Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Houston Story (Clover/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Houston Story, which I’d recorded off TCM largely on the strength of the original trailer, which made the film look like an exciting action thriller set in and around the oil fields of Houston. Gene Barry plays Frank Duncan, a wildcat driller who’s hit upon a scheme for making himself millions without the actual hard (and expensive) preliminaries of actually locating an oil-bearing field and drilling exploratory wells: he’ll bribe foremen in fields that are already producing and build his own pipelines to siphon off their oil into his own refinery, then sell the oil products therefrom either to black-market brokers or sinister foreign powers (and you don’t need two guesses to realize who a 1956 audience would have read the “sinister foreign powers” as being — the Soviet Union, certainly, and “Red” China if you took the plural seriously).

The scheme needs some seed capital, and to get it Duncan seeks out Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold, billed third and still an authoritative actor even though he looks way too old for this sort of thing), Houston representative of a nationwide crime syndicate headed by Emile Constant (John Zaremba). Atlas and his sidekick, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards), want to tolerate Duncan’s presence as long as it takes to implement his scheme, then get rid of him (either financially, physically or both), but Constant talks Atlas into keeping Duncan on and Shay becomes dispensable — so much so that he organizes an ambush and tries to kill Duncan himself (on, out of all unlikely locations, the rooftop observatory on top of the Justice Department building!), but Shay himself ends up dying in the scene when Duncan, acting in self-defense, pitches him off the observation balcony to the street quite a few stories below.

There are also, of course, romantic rivalries, as good-girl Madge (Jeanne Cooper), a waitress at a café called The Derrick (a neon sign of an oil derrick, not that much smaller than the real thing, with the words “The Derrick” on it advertises this establishment) has the hots for Duncan, but he’s only interested in Atlas’s mistress, sultry cabaret singer Zoe (Barbara Hale), who performs “Put the Blame on Mame” to what I suspect was the same pre-recording by the same voice double used in Rita Hayworth’s vehicle Gilda a decade earlier. There are two main problems with this film; first, the script by Robert E. Kent is incredibly dull — we hear about all these exciting thriller-type scenes out in the oilfields but we don’t see any of them (there must have been some unusually interesting ballgames during the two or three days Kent was working on this one!) — and second, the leads are completely miscast. Barbara Hale is enough of a professional that she does her best with a role that takes her about as far away from Della Street as can be imagined, and she doesn’t do as much harm to this film as Gene Barry does.

We’re so used to seeing Barry as a good guy in movies like The Atomic City and the 1953 The War of the Worlds that we — or at least I — expected for the first half or so of the film to see an exposition scene explaining that he’s really a federal agent out to bust Constant’s crime syndicate by infiltrating it with a particularly lucrative scheme. There are a few cool things in the movie — like the board meeting of Constant’s syndicate, written and shot to look as much as possible like a legitimate board meeting of a major conglomerate with Constant as a CEO upbraiding his division chiefs for not meeting their profit projections; the confrontation between Duncan and Shea and the bizarre appearance of the sign advertising “The Derrick” the first time we see it — but for the most part this is a major disappointment, especially since the director was William Castle and he’d made enough stylish thrillers in the Whistler series (also for Columbia) a decade earlier that one would have thought he’d bring more atmospherics into this film instead of shooting it all too plainly. The Houston Story was a good idea for a movie but faltered very badly in the execution!

Cosmic Princess (ITV Entertainment, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Used by permission

My partner Charles brought over a disc he’d just burned of a few more Mystery Science Theatre 3000 programs, including episodes from the early days when it was a strictly local show on Channel 23 in Minneapolis-St. Paul (the time and temperature were occasionally flashed on the program at half-hour intervals and the temperature was around 36-37°, which certainly made it obvious this was not California — it also had a phone number flashed on the screen that didn’t even had an area code atta ched, through which you could call Joel Hodgson and stand a good chance of reaching him!) and not that much better produced than the similar Sal U. Lloyd show here on Channel 6 in the early 1980’s. (The main difference is that rather than speak the snarky comments over the movie’s soundtrack, the Sal U. Lloyd show ran them as subtitles.)

I was curious enough about these to run one last night — there’s an introduction with yet a different set of words to the theme song and Joel with long, curly hair looking even queenlier than he did in the main segments , and the robots a good deal more crudely constructed (especially Crow, who in this version looked like Joel’s kid brother built him with an Erector set). The one we watched was Cosmic Princess, a movie with an odd production history in that it was actually spliced together from two different episodes of the Space: 1999 TV series from the mid-1970’s, an all too obvious knockoff of the original Star Trek whose main purpose seems to have been to allow Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, his co-star on Mission: Impossible and subsequently his wife in real life, to work together after a contract dispute with Paramount cost him and her their berths on the hit spy show. So they moved to England and did a science-fiction series whose premise is that humans had colonized the moon and set up a military base there, Moonbase Alpha, only a space accident hurled the moon away from Earth’s gravitational field and sent it spinning willy-nilly into space, often falling into time warps and ending up literally light-years away from where it started (hey, let’s do the time warp again!).

These episodes deal with a planet which the Moonbasers visit in search of titanium to fuel their “Eagle” reconnaissance and defense ships, only the place is run by a man named Mentor (Brian Blessed, easily the best actor in this show) who’s invented a “psycho-computer,” which is basically a lot of bubbling liquid in glass tubes (like the one in the original Rollerball) that works by harnessing the psychic energy of human beings — so he turns the Moonbase crew members into zombies and has them work as miners while he simultaneously sucks out their psychic energy to feed his computer (an interesting anticipation of the central plot gimmick of The Matrix by about 20 years). The titular cosmic princess is Mentor’s daughter Maya (Catherine Schell), who helps the Earthlings destroy her father (after they turn her against him by pointing out that he’s really an unscrupulous, evil man who’s exploiting them) and his supercomputer (the scene in which Martin Landau clubs the glass tubes until they break is the most legitimately spectacular in the film),

The Moonbase crew takes her back in one of the Eagle spacecraft, and then the second half of this show begins (actually the two were separated by three months or so in the initial run of the series, so any resemblance between plot continuity and this film is strictly coincidental) in which Maya uses her ability to shape-shift to become a lion, a tiger, a dove, a gorilla (actually a human in a very unconvincing gorilla suit) and a couple of newly minted monsters (in costumes of such ineffable tackiness they would have embarrassed Sid and Marty Krofft). They are determined to keep her alive even after she loses the ability to control her shape-shifting and, in her monster personae, is threatening life and limb aboard the moonbase (sort of like the Incredible Hulk), and the second half of the show is far more soporifically paced than the first one (not that the first one was all that fast — especially compared to the 1960’s Star Trek that was its obvious model, the direction on Space: 1999, if these two episodes are representative of the whole show, is so p-o-n-d-e-r-o-u-s and s-l-o-w the piece quickly becomes dull, dull, dull) and far less interesting as a concept.

Still, despite the tackiness of the original material, this is not entirely fair material for a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation — especially since the MST3K writing itself was not as incisive as it was to become: the best lines are one in which the spacecraft from Moonbase Alpha is being chased by a giant, glowing blue ball in space and one of the robots says, “Hey, it’s Mitch Miller looking for a song!,” and later on in which the monster is being chased across the moon’s surface by a couple of spacesuit-clad astronauts (including Barbara Bain, who’s been temporarily separated from her husband by one of those pesky time warps that has moved her and the rest of the moonbase five light years away from him — though they are such an uncharismatic couple one really doesn’t mind: Bogart and Bacall these two weren’t!) in a dune buggy that reminded the MST3K crew of the vehicle from the Banana Splits TV show of the 1960’s and seemed to be moving so slowly across the moon’s surface in lukewarm pursuit of the monster one of the robots said it would be quicker for them just to get out and walk. The Space: 1999 TV show actually seemed to have some potential, and it wasn’t altogether an appropriate target for MST3K mockery (much the way movies like Revenge of the Creature, I Was a Teenage Werewolf — despite its risible rock ’n’ roll scene — and The Space Children really weren’t either); the MST3K formula only worked when the movies were bad enough to deserve mockery but not so bad that they were relentlessly unentertaining even when they were being made fun of (like The Giant Spider Invasion).

For the record, the credited directors were Charles Crichton and Peter Medak — I’m presuming Crichton did the first episode and Medak the second — and the writers were show creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and writers Johnny Byrne and Charles Woodgrove — the last a pseudonym for the show’s producer, Fred Freiberger, a man with a reputation for taking great ideas and making them terrible (he produced the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms — a silly movie based on Ray Bradbury’s great story, “The Foghorn,” and worth seeing only for Ray Harryhausen’s animation of the title character — and the third and last season of the original Star Trek) — and the program was somewhat entertaining though, like the physical production, the MST3K writing got better later on in the show when it became a national program first on Comedy Central and later on the Sci-Fi Channel (which for some reason was actually considered a demotion even though the Sci-Fi Channel was probably a better “fit” — most of the movies MST3K mocked were science-fiction and many of the Sci-Fi Channel’s own productions, including their Alien knockoff in which the alien was obviously a hand puppet with its operator’s fingers all too visible, were as tacky as anything shown on MST3K).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Lineup (Columbia, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Lineup is a quite good 1958 thriller set (and largely filmed) in San Francisco derived from a police-procedural TV show which apparently had the same title as the film on its initial showings, though when I caught it in reruns in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s it was known as San Francisco Beat. What makes this movie special is an un unusually intelligent script by Stirling Silliphant (who would later write the script for a more prestigious but not as good thriller, In the Heat of the Night), taut direction by Don Siegel (who 13 years later would make another, far more famous San Francisco-set thriller involving a psychopathic killer and a far less self-controlled cop, Dirty Harry) and a great performance by Eli Wallach in the lead role, a psycho hit man named John Evans but called throughout by his nickname “Dancer.”

