The Cinematic Landscape of 1969: A Film Buff’s Coming of Age

28 Aug

I’d been planning a piece about the films of 1969, but I decided to wait until I’d seen Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD before finalizing my approach to it. I was curious to see what films from that period would be referenced and how that contrasted with my own experience at the movies that year. I was glad to see posters and marquees in the film highlighting films I’d seen back then, but his film takes place mostly on two weekends in 1969, one in February and one in August, so there was a limit to the references he could make. Besides, most of the film’s recreated production scenes focused on TV shows of the time, most of which I didn’t see because my household didn’t have a TV set for that entire year. More on OUATIH later.

For me, 1969 was the year I got an after-school job and was able to go to many more movies than I previously could on my meager allowance. It was also the year I started seeing movies in Manhattan by myself, usually in Times Square near my high school, the High School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school).

Image result for High School of Performing arts

I wound up seeing 67 movies in theaters that year, the most in any year up to that time, mostly as double features. And I went to 15 different theaters, nine in the Bronx and six in Manhattan, including the ones featured here (the first picture is actually from 1969):

It was also the first full year of the movie ratings established by the Motion Picture Association of America

“G” for General Audience

“M” for Mature Audiences

“R” for Restricted Audiences—anyone under 16 requiring an accompanying adult

“X” for adults only.

M became GP in 1971 and PG not long after.

As a result, we saw more graphic violence and explicit female nudity than we’d seen in movies before and we heard more profanity. I heard “bullshit” in a few films for the first time, including BULLITT and THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN, and the first time I heard “fuck” in a movie was in PUTNEY SWOPE. I saw my first nude scenes, the most memorable being Barbarella’s weightless strip show as she removes her space suit in the credits of BARBARELLA; Leigh Taylor-Young’s seduction of Ryan O’Neal in THE BIG BOUNCE; and Britt Ekland’s removal of her top during a strip act in THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S.

The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1969, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, was rated X for scenes with sexual content from the life of a male hustler, although that rating would be softened to an “R” for a later re-release since there was really nothing in it that wouldn’t eventually show up in TV sitcoms years later. Even so, my mother was upset that I went to see it. And the leader of my church youth group was alarmed to overhear me describing the scene in the 42nd Street movie theater to someone else in the group. It taught me to be a little more careful around adults.

All this meant that at the age of 15 and then 16, I was seeing movies that were quite a bit different from the movies I saw up to that time. It also meant I was exposed to adult subject matter, which could mean films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY or sometimes simply films that treated contemporary relationships with degrees of honesty and frankness like STERILE CUCKOO, with Liza Minnelli as a needy college girl who moves in with a boy from a different college and finds he’s simply not ready for her, and GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, based on a novella by Philip Roth about a Jewish male librarian from the Bronx who enters into an affair with a rich Jewish girl from Scarsdale only to be hampered by class differences. I even bought the book by Roth and read it.

Funny story: I only went to see the R-rated GOODBYE, COLUMBUS because I’d been turned down by the cashier at a nearby theater showing THE SOUND OF MUSIC because they were running a sneak preview of a film rated M and she told me I had to be 17 to see it after I told her I was 16. The cashier at the Loew’s Paradise, where GOODBYE, COLUMBUS was playing, said only one thing to me, “Gimme the money!” (I did go back two days later to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC.)

I was also exposed to cinematic depictions of the counterculture for the first time as seen in films like EASY RIDER, about two hippie-biker-drug dealers on a road trip through the American south, and ALICE’S RESTAURANT, in which singer Arlo Guthrie plays himself in a film adaptation of his epic ballad about an awkward encounter with local law enforcement in a Massachusetts town on Thanksgiving.

In addition, there were racially charged dramas like UPTIGHT, a black-cast remake of THE INFORMER, about a down-and-outer who informs on a fugitive black militant in Cleveland, and SLAVES, about a slave revolt in 1850 Kentucky.

Then there was PUTNEY SWOPE, Robert Downey (Sr.)’s hilarious satire of Madison Avenue which explores the comic implications when an ad agency is taken over by the title character, an unassuming but inwardly seething black board member (“We’re not gonna rock the boat. Rockin’ the boat’s a drag. We’re here to sink it!”). It also lampooned the black power movement of the time, a rather audacious move then, but I don’t recall anyone protesting it. The film played like an R-rated version of a Mad Magazine piece.

