Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Big Parade (MGM, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running a movie I’ve been curious about for years and had never had the chance to see; The Big Parade, the 1925 MGM blockbuster hit about World War I that was the second-highest grossing movie of the entire silent era (after The Birth of a Nation). The Big Parade started when MGM production chief Irving Thalberg decided to buy the movie rights to Laurence Stallings’ hit play What Price Glory?, a comedy set against a backdrop of World War I. When William Fox outbid him for What Price Glory?, Thalberg decided that if he couldn’t have the hit play he could have something similar by the same author about the same subject, so he hired Stallings to write him an original World War I story (just as, six years later, he responded to the success of Warners’ gangster film Little Caesar by hiring W. R. Burnett, author of the novel on which Little Caesar was based, to write an original gangster story for MGM, The Beast of the City).

Originally The Big Parade was planned as a modestly budgeted star vehicle for John Gilbert, but when director King Vidor turned in his rough cut, Thalberg screened it and said, “Make it bigger.” So Vidor was sent back to his locations (Legion Park, near Griffith Park, in Los Angeles and Clover Field in San Diego) along with hundreds of troop transports and other military equipment, to shoot the two great scenes that give the movie the inspiration for its title: the U.S. army going forth to battle in France with hope and high spirits — and returning from a rout at the hands of the more experienced, battle-hardened German troops in a low-energy state of despair. Vidor told interviewers Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg that his inspiration for The Big Parade was a desire to make films that would have long theatrical releases (“In those days we’d put a lot of effort into films that would come to town and play for only a few days and then be forgotten”), and also to make the first truly honest movie about war. “Until then they’d all been very phony, glorifying officers and warfare,” Vidor said. “There hadn’t been a single picture showing the war from the view of ordinary soldiers and privates, not one with some feeling of anti-war, of realistic war.” The Big Parade is probably the first, and still one of only a handful of war movies in which almost no commissioned officers are shown as characters; when Vidor said he wanted to focus on “ordinary soldiers and privates,” he wasn’t kidding.

The central characters are Jimmy Apperson (John Gilbert), wastrel son of a steel mill owner (Hobart Bosworth) whose nerdy brother Harry (Robert Ober) is being trained to take over the mill; local bartender Bull (Tom O’Brien) — the titles are a bit coy about what he does for a living and remind one that Prohibition hadn’t yet been passed in 1917, when the film takes place, but was in full force when it was made in 1925; and the comic-relief character Slim (Karl Dane), who works as a riveter on skyscrapers. Suddenly the U.S. declares war on Germany and a title mentions that people who before didn’t know what patriotism was immediately get swept up in it; the proletarian principals enlist immediately, and a chance run-in with them convinces Jimmy to sign up too. Jimmy leaves his sports car in the middle of the street (the car has right-hand drive, a neat symbol of Jimmy’s lack of touch with American life and his upper-class pretensions) and dashes off to the recruiting office, then is scared to tell his parents that he’s signed up. (The living room of the Apperson mansion is one of those incredibly exotic sets MGM hauled out of their warehouse regularly, usually as a Third World palace; it seems decidedly over-the-top representing the residence of an American businessman.)

When Jimmy’s girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams) “outs” him as an enlistee, predictably dad is happy about it and mom is miserable. The soldiers go through training and then to France — they’re kept together in the same unit but Bull becomes a sergeant and thus has command responsibility over the other two — and for most of its first half The Big Parade is more a comedy than anything else, featuring scenes in which Our Heroes have to shovel shit to clean out the French barn they’ve been billeted in and try to eat a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent Jimmy which has grown ultra-stale in transit. Eventually Jimmy meets Melisande (Renée Adorée, one of the great phony star names in Hollywood history — she was genuinely French but the name she was born with was either Jeanne de la Fonte or Jeanne de la Fontein, sources differ), teaches her to chew gum and falls in love with her.

The mood of The Big Parade changes abruptly when the American soldiers are actually ordered to the battlefield — and there’s a big, intensely moving scene in which Melisande chases after the troop transport that is taking Jimmy away (a scene Vidor reproduced in the 1929 film Show People, which starred Marion Davies as an actress on her way to Hollywood stardom; in Show People Davies and William Haines re-enact the scene, supposedly as part of a movie they are making together, and though I haven’t seen Show People in years it’s my recollection that, as good as Adorée is in the scene, Davies played it even better). The company marches off to war (by this time Bull has inadvertently kicked an officer and been busted from sergeant down to private) and in a scene that goes far to explain why World War I was such a carnage, facing a German army with machine guns they charge into battle standing straight up, practically inviting themselves to be easy targets — the infantry charges we’re used to seeing in World War II movies, with the advancing men hugging the ground and crawling the last 200 feet or so towards the enemy to avoid being picked off by machine-gun and long-range rifle fire, apparently hadn’t been invented yet.

Much of the battle footage was directed not by Vidor, but by another MGM director, George Hill — and it’s among the best material in the film; whereas Vidor seems to have been going for an ironic contrast between the natural beauty of the battlefields and the carnage taking place on them (the dappled sunlight effects give the battle scenes an oddly pastoral look), Hill pulls out all the stops and shoots his battle scenes in what was then (ironically) called the “German” look, with deep shadows and a chiaroscuro, high-contrast visual style that later became identified with film noir. Slim gets picked to go on a mission to take out the German machine-gunner that is decimating their unit, and he’s severely wounded (at first we think he’s dead, though he turns up alive but in a military hospital later), and Jimmy is shot in the leg going after him — he escapes from the hospital with one leg in a cast, and later he loses the leg (as writer Laurence Stallings had in real life).

The scene of his homecoming is still one of the subtlest and bitterest anti-war commentaries in film: Vidor keeps his camera waist-high as the domestic drama plays out — including the revelation that in the meantime Justyn has fallen in love with Jimmy’s stay-at-home brother Harry — and only when his parents have expressed their gratitude that he’s home and he’s alive does Vidor cut to a full-frame shot of Jimmy with one leg missing. (The effect is absolutely convincing and I found myself wondering how they did it in 1925; long before the invention of digital imaging that allows modern filmmakers to paint out electronically the limbs of actors playing amputees, the usual way of staging something like this was to use a straitjacket-like device to tie the actor’s leg behind him — but Vidor’s camera shoots the one-legged Gilbert both front and back, so it’s highly unlikely they did it that way.) On learning that Justyn doesn’t want him anymore, Jimmy determines to return to France and find Melisande — which he does (he comes upon her chewing gum, natch) for what Irving Kolodin called a mezzo-lieto fine: a sort-of happy ending (the good news is he’s found his girlfriend, the bad news is he only has one leg — though between the two climactic scenes he’s been fitted with an uncomfortable-looking and not entirely convincing prosthesis).

The Big Parade holds up surprisingly well for the period and manages to be intense entertainment even today — though the juncture between the relatively light-hearted first half and the grimness of the war footage jars. Though one of the companies that later merged into MGM, Metro, had made an even better epic involving World War I, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade is a great film, well balanced between sweeping imagery and an intimate story — and if it sometimes seems clichéd, it’s important to remember that this is one of the movies whose makers invented those clichés.

The acting is effective even though there’s no performance here with the kind of charisma Valentino brought to The Four Horsemen; John Gilbert seems to be overdoing the character’s naïveté early on, unable to strike the required balance between playing superficial and being superficial, but once he gets into combat and the war takes the sheen off his character, he’s quite good, with some heart-stopping close-ups that make it clear what 1920’s audiences saw in this since-maligned star. (Gilbert made his best films — The Big Parade and Stroheim’s The Merry Widow — in 1925; afterwards MGM pretty much cast him in relatively superficial romantic leads until he ran into problems in the sound era, less — I think — due to the timbre of his voice than his inability to act with it; by the time he learned to modulate his voice and change its tone and timbre to reflect the emotions his character was supposed to be feeling, he had already tumbled down from the heights of stardom and MGM didn’t quite know what to do with him, though some of his later talkies as a contract player at MGM — The Phantom of Paris, West of Broadway and Fast Workers — are genuinely interesting and entertaining films.)

