11 August 2008

The Olympics in the movies

There have been numerous films related to the Olympics, few of them good ones and several Olympic athletes have made a transition to Hollywood, but none became really good actors.

There have been numerous films related to the Olympics, few of them good ones, and several Olympic athletes have made a transition to Hollywood, though none became really good actors.

Ruined by her Olympic film
Leni Riefenstahl, who died recently, was born in 1902. She first rose to fame as modern dancer, then as an actress, especially within a daffy genre of 'mountain' movies that were highly popular in pre-war Germany. Then she directed one of her own, The Blue Light. What brought about her greatest opportunities and damaged her reputation for life, was that she was admired by Adolf Hitler, who chose her to film his 1934 Nuremberg political rallies, which became the most notorious documentary ever made, 'The Triumph of the Will' (1935). Brilliant film-making, and a superb documentary, serving a loathsome cause. Her next film was about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 'Olympia' (discussed elsewhere ).

Despite her awesome technical brilliance, she was forever tarnished by her naive association with the leading Nazis, and after World War 2 she spent four years in a French detention camp for this. She was never again able to find funding to make a film, but became a noted stills photographer, producing work on the Nubian tribe in Africa, and later about the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Olympic actors

Herman Brix, a champion shot-putter, represented the USA in the 1932 games in LA, and later became the 8th man to play Tarzan on screen, as an actor known as Bruce Bennett. He played minor roles, though he was notable as a bothered prospector in John Huston's classic western 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre', in Elvis Presley's debut film and the 1956 'Love Me Tender', and made his last movie in 1972.

Mitch Gaylord, former Olympic gymnast, acted in the deplorable 'American Anthem', 1986.

Nat Pendleton, 1895-1967, was a former Olympic wrestler, turned professional wrestler, who later became an actor, usually playing a pleasant but unintelligent guy, often the but of comics like the Marx Brothers (in 'Horse Feathers', 'At the Circus') or Abbott & Costello (Buck Privates); and also played a dumb ambulance driver in the Dr. Kildare films, the highly popular early film medical soapies.

Carol Heiss, a 1960 Olympic figure skating champ played Snow White in the 1961 movie: 'Snow White and the Three Stooges'!

Vera Hruba Ralston, born Vera Helena Hruba, ice-skater, was runner-up to Sonja Henie in the 1936 Olympics, and was a runner-up for most of her life. She was bought to Hollywood in an attempt to find a rival for Henie, and starred in many feeble films for the cash-strapped Republic Pictures in the 1940s and 50s. She was the protégé of Republic's chief executive Herbert Yates, who spent lavishly in trying to make her a notable star, and later married him.

Sonja Henie (1912-1969), born in Oslo, Norway, was a dancer from the age of four and a skater from the age of eight. She won the Norwegian national skating championships when she was 14, became world champion at 15, and won gold medals and set new world records at three Winter Olympic games, in 1928, 1932, and 1936. After touring in an ice-show she went to Hollywood and became a successful star performer for 20th-Century Fox in the late 30's, in a series of frothy romances tailored to display her skating skills. By the 40s her popularity on film was fading, but she continued a career as star and producer of a series of ice spectacular shows. Married three times, she retired in 1960.

Cornel Wilde (1915-1989), though largely forgotten now, was a substantial star in the decades from the 1940s through to the 1980s, though his actual talents were limited. He gave up a planned medical career and a place on the 1936 Olympic fencing team, to become an actor and later a director. He made his fame for playing Chopin in the 1945 'A Song to Remember', for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Johnny Weismuller (1904 -1984), former Olympic swimming champion, became famous playing Tarzan, from Tarzan, 'The Ape Man' (1932) and played this loincloth role for longer than any other actor, in a series of movies. A later rather less successful series for him was as Jungle Jim, through the 40's and 50's on film and in TV. The legendary line "Me Tarzan, you Jane" seems never to have been actually uttered, though much was made of the process of learning each other's names in the first film of the series.

Larry "Buster" Crabbe, (1907-1983) won the gold medal in the 400-metre freestyle swimming event at the 1932 Olympics, breaking the world record previously set and help by Johnny Weismuller. He, too, later played Tarzan, but was more successful at branching out into many other roles, especially in westerns and adventure series. He became hugely popular with kids, playing in science fiction roles like Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. He later made a TV series with his son, and moved into the swimming-pool business, and in 1970 published "Energetics" a physical fitness book for the over-50s. Among his odder films were such triumphs as "Perils from the Planet Mongo" and "Purple Death from Outer Space".