Watching it again recently, I found it hit-and-miss and wondered how much an audience seeing it for the first time today would laugh. Here’s what I posted on Facebook:

As part of my immersion in 1969, I revisited PUTNEY SWOPE for the second or third time this century. I’m curious what millennials and younger think of this film. I remember every audience I saw it with back in the day laughed uproariously at it. Some of the gags fall flat today, e.g. the Mark Focus running gag, while others are still funny, e.g. the Sonny Williams running gag, although it will probably still shock some viewers today. The Face Off commercial is still a masterpiece, while most of the other commercials were either always unfunny (the ‘lectric fan one) or go on way too long (Lucky Airlines). The shock value of some of the humor has dissipated over the years. The satire of black power and black militancy was quite bold and audacious for the time and I still find it so.

I went on IMDB to see what the reaction was and I found a couple of comments from young viewers that were quite funny. One dismissed the film out of hand: “I’m sure this was considered daring and shocking in 1969 but it just seems silly today. The jokes are either unfunny (the president is a midget. HOW is this funny?), cruel or obvious and the film is full of unlikable characters. It’s done in a very experimental way which makes it even harder to take…or understand. The movie just gets more bizarre and surreal as it goes along.” Another seemed to like it but was also confused by the portrayal of the president: “Most of the movie takes place inside the ad agency, with occasional scenes in the White House with a president who, for some unknown reason, is a midget.  My assumption is here that some political joke was being made, but I can’t figure out what. Were the filmmakers saying that the president is a small, insignificant part of American life? Were they saying that the latest elected officials (Nixon at the time) were insignificant candidates?”

One of the best things about the film, then and now, is Antonio Fargas’ motor-mouthed portrayal of “The Arab” (below, center), Swope’s rebellious lieutenant. I can’t confirm it but I am convinced that Fargas improvised all his dialogue.

In any event, I remember the film being widely seen among my circles with everyone at school talking about it.

In looking over my viewing log for 1969 (the first year in which I kept one  and a practice I’ve maintained off and on over the 50 years since), I’m impressed with the sheer range of movies I saw, reflecting an eagerness to see lots of different things and an open-mindedness that’s narrowed considerably in recent decades. (Or has the range of films offered in theaters narrowed considerably during that time?)

For instance, I saw all five of these films in one weekend, Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, August 29 to August 31, 50 years ago this week: GOODBYE COLUMBUS, ACE HIGH, THE WILD BUNCH, THE BIG BOUNCE, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. And three of these films were R-rated!

For the record, many of the films I saw were older releases, like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, that were being reissued to theaters, a common practice back then, and some were 1968 releases that finally made it to the Bronx. I’ll also be including 1969 releases that I didn’t see until they came to my neighborhood theaters in early 1970. Here’s a sampling, in addition to the ones I cited above.

These epics were reissued that year and I got to see them for the first time:

Shakespeare:

Dramas:

Comedy:

Musicals:

I had the original Broadway cast album of “Camelot,” with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet in the lead roles. Needless to say, the movie version was a big disappointment.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW was the first film I saw by myself at a Manhattan theater (the Gramercy).

I saw OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR, Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of the stage musical parodying World War I propaganda, at a free screening at the Paris Theater on October 15, 1969, a day when high school kids cut school to protest the Vietnam War.

War:

THE LONGEST DAY was reissued that summer to observe the 25th anniversary of D-Day and it was the second time I saw it.

CASTLE KEEP was the first film I saw by myself in a Times Square theater, the Loew’s State. I had been to Times Square theaters before, including the Loew’s State, but on class trips to see films like LORD JIM and HOW THE WEST WAS WON.  I also read the book CASTLE KEEP was based on.

Thrillers:

There was also a new James Bond film released in 1969 and I would see it on the second day of the new year in 1970. It was the first official Bond film without Sean Connery, who was replaced in the role by Australian actor George Lazenby, making his one and only Bond film. While it was a pale echo of the Connery Bonds, it was still quite good and remains far superior, in my opinion, to most of the Bond films that followed, including every Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan Bond film.

When I look at the list of directors represented by the films I saw in 1969, I’m astounded at the extent of my film education that year: David Lean, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Jules Dassin, Otto Preminger, Tony Richardson, George Seaton, Francis Coppola, John Schlesinger, Henry Hathaway, Don Siegel, William Friedkin, and Roger Vadim, among others.

On Sunday, July 20, 1969, while everyone else was glued to their TV sets watching the moon landing, I was at a neighborhood theater, the Devon, watching two comedies, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, a recreation of a lower Manhattan burlesque theater in the 1920s, and BUONA SERA, MRS. CAMPBELL, a clever tale of an Italian woman who had a daughter by an American soldier during the war, but doesn’t know which of three soldiers is the actual father, so she accepts payments from all three. When a reunion of their unit brings all three back to Italy, she has to figure out how to deal with them. Jimmy Roselli sang the theme song, which I still remember fondly.

