Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tomorrow We Live (PRC, 1942)

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

I ran Charles an interesting if quite bizarre movie I’d recorded recently to DVD from TCM: Tomorrow We Live, a 1942 PRC “B” with distinguished credentials both in front of and behind the camera. The producer was Seymour Nebenzal, who’d made some of the greatest films of the later years of the Weimar Republic in Germany (Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera and Siren of Atlantis, Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and then had had to flee the Nazis. The director was Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the most consistently interesting of the PRC directors (a former assistant to F. W. Murnau who’d lost his chance at a major studio gig at Universal when he fell in love with his script girl on his one Universal movie, The Black Cat, not realizing that studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was interested in her too; Laemmle fired him as soon as The Black Cat was finished, but apparently the two lovebirds stayed together since the script girl on Tomorrow We Live was named Shirley Ulmer!), and the stars were Ricardo Cortez — spiraling down from major-studio stardom (he’d begun his career in the silent era as Paramount’s attempt at a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, and had done fairly well in the early 1930’s) — and Jean Parker, who’d never quite made it in the majors but did some fairly interesting movies at PRC (notably Ulmer’s Bluebeard and Sekely’s Lady in the Death House).

Alas, they were all hamstrung by a truly weird script by Bart Lytton that seemed to be an attempt to combine rustic “rural” melodrama, soap opera and gangster movie. Julie Bronson (Jean Parker) returns home to Butte, Montana (established by stock shots of an appalling darkness that look like PRC may have cribbed them from some of John Ford’s silent Westerns) without finishing her last year of teachers’ college, and moves back in with her father, William “Pop” Bronson (Emmett Lynn). She’s got a boyfriend, Lt. Bob Lord (William Marshall), a serviceman stationed at a nearby base and getting ready to ship out to combat, but Julie meets and finds herself dangerously attracted to Alexander Caesar Martin (Ricardo Cortez), gangster, black marketer and owner of the town’s nightclub, “The Dunes.” Martin is referred to throughout as “The Ghost,” so nicknamed because he survived two attempts on his life from rival gangsters, and he’s blackmailed Julie’s father into helping him with his black market activities (he’s got a large inventory of tires stashed in a shed on the Bronson farm) because it turns out “Pop” himself had a criminal past and was an escaped convict. Martin has to deal with another gang that wants to muscle in and take over the Dunes and the black-market business — their confrontations in Martin’s office at the Dunes are the most dully photographed parts of the movie, staged as master shots with the camera seemingly miles away — and at the end the rival gang kills Martin and torches the Dunes, Lt. Lord ships out and he and Julie make arrangements to meet in San Francisco and marry there just before his unit goes off to war.

Content-wise it’s a pretty trivial movie — a far cry from the rich story material Ulmer got to work with in Bluebeard, Out of the Night/Strange Illusion and Detour — and Ulmer, aside from some inexplicable lapses (like those shots of Martin and the rival gangsters in the office, which might as well have been played in a theatre!), directs it like a film noir, with dark, shadowy visuals and artful compositions that seem more beside the point than usual. Tomorrow We Live is a good example of how a German director could take a piece of classic Americana and make something extraordinarily dark and brooding out of it (Ulmer’s noir sensibility even shone through in a couple of places in Jive Junction, his teen musical!), though the script and directorial style clash rather than reinforcing each other and a lot of Ulmer’s visual virtuosity (including a pretty normal love scene between Lt. Lord and Julie in which Julie’s hair blows up from her scalp and photographs almost stark-white in the backlighting!) seems pretty much beside the point.

Earth vs. the Spider (American International, 1958)

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

I dredged up one of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 discs and reached for a disc that I thought contained the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a dumb movie but one with a certain degree of appeal (especially from Ray Harryhausen’s effects work, notably the final scene in which an alien flying saucer crashes into the White House as it is shot down), but no-o-o-o-o, the movie actually was Earth vs. the Spider, a 1958 non-epic from producer-director Bert I. Gordon at American International.

It’s your typical small-town high-schoolers (played by actors in their late 20’s and early 30’s, by the way, though the MST3K crew didn’t ridicule this as much as they had in Ring of Terror) battling giant monster movie — virtually all of Bert I. Gordon’s movies feature something or someone who’s been artificially enlarged in size and has become menacing — and aside from Sally Fraser (Peter Graves’ wife in It Conquered the World, a movie that actually looks good by comparison with Earth vs. the Spider!), none of the cast members (Ed Kemmer, June Kenney, Eugene Persson, Gene Roth, Hal Torey, June Jocelyn, Mickey Finn et al.) were people I’d ever herd of before — and as a giant-spider movie this one is better than The Giant Spider Invasion but nowhere near as good as Tarantula (and, indeed, the spider featured here is a tarantula, leading to someone posting a “goof” comment on to the effect that spider’s webs are an important part of the story but tarantulas don’t spin webs).

It was pretty typical tacky 1950’s sci-fi, complete with model shots of a giant spider that looked like someone made it with pipe cleaners (besides producing, directing and co-writing — with The Mole People author László Görög and George Worthing Yates — Bert I. Gordon also took credit for the special effects, with one Flora M. Gordon listed as his assistant, and naturally the MST3K crew couldn’t resist making fun of the all-in-the-family nature of the credits: “Honey, pass me that plastic head, please”) and some all-too-obvious cuts between live-action footage and models of the same sets. About the only point of distinction this movie had was that Gordon took a crew to Carlsbad Caverns and filmed it as the home of his giant spider — which was cool, though it would have looked nicer in color — but for the most part this one was just one big bore even the MST3K crew couldn’t make entertaining, and if anything they seemed more inspired by the weird short with which they prefaced it — an educational film about effective public speaking hosted by a real-life speech professor who looked, acted and sounded all too much like the voice coach famously caricatured in Singin’ in the Rain — which they did a much better job of ridiculing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It Conquered the World (American International, 1956)

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

The film we ended up watching was It Conquered the World, a fascinating (in all the wrong ways!) Roger Corman “B” from American International in 1956 that was basically a blatant ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still: iconoclastic scientist Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, better known as the bald, rat-faced villain in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns but here sporting hair, a moustache, decent modern clothes and a disinclination to support things like nuclear weapons and space launches) makes radio contact with an alien from Venus (the planet Venus? Yes, indeed!) and offers guidance to it while it hijacks an experimental satellite and rides it down to Earth. Once here, it puts in place a plan to (dare I say it?) conquer the world by sending out bat-like probes that bite people on the backs of their necks and turn them into zombies under his control. As a demonstration of his power, he also stops all sources of human energy — electricity and automotive travel in particular — and since he only has eight of the probes, he husbands them and uses them on the leading politicians and military men of the small Colorado town where all this is taking place.

Among his targets are Anderson’s colleague, Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves, top-billed), and Nelson’s wife Joan (Sally Fraser), whom the alien succeeds in taking over — whereupon, since the process appears to be irreversible, Paul is forced to shoot her. Produced and directed by Corman from a script by Lou Rusoff, It Conquered the World came out five months and 10 days after the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and sought to take the Body Snatchers metaphor and use it for Right-wing propaganda (as John Carpenter’s 1983 They Live took it over and used it for liberal-Left propaganda in the age of Ronald Reagan, who’s “outed” as an alien in the theatrical and DVD versions of Carpenter’s film, though not in the TV version); just as the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and the minions of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were telling us that Communists pursued their dastardly plots by recruiting our political, military and scientific leaders and subverting them, so does the Venusian alien in this film; there’s one truly chilling scene in which the local general (who’s been taken over) confronts the editor of the town paper (who hasn’t), gives him his marching orders as to what to print under the New Order, and shoots the editor dead when the editor invokes freedom of the press to defy him.

Alas, any quality It Conquered the World might have had is completely undone by the ridiculousness of the monster; one of Paul Blaisdell’s makeups for American International (and a design he reused again and again, just adding bits and pieces of cloth and wire to change the monster’s appearance so it would look like a “new” menace in each film), it resembles a giant ambulatory cucumber, sliced in half vertically and stood up on the severed end, to which someone tried to play Mr. Potato Head and stick toothpick arms in place (though according to the trivia section on the actual costume — still in the hands of Blaisdell’s assistant, Bob Burns — is beet-red, not green as I’d assumed). Apparently it originally had a round, dome-shaped head, but when this version (with Blaisdell himself inside wearing and working the costume) was tested, not only was it unfrightening but Beverly Garland, the actress playing Tom Anderson’s wife (who’s supposed to confront the monster in a scene that attempts high drama and achieves high camp), towered over it.

Charles and I watched this on a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 download and the MST3K crew mostly made fun of Graves’ future career (especially his gig hosting Arts & Entertainment’s Biography series) and his family relationship with James Arness (Graves was actually Arness’s younger brother, something I hadn’t known before),who at the time had a respectable gig starring in the TV series Gunsmoke while Graves had to make a living making movies like this and the even worse The Beginning of the End (which staged an invasion of Chicago by giant grasshoppers by having real grasshoppers walk over a still photo of the Chicago skyline, often of course stepping on the parts of the photo that were meant to represent sky!). Rusoff did give Graves an unbelievably pretentious curtain speech expressing the film’s Libertarian (sort of) politics: “Man is a feeling creature, and because of it the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. When men seek such perfection they find only death, fire, loss, disillusionment and the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to our misery but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from Man himself” — and quite naturally the MST3K crew had a lot of fun ridiculing that!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Harem Girl (Columbia, 1952)

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

I managed to squeeze in a movie, one of the Columbia “B”’s from faraway places I’d recorded on DVD earlier in the week, and it proved to be surprisingly good: Harem Girl, a vehicle for wisecracking blonde comedienne Joan Davis, directed by Edward Bernds (a former sound recorder who’d made his directorial debut with the Three Stooges’ short Micro Phonies in 1945 — and it showed) and written by him and Elwood Ullman (another Stooges veteran). Davis plays Susie Perkins, a woman from Cedar Rapids who suddenly chucks her job and fulfills her dream of emigrating to the Middle East in hopes of finding one of those hot sheiks that didn’t exist outside of Rudolph Valentino movies.

By screenwriters’ fiat, her traveling companion is Shareen (Peggie Castle), princess of a fictitious and unnamed Arab country (most of the stock footage we see representing it is from Egypt, including a beautiful overhead shot of one of the pyramids, though judging from the court intrigue and the presence of oil it appears that the filmmakers were thinking of Iraq), only while she’s been gone the government has been seized by the usurper Jamal (Donald Randolph), who alternates between wanting to have Shareen killed and have her married off to Ameen (Peter Bracco), the Bey of Amar — though Bracco’s performance is so queeny I joked he’d better have been called the Gay of Amar. The gimmick is that Shareen’s now-deceased father had the idea of banning all citizens of his country from owning guns, thinking that would prevent a civil war — but instead Jamal and his gang just got guns from outside and the rest of the people were sitting ducks. Majeed (Paul Marion), Shareen’s boyfriend, wants to lead a revolution but knows he doesn’t stand a chance without firearms, so Susie hits on the idea of going undercover in the palace to find out the location of Jamal’s arms stash so the rebels can steal the guns and use them to take over.