George Murphy, actor, (1902-1992) was the son of a famed track athletics coach who prepared the US Olympic track team for the 1912 games. After a long screen career, during which he became much involved in conservative and Republican politics, he was elected US senator for California in 1964. Hampered by an operation for throat cancer, which left his voice as a whisper, he lost his attempt to be re-elected.

Bruce Jenner is another former Olympic athlete, a decathlon champion, turned feeble actor, who faded out, mercifully, after some lousy roles in awful movies. His worst was surely the truly dreadful Can't Stop the Music(US, 1980) in which we all wished that somebody could. This was a bizarre musical (one of those that temporarily killed off musical films) featuring Jenner as a massively bland tax lawyer, the briefly hot Valerie Perrine as a freshly retired superstar model, and the briefly famed pop group The Village People (YMCA, and In The Navy). The filming of the big number YMCA is excellent, but otherwise the plot and story is a mess, with gay themes roaming around but never acknowledged, as the producers were too scared to be frank and funny. Will and Grace this is not! His other movie was Grambling's White Tiger, ( US, 1981, 100 min.) in which Jenner improbably plays a high school American football star. Jim Gregory became the only white player on the team at all-black Grambling College, with Harry Belafonte as his coach.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., now known as an excellent actor, began his career break dancing onstage with Lionel Ritchie, at the 1984 Olympics.

Olympic films
Among the main Olympic films are the following, including two about the original modern games in Athens in 1896:

21 Hours at Munich. 1976. A better-than-usual TV movie re-creating the tragic events of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, though William Holden is hardly credible as the police chief of Munich.

The All-American Boy. 1973. Voight plays a depressing and glum prize-fighter looking rather podgy, and trying to succeed, amidst odd and unpleasant characters, while somehow hoping to compete in the Olympics. Only plusses - some nice scenery in Northern California, and scenes of boxers working out in a gym to the sound of Gregorian chant. With Jon Voight and Anne Archer.

American Anthem. 1986. A truly dreadful, corny and pretentious tale about a gymnast with family problems, played by former Olympic gymnast Gaylord, who is profoundly unimpressive here, playing a silly resentful college drop out who wants to try out for the US Olympic gymnastics team. Directed by the same guy who made Purple Rain, which featured the artist occasionally known as Prince, as if it is a sporting interlude in that pop video. With Mitch Gaylord, and other nobodies.

Animalympics. 1979. Animation. A clever and amusing animal spoof of Olympic events and their TV coverage, rather over-stretched at full-length, and also seen cut to 48 minutes. Includes the voice of Billy Crystal.

Atlas. 1961. Remarkably boring historic nonsense, filmed in Greece, on a low budget, which shows. Directed by Roger Corman, in which Praximedes (don't ask) persuades the Olympic champion Atlas to fight on his behalf in battle, though the champ eventually decides to rather fight for the common people.

Chariots of Fire. UK 1981. A surprisingly successful drama based on the true story of two atypical athletes who ran in the 1924 Paris Olympics. One is a devout Scottish divinity student (who refused to run on Sundays), another a Jewish Cambridge student. Explores their motives, and the problems they face. It moved and surprised many who were sure they couldn't be interested in its topic. It won Oscars for best Picture, script, costumes, and the eternally over-played musical score by Vangelis. With Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers (son of a previous British Lord Chancellor), and also former South African actress Alice Krige (a predecessor of Charlize Theron!).

Charlie Chan at the Olympics. 1937. One of the long-running Charlie Chan series about a Chinese detective, has an understandable assemblage of spies at the 1936 games in Berlin, where Chan's Number One Son Luke is kidnapped from the American swimming team, but manages to win a gold medal anyway. Includes neatly interpolated footage from contemporary Olympic newsreels, with Warner Oland as Chan.

The Comrades of Summer. 1992. Another baseball comedy, in which a recently-fired, bigheaded, major baseball manager has to get a bunch of hopeless Russian athletes into form to compete in the summer Olympics in the USA .