According to Siegel, Wallach had just made his film debut in a prestige production at Warners, Baby Doll, written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan (both of whom Wallach had worked with on stage — Wallach had turned down Frank Sinatra’s role in From Here to Eternity to play in Williams’ fantasy Camino Real, whose Broadway production flopped, though with the far taller, more robust Wallach in the role Eternity wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did with skinny little Sinatra), and now found himself making what appeared to be a routine thriller for his second film. Then, midway through the shoot, Wallach realized he was actually playing a well-written role in a sophisticated genre film and started giving the part his all. Taking his cue from the name “Dancer,” Wallach chose to move like one, with all the agility and grace he could muster — indeed, he seems oddly reminiscent of Gene Kelly through much of it — and both his performance and the well-developed plot line Silliphant supplied for Dancer and his entourage made this far more than your routine policier.

The Lineup starts with an exciting and almost incomprehensible scene: a steamship returning from Hong Kong docks at Pier 41 and a bag belonging to one of the passengers is stolen. The thief throws it into a waiting cab (the driver is part of the criminal plot) but the driver, in a panic, runs down and kills a cop and then is killed himself when he crashes the cab while the police are shooting at it. The bag belongs to Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey), an official with the San Francisco Opera, and turns out to contain a statuette that, when its base is open, reveals a secret compartment filled with heroin. It’s been put there by a drug ring whose means of smuggling the stuff into the U.S. is to insert it in trashy knickknacks and sell them to tourists, who unbeknownst to them serve as the drug ring’s mules. The cops, headed by TV series regular Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson), at first suspect Dressler of being a smuggler but then realize the truth and try to get him to identify the porter who stole his bag — only he can’t be sure when he views the lineup (there had to be an explanation for the title somewhere!).

Later the porter is found dead and, to recover the other drug shipments, the gang flies in hit man Dancer (Wallach), his companion Julian (Robert Keith) — who basically serves as Dancer’s business manager and also has a fetish of his own, asking Dancer to remember the last words of his victims and tell them to him so he can write them in his notebook — and young driver Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel, an imposing apparition with white hair, either bleached or a sign of premature greyness on someone otherwise so young-looking) — to steal the knickknacks containing the drugs and, if necessary, murder their owners. Dancer and Julian kill an Oriental manservant at one of the homes and murder another man in a steam bath (which makes it look as if Silliphant had seen T-Men — a later Siegel thriller with hit-men as the main protagonists, the 1964 version of The Killers, also featured a murder in a steam bath as well as a similarly kinky relationship between two hit men working together, though Siegel said he wasn’t conscious of the similarities when he shot the later film and only realized them years after he’d made both).

They trace the third drug shipment to a single mother, Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche), and her daughter Cindy (Cheryl Callaway), only to learn that the daughter found the heroin inside the doll her mom gave her and used it to powder the doll’s face. Desperate to explain why he was unable to recover a large (and expensive) chunk of the contraband, Dancer hits on the idea of taking the Bradshaws hostage and dragging them along to meet the ring’s leader, “The Man” (Vaughn Taylor) at Sutro’s Museum, where he was supposed to put the packet with the recovered drugs in a dead drop. In a scene copied quite closely in the recent film Collateral — with Tom Cruise in Wallach’s role as the desperate hit man who now fears for his own life — Dancer enters the museum and accosts “The Man,” who turns out to be a dapper middle-aged man in a wheelchair, only to be told, “You’re dead. Nobody ever sees me.” (Siegel told interviewer Stuart Kaminsky that in this scene “The Man” was a stand-in for God and the scene expressed his contempt at the way religions control their believers by giving them strict rules to live by and threatening them with eternal damnation if they don’t follow them — right on, Don!)

Meanwhile, the cops — ya remember the cops? — have traced Dancer and company to Sutro’s museum, where they give chase in a scene that ends on San Francisco’s notoriously unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, and in an exciting scene, McLain (actually doubled by the great stunt driver Guy Way) drives his car to the edge of the freeway, realizes in a panic that there is an edge of the freeway, and swerves just in the nick of time to avoid going over and killing himself and everybody else in the car (including the Bradshaws). The car finally ends up trapped in a dead end that was supposed to be an exit — only that part of the freeway was never built — and Dancer kills Julian and tries to escape on foot, uses Cindy Bradshaw as a human shield, is picked off by a cop with really good aim and falls to his death through a space between the freeway ramps.

Though not as good as the two best thrillers ever set in San Francisco, The Maltese Falcon (1941 version) and Vertigo, The Lineup is still a quite good movie, taut, exciting, genuinely suspenseful and held together ably by the performances of Wallach, Keith and Jaeckel as the forces of evil. (Let’s face it, in this sort of story the villains are always more interesting than the heroes.) It was probably a pretty violent film for 1958 but today it seems surprisingly restrained, and Siegel seems to be under the influence of Hitchcock here — Mary LaRoche is made up to look like a classic “Hitchcock blonde” and there really isn’t much violence until the closing scene (aside from the grim one in which, after his unsatisfying meeting with “The Man” — who prophesies, accurately, that Dancer will soon be dead — Dancer pitches the wheelchair-bound “Man” off the balcony at Sutro’s and he falls one story to his death on the floor below, à la the 1947 Kiss of Death but we don’t care as much because he’s the bad guy, not an innocent grandma). It’s a bit trapped by its TV-show origins but it manages to rise above them (even more so than the 1954 Dragnet movie did) and holds up quite well as a key film in the Siegel oeuvre as well as the evolution of the thriller genre itself.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

There Goes Kelly (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

There Goes Kelly is a 1945 Monogram semi-musical semi-sequel to Here Comes Kelly from two years earlier, even though Here Comes Kelly not only hadn’t been a musical but the leads were played by different actors and only Sidney Miller, as Kelly’s Jewish sidekick, Sammy Cohn (pronounced “Cohn” in the previous film and “Cohen” in this one), carried over from the earlier cast.

This time around Kelly, who you’ll recall was drafted at the end of the earlier film, must have served his two-year hitch and got out of the military, since there’s no hint of war service in this one and he’s back to his old tricks, though instead of a barely contained blowhard such as Eddie Quillan played in Here Comes Kelly, here he’s a page boy at the Amalgamated Broadcasting Company (ABC — and it’s a bit of a slip on the part of writers Edmund Kelso and Tim Ryan that they used the initials of an actual network, even though the real ABC is the American Broadcasting Company and had only existed as a separate corporation for two years when this film was made), as is Coh(e)n, and while Sammy is content to be a page boy and make a meager living while getting to wear a cool uniform, Kelly is staying in street clothes as long as possible and trying to win the heart (or at least get in the pants) of receptionist Ann Mason (Wanda McKay) by pretending to be a producer and actually taking over a studio to audition her as a singer.

Kelly’s interest predictably is of no help to her at all, but that of Farrell (Anthony Warde), an older, established producer who also has the hots for her, actually gets her noticed and considered as a replacement for singer Rita Wilson (Jan Wiley), whose diva-like antics are pissing off not only Farrell but also the sponsor, Hastings (Harry Depp). Ann gets her big break when Rita is bumped off in the middle of a studio rehearsal — the shooter turns out the lights and fires point-blank, hitting her between the eyes — and a principal suspect is a former radio cowboy from Wyoming, Tex Barton (John Gilbreath) — who gets to do a dreary rendition of “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” in which chorus after chorus proves his utter inability to sing until the network officials blessedly turn him off.

Rita had previously worked in radio under her real name, Gladys Wharton, where she had attracted unwelcome attentions of both Hastings and a mystery man named Martin (Edward Emerson), Hastings’ assistant and, it turns out, Rita’s killer — and Tex’s, since he had to kill him too when he got too close to the truth. There are four songs in this one (not counting “Bury My Heart on the Lone Prairie”) — “Walkin’ the Chalkline” by Louis Herscher and Jules Loman, “Where Were You?” by Louis Herscher and Ruth Herscher (a married couple, I presume — Her and Herscher), “By the Looks of Things” by Harry Tobias and Edward J. Kay (Kay was Monogram’s musical director and also credited with the instrumental underscore) and “Tootin’ My Own Horn” by Edward Cherkose and Edward J. Kay — and while they aren’t great songs, nor are they that well presented (they’re all sung straight ahead by one or the other of the two cast members playing singers, and both Wanda McKay and Jan Wiley are clearly being doubled — in fact I think they’re being doubled by the same actual singer, and McKay seems pretty clueless about getting her lip movements to match her voice double’s pre-recording — at least they do add a bit of appeal and they’re perfectly serviceable pop material of the time.

Despite a rather tired plot gimmick and a weaker cast than the principals of Here Comes Kelly — Jackie Moran plays down the sheer rambunctious aggressiveness of the character Eddie Quillan did so well in the earlier film, and Wanda McKay was rather blankly attractive and certainly a more than adequate actress for the meager demands of the role, but she didn’t have Joan Woodbury’s charisma or her depth — There Goes Kelly actually emerges as the better of the two films, and the reason is its director: Phil Karlson, still working under his original last name “Karlstein” and clearly warming up for biggers and betters. On Here Comes Kelly, William Beaudine had played traffic cop, not hurting the film any (as his slovenliness had harmed potentially interesting projects like the 1943 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Ape Man) but not helping it any either; under Karlson’s direction here, the actors perform with snap and drive, and lines and situations that were pleasantly amusing in Here Comes Kelly here emerge as genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

Karlson never had the major career he deserved, but he did direct some quite interesting productions on both movie screens and TV shows, including 99 River Street (one of John Payne’s best noirs) and Ladies of the Chorus (a 1948 Columbia “B” starring Marilyn Monroe — her only work under the six-month contract Harry Cohn gave her before he decided, in his finite wisdom, that she’d never amount to anything — a much better film than its reputation; Karlson got a subtler, more nuanced performance out of Monroe than many of her later, higher-priced, more prestigious directors did); on There Goes Kelly, Karlson got excellent performances out of some pretty mediocre actors and, though he wasn’t going to be able to make much more of this movie than what the writers put into it, his direction has authority and power and help make what would otherwise be a routine “B” into something rather special.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“Happy Songs About the War” at Compass

Don’t Be Put Off by the Title — See This Show!


