Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon: Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca

Introduction

This is a post for the Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon. The titles and actors I chose to cover are Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca, and Leslie Nielsen as The Swamp Fox (Tomorrow). Both of these television narratives aired in rotating fashion on an ABC program called Walt Disney Presents from 1958 and 1960, at the tail end of what some refer to as the (first) Golden Age of Television.

The structure of Walt Disney presents was such that the stories told were inspired by any of the four sections of Disneyland at the time: Frontierland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland.

Both of the series I will discuss dealt with tales inspired by Frontierland, the same section of the park that brought Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone (’60) to the small screen. The modus operandi of said show was stories inspired by figures in American history.

Now many projects from the Walt era are vaulted by Disney and not frequently available, especially these serialized show-within-shows. However, there was a time (and I think that it should return) when Disney Treasures released a series of tin-cased box sets in limited supply that would be of interest to collectors and Disney fans. This was one of the selections, one that I was able to obtain via the Disney Movie Club.

The unfortunate part of the packaging is that you are not provided here with the whole run of the show on these discs. Since they’re DVD releases and an hour-long show there are but three-episodes per show. In one case the selection closes a chapter, in another it feels more like a prelude.

Having said all that, both these shows feature early-career performances of two actors who have had varied and successful careers: Robert Loggia played Elfego Baca and Leslie Nielsen played Robert Marion, a.k.a. The Swamp Fox.

Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca

Walt Disney Presents (1958, Disney)

The insights gleaned to this show, and the story behind it are better in general and not just because there is a supplemental interview with Loggia that gives further background to the series and his involvement.

Firstly, in narrative terms, these short tastes of series give an interesting insight into lesser-known figures in the US’s past. In Baca’s case it’s even more interesting because he was a US-born and -bred bilingual Mexican-American. He lived in the frontier lands and built a legend of having “nine lives” and a unique sense of justice. He eventually, mostly through self-teaching, became an attorney. We first meet him as a self-appointed deputy standing up to a group of bandits. Then he comes into the fold as a full-fledged deputy.

In cultural terms, the mere depiction of an ethnic character in later 1958 and early 1959 is quite a big deal, much less making him the hero. Surely, he was a historical figure but there was nothing forcing Disney’s hand to tell his tale. While the interview between Leonard Maltin does reveal that casting was down between Loggia and Ricardo Montalban, and what tipped the scales his way is not discussed -especially considering Montalban seemed to have an in. However, with Loggia being cast Baca’s heritage could’ve further been buried but it was the actor’s option, per his telling, to accentuate the ethnicity more than even the script would with an accent. He also passably slips into Spanish here and there which makes it a unique take. Cross-ethnic casting is a double-edged sword, and was more common in this day-and-age, but it’s not something that can be held against Loggia if you disagree with it on principal– he had a job to do and did it very well.

Walt Disney Presents (1958, Disney)

Loggia ’s break here is one he describes as very fortunate. He was an athlete in college and had served in Korea. He was working on Broadway in fairly short order and then was picked by Disney to play this role. The cowboy elements, a hefty portion of the role, were things he learned to be able to play it, which is impressive as there is quite a bit of riding and action in a western-set tale.

He also worked with legendary stunt people and did quite a few of those stunts himself and made his portrayal seem even more authentic than it would have otherwise. Of course, as referenced above, with access to only 30% of the series it’s impossible to get a sense of the totality of the series. The IMDb does indicate the further addition of Latin actors later on.

However, not only is Loggia, who in the minds of many is the willing participant in a Family Guy cutaway, or the boss in Big; great in a very different kind of role here. There are some important things of note in this show additionally such as Native Americans appearing with Baca in a scene as an ally, Baca’s betrothal and marriage to a Caucasian woman. Loggia in discussing Disney’s influence on the production stating that he “knew everything,” which reaffirms my assertion that he was one of those producers who had their fingerprints on their films. Loggia’s memories were always fond it seems. Of course, he was on a parade float in Disneyland in ’59 so I assume it would be. And like many Disney alums he returned many years later this time voicing a character in Oliver and Company.