Renée Adorée was your typical silent heroine; Vidor was effusive about her (“I was mad about her,” he told Higham and Greenberg; “She was actually French …and because of her background there was never any argument against using her”), and he did get her to cool it on the simpering coyness she showed in some of her other movies (but then simpering coyness was an occupational hazard of silent-era ingénues), but she’s nothing special. Karl Dane’s comic relief gets oppressive after a while — though his near-death scene is surprisingly moving — and Tom O’Brien is quite good but he’s the least important of the three principals and we don’t get to see enough of him. What you get out of The Big Parade is the spectacle and the way Vidor and his writers (Stallings, scenarist Harry Behn and title writer Joe Farnham) manage to work in an anti-war message without getting preachy about it the way the makers of All Quiet on the Western Front (same war, different side!) did five years later; at one point Jimmy Apperson lets loose a tirade against the whole idea of war and his role in it (the one sequence in The Big Parade that would actually have worked better in a sound film), but for the most part the film is content to understate its condemnation of war, which is welcome. Both the romantic leads in this film had quite unfortunate subsequent lives; Gilbert’s failure and early death are well known, and Adorée caught tuberculosis and was forced to retire in 1930, three years before the disease took her life at age 35.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

New Muslim Cool (Specific Pictures/PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

New Muslim Cool, directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor — who seems to have made a career out of documentaries about American Muslims, judging from her list of previous credits (Ramadan Primetime, Special Circumstances, Paulina, Home Front and Immigration Calculations) — deals with the story of Hamza (née Jason) Pérez, a former drug dealer and gang member in Boston who at age 21 converted to Islam, gave up dealing and ganging, and moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a career as a drug and alcohol counselor to inmates at the Allegheny County Jail and rap performer with his brother, Sulieman (also a convert to Islam) as part of a duo called M-Team (“M” being short for moujahedin, the literal name of people who engage in jihad — the term “jihadi” is a Western neologism that isn’t recognized by Muslims).

It was a fascinating movie but also a disappointment in one major respect: Hamza’s history was presented merely as backstory — we didn’t get any sense of his past beyond the mere recitation of his former drug and gang involvements, nor did we hear why the street missionary who started him on the path to Islam made such an impression on him that he literally turned his life around and became a very different sort of person, not just a believer in a religion far different from the Roman Catholicism of his family but an activist in Pittsburgh’s Muslim community. I had hoped that the film would include something along the lines of Malcolm X’s account of his soul-searching in his autobiography — as well as a greater sense of what Hamza had been in his pre-Muslim days and how great the change in his character had been.

What the film did do is present Hamza and his family (he’s just broken up with his first wife when the film begins, and during it he meets an African-American Muslim woman through the Internet, they date and eventually marry, and at the end he’s doing a Muslim version of Yours, Mine and Ours: raising his children by his previous wife, hers by her previous husband, and a newborn who’s the first of their children) in a disarmingly normal context. They live simply, modestly, worry about the bills; they respond to each other much the way anyone else does (there’s a marvelous scene filmed shortly before Hamza’s wedding in which his wife-to-be says how much she’s looking forward to the ceremony — and he says the part he’s looking forward to is the wedding night, which provokes a grin from her that suggests she’s going to enjoy that part of the relationship as much as he will: so much for the ridiculous stereotype that Muslim women hate sex!), and they behave so much like anyone else that if Taylor’s intent was to tell her audience, “You see, Muslims aren’t any different from anyone else,” she has succeeded quite well.

The other thing the film does is show that, for all the normality of these nice young people living simple, decent lives, there’s still so much hatred of Muslims in the U.S. and so much anti-Muslim profiling that every American Muslim, whether born into the religion or a convert; whether Black, Latino, Asian or White; is all too aware almost every day that they live here on the margins, at best grudgingly accepted and at worst demonized by a vicious stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. In one sequence from the film, a green box appears on a telephone pole across the street from the mosque (a converted row house) at which Hamza worships and in which he’s active (much like a volunteer with any other church). Hamza and the imam of his mosque (the term “imam,” like so much else in Islam, has acquired a sinister reputation even though it simply means a religious leader, the equivalent of “priest” or “pastor” in Christianity and “rabbi” in Judaism) figure out that the mysterious box is a camera, installed by the FBI to keep an eye on their mosque — and Hamza grimly points out that the camera isn’t pointing to a well-known corner at which drug dealers ply their trade just a block away, but is aimed dead on at their mosque.

Shortly after the camera is installed, the mosque is raided by gun-toting FBI agents who break down doors, smash things, terrorize the worshipers (they picked Friday afternoon, the time of worship in Islam, to stage their raid — the equivalent of raiding a Christian church on Sunday morning) and then leave without having arrested anybody, and without ever telling anybody what they were looking for, whether they found it or anything else on the case. (Hamza later learns that under the USA PATRIOT Act the feds have the right to raid anybody, at any time, and never have to let the victims know why they raided or whether they’re in any legal jeopardy from whatever it was they found.) Later Hamza’s clearance to go into the Allegheny County Jail to lead groups with prisoners is suddenly withdrawn — as are the clearances of the four other Muslims who were doing that work — and he visits the local ACLU office; he eventually learns that this had no connection to the FBI raid on his mosque a year earlier but instead was a red-flag based on some inflammatory statements he made in an interview years earlier to a music magazine about his work as a rapper.

New Muslim Cool is less than the movie it could have been, but it’s still a fascinating film, well worth seeing for what it is — and Hamza himself is an engaging figure, determined to be optimistic and upbeat about his life despite the curveballs the authorities keep throwing at him. Indeed, he seems to have got mellower as the events of the film took place, as evidenced by the two extended samples of his music we get; the earlier one is incendiary, angry words shouted over the staccato beat familiar from the Black gangsta rappers; while the piece he’s shown recording towards the end is far mellower, more introspective and accompanied by a much softer, more gentle music track (and Hamza and Sulieman even do a bit of singing, as well as rapping, on this one!).

The Tales of Hoffmann (The Archers/London Films, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann, yet another experimental movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This time, as a follow-up to their 1948 ballet extravaganza The Red Shoes, they took Offenbach’s opera (sung in an English translation by Dennis Arundell of the original French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré — though for some reason Barbier is credited but Carré is not) from a soundtrack recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (and released on Decca in Britain and London in the U.S., the only time Beecham recorded for that company), and used it as the basis for a fantastic story shot in highly stylized color on extravagant and flagrantly unreal sets, and with most of the cast members doubled by ballet dancers — including Red Shoes star Moira Shearer, who dances both Olympia (sung by Dorothy Bond) and Stella, the ballerina Hoffmann is lusting after in the opening scene. The opera is based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, an early 19th century German Romantic writer (he also wrote the tale on which Tchaikovsky’s warhorse ballet The Nutcracker is based) with a flair for fantasies about doomed loves. Barbier and Carré took three of these stories and linked them with a framing plot that made Hoffmann (played in the movie by Richard Rounseville, one of only two cast members who appears both on the screen and on the soundtrack) an on-stage character, hanging out in Luther’s Tavern between the acts of the ballet Stella is dancing and narrating his unfortunate experiences with previous would-be lovers.

These include Olympia, a woman who turns out to be a mechanical doll run by clockwork (these sorts of things were actually quite popular in Hoffmann’s time, though none were life-size; there was a chess-playing robot that was exhibited as supposedly having belonged to Napoleon, but most modern authorities believe the thing was actually a fake with a live person inside operating it); Antonia (Anne Ayars, the only cast member besides Rounseville who both appeared in the movie and sang on the soundtrack), daughter of a famous opera singer who died young and apparently headed for the same fate, with her father and doctor alternating between insisting that she sing and insisting that she not sing, for fear that the act of singing would be fatal; and Giulietta (played by Ludmilla Tchérina, sung by Margherita Grandi — who was also Lady Macbeth in Beecham’s production of Verdi’s opera), a femme fatale in Venice who gets her lovers to give up their shadows or their reflections as the price of her affections. (Offenbach, who died before he had quite finished the opera — Ernest Guiraud, who had composed the recitatives for the grand-opera version of Bizet’s Carmen after Bizet’s death, was likewise employed here to finish the piece — intended the acts to be played in the order Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta, but for some reason it’s become traditional to play the Antonia act last and so it’s done here.)

I enjoyed watching this movie but I’m not quite sure what I think of it long-term; it’s certainly not your standard-issue stand-and-sing opera movie, and in The Tales of Hoffmann Powell and Pressburger certainly picked an opera that lent itself to their no-holds-barred fantasy approach (one couldn’t imagine The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata or Lohengrin working this way!), but the film doesn’t seem to be about anything. The Red Shoes stuck closely enough to conventional narrative that it had real dramatic issues — the conflict faced by Moira Shearer’s character between fulfilling her art as a dancer and pursuing love and marriage as a woman; the domineering, almost Svengali-like attitude of her ballet coach (Anton Walbrook — indeed when I saw The Red Shoes the films it reminded me of, Svengali, The Mad Genius and Maytime, all had John Barrymore in similar roles, so in effect Walbrook was “channeling” Barrymore in that film!); the relative innocence of the composer the ballerina character falls in love with — and packs a wallop even though the ending seems totally over-the-top and frankly unbelievable (but then so does the sexist cop-out ending of Maytime; perhaps the reason both these films have their hallucinatory power is that the conflict between love and art, at least as both sets of filmmakers present it, is ultimately unresolvable) — whereas The Tales of Hoffmann seems to be about only itself and the ability of Powell, Pressburger and their cinematographer, Christopher Challis, and art director, Hein Heckroth, to create absolutely stunning, over-the-top images.