Cool Runnings. 1993. A cheerful Disney film loosely based on a true story about the unlikely creation of a Jamaican bobsled team intending to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics, even though the team have never seen a sled or even snow. The late John Candy plays a disgraced former Olympian who is redeemed by helping these innocents along. The film could have been delightfully subversive, but pulls its punches. Good musical soundtrack, including Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Wailing Souls, etc.

The Cutting Edge. 1992. Directed by Paul M.Glaser (he of the original Starsky & Hutch TV series ), with D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly. She's a scrappy prima donna ice skater teamed up with a battered former ice-hockey player, to try for an Olympic gold medal in paired figure skating. Nothing original, but well made and acted. The scenes on the ice are impressive. Her father, a millionaire, has built her a private ice-rink for practising, and a trophy room with a special place for that gold medal he expects.

The First Olympics: Athens 1896. 1984 TV movie. In which a Professor from Princeton University, Dr William Sloane, puts together a team of 13, which is highly successful. With David Caruso, Jason Connery, Angela Lansbury, and many others.

The Games. UK 1970. A really boring film on what could have been an interesting subject, about four runners preparing for the Olympic 26-mile marathon. A British milkman, a Yale runner with a heart condition, a man of 41 ordered to compete by his government, and an Australian aborigine understandably troubled by his second-class status in his own country. Directed by Michael Winner who was capable of better, and starring a curious bunch of athletes, including Michael Crawford, Ryan O'Neal, Charles Aznavour, and others.

Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story. 1985. A dull TV movie about American downhill skier Bill Johnson, former juvenile delinquent from Oregon, who won as the first American in downhill ski racing at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. Starring Anthony Edwards, Dennis Weaver, and Sarah Jessica Parker (not so much Sex in the City as on the Slopes).

The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story. 1980. Romance between an American decathlon athlete and a Russian gymnast at the Moscow Summer games, which is odd as the Americans boycotted those games. With Jack Palance, Stephanie Zimbalist, David Keith.

Goldengirl. 1979. A boring and over-ambitious story of a woman athlete (the enormous Susan Anton, whose talents are as invisible as her body is visible) who is effectively turned into a robot by ruthless medical experimentation so as to win three golds in the Olympics. Her adopted father, one discovers, once performed sinister medical research for the Nazis. Originally planned as a whole TV mini-series until the U.S.A. decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics, whereafter it was cut back to just a bad movie.

Ice Pawn. 1990. A skilled young skater, aiming at an Olympic gold medal, thinks his only obstacle is his Russian rival, but finds he's caught up in a web of corruption.

International Velvet. 1978. A sequel to National Velvet, in which the adult velvet is grooming her niece to compete in the Olympics equestrian events. With Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer, Nanette Newman, Tatum O'Neal.

It Happened in Athens. 1962. A truly silly comedy featuring famed "sexpot" actress Jayne Mansfield, wearing a range of surprisingly revealing costumes (considering the period in which it is set) supposedly based on a true story, about a famous Greek actress who announces that she'll marry the winner of the marathon at the 1896 Athens Olympics. She's confident that her true lover will win, but instead the race is won by a poor shepherd who, luckily for her, wants to marry another. Mostly shot on location in Athens. Mansfield was later killed in a gruesome car accident en route to a TV appearance in 1967.

The Jericho Mile. 1979. TV drama in which a convict in Folsom Prison, serving a life sentence for murder, tries to rehabilitate himself by training to run in the Olympics.

The Jesse Owens Story. 1984. An above average TV movie, a biography of the famous black track athlete who won four gold medals at the 1938 Berlin Olympics, much to the annoyance of Hitler and his theories about Aryan supremacy. It follows his story from his athletic start in college, through his days after the Olympics, when he was appallingly exploited. Good script, good direction (Richard Irving), an excellent performance by Dorian Harewood as Owens, and a good musical score by Michel Legrand.

Jim Thorpe: All American. 1951. Biography of a famous Native American athlete who was stripped of his Olympic medals for later playing professional baseball. With Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. (There's also an excellent documentary, Thorpe's Gold, about how this man won decathlon and pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.)

The Kid From Nowhere. 1982. Pretty good sentimental TV drama about a retarded child who gets involved with the Special Olympics, directed by Beau Bridges (who plays the coach at a school for the handicapped) with the lead role played outstandingly by Ricky Wittman, a boy with Downs Syndrome in real-life

King of the Olympics: The Lives and Loves of Avery Brundage. 1988. A much below-average TV movie which, despite it's would-be interesting title, manages to make the story of a man who for a time promoted the modern Olympics. Drab and dull. It's only virtue, some glimpses of rare film footage of the earliest games.

