Is Anybody There?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says Yahweh Sabaoth" Zach 4:6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Dio di Signore, nella Sua volontà è nostra pace!" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin 1759

Friday, March 16, 2012

Making Moviegoers An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

Yesterday, 15 March, marked the 40th Anniversary of the release of the 1st of the 3 Godfather movies based on Mario Puzo's novel of the same name.

The movie didn't reach my hometown of Oelwein until the summer of 1972. It was probably the most anticipated movie ever for those of us in Oelwein who were 1st & 2nd Generation Italiano-Americans. I was 16 at the time it came out. But that didn't mean I didn't get to see it even though it was rated R.* The movie was literally a famiglia affair as parents had no problem with taking those of us who were teens to see it. My mother, my 15 year old sister & many of our neighbors went that 1st night to see it when it openned at the Grand. In fact, one of our neighbors, Jabe Aversa, took me & my sister down early & Mom came down later. Since Jabe was an adult guardian we were let in with him.
I remember that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. 1 of the fun parts was understanding a few words that were NOT translated. I am sure that a lot of non-Italians were puzzled about the teasing going on in the car before Paulie Gatto was killed. & no I won't tell you what was said. Nor will I translate the word Sonny uses earlier to describe Paulie.
But what made the movie (& its 2 sequels) more than anything was the accurate portrayal of the Italiano-American culture.   I have attended Italian-American wedding receptions like that of Connie's. Sunday  dinners were the centerpiece of weekly famiglia life. & the discussions could get quite lively.
In fact, over the years I have come to refer to the watching the 3 movies as watching home movies. I later found out this is something Francis Ford Coppola also says about them.
Additionally, IMHO, the movies are NOT 3 movies, but 1 movie in 3 parts.  While not quite as well done as the 1st 2, the 3rd movie does hold up as a fitting finale. & the weaknesses can be laid at the feet of the Paramount executives who didn't give Coppola & Puzo the time they needed to completely polish the script etc.  In fact, there are also a few scenes cut out of the 1st 2 movies that never should have been cut. I will talk about these as I take a look at all 3 movies. I am not going to rehash the entire storyline of the 3 movies. That would take too long. & by now most people should know the basic plots of all 3.
The Godfather
This is the movie that started it all. That it even got made as it did is something of a miracle & a tribute to the tenacity of Coppola & his willingness to fight to have it made as the period story it had to be made as. As you may know, the powers that be at Paramount wanted it to be filmed as a contemporary story. Coppola knew that it had to be filmed as written in the novel & that actual New York locations were key as well.
Additionally, Coppola had to fight to get Marlon Brando & Al Pacino cast in the roles that became so completely identified with them. & those are only 2 examples. Looking back, one has to wonder how blind the executives were to the people best suited to play the roles.
It is hard to pick out a favorite scene or 2. The opening contrasting the wedding to the dark deeds in the Don's study perfectly set the tone for the rest of the movie. "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." was not in the book, but it is an absolute classic. It shows how the Corleone mafia famiglia had so hardenned themselves to evil that they couldn't see the villians they had become.
Sonny's death where he reaped all the violence he had sown, was very well executed. The following scenes where Hagan has to tell the Don about Sonny's death catches the relationship between Hagan & his adopted father very well. Don Vito's telling Bonasera to use all his skills so his mother wouldn't see him like that. "Look how they massacred my boy!" is 1 of the most emotionally powerful lines in the movie.
The Don's death scene is right up there though. It captures the Don as a loving grandfather that is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship I had with my grandpa Stasi. However, my grandfather was not the monster Don Vito was. Having Don Vito die as a monster being chased & killed by his grandson was poetic justice. It was pure chance the scene was even filmed. They were running out of time & nearly decided not to film a death scene. But because of an inspiration by Brando to do with Anthony what he did with his own grandchildren we have the ending of the Don that we do.
& the ending shows how Michael has so changed that is is now willing to lie to Kay & even start shutting her out. While not planned at the time, this scene & others with Fredo laid the groundwork for what would happen in Part II.
As good as the movie was, there are a few scenes that were cut completely, or partially, that should have been left in. The 1st is the scene where Don Corleone goes to visit the dying consigliere, Genco Abbandando, after the wedding reception. This scene lays the groundwork for a comment made by Sonny later when he criticizes Tom Hagan's actions as consigliere. It also answers the question of what happenned to Genco that arises as a result of the Young Vito scenes in Part II & explains who Dominic Abbandando is in Part III.
Part of Hagan's visit to Hollywood to talk to Jack Woltz to have him give Johnny Fontane the part he wants in an upcoming movie. By cutting these parts out Woltz come accross as more sympathetic than he deserves. The 1st scene that was cut is where we see Woltz giving a pony to 1 os his female child stars who is about 12 years old. A later scene shows Hagan seeing her after Woltz tells him to leave. At that point she looks very dishevelled. Hagan realized what happenned, that she was raped by Woltz. Later Hagan tells Don Vito about it.
Then there are a couple of deleted short scenes featuring Sonny after the Don is shot showing his actions when he goes over to Don Vito's study to take charge. These scenes show the love & respect Sonny has for his father as well as his reluctance to take over. They help round out Sonny's character as much more than the hothead he is usually seen as. But perhaps the most reflective of all of the Italiano mindset is what he does after he tells his mother about the Don's shooting.  She turns off the stove where she was frying peppers. As she goes to change Sonny makes a fried pepper sandwich. For Italians food acts as a way of dealing with shock in a way that sedatives never can.
Another part that was shortened was the killing of Paulie Gatto.  Besides cutting out part of Clemenza's conversation with Rocco, the scene where he gets the cannoli his wife told him to pick up is cut as well.
1 other cut scene was that of Michael killing Fabrizio in revenge for Appolonia's death. But I will deal with that in Part II.