This is one of those comedies in which the plot is just a pretext, but Bernds and Ullman do a great job of maintaining the tension between the old-fashioned Arabian Nights costume-picture tropes and the contemporary setting (including the MacGuffin of an old scroll that indicates the location of an oil field that will make everyone in this country fabulously wealthy — some things never change!), and Davis (in her last feature film, though after this movie she’d spend three years on TV in a series she starred in and produced called, natch, I Married Joan) is a riot throughout, nervy and wise-cracking but also adept at doing physical comedy (the scene in which her bed falls in on her is especially delightful), as if someone cross-bred Joan Blondell and Charlotte Greenwood. The anti-racist crowd would probably make a grim feast of all the racist Arab stereotypes in this movie (and, curiously, religion isn’t mentioned at all — at least most of the Middle Eastern period pieces had phrases in the dialogue like “By the beard of the Prophet!” that at least acknowledged the existence of Islam), but overall Harem Girl holds up as a very funny movie, one that aimed low but hit its target squarely and offered a lot of joy doing it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thank You, Mr. Moto (20th Century-Fox, 1937)

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

Thank You, Mr. Moto is a 1937 20th Century-Fox production and the second film in the series starring Peter Lorre as Kentaro Moto, Japanese — detective? Secret-service agent? Spy? The writing never makes it quite clear which — created by John P. Marquand, a respectable writer of novels of manners “slumming” in the detective genre and apparently recruited to do so by a publisher that wanted more stories like the Charlie Chan novels now that Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, had died in 1933. The first film in the series, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, had also been based directly on a Marquand novel, but this was one detective-movie series that actually seemed to improve when they got away from the original character’s stories as sources and started cooking up their own.

It’s a lumbering tale in which the MacGuffin is a series of seven hand-painted scrolls that, when laid next to each other, become a map leading to the tomb of Genghis Khan and the location of the fabulous treasure that was buried with him. One of the scrolls was loaned by its owner, Princess Chung (the actress playing her isn’t listed either in the on-screen credits or in the American Film Institute Catalog but I suspect she was the real-life Mrs. Peter Lorre, Celia Lovsky, who 30 years later would play almost exactly this sort of dragon-lady character as Mr. Spock’s mother in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series), to a museum, and then stolen, and various baddies including Eric Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), Madame Tchernov (Nedda Harrigan, later Mrs. Joshua Logan) and a few others, are out to steal them and get the treasure.

Moto is also on the trail of the treasure, working for mysterious employers whom we presume are on the side of good, and he holds out the hope of financial compensation to the princess and her son (Philip Ahn, whose quiet dignity steals the movie out from under the rest of the principals, as usual), which they resist because they don’t want the tomb of the great conqueror to be despoiled and looted the way those of the Egyptian pharaohs were. Lorre doesn’t really look Asian but that rat-like voice is certainly believable as Japanese (as it was as German, Greek or all the other exotic nationalities he played), and this film has a lot more action than the Chan movies — though Lorre was clearly doubled in a lot of the fight scenes, at least Moto got to practice jiu-jitsu and subdue his enemies with physical force as well as cunning — but the film ultimately collapses under the creaky weight of Marquand’s plot as adapted by Willis Cooper and director Foster, with too many subplots and barely explained murders (including that of Madame Tchernov’s husband, played by the great character actor Sig Ruman surprisingly “straight,” which kicks off the movie) to be especially mysterious or thrilling.

“Rhythm Romance”: The “Other” “Some Like It Hot”

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

On Friday night Charles and I got home early enough to get to-go meals at Colima’s and I ran him a videotape I recorded during TCM’s last swing marathon: Rhythm Romance, a.k.a. Some Like It Hot, a 1939 Paramount film certainly not to be confused with the Billy Wilder classic from 1959 with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. This version of Some Like It Hot (its title changed for TV release to avoid confusion with the Wilder film) began life as a 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler called The Great Magoo and was first filmed by Paramount in 1934 as Shoot the Moon, with Jack Oakie as Nicky Nelson, small-time promoter and carnival spieler who’s trying to promote the band of Ben Bernie against the opposition of Axel Hanratty (Lew Cody), who manages in a series of rigged crap games to win Nicky’s new song and his girlfriend’s ring (said girlfriend, a band singer stuck with the awkward character name “Lily Racquel,” being played by one Dorothy Dell).

In 1939 Paramount revived this fun but rather creaky property as a vehicle for their new star, Bob Hope, who’d become a surprise success in The Big Broadcast of 1938 and introduced the song “Thanks for the Memory,” which he sang in the film as a duet with Shirley Ross. So Paramount re-teamed Hope and Ross and looked for another big song for them — which they found in Frank Loesser’s marvelous “The Lady’s in Love with You,” which also became something of a standard — and decided to exploit the popularity of Gene Krupa’s new band by using Krupa in the Bernie role (in which he turns out to be a surprisingly stiff actor — one’s surprised that someone with such a command of rhythm behind a drum set is so hopelessly out of time whenever he tries to deliver a line) and allowing Krupa to make his film debut as anything other than Benny Goodman’s sideman.

The result is a mild but entertaining film, directed by George Archainbaud and photographed (with vivid atmospherics that go way beyond the call of duty for a silly story like this) by Karl Struss, but one which suffers from Hope’s miscasting: the kind of small-time con man he’s playing here would be done to perfection, ironically enough, by Bing Crosby in the Road movies in which Hope would play his principal victim. Here Hope comes across as way too nice, too charming and too genuinely decent to be running these scams — and at the same time we can’t believe his naïveté either. (We watch him roll dice twice with Bernard Nedell, who plays Hanratty, and especially the second time around it’s almost impossible to believe that someone with some knowledge of the con hasn’t cottoned to the obvious — though never spelled out in the script — fact that Hanratty’s dice are loaded.) Krupa’s acting is atrocious and his playing is fine but hampered by the fact that he doesn’t get to do any of his swing specialties and he hadn’t yet developed his on-the-point-of-orgasm fervor that made his later film appearances so much fun; he makes much more of an impact in his one scene in Sam Goldwyn’s Ball of Fire (playing “Drum Boogie” behind Barbara Stanwyck, who as always did her own singing), than in all of Rhythm Romance.

Big Bands on Screen: “Thousands Cheer” and Shorts

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

I ran my husband Charles a movie from the previous night’s Turner Classic Movies big-band tribute, Thousands Cheer, a 1943 MGM portmanteau movie. Though it appropriated most of the title of Irving Berlin’s famous 1933 revue, As Thousands Cheer (a show whose conceit was that every song and sketch in it was patterned after a section or a feature in a newspaper — Ethel Waters sang her anti-lynching song “Suppertime” in it as a main news story and the show also introduced “Easter Parade” as representing the rotogravure section in which color photos were printed, a really big deal in a paper then; that’s why the song has the otherwise incomprehensible line, “You’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure”), Thousands Cheer used none of Berlin’s songs and added a plot (a story by Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins called “Private Miss Jones”) about a young aspiring opera singer, Kathryn Jones (the young Kathryn Grayson, whose life was obviously being made easier for her by giving her character the same first name as her own), who’s grown up with her mother Hyllary (Mary Astor) after she separated from Kathryn’s father, career military officer Col. Bill Jones (John Boles), because she couldn’t stand constantly being abandoned while he went off on one posting after another.

Kathryn has achieved enough success that she regularly appears with an orchestra conducted by José Iturbi (playing himself and making his first — but not, alas, his last — film; he’s a quite competent pianist even though hardly on the level of his contemporaries Rubinstein, Horowitz or Barere, an O.K. conductor and a thoroughly lousy actor who can’t even play himself credibly), where in the opening scene she sings a credible version of “Sempre libera” and even goes for the interpolated ultra-high note at the end (since Grayson was ordinarily a mezzo, I wondered how they got her to sing that high: did they transpose it down? Did they transpose it down for the pre-recording and then speed it back up to score pitch when she lip-synched during the shoot? Did they have another singer “patching” her highest notes the way they did in Ziegfeld Follies?), but she’s decided to join her father at his latest posting — a training camp — and do her part for the war effort by organizing shows for the servicemembers.

While waiting for the train, where she’s to meet her dad, she’s suddenly picked up and kissed by draftee Private Eddie Marsh (Gene Kelly) because every other guy there seems to have a girl to kiss goodbye and he doesn’t, and the first hour of Thousands Cheer becomes a dull love story interspersed with an even duller story about the arrogant young man who has to learn to adjust himself to the requirements of military discipline. The kicker this time is that Kelly was himself a star in civilian life — a member of the Flying Corbinos team of circus aerialists (ironically the plot summary describes them as “acrobats” even though the film itself makes a great to-do about the difference between acrobats and aerialists) — and his antagonism towards the military comes largely from his feeling that a man who’s spent so much of his working life in mid-air ought to be in the Air Corps instead of training for the infantry.

Thousands Cheer lumbers tediously along through the usual complications for its first half, and its second half is the show Grayson’s character is supposed to have put together for the boys, filled with much of the talent on MGM’s contract roster: Mickey Rooney (at his most overactedly obnoxious) is the M.C. and the performers include Red Skelton, Frank Morgan, Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Virginia O’Brien, Eleanor Powell (doing a boogie-woogie tap number originally filmed for Broadway Melody of 1943, an abandoned project that was supposed to co-star Powell and Kelly), Marsha Hunt, Marilyn Maxwell, Margaret O’Brien, Donna Reed, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Judy Garland (she sings and Iturbi plays a dated novelty called “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ in Carnegie Hall” about the invasion of jazz and swing music in what had hitherto been a temple devoted exclusively to the classics) and by far the best, Lena Horne singing and Benny Carter playing a marvelous version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that is also the only number in the film shot with any degree of creativity.

Whereas all the other revue “turns” were photographed in front of a plain curtain, “Honeysuckle Rose” begins with Carter playing the melody silhouetted against an otherwise black background, and the designs, lighting and angles throughout this song are so much better than those in the rest of the movie I can’t help thinking they called in a different director than the amiable hack George Sidney, the overall director of record. (Before he made his debut as a full-fledged director with Cabin in the Sky, an all-Black musical featuring Horne, Vincente Minnelli had shot numbers for Horne in films like Panama Hattie, and maybe he shot this sequence as well.)

The final gimmick is that the Flying Corbinos are called in to perform their act in the camp show, and Eddie Marsh is released from the guardhouse (where he was imprisoned for keeping Kathryn Jones out too late on a date and punching out the sergeant who tried to apprehend him) to perform with his (adoptive; his real ones died when he was 4) parents and family and thereby relearn the need for teamwork so that when his unit ships out — as it’s about to do — he’ll finally knuckle down, follow orders and be a good soldier. Gene Kelly does get one dance number midway through the film, dressed in T-shirt and blue jeans (almost as if he were challenging Fred Astaire, “Take that, you with the top hat, white tie and tails!”) that shows off his athlete’s musculature (Astaire was a superlative dancer, but it took Kelly to show that you could be a male, a dancer and still be butch) and doing a solo routine involving a mop (a gimmick both he and Astaire would use again!), and his number and Lena Horne’s song are the two real highlights of the film.