Powell and Pressburger (who tends to get lost in the modern literature on these films; most of today’s critics credit these films to Powell alone even though Pressburger is listed as co-director on the original credits) had a flair for visual stylistics that ran through their films, but sometimes they hitched those dazzling images to a coherent and emotionally gripping plot (as in A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes) and sometimes they didn’t (as in Black Narcissus and The Tales of Hoffmann). The Tales of Hoffmann is a marvelous movie — and certainly one doesn’t want to criticize a film that dares so much more than the average movie — but it’s also one of those curious meals that seems to be all desserts. The Web site had a “Trivia” item that said that George A. Romero, director of The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, regards The Tales of Hoffmann as his all-time favorite film and said that seeing it in his childhood was what made him want to be a director — had Guillermo del Toro said that I could believe it (certainly the extravagant imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth has commonalities with Powell’s and Pressburger’s work), but it seems odd that Romero claims The Tales of Hoffmann as his inspiration for a bunch of cheap, tacky, sloppily photographed and badly acted horror films.

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (Shaw Brothers, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation from its early days as a local program in Minneapolis: the ridiculously titled movie The Million Eyes of Sumuru, a 1967 production ostensibly based on stories by Sax Rohmer — the guy who created Fu Manchu and seemed in this instance to be following that up with a female version of the same character, though in this movie Sumuru is played by Shirley Eaton and not depicted as Asian at all even though most of the story is set in China. The film is one of those stories that makes absolutely no sense — it seems to have something to do with Sumuru’s desire to have her minions become the mistresses and, sometimes, wives of prominent men in political and corporate power as part of a long-term plan to destroy the male half of the human race, which she hates with a venom that sounds a good deal like a lot of the Lesbian feminism I remember from the late 1970’s — though she doesn’t allow her “slaves” (that’s how they’re referred to in the cast list) to have pleasure sex with each other any more than she does with men (when one of the “slaves” does get involved with a man, the penalty is instant execution), and frankly if they’d been able to get it on with each other this movie might have been considerably more fun than it is.

As it is, the two “heroes” — quotes definitely intended — are secret agents Tommy Carter (Frankie Avalon) and Nick West (George Nader), who are whirled out of China to Italy (where West is framed for the murder of a woman he’s never seen before but whose corpse is dumped in his hotel room by Sumuru’s minions as a way of getting him to participate in one of his diabolical “experiments”) and then back to Hong Kong, where the bulk of this movie was filmed at the Shaw Brothers’ studio. (The lead Shaw brother, Run Run Shaw, later became famous when his name turned up as the producer of Bruce Lee’s major films — and his name got even sillier when the British government, which then still ruled Hong Kong, knighted him and he became Sir Run Run Shaw.) The writers, Kevin Kavanagh and “Peter Welbeck” (the latter a pseudonym for producer Harry Alan Towers), seem to have been aiming for a James Bond spoof of sorts — and I’ll say one thing for this movie: George Nader is genuinely hot, flashing a nice basket in one scene (in fact there’s one sequence in which he and Frankie Avalon look like they’re about to go have sex with each other — at least it follows the conventions of “setup” scenes in Gay porn — though what actually happens thereafter is considerably less interesting), though he’s less interesting as an actor than as a body and he’s saddled with a lot of lame wisecracks that are considerably less funny than Kavanagh and Towers clearly thought they were.

There are at least two actors with major reputations in this film, both trying to do their best to maintain some sense of dignity; one is Wilfred Hyde-White, who seems to be the immediate supervisor of Carter and West in whatever sorts of secret-agentry these guys are doing; and the other is Klaus Kinski (Frankie Avalon and Werner Herzog: one degree of separation!), who’s playing “President Boong” (the writers never quite get around to explaining what he’s president of) and whom Carter and West are supposed to be keeping alive while Sumuru and his minions are trying to kill him (again, we’re not told why, though in a movie this cheap and stupid we probably wouldn’t believe the explanation even if the writers had bothered to come up with one). Klaus Kinski actually gets killed, but then it turns out that he was really only posing as Boong at the behest of Boong’s secret service and the real Boong is still alive — at least I think that’s what happened; this movie is so sleep-inducing I was having trouble keeping awake through much of it and, thanks to the suspense genius of director Lindsay Shonteff, the big final shoot-out is even more boring than the rest of the film.

Kinski offers a certain degree of kinky appeal in a role that could have been even kinkier — director Shonteff recalled in a 1994 interview that Kinski wanted his character to be seen emerging from a pile of cushions every time he made an appearance and he wanted to be equipped with a giant prop tongue that would lick the face of a girl whenever he talked to one. Alas (unlike Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard, who accepted Erich von Stroheim’s suggestion that his character write fake fan letters to Gloria Swanson’s character to bolster her illusion that she was still famous), almost none of Kinski’s ideas were accepted — though I can see Harry Alan Towers blanching at the probable cost of constructing and operating that fake tongue. Another nice bit is one scene in which Frankie Avalon actually makes an on-screen joke about not being allowed to sing in this film (which provoked a response from the MST3K crew to the effect that it was their job, not that of the people actually in it, to make fun of the film!).

It’s hard to imagine just who might have found The Million Eyes of Sumuru entertaining — maybe a bunch of straight guys who had just spent 20 years in a monastery and wanted to be reminded of what women looked like — but as it stands it’s a bore and isn’t helped by the fact that the extant print is faded and the color has leached down to a dirty brown and tan. The MST3K people even incorporated that into their mockery, which otherwise was amusing but nothing special — their own writing got a lot better as the show progressed — and this was still in the show’s local Minneapolis days, with the robots looking like they’d been made out of an Erector set (they probably had been!) and the charming inserts giving the original time and temperature — which by the time this show aired was 65°. In some of the earlier ones it was 32° — an odd sight for me who, as a lifelong Californian, has never lived in a place that ever got that cold!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speed Racer (Warner Bros., 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the DVD he’d just got (from a used pile at Vons) of the 2008 film Speed Racer, an elaborate riff by Larry and Andy Wachowski based on the 1960’s Japanese animated series. Charles remembered the show well from its reruns in his own childhood days, and especially committed to memory the infectious musical theme: “Go, go, go, go, go, Speed Racer.” (Virtually all of Michael Giacchino’s original music score is variations on this song.) The movie is really odd because it’s enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying; it’s a pretty standard revenge drama in which the young Speed Racer (that’s really his name!) — played as a boy by Nicholas Elia and as a young man by Emile Hirsch — seeks to avenge the mysterious death of his brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who quit the family car company to drive for a big-business syndicate and whose career was ultimately finished first in a scandal and then in a crash.

As soon as Speed Racer starts to win races in his family’s custom-built car, the Mach 5 (a long, low-slung sports car with what appears to be a turbine engine and a capability to allow it to jump over cars and pass them), he and his family — including his father (John Goodman), mother (Susan Sarandon), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) — pronounced to rhyme with “brittle” — and pet chimp Chim Chim (doubled by two real chimps, “Willy” and “Kenzie”) — get an offer from the sinister multibillionaire E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) for Speed Racer to drive on his team. (I suspect the character of Royalton is based on the real-life auto-racing magnate Bernie Ecclestone, a British multi-billionaire who owns the entire sport of Formula One auto racing outright, and among his business partners is Max Mosley, relative of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; Ecclestone remains a highly controversial figure in international sport and there’s a lot of debate in auto racing circles as to whether his control has been good or bad.)

