffhangers, serials
and B movies that showcased such Saturday matinee idols as the Lone
Ranger, Zorro and Dick Tracy. In the process, he developed a significant
cult following. Two fine—and very different—examples
of his work are The Golden Stallion and The Bonnie Parker
Story. The Golden Stallion has been recognized as one
of the best Roy Rogers movies, a plucky little oater in which Roy,
Dale and Trigger do battle with diamond smugglers operating on the
US-Mexico border. The Bonnie Parker Story tells the Bonnie
and Clyde legend entirely from Bonnie’s perspective. It’s
pulp moviemaking at its best, with a sensational plot, plenty of
violence and action, flashy visuals, a surprisingly semi-feminist
slant and, of course, the occasional gratuitous shot of Bonnie half-dressed.
Both films display Witney’s ability to make the most out of
an ultra-low budget and short running time with an abundance of
The actress Hildegard Knef, 76, was
a major figure in German cinema in the years after World War II.
At the height of her popularity, she generated a storm of controversy
by briefly appearing nude in the extremely melodramatic The Sinner.
Unquestionably, her most important film was 1946’s The
Murderers Are Among Us, the first German film to address the
war and German responsibility. Partially filmed amid the rubble
of bombed-out Berlin, it is one of the essential films of the post-World
War II period, and Knef delivers a raw performance as a concentration
camp survivor trying to rebuild her life.
Sihung Lung, 72, was already one
of Taiwan’s leading actors when he was coaxed out of retirement
by director Ang Lee to star in Lee’s trilogy on family life, Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink
Man Woman. Together, the three films examine the intricacies
of familial relationships, blending humor with a refreshing lack
of sentimentality. It was in the third installment that Lung got
his juiciest part, as the widowed chef Chu who must cope with his
three adult daughters. His calm and remarkably subtle performance
anchors the film, making it the strongest of the series. Lung was
utilized by Lee one last time, playing the elder Sir Te in Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Gene Ruggiero, 91, opted for
a career in film editing over his initial choice of pro golfer.
The result was more than 30 years at MGM and a final filmography
stuffed with classics. Early in his career he edited two of Ernst
Lubitsch’s more charming efforts, Ninotchka and The
Shop Around the Corner. In the 1950s he worked on some of the
studio’s biggest productions, winning an Oscar for Around
the World in Eighty Days. But it was for Oklahoma that he did some of his best editing, working in perfect sync with
the rhythm of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score and Agnes de Mille’s
choreography, particularly during the extended ballet dream sequence
that is the highlight of the film.
Maria Felix, 88, was probably the
most popular movie star in Mexico’s history and one of the
icons from that country’s golden age of moviemaking. But because
her films never received wide release in America, her name is little
known beyond Spanish-speaking communities. One of her biggest successes
was Enamorada, a highly entertaining romantic comedy in
which her passionate and indomitable personality was on full display
as Beatriz, the fiery daughter of a local businessman.
Harry Gerstad, 93, also spent several
decades as a top Hollywood film editor. He won his first Oscar for
his work on Champion, a bleak look at boxing that used
Gerstad’s montage sequences to chronicle the lead character’s
rise in the corrupt boxing world. The training montage in particular
was so successful that to this day training sequences are a mainstay
for boxing pictures. His second Oscar came when he teamed with Elmo
Williams on High Noon, one of the most celebrated editing
efforts in film history. The film’s story famously unfolded
in real time, an astonishing feat for its era, and one which moviemakers
even today continue to attempt.
Yet another veteran of Mexican cinema was the actor Roberto Cobo, 72. He worked steadily in films for
over 50 years, but made his biggest mark early on with Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. Still the screen’s final word on the
desperate and violent lives of unwanted street youths, the film
is made all the more unforgettable by Cobo’s riveting performance
as the ruthless El Jaibo, a teenaged gang leader whose brutality
still shocks modern audiences.
Bill Peet, 87, was not part of Disney’s
anointed nine, but his achievements in animation were no less impressive.
He was considered a story man par excellence, making key contributions
as both animator and writer to Dumbo, Song of the South, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. He also wrote
Disney’s first real screenplay for an animated feature for 101 Dalmatians. Peet’s considerable storytelling
skills, coupled with his notorious love-hate relationship with old
Walt (he once said he had Disney in mind when drawing Captain Hook
for Peter Pan), made him a colorful and insightful chronicler
of that studio’s golden age.