Kelly prided himself on doing his own stunt work — including the Fairbanksian leaps in his 1948 version of The Three Musketeers — but in this case I’m sure that, though his exercise on the practice bars is recognizably his, the long shots of him on the trapeze were almost certainly doubled. The film ends with the regiment Kathryn’s father commands and Kathryn’s lover serves in marching off to war and Kathryn doing her last bit for the war effort, reuniting her parents (even though it’s only so her mom can see her dad off again!) — an obsession with producer Joseph Pasternak, who is using Grayson here the way he used Deanna Durbin before and would use Jane Powell later, as the catalyst to restore her parents’ marriage — and singing a grandly pretentious number called “United Nations on the March,” composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (of all people to end up an MGM songwriter!) in what the studio ballyhooed as a piece written especially for the film, but which was probably just a chip off his workbench supplied to Harold Rome and E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the English lyrics.

One could see why World War II-era audiences would have lapped this up — they would have been entertained by the numbers and accepted the dull plot as a morale booster — but it wastes Gene Kelly’s talents and really doesn’t hold up that well. Also, early on Kathryn Grayson sings the haunting ballad “Daybreak” (by Ferde Grofé and Harold Adamson), introducing it as her (movie) father’s favorite song, but though she sings it well she simply can’t create the sense of atmosphere Frank Sinatra did when he recorded it with Tommy Dorsey early on in his career as a promotion for the film.

After Thousands Cheer TCM ran six big band-themed shorts and Charles and I watched four of them (the fifth, Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra, we’d seen before — the most remarkable thing about it was the line early on in which the narrator boasts that Arnaz has had three successful careers, as singer, actor and now bandleader, and I joked, “If you think that’s impressive, wait ’til he gets to his fourth career!” — as producer and co-star of the most successful situation comedy in early television, I Love Lucy — and the sixth, a Martin Block-hosted show with the pleasant but unswinging music of Ray Noble and Buddy Clark, I’d watched in the wee hours while recording it and waiting for John P. to go to bed). The first was a Pete Smith Specialty called Groovie Movie, showing some of the jitterbug dance steps and their origins in older, more sedate dance moves like the curtsy and the waltz. Charles was startled at the use of the term “groovy” in a film this early, and I liked the gag of the narrator saying how this was young people’s music and then panning to the face of the piano player, clearly that of a bald, fleshy old man with coke-bottle glasses that made him look like Albert Dekker in Dr. Cyclops.

After that they showed shorts devoted to Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Larry Clinton. Herman’s was made in 1938, long before his band became a truly great one — he sings “Carolina in the Morning” and “Dr. Jazz” and plays a few O.K. clarinet solos (he wasn’t a virtuoso on the level of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, and he was the first to admit it), and there are some spectacular dancers, though the promise of the great singer Lee Wiley was unfulfilled — she’s listed in the credits but there weren’t hide nor hair of her in the actual movie.

The next short, a 1945 (though TCM’s schedule lists 1947) depiction of Stan Kenton and His Orchestra, was the best: Warners’ recording showed off Kenton’s band — particularly Kenton’s use of unusual keys (creating a more brilliant sound than the normal, relatively “easy” keys of C and F most bands played in but also being a lot tougher on the musicians) — better than the records he was making at the time for Capitol, and though the conceit (supposedly a musical biography of Kenton from his early days playing in a trio for tea dances to his later success) was a bit silly and June Christy’s costume and Phyllis Diller hairdo horrendously unflattering (this is not the poised, self-assured Christy we saw on all those 1950’s album covers!), Christy gets an offbeat blues number and sings like a goddess. As I’ve joked before, Kenton owed so much of an aesthetic debt to Edward Kennedy Ellington both as pianist (especially as band accompanist) and as bandleader that, well before David Bowie coined the phrase, Kenton could well have been called the “Thin White Duke.”

The next short was one with Larry Clinton (which I tried to fast-forward to on the DVD and ended up glitching it — there was an occasional freeze-frame and the timer counter froze in place, a warning that it’s probably not that sensational an idea to do scans on a home-recorded DVD made at the slowest speed you can record on and still play the disc on a machine other than the one you recorded it on) and his star singer, Bea Wain; tall, grey-haired, balding and rather cadaverous, Clinton didn’t look much like a swing bandleader, and Wain sang nicely on the song “Old Folks” (though Bing Crosby’s version was far better) but then had to do a novelty called “Corn Pickin’” with a male singer; still, some of their music had the righteous bounce and drive. Clinton’s band was horrendously uneven; I’ve heard records where they did good swing (especially the Decca compilation from 1939 to 1941, A Study in Clinton) and records that were so draggy they were almost unlistenable (like the Hindsight Records transcription album from 1937-38), and here in this film short they were about in the middle.

Louis Jordan on Film: “Reet, Petite and Gone”

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

Eventually Charles and I hung out in the room and I dug out one of his downloaded DVD’s that included a Harold Lloyd short from 1921, Never Weaken, which I’d previously seen in wretched image quality and with a crudely recorded music track from the 1930’s dubbed in; this one had the original titles and was in excellent video quality, but alas it cut off before the ending! Then we ran the evening’s “feature,” a 1947 vehicle for Louis Jordan called Reet, Petite and Gone, which is an excellent movie when Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five, and/or the excellent Black blues singer June Richmond (who briefly joined Jimmy Dorsey’s band in 1937 and became the first African-American singer regularly featured with a white band — one year before Billie Holiday joined Artie Shaw), are on stage performing — and the film includes some of Jordan’s greatest songs, including the title song and “Let the Good Times Roll” — and a lousy movie whenever anything else is going on.

The conceit is that Louis Jordan and his leading lady, Bea Griffith, both have dual roles — he playing his father and she playing her mother — and the plot, sort of a blackface version of Cover Girl, is that years before the older versions of the characters dated but never got together permanently, and now Jordan’s dad is on his deathbed and he’s determined to get the younger Jordan and the younger Griffith together at last. (This was also the gimmick of the stage musical Maytime but it was abandoned in the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald film.) The film was even more disappointing in that it was directed by William Forest Crouch, from a script by William Forrest (presumably no relation) and Irwin Whitehouse, and whereas Crouch’s previous Jordan movie, the short Caldonia, had had a genuinely witty plot line that satirized the strangulation-tight budgets available to race producers, this one had a dull, boring, old-fashioned plot line that made it impossible to enjoy the film when Jordan or Richmond (whose large size prevented her from playing Jordan’s love interest, though her vocals are as authoritative and powerful as her recordings with Dorsey and Andy Kirk) aren’t playing or singing.

Like Billie Holiday in New Orleans, Jordan is visibly more comfortable singing or playing than acting, and though the synchronization seemed a little “off” in his numbers I suspect that’s probably more an artifact of the digital transfer or the downloading process than anything wrong with the movie itself. As tacky as the movie is as a movie, it does give us a nice look at Jordan at the peak of his powers, playing his infectious music and making you want to dance. One of the amazing miracles of Jordan was his ability to swing hard even though he almost never played fast — none of his songs here are taken above a medium-bounce tempo, and yet they’re rhythmically irresistible. I still can’t get over the difference between the two hit versions of “Caldonia”; Woody Herman sped the song up to a speedfreak tempo in an attempt to make it as wild and rambunctious as possible, but Jordan’s version, though slower, swings harder!

Two More MST3K’s: “The Black Scorpion” and “Ring of Terror”

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

When we finally got in a movie I picked out the next disc in sequence in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads: The Black Scorpion, a not-bad 1957 monster movie set in Mexico and filmed there with Richard Denning heading a (mostly) Mexican supporting cast and at least two quite important talents from the 1930’s behind the scenes: the director is Edward Ludwig, a Universal hack who got to make one truly great film, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head; and the special effects are handled by Willis H. O’Brien, inventor of the stop-motion animation process and best known for the superlative (and still amazingly convincing) model and process work in King Kong.

Alas, O’Brien’s post-Kong career was both professionally and personally frustrating; in 1933, right after the completion of the sequel Son of Kong, his estranged wife Hazel Collette shot and killed their two sons and then tried to kill herself (she survived, but died shortly thereafter of cancer and tuberculosis — might her madness have come about from whatever drugs were then used to treat those diseases?), and his professional projects didn’t fare much better (at least he remarried and stayed with his second wife, Darlyne Prenett, until his death), among them a fascinating tale called War Eagles (a zoological expedition discovers giant eagles encased in ice at the North Pole, thaws them out and revives them — and they come in handy when the U.S. is attacked by an enemy with a ray gun that disintegrates metal, rendering conventional airplanes useless and thereby leading the U.S. government to press the war eagles into service as combat aircraft because, as living things instead of mechanical contraptions, they’re not vulnerable to the ray) that would probably make a great movie now.

By the 1950’s, while his former assistant and protégé Ray Harryhausen was working at major studios on color extravangazae like Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Harryhausen used one of the original Kong armatures, which O’Brien had given him, for the Cyclops), O’Brien was reduced to whatever jobs he could get for cheapie producers like Jack Dietz and Frank Melford, who ran out of money before O’Brien could stage the final attack of the scorpion on Mexico City (an obvious plot knockoff of the finales of O’Brien’s greatest films, the 1925 The Lost World and the 1933 King Kong) — with the result that it’s represented merely by a shadow of the scorpion’s arm (or limb, or whatever) superimposed on the live action.

The conceit behind this film is that a huge network of caves exists under Mexico where giant-sized insects live, and a sudden volcanic eruption and the earthquakes it causes bring some of these creatures to the surface near the small Mexican town of San Lorenzo. The effects of the scorpions in motion (there’s more than one of them, along with a creature that looks like a giant-sized tick that goes after the obligatory over-cute kid in these productions, Mario “Juanito” Navarro, but alas is killed by the adult humans before it can eat him), especially when they’re fighting each other (which they do a lot), are excellent; but the shots of the volcano erupting look like a nine-year-old’s school science project (so liberally padded out with stock footage that the MST3K crew made a joke that the eruption had to end when their stock footage ran out) and the scorpion’s face looks like a particularly well-decorated jack-o’lantern and drools white muck from its mouth in an effect more gross than genuinely frightening (though modern-day horror-film makers have utterly erased the distinction between gross and frightening).