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Even if you reach the predictable — and accurate — conclusion that singer-songwriter-playwright JD Boucharde was being ironic when he titled his current show (playing Sunday through Wednesday nights through June 4 at Compass Theatre, nèe 6th @ Penn, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest) Happy Songs About the War, you might not be anxious to sit through it. Go anyway. Boucharde, a tall, lanky blond man with well-tattooed forearms and a strong voice, surprisingly rock-ish given that he makes most of his living as a cocktail-lounge pianist, turns out also to be an excellent actor and an incisive if not always original writer who slips easily from speech to song and from one character to another in this one-person show.

Boucharde has been writing Happy Songs About the War since the U.S.’s current occupation of Iraq started in 2003. Originally it was just a side project while he recorded a CD to follow up a previous album called Contra Mundum (“Against the World”). Figuring he’d better finish Contra Mundum, Vol. 2 first, Boucharde explained, “I put it away in The Drawer, where many of my other great ideas go. It sat there, silent, patient, barely breathing.”

Things changed in December 2006, when, Boucharde said, “after buying a house, moving and galumphing clumsily through the holidays, I found myself wide awake one night, staring at the ceiling. I got up, turned on the computer, and wrote until dawn. The next morning, I did the exact same thing. And the next, and the next. It became this strange ritual: every night, without exception, I’d put on my robe, grab the space heater, and shuffle out to the computer in the living room. Luckily, my wife — as well as being drop-dead gorgeous and capable of putting up daily with the likes of me — can sleep through anything.”

What has emerged from this series of all-nighters is a project that artfully combines songs and sketches to tell the grim story of how the U.S. got involved in Iraq. It doesn’t offer any especially new insights but it does manage to have a certain amount of fun with the story we all know, from the grandfatherly photo and aureole of banal New Age synthesizer tinkling that accompanies every mention of the name “Dick Cheney” to the cell-phone calls from the unseen, unheard “Landon,” supposedly Boucharde’s attorney, which interrupt the show (on purpose) and provide a running gag on how often the legal climate changes in the Bush administration.

The main thread of the show is contained in the song “Gold Chain of Command,” a folkish ballad set to a tune similar to the one Woody Guthrie used in “Deportees,” which recurs throughout the show to tell how the war filtered down from the corporate interests who ordered it through the political system down to the soldiers on the front line who do the actual fighting — and dying. Other songs in the show, notably “War Party,” are more openly satirical, albeit in a wry way. Perhaps the best song in the show is “Bullets Are Our Friends,” as vicious and insightful a musical look at the whole mentality behind accepting endless war as inevitable as any one can imagine. Boucharde wisely bookends the show with his most inspiring anthems, the gospel-flavored “Wake-Up Call” at the beginning and “Shine,” a pacifist sing-a-long reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Imagine” which Boucharde originally wrote for a Christmas-themed show called The Unconquerable Sun, at the end.

But the show isn’t all music. Boucharde turns out to be an excellent actor, especially in his impersonation of President George W. Bush trashing the Constitution. He has the physique for Bush and his reproduction of the President’s halting delivery, penchant for malapropism and repetition of phrases in his text he’s not sure he understands is spot-on. The other high point of the show’s spoken portion is a spoof of the mainstream media, particularly Fox News (the style of the graphics Boucharde, Callow and videographers Kirk and Noelle Geiger prepared for this segment give the game away), for going along with the government’s propaganda and telling us in a golly-gee-whillikers tone that “The War Is Going Really, Really Well!”

The child-like nature of Boucharde’s performances as Bush and several newscasters is key to one of the most interesting role-reversals in his script. When the second act begins, he’s playing a six-year-old sitting at a table behind a sign reading, “My Very Best Ideas 25¢” — which seems to have been inspired by Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help 5¢” booth in Peanuts — and there’s a long scene in which he accosts an unseen grownup that for the longest time doesn’t seem to have anything to do with war or Iraq at all. Eventually the connection becomes clear — and so does Boucharde’s ironic intent: while all the adults in his story (especially the real-life ones) are acting like children, the six-year-old is denouncing the use of religion to justify war and thinking like an adult. Once again, he’s got the acting chops to pull this off — his body posture lightens and he does a good job of reproducing the sheer rambunctious energy of a young boy — before he rather rudely returns us to the grownup world.

Happy Songs About the War is a cheeky show that doesn’t quite live up to its title — not that it really should — but is genuinely moving and well worth seeing. It’s billed as a “workshop” production, meaning it’s still a work in progress and liable to be rewritten based on audience responses, but about all that’s wrong with it in its present form is the sound glitches. Throughout much of the first act on opening night, May 25, Boucharde’s electronic keyboard instrument was so loud it overwhelmed his vocals, and by the time he and Callow got it turned down for act two, they started having trouble with his microphone and he had to worry about drowning himself out again. (His songs have lyrics that are worth listening to, and it’s a shame he and his wife Azúl, who runs the box office, aren’t selling the songs on CD in the lobby; they’re working on a DVD presentation instead.) Boucharde’s biography in the program says this is the first time he’s ever acted on a professional stage; he’s good enough that it certainly won’t be the last.

Happy Songs About the War runs every Sunday through Wednesday night through Wednesday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Compass Theatre, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you can order tickets online at Otherwise go through the San Diego Performing Arts Scene Web site, You can also hear JD Boucharde as a pianist every Sunday evening at the Turf Club, 1126 25th Street in Golden Hill.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Here Comes Kelly (Monogram, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie I ran was Here Comes Kelly, a 1943 film from Monogram that for once (at least by Monogram comedy standards) was well paced and genuinely amusing (not laugh-out-loud funny but at least amusing). It was based on a 1933 film called He Couldn’t Take It, made by independent producer William Lackey and directed by future Monogram stalwart William Nigh from a script by the young Dore Schary writing under the first name “Jeb.” By 1943 Lackey was a contract producer at Monogram and so he decided to dredge up this old story (a hot-tempered Irishman — now why do I identify with movies about hot-tempered Irishmen? Maybe because I am one myself? — fist-fights his way out of one job after another until he gets one as a process server, a gig in which he’s able to use his aggressiveness to his advantage) and remake it as a Monogram production, with Eddie Quillan, who’d descended from major-studio leads in films like the 1932 Girl Crazy and 1933 Broadway to Hollywood to character-comedian roles, as the blow-top guy and Joan Woodbury as his fiancée, who’s getting more and more disgusted with the relationship as it seems less and less likely her man will be able to keep a job long enough to support them.

She’s getting so disgusted with it, in fact, that she’s giving signs of succumbing to the sexual harassment of her boss, attorney L. Herbert Oakley (a surprisingly corpulent Ian Keith, who like the star and the story had seen better days) even though he’s not only a lecher but a crook. Hero Jimmy Kelly (Quinlan) gets fired from his job as a bus driver when he punches out an obnoxious passenger; his dreams of going to night school and becoming a lawyer (he’s figured, if his girlfriend likes lawyers, he’ll simply become one) are dashed when the registrar at city college is the guy he punched out on the bus; he ends up a process server and is assigned to serve “Trixie Bell” with a subpoena to appear as part of a stock fraud investigation (with the usual framing problems of Monogram’s inserts this becomes “tock Fraud” on screen), only it turns out Trixie Bell is a man, a professional wrestler (played by real-life professional wrestler Maxie Rosenbloom, who’s billed third in this film even though he doesn’t appear until the last 20 minutes of a 64-minute movie), while his friend Sammy Cohn (Sidney Miller doing the usual Jewish schtick) is assigned the task of serving “Number Seven” even though the state has no idea of his true name or location.

Kelly overhears Bell talking to “Number Seven” on the phone and discovers it’s Oakley, and they find him on a train about to leave for Montreal; Kelly and Cohn arrive in the nick of time to serve him and save girlfriend Margie (Woodbury), whom he’d enticed to leave with him, from the Fate Worse than Death. At the end it looks like Kelly and Margie are finally going to get married when fate intervenes in the form of Kelly’s draft notice, requiring him to report for induction at the very moment he was supposed to be getting married. (Couldn’t writer Charles R. Marion, adapting and updating Schary’s original story to give it a wartime flavor, have had them get married before he has to leave for the war, à la The Clock?) There's also a nice scene, pretty obviously ripped off from the 1933 film A Man's Castle, in which Kelly serves an entertainer (Armida) on stage in the middle of her act to evade her bodyguards.

Here Comes Kelly is no world-beater, but screenwriter Marion and director William Beaudine keep it moving, the script is genuinely amusing (unlike a lot of other so-called “comedies” Monogram made about this time), the cinematography by Arthur Martinelli is straightforward but at least clear, and for once you can watch a Monogram film without having to worry about whether the sets designed by Dave Milton and an uncredited Albert Greenwood are going to fall down any moment on the hapless actors. That might seem like faint praise, but I’ve sat through all too many Monogram films that didn’t live up to these basic standards of professional competence that this one is refreshing simply because it does.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Garden of the Moon (Warner Bros., 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the John Payne movies from his early tenure at Warners that I’d been recording to DVD all morning: Garden of the Moon, a 1938 quasi-musical that seemed interesting mainly because Busby Berkeley was the director. Alas, this was the sort of movie that was getting Berkeley thoroughly disillusioned with Warners at the time — so much so that the next year, when his contract ran out, he signed with MGM and took a cut in his own salary for the promise of bigger budgets for his production numbers. The title Garden of the Moon refers to the nightclub in the prestigious Royal Hotel in Los Angeles (read: the Cocoanut Grove in the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated), run by imperious manager John Quinn (Pat O’Brien, top-billed) much the way Otto Preminger ran Stalag 17.