When the Racers politely turn Royalton down, he determines to do everything he can to stop them — from suing them on the ground that their car infringes one of his patents to ordering his drivers to run Speed off the road in the next race. A desperate Speed, pushed off all legitimate tracks by Royalton and his goons, enters the Casa Christo road rally despite that being the race which killed his brother. He does so in partnership with a Japanese company, Togokahn, which Royalton is attempting to buy out, mainly because the young driver Taejo Togokahn (played by the appealingly androgynous Korean vocal star Rain — though he doesn’t get to sing here), has promised Speed and the mysterious “Racer X,” agent for an international regulatory agency seeking to get the goods on Royalton for fixing virtually every race on the circuit, a full file on Royalton. Speed, his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Taejo Togokahn drive the three Togokahn team cars to victory in the Casa Christo rally — against various hazards; the cars in this race are essentially weapons, with each driver seeking to knock the others out of the race by foul methods (one car even has spiked hubs — the high-tech equivalent of the “Grecian wheels” on the bad guy’s chariot in Ben-Hur — only Speed’s car has been equipped with shields that pop out from his hubcaps and fight back against the sword-like spikes; he also has molded plastic that fastens itself to his wheel rims when someone tries to shoot out his tires, and a bullet-proof plastic bubble canopy that covers his cockpit when someone tries to shoot him!) — only to find out he was being set up; Taejo’s father only wanted a victory in Casa Christo to boost the stock price of his company so Royalton would pay more for it. Taejo gives Speed his invitation to enter the Grand Prix — and Speed’s family’s shop cranks out a car for him to do so — and of course he wins the big race despite the attempts by Royalton’s forces to sabotage it, good triumphs over evil and there’s a happy ending.

Speed Racer is one of those movies where there’s an enormous gulf between the imagination with which the piece is staged and the tiresome clichés of the plot. There’s an anti-corporate streak to the whole story, and for some reason this was the movie on which the critics decided to let loose their pent-up frustration at seeing all these vaguely anti-capitalist stories come from multinational media conglomerates whose managements behave far more like Royalton than they do like the Racers. Certainly there’s an air of hypocrisy involved in taking a multi-million dollar production budget from a major studio and using it to make a movie blasting the whole idea of multinational corporations — Ayn Rand had a point in the 1940’s when she called on the film industry to abandon the pseudo-populism of so many movies then and now, and instead make films about heroic capitalists and the efforts of mediocre social leeches and proletarian drones to get in their way (in other words, she wanted them to make the sorts of movies she wanted to write!) — but by now the anti-corporate politics many movies profess is little more than a nervous tic, a vestigial leftover from the days of Frank Capra, and quite meaningless and unthreatening in an era in which virtually everyone in the moviegoing audience accepts the idea that capitalism is the only possible economic system and all others, including socialism, are proven failures not even worth considering.

The most appealing part of the film is its visual look; instead of the dirty greens and browns of all too many modern films or the dank, murky darkness of others (including the Wachowskis’ star-making movies, the Matrices), the screen is alive with hot, vibrant colors, probably in homage to the fact that this one started out as a TV cartoon. The racing sequences are especially well staged; while the film’s plot portions are more or less in a standard conception of reality, the races are gravity-defying spectacles in which the line between live-action and animation almost completely disappears. The race tracks in the movie include long jumps that defy physical possibility, and the laws of physics are so totally ignored in the staging of this film it’s not at all surprising to read on that virtually every scene was shot in front of a green screen and the actors playing drivers actually sat in “gimbles,” prop cockpits hooked up to hydraulic systems that moved them up, down or sideways in a pre-programmed pattern based on what that car was supposed to be doing in the script.

That’s the good stuff; the not-so-good stuff is that there’s virtually no emotional power in this film — the characters are deliberate caricatures and there’s nothing like the pathos that occasionally intruded into the dank fantasy world of The Matrices and emerged front-and-center in V for Vendetta, the Wachowskis’ most openly emotional and genuinely moving film. Indeed, the most disappointing thing about Speed Racer is that after making a near-masterpiece like V for Vendetta — in which they proved that their intensely melodramatic action sequences and highly theatrical characterizations could be harnessed into the service of genuinely moving drama — they went back to a cartoon, literally and figuratively, for their inspiration.

I had assumed that doing a big-budget, big-screen, (more or less) live-action version of Speed Racer was the Wachowskis’ own idea and this was sort of a pet project for them, but according to that wasn’t the case — there was a previous version under development with Alfonso Cuarón as director and Johnny Depp as star, which would have been even weirder than the one we got — and what’s the real mystery behind the film is who they thought the audience would be. About the only people who would turn out for a movie based on Speed Racer were those of the right age to remember the TV series — and that doesn’t include most of the movie audience of today; all those teenagers who know very well who Spider-Man and Batman are couldn’t care less about a tacky old Japanese TV show whose heyday occurred well before they were born and which hasn’t remained part of the cultural Zeitgeist the way the DC and Marvel super-heroes have.

Not surprisingly, Speed Racer was a near-total flop and probably took the Wachowskis’ career down (if not out) with it (Larry and Andy Wachowski are currently listed on as producers of an upcoming movie called Ninja Assassin, but they’re neither the directors nor the writers; and also Larry is listed as attached to an in-development project called Cloud Atlas scheduled for release in 2011 … yeah, right; I’ll believe it when I see it!), and as it is it’s a fun movie, about a third too long at 127 minutes (but then the Wachowskis’ movies have always tended to be too long; it’s still amazing that John Carpenter was able to get more out of the central premise of The Matrix in one 105-minute film, They Live, than the Wachowskis were able to in three 135-minute films!), entertaining but also way too proud of its own cleverness, the cinematic equivalent of gorging yourself on gourmet chocolate and cotton candy and then wondering why you feel bloated and still not nourished afterwards …

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Before There Was Bond, There Was Drummond

The Bulldog Drummond Series at Paramount — and One Earlier, One Later

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bulldog Drummond (Goldwyn/United Artists, 1929)

I ran the 1929 Bulldog Drummond, produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by F. Richard “Dick” Jones (who’d worked in the silent era for Sennett and Roach, directed Mabel Normand’s hits Mickey and Molly O — in the process of the troubled production of Mickey, which ran through four directors, Jones actually stole the negative from the studio and essentially held it hostage in a pay dispute between him and Sennett — and ultimately rose to direct prestige features like Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho, only to die a year after Bulldog Drummond without ever making another film) and starring Ronald Colman in the title role in his first talking film.

Alexander Walker cites this film as an example of a producer who did something right in breaking his big star into sound films — by contrast to the shabby treatment John Gilbert got from MGM in selecting his talkie debut, His Glorious Night, two months later. As a silent star Colman had been a heavy-breathing lover of the Valentino type, cast in intense romances (mostly with costar Vilma Banky, whose fractured Hungarian-accented English killed her chances for a successful transition in the U.S.); as a talkie star Colman’s ringing high tenor voice and British inflections made it hard to cast him as anything but the Englishman he in fact was, and made him better suited for a film like this: a comedy-thriller in which Drummond, a former captain in the British army in World War I, advertises in the London Times for a damsel in distress he can rescue and finds her in the person of Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett), whose uncle, fabulously wealthy American financier John Travers (Charles Sellon), is being held prisoner in the mental asylum of Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant, in a marvelously florid villain performance on the order of Gustav von Seyffertitz or Ernest Torrence) and a husband-and-wife criminal team, Carl and Irma Peterson (Montagu Love and Lilyan Tashman), posing (like the Stapletons in The Hound of the Baskervilles) as brother and sister.

Based on a play by the original creator of the Drummond character, H. C. McNeile — billed on the credits only as “Sapper” (the pseudonym, and the use of initials, both seem to have been conditioned by his parents having given him the decidedly un-butch first name “Herman”) — and adapted by Wallace Smith (continuity) and Sidney Howard (dialogue), Bulldog Drummond opens magnificently with a sequence later recycled for two even better films, Love Me Tonight and Top Hat: Drummond and his upper-class twit friend Algy Longworth (Claud Allister in a superb comic-relief performance) are sitting in a London club that strictly forbids speech on the premises (like so much of the Drummond mythos, this too is a direct ripoff of one of the Conan Doyle Holmes stories, though doubtless such clubs actually did exist!). When one of the waiters drops a teaspoon — the first synchronous sound we hear in a film that began with a door being closed in our face to reveal a sign reading, “SILENCE” (itself a quite amusing in-joke just two years after The Jazz Singer) — a club member stands up and protests “this infernal din.” Drummond and Algy walk out whistling “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and — inspired by a joke from Algy — Drummond puts in his Times ad and the plot per se gets under way.