Aside from that, The Black Scorpion — written by Robert Blees (a name I remember vaguely from better movies than this) and David Duncan from a story by Paul Yawitz — is the usual monster-movie sludge, with a better-than-average introduction of the female lead (she’s shown riding across the range on horseback and Denning and his Mexican buddy, Carlos Rivas, spy her through their binoculars — only by the time Rivas passes the binocs to Denning she’s fallen off the horse and all Denning sees is the horse) and a nicely understated relationship between them, but the usual gang of idiots in the supporting cast standing around and acting so stupidly they almost seem to be waving to the giant scorpions and calling out to them, “Hey! Eat me! Eat me!” The MST3K crew called it “The San Lorenzo Milling-Around Festival” — a series of running gags that marked their best work in the film (that and a surprised cry, “It’s Mrs. Butterworth!,” as our two young lovebirds palmed that obnoxious kid off on a grandmotherly figure who did indeed look like the maple-syrup advertising icon) — and the film has a false climax (the Mexican army bombs the volcano and thinks they’ve sealed up all the giant insects back in their underground warrens, but it turns out there’s another “fissure” in the earth through which they escape again) before the real one (the final giant black scorpion is fricasseed via an electric charge in the middle of a Mexican soccer stadium) as well as the usual assortment of Mexicans speaking badly accented English (though since most of the actors were Mexican the bad English accents were probably their real ones) instead of unaccented Spanish. Warner Bros. handled the U.S. release of this piece of cheese, though as monster movies of the period go it’s actually not too bad — too much sluggish exposition before the action starts, but then that’s endemic to the genre — and in a way it’s kind of fun (and I’m sure Charles and I had seen it at least once before in “straight” form).


I ran us one of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes he’d just downloaded, from the start of the second Comedy Central season with Joel Hodgson in a green jump suit this time and different versions of the interstital “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” logo. The film was something called Ring of Terror, though I felt it should have been called “Film of Boredom” because it was almost unspeakably dull throughout. Made in 1962 by a cheapie company called Playstar — which sounds a good deal more like a toy manufacturer than a movie studio — the film was directed by Clark Paylow (whose last name probably describes the salary he got — or didn’t get — for making it) from a script by Lewis Simeon and G. J. Zinnerman about a group of medical students (played by a bunch of actors you never heard of who were each about a decade or two too old to convincingly impersonate students, even graduate students) who are being hazed by a fraternity and made to do outrageous things to get in.

The film opens in a cemetery, where a human narrator is chasing his cat Puma — who, showing by far more intelligence than any human connected with this film on either side of the camera, keeps trying to get away — before pointing out a particular tombstone with the name of the film’s protagonist (you can’t really call him a “hero” because he, like everybody else in the movie, doesn’t actually do anything) and the birth and death dates, 1933 to 1955. (Incidentally, the narrator — unidentified in’s cast list, though I think it’s Austin Green, who’s billed second but not listed with a character name — is so doggedly uncharismatic that Criswell’s contribution to Plan Nine from Outer Space sounds like Olivier or Welles by comparison.) The film then flashes back to the life of said protagonist, Lewis B. Moffitt (George E. Mather), his boring life as a student and his even more boring relationship with his girlfriend Betty Crawford (Esther Furst), with whom he’s necking one night at one of the local parking spots when a rattlesnake sneaks into their car and menaces both of them.

Aside from that — staged by Paylow in a way determined to drain all the possible suspense and terror out of it and make it seem as matter-of-fact and dull as the rest of the movie — nothing really happens until about five minutes before the end, when Lewis receives word that his initiation into this psycho fraternity is going to be to spend the night in a mausoleum with a newly dead and dissected corpse. (How a corpse of an unidentified person that was released to a medical school for dissection precisely because no family members claimed it ended up in a mausoleum is actually one of the less bothersome idiocies of the Simeon/Zinnerman script.) We’re told that this is particularly horrific to him because way back in his childhood he came home one day to find his father’s body, his dad having suddenly died while he was out at school (or wherever), and indeed he ends up literally scared to death — and we’re reminded that the 1947 film of that name, however awful it may be in its own right (saddled with Runnycolor and a plot that made utterly no sense), looks like a masterpiece in comparison with this!

The MST3K crew did their best with this one — most of their jokes centered around the vast gulf between the ages of the characters and the real-life ages of the actors attempting to play them (when one of them joked that the actor playing Moffitt is obviously older than Moffitt’s age at his death, I pointed out that when he made the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey was older than Darin had been when he died, but he made a great movie anyway) — and when they filled out the show’s length (Ring of Terror is only 71 minutes long) with an episode (the third) of the 1939 Universal serial The Phantom Creeps, a really silly production starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zurka, a mad scientist with a yen to conquer the world (mind you that Adolf Hitler was alive, well and close to the peak of his power just then, so megalomaniacs interested in conquering the world weren’t the sort of creatures of science fiction they are today), their relief at having something they could sink their teeth into was as palpable as ours, even though the print of The Phantom Creeps (attributed to something called “Commonwealth Films” which must have bought the rights from Universal for reissue or TV) was lousy and made it almost impossible to see what was going on (not that much was going on since Lugosi had rendered himself invisible through most of this episode) and the movie is pretty tacky, complete with the detail anybody who remembers The Phantom Creeps immediately thinks of when the film is mentioned: the 12-foot-tall robot Lugosi has supposedly built, whose craggy facial features make it look like a cross between an automobile hood ornament and an Easter Island statue. — 7/21/08

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Early Marilyn Monroe: “Home Town Story” (MGM, 1951)

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

The “feature” we ran last night was Home Town Story, a rather odd 1951 MGM production released as a public-domain title from a company called “Vina Distributor,” which rather oddly erased the theme music under the titles at both the opening and closing of the film, replacing it with a crudely recorded piano-and-strings theme (were they worried about someone acquiring the music rights and thereby taking this title out of public-domain circulation the way Republic Home Video was able to with It’s a Wonderful Life?).

Vina Distributor also heavily promoted it as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, which it isn’t; she’s in it, all right, but she’s billed fifth and has the minor part of Iris Martin, secretary and receptionist for the Fairfax Herald, a small-town paper whose owner, Cliff Washburn (Griff Barnett), has just turned it over to his nephew Blake (Jeffrey Lynn, top-billed and a singularly unappealing screen presence — whatever bits of hunkiness he’d shown at Warners in the late 1930’s had been worn away by the years, and he hadn’t improved any as an actor either). Blake is bitter because after five years’ service in the war and two years in his state’s senate, he has just lost his bid for re-election to Bob MacFarland (Hugh Beaumont), son of the town’s biggest manufacturer, John MacFarland (Donald Crisp).

Blake is determined to use his new position as editor of the Herald to expose the profiteering of big business in general and the MacFarlands in particular, despite the disinterest of his uncle in that sort of campaigning and also the non-support of his long-waiting girlfriend Janice Hunt (Marjorie Reynolds, who like Lynn had not been treated kindly by the years). Blake sees a paper from Ohio that contains an exposé of a company that polluted the local river; he goes to the MacFarland plant in search of a similar story, but is assured by a man there whom he trusts that the factory treats all its effluents properly and doesn’t pollute their river at all. Undeterred, Blake then writes a series of editorials dedicated to the proposition that corporations and their shareholders simply make too much money, and the film plods along for a few more reels (it’s only 61 minutes long — 58 minutes in Vina’s edition — but it seems to run a lot longer than it does) until we’re dropped a big hint: two workers in MacFarland’s mining operation decide it’s too much trouble to re-hang the “DANGER” sign along the road to Copper Hill, and the unsuspecting Janice, a schoolteacher, books a field trip for her class — including Blake’s prepubescent sister Katie (Melinda Plowman) — onto, you guessed it, Copper Hill.

Then follows virtually the only scene in the film in which anything even remotely exciting happens: chasing after her dog Rags — whom Blake gave her — Katie runs into a disused mineshaft and, sure enough, there’s a well-staged cave-in (it’s pretty obviously a model but the effects work is still quite good) and Katie is trapped. Suddenly turning from exploitative businessman to heroic capitalist, John MacFarland orders a fleet of tractors into operation pulling the dirt away from the mine entrance so a crew can get in and rescue Katie. She’s found alive but deathly ill, and MacFarland strikes again, ordering a private plane to take her to the nearest large city where there’s a hospital that can give her the operation she needs to survive — and also supplying a nursing crew and full medical equipment to keep her alive during the flight. All of this convinces Blake that profit serves a social function and that businessmen are heroes, not villains — and he writes an editorial to that effect, gives up any ambitions to re-run for his state senate seat, and proposes to Janice at long last.

What’s most interesting about Home Town Story is its muddled politics; Arthur Pierson, who produced (uncredited), directed and wrote it, carefully leads us up the garden path and makes us think this is going to be a piece about a courageous progressive editor who takes a strong stand against a corrupt business establishment (the sort of movie that actually went over big with Stevensonian liberal Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM) — and then flips all those expectations on their heads: the big factory isn’t polluting (where I thought that plot line was going was that he’d find out, Diane Wilson-style, that the honest staff member was being lied to by supervisors who were personally authorizing dumps of toxins into the river in the dead of night), the business owners in Fairfax take the Herald’s attacks lying down and don’t even threaten to pull their ads (a plot twist I was expecting at any moment!), and in the end what finally convinces Blake to change sides and support the businessowners he’s been ragging is when John MacFarland tells him that the motor powering the repirator that is keeping Katie alive on her way to her operation was made by his company.

Arthur Pierson doesn’t bring much life to this parable of capitalism über alles — “capitalist realism,” my husband Charles called it, and a contemporary reviewer (James D. Ivers of the Motion Picture Herald) wrote, “In short and simple terms, at times almost too simple, this hour-long offering attempts with no subtlety whatsoever a blanket defense of business.” As a blanket defense of business, it simply doesn’t offer the so-bad-it’s-good thrills of a work by Ayn Rand — however hysterical (in both senses: crazy and funny) The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are, their sheer overwroughtness gives them entertainment value — instead Pierson’s film is a dull piece of conservative propaganda that more or less successfully masquerades for a good chunk of its running time as a dull piece of liberal propaganda.

It’s easy enough to imagine a remix (so to speak) of this script that would move its politics from Right to Left: the MacFarland factory really is polluting the river (the decent guy who tells Blake it isn’t is either lying to save his job or, perhaps better, doesn’t know himself because his higher-ups are ordering the dumps at night while he’s not there to stop them, and falsifying the records so all appears to be in order) and at the end Blake thanks MacFarland for his help saving Katie’s life but also tells him that doesn’t excuse his company’s sloppiness in allowing the danger to exist in the first place. (In the film as it stands, Pierson clearly blames the disaster not on the company but on two lazy proletarians who can’t be bothered to re-hang the “DANGER” sign across the highway leading to Copper Hill.)

The film’s other point of interest is Marilyn Monroe’s presence in it. What makes it interesting among Marilyn’s movies is there is absolutely no attempt to exploit her already forming “sexy” image. At the time this film was made she was being shuttled back and forth from studio to studio (from Fox to Columbia to Fox again to MGM — Home Town Story was her last film at MGM — and finally to Fox a third time, where she’d ultimately achieve stardom) and the good films she’d made by then, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, had already established her “type”: decent but dumb, with a hint of the gold-digger but too innocent to understand what she was doing by trading her looks to rich men for various material goodies.

Here she’s a secretary — a role she’d play for sex-comedy laughs a year later in Monkey Business, only here she’s doing it seriously: her vocal cooing is at a minimum and she seems genuinely competent and efficient at what she’s doing. She takes the amorous advances of Blake’s star reporter, Slim Haskins (Alan Hale, Jr., who for some reason gets second billing to Monroe on the Vina DVD even though his part isn’t any more significant than hers and Lynn, Crisp and Reynolds are playing the real protagonists of the film), in stride and virtuously says she already has a boyfriend — a truck driver (though given the political orientation of this film, she later informs Slim and us that he’s not just a truck driver: he’s a contractor and already has a fleet of four trucks and is working his way up) — and she’s not interested in anyone else, thank you.