In the opening scene we see workers taking down the marquee letters advertising the Garden of the Moon’s resident bandleader, Guy Trent. Quinn thunders to his P.R. person and general factotum, Toni Blake (Margaret Lindsay), that from then on he doesn’t want any unknown bands playing his club and he determines to have Rudy Vallée as his next act. (Vallée is referred to throughout the film but never actually seen, though since he was working at Warners at the time in Gold Diggers in Paris, released 3 1/2 months before Garden of the Moon, I guess they considered him — or at least his name — fair game.) Alas, Vallée cracks up his band bus on the way out to California for the gig, and he and six of his musicians are laid up and unable to work for several weeks. Desperate, Quinn agrees to Toni’s suggestion that he hire the band of the unknown Don Vincente (John Payne) because she likes his record of a swing novelty called “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” — even though Quinn can’t stand it and demands that he play only straight dance music on the job.

Since Vincente’s most recent gig was at an ironworkers’ dance during which a brawl broke out, the place exploded in a riot and the musicians not only didn’t get paid for their work but had to flee for their lives and (more importantly, in some ways) the safety of their instruments, naturally they accept the prestigious, potentially star-making gig at the Garden of the Moon. Only Quinn turns out to be such a petty tyrant he’d rather sabotage his club than help his new band become successful. Their first clash comes when Quinn insists that Vincente let his protégée, singer Mary Stanton (Mabel Todd), sing with the band; Vincente insists that his band never uses women singers because they spark romantic rivalries that break bands up, Quinn insists, and when Mary takes the stage Vincente surrounds her with all five of his band’s trumpeters and they drown her out. Quinn takes revenge by cutting the power to Vincente’s microphone so no one in the audience can hear him when he sings, either, but Vincente retaliates by having the audience gather around the bandstand and having the band play softly so his vocal can still be heard without amplification.

Toni, who’s gradually falling in love with Vincente, gets him an audition for a radio broadcast with a chewing-gum company — working through Garden of the Moon regular Mrs. Lornay (Isabel Jeans in full Margaret Dumont mode), who’s shown up at the club with her protégé, movie ape-man Chauncey (Edgar Edwards), a relationship that, like Quinn’s with his pet girl singer, certainly strongly hints at romantic/sexual possibilities directly verboten under the Production Code! — Toni gets Mr. Lornay, owner of the chewing-gum company, to listen when Vincente’s broadcast comes through to New York that night. Only Quinn gets wind of it and sabotages the broadcast, releasing balloons from the roof of the club during the broadcast (where they pop and sound like a gun battle is in progress) and turning up the amplifiers to end the broadcast in a screech of feedback.

The rest of this film — scripted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay from a Saturday Evening Post serial by H. Bedford-Jones and John Barton Browne — consists of similarly petty incidents involving Quinn and Vincente (surprisingly there isn’t a romantic-triangle plot line — neither Quinn nor anybody else but Vincente is interested in Toni), culminating in an elaborate publicity stunt in which Toni, to keep Quinn from firing Vincente, hires an out-of-work waiter and pickpocket named Muller (Curt Bois) to pose as the “Maharajah of Sund,” supposedly an Indian potentate with whom Vincente attended college. Only Maurice (Melville Cooper), Quinn’s head waiter, recognizes the impostor and gives the game away. For the finale, Vincente signs to do the Lornay broadcast and return to New York to do it, Quinn is desperate to keep him at the Garden of the Moon — by then the McGillicuddy brothers who own the hotel (Granville Bates and Edward McWade) have noticed how popular Vincente has become despite Quinn’s machinations and demand that he be kept on — and Toni tricks Vincente into signing a contract with the Garden (pointing out that he can still fulfill his contract with Lornay from L.A.) by staging a phony gangster attack on Quinn, Quinn keeps Vincente’s band, Tony gets Vincente and the whole thing ends more or less happily.

Garden of the Moon is reasonably entertaining, but it’s also one of those frustrating films that almost works and could certainly have been a lot better than it was. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the roles played by John Payne and Margaret Lindsay were originally supposed to go to Dick Powell (not surprisingly, given the stentorian, Powell-esque qualities of Payne’s vocals here) and Bette Davis; Powell agreed to a layoff from Warners rather than do this film and Davis probably went ballistic that she — after her career breakthrough in Of Human Bondage, her first Academy Award for Dangerous, her walkout and attempt to break her Warners contract in Britain, her comeback in Marked Woman and the release of her blockbuster hit Jezebel just a month and a half before Garden of the Moon started production — was still getting handed scripts like this along with Jack Warner’s “Do this — or else!” pronunciamientos.

I can’t really regret that neither Powell nor Davis is in the film as it stands — Davis would have practically defined the term “overqualified” and Powell would have brought a bit more charisma and star power to the role of Vincente but otherwise wouldn’t have played it appreciably differently (ironically, both Powell and Payne eventually gave up musicals and specialized in film noir roles) — but at least with one or both of them the film would have had a bigger budget and there would have been some of those spectacular Busby Berkeley production numbers. As it stands, the Garden of the Moon doesn’t have a floor show or a chorus line at all, and though at least some of the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (the star songwriting team from Berkeley’s best films) with Johnny Mercer as second lyricist, seem to cry out for the full-scale treatment (especially the “Whirling Dervish” song and another number called “The Girl on the 2¢ Stamp,” which really dates this movie) cry out for the full Berkeley treatment, they don’t get it. (It’s all too easy to imagine what sort of number Berkeley could have put together from a song called “The Girl on the 2¢ Stamp”: a battalion of chorus girls wave jigsaw-puzzle pieces in the air as they arrange themselves in a kaleidoscope formation and the camera dollies between their legs, and at the end they assemble the jigsaw-puzzle pieces into a giant representation of Ruby Keeler on the 2¢ stamp.)

Instead, Berkeley tries to bring some visual interest to the movie in the ways he shoots the performances by Payne’s band, all oblique camera angles and chiaroscuro shadows, a series of effects just about everyone who directed a musical with a swing band in it ran into the ground over the next decade and which still leaves traces in modern-day music videos (though some of these angles of musicians performing were used even earlier by John Murray Anderson in his pioneering 1930 musical The King of Jazz). As it stands, Garden of the Moon is full of running gags and quirks (like Pat O’Brien’s habit of breaking his watch and then declaring he’s destroyed a family heirloom as the orchestra plays the song “M-O-T-H-E-R” on the soundtrack, thus upsetting whomever he was talking to and getting them to do his will — of course, the camera then pans to his desk drawer, where he keeps a whole bunch of these watches just for these demonstrations) and has the appearance of being originally planned as a far more elaborate (and expensive) film than the one that got made, as witness this list of cast members and characters who were announced for the film but who never made it into the final cut: Rosella Towne (Secretary), Jack Mower (Waiter), Hal Craig (Detective), John Harron (Photographer), Don DeFore (Cowboy Buck Delanye) and Sonny Chorre (Leaping Deer).

While many of the actors who play Vincente’s bandsmen are “gimmick” entertainers — Jerry Colonna is here pre-Bob Hope, complete with handlebar moustache and pseudo-Shakespearean double-talk; and there’s another moon-faced musician whose sole function seems to be to moo at the ends of songs, like a cow — the violinist sounded unusually good, and the closing credits indicated why: he was jazz great Joe Venuti, quite a bit less exciting than he was on his own during the period but still a lot of fun and far ahead of the other soloists (including the unspeakably awful Johnnie “Scat” Davis, who as a white Louis Armstrong wanna-be makes his principal competitor for the white-Armstrong market niche, Louis Prima, seem like a model of subtlety by comparison).

Besides the lack of the spectacular production numbers associated with Berkeley’s name (an absence that probably disappointed a lot of moviegoers in 1938, too!), the other big problem with Garden of the Moon is the miscasting of Pat O’Brien. A stronger Warners personality like Robinson, Cagney or Bogart could probably have pulled off the swaggering club owner and still made him an entertaining figure; O’Brien, used to playing likeable, had done a credible job as the roguish con man in I Sell Anything (though even in that film I sat through most of it thinking how much more fun it would have been with W. C. Fields in the role!), but the part of a fascistic martinet who runs the club as if it were Abu Ghraib was simply wrong for him. (Giving him a romance with Margaret Lindsay and a moment of grace and humanity when he lets her go to John Payne at the end would definitely have helped.)

Garden of the Moon is the sort of coolly professional film the studios in the Golden Age could pretty much turn out in their sleep (and it’s considerably better than some films of the period that look like they were turned out in their makers’ sleep!), but with more distinguished songs and more money to stage them lavishly this could have been far, far better than it is.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The TV Set (Independent, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights resrved

My partner Charles and I got to the library to see what turned out to be one of the best recent movies we’ve seen: The TV Set, written and directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Big Chill writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, and himself a TV vet with a series called Freaks & Geeks which ran for two years on NBC — apparently Kasdan fils didn’t think the network did enough to salvage it when it ran into ratings trouble and the bitter, caustic portrait of the TV world in this movie was his revenge). Mike Klein (a surprisingly homely David Duchovny — whom I didn’t recognized, but then during its run on TV I watched The X-Files exactly twice and both times found it a gimmicky program, a generic crime drama with an ill-integrated overlay of the supernatural) is a TV writer-director who’s pushed his latest series concept onto the Panda Television Network (PTN) and its head of programming, Lenny (Sigourney Weaver).

Apparently Kasdan originally intended this role for a man, and when Weaver was cast he didn’t bother to change either the name or any of the dialogue — though Weaver’s casting was an ironic masterstroke given that her father, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, actually worked as head of programming at NBC from 1950 to 1955 and, more than any other person, created the parameters of what that job would entail from then on. Sterling Quinlan in his book Inside ABC describes Weaver père as one of the three most influential program directors in the history of American television and said he “contributed many of the formats that are still popular today” — two of the shows he personally created, Today and Tonight, are not only still on the air but are still ratings blockbusters — “and who endeavored to create for the medium the kind of programs he thought the public should have.” Quinlan’s other two most influential program directors in TV history, Oliver Treyz (ABC, 1956-1962) and Fred Silverman (who in the 1970’s and early 1980’s worked at all three major networks — CBS, ABC and NBC, in that order, were important because they used research to determine what programs viewers would like — and that, of course, is the sort of character Weaver fille is playing here.

