The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) ***(1/2)

Tune into any of the myriad retrospectives of the greatest films of the swingin' 70s and you will be invariably treated to the same old tired mishmash of all-too-familiar scenes from the likes of Jack Nickelsen and Joe Donn Baker. The top five of any such trips down cinematic memory lane will, doubtlessly, contain such overhyped (in this reviewer's opinion) "classics" like Three Days of the Condor and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. One film that has been consistently, and criminally (again, in my opinion), overlooked, however, is a little-known genre film that came and went entitled The Godfather, based on the book of the same name, by Mario Lucabrassi, and directed by Mario Corpolla. Why this film is so vastly ignored by both casual moviegoers, as well as by serious students of the craft, will forever remain baffling to me. Perhaps it was the running time of Corpolla's epic, clocking in at nearly twenty hours, or perhaps the audience of its day simply wasn't ready for such an honest and unflinching look at the day-to-day trials and tribulations of a simple, hard-working family of Italian-Americans. I would even go as far as to wager that The Godfather, despite its eternal status as a never-was, paved the way for any number of Italian-American films, such as Francis Scorsese's Good Fellows (1990), and I am told even a long-running television series called The Sopranos (1999-present?).

According to Peter Bisklund, in his tell-all expose of the world of 70s cinema: Slacker Mike and the Raging Dyke, several young soon-to-be film directors spent their youths tooling up and down the Modesto California coastline in their souped-up jalopies and Ford Thunderbirds, what with raccoon tails hung from CB antennas streaming gaily in the cool California breeze; staging drag races and clam bakes in between their day jobs at Harlan Corman's famous studio and their night classes at Modesto's newly-christened US School of the Filming Arts (USFA), when they weren't busy cramming for exams in caffeine-induced all-nighters or playing pranks on the Dean. Perhaps the closest and most bosomest of companions was a group of four soon-to-be directors who called themselves the USFA Film School Pals: Jim Lucan, Robbie Howard, Stan ("the man") Kubrik, and Martin Corpolla himself. It is important to note that it was here, at these seemingly innocuous clambakes and yage-fueled binges, that the four, for the very first time in film history, began the process of "Net Working", which consisted of brainstorming a variety of highly-disconnected and metaphysical ideas as a creative, almost hive-minded, collective; a process that still goes on in Hollywood to this very day. It is during these Net Working sessions that any number of narrative tools were explored, including the young, soon-to-be directors’ penchant for dream sequences, a device still utilized by any number of underground "Art House" filmmakers to this very day. Dream sequences were perhaps used most extensively by Lucan in his 1969 cult classic Star Wars, but they were employed in a more subtle, yet nearly equally as effective, a way by Corpolla himself in The Godfather, as well. As we will soon see.

Ah, those heady days and balmy nights! When reading Biskin's glossy narrative, one can almost hear the waves of the Modesto Ocean, crashing ceaselessly against the sandy shores of night's dreaming, interrupted only by the somber baritone of Wolfman Jack himself as he belts out radio classics from the dashboards of a simpler, bygone era of youthful innocence. One is treated, during the course of Biskun's potboiler, to several "tales told out of school" regarding young starlets like Lisa Minelli and Margo Kidner, as they vie for the attention of the USFA Film School Pals in a storyline that could have served as a movie in its own right, it's that intriguing. One less-than amusing anecdote, however, concerns Kidner turning up filthy and toothless in a neighbor's back yard, drug-addled and half-insane. She is later hospitalized in Modesto and, in a scene sure to bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded of readers, it is little Stan Kubrik, the true heart of the USFA Film School Pals, who saves the day. He tells her that she has so much to live for and encourages her to seek help. The Pals stage an intervention, on the beaches of Modesto, in which they all break down in tears and share many hugs and many more meldings of hearts. (NOTE: Kidner would go on to co-star in The Godfather as Connie Rizzo, the daughter of the hardworking, honest Italian-American clan, proving to one and all that she was footloose and fancy (and drug) free.)