The film creaks all over the place; Jones was (not surprisingly, given his background) considerably more comfortable with the comedy than with the thrills, and much of the action is slow and stagy even though the cinematographers, George Barnes and Gregg Toland, cop some of the more spectacular effects from the German thrillers, Lang’s films in particular — including some shots of rooms with ceilings 12 years before Citizen Kane (also shot by Toland!) supposedly pioneered them. The entertainment value of Drummond lies mostly in the finely honed acting of Colman, Allister (for once a comic-relief character is genuinely funny!) and Tashman, whose over-the-top vampy villainy leaves nominal heroine Bennett in the dust by comparison; and in the overall “look” created not only by Barnes and Toland but also by set designer William Cameron Menzies, many of whose backdrops are so obviously stylized that at times the film looks like The Cabinet of Bulldog Drummond.— 6/30/05

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1/22/37)

When Charles finally did get back and joined me in the room for a movie, my choice was Bulldog Drummond Escapes, the first in the eight-film Drummond series for Paramount from 1937 to 1939, though separate from the others in that it used a different cast: Ray Milland (back when he was still the male equivalent of a starlet, before Paramount started giving him better roles in films like Arise, My Love and The Major and the Minor and elevated him to major stardom) as Drummond, Sir Guy Standing (in his last film; he died of a heart attack shortly after it was finished) as Inspector — excuse me, Captain (he makes a big fetish of the distinction in the film!) Nielsen of Scotland Yard (who was essentially to Drummond what Inspector Lestrade was to Sherlock Holmes), Heather Angel as damsel-in-distress Phyllis Clavering (her character would continue throughout the series and there was a running gag that her planned marriage to Drummond was always getting interrupted by one crisis or another that he would have to run off and investigate), and Reginald Denny as Drummond’s Dr. Watson, upper-class twit Algy Longworth. (In the later films in the series American actor John Howard would take over as Drummond — likely because he’d played Ronald Colman’s brother credibly if unspectacularly in Lost Horizon and therefore could conceivably be accepted in a role most moviegoers still associated with Colman — with Louise Campbell as Phyllis, though Angel later re-assumed the role; John Barrymore and H. B. Warner as Nielsen; and Denny the only cast member from this film who carried over into the later ones.)

Based on a play called Bulldog Drummond Again by the character’s creator, Herman Cyril “Sapper” McNeile, with Gerard Fairlie, and variously called Bulldog Drummond Saves a Lady, Bulldog Drummond’s Holiday, Bulldog Drummond’s Romance and Bulldog Drummond’s Escape, Bulldog Drummond Escapes was a decent enough movie with an O.K. script by Edward T. Lowe (later associated with the dregs of the original Frankenstein cycle at Universal), competent direction by James Hogan, brilliant cinematography by Victor Milner (oddly uncredited on the extant prints, which were released not by Paramount but by a TV reissue label called “Congress Films”) — though the movie is a lighthearted thriller with no “class” ambitions there are some heavily Germanic shots here that anticipate noir — and a decent cast but a surprising dearth of real excitement.

The plot seems heavily recycled from the 1929 Bulldog Drummond film with Ronald Colman: Phyllis Clavering is being held in a sinister old dark house by two men, Norman Merridew (Porter Hall) and Stanton (Walter Kingsford) and one woman, Merridew’s sister (she really is his sister this time, not his wife posing as his sister à la The Hound of the Baskervilles and the 1929 Colman film) Natalie (Fay Holden), who are trying to convince her that she killed her brother Ted (actually murdered by Merridew) and then went insane. Though it’s a bit surprising he didn’t wear the Colman-style moustache John Howard donned for his entries in the series, Milland is an excellent Drummond, able to bring to the role the same insouciant charm Colman did; and the rest of the casting works well enough, though one misses the sheer outrageousness of Claud Allister’s Algy from the first Colman film.

Oddly, Charles noted that though the accents were suitable for British people (the fact that the four top-billed actors were British undoubtedly helped in that department), the script itself was full of American idioms that wouldn’t have come from these people’s mouths in real life — but the real problem with this film is that, for all the excellent atmospherics of Milner’s cinematography and the strong performances, it’s surprisingly dull. One of the quirkier aspects of 1930’s cinema is that the gangster films of the era were tight, fast-paced and genuinely exciting and intense, but when the studios tried any other sort of crime film the results were frequently anemic, slow-paced and uninteresting. There are some genuinely clever scenes — including the early one, in which Heather Angel coaxes Milland out of his car, he appropriately “rescues” her and she responds by stealing his car in her attempt to escape that old, dark house — but for the most part this is just a 67-minute time-filler that largely wastes a good cast. — 7/4/05

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (9/24/37)

I ran Charles Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, the second in the sequence of eight Bulldog Drummond films made by Paramount between 1937 and 1939, and a good deal better than the earlier Bulldog Drummond Escapes. (I couldn’t help but consider the odd confluence of the titles of the two films on this Critics’ Choice disc: Bulldog Drummond Escapes and Bulldog Drummond Comes Back. It’s reminiscent of Desi Arnaz’s joke about Lucille Ball’s titles for the TV series she did after they broke up: when she came out with one called Here’s Lucy, he said her next two would be called There Goes Lucy and Here Comes Lucy Back.)

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back benefits from a better director (Louis King) than the one who helmed Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James Hogan); a stronger plot line — though both of them are based on writings by Drummond’s creator, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile, Comes Back is based on a novel (The Female of the Species, 1928) rather than a play, allowing the writer (Edward T. Lowe again) to get some action into it; and two genuinely interesting villains, Mikhail Valdin (J. Carrol Naish) and his sister Erena Soldanis (Helen Freeman), who though their nationalities remain uncertain (their names say Russian, or at least Slavic, but Naish’s makeup makes him look Chinese and their accents are unlike those of any real people from anywhere on earth!) are at least powerfully motivated: they seek revenge on Drummond (John Howard, in his first of seven appearances in the role) for having sent Erena’s brother to the gallows exactly one year earlier.

They do so by kidnapping Drummond’s fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell, replacing Heather Angel — though Ms. Angel would take the role back in subsequent episodes of the series) and running Drummond, his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and his friend Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny again) on a wild-goose chase around London and its environs through a series of cryptic clues — some delivered as gnomic rhymes on paper, some as phonograph records, one delivered by Phyllis herself as the villains are holding both her and Drummond hostage in a moving car. One caution the villains give Drummond is specifically not to involve his friend, Col. Nielson (that’s how it’s spelled in the credits) of Scotland Yard, in the investigation — they’ll kill Phyllis instantly if they spot Nielson on their trail — but Nielson disguises himself in a series of increasingly ugly lumpenproletariat outfits in order to hang out in the lower-class environments (including several pubs, one run by the great character actress Zeffie Tilbury, listed in the credits as playing a character called “Zeffie”!) to which the villains’ clues are sending Drummond.

Though this is just a “B” with a 64-minute running time (the film’s brevity actually helped it, forcing King and Lowe to speed the action along at a rapid clip and avoiding the longueurs of Bulldog Drummond Escapes), it has a quite handsome physical production — producer Stuart Walker and director King did a good job raiding the Paramount warehouses for old sets they could use to stage elaborate action scenes, including a dungeon with a trap door over the Thames and another in which gas is piped in while Drummond, Phyllis and Algy are trapped at the end (there’s also a time bomb that will explode, then combine with the gas to produce a truly horrific conflagration and incinerate Our Heroes).

Nielson is played by John Barrymore, whom the Paramount brasses actually gave top billing — “Youngsters of the period, who had never heard of Barrymore, could never understand why his name was billed above that of Howard, who carried all the action, and they resented it,” William K. Everson wrote of this film and its two immediate successors in The Detective in Film — and who gets surprisingly little screen time but thoroughly makes the most of what he had. His disguises (especially the second, uglier one) bear more than a faint resemblance to his look as Mr. Hyde in the 1920 Paramount version of the Stevenson novel, and though he was portlier than he’d been in his glory days his posture, profile and magnificent voice dominate the screen in all his appearances. Barrymore’s presence adds a touch of class to a film that’s otherwise all Boy’s Own Adventure action with only brief (though charming) bits of exposition between the big scenes; but Howard, though laboring under the handicap of American nationality (unlike Ronald Colman and Ray Milland, who like the Drummond character were card-carrying Brits), is quite a good Drummond. His British accent is serviceable and good enough to be credible, and his rather arrogant manner (off-putting when he was playing Ronald Colman’s brother in Lost Horizon and Katharine Hepburn’s fiancé in The Philadelphia Story, his two best-known films) actually suits the character. — 7/7/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1/7/38)

I spent the morning running a videotape I got recently at Blockbuster, a double bill of Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge and Bulldog Drummond’s Peril. These were two of the Bulldog Drummond “B” movies made at Paramount in the late 1930’s, starring John Howard as Drummond (probably cast because he’d been so convincing as Ronald Colman’s brother in Lost Horizon, and Colman, of course, was the most famous movie Drummond of all) and John Barrymore as Inspector Nielson of Scotland Yard. Revenge had the interesting novelty of having its villain (Frank Puglia) spend most of the movie in drag as a disguise, though the film was surprisingly un-atmospherically directed by Louis King (especially three years after his good work in Charlie Chan in Egypt) and Peril had a better, if sometimes confusing, plot (and a novel casting of Porter Hall as the villain); together these brief films (Revenge was 54 minutes, Peril 66 minutes) made a nice little entertainment package, full of the economy in storytelling that makes even the least interesting 1930’s movies watchable today (when Drummond lands his plane in the middle of nowhere in Peril, the next scene shows him driving into London — without bothering to waste valuable screen time explaining how he obtained the car). — 7/23/93


I ran him the second of the John Howard Bulldog Drummonds — still with John Barrymore top-billed for the relatively minor role of Col. Nielson [sic] of Scotland Yard — called Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, though in fact there was very little content in these titles: all you had to do to name one of these films was to give the character name and add to it some noun or verb-object phrase that would connote “thriller-icity.” William K. Everson is particularly hard on this film, calling it “unquestionably the weakest” of the Howard Drummonds and adding, “Nothing whatsoever happened in the film — certainly no kind of action that could be constituted as ‘revenge’ — and Frank Puglia was a mild and ineffective villain.”