The series Mike Klein is pitching to PTN is The Wexler Chronicles, a sort of part-comedy, part-drama about a big-city attorney who, grief-stricken by the suicide of his older brother, returns to the small town that spawned him and re-connects with his family and his old girlfriend. Only, as in the real-life TV industry, Lenny and the other people at the network gang up on his idea and purge it of anything that gives it power and depth. They also force him to accept a shallow, superficially ingratiating actor, Zach Harper (Fran Kranz — let’s see, the characters include a girl named Lenny and the cast includes a boy named Fran!), who seems able to underplay or overplay but not play anything in between, instead of Klein’s choice, T. J. Goldman (Simon Helberg), who gives an audition where he mumbles and strokes his beard a lot (at Mike’s ill-advised suggestion, he’s grown a beard, making him look more like a young rabbi in training than the star of a TV show) and blows the role.

Lenny insists that she’ll only pick up the pilot and put the show on the air if Zach plays the lead and if Mike gets rid of the brother’s suicide — and Mike tells her, natch, that the brother’s suicide is the emotional linchpin of the show and was inspired by his own brother’s suicide. Mike gets a green light to shoot a pilot with the suicide only to be told, on the set, with only 10 minutes left to wrap the scene, to rewrite and reshoot so that it’s the central character’s mother rather than his brother who died, not of suicide but simply of old age (and Kasdan’s writing for the revised scene is deliciously, deliberately inept). The brother is still alive but is now in prison, where the lead character visits him. (Mike had hired an actor for the role, but only intending to use him in flashback scenes in which the central character is inspired by his recollections of his brother.)

The TV Set — a marvelously punning title referring both to the location where a TV show is filmed and the device on which it is viewed — offers us grim looks at the process by which TV shows are tested on viewers: the focus-group meetings and the devices people are given that look like the giant remote controls and cell phones of old (pre-transistorization) and contain knobs which you’re instructed to turn to the right if you like something and to the left if you don’t. (They even do this on the cable news networks during the Presidential debates now, and show the wavy lines of like and dislike across the air as the candidates are speaking — yet more proof, if any was needed, of how totally American politics have degenerated into showbiz.)

There’s also a grim scene in which, trying out new titles for the show — Lenny having decided in her finite wisdom that The Wexler Chronicles is a lousy title — they buttonhole people in shopping malls and ask them if they’d watch a TV show bearing a certain title. The man they ask — a late-hippie type with a beard and long hair — hears the titles read off and asks the obvious question, “What’s the show about?” “We’re not concerned with that, we just want you to rate the title,” he’s told. As a result of the mangling of his original concept, what finally makes it (barely) onto PTN’s schedule is titled Call Me Crazy! and has the most banal dialogue Jake Kasdan could put his tongue into his cheek long enough to write — as well as a big fart on the soundtrack when the central character visits his still-living but imprisoned brother and the brother walks away after the meeting.

The TV Set isn’t exactly fresh satire, but it’s still a nicely grim look at the world of mass entertainment and how incessantly and implacably the process of “development” smooths out all the rough edges and leaves everything on TV at the same level of banality (actually at several levels of banality), and it’s all too clear why Mike Klein doesn’t take the route of bailing out of there and walking out with his show and his integrity still intact — not only does he have a wife (Justine Bateman) and a child he can barely afford, but she’s well along in a pregnancy with a second one — and her looming belly says more than words ever could about why he has to eat all the network’s shit and keep his job (and his income). Duchovny turns in a workmanlike performance but is way overshadowed by Weaver, who’s remarkably severe and masculine-looking (through much of the film she looks like Mick Jagger in drag) and she’s absolutely marvelous in the role — but then again, the villain is usually more interesting than the hero …

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Washington — You're Fired! (William Lewis/BSMG, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up in the auditorium watching a movie being introduced by Congressional candidate Mike Copass, Washington — You’re Fired! It was made in 2008 by director William Lewis and had a rather stentorian narration (presumably delivered by Lewis himself, though the narrator was uncredited) and — despite the title and the context, which would make one believe it was a movie about ordinary citizens running for political office and challenging the political elites, really only about the last 10 minutes or so dealt with that: the rest was a quite grim and depressing look at how the Bush administration (and other administrations before that) has systematically abolished our civil liberties; how both of the major parties have been complicit and indeed actively involved in the process, and how these efforts have trashed virtually the entire Bill of Rights.

Lewis fell into the trap a lot of political filmmakers do: he wanted to document in great detail the enormity of the evils he was railing against so the audience for his movie would be stirred up to rise against them — but the film is just as likely, if not more so, to depress the hell out of its intended viewers and make them think, “What’s the use?” There are some fascinating people in the movie, including law professor Jonathan Turley (a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s legal policies and one of the few Left-of-center voices still permitted on the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times) and Mark Klein, the whistle-blower who revealed that his former employer, AT&T, was routing all the e-mails its company handles through a special room that transferred copies of them to the National Security Agency for data-mining.

Lewis’s script for the film assumed that the right to privacy is a core Constitutional guarantee (it isn’t, and indeed it’s clear that the Right has never believed in the right to privacy, and that its attack on that concept goes far beyond the usual areas in which the issue is argued, women’s access to birth control and abortion) but otherwise did a good job of articulating the case, though the sheer scope of the assault on our constitutional liberties and the numbing indifference with which the American people in general have greeted it (it’s one of the many issues that nobody seems to be discussing in this campaign) is, as I noted above, more likely to drive people out of activism than to encourage them to get active.

The discussion afterwards was moderated by a couple of the so-called “9/11 Truth” people, one of whom pissed me off by saying that the whole idea is to bring about the “One World Order” (frankly, a world government more or less on the order of the European Union would be a decided improvement on what we have now!) before he drew back a little after realizing that made him sound like a Right-wing paranoiac. (As many friends as I have in the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement — the loose-knit group of people who argue that the U.S. government itself attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and framed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as a pretext to institute repressive measures they’d planned for decades — I still think it’s a lot of nonsense. I’ll never forget Randall Hamud, author of "Osama bin Laden: In His Own Words," giving a presentation at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church and being confronted by one of those people, who asked him, “Why do you believe 9/11 was an attack by a terrorist organization run by Osama bin Laden?” — and a rather taken-aback Hamud answered , “Well, for one thing, he said so.”)

Adventures of Kitty O'Day (Monogram, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Adventures of Kitty O’Day, which I recalled having read good things about in Don Miller’s survey of “B” movies — alas, the promise of a Monogram version of a Thin Man movie was not fulfilled. Instead it was a “youth movie” with Jean Parker as Kitty O’Day, a switchboard operator at a big-city hotel, who’s in love with Johnny Jones (Peter Cookson) — couldn’t they have figured out at least a nominally more creative name for him? — who runs the travel information desk at the hotel. (They’re constantly calling each other on the hotel’s intercom lines even though they literally work across the lobby from each other — a gag that has a surprisingly modern feel, though in a movie of today they’d be using cell phones.)

The film’s gimmick is that Kttty O’Day incessantly reads true-detective magazines and fancies herself a crime-fighter — and she gets a real crime to fight when people start getting murdered in mysterious ways all over the hotel, especially on the third floor. I had a hard time keeping awake through this movie, which might have been an indication of how tired I was or a demonstration of its relatively low quality, but from what I could see it was pretty much just a farce dressed up with a few dead bodies, as Kitty, Johnny, their bosses and various assorted suspects ran around the hotel a lot and Jean Parker tried to play both farce (at which she was pretty good) and slapstick (at which she wasn’t good at all; one commentator said she reminded him of Lucille Ball’s “Lucy” character, which could only make me think of how much funnier this movie would have been with Ball in Parker’s role).

Eventually it all turns out to have something to do with a plot to steal guests’ jewelry from the hotel safe, and the guilty man turns out to be one of the four or five portly middle-aged men with little moustaches who are the suspects (in virtually ALL Monogram's mystery films, the killers turn out to be portly middle-aged men with little moustaches) — not that it really matters that much — and Johnny Jones has just about managed to get Kitty O’Day to swear off detective work when yet another body is found at the hotel (this place must have the worst survival rate for its guests in the entire history of hostelry!) and she’s off and running — while the movie itself sputters out, a really disappointing “B” because the premise, though not exactly fresh, had the promise of a genuinely entertaining and amusing film instead of just a lot of running around.

The original source for the film was a story by Victor Hammond called “Kitty O’Day Comes Through,” and Hammond joined George Callahan and Tim Ryan to form the writing committee for the actual script — while the director is Monogram stalwart William Beaudine, who could be good or could be dreadful (his one unquestionably great film, The Old-Fashioned Way, is great because W. C. Fields was the star and the only things you needed to do to make a great Fields movie were point the cameras and mikes at him, and make sure the cameras were in focus and the mikes were recording him intelligibly) and gets a few cool noir-ish effects whenever O’Day enters a darkened room and sees it in the half-light through open Venetian blinds (a favorite effect of Monogram directors when they tried to get arty); alas, as soon as she turns on the lights Mack Stengler’s cinematography becomes typical Monogram, flat and dull.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Wordplay" More than a Crossword Cult Film

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Introducing the film Wordplay — a documentary with the unlikely subject of crossword puzzles and the people who make, publish and solve them — at a preview screening at Landmark Hillcrest June 21, 2006, Martha Barnette, co-host of the KPBS radio show A Way with Words, said, among other call-outs, “Clap if you think Will Shortz is hot!” It was an ironic thing to say because, by conventional standards of male attractiveness, Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times since 1993, is decidedly not hot. He’s decent-looking, personable, witty and blessed with the faculty of not taking himself too seriously, and even if one weren’t a crossword puzzle aficionado one would probably enjoy having dinner with him, but no one is ever going to mistake him for some kind of male sex god.