It’s true that Marilyn appears in a form-fitting sweater (a garment she’d already worn in All About Eve and a Fox cheapie, The Fireball, starring Mickey Rooney as a roller-derby star!) and her breasts are encased in a bra so severe it makes them look like missile silos, but otherwise her character is carefully not played for her sexuality — which makes this movie a bit refreshing (especially to anyone like David Thomson, who wrote that unlike Jayne Mansfield, who “was also exploited … but one notices an awareness of it and a commercial willingness to be exploited with the implied acceptance of a short and lucrative career, Monroe’s ignorance is often painful and a number of her films are like stag parties making dirty jokes behind her back”) but also means that, not pushing the buttons she so legendarily knew how to push, Monroe seems under wraps, anonymously playing a part any woman her age could have played as well. Without Monroe, Home Town Story would be a totally forgotten film; with her, it’s a little-known footnote to a star-crossed star career.

Rita Rio and Cab Calloway: Two Warners’ Band Shorts

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

I ran us a couple of engaging big-band shorts I’d recorded on tape from TCM’s last big ‘swing night” — one featuring a woman bandleader I’d otherwise never heard of, Rita Rio, a 10-minute short from 1939 in which Our Heroine starts by dancing around her living room to an old Victor record of “When You’re Smiling,” much to the consternation of her mother (a fair-skinned, white-haired woman who was inconceivable as Rita Rio’s biological parent!) and the tall, rather cadaverous-looking white-haired psychiatrist Mrs. Rio brings in, who insists that Rita belongs in the state mental hospital. Of course, she doesn’t go there; instead, aided by a nice young man in her apartment building who offers to manage her, she ends up in a series of Warners nightclub sets representing her continuing success as a bandleader — and trading off her Latina-sounding name, she sings with a faux-Spanish accent on a couple of forgettable songs and mercifully drops it on “I Cried for You,” where she’s not as good as Billie Holiday or Judy Garland but certainly acquits herself well.

The other short they showed was from 1937 and featured Cab Calloway in a surprisingly dark movie, Hi-De-Ho, as far removed from the exuberance of the title (and of Calloway’s earlier shorts for Paramount), in which Calloway, a young Black blade who dreams of music stardom while his more down-to-earth mother works away at the washtub, visits a fortuneteller and sees a whole series of visions of his future in her tea leaves — one of which is set to a song called “Frisco Flo” which is surprisingly moody and dark for Calloway, and is shot by director Roy Mack in proto-noir fashion — only an exuberant number at the very end gives us the Cab Calloway we all know and love!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

That’s Right — You’re Wrong (RKO, 1939)

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

When we finally got to watch a movie I ran a videotape I’d recorded from the TCM big-band swing night last Wednesday of Kay Kyser’s engaging film debut, That’s Right — You’re Wrong (1939). The quirky title comes from Kyser’s famous radio show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, in which Kyser as MC would tell a contestant who’d answered a true-or-false question “false” when the answer should have been “true,” “That’s right — you’re wrong!”

Directed by David Butler and co-written by William Conselman and James V. Kern from a story by Butler and Conselman, That’s Right — You’re Wrong is an amiable comedy, a more entertaining movie than most of the big-band vehicles of the period (which tended to sag between songs) mainly because Kyser, unlike virtually all the other major bandleaders of the period, was actually a genuinely talented actor: a good light comedian with an ability to make fun of himself. That’s Right — You’re Wrong was Kyser’s first film, and it’s a metafictional exercise in which Four Star Studios head Jonathan “J. D.” Forbes (Moroni Olsen) assembles his producers and insists that they stop making artistic flops and start making movies mass audiences will actually pay to see. (The scene is uncomfortably reminiscent of real life at RKO three years after this film was made — in 1942 — when Charles Koerner took over at RKO, fired Orson Welles and announced that from then on RKO’s motto would be “Showmanship in Place of Genius.” Ironically, much of the money RKO made during Koerner’s tenure came from the Val Lewton horror unit, which used most of Welles’s behind-the-scenes crew and made movies now considered works of genius.)

Four Star producer Stacey Delmore (Adolphe Menjou, demoted after his two films as a studio head himself — 1937’s A Star Is Born and 1938’s The Goldwyn Follies) wangles the plum assignment to make Kay Kyser’s first movie after Forbes points out how much money Kyser is making in his live appearances and how much the studio wants to make some of that money. Delmore gets the assignment by promising that his ace writing team, Tom Village (Edward Everett Horton) and Dwight Cook (Hobart Cavanaugh), just happen to have a script already to go in which the central character is a bandleader — only it turns out he’s a suave European bandleader from the Isle of Capri who works as a Venetian gondolier and ends up marrying a princess.

The film is full of in-jokes — my favorite was when the Four Star makeup head (Charles Judels) announces that they spent five hours making up Kyser to look right for this role (five hours was the length of time it took Jack P. Pierce to turn Boris Karloff into the Frankenstein monster) and at the end, “He still looked like Kyser.” Though Kyser would make better movies later on — including You’ll Find Out, which plugged his band into the middle of a spoof on old-dark-house horror movies and included Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre in the cast; and Playmates, in which John Barrymore played an over-the-hill Shakespearean actor roped into a summer Shakespeare festival with Kyser as his co-star — That’s Right — You’re Wrong is a nice, entertaining movie with a lot of fun songs from the Kyser band (including at least one swing number with a surprisingly good trumpet solo by Merwyn Bogue, better known for his “Ish Kabibble” comedy routine) and one truly great comedy scene, the screen test Kyser and co-star Sandra Sand (Lucille Ball) shoot for their proposed film, which turns out to be a great piece of slapstick that with a different bandleader could have come from I Love Lucy.

The movie ends with the studio paying off Kyser’s contract and Kyser — much to the joy of his grandmother (May Robson, in one of her patented voice-of-reason performances), who had urged him to “stay in his own backyard” and turn down Hollywood’s offer in the first place — returning to radio and showing us what the Kollege of Musical Knowledge actually looked like in the studio. It seems an almost unbearably raucous entertainment but it attracted listeners in droves when it was new — enough that Kyser (not Benny Goodman, either Dorsey, Harry James or Glenn Miller!) became the best-paid bandleader of the swing era — and Kyser managed to make quite a few movies for both RKO and MGM in which his cornpone charm was corny but also quite appealing — and I’ve often pondered the irony that Kyser’s home town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was also the birthplace of Thelonious Monk.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mountain Justice (Warners, 1937)

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

I took out the DVD I’d recorded last March of Mountain Justice, a 1937 Warners programmer that wasn’t an altogether satisfying movie but was far more interesting than the common run of Warners releases of the period. It starts with a written foreword saying that even in 1937 America, there were still redoubts of people in the mountains who still lived by the stern morality of our forebears, and then it fades in to show us one such family: tyrannical father Jeff Harkins (Robert Barrat), his long-suffering wife Meg (Elizabeth Risdon), younger daughter Bethy (Marcia Mae Jones) and older daughter Ruth (Josephine Hutchinson, the film’s female lead), who went off to the big city to attend nursing school with the ultimate aim of helping the region’s only doctor, John Barnard (Guy Kibbee), set up a string of clinics to bring modern medicine to the mountains. Ruth returned with carefully plucked eyebrows (someone should have told the Pavlovian dogs in Warners’ makeup department what sort of woman Hutchinson was supposed to be playing!) and a chip on her shoulder towards her father and the entire backward mountain culture he symbolized.

The mountain people’s one form of entertainment is a carnival, which the Harkinses attend en masse, and there Ruth runs into New York attorney Paul Cameron (George Brent), who unbeknownst to her is there to lead the prosecution of her father for shooting at a representative of the gas and electric company who was on his property to survey it for a new powerline. Cameron is hated by the townspeople but he nonetheless manages to entrap Jeff Harkins into admitting ownership of the gun with which the assault was committed; he’s found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail, and when he returns he finds that Ruth has sold her acre and used it to redecorate the house and, pointedly, to take down from the wall the enormous framed plaque he had hung there reminding them of the Biblical commandment to “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” Jeff also insists that Ruth marry local farmer Tad Miller (Edward Pawley), who’s even creepier than he is, and whips her when she refuses.

Instead, Ruth runs away to New York to complete her nursing education, financing herself with money loaned her by Dr. Barnard — pissing off the good doctor’s fiancée, Phoebe Lamb (Margaret Hamilton), who was hoping they could get married on that money after she’s been waiting for him 20 years. (As hard as it is to believe for anyone whose idea of Margaret Hamilton was formed by The Wizard of Oz — and her almost identical part in Judy Garland’s next film, Babes in Arms — she and Kibbee actually supply what meager comic relief this film has.) While in New York, Ruth is courted by Cameron — who takes her to a typical Warners nightclub only to have her walk out on her date to attend an emergency case with fellow nursing student Evelyn Wayne (Mona Barrie), a New York heiress (and, it’s hinted, a previous boyfriend of Cameron’s) who went into nursing school as a lark. On learning that Ruth won’t marry Cameron until she goes back home and successfully launches the clinics, Evelyn provides the seed capital, the clinics open and Jeff Harkins is even more pissed off at his daughter than ever.

Since Ruth wasn’t willing to marry Tad Miller, Jeff palms off his younger daughter on Tad even though she barely looks pubescent (the American Film Institute Catalog identifies her as 14) — a surprisingly kinky plot turn for a 1937 movie! — and Bethy flees to Ruth’s home and tries to hide out, only Jeff and Tad catch her there and Tad chases Bethy while Jeff confronts his daughter, threatens to whip her (he’s already whipped her once before in the film, so we know he means business), only she grabs the whip from him and clubs him with the handle; he staggers out onto her front porch and then falls down dead. Ruth is arrested for her dad’s murder and Cameron insists on taking the case despite Ruth’s warnings that the mountain people hate him so much that his appearance as her lawyer will only make it more likely that she’ll be convicted — and in a circus-like atmosphere in which (like the judge in the real-life Scopes trial) the courtroom is so hot in midsummer that the judge holds most of the trial outdoors in front of the courthouse (and a radio reporter adds to the circus-like atmosphere by broadcasting the trial live), Ruth is indeed convicted.

She’s sentenced to 25 years, but that’s not long enough for the townspeople, who organize a lynching party to hang her on the spot — only they’re foiled by Dr. Barnard and a few of the other remaining sympathetic characters (most of them women whose children’s lives were saved by the care offered by the clinics), who put on hoods to disguise themselves as part of the lynch mob, get Ruth into their vehicle and drive her to a nearby field where Cameron has chartered a plane to fly her out of the state. She flees to New York, the New York governor refuses to extradite her, and in a plot twist anticipating Dark Passage by a decade, she’s free to live out her life as long as she never returns to her home state. Satisfied that the clinics will continue without her, she marries Cameron and settles down with him.