Ward Kimball, 88, was a member of
the Nine Old Men, that fabled group of Disney’s most trusted
animators. Kimball brought to life such characters as Jiminy Cricket
in Pinocchio, the crows who give Dumbo the confidence
to fly, Lucifer the cat in Cinderella and several characters
in Alice in Wonderland. He was often assigned the more
difficult animation tasks, most notably the Mad Tea Party sequence
in Alice in Wonderland and, most famously, the frenzied
climactic performance of the title tune for The Three Caballeros.
Sometimes cited as among the most individual of the Disney animators,
Kimball, who possessed an almost anarchic visual style, went on
to direct—and win Oscars for—two of the more distinctive
and stylized Disney shorts, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and It’s
Tough to Be a Bird.
Richard Sylbert, 73, was unquestionably
one of the most influential production designers of his generation.
The sophistication, innovation and practicality of his sets put
him in high demand with directors ranging from Kazan to Polanski.
Sylbert’s designs are inseparable from the overall impact
of The Graduate, Chinatown, Rosemary’s
Baby and many others, creating an obscenely long list of essential
American films from the past 40 years. Even some of the lesser films
on which he worked, such as The Cotton Club and Dick
Tracy, remain impressive today for their visual brilliance
rather than their overall quality.
Dean Riesner, 83, surely had one
of the oddest of film careers. Under the screen name Dinky Dean
he acted in silent films, notably as the child who terrorizes Charlie
Chaplin in 1923’s The Pilgrim. Later he directed
and co-wrote Bill and Coo, a 1948 film about the troubles
of two birds that proved so popular it was awarded a special Oscar.
It was in middle age, however, that Riesner made his most enduring
contribution to American culture. As a writer of Coogan’s
Bluff, Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry and The Enforcer (and an uncredited script doctor on several
other Clint Eastwood films), Riesner helped define the Eastwood
screen image. Industry legend has it that it was Riesner who wrote
the classic line, “Go ahead, make my day.”
Katy Jurado, 78, the sultry, sleepy-eyed
star of Mexican cinema, also found some notoriety in Hollywood,
most prominently as Gary Cooper’s former lover in High
Noon, and for her Oscar-nominated performance in Broken
Lance. One of her greatest roles came in Luis Buñuel’s
noirish melodrama El Bruto, in which she plays the temptress
Paloma. Jurado’s electrifying, sexually-charged performance
marks her as a femme fatale of the first rank, and in her most memorable
scene she helps her frail, aged father-in-law sneak a drink by dipping
her finger into a glass of tequila and then putting her finger into
his mouth. As he continually requests more, she asks him whether
he is enjoying the tequila or her finger and he enthusiastically
Queenie Leonard, 96, was part
of that rare breed of scene-stealers who built substantial film
careers almost entirely through bit parts—often without a
screen credit. She was normally onscreen for only a moment or two,
but her appearances were little gems, finely etched characterizations
that remained with the film long after she left it. Leonard popped
up in almost any genre, from the sophisticated Ernst Lubitsch comedy Cluny Brown to Disney family fare like Mary Poppins.
Her more memorable roles included getting bumped off in the Agatha
Christie mystery And Then There Were None and being one
of Jack the Ripper’s victims in the 1944 remake of The
Jeff Corey, 88, was another of those
ubiquitous character actors who seemed to be in far more films than
was actually the case. Recognizable by his improbably bushy eyebrows,
statesmanlike voice and imposing presence, Corey was getting progressively
larger parts when his career was halted during the Hollywood blacklist.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he eventually recovered and worked
steadily into his eighties. He had standout roles in In Cold
Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True
Grit, and gave a memorable portrait of Wild Bill Hickok in Little Big Man.
It seems fitting to wrap this up by marking the passing
of special effects expert Glen Robinson, 87. Like
the majority of production artists, Robinson worked in obscurity,
making it difficult to accurately assess his contributions to moviemaking.
During his more than 30 years at MGM, he worked on countless films,
almost always without screen credit, so even compiling a reliable
list of his credits is probably impossible at this point. When he
turned freelance in the early 1970s, Robinson finally received some
recognition within the industry, pulling off the considerable feat
of winning four effects Oscars in just three years: for Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (’75), King Kong and Logan’s Run in (both in ’76). MM