Wordplay is the product of director Patrick Creadon and his wife and producing partner, Christine O’Malley. It has two focuses: one on Shortz and the fanatical following the New York Times crossword puzzles have attracted, and one on the annual crossword-solving contest — yes, you read that right — held in Stamford, Connecticut in mid-February. Mid-February might seem like the last time of year even a group so seemingly nerdy as fans of a crossword puzzle would want to vacation in New England, but the event, which has been held every year since 1978, attracts over 500 participants.

When they’re not solving crossword puzzles — the contest is structured so you do seven puzzles, one a day, inside cubicles in a large room, then the three highest scorers each have to do one final puzzle on a white board with a dry-erase marker with everyone else watching — the participants are regaling each other with crossword-themed entertainment and crossword-inspired clothing, ranging from crossword ties to a weird headdress sported by one man that looks like bits of crossword puzzles have just burst out of his brain and through his scalp. When he says that one puzzle in the contest “exploded my brain,” you believe him.

The film features a wide variety of guest stars, from former President Clinton and Bob Dole (his major-party opponent in 1996) to Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central; PBS filmmaker Ken Burns; Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, better known jointly as the Indigo Girls; New York Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina (who’s shown striking out Barry Bonds in what Creadon and O’Malley present as a brains-over-brawn comeuppance); and former New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent, all of whom are linked by their love of the New York Times crossword puzzles.

But by far the most compelling people in the movie are the “regulars,” those whose lives revolve around crosswording: Shortz, crossword puzzle designer (and Stamford contest co-sponsor) Merl Reagle, and the leading contestants at Stamford in 2005. Among these are Tyler Hinman, 20-year-old information-technology student who, in a concession to the times, does the Times crosswords via the Internet; Trip Payne, a Gay man (the film doesn’t shove his sexual orientation in our face but doesn’t shy away from it either) who relocated from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and met his current partner, “crossword widow” Brian Dominy, there; and Ellen Ripstein, who staged a dramatic come-from-behind victory at a previous contest.

The peculiar genius of Wordplay is in its clear sympathy for its subjects. Not only does it make crossword fandom seem like a totally sensible and normal pastime, its devotees come across as quite charming people, likable and winning, rather than the terminally depressed and withdrawn nerds one might expect. The Stamford contest is depicted much the way the climactic spelling bee was in Spellbound, whose success was clearly an inspiration for this film, and such is the power of Creadon’s direction that he generates real suspense over the outcome and a feeling that you want to applaud along with the on-screen crowd once the contest is over and someone has won.

The film contains plenty of winning anecdotes as well. Shortz is shown as a kid, wanting nothing in the world except a chance to make his living at puzzles and responding to his parents’ insistence that he get a college education by going to Indiana University because he’d heard they would let students major in whatever they wanted. Accordingly, Shortz told his professors and deans he wanted to major in “enigmatology” — the study of puzzles — and did. Also, at the end of the 1996 election campaign he published a trick puzzle in which the second word of a two-word answer was “ELECTED” — but the clues for the first word could fit either “CLINTON” or “BOBDOLE” so the puzzle would be accurate no matter who won.

Wordplay has a few faults. It’s surprisingly sketchy on the history of crosswording, dating the first crossword in a major U.S. newspaper to 1913 but then leaping ahead to 1942, when a new editor at the New York Times rehabilitated its daily crossword and set new standards for writing them. The film totally ignores the very first crossword boom, in 1924, when the first book-length compilation of puzzles became a surprise best-seller and added crosswords to the list of 1920’s fads. It would also have been nice to see more on how crossword puzzles are made. The short sequence in which Merl Reagle is shown creating (“constructing”) a crossword is fascinating, especially in that he first establishes the long words that express the themes of the puzzle and then fills in the black spaces — which, according to the rules, have to be symmetrical so that the puzzle looks the same upside down — and the shorter words that have to interlock with the big ones. Creadon savvily follows this up with some comments from Clinton, Stewart and others as they try to solve the puzzle we’ve seen being made — but some more footage on the art of puzzle construction would have broadened this movie’s interest quite a bit.

Wordplay is a genuinely charming movie and a true celebration of a particularly detailed, only slightly demented kind of intelligence. Clearly, if a recherché hangover from the 19th century like spelling bees could be the subject of a successful 21st century documentary film, so could crossword puzzles, which for all the devotion of the people in this film sometimes seem like a recherché hangover from the 20th century, not only as newspapers themselves fade in popularity but as crosswords seem to be yielding to the number puzzle sudoku as the hot item on the puzzle page. A recent New York magazine article described how Will Shortz got dragged, kicking and screaming, into the sudoku age when his long-time publisher, St. Martin’s Press (which published a crossword book called Wordplay to tie in with the film), commissioned three sudoku books from him and found themselves selling a million copies a month — compared to 150,000 of his crossword books every four years. Nonetheless, the New York Times remains the only major paper in the U.S. that still doesn’t publish sudoku.

Still, crossword puzzles are so much a part of American life that the soundtrack to Wordplay contains a surprising number of songs that use them as a metaphor, usually for the confusion of a dysfunctional relationship. (The closing credits don’t mention a soundtrack CD, but if one comes out it would be well worth buying.) It wouldn’t be surprising if Wordplay not only draws big audiences to theatres but, in an age in which poker has become a major TV attraction on ESPN and the success of Spellbound landed the National Spelling Bee an ABC-TV contract, it helps get the Stamford crossword contest similar attention from a major telecaster.

EPILOGUE, 2008: Alas, "Wordplay" wasn't the blockbuster hit "Spellbound" was and the crossword puzzle tournament hasn't found its place on ESPN yet along with the poker games. Also, KPBS-FM staged a p[urge of virtually all its locally produced public-affairs programming a year ago that included canceling "A Way with Words." But I recently re-saw "Wordplay" on DVD and it remains a charming, low-key film about people with a particularly endearing (at least to me!) obsession — and it's still well worth seeking out and watching … and Tyler Hinman IS hot.

Mitchell (Allied Artists/Essex Entertainment, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually Charles and I watched yet another Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode, this one the one in which Mike Nelson (playing a temp at Mad Scientist Central) definitively replaced Joel “Robinson” Hodgson as captain of the Satellite of Love. The film was Mitchell, a 1975 cop movie starring Joe Don Baker in the title role, a sort of slacker cop who’s assigned to trail a suspected drug dealer named Cummings (Martin Balsam, the one person in this movie who could actually act) but instead preferred to go after the politically connected Deaney (John Saxon), who in the opening sequence literally executes a burglar with the temerity to break into his home.

The MST3K crew seized on the fact that the burglar was played by an African-American actor with a marked resemblance to singer Johnny Mathis and started supplying surprisingly credible imitations of Mathis’ nasal tone quality and cat-torture vibrato. Indeed, they had a lot of fun with this movie — probably more than it deserved — since they seemed to be channeling it into a whole new genre, “whitesploitation,” essentially the Blaxploitation clichés done with a white cast. They even invented a version of the Mitchell theme song that riffed off Isaac Hayes’ great theme song for Shaft, which made it seem all the sillier when the actual theme song from this movie turned up and it was a piece of really putrid country-rock (by Steve Hoffman) with a faux “old-time” feel. (When I first heard the real song I thought it was yet another MST3K parody!)

They also pointed out some of the goofs in the film, like the boom mike that dipped into the frame at Mitchell’s home and the headlight on the red Mustang in the film’s chase scene (in which Mitchell is chasing Cummings and is in turn being chased by the Mustang, which in trying to run him off the road has had its right headlight bashed in — then the film cuts to another angle and the headlight is in perfect repair, after which there’s another cut and it’s broken again!), as well as the sheer silliness of a chase in which not only do the cars never seem to exceed 40 miles an hour but at one point Cummings’ driver obligingly puts on his turn signal just to make it that much easier for Mitchell to follow him.

Mitchell achieves a sort of bad-movie near-perfection; it’s a suspense film without any suspense, a thriller without any thrills, a mystery without any mystery and an action movie with almost no action. The whole idea of the title character — an alcoholic slacker cop who rallies and pulls himself together just long enough to bust one particularly nasty set of baddies, then sinks back into the haze — was good enough to deserve a better movie than this, and Joe Don Baker was an intriguing casting idea given that just two years before he’d played a far more butch lawman, real-life Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser (fabled for the baseball bat which he carried on patrol so he could literally take a whack out of crime), and this sort of role in a better movie could have been seen by the rest of the world’s casting directors as an intriguing and worthwhile extension of his range. Alas, Mitchell was a lousy movie start-to-finish — when I saw the “Allied Artists” distribution credit at the end (the production credit went to something called “Essex Entertainment”) it became apparent that, after years of producing genuinely good movies like Cabaret, this company had decided to get back in touch with its Monogram roots.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Jive Junction": PRC's Attempt at a Mickey and Judy Movie

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Jive Junction is a 62-minute “B” from 1943 which’s trivia section bills as the first release of PRC — which it may have been under that company name (the initials stood for Producers’ Releasing Corporation), though by then the company, under its two previous names (Producers’ Pictures and Producers’ Distributing Corporation), had already been in business for four years. The main interest for me was the director, Edgar G. Ulmer, though the film itself was a pretty ordinary youth musical and there were only two sequences that showed any traces of Ulmer’s personal style. The basic plot deals with Peter Crane (Dickie Moore, top-billed for once), a prodigy who’s been attending a conservatory in New York City and suddenly, for no apparent reason, decides to return to his home town of Pasadena and enroll at Clinton High School, where his attempts to re-start his relationship with his childhood girlfriend Claire Emerson (Tina Thayer) run afoul of big-man-on-campus Grant Saunders (Jack Wagner), who insists that Claire is his girl.

Curiously, though there aren’t any big names in the cast then or since, there are two writers who became famous later on — Malvin Wald (brother of Jerry and later screenwriter for The Naked City and other hits) worked with Walter Doniger on the “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story and then the two of them wrote the screenplay with someone else who became even more famous, Irving Wallace — and the three manage to squeeze in quite a few plot tropes and reworkings from other, more familiar, more prestigious films. Though handicapped by a PRC non-budget and two leads who can’t sing, Ulmer and the writers managed to whip out a quite entertaining film even though most of the music is quasi-classical sludge and anyone showing up at a theatre in 1943 expecting that a film called Jive Junction would be full of exciting, dynamic swing would have been sorely disappointed.