Mountain Justice is a quite chilling film, with an original screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Luci Ward that, aside from the by-play between the Kibbee and Hamilton characters, offers no comic relief and such a dire version of mountain life at times it looks like The Color Purple with white people. It’s also an unusually well directed film for a Warners programmer with a pretty low-voltage cast; the director is Michael Curtiz, who stages quite a lot of it at night in heavily staged Gothic setups that remind us that at the time Curtiz was Warners’ go-to guy for their rare forays into horror films (Doctor “X,” Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Walking Dead). He’s aided by the remarkable cinematographer Ernest Haller, who was usually known as a glamour cameraman but is at one with Curtiz in creating the film’s convincingly Gothic atmosphere — much to the detriment of Josephine Hutchinson, who looks about five to 10 years too old for her role.

According to the American Film Institute Catalog, Film Daily originally announced this as a project for Bette Davis — and as many horrible films as she ducked (or tried to) during her galley years at Warners, this is one she should have done: the role of Ruth Harkins really cries out for Davis’s particular brand of edgy intensity and Josephine Hutchinson, aside from being photographed unflatteringly, is surprisingly bland except on the rare occasions where she tries to shoehorn some of the Davis mannerisms into her own acting. Ideally, Humphrey Bogart would have played the New York lawyer instead of the almost terminally bland George Brent — why did that man become such a big star, anyway? In her autobiography Davis recalls Brent as being so utterly gorgeous off-screen that she and virtually every other woman he worked with had a raging crush on him — but on screen he doesn’t look more than ordinarily attractive (the reverse of people like Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe, who by all accounts were only decent-looking off-screen but photographed so well they became deathless avatars of sex on screen).

Nonetheless, Mountain Justice is a haunting film — Robert Barrat in particular manages to portray enough of the character’s self-righteousness that he doesn’t come off as totally monstrous; the uncompromising script and Curtiz’s atmospherics really work to create the impression of the petty fears that hold this community in their grip; and if this film has a flaw besides the cast (and the actors it has aren’t bad; it’s just that there were other people on the Warners contract list in 1937 who could have done it even better), it’s a surprisingly modern one: it’s an oddly detached film, restrained in its emotions and keeping us at a distance from the characters instead of letting us in and allowing us to identify with them. (I’ve made that complaint about recent films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain, Capote and The Wackness, and here is a 1930’s movie with the same problem.) Nonetheless, it’s a haunting movie, and though one wonders who its intended audience was (big-city moviegoers who wanted to feel superior to the hicks from the sticks?) it’s well made and its sheer despairing relentlessness make it quite unusual for the period and allow it to hold up surprisingly well.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

“A Song Is Born”: Kaye and Jazz Make It Interesting

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

I had a good time when I got home, doing another one of my crazy tapes (combining the Page Cavanaugh Trio album I’d got from the Footnote with bits and pieces of the soundtrack from A Song Is Born, in which the Page Cavanaugh Trio appeared backing Virginia Mayo — or, more likely, her voice double — in the sing, “Daddy-O” — the group was a good one, but rather schlocky at times; those vocal arrangements made them sound an awful lot like the Four Aces with the Nat “King” Cole Trio backing them, since Cavanaugh’s own piano was a lot like Cole’s). It’s a movie I’ve always had an affection for; true, it’s nowhere near as good as the original, Ball of Fire (Danny Kaye actually seems more credible as the milquetoast professor than Gary Cooper did — though his talents as a character comedian are largely wasted in what is basically a situation comedy — but the comparison between Virginia Mayo and Barbara Stanwyck is much like the comparison between Kenny G and John Coltrane), but it does have a lot of great music in the first half, and it’s worth watching for that alone (to see the real Benny Goodman, in character as “Professor Magenbruch,” pretending never to have heard of Benny Goodman is a delight). — 2/26/93


I kept the TV on and watched the TCM showing of the 1948 film A Song Is Born as I was recording it to DVD. This was a Sam Goldwyn production and is described by biographer Carol Easton as his last attempt to make a star out of Virginia Mayo, whom he’d apparently signed because she reminded him of what his wife Frances had looked like young. It was also a remake of Ball of Fire, a marvelous 1941 screwball comedy Goldwyn and director Howard Hawks had concocted out of a story by future director Billy Wilder called “From A to Z,” an offtake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in which the dwarfs became seven ancient (well, six ancient and one not-so-ancient) professors who’d already spent nearly a decade working on the ultimate encyclopedia of human knowledge, and Snow White was a stripper on the lam from an assistant D.A. determined to make her testify against her gangster boyfriend who ends up hiding out in the professors’ abode after they realize that she speaks slang that they have no knowledge of but need to include in their book.

In 1941 the cast was Gary Cooper as the one not-so-ancient professor who, of course, becomes the love interest of the stripper (Barbara Stanwyck) and ultimately wins her from her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews), and that film already included some high-powered swing music talent: Stanwyck, using her own voice (as she always did), sings “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa’s band in an early scene. In 1948 Goldwyn decided to make it into a musical and emphasize the swing component; this time the professors are writing a history of music when all of a sudden, thanks to two window-washers (played by the great Black vaudeville dance team of Buck Washington and John “Bubbles” Sublett, though in a move symptomatic of this often misguided movie “Bubbles” doesn’t get to dance), they’re apprised of the existence of jazz.

The not-so-ancient professor in this version is Hobart Frisbie (Danny Kaye, making his last film as a Sam Goldwyn contractee; he’d return to Goldwyn in 1952 to make Hans Christian Andersen, but as a free-lancer making ten times what Goldwyn had been paying him before) and the stripper is song stylist “Honey” Swanson (Virginia Mayo, voice-doubled quite convincingly by Jeri Sullavan), while the gangster boyfriend is Tony Crow (Steve Cochran, a surprisingly edgy actor to turn up in a Goldwyn film). Howard Hawks repeated his direction from the 1941 version and Wilder and Thomas Monroe are still listed as the screenwriters, though Harry Tugend did some uncredited tweaking on the script. Easton said this film was Kaye’s first flop and blamed it on a dispute between Goldwyn and Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote all his special material; in this case, she turned down his offer for a new song for him and so he didn’t do any singing in the film — though exactly where a Kaye comic vocal could have been fitted into this story is unclear, to say the least.

The best part of A Song Is Born is the opening, filled with marvelous swing music: a couple of short boogie numbers by Buck Washington based on the “B-A-C-H” motive and Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” (the latter also featuring Benny Goodman!), a long medley of various swing performers Frisbie visits on a nightclub crawl to get a feel for this music he’s never heard before (Mel Powell — who, ironically, would later describe a professional trajectory opposite to Kaye’s character in the film, giving up jazz for avant-garde classical music — leading a Dixieland band in “Muskrat Ramble,” Tommy Dorsey playing his theme “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” the Golden Gate Quartet in a bit of their barbershop-gospel on “Old Blind Barnabas,” Charlie Barnet roaring his way through “Cherokee,” a brief jam between Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton and Jeri Sullavan with the Page Cavanaugh Trio singing a quite appealingly sultry new song called “Daddy-O”), a jam on Fats Waller’s “Stealin’ Apples” reuniting Goodman and Hampton and a six-minute workout on the title song that is supposed to represent a musical montage illustrating the history of jazz, including a samba band and the Golden Gate Quartet as well as Armstrong and Sullavan on vocals.

My memory of the two versions was that Danny Kaye was actually better cast as the milquetoast professor than Gary Cooper, but Virginia Mayo didn’t come close to Barbara Stanwyck in the female lead (but then who did? To my mind, Stanwyck was the best actress in Hollywood during the classic era, bar none; not only did she put her heart and soul into every performance but she was incredibly versatile, able to play both comedy and drama and in just about every film genre, from musicals to Westerns to screwball comedies to tear-jerkers to films noir) and the movie, dangerously imbalanced because almost all the music occurs in its first half, tended to sag towards the end as the plot demanded resolution. I liked it a lot better this time around; though the music (and the musicians!) remain the principal attraction, Danny Kaye seizes every opportunity the script presents him for acting. His performance as the lovesick swain making his desperate proposal to Virginia Mayo’s character is astonishing, an utterly sincere reading that transcends the fish-out-of-water cliché even a great writer and filmmaker like Wilder couldn’t escape in the scene.

Cochran also snarls more convincingly as the gangster than Dana Andrews (miscast) did in the original, and if the first version still seems better it’s probably because this time around Howard Hawks seemed bored with the whole project, going through the motions but not really getting as excited over it (or making as exciting a movie) as he did the first time. The list of directors who remade their own movies and didn’t make them as well the second time includes Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much), Frank Capra (Broadway Bill/Ridin’ High, Lady for a Day/A Pocketful of Miracles), William Wyler (These Three/The Children’s Hour) and even Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments). A Song Is Born has the oddity of having Benny Goodman not merely appear as himself (as all the other swing and jazz musicians in the film did) but actually play a character, one of the professors; his hair dyed and stuck on his scalp with what looks like shoe polish and his upper lip adorned with a silly moustache, he still turns in a perfectly acceptable comic performance even though it could hardly compete with some of the other character actors in the film — including Hugh Herbert, surprisingly restrained (and unsurprisingly quite a bit older!) than in his woo-woo days at Warners.

A Song Is Born also has the interesting distinction of having had an album released of its principal songs played (mostly) by the artists from the film, even though the records (a four-78 album on Capitol) were re-recorded in a studio rather than taken off the soundtrack. The reason this is odd was that in 1948 the American Federation of Musicians had called its second strike against the record companies, but Goldwyn got a special dispensation from AFM president James Caesar Petrillo (one bully to another?) to get the music on record by getting Capitol to agree to donate the proceeds from the album to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund (an interesting precursor of the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid). By the time the records were made, however, Benny Goodman had formed a new group, hired two bebop musicians (tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and trumpeter Theodore “Fats” Navarro) and changed his sound so extensively that the version of “Stealin’ Apples” on the album sounds almost nothing like the one in the film. — 7/10/08

The 1927 “Jazz Singer”: A Truly Great Film

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

The 1927 Warner Brothers (they were still spelling out the word “Brothers” instead of abbreviating it “Bros.” in their credits then!) production “The Jazz Singer” is acknowledged as a film of transcendent historical importance because it was the first popular movie with synchronized singing and dialogue, and it launched the transition from silent to sound films that was virtually complete in three years. What isn’t so well known is that it’s actually a quite good movie, sentimental and mawkish as all get-out but also legitimately powerful in presenting and resolving its conflicts. I couldn’t agree more with British critic Alexander Walker that “The Jazz Singer” is “about the making of an American as well as an entertainer,” and it no doubt resonated with 1920’s audiences who saw it just three years after a restrictive immigration bill pushed by the nativists in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party (forerunners of the racist zealots who hold forth on talk radio against “illegals” and sound for all the world like the Nazis talking about the Jews) sought to close the melting pot. It remains a strong and powerful movie, and the recent Warner Home Video three-DVD set is a virtual primer in the silent-to-sound transition and a must-have item for a film collector with a particular interest in the transition to sound.