“If you said it in a thousand ways, I’d be waiting for a thousand days, for that little Italian phrase, ‘Buona sera.’”

(You can hear the whole song here: https://secondhandsongs.com/work/170954/all)

As with so many years from that period, I began the year by seeing WEST SIDE STORY and ended it by seeing WEST SIDE STORY. The end-of-year showing, on a double bill with THE SCALPHUNTERS at a theater close to my home, offered a print that was subtitled in Spanish. When Riff, leader of the Jets, declares, “You’re damned right!” the subtitle put it more politely, “Claro que si!”

Most importantly, 1969 stands out for me as a year of westerns. I saw 14 of them, including three that would join my list of all-time favorite films. It’s the year I saw my first Italian westerns and got introduced to director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. I saw five Italian westerns that year, starting with the rather unremarkable THE UGLY ONES, starring English actor Richard Wyler and Cuban actor Tomas Milian, followed by my first Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), my first with Lee Van Cleef (DEATH RIDES A HORSE),  my second Leone (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), and a western comedy, ACE HIGH, with Eli Wallach, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Three had music by Morricone (the two Leones plus DEATH RIDES A HORSE).

It was a great year for American westerns too, maybe the last such year, with Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH provoking great controversy with its graphic violence and bloodletting and arousing extraordinary audience engagement with its tale of outlaws past their prime who get caught up in the Mexican Revolution. It quickly became a personal favorite and I would see it many times in theaters over the next four years, including at all-Peckinpah shows in Manhattan. I wrote about it this past June on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its release.

Two better-than-average studio westerns released in 1969 were Henry Hathaway’s TRUE GRIT, starring John Wayne and Kim Darby and based on Charles Portis’s excellent novel, and George Roy Hill’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, written by William Goldman and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I’d wind up seeing both of these films multiple times.

Al Hirschfeld’s take on TRUE GRIT:

Other good ones I saw that year included Burt Kennedy’s comic western starring James Garner, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! and Tom Gries’s tale of the Mexican revolution, 100 RIFLES, starring Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. At the time, I also liked MACKENNA’S GOLD, a grand all-star adventure with an absurd gold-hunting plot, starring Gregory Peck as MacKenna, an ex-marshal who has memorized the map of a hidden valley lined with gold in Indian territory and is forced to take a Mexican bandit (Omar Sharif) and his gang there. Two of the other westerns I saw that year were less memorable, but still moderately entertaining: THE SCALPHUNTERS, starring Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas, and SAM WHISKEY, starring Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickinson, Ossie Davis and Clint Walker.

I would see GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, another 1969 western, on a triple feature with its prequels, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and RETURN OF THE SEVEN, at the Victoria Theater in Times Square in early 1971. George Kennedy took over for Yul Brynner in the lead role of Chris.

And then there was Elvis Presley as the title character in CHARRO!, the only Elvis film I saw on the big screen in its initial release. I remember seeing the trailer for it first and when the camera zoomed in on an unshaven, sullen-looking Elvis, the audience laughed. It’s not one of Elvis’s best movies. It’s not even one of his best westerns.

Elvis would make only one more Hollywood feature, CHANGE OF HABIT, which opened in November 1969 and which I wouldn’t see until the 21st century when I picked up a used VHS copy of it.

I also saw my first Clint Eastwood films in 1969, four in all starting with Don Siegel’s police thriller, COOGAN’S BLUFF, and continuing with Brian G. Hutton’s action-packed war film WHERE EAGLES DARE, in which Eastwood plays second fiddle to Richard Burton on a mission against the Nazis behind enemy lines (the two wear Nazi uniforms throughout). That fall I saw a double bill of Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the third in the director’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, and HANG ‘EM HIGH, Eastwood’s first starring role in a U.S. film. I’ve seen each of these films many times in the decades since.

And here’s a collection of newspaper ads from 1969. I saw four of the five Paramount releases featured in this ad that year, while I caught up with the fifth (IF…) in a revival theater a few years later.

I purchased soundtrack albums for a lot of the movies I saw in 1969, including these:

BARBARELLA

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

EASY RIDER

FINIAN’S RAINBOW

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

MACKENNA’S GOLD

MIDNIGHT COWBOY

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

THE WILD BUNCH

I wrote about some of their song interludes here.

