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Arthur Penn: Four Films fo the 70s
by Karen Pecota

Alice’s Restaurant ****
Screenplay: Venable Herndon
Actors: Arlo Guthrie, Patricia Quin, James Broderick, Pete Seeger

Director Arthur Penn brilliantly transformed Arlo Guthrie’s folk song Alice’s Restaurant into a feature for the big screen in 1969. Arlo’s talent as a natural-born storyteller helped Penn to make the song into a comic relief visual aid dealing with an unfulfilled ‘60’s generation.

Arlo Guthrie (playing himself as an accomplished musician) takes to life on the road and goes from one gig to the next until the illness and eventual death of his father. Arlo visits his friends Alice and Ray for Thanksgiving, to see Alice’s new restaurant in an abandoned church. During his stay, he suffers mishaps resulting in a comedy of errors. The jingle he composes to advertise Alice’s restaurant attracts their commune friends from far and wide, which brings her success with the locals. However, Alice and Arlo are the only ones from their circle of commune cronies who can see beyond the unfulfilling lifestyle of the Hippie movement and hold on to what is important. Their experiences draw them together but their paths drive them apart. Alice loves her restaurant, which offers stability in an environment of drugs and death that surround her. Arlo loves his music and continues to take to the road but he always makes it a point to stop in to see Alice and her restaurant because it is here that “you can get anything you want.”

Documentary: The Making of Little Big Man *****
This was in conjunction with the filming of Little Big Man on location in Alberta, Canada. The filmmakers mainly documented the work on this particular piece with Arthur Penn and included cameo interviews with most of the cast and crew. This was easily a 1970’s production considering the styles of the day and vintage film footage. One of the funniest moments was in a close-up interview with Penn and Hoffman sitting together. Penn talks endlessly and the camera shifts to Hoffman several times to capture his reactions. Each and every time, Hoffman yawns and looks off into space as if he were alone. It was hilarious! Then they would cut to Hoffman describing scenes in which it was difficult for him to get into character. The most difficult was when he is just about to be recruited in Custer’s army and he has to transform all of his characters into one. Honestly, it was truly incredible how he captured the perfect emotions to clinch this scene. Then Hoffman mentions that, other than this difficulty, it was the most boring job anyone could imagine. An excellent piece of filmmaking that would make you smile like Hoffmann in Penn’s Little Big Man.

Little Big Man*****
Screenplay: Thomas Berger, Calder Willingham
Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Aimee Eccles, Kelly Jean Peters, Carole Androsky

The 1970 film Little Big Man directed by Arthur Penn was a screenplay adaptation from the novel The Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. Arthur Penn, known for bringing non-traditional style to all of his feature films, creates one of the funniest historical fiction westerns ever put on the big screen.

The film begins and ends with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) speaking as the last living survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn. The journalist asks Crabb to recount his experience under General George Armstrong Custer. Crabb is emotionally fixated on this memory, as if it were yesterday. He describes the ambush by Indians. He and his sister Caroline (Carole Androsky) were children at the time and the only survivors from their wagon trail settlement. The Indians adopted the children as their own. Jack loved the Indian lifestyle but Caroline was sure that they would eventually be burned at the stake as “little white kids.” She escapes but Jack stays behind because he likes the chief. Crabb laughs and recollects that the Indians were happy to get rid of Caroline because she was too white and would never be a good submissive Indian woman and bear little Indians. He quickly regains his composure and explains that he was a person who experienced abandonment from childhood to adulthood and entered many different occupations or phases which got him into the wildest, most uncanny predicaments. He only desired to do the right thing. Americans, both white and red, revered the good in Crabb, who was known as the Little Big Man: small in stature but big in heart.

The Chase ***
Screenplay: Horton Foote, Lillian Hellman
Actors: Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall

Arthur Penn’s 1966 début of The Chase was a screenplay adaptation from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Oscar-winning screenwriter, Horton Foote. Foote won his first Oscar for the screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. In spite of an all-star cast, the film was a disaster at the box office and did not compare to Penn or Foote’s earlier works. However, they continued to make their mark in the industry, honored for their successful careers: Foote is 91 and Penn is 85 years old.

For Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) The Chase is a cat-and-mouse game of keeping the peace in a small country town when Bubba Reeves (Robert Redford) escapes from prison. Bubba’s prison sentence was undeserved but it is not until he escapes and ends up in town that the proof of his innocence, begins to make sense to the sheriff. His detective work to find the only man who knows the truth about Bubba’s story is hindered when he discovers that Bubba’s wife (Jane Fonda) is having an affair with the suspect in question. He must delicately unravel the missing links to the story in pursuit of justice.

The Miracle Worker *****
Screenplay: William Gibson
Actors: Anne Bancroft, Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, Andrew Prine, Kathleen Comegys, Patty Duke

Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker is based on William Gibson’s play of the same name. Penn also hired him to write the screenplay for the 1962 film. The 93-year-old Gibson is revered for his literary works which revolve around people helping people. The Miracle Worker is a perfect example of his style of narrative as he focuses on the life of Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bacnroft). Penn shows the first few months after the Keller family hires Annie to school their blind child, Helen (Patty Duke). However, much to Annie’s surprise, she must first tame a child stallion that has been spoiled beyond comprehension. The 106-minute film brilliantly executes the tenacity of Annie’s teaching methods which stem from dealing with her own physical handicap. The intense drama Penn draws out of the actors and the filming thereof, won the film two Oscars, and other awards.