The Godfather Part II

This film is really 2 movies in one. The 1st story is that of how Vito Andolini comes to America & becomes starts on the road to being Don Vito Corleone, 1 of the top Mafia bosses. The 2nd story is that of Michael & how things don't work out as planned for him.  Coppola suceeded in combining the 2 in a way that showed how the son's life mirrored his father's.
The scenes at Ellis Island capture what my grandparents, great grandparents & many other immigrants from Italia & elsewhere actually went through. It is a fitting tribute to all of our immigrant ancestors.
The young Vito scenes were based on the flashbacks in the novel with a few changes. Again the casting was excellent. Bruno Kirby had worked with Richard Castellano so he was able to capture what the young Clemenza was like. DiNiro was able to capture the young Vito without turning it into a pale imitation of Brando.
We see Vito go from an honest young man working for Genco Abbandano's father to the early days of his building his criminal empire. For the most part, the language used is the Sicilian dialect. This makes perfect sense as that was exactly how it was early on for Italian immigrants. Some of the later scenes have more English as they begin to interact with non-Italians. The scenes in Sicily with the start of the olive oil import business & where Vito kills Don Ciccio explain why Don Tommasino was entrusted with protecting Michael after he killed Sollozzo in Part I.
As I pointed out in Part I, Genco's death scene would help viewers understand the relationship of Vito & him better in Part II. As in Part I some scenes were cut that shouldn't have been. The scene where Vito meets Tessio is one of those. Another scene cut that shouldn't have been is the one where Hyman Roth becomes a part of the early Corleone gang. This help us to understand what happens later in both movies timeline wise. But perhaps the most important scene that shouldn't have been cut is that of the attempted murder of Fanucci by some young ruffians while Vito watches in the shadows. That scene explains why Vito is more willing than Clemenza or Tessio to take on Fanucci. The scenes where Vito kills Don Ciccio's men who were looking for him as a child may not be absolutely needed, but they do round out the complete revenge of Vito against those who killed his family.
The other movie tells the story of how things fall apart for Michael. Origially Clemenza was supposed to be a part of the story until negotiations with Castellano fell apart. IMHO that actually worked out for the betterment of the story. Pentangelli's turning federal witness is much more believable that if, as I suspect was planned, Clemenza did so.
The 1st Communion of Anthony sets the stage for what is to come. We see how far Michael has drifted from his Italian roots. We also see how the Corleone family (blood & criminal) have fallen apart from when Vito was in charge. Connie is doing all she can to destroy herself. Fredo has made a disasterous marriage. & Kay reminds us of how Michael has failed to keep his promise to take the crime family straight. Michael makes excuses that, as time goes on, Kay is less & less willing to buy. & rightly so. 
Fredo's setting the stage for an attempt on Michael's life has its roots in Fredo's actions in Vegas in Part I where he takes Moe Green's side. As the movie goes on, it becomes clearer & clearer that Michael has dangerously isolated himself, especially from those he should trust.
1 scene from the 1st Communion celebration that would have contrasted the deteriorated relationship between Michael & Connie was deleted. In that scene, Sonny's twin daughter Francesca asks for Michael's blessing to get engaged. He is very welcoming of her future husband, unlike Connie's new boyfriend, Merle Johnson whom Michael tries to buy off.
Otherwise, the only other deleted scene that should have been kept in is the killing of Fabrizio. The unused scene in part 1 has Michael shooting him. The scene of his death in this movie is much more appropriate. In this one his car is blown up when he starts it after getting off work.
1 of my favorite scenes in this movie is where Michael confronts Fredo in Cuba & tells him he knows it was Fredo who set him up for Hyman Roth. As an aside, that part of the story was based on actual mafia events in Cuba under Batista.  Roth's comments on Moe Greene are also revealing as it makes it clear, despite his claims to the contrary, that a part of this is an attempt to get revenge for Greene's death in Part I.
Another powerful scene is when Kay tells Michael she had an abortion. Michael's reaction, slapping her, is very much in keeping with what he has become. & in a sense, she deserved it for murdering her child. She had become just as much a cold blooded killer as Michael even if she wouldn't admit it.
Fredo's death after becoming more of a father to Anthony than Michael was sets the scene for the decisions made by Anthony in Part III. In Part II he wanted to help Michael, in Part III he no longer wants anything to do with Michael's business dealings.
By the end of Part II we see how completely Michael has isolated himself from what is left of his family. As it ended, the series had a satisfactory ending. But, eventually Coppola did film an even better ending in Part III.