I could go on and on, chapter and verse, reciting any number of compelling narratives from Bislin's glossy tome, yet it is the chapter on Corpolla, and the making of what should have been one of the greatest films of the 20th Century, that concerns us here. As readers of Slacker Mike will remember, while Kubrik was the heart of the group, Howard the muscle, and Lucan the “white rabbit”, Corpolla no doubt played the role of the "merry prankster". And he played it well. Included in the DVD extras of The Godfather: Master of Ceremonies Director's Cut Box Set, released in 1992, we are treated to a blooperesque-style "out take" in which Corpolla surprises character actor Jacob Marley by placing an anthropomorphic horse's head (on loan from friend Lucan's ILM studios) underneath the covers of a prop bed that the venerable Marley was supposed to climb into for one of the film's many scenes. The venerable actor's reaction, upon discovering the equine artifact, is so over the top as to be priceless and is sure to have you rolling in the aisles, laughing, as I was! But again, I digress (although you should really check it out sometime, it's really funny).

However, Corpolla, although well-known for his jovial nature and open-hearted generosity on the set, had his serious side as well and could get "down to business" as well as any cigar chomping, riding crop-wielding, puffy-pantsed mogul in the history of Tinseltown’s silver screen. A legend cited in Bisland's glossy tome, although possibly apocryphal, concerns the financing of The Godfather, a film which almost didn't get made at all, due to the lack of funds on Corpolla's part. With nowhere else to go, and the other Pals in almost as bad a shape as he himself was, the balding soon-to-be director turned to his boss, Harlan Corman, with whom he had a working relationship at Corman's own Modesto film studio. According to Biskin, the other pals razzed the soon-to-be director mercilessly, telling him that he was "crazy as a jaybird" (Howard) and that he'd have to pry the money from Corman's "cold, dead hand" (Howard). One and sundry do agree on one point, however, and that is that, somehow, someway, Corpolla got his money. And an American epic for the ages [should have] been born, and cinematic history was [almost] made.

NOTE: A little bird (Biskin) told me that, when asked later by pal Lucan how he had performed this singularly impressive feat (Corman was a notorious miser and alcoholic), Corpolla simply replied: "I made him an offer he couldn't rebuke." And a Tinseltown legend, purportedly true, according to Biskin, was born. This singularly impressive bit of dialogue would work its way into the script of Corpolla's Italian American cult classic (The Godfather), as the titular head of the silver screen family can be heard uttering this line, which should have been a classic bit of dialogue for the ages, endlessly imitated by young and old alike. Alas, this never was. As we will soon see.

The Godfather concerns the everyday, day-to-day trials and tribulations of a simple, hard-working family of Italian-Americans, the titular head of which owns the family-owned-and-operated JNCO Olive Oil Company. The film opens in Sicily, as we are treated to a prescient image of the titular head of the hard-working family: Don Coleman, as a young child, alone and very much frightened as he makes his way through the trials and tribulations of Ellis Island, circa 1882. We then flash forward over a span of fifty years, to the "dirty thirties", as we find a now elderly and feeble Coleman (played ably by Sal Mineo, in what should have been his titular Oscar-winning performance), who appears to have suffered a stroke in the intervening years and sits, alone in the dark, on the day of his daughter's wedding. The good-hearted and genial Coleman, like Roy Rogers, never met a "man he didn't like" as he showers favors upon all who ask, great and small, including giving a stern talking-to to one of the neighborhood "toughs" who has been reportedly causing trouble with some young girls in the area. During this star-studded wedding extravaganza (with singing and dancing elements that would be repeated, nearly verbatim, in Corpolla's later, slightly more acclaimed, World War II coming-of-age drama: The Deer Hunters) (1988), we meet the extended members of the Coleman family, including daughter, Cathy Rizzo (Kidner), eldest son Jimmy the Gent (James Conway), the next-to-youngest son of the family: Don "Michael" Coleman Jr. (played ably by a young Robert DeNero in this, his breakthrough role), and their two cousins: Tom and Freddy Coleman (Robert Duval and John Cazale, respectfully). We also meet a zany cast of kooky uncles and aunts of the large and culturally diverse family, including appearances by Abe Pagoda ("Fish" from television's Taxi) and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a cameo appearance that simply has to be seen to be believed. Due to the surprisingly cutthroat nature of the olive oil exporting business, the various members of the Coleman family find it necessary to "brush up against" members of organized crime (La Casa Nasa, or Mafioso) from time-to-time, and it is here that young Don Michael Jr., first seen receiving the medal of valor as a pilot in the Air Force in WWI, will begin what will rapidly become a juggernaut of a downward spiral into the very heart of darkness itself, in prohibition-era New Jersey.