I stayed up to record the 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer, off TNT. It’s a movie that’s got some pretty bad press over the years — writers generally acknowledge its importance as the pioneering talkie (though only two sequences contain dialogue and less than 20 percent of the film has sound) but discount its obvious sentimentality and stereotyped portrayal of Jewish ghetto life (viewing this film, it’s hard to believe the stultifying, tradition-bound world of the American Jewish ghettoes of New York and Chicago produced Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Benny Goodman). Alexander Walker had kinder things to say about it in his book on the early days of sound film, The Shattered Silents (pp. 38-39):

“The power of lachrymose feeling charges three of the most potent themes that any film has been built around: Jewish tradition, show-business sentiment and mother love. All are combined in a story that is irredeemably mawkish, yet crudely effective. Ghetto attitudes and back-stage free-and-easiness collide in a way that, in 1927, most have caused a familiar wrench to thousands of America’s new Jewish immigrants. In a very real sense, The Jazz Singer is about the making of an American as well as an entertainer. … Sacred and lay shibboleths, Judaism and American fervor, father-worship and mother-love: these are elements that the story reconciles with an unselfconscious directness which survives the overloaded sentimentality better than it has any right to do.”

I basically agree with that analysis. The 1927 Jazz Singer is not a great film, but it is a good one; though the director (Alan Crosland) and the actors playing Jolson’s parents (Warner Oland — a Swede in real life, here playing his most famous non-Chinese role — and Eugene Besserer, who jars the story’s verisimilitude by looking throughout exactly like the Irishwoman she was) weren’t Jewish, enough of the personnel involved were — including the producers, screenwriter Alfred Cohn and, of course, the star — to give the story a peculiar authenticity. The fact that the piece had been done before as a straight play (A Day of Atonement) starring Edward G. Robinson (née Emmanuel Goldenberg) and then as a stage musical with Georgie Jessel is less significant than the fact that Robinson, Jessel and Jolson had all had real lives similar to that of the character they played. The Jazz Singer is a movie pretty obviously made by people who genuinely cared about the story they were telling, and this carried the picture over the shoals of its own sentimentality and the limitations of the early sound apparatus (plus the jarring effect, especially in a modern viewer used to the idea that movies have sound, of a film that is only part-talking). — 3/28/93


As for The Jazz Singer, Charles was surprised by it because he’d expected to be merely a novelty item, of historical interest as the first major “talking” film (even though only 10 percent of the movie has synchronized singing, talking and sound effects, and only 291 words are spoken in it) — and instead he was surprised to find it a quite good movie. It’s been denounced by most of the critics, though Alexander Walker wrote a moving appreciation of it in his book The Shattered Silents that fulfilled one function of critical writing and got me to see qualities in the film I’d missed before. True, it’s sentimental as all get-out, and there are some hysterical (in both senses — frightening and funny) titles (“Would you be the first Rabinowitz in five generations to fail your God?”) that are perfect examples of the kind of highly melodramatic dialogue lines that silent-film title-writers could get away with but that sounded ludicrous once you actually heard actors say them.

It also gets tiresome to hear exactly the same piece of music accompany every sequence in which chorus girls are shown dancing, no matter what city they’re playing in or what show they’re supposed to be performing — and when Jack Robin (the Jazz Singer Formerly Known as Jakie Rabinowitz, the character Jolson plays in the movie) finally hits Broadway, his show is directed by a typical screaming-queen dance director (it’s somewhat dispiriting to learn that that stereotype was established right at the beginning of musical film, too!), and despite the fact that most of the action takes place in New York City the Jewish characters look, dress and act like they’re in a road-company production of Fiddler on the Roof.

But the movie has a surprisingly strong plot and taut, incisive direction by Alan Crosland (even this early, the film shows the electrifying pace Warner Brothers productions were famous for, and I got the impression that Crosland was using a lot of short shots, quick cuts and multiple camera angles in the silent sequences because the talkie equipment was so balky the sound scenes would inevitably be static and ponderous), and while Jolson is only a mediocre silent actor (despite two gripping close-ups in which he effectively projects the anguish the plot puts his character through) the acting in this film is generally quite good.

Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer as his parents, in particular, act with a surprising degree of restraint that helps “cut” the sentimentality of the plot — and the opening sequence, in which Oland as the old cantor lip-synchs the words of “Kol Nidre” while Cantor Joseph Diskay (later another cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, actually is seen in the film, giving a concert that Jolson attends, and when the film was shown in Jewish neighborhoods Rosenblatt got star billing on the posters) dubs the singing for him off-screen like Anny Ondra and Joan Barry in Blackmail two years later, proves (if nothing else) that the stories I heard about the great cantors having vocal flexibility and quality equal to opera singers are true — at the end Diskay “floats” a melismatic passage with the ease of a great coloratura soprano. (Jolson, who sings the same song near the end, can’t duplicate the passage with Diskay’s operatic flair but sounds quite convincing anyway, singing seriously and from his heart as a real-life cantor’s son.)

And the movie itself is one of great thematic richness; its central conflicts, not only between Jewish tradition and jazz but between the Old World and the New, between community and career, between familial love and “family values,” still resonate strongly, and there are marvelously subtle touches like (and I’ll acknowledge Alexander Walker for pointing this out to me) Jolson’s introduction, in a cafeteria eating a breakfast of ham and eggs (symbolizing how far away from Jewish tradition he has strayed in his life as a traveling entertainer). Even the mawkish mother-love theme is used effectively from a dramatic point of view — of the five songs Jolson sings in the course of the film, three (“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” — later covered, like a lot of items from the Jolson songbook, by Judy Garland — “Mother, I Still Have You” and the classic “My Mammy”) deal with mother-son love, and a fourth (Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” — how appropriate that the first American musical film would include a song by America’s most popular and best-loved songwriter — especially since he, like Jolson, was an expatriate Russian Jew!) is sung by Jolson to Besserer and features an expression of mother love that, in Walker’s words, “verges on the Oedipal.”

The constant references to mother-son love give the movie a gripping thematic unity and are moving even though the final fourth of the film is practically a hymn to Jewish guilt — and while there’s a lot of Jewish cultural reference in the film (I couldn’t help but wonder whether straight, Gentile Middle America came even close to “getting” such Yiddish words as shiksa and kibitizer in the titles) the story is universal. Though Jolson’s on-screen singing is phenomenal — if nothing else, The Jazz Singer would be valuable for capturing Jolson’s star power and charisma on film for all time, preserving for us a record of him at his absolute best — The Jazz Singer has a lot more to offer than just five incandescent vocal performances by its star. — 1/10/97


I also finished the cassette dub of the Al Jolson movie-soundtracks CD with the four songs he sang in The Jazz Singer that weren’t included already (“Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “Blue Skies,” “My Mammy” and the version of “Kol Nidre” he sings on the deathbed of his movie father) — the irony is that for all its sentimentality and the overacting, particularly Eugenie Besserer as Jolson’s mother and Jolson himself when he’s not singing or speaking in the synch-sound sequences, The Jazz Singer actually holds up surprisingly well as a movie, with clearly delineated character conflicts and an intense resonance to the immigrant experience in America and the clash between the immigrants themselves and their far more assimilated offspring. — 8/1/04


I asked to stop in at the public library and look for a copy of Al Jolson’s recording of “My Mammy” from the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer, the one song I needed to complete my reconstruction of the Walter Donaldson songwriter’s tape. I got the CD I Love to Sing which years ago I had checked out from the library and dubbed to cassette; I made a Toast copy of it when I got it home but was reminded that the version of “My Mammy” on it was not from The Jazz Singer but was from the movie Rose of Washington Square, made at a different studio (20th Century-Fox) 12 years later. (Actually, I think Jolson’s best recording of “My Mammy” was the one he made for the album The Jolson Story on Decca in 1946, since there he sings the song’s beautiful verse and phrases it magnificently, but I was trying to reproduce my older tape exactly, with only one change: I’m going to use both takes of Louis Armstrong’s 1930 recording of “You’re Driving Me Crazy.”)

Fortunately, they also had a DVD of the 1927 film The Jazz Singer itself, so I made a Crosley CD dub from it consisting of all Al Jolson’s songs from the film (including his climactic performance of “Kol Nidre” and the version of “My Mammy” which follows it — and which, oddly, is received in silence in the film; he just sings it, there’s a pause, and then the exit music comes in, even though he’s supposedly singing it to an enthralled live audience at the Winter Garden Theatre, site of the real Al Jolson’s greatest stage triumphs.) The DVD turned out to be a three-disc package, with the unrecorded sides of the discs reproducing the original labels of the Vitaphone soundtrack discs (I always like stuff like that!), including the checkoffs of the number of times each disc was played (20 times was the limit; after that, the discs were presumably too worn and scratchy to be used again), and just the extras on the same disc with the film made this one worth having: the 1926 Vitaphone short Al Jolson in a Plantation Act (the first film of Jolson that survives, made a year before The Jazz Singer — he started but didn’t finish two silent movies, one in 1916 for Vitagraph and one in 1923 for D. W. Griffith), a 1936 spoof of Jolson and The Jazz Singer in Warners’ “Merrie Melodies” cartoon series (when I was a kid I always wondered why they misspelled “merry”!) and a June 2, 1947 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of The Jazz Singer starring the 60-something Jolson in the role of 20-something “Jack Robin” the 40-something Jolson had played on screen two decades before, with Gail Patrick (barely competent) in the May McAvoy role of his girlfriend from the show world and Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne playing the roles of the parents (since they’d already played Jolson’s parents in The Jolson Story and would go on to play the parents in the first big-screen remake of The Jazz Singer, in 1953 with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee).

As schlocky as the story is — even more so when told in dialogue than in the original film’s mixture of silent-screen technique, audible songs and two bits of dialogue scenes — it still packs a sentimental wallop, especially since the writers of the radio version reverted to the original ending of the play (after missing the opening night of his Broadway show in order to take the place of his just minutes-before deceased father in the synagogue to sing “Kol Nidre” for the Day of Atonement, jazz singer Jack Robin gives up secular showbiz and again becomes Jakie Rabinowitz, sixth consecutive male heir in his family to be a cantor) rather than the ending of the film (Jack sings in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement to take his late father’s place, misses his opening night on Broadway to do so, but the show is merely postponed and eventually he takes his place in the theatre, becomes a star and wins his leading lady’s affections while his mom looks on with joy and pride).

Interestingly, while I was listening it occurred to me that the life of Puccini was a sort of real-life Italian Catholic version of The Jazz Singer; the Puccini we all know and love was the seventh generation of his family to take up music as a career, but all the previous Puccinis had written music for the church and our Giacomo’s decision to write operas instead was a major break with family and religious tradition (though somewhere in the mix Puccini’s grandfather Domenico wrote a quite nice piano concerto). — 6/28/08


I did so, grabbing the chance of a rare evening more or less alone to run one of the special bonuses in the Jazz Singer DVD package, an 80-minute documentary called The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk. It was an intriguing show, largely in terms of the background on the major inventors involved in the process, particularly Lee DeForest and Theodore Case, who between them developed the very first workable sound-on-film system — and then had a spectacular falling-out mainly over the issue of credit. DeForest was a chronically cash-poor inventor and Case was an independently wealthy dilettante who offered DeForest a fully equipped lab and worked out a special photoelectric cell that gave far better sound reproduction than DeForest’s own — with the result that Case took his superior photoelectric cell and went to William Fox, who offered to back him and brought the sound-on-film system to market, scoring a major coup when his Movietone Newsreel crew shot the takeoff of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and actually had the newsreel in theatres while Lindbergh was still in the air (and followed it up by shooting his speech in Paris after he landed — thereby making Lindbergh, not Al Jolson, the real first star of the sound era, or at least so this film argued).