Walt Disney Presents (1958, Disney)

Furthermore, it set the stage for Loggia in his career he played many varied ethnicities. It became one if his calling cards. Of course, being a character actor to some extent and having a bit of chameleon about him it made him one of those actors you knew, but maybe not necessarily from what film. However, many actors will take that, when you can be any number of people to moviegoers that’s a pretty great thing. To me, he may always be Skeletor first and foremost.

CHeck back tomorrow for the post on Leslie Nielsen!

Advertisements

Film Thought: The Foundation of Everything is Drama

I’ve always believed that drama is the foundation of all other genres, which could be interpreted to mean that everything is essentially a cross-genre piece, but essentially what lead me to this premise was thinking about how to to approach myriad genres as a writer, I think this can also apply to acting. There are few things that fall outside this cross-section.

Comedy is driven by obsession and as silly, or outlandish as scenarios may get the performers and the world created for them has to be one where there are stakes, consequences, needs and desires that ground these things. Even in parody comedies this should apply. Many cite The Naked Gun series as one of the best examples of this subgenre, and much credit in that case is due to Leslie Nielsen. For as preposterous as what he was saying or doing was he was committed to it, there was a dramatic intent bordering on deadpan that tethered the silliness of the situation to reality.

When applying this precept to horror it carries an additional even more significant burden. A comedy that does not make one laugh cannot really be said to be effective, but a horror film that one doesn’t find scary can be. A horror film is designed to terrify, to frighten, to scare to disquiet. Stephen King in discussing horror literature breaks down his own hierarchy wherein the gross-out is his last recourse.

The issue with the effectiveness of horror films effect on an individual in some cases can be heavily influenced by the individual. As a child I was rather sheltered, and kept to mostly age appropriate fare for quite some time. I didn’t like scary films. Gremlins scared me until, I later watched it in whole and found its dual intent. The first horror film that I really openly embraced, where I enjoyed being scared was The Shining. From there I was hooked and I sought out more.

Yet, seeking out more becomes the issue. You want to learn the genre but there are then fewer and fewer of those films with that seismic impact on you, even if it is that good. You get desensitized, to an extent to the more visceral elements of the film, which are its primary objective.

Thus, if a viewer is desensitized, or a horror film just isn’t as scary as it could be, what recourse is there for it? There is that foundation of drama. If the dramatic beats are set and strong; and I’ve said it’s not necessary before, and that’s true, but if the acting is strong, if the conflict is palpable; if the characters have some definition; if their goals, obstacles and needs are, at some point defined; then you’ve established drama in a horror film. You have there your foundation and the subjective matter of “Is this scary?” while it still matters, isn’t as as pivotal as it might’ve been.

As I said, this is a notion I’ve had for a while and it recently crystallized when I viewed a ghost story entitled The Awakening. It has its creepy moments, and this is easier to do in a ghost story perhaps than in other subgenres, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it terribly frightening, but the character’s conflicts and arcs, their interaction, the human emotion and struggle of the film; in short, the drama is really what drew me to it which is what brought this thought back foremost in my mind.

This may be why some films, and I won’t name names, that insist that their knowing cheesiness and lack of production value is their strongest asset don’t work for me. Great things have been done by filmmakers with limited resources who staunchly believed in what they were trying to commit to celluloid and did their damnedest. Usually, those are the films where you can smile and love it even through the glaring faults.

To conclude, I just want to clarify, if it wasn’t clear already, that I do not mean that everything needs to be treated sternly and severely, which is part of why I made references to comedies and Gremlins. The sensibility has to work for the film in question, however, even in a light tone there’s a dramatic foundation to it, a commitment, a dedication, which does not make itself apparent in the aforementioned unnamed films. To me that is what still strikes me as one of the fascinating things about the horror genre is that there is a when-all-else-fails contingency plan. That’s not to say that all films deal with material in a way that can transcend so well, or treat their foundation with the respect it requires, but it is there and those who use it well are really worth noting.

The foundation of everything is drama. The fenestration you add to it creates genre. It’s a building block to all film narratives, but with the horror film I feel it’s a most crucial one, because the prime objective is so very hard to achieve on a mass level that there needs to be something to fall back on.