Actually, quite a lot happens in this film — reclusive but not quite mad scientist Sir John Haxton (Matthew Boulton) invents the world’s most powerful explosive, “haxtonite,” but his long-suffering secretary Draven Nogais (Frank Puglia) hatches a plot to steal it; as Haxton is flying his own plane to meet with international representatives for a demonstration of haxtonite, Nogais, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, shoots him, dumps the attaché case containing the haxtonite out of the plane — a parachute is attached and two of Nogais’s confederates are on the ground in a car waiting for it — then bails out himself, after putting his ring on a severed hand so anyone finding the wreckage will think both Haxton and Nogais were killed in the crash. Only Drummond (John Howard), his fiancée Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) and his upper-class twit friend Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) happen upon the haxtonite first and take it back to their country home — whereupon Nogais sneaks in and steals it back, then hides out on the Channel boat-train to Paris, which means Our Heroes have to get on the train themselves and give chase. About the only interesting part of the film is that, to avoid detection on the train, Nogais dresses as a woman — it’s actually one of the worst drag attempts in movie history, thought it might have fooled audiences in 1937 — though of course the villain is finally foiled.

The film’s biggest weakness (the script is by Edward T. Lowe again — the credited source is H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s book The Return of Bulldog Drummond but the most-powerful-explosive-in-the-world bit was hardly fresh writing even then! — and the direction by Louis King hardly lives up to the atmospherics of Charlie Chan in Egypt and Bulldog Drummond Comes Back) is its sheer preposterousness: even by the usual standards of a thriller, the plot depends on one unbelievable gimmick after another, and one can’t help but recall how much better Alfred Hitchcock had done with a similar plot in The 39 Steps two years earlier (albeit with Robert Donat, a much more charismatic star than John Howard and an actor who would have been quite good casting as Drummond).

John Barrymore is barely in the film at all, and when he is he’s playing Nielson as a crotchety old man, resenting Drummond for butting into Scotland Yard’s business (now where have we heard that old cliché before?) and possibly — at least this is what William Everson thought — expressing his own resentment for having to make his living making silly films like this and playing a part that, for all the pretension and conceit of Paramount’s billing (below the title, but still first and in larger letters than Howard’s, and with his name in all caps on the closing card), is still a pretty unimportant supporting role. At 56 minutes this is short even for a late-1930’s “B” and it seems to drag in a way Bulldog Drummond Comes Back — with its comparative wealth of genuinely exciting action scenes — hadn’t; and Howard, appropriately debonair in his earlier Drummond film, just seems morose and petulant in this one. This time Lowe made the mistake of including Algy’s wife Gwen (Nydia Westman) as an on-screen character — in the two previous films she’d merely been talked about — and the so-called “comic relief” of Mr. and Mrs. Longworth just makes one long for the comparative subtlety and genuine amusement provided by Claud Allister as Algy in the 1929 Bulldog Drummond with Ronald Colman. — 7/15/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (3/18/38)

Afterwards we settled in for the evening and watched the second film on the first of two Embassy Entertainment tapes featuring Bulldog Drummond movies I bought in the mid-1990’s and recently dug out of the back files to “mate” them with the Critics’ Choice DVD’s of some of these movies — alas there’s one title, Arrest Bulldog Drummond, that I’m still missing (a real pity because the villain is George Zucco and there’s a marvelously tacky still from it in William K. Everson’s book The Detective in Film that shows Zucco and his henchpeople, Jean Fenwick and Georges Regas, posed in front of a so-called “Death Ray” obviously cobbled together from two old movie projectors).

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril was the fourth in the series — the third with John Howard as Drummond and the last to use Louise Campbell as his fiancée Phyllis Clavering and John Barrymore as Col. Nielson (probably just as well, for while he’d been a marvelously campy Nielson in Bulldog Drummond Comes Back he played the part in Revenge and Peril as a crotchety old man with little to offer but a generalized disinclination to deal with Drummond’s help on his cases; as Everson put it, “Either the novelty had worn off for Barrymore and he was proving hard to handle, so that the scenarists literally wrote him out of the films except for token appearances, or his roles were initially so small that Barrymore resented it and showed it by his performances. Either way, his Nielson became morose and bad-tempered, shouting his lines, glowering, mugging, and showing no signs of wanting to give either a serious performance or a gaily lighthearted one” — though even here, in Barrymore’s last appearance in the series, he was still getting top billing!).

While not at the level of Escapes or Comes Back it was certainly a major improvement over Revenge. Its only real flaw as a thriller is that there are just too many villains: American (though oddly accented) scientist Dr. Max Botulian (Porter Hall), diamond syndicate owner Sir Raymond Blantyre (Matthew Boulton — the character’s last name is pronounced “Blan-tree”), and his secretary Roberts (Austin Fairman). They’re all after a new process for making artificial diamonds of gem size, perfected by yet another dotty but not really mad scientist (much like Boulton’s role in Revenge), Professor Bernard Goodman (Halliwell Hobbes), which Blantyre wants suppressed because it will make his natural diamonds worthless, and Botulian wants suppressed because Goodman has beaten him in the race to perfect a diamond-making process, while Roberts secretly wants to steal the formula and use it to make money (at least that’s what I think is going on; the script by thriller writer Stuart Palmer isn’t all that coherent as to the characters’ clashing motivations) — and the plot thickens when Roberts disguises himself as Botulian to get his hands on Botulian’s diamond-making equipment and the real Botulian disguises himself as Roberts disguised as Botulian to kill Goodman (though Goodman actually survives to the fadeout) and blow up his lab under the cover story of offering Goodman his own diamond-making equipment (which Goodman wanted to retrofit with his own process so he could create an artificial diamond bigger than any natural one).

Despite the confusing plot, Bulldog Drummond’s Peril is actually quite an entertaining movie, largely due to two really elaborate and genuinely exciting action sequences. In one, Drummond’s butler Tenny chases the bad guys (some of them, anyway) in a motorcycle, catching up to the villains’ van, leaping on top of it and forcing his way in with a gun. (E. E. Clive’s stunt double must have had a field day with this one!) The other is a quite spectacular fight scene between Drummond and Botulian at the end, in which Botulian, armed with a bullwhip, uses it to snap Drummond’s gun out of his hand; Drummond reaches for some conveniently placed swords hanging on the wall and slices off the business end of Botulian’s whip — which comes off weirdly as a sort of symbolic castration — then throws it like a javelin and impales Botulian in the arm, wounding him to the point of offering no resistance while Drummond waits for Nielson and the police to take Botulian into custody.

One could tell the roles were starting to wear on some of the actors — Louise Campbell was clearly getting tired of the damsel-in-distress bit (though she gets some delightful scenes at a château in Switzerland — where Drummond and Phyllis have gone to get married, interrupted by all the diamond business — with her aunt, played by the delightful Elizabeth Patterson) and John Howard was both stuffier and nastier than he’d been in previous series episodes — and James Hogan, returning as director, didn’t have the flair for atmospherics Louis King did and paced the film (except for the two big action scenes) rather sluggishly, but still Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (whose working title was Bulldog Drummond Interferes — which shows once again how these films could have been called just about anything as long as the Bulldog Drummond name appeared alongside some words suggesting a thriller) was a nice little bit of 1930’s “B”-thriller fun. — 7/16/05

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (8/5/38)

I ran him the next Bulldog Drummond series film in sequence: Bulldog Drummond in Africa, which I’d been somewhat dreading because I didn’t think even a major studio like Paramount would have been able to mount an effective physical reproduction of Africa (and where in Africa? I’d assumed it would be sub-Saharan but it turned out to be Morocco, and Spanish rather than French Morocco at that!) on a “B” budget. As things turned out, though, this was actually one of the better ones in the series: J. Carrol Naish returned as the principal villain, a former British spy named Richard Lane who during the Great War had turned traitor and then fled the country to avoid execution, settling in Spanish Morocco and thumbing his nose at British law — until the action of this film starts with Lane secretly returning to England to kidnap Col. Nielson (H. B. Warner, taking over the role from John Barrymore — one of the screen’s most famous alcoholics replaced by Jesus Christ!) to worm out of him the secret of a radio-wave dematerializer that would permit the British to scramble their own radio signals and thereby encrypt their secret communications. (Remember what Alfred Hitchcock said: it doesn’t matter what the spies are after! It matters to the people in the movie but we in the audience couldn’t care less!)