Getting back to Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, I was pleased to see a number of film titles on marquees or posters that I saw in 1969, including MACKENNA’S GOLD, ROMEO AND JULIET, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, ICE STATION ZEBRA, and THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS. Other film titles seen on marquees include: LADY IN CEMENT, PRETTY POISON, PENDULUM, FUNNY GIRL and KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA. We hear a radio ad for THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and a TV trailer for THREE IN THE ATTIC. In a movie theater, we see the trailer for C.C. & COMPANY, a biker film which didn’t come out until October 1970. There may have been others, but they went by too quickly to note.

The most extensive film reference is to THE WRECKING CREW, which I devoted space to in my previous entry discussing the film and TV clips used in Tarantino’s movie. The “Coming Attraction” displayed in posters on the theater’s exterior is Sergio Corbucci’s Italian western THE MERCENARY, which didn’t get released in the U.S. until March 1970. (The scene in the film takes place on February 9, 1969 right after THE WRECKING CREW actually opened in the U.S.)

I saw both THE WRECKING CREW and THE MERCENARY in theaters in the summer of 1970, a month apart at the same theater. THE WRECKING CREW played with CACTUS FLOWER, a 1969 comedy starring Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn and based on a play by Abe Burrows. THE MERCENARY played with HALLS OF ANGER, a 1970 racial drama about white kids in L.A. being bused to a black school. (Two of the white kids were played by Jeff Bridges and Rob Reiner.) I would see THE MERCENARY again in June 1973 when it played at a Bronx theater on a bill with the first Bruce Lee movie I saw, THE CHINESE CONNECTION, a month before Lee died. Lee, of course, is a character in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD.

Tarantino’s Lee (played by Michael Moh):

The real Lee (in THE CHINESE CONNECTION):

I was a bit disappointed that THE WILD BUNCH wasn’t featured on a marquee or poster in Tarantino’s film since it was still playing theaters in August 1969 when the last quarter of the film takes place. As I said in my previous entry, I also would have liked to see a shout-out to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, although some fans suggest it would have been too obvious a reference.

Granted, a lot of my favorite 1969 releases wouldn’t be seen by me until they came on TV years later or, in the case of certain European films, released in theaters in the U.S. in the years afterward, including Lee Van Cleef’s Italian westerns, DAY OF ANGER and SABATA, and Henri Verneuil’s French caper thriller, THE SICILIAN CLAN, which I saw at a neighborhood theater in 1972 on a double bill with Tony Anthony’s black comic Italian western, BLINDMAN. THE SICILIAN CLAN starred Jean Gabin and Alain Delon and I still relish the fact that I could see a new Jean Gabin film a few blocks from my house while I was a college freshman.

And there are, of course, a number of foreign genre films I didn’t discover till I found them on home video in the 21st century, including 17 Shaw Bros. films from Hong Kong, led by Chang Cheh’s RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, and a host of Japanese films including SAMURAI GEISHA (below) and the first three CRIMSON BAT films about a blind swordswoman. But I’ll save those for a future entry.

In any event, 1969 was made most memorable by these ten films, all of which I’ve seen multiple times since they came out, and nine of which I saw in 1969-70. Not necessarily the ten best of the year once I factor in the Shaw Bros. and Japanese films from 1969 that I discovered decades later, but a good list nonetheless.

THE WILD BUNCH

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

TRUE GRIT

DEATH RIDES A HORSE

THE GREEN SLIME

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE

WHERE EAGLES DARE

EASY RIDER

MIDNIGHT COWBOY

PUTNEY SWOPE

Coming soon: the foreign genre films of 1969.

 

One Response to “The Cinematic Landscape of 1969: A Film Buff’s Coming of Age”

  1. Ed Rampell September 24, 2019 at 3:56 AM #

    Great cinematic stuff, great movie memories, indicating how films form a cineaste’s mind. While Brian was watching Lee Van Cleef flicks I was seeing “If….” Of course, both were ultra-violent so they shared that in common!

    A very enjoyable read and I discovered that Brian and I were in the same place at the same time three years before we met up at Hunter College as film majors. We both cut classes to go to anti-war rallies that included free screenings of “Oh! What a Lovely War” at the Paris Theater, where I smoked pakalolo for the very first time right outside the moviehouse!

    So you see, great minds do think alike!

    Loved your story and isn’t it ironic that Peter Fonda died shortly after the 50th anniversary of the release of “Easy Rider”, and right before the 50th anniversary of Woodstock… I have a specific memory about seeing “EZ Rider” I’ll share with you when next we speak.

    Keep up the great writing – the confessions of a film buff!

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