Million Dollar Legs. 1932. A curious comedy with W.C. Fields as president of Klopstokia, a country bent on entering the Olympics in order to make money. Indeed, a splendid and unique musical comedy taking the Mickey out of the Olympics. Real-life former Olympic athlete Bruce Bennett plays one of the Klopstokian team.

A Million to One. 1937. An Olympic decathlon athlete finds a society beauty has fallen in love with him. With Joan Fontaine and Bruce Bennett.

Miracle on Ice. 1981. Average TV movie, with Karl Malden, Steve Guttenberg and others, about the surprise gold medal success of the US ice hockey team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Some excellent skating, but a wearying script.

Nadia. 1984. Rather dull TV movie about Nadia Comaneci, the tiny young Romanian athlete whose gymnastic performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where she scored three perfect 10s, attracted huge attention at the time. The flat dialogue sounds odder due to the range of accents among the actors, but there's excellent footage of gymnastics by then contemporary Olympic class performers.

Olympia. Germany, 1936. 220 min. The famed and notorious documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, made by the director Leni Riefenstahl. Technically brilliant, but tainted by its propaganda function to glorify Hitler and the Nazi state. Originally in two parts, sometimes shown separately, it is less concerned with providing a factual record as with the artistic beauty of the participants and events, and is an awesome record of the youth of that era, so soon to be engaged in killing and trying to kill one another.

On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story. 1990. A TV movie about the rise and fall of an Olympic figure skater. Successful at the 1979 World Championships, she's prevented from achieving the Medal she hoped for at the 1980 Olympics when her partner has a groin injury and can't compete. She plunges into drug abuse and a suicide attempt, but manages to recover from this.

One in a Million. 1936. 95 min. A minor but pleasant musical comedy, in which Sonja Henie first performed on-screen, with a slim story built around the then topical Winter Olympics. With Adolphe Menjou, Don Ameche, and the Ritz Brothers.

Personal Best. 1982. A curious melodrama, about two woman pentathlon athletes (played by Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly), who have a lesbian relationship while training for the 1980 Olympics (to which, in the end, for political reasons, the U.S. team did not go ). Rather too many close-up views of feet, but effective in depicting both the personal feelings and the athletic competitiveness, as well as a ruthless coach.

Run For Life: An Olympic Fable. 1979. An animated film about an athlete competing in the original Olympics in ancient Greece.

Running. Canada, 1979. Ridiculously overblown melodrama about an out of work father, played by Michael Douglas, who wants to run in the Olympics.

Running Brave. Canada, 1983. Corny but pleasant enough film bio of Billy Mills, a runner from the South Dakota Sioux American Indian reservation, who won a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000 metre event. With Robby Benson, once a talented young actor now better known as a voice-over artist, as Billy.

Special Olympics. 1978. Also known as A Special Kind of Love. A romantic story about a widower trying to hold together his family of three teenagers, one of them mentally retarded, and finding inspiration in their love of sports. With Charles Durning, Debra Winger.

This Is The Night. 1932. Cary Grant's first feature film, in which he plays an Olympic athlete, married to Thelma Todd, who in turn is desired by a French millionaire.

Tokyo Olympiad. Japan , 1966.. Director : Kon Ichikawa. An excellent documentary about the 1964 Games in Japan, originally running at 170 minutes, though enfeebled by a badly narrated and cut U.S. release.

The Top of the Hill. 1980. A very average TV movie set at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, with a cast, generally associated with mediocre films: Paula Prentiss, Wayne Rogers, Elke Sommer, even Sonny Bono, Cher's former husband.

Visions of Eight. 1973. A documentary which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Eight different directors were asked to provide their different views of the 1972 Munich Olympics, but the result is strangely uninvolving. There are far too many slow-motion sequences, too closely similar.