As things turned out, the reproduction of Africa was just fine — aided by decent if unspectacular process work and quite a lot of stock footage (including what looked like a clip from the Valentino Sheik!) as well as a Moroccan villa for the bad guy that looked recycled from Charles Laughton’s redoubt in Island of Lost Souls. The plot features Lane flying the kidnapped Nielson out of Britain to his Moroccan home and Drummond following them in his own plane despite the efforts of British authorities on both ends of his trip to keep him from doing so, which Drummond evades on the British side by locking a Scotland Yard inspector in a trunk and on the Moroccan side by dealing with the lazy British consul Major Gray (series regular Matthew Boulton) and his assistant, Deane Fordine (played by a very young Anthony Quinn in his days as a low-level contract player at Paramount).

There’s one good suspense scene in which the baddies have planted a bomb on Drummond’s plane and timed it to go off over the ocean — only Drummond disobeys instructions and secretly flies back into Morocco and he and his passengers, Phyllis (Heather Angel), Algy (Reginald Denny, blessedly less arch than usual) and his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive), get out of the plane with seconds to spare before it blows up. The finale isn’t as much fun, and there’s no real surprise about it — it’s just a shootout on the balcony of Lane’s villa followed by the scene we’ve been expecting for at least half the movie, in which Lane’s pet lion turns on him and devours him for the finish — but this is still one of the better Paramount Drummonds, at least in part (as Charles put it) because it has less of the Wooster-and-Jeeves aspects of the Drummond-Algy and Drummond-Tenny relationships about it.. (Incidentally, the extant print has two “The End” titles — one in Paramount’s typeface superimposed over the plane that takes Drummond and company out of Africa, then quickly replaced by a Congress Films end title and then back to Paramount for the closing cast list.) — 7/18/05

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (11/25/38)

I ran Arrest Bulldog Drummond, which Charles had recently downloaded from and which was the only one of the late-1930’s Paramount Bulldog Drummond films I didn’t have in my collection. The Paramount Drummonds began with a separate film called Bulldog Drummond Escapes, released in January 1937 and featuring Ray Milland as Drummond, but when Paramount launched it as a “B” series later in 1937 Drummond was played throughout by John Howard. Howard seems to have got the part because in the film Lost Horizon he’d played the brother of Ronald Colman, who though he only played the role of Drummond twice (Bulldog Drummond for Sam Goldwyn in 1929 and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back for 20th Century-United Artists in 1934), became as identified with the part as Sean Connery later would in the role of James Bond, and for the same reason: he was simply that much better than anyone else who ever played it.

The Drummond-Bond parallel is actually quite strong — the Drummond films come closer than any other 1930’s productions to the Bond movies, presenting a British action hero (created by author H. C. “Sapper” McNeile, whose military experience in World War I gave him the idea for the character much the way Ian Fleming’s real involvement with the British secret service during World War II gave him the idea for Bond) with plenty of derring-do and dash in gimmicky melodramas against various super-villains — though, this being the Production Code era, instead of seducing one woman after another like Bond did, Drummond (at least in this phase of his on-screen existence) has a fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel), and he’s trying to marry her but ends up leaving her at the altar again and again and again when called on to solve some case of immediate pressing importance.

Arrest Bulldog Drummond — the title is a bit of a misnomer since Drummond hardly spends any time in police custody even though he is at one point a prime suspect in the murder of his long-time friend, inventor Richard Gannett (Leonard Mudie) — deals with Rolf Alferson (George Zucco), the real killer of Gannett, who was out to steal Gannett’s invention, a ray that will detonate explosives from a distance. (The ray is a quite crude construction, transparently lashed together from two old movie projectors; Paramount’s prop department obviously wasn’t going to spend much time or money building something genuinely credible for a 57-minute “B”!)

Alferson and his girlfriend, Lady Beryl Ledyard (Jane Fenwick) — it’s something of a novelty that this movie (scripted by Stuart Palmer from McNeile’s novel The Final Count) features a villain who has a girlfriend, and what’s more seems genuinely to care for her — steal Gannett’s ray, killing him in the process, and set up shop on the island of St. Anthony (which according to Wikipedia’s geographic subsidiary, Wikimapia, is actually off the coast of India, though the scenery we see looks Caribbean), where they plan to meet with agents of the usual sinister (and unnamed) foreign power to sell the Gannett invention for cash.

I’d had hopes for Arrest Bulldog Drummond mainly because Zucco played the villain — but for some reason he underplayed it, offering very little of the eye-rolling hamming that made so many of Zucco’s bad guys fun to watch — did director James Hogan tell Zucco to cool it? If so, it was a mistake. There’s only one scene in which Hogan let Zucco be Zucco: he’s captured Drummond’s assistant Algernon Longworth (Reginald Denny) and his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and has them in a rope basket, suspended over a bit of ocean in which they’ll either drown or get eaten by sharks, and though they’ve already escaped by then (we know that, but Zucco’s character doesn’t), Zucco gets ready to sever the cord suspending them and tells Phyllis (whom he’s lured there) that he’s about to eliminate the last two living witnesses to his misdeeds: “Care to see the splash?”

Aside from that, Arrest Bulldog Drummond is 57 minutes of relatively amusing fun, suffering (as most of the films in this series did) from John Howard’s stuffiness and stiffness (we don’t want Heather Angel to have to marry him any more than we wanted Katharine Hepburn to in The Philadelphia Story) but getting most of its entertainment value from the various traps McNeile and Palmer set for the hero and his imagination and daring in getting out of them. — 5/23/09

Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police (4/14/39)

I ran another one of the John Howard Bulldog Drummond series, Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police — a surprisingly good little “B,” given a beautiful subterranean tunnel set (apparently, according to William Everson, the set was “constructed specifically for this film and was not a borrowed castoff from another”) and atmospheric direction from James Hogan that made good, suspenseful use of it. — 7/28/93


The two Bulldog Drummond movies, Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police and Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, were both very pleasant surprises indeed. By 1939 the writers, Garnett Weston (on both films) and Stuart Palmer (on Secret Police), had finally got the mix of action and camp right; they had stopped trying for proto-James Bond melodrama and instead kept the tone light, the intrigues believable (more or less — the McGuffin in Secret Police is the royal jewels and treasury of King Charles I, supposedly buried in Drummond’s ancestral manse by Charles’ faithful secretary after the battle of Nasby sealed the king’s fate).

Secret Police was based on H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s novel Temple Tower (previously filmed by Fox in 1930 in what William K. Everson rather baldly proclaimed the worst Drummond film of all time) and, according to Everson, used an elaborate set of underground tunnels, passages and streams that was actually built especially for this film and not recycled from an earlier, bigger-budgeted one. The story features a genuinely charming performance by Forrester Harvey as a dotty professor named Downie — a far cry from the rustic peasants he usually played (most notably in Frankenstein, in which he’s the father of the murdered girl) who brings Drummond the news that his castle contains a fortune in jewels, only to be killed by the vicious criminal Henry Seaton (Leo G. Carroll, not yet using his middle initial professionally), The first half of the film features a dream sequence in which Drummond recalls all the previous adventures that have kept him from marrying fiancée Phyllis Clavering (a welcome return to the role by British actress Heather Angel after the rather shrill Louise Campbell did some of the early episodes) and the second half is almost all chase through that great set — but the whole thing is a lot of fun and even Reginald Denny’s comic relief, oppressive in some of the earlier films, is genuinely funny. — 10/7/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (6/30/39)

Earlier in the evening I’d watched Bulldog Drummond’s Bride — James Hogan’s direction had exactly the fast-paced quality Chester Erskine’s direction of the 1934 film Midnight needed and lacked, and in this, as in his other entries in the series, Hogan basically handled the absurdities of the plot and its “comic” relief by slamming through the story so fast they didn’t matter much. It’s surprising how strong the cast was, given that this was just a “B” movie: not only John Howard as Drummond, but H. B. Warner, Reginald Denny, E. E. Clive, Heather Angel, Eduardo Ciannelli (as the villain, naturally) and John Sutton, an interesting actor, as Warner’s assistant at Scotland Yard. Needless to say, it was the actors who made this film and gave it its appeal (and John Howard is so credible as a dashing hero, here and in the other three series entries I’ve seen, it seems odd he got relegated after this to Ralph Bellamy-type roles as in The Philadelphia Story). — 7/30/93


So it is with Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, an even funnier and better balanced film whose action ranges from the London flat where Drummond and Phyllis are planning to live after their oft-delayed wedding (thanks to a homemade bomb that blew up a good chunk of their castle at the end of Secret Police) to a village in France variously called Tagemont and Targemont (it’s spelled one way on the destination sign at its train station, another way in Paramount’s intertitle) where Phyllis has fled with her Aunt Blanche (Elizabeth Patterson in a comic-relief role that adds a lot to these films’ appeal) after the latest delay in her marriage plans and has served notice on Drummond that unless he marries her by September 10 she’ll marry another man on September 11. (At the end she ruefully confesses that this “other man” did not exist.)