It begins with Gerra Young, a young singer in the Deanna Durbin mold (PRC gave her an “Introducing … ” credit and her name is pronounced with a hard “G,” German-style, appropriate considering the German nationality of the director), singing an operetta-ish song called “In a Little Music Shop” in — you guessed it — a little music shop (and yes, it was fascinating to me as a long-time record collector to see the ways records were marketed then, including the sign on the shop wall reminding people that shellac was rationed and therefore if they wanted to buy a new record they had to bring in an old one for trade). Gerra has the hots for Peter, who only has eyes for Claire, though this film moves too fast to make much of the romantic quadrilateral its writers established in the first reel — and Gerra does get to do a quite credible version of the Bell Song from Delibes’ Lakmé with Peter ostensibly accompanying her.

Peter’s world receives a jolt when his mom receives a telegram that his dad, a naval officer, has been killed in combat — and he decides to do what he can to help the war effort; too young to enlist, he’ll set up a canteen for servicemembers in an old barn donated to him by its caretaker, Mr. Maglodian (Bill Hannigan). The canteen isn’t exactly a success — the servicemembers not surprisingly don’t relish the thought of hanging out at a place where all the girls are underage — but Peter has yet antoher scheme: he’ll enter the Clinton school band in a nationwide contest whose first prize is a tour of army camps.

From here the film turns into a quite close reworking of the 1940 Busby Berkeley musical Strike Up the Band, starring Mickey Rooney in Moore’s role of the hot-shot high-school kid who enters a group in the nationwide contest for student bands and Judy Garland as his faithful girlfriend who helps him (and who, being Judy Garland, gets to sing with the band, which Tina Thayer doesn’t). The band steadily rises through the ranks of the competition (and there are still people out there who think the concept of American Idol is actually new!) until, on the eve of the championship broadcast on which they’ll compete with the three other regional finalists, disaster strikes: the Pasadena town sheriff (Bob McKenzie) receives word that the owner of the barn where they’ve been stashing their instruments and rehearsing has suddenly died, and the barn is to remain closed until the will is probated.

All seems lost until Peter sees an ad for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl being conducted by Frederick Feher (playing himself), his old teacher from the New York conservatory, and after a bit of fooforaw with a mean security guard (adding One Hundred Men and a Girl to the awfully long list of movies Messrs. Wald, Doniger and Wallace have ripped off for their script) they get backstage and persuade Maestro Feher to lend them some of the symphony orchestra’s instruments so they can play the final broadcast — which led Charles to wonder why the symphony had so many saxophones (maybe they’d been playing Ravel’s Boléro, probably then and now the most famous classical piece involving saxophones) — and they win with a big number called “We’re Just In-Between,” in which Gerra Young and Beverly Boyd do the same classical vs. swing battle Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland did in their 1936 short Every Sunday (and Garland repeated with Betty Jaynes in Babes in Arms). Earlier, during the short-lived operation of the “Jive Junction” canteen at the barn, Boyd had sung a song called “Cock-a-Doodle Doo” very much in Garland’s style, complete with straight-ahead rhythmic phrasing and booming “belts” on the high notes.

The film’s two most imaginative scenes are one in which Peter, wanting to be alone after he’s heard the news of his father’s death, sleeps in the barn — and suddenly Ulmer turns it into a film noir, all chiaroscuro shadows and deep black backgrounds for the sleeping Dickie Moore until caretaker Maglodian catches him and wakes him up — and a bizarre musical number called “Mother Earth.” The gimmick is that the farm is fully planted, it’s harvest time and the oranges and other produce are going to rot in the fields unless Maglodian can find a work force to harvest them, pronto — and Peter talks him into letting them use the barn for Jive Junction in exchange for his high-school kids suddenly becoming farmworkers. What results is an amazing sequence that, if the song weren’t in English, one would think was spliced in from one of the Soviet “tractor” musicals, as the kids sing a paean to the joys of nature and collective labor while they harvest oranges, bring in the sheaves and even start the next year’s plowing by digging up a thin layer of earth spread on the floor of a PRC soundstage.

The rest of the film doesn’t have much creativity — those interested in Ulmer the auteur will have to look elsewhere — and the songs by Lew Porter and Leo Erdody (who also did the background score, though as an underscorer he’s credited simply as “Erdody”) are serviceable but will hardly make you forget the great songs by Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart et al. Mickey and Judy got to sing when they made their way through these particular plot thickets, but Jive Junction is still 62 minutes of harmless fun and, though she’s unattractively photographed by cinematographer Ira Morgan, Beverly Boyd should have had more of a career and it’s surprising a major studio didn’t pick her up and try to build her as a rival to Garland.

Esper's "Marihuana": 1930's Anti-Drug Propaganda

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Marihuana (that’s how it was spelled in 1936), also known as Weed with Roots in Hell, Pitfalls of Youth and Sinister Weed, was directed by Dwain Esper, maker of some of the 1930's weirdest films, including "Narcotic" and "Maniac." (Another drug-exploitation movie made in 1936, by veteran director Elmer Clifton, was originally called Marihuana but the title was later changed to Assassin of Youth to avoid confusion with Esper’s film. Today the two are available packaged together on a single DVD.) I had seen Esper’s Marihuana in the early 1970’s when it turned up on a local station in the Bay Area that specialized in this sort of fare — and they managed to get it on the air even though it showed women’s breasts: the opening credits are superimposed over a series of paintings of naked women with smoke swirling around them, and later on there’s a scene where some of the characters go skinny-dipping and there are a couple of mammary flashes in a mirror as the women in this group walk by on their way to the beach.

The two scenes I remembered from the first time I’d seen this film were the skinny-dipping scene — especially the shots of people in the altogether heading out into the waves, photographed only from the back but still recognizable and a far cry from anything a mainstream producer worried about Production Code approval would have dared show in 1936 — and the finale, in which the nice girl turned bad-ass drug dealer dies and marijuana cigarettes come falling out of her as she expires. Marihuana — which I remembered under the Weed with Roots in Hell title — begins with this typically over-the-top written foreword:

"For centuries the world has been aware of the narcotic menace. We have complacently watched Asiatic countries attempt to rid themselves of DRUGS CURSE, and attributed their failure to lack of education.

"We consider ourselves enlightened, and think that we could never succumb to such a fate.

"But — did you know that — the use of Marihuana is steadily increasing among the youth of our country? Did you know that — the youthful criminal is our greatest problem today? And that — Marihuana gives the user false courage, thereby making crime alluring, smart?

"That is the price we are paying for our lack of interest in the narcotic situation. This story is drawn from an actual case history on file in the police records of one of our largest cities.

"Note: MARIHUANA, Hashish of the Orient, is commonly distributed as a doped cigarette. Its most terrifying effect is that it fires the user to extreme cruelty and — license!"

What follows is a pretty typical exploitation-movie plot centered around the uncertain adolescence of Burma Roberts (Harley Wood — that’s right, a girl named Harley, and she got to be in minor parts in good movies like My Man Godfrey and not-so-good but at least major-studio productions like Scandal at Scourie as well as starring in tripe like this), who’s living with her grandmother (Juanita Crosland) and her sister Elaine (Dorothy Dehn), who’s engaged to marry a rich man named Morgan Stewart (Richard Erskine).

Where Elaine’s and Burma’s mother is in all of this is a mystery — it’s typical of the sloppy attitude towards continuity Esper and his screenwriter, Hildegarde Stadie (who was also his wife and production assistant), shared with most of their confrères at the bottom of the movie industry totem pole then and later that we’re not sure whether Crosland’s character is the younger women’s mother or their grandmother — but it’s soon clear that whatever parental authorities exist in Burma’s life, they don’t give a damn what she does with herself as long as she doesn’t embarrass the Robertses and get Stewart’s parents to call off the marriage. (By coincidence, in 1987 there was a youth movie in the John Hughes vein called Morgan Ste"wart’s Coming Home, whose directors, Paul Aaron and Terry Winsor, declined credit and made it an “Alan Smithee” film.)

Burma fends off the marihuana-fueled advances of her boyfriend Dick (Hugh McArthur) and the two ultimately fall into the clutches of evil drug dealers Nicki Romero (Pat Carlyle) and Tony Santello (Paul Ellis). These no-goodniks (and just where was the Italian-American Defamation League when they were clearly needed?) invite Burma, Dick and the gang from the nearby roadhouse to their home for a night of skinny-dipping and drugs ranging from alcohol to marihuana to harder stuff, including a mysterious powder dropped into a glass of water which, when Burma drinks it, turns her into a raging nymphomaniac determined to get Paul to do the down ’n’ dirty with her. During the skinny-dipping one girl swims out too far and drowns. Nicki and Tony arrange for a cover-up and Burma learns she’s pregnant with Dick’s child (the old infallible pregnancy at a single contact gimmick again!). Dick agrees to marry her, and to make the money to support them he agrees to go to work as a drug runner for Nick and Tony — only on his first time out his crew is ambushed by police and Dick is killed.

Nick and Tony crash the hospital room where Burma is about to give birth and get her to give up her baby, but the strain has totally cracked her moral sense and, when she emerges from under the anaesthetic, she’s become a hard-nosed, unscrupulous drug dealer with the ambition to make as much money as possible to outshine her sister and family-wealthy brother-in-law. She also changes her name to Myanmar Roberts (joke). Burma becomes especially good at moving her clients up from marihuana to what the script coyly refers to as “C and H” — that took me about 15 seconds to figure out — and there’s a pathetic (in both senses) scene in which a middle-aged housewife whom Burma has successfully turned into a heroin addict is $5 short for her latest fix; Burma sees her old engagement ring on her finger and demands it as the rest of the payment, and later the woman rather lamely tells her husband it was stolen — whereupon he quite naturally reports it as such to the police.