The Godfather Part III

This is perhaps the most underrated & appreciated of the 3 movies. It has gotten a bad rap over the years. Part of it was because the initial expectations were too hight & Paramount's actions sabatoged any possibility of the movie being as good as it should.
That having been said, IMHO, the casting of Sofia as Mary was a much better choice than Julia Roberts or Winona Ryder. From the start Sofia came under attack for how she played Mary. 1 of those complaints was that she played Mary more as a Valley girl than a 2nd generation Italian American. Well guess what, I knew of more than one 2nd generation Italian-American female like that, including a few cousins. She was very believable to me.
1 of the other big complaints was how dependant understanding this movie was on familiarity with the other 2. The same could be said about Part II depending on familiarity with Part I.
I haven't seen most of what was deleted, so I can't comment much on what should have been added. I did see a scene where Don Altobello rushes back in to the Commission meeting to warn Michael & is pulled out. Having that in would have hilighted the later revealed treachery even more by adding to his attempts at misdirection. 
That Duvall didn't return to play Tom Hagan was a loss. But having George Hamilton as BJ Harrison was another example of how far things had drifted, even if the post Saint Sebastian recognition party did show a return to at least part of his roots.
Creating Vincent Mancini as Sonny's illegitimate son was also a good move. It created the logical successor to Michael. Overall, this was again a very well cast movie like the other 2.
1 of the best pieces of casting was Raf Vallone as Cardinal Lamberto. I love the explanation Lamberto gives about why some Church officials were as they were. I am refering to the part where he breaks open a rock from the fountain & shows how it is dry. Additionally, you can understand why Lamberto's priests often spontaniously wanted to go to confession. His attempts to get Michael to truly repent captured the spirit of a true priest who cares about the spiritual state of his flock.
I will admit that the slightly revised time line of Pope Paul's death & Pope John Paul I's election was a bit disconcerting at 1st. But to fit in with the story it made sense. &  it did put many of the other parts of the story line in the historical perspective they were based on. The events of the story led up to what happenned at Anthony's debut in Cavalleria rusticana at Easter time. Esp since the opera takes place at Easter. I still don't understand why Coppola rearranged a few of the scenes from the opera however.
While we are on the opera, I have to bring up Don Altobello's death by poisoned cannoli. Coppoli tells the story of how as a boy he was punished by his father 1 time by not being allowed to have a cannoli. So, I have to wonder if this wasn't a subconscious way of getting back at his father.
While there are many other things I liked about the movie I will now focus on the 1 part that I absolutely hated. That part is the scene where Mary gets killed by Mosca in place of Michael. I hate it because I hated the idea of Mary dying. However, I cannot think of a better ending to the movie than the very thing happenning tha Michael had been trying to prevent. I wouldn't change it in any way shape or form. Michael's failure to do what he really should have done results in his paying the ultimate price of that failure, his loss of everything he ever loved, his loss of his famiglia. In the end, he dies entirely alone as he so richly deserves.

Because of Puzo's death a Part IV was never made. The script had already been started & would have been a double movie like Part II. In this case, the total destruction of the mafia family under Vincent would have been 1 part & the rest of the story of the early days of the Corleone mafia famiglia would have been the other. Much of would have focused on Sonny, but the story of how Vito consolodated his power & organized his family would have been included as well. How Luca Brasi came to be a part of the Corleone organization would have had to be included as well. It is that untold part of the young Vito & young Sonny that is the biggest hole in the complete saga. 
40 years later, the Godfather has become an intregal part of our culture. & while there is so much more I could say, I will end by saying Coppola clearly made us an offer we have been unable to refuse.
* FYI: The Godfather was not the 1st R rated movie I saw. That honor goes to The French Connection which I was acoompanied by my mother.


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