Kon Ichikawa tackled the 100-meter dash, and Arthur Penn the pole vault. I like Claude Lelouch's segment which focusses on the losers, including a marvellous specimen of bad sportsmanship, where a defeated boxer refuses to leave the ring, and for several minutes conveys his contempt and outrage towards the crowd which is booing him Mai Zetterling's focus on a failing weight-lifter is also instructive. Michael Pfleghar looks at women in the Olympics, especially Soviet gymnast Tourischeva. The last section, on the marathon, is directed by John Schlesinger, and perhaps the most effective in the long run ! It shows the British runner's preparations, race, what passes through their heads during the race. He is the only one to refer to the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes at these games, and intercuts Avery Brundage's self-important speech at the end of the games, with footage of the guy who came in last in the marathon, doggedly continuing and crossing the finish line hours after all the rest.

Walk, Don't Run. 1966. Lightweight and fluffy story which was he last film made by Cary Grant. Samantha Eggar unwittingly agrees, in the housing shortage created by the Games, to share her apartment with Grant, a businessman, and an athlete (Jim Hutton) during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Director Charles Walters.

Wee Geordie. British, 1956. Also known simply as "Geordie", this charming story of a little Scottish boy, considered the runt of the litter, who sees a magazine ad for body-building, and 10 years later emerges as a tall muscular giant who isn't very bright, was highly successful internationally. He takes up hammer throwing, and goes to the Olympics, where he meets his match in a similarly tall woman shot-putter. With Alistair Sim, Bill Travers.

Wilma. 1977. A TV movie, about the track star Wilma Randolph, who, though disabled by polio as a youth, overcame this and became a triple gold medallist at the 1960 Olympics. With Denzel Washington and others.

Other Olympic films include

The 500 Pound Jerk. 1972, with Alex Karras, a naive country strong boy is groomed by a cynical promoter to take part in the 1972 Olympics, but falls in love with a Russian gymnast.

Abduction. 1987. A TV movie based on the true story of Kari Swenson, an Olympic hopeful biathlon runner, who was kidnapped by a crazy father and son who wanted her to serve as their wife to start a new society.

Alex. New Zealand, 1993. A local teenager struggles to earn a slot on the 1960 Olympic swimming team.

Blades of Courage, 1988. An overblown and monotonous TV movie about Olympic skater Lori Lalouche.

Boxer, Poland, 1971. A young boxer looks back on episodes in his life prior to his biggest ever fight, including going to the Olympics, and beating a Russian fighter.

Choice of a Lifetime. 1990. A biography of Spencer Haywood, 1968 US Olympic Gold Medallist, sports star, and recovering cocaine addict.

Crossbar. 1979. Based on the story of Aaron Kornylo, who stubbornly followed his goal of qualifying as an Olympic high jump competitor, despite losing one of his legs.

Dawn! 1983. Boring bio of Dawn Fraser, the first female athlete to win gold medals at three successive Olympic Games.

Diving In. 1990. A young diver with a fear of heights, has to overcome this in order to make it to the Olympics, helped by another Olympic athlete.

Downhill Racer. 1969. A bigheaded but brilliant American skier battles with his coach, aiming at the Olympics. With Robert Redford, Gene Hackman.

Fatal Games. 1984. Sporty horror film in which a murderer stalks an Olympic training academy.

Forbidden Sun. 1989. A team of Olympic gymnastics students are being coached on Crete, when a brutal rape occurs and the team-mates look for vengeance. With Lauren Hutton, Cliff De Young.

The Loneliest Runner. 1976. An Olympic athlete looks back nostalgically at his teenage years, when his ambitions as a runner were nearly ended by his chronic bed-wetting. I am not making this one up! With Brian Keith, Michael Landon.

Spiker. 1985. College athletes struggle with a tough coach, and various personal crises, as they try out for the US Olympic volleyball team.

Streets of Gold. 1986. A Soviet boxer defects to the West, and ends up washing dishes in Brooklyn, New York, then he starts training a pair of street kids to fight in the Olympics.

Swan Song. 1980. TV movie about a former Olympic Skier, who withdrew from competition due to a mysterious, psychosomatic illness. Feeling he had been exploited as an amateur, he works towards a professional comeback. With David Soul, Jill Eikenberry.

Sword of Gideon. 1986. A TV movie, in which, after the murder by terrorists of 5 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a team of special commandos is recruited to take vengeance on the killers. With Rod Steiger, Michael York, etc.

Terrytoons Salutes the Olympics. 1979. Animated cartoons, including Deputy Dawg in Physical Fatness, and Dinky Duck as the featherweight Champ.

(Professor Michael Simpson)




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