Meanwhile Burma has hit upon the ultimate sting — she’s going to kidnap the young daughter of Morgan and Elaine Stewart, confident that she can get away with it because her own sister won’t risk the embarrassment of turning her in — only she learns that, unable to have any kids of their own, Morgan and Elaine actually adopted Burma’s daughter, and when the police crash their hideout and kill Nick and Tony, Burma grabs a combination of substances, drinking one of those spiked drinks and injecting herself with a hot shot of something else, thereby committing suicide by drugs, literally dripping marihuana cigarettes from her body as she expires and the “End” credit comes up over the scene.

I’ll say one thing for Marihuana: it’s considerably better than the two previous Esper films we’ve seen, Narcotic and Maniac. The opening scene in the roadhouse is actually creatively directed and photographed (the cinematographer, Roland Price, was mostly a newsreel and documentary cameraman but was willing to take a studio job in between assignments to do the kind of al fresco outdoor filmmaking, with hidden cameras, that really turned him on). The sequence is lit brightly, we can actually see what’s going on (and hear most of the dialogue — given the cheap sound systems independent producers had to use in the 1930’s, being able to hear all of it would be expecting way too much), and there are even some creative camera angles, including a few crane shots — though overall this seems like yet another attempt by an exploitation filmmaker to discourage people from a decadent lifestyle by making it seem way too boring to bother with.

Alas, after shooting these scenes Esper must have blown his budgetary wad (as opposed to whatever other wads he may have been blowing in the other aspects of his and Ms. Stadie’s relationship), because the rest of the movie is familiar Esper: hideous close-ups, murky lighting, barely decipherable sound and a general aura of not just penny-pinching but mill-pinching. Harley Wood actually delivers something of a performance, albeit totally at the mercy of a typical Esper-Stadie script that calls for her to play a different emotion in nearly every scene with nary a clue as to how she’s supposed to transition from one to the next — at times in her degradation she evokes Bette Davis and suggests that a more sensitive director than Esper might have actually been able to get a creditable star performance out of her in a script allowing for one — but nobody else in the movie can act at all.

At least Esper restrains his use of stock footage this time out and manages to match what stock he does use to the new footage fairly well for someone at his (lack of) budget — and he blessedly restrains his temptation, freely indulged in in both Narcotic and Maniac, of cutting in stock shots of animals fighting (some of which looked like they were staged in and about the grounds of Edison’s “Black Maria” in the 1890’s) in between the scenes of humans fighting, apparently in an attempt to establish the symbolism that we’re all animals at heart (or at least to pad out his bizarre psychodramas to feature-film length). I used to think of Esper as the 1930’s Ed Wood — but now I think that’s being unfair to Wood, who for all his incompetence at least brought a crude energy to his films that makes them genuinely watchable and even entertaining. (The two worst Ed Wood movies I’ve ever seen, The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, were ones for which he merely wrote the scripts, and others directed.)

Esper and Wood share a penchant for exploitation subjects, a mania for cutting in stock footage (in Wood’s case even more than in Esper’s it was obviously to pad out the length of his movies — Wood had distributors to answer to while Mr. and Mrs. Esper, under the banner of “Roadshow Attractions, Inc,,” distributed their films themselves and often literally traveled with a projector, a print and a budget to rent a hall in which to show their product themselves) and even a cinematographer, “Big Bill” Thompson, who shot some of Esper’s films in the 1930’s and some of Wood’s in the 1950’s. But the more I see other people’s micro-budget exploitation movies (including Jerry Warren’s The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman — nobody who’d ever seen The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman could possibly still believe that Plan Nine from Outer Space was the worst film ever made) the better and better Ed Wood looks!

Early Crawford & Gable: "Dance, Fools, Dance"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Sunday night I’d run Dance, Fools, Dance, a quite entertaining 1931 genre-bender from MGM obviously designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford — not only is she billed above the title but the name of the film is obviously intended to cue audience memories of her star-making 1928 silent Our Dancing Daughters — and which has made the history books mainly as the first on-screen teaming of her and Clark Gable. Not that it’s much of a teaming; it was only Gable’s second film as an MGM contract player (in his first, The Easiest Way, he’d played a socialite whom the heroine, Constance Bennett, spurned to marry her poor but nice boyfriend) and his first role as a gangster — it’s clear from the way MGM cast him in the first two years or so that they saw Gable largely as their equivalent to Warners’ James Cagney, and only when that clearly didn’t work (as a gangster Gable was effective but not especially distinguished, tending to snarl his lines and portray a stock figure of menace rather than the truly threatening psychopathology Cagney projected in his gangster roles) did they move him into romantic leads. Gable is billed sixth, under such forgotten juveniles as Lester Vail and William Bakewell.

The opening of the film takes place on a yacht, in the middle of a wild party in which Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) and her brother Rodney, a.k.a. “Roddy” (Bakewell) induce the other youthful guests to strip down to their underwear and dive off the yacht into the lake (probably Lake Michigan, since we find out midway through the film that it’s supposed to be taking place in Chicago) while some of the older people at the party tsk-tsk but their father, Stanley Jordan (the elder William Holden — and no relation to the later one, whose real last name was “Beedle”), founder of the Jordan Chemical Company, tells his friends to let the young people enjoy themselves because youth is short enough as it is. Then the 1929 stock market crash happens and the overextended Jordan loses all his money and drops dead of a heart attack on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange — and all of a sudden Bonnie and Roddy have to work for a living.

Judging from the title and Crawford’s reputation as a dancer (already established in the silent era and cemented in early talkies like Hollywood Revue of 1929) one would have thought that she would have found a job dancing in a nightclub or a show. Instead, this film’s writer, Aurania Rouverol (best known because the entire MGM Hardy Family series was based on a play of hers called Skidding, though her play was a courtroom melodrama whose only connection with the later films was that there was a judge in it named Hardy and he had a wife and several kids), has her get a job as a reporter for a local paper, the Star, and though she’s relegated to covering animal shows at first she soon applies Joan Crawford’s incredible determination and drive (she frequently played characters who were as unstoppable in their ambitions as she was for real) allow her to work her way up — as does the mentorship of the paper’s ace gangland reporter, Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards, shorn of his “Ukulele Ike” persona and quite good in a straight dramatic role). Meanwhile, unwilling to take a bank clerk job offered to him by a friend of his father, Roddy has gone to work doing sales for a bootlegger, Wally Baxter (Earle Foxe), who’s part of the organization of gangster/nightclub owner Jake Luva (Clark Gable — you see, we finally got to him!).

Luva, concerned that the high-priced celebrity trade is deserting him for another gang’s products, has the leader and six other members of the rival gang cornered in a garage, where his own gunmen shoot them all (can you say “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”?). Roddy happened to be involved when one of the hit men had Roddy drive him to the site of the mass killing, and in a bar he blabs this to Scranton. When Luva learns that a member of his organization has confessed his role in the massacre — and to a reporter, no less — he orders Roddy to kill Scranton, with two of his other gunmen trained on Roddy so he knows he’ll be killed if he doesn’t follow through. Bonnie, anxious to find out who killed her friend from the paper, infiltrates Luva’s organization, taking a job at his nightclub as a dancer (you see, we finally got to something to justify the film’s title!), where she does a nice dance number to Cornell Smelser’s song “Accordion Joe” with a chorus line of women who, though not at the “Beef Trust” level of heftiness of the dancers in Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause, are certainly far more amply figured than the anorexics who get to work jobs like this today (“They have hips!” my partner Charles exclaimed in surprise).

When she answers the phone in Luva’s private office — where he’s taken her for less than honorable purposes — Bonnie recognizes her brother’s voice and pieces together the whole thing, and in a final shootout Roddy and Luva kill each other, Bonnie gets the scoop of her career but then quits the paper and marries the nice, still-rich young man, Bob Townsend (Lester Vail), who had proposed to her several reels earlier but whom she thought was just offering to marry her out of pity and to keep her from having to live poor. Though the title is a cheat — we see surprisingly little dancing, amateur or professional, and any 1931 moviegoer who went to this thinking it was going to be a sound reworking of Our Dancing Daughters was probably more than a bit disappointed — it’s a movie that smoothly manages its genre transitions from light-hearted youth comedy to proletarian drama to gangster movie to out-and-out melodrama.

Part of the credit goes to director Harry Beaumont, a virtually forgotten figure today even though his film The Broadway Melody was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and according to film historian Richard Barrios he had a lot more clout than many more famous directors were allowed at MGM. The Beaumont films I’ve seen — The Broadway Melody (despite some technical clunkiness), Lord Byron of Broadway (ditto, though on that one he co-directed with future Monogram schlock-meister William Nigh), this one and the 1935 version of Enchanted April — have all been well worth seeing, and each has offered at least one performance of legitimate dramatic intensity. Joan Crawford is quite good in this movie, though one can see the gear-shifts coming when the script requires her to do sudden shifts of emotion (which is quite a lot); she was never the world’s most subtle actress, but she’s more than adequate here (for a part that was, let’s face it, written for her and custom-tailored to play to her strengths and minimize her weaknesses), though the rest of the cast (Gable excepted) is pretty tacky and it’s not at all hard to figure out why Crawford and Gable are the only people here you’ve actually heard of.

Later in 1931 MGM would reshuffle some of the basic plot elements of Dance, Fools, Dance into an even better movie, A Free Soul, based on a story by a better woman writer than Aurania Rouverol (Adela Rogers St. John), directed by a stronger hand than Harry Beaumont’s (Clarence Brown) and with three of the four principals replaced by stronger actors: Norma Shearer as the heroine, Leslie Howard as the nice guy she jilts for gangster Gable (to whom, in this version, she’s genuinely attracted) and Lionel Barrymore as her father, who in A Free Soul doesn’t have to croak of a heart attack until the very end of the movie (a trial sequence in which he, an attorney — as was Adela Rogers St. John’s real father — is defending Howard in court for killing Gable); but this one is still pretty good and eminently watchable.