This film suggested that the real reason Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc system beat the DeForest-Case-Fox Movietone sound-on-film system to theatres was that phonograph record making and manufacture were mature technologies and therefore seemed less intimidating than literally photographing sound, even though the Movietone system was not only more practical (since sound and picture were on the same film and therefore locked in synch permanently) but the quality was better (especially since the heavy phonograph pickups then in use wore out the Vitaphone discs so fast they could only be used 20 times before they had to be replaced — a good deal quicker than a film print wore out!). What the film didn’t mention was that in the end the system that became standard was neither Vitaphone nor Movietone, but a competing sound-on-film system called Photophone invented by RCA’s technical staff (mainly because it recorded sound on a variable-area system — the familiar bilateral striation visible to anyone who holds a piece of sound film to light — rather than the variable-density of Movietone, and variable-area gave a cleaner, less noisy recording).

The show offered clips of some of the earliest experiments in sound film, including Edison’s preposterous link-up of the movie camera and the phonograph through a belt extending across the room, with metal stanchions mounted along the wall just to hold the belt up — and all the early sound systems, from Edison’s to the one used by D. W. Griffith to record a spoken prologue to his 1921 film Dream Street, suffered from the limitations of acoustic phonograph recording, both in timbre (the limits are far more noticeable when the acoustic recordings are accompanying films than they are on their own!) and in volume. In fact, this film attributes the failure of DeForest’s Phonofilm demonstrations in 1922-23 partly to the graininess of the film he was using (which interfered with recording quality) but mostly due to the limited power of his amplifiers, which simply couldn’t make the sound loud enough to fill a typical movie theatre of the day. The narration suggests that William Fox signed with Vitaphone as well as with Case to cover his bets whichever system became the standard, though the real reason Fox needed Vitaphone was that its developer, Western Electric (AT&T’s equipment manufacturing subsidiary), had built a far more powerful amplifier than anyone else and both the sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems needed the Western Electric amplifier to deliver sufficiently loud and distortion-free sound to play in a theatre.

The technological discussion was frankly quite a bit more interesting than the artistic one, which hit a few of the high/low points of the early sound era (including Warners’ almost unspeakably bad 1928 melodrama, The Lights of New York, the first all-talking film and a dull, dreary bore whose biggest surprise is that it came from the studio which within two to three years was giving us fast, exciting gangster thrillers like Little Caesar and Public Enemy) and showed a rare clip from Jolson’s second feature, The Singing Fool (a bigger hit than The Jazz Singer and in fact the film that held the record for highest-grossing movie ever from its release in 1928 until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939) as well as Mary Pickford’s talkie debut Coquette (which won her the Academy Award, though that was probably more a “career award” than one for that specific film; she comes off fairly well but the combination of her age, the old-fashioned nature of her “type,” the fact that she’d become a multimillionaire and therefore didn’t have to work, and the personal trauma of the breakup of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks — not her inability to adapt to sound — caused her to call it quits after just three more films).

The documentary brought on Leatrice Joy Fountain, daughter of John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, to refute the old canard that Gilbert’s downfall as a star in the sound era had anything to do with the quality of his voice per se, but the film didn’t offer an explanation of what did cause it. (My own theory, based on the Gilbert talkies I have seen, is that his voice was perfectly acceptable but he never learned to act with it, remaining clueless about how to vary his inflections and vocal delivery to convey emotions.) The whole mythology of sound destroying careers right and left is nonsense; aside from Gilbert, virtually all the big-name male stars of the late silent era — Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, William Powell, John and Lionel Barrymore et al. — made the transition with flying colors; and fewer of the women did, but the career problems of Pickford, Gloria Swanson (whose first talkie, The Trespasser, was actually the highest-grossing film she ever made) and the others probably had more to do with the fact that when sound came in they were entering their mid- to late-30’s, an awkward age for actresses then as now. — 7/2/08


Charles and I ran 13 of the 24 Vitaphone sound shorts on the third disc of the deluxe DVD set of the film The Jazz Singer (the 1927 original, of course, the only one of the three probably worth seeing — I’ve personally never seen the other two) before we finally reached our limit and called it a night at 10:35. (I put the disc on pause and Charles and I went out and had some cake, while I gave John a snack of his own and nebulized him — and when we were done with that Charles didn’t want to watch the rest and just wanted to crash.) In his book on the early days of sound film, The Shattered Silents, Alexander Walker said that for him the most poignant part of his research was reading the interviews with vaudevillians in the early days of talkies and noting with what glee they greeted the invention that, as things turned out, put most of them out of work: they had hoped not only to film their acts but get royalties from the showings of the films, so they would have a steady income without the rigors of traveling the vaudeville circuits. Instead they hauled themselves and their props and sets before the Vitaphone cameras and recorders, did their acts, got paid once and then never heard from the movie company again. One quirk of vaudeville was that the gigs were so spread out that an act could tour for years with the same piece of material, whereas the mass media of film and radio wore out material almost overnight; George Burns and Gracie Allen, whose Vitaphone short “Lambchops” is included here (they do a talking act to a piano while also practicing dance steps) and was simply their vaudeville act put on film, prospered because Burns was creative enough to keep coming up with new material that fit his and Allen’s characterizations — but most of these folks weren’t.

Among the 13 shorts we watched, easily the best were the first one, Elsie Janis’s “Behind the Lines” — in which she plays an entertainer performing for the troops in World War I; and the fifth, singers Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes (an otherwise unidentified piano duo who played with their two grand pianos, lids closed, fitted together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle). Both were probably a bit too old for movie stardom in the early sound era, but Janis’s act was a superbly deadpan combination of vocal and comedy and Seeley’s was even better. Though her partner Fields was a pretty typical whispery tenor of the 1920’s (once the development of microphones had made it possible to perform live in this soft style instead of having to belt out loud enough to fill a room without amplification), Seeley was great, every bit as good as I’ve heard this legendary performer was. She was the sort of performer then called a “coon shouter” — a white singer who could sound Black — and, like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker before her and Elvis Presley afterwards, she showed that she had not only learned the rudiments of the Black singing styles but had caught much of their soul as well. Her phrasing is surprisingly good — she obviously knew quite a lot more about jazz than her rather anemic accompanists did — and her vocal style far closer to that of the great Black blues queens of the 1920’s than to other white vaudevillians.

The gap became even clearer when Adele Rowland’s short, “Stories in Song,” came on; Rowland had no trouble with projection but had hardly any phrasing at all, and she closed her short with one of those gotta-go-back-to-the-South numbers that Seeley could have aced but Rowland was just up at sea in (and it didn’t help that her accompanist, a tall, rail-thin woman pianist who looked like a drag queen, rushed the tempo so much even Billie Holiday would have had trouble phrasing effectively with this person backing her). There were a number of other shorts, including one called “Bernado de Pace: ‘The Wizard of the Mandolin,’” which Charles summed up effectively by describing it as a case of a performer with real talent having to do a ridiculous novelty act to survive; de Pace played a beautifully phrased version of the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann while dressed in a Pagliacci-style clown suit and periodically having to interrupt his number with cornball “Americana” themes.

Van and Schenck’s “The Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland” was surprisingly boring, especially by comparison with the quite lively records I’ve heard of theirs (including one of the first recordings of Gershwin’s “Yankee Doodle Blues”); only on their last number did they sing together and some of their quality come through. “Hazel Green and Company” turned out to feature Hazel Green (who knew?), a zaftig performer who proved to be a surprisingly agile dancer for someone of her weight, even though I suspect her voice was considerably bigger than it appeared here. I suspect the Vitaphone technicians told her to suppress it and sing more softly than usual to avoid either overloading the recording or blowing the microphones — with the result that her band frequently drowned her out. (Remember that these Vitaphone shorts — essentially the first music videos — were films of on-the-spot live performances, with no pre-recording or post-production remixing possible; what went on the Vitaphone record during filming was what the audience heard.)

Other shorts on this quite interesting disc (oddly, the package contained none of the classical and operatic Vitaphone shorts) included a sketch called The Night Court — in which the members of a revue busted in mid-act perform their show for the judge and he, of course, pronounces it good — a group called “The Police Quartette” (four men in police uniforms singing quite good barbershop harmonies — I couldn’t help but wonder if they were really cops), “The Jazzmania Quintette” with violinist Georgie Stoll (who later made it quite big in Hollywood, not as a performer but as a composer, arranger and music director for films) and singer Edythe Flynn; “The Band Beautiful” with the Ingenues, an all-woman band whose members would frequently all (or almost all) play the same instrument (we’d seen this one before on TCM), whose best players were the harpist (one of the few instruments then generally considered acceptable for women to play in public) and a woman whose accordion proclaimed her as “Frances”; “Chips off the Old Block” by the younger generation of the Foy family (which was pretty dumb but kind of fun — and, as often happened in those days, judging by the evidence of these shorts, the women seemed more talented than the men); and the last one we watched in the sequence, “Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs.”

Dick Rich was a Paul Whiteman-esque bandleader — not only did his band sound like Whiteman’s but Rich was even shaped like him — and the short was going along quite nicely until Rich made the unaccountable decision to start singing. Mistake! He had only the bare minimum of a voice, and so the songs (including two I’d recently heard on records by the real Whiteman, “Smile” and “Sunshine”) fell flat when they should have soared.

This morning I watched the rest of the items on disc two of the collection, after the contemporary documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk: the surviving excerpts from the 1929 Gold Diggers of Broadway (including a spectacular number to the songs “Tiptoe through the Tulips” and “Painting My Face with Sunshine,” set on a Paris street set built in such forced perspective it looks like The Revue of Dr. Caligari; pity the staging — aside from one brief overhead shot of a chorus line -— isn’t anywhere nearly as creative as the set!) and shorts about sound film from 1926 (The Voice from the Screen, a Bell Laboratories film about how Vitaphone movies were made, with a singularly uncharismatic narrator), 1929 (Finding His Voice, a Max Fleischer cartoon starring “Talkie” and “Mutie” and featuring “Talkie,” a strip of film with a soundtrack, going to the doctors at Western Electric to have “Mutie” fitted with a soundtrack as well), 1943 (The Voice That Thrilled the World, a Warners two-reel documentary intended to promote Yankee Doodle Dandy and other films of theirs at the time), 1947 (Okay for Sound, another two-reel documentary this time celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Jazz Singer) and When the Talkies Were Young (a bit out of place because it was a “clip reel” from 1955 and the films they excerpted, including Sinners’ Holiday, Five Star Final, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Night Nurse and Svengali, actually were made three to five years after The Jazz Singer and really belong to the next era in film). — 7/5/08