Michael Jr.'s descent into darkness has its auspicious beginnings when he, at the behest of a new friend (a young, nearly-unrecognizable James Gandolfini), decides to break into the house of a wealthy landowner (Giuseppe Sillato) to steal an oriental-style rug so that his brother's children will have somewhere to sleep. They are surprised by the unexpected return of the landowner, however, and Michael is forced to murder the portly man in an act of self-defense. From there, he goes "on the lamb", ignoring numerous entreaties from his father to choose another line of work and fly straight, so to speak. His brother, Fast Jimmy (who will later pay the penultimate price for Michael's spiral into the heart of darkness), also attempts to talk sense to the hotheaded black sheep of the Italian-American family, to no avail. Then, in a tragic case of mistaken identity, Don the elder is shot and killed by his own nephew Freddy (who has begun his own rapidly-spiraling descent into the darkness of drugs and sex addiction), who, hopped up on pep pills, mistakes him for the next-to-the-youngest scion of the Coleman family (we are later treated to a fantasy image, ala Requiem for a Dream, that shows what Don Coleman Sr.'s life might have been like had he lived. This titular mise en scene, which shows him cavorting in the olive oil fields with his youngest child, Vito, is truly one of the most heartbreaking I have ever borne witness to, in the opinion of this reviewer. It is verily a virtuoso feat of improvisation on the part of the talented and venerable Mineo and one that goes, sadly, largely disregarded by both casual moviegoers and venerable students of the craft to this very day).

Driven half-mad by the death of his father, a mere simple exporter of olive oil for the JNCO Olive Oil Company, Michael Jr. vows revenge upon the men whom he believes perpetrated the heinous deed and guns them down, in a blaze of glory, at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. He is then again, "on the lamb" and, en route to talk some sense into the brash young hothead, Jimmy Two-Times is waylaid at a tollbooth by the uncles and brothers of the men his own brother killed, and pays the penultimate price for his brother's brash, hotheaded act of revenge. This event, coupled with a dream sequence (possibly inspired by a young Jim Lucan) that Michael Jr. has, in which he gives his brother Freddy the fabled Italian-American "kiss of death" (a La Casa Nastra sign of intense admonishment) and shoots him to kill while on a fishing trip in the New York Harbor, gives brash young Don "Michael" all the encouragement he needs to "straighten up and fly right" as he returns, hat in hand, to the JNCO Olive Oil Company, the humble export business his hardworking father built from the sweat of his brow, brick by brick, from virtually nothing. He comes full circle and he is truly his father's son at last.

However, not all is as it seems. While Michael was in exile, on the lamb in New York, the various criminals of New Jersey’s darkest wharfs and alleyways have slunk, shamelessly, from their woodworks and, through ever-escalating acts of heinous violence, threaten Michael's own family, his uncles and partners in the olive oil export business, and their very way of life. After Michael's own daughter's best friend and maid of honor at her own wedding (played ably by Martin Corpolla's own real-life daughter, Sophia) is shot and possibly even killed as the result of this needless bloodshed, Michael calls together a meeting of all of the various independent Italian-American business owners of the neighborhood and, with the help of the church (in a nearly imperceptible nod to Mineo's breakthrough picture, On the Waterfront), he calls for peace and for an end to what nearly seems to be a protracted and needlessly bloodletting war at this point. Amidst rousing applause, Micheal is elected to be their leader as they move forward into what are now the Eisenhower Years and perhaps humanity's darkest hour.

Michael promises them that he'll do the best he can to keep his temper in check, and to help them like his father before him, and, in a tearjerking show of solidarity for the deceased patriarch, he sheds the middle name he has used, like a shield, from both his father's business and himself, for so many years, and adopts his true first name: Don, truly becoming his father's son at last. Other than during a hunting trip, in which he engages in a violent power struggle with his cousin Freddy over a pair of boots, Don Jr. is true to his word. The film ends with the titular scion falling asleep in a lawn chair, after a hard day's work, while gazing out over the olive oil fields, in a scene that is silent with noise, yet redolent with symbolism, as it shows his contentment and acceptance for his own birthright and the simple pleasures of a day's hard work, which once was abhorrent by his former standards and which is now contentedly accepted, as symbolized by his falling asleep after a job well done. He is truly his father's son at last. I think you (the viewer and reader) will agree that the sixteen + hours spent watching this film will fly by like mere minutes and will leave one begging for more. So, if you can locate this little "diamond in the rough" of a gem, make yourself "an offer you can't refute" and watch it, in its entirety, today.

Abe Pagoda "sleeping with the fishes" in this, one of The Godfather's more disturbing scenes.

1 comment:

Aaron Bias said...

I almost peed my pants.

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