Though the basis of this film is an H. C. McNeile novel called Bulldog Drummond and the Oriental Mind, no Orientals figure in the dramatis personae: instead the principal villain is Henri Armides (Eduardo Ciannelli), who in the opening reel stages a daring bank robber, then flees by disguising himself as one of the painters working on Drummond’s flat (which conveniently lies just across the street from the robbed bank) and hiding the 10,000-pound loot inside Drummond’s radio-phonograph — which Phyllis asks him to send to her in Ta(r)gemont.

The script by Garnett Weston is full of felicitous touches — notably Armides’ inventive escape from the police cordon around Drummond’s apartment building by pretending to go insane, splashing paint over the walls of Drummond’s flat (and inundating Algy Longworth, Drummond’s comic-relief friend, with paint), getting hauled out of the area in the asylum van and then relatively easily escaping from the mental hospital to which he’d been taken — and in the end Drummond and Phyllis are finally married by the town magistrate of Ta(r)gemont before Drummond’s final climactic fight with the bad guy, staged on the rooftops of the French village in a style that harkens back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue as well as looking forward to the opening scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

This was a very neat ending to a series that was better than its reputation (Everson recalls that critics hadn’t liked these films — being particularly hostile to the delayed-marriage gimmick used to unify them — and greeted the end of the series gladly) and actually got better as it progressed — and it’s an indication that John Howard, while hardly in the same league as Ronald Colman or Ray Milland when it came to playing a dashing hero, could credibly play a good guy and a lover, something one would never know about him from his two most famous roles (Colman’s obnoxious brother in Lost Horizon and the stuffy piece of cardboard who loses Katharine Hepburn to her ex, Cary Grant, in The Philadelphia Story). — 10/7/05

Calling Bulldog Drummond (MGM, 1951)

The film was Calling Bulldog Drummond, a 1951 frozen-funds movie from MGM starring Walter Pidgeon as a rather over-the-hill Drummond (supposedly he retired from crime-fighting to re-enlist in the armed forces, served in North Africa during World War II, then retired to a farm and raised, not bees like Sherlock Holmes, but pigs) and the talented Margaret Leighton as Sgt. Helen Smith of Scotland Yard. I remembered seeing this film in the 1970’s and not liking it particularly — though ostensibly a thriller, it was plodding and dull and I had a hard time staying awake — but this time around it seemed better than that, though still hardly a great film. (William K. Everson, in his chapter on the Drummond movies in The Detective in Film, called it “the best in many years, though its merits are only relative.” That about sums it up.)

It begins with a marvelous opening sequence: a group of 12 crooks in face masks that gives them a simultaneously sinister and clown-like appearance deploy from a truck and commit an armed robbery of a department store with military-style precision, then get away in a thick London fog thanks to a radar device they’ve stolen from the British military that allows them to navigate while the cops can’t pursue them. Drummond is called out of retirement by Inspector McIver of Scotland Yard and asked to go after this band of commando bandits, who’d committed two previous crimes with the same M.O., and to help him he’s given the undercover services of Sgt. Smith despite his rather sexist objections (which he soon modifies) to women as crimefighters.

Of the usual supporting cast of the Drummond adventures only his sidekick Algy Longworth (a doofus Watson to his Holmes) appears — and he’s played here by David Tomlinson, who surfaced in the U.S. 18 years later as the villain in the Disney comedy The Love Bug. Anyway, Drummond and Smith go undercover, posing as a criminal couple recently forced to flee Italy when their smuggling ring was uncovered, to attempt to infiltrate the gang; and gang member Arthur Gunns (Robert Beatty, who alone among all the actors here speaks with no trace of a British accent — was the character supposed to be American?) falls for her, much to the disgust of his previous girlfriend, Molly (a nicely edgy noir-ish performance by Peggy Evans), who in turn finds out who Drummond really is and blows his cover. In the end Drummond and Smith are able to keep the gang members from killing them long enough to allow the police to arrive, and the mastermind of the gang is revealed to be Drummond’s old club-mate, Col. Webson (Bernard Lee), who took up crime to relieve his boredom and lack of action after the war.

Calling Bulldog Drummond benefits from a decent script (story by Gerard Fairlie, who also co-wrote the script with Howard Emmett Rogers and Arthur Wimperis) and workmanlike direction by Victor Saville (whom, based on his later work, I’d always regarded as an amiable hack — seeing his spectacular and incredibly creative 1930’s musicals, Evergreen, First a Girl an earlier version of Victor/Victoria — and It’s Love Again with Jessie Matthews and Evensong with Evelyn Laye, was a revelation). Indeed, “workmanlike” is a good description of the entire film; there’s nothing especially bad about it but there’s nothing especially good about it either (aside from Saville’s commendable restraint in using Rudolph G. Kopp’s original score — many of the big action scenes are not underscored and actually benefit from the absence of music)

Much of the film takes place at a low-life cabaret with a creditable Black jazz group playing songs from the MGM catalogue — I had a fun time trying to identify them. Some sounded like they might have been British songs that didn’t cross the pond but I recognized at least two important songs from MGM musicals, “Our Love Affair” from one of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, Strike Up the Band (1940), and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” introduced by Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh (1945). There were at least two interesting credits on the technical end — both men with the same last name, albeit in different languages — art director Alfred Junge, who’d worked with Saville before on The Good Companions (1932) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (first version, 1934); and cinematographer Freddie Young, who would later shoot Lust for Life for Vincente Minnelli and Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter for David Lean.

About the only thing against Calling Bulldog Drummond is that, for a thriller, it isn’t particularly thrilling — it introduces a particularly creative set of bad guys but then settles down into all too normal intrigues, and the sexual tension between Drummond and Smith (as well as the interesting script conceit that in order to establish their bona fides as crooks he has to make himself look like he abuses her) actually has more entertainment value than the overall plot! — 2/5/05

The First Hundred Years (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we picked was from a recent TCM tribute to Robert Montgomery: The First Hundred Years, made at MGM (his home studio) in 1938 — five years after When Ladies Meet, which I’d actually recorded from a different TCM “tribute” night, to Myrna Loy — and though not as daring in its plotting as When Ladies Meet it was actually a much nicer and more good-natured movie. It began as a story by screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also produced, though another writer, Melville Baker, worked up Krasna’s story into an actual screenplay.

The premise is an oldie but goodie: Lynn Conway (Virginia Bruce, a woefully underused actress whose talents entitled her to far bigger roles and better breaks than she got) insists on continuing to work for theatrical agent Harry Borden (Warren William) — on her job she uses her original last name, Claymore — even though her husband, yacht designer David Conway (Robert Montgomery), has just been offered a job supervising a shipyard. The problem is that the job is in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and being a married man in a 1930’s movie he naturally assumes that she’s going to quit her job, move there with him and become a stay-at-home housewife. She assumes no such thing; she wants to continue working as an agent and says that if he insists on taking the New Bedford job, they can always live apart during the week but spend the weekends together. “I want a wife, not a guest!” he snarls back (or at least as close to a snarl as Robert Montgomery ever got).

The rest of the movie consists of their attempts to resolve this impossible dilemma, which gets them as far as a legal separation (under which she is required to pay him alimony since she’s always made more than he has) and several misunderstandings before the inevitable (for a 1930’s movie) happens: undergoing a routine exam for an insurance policy, she discovers that she’s pregnant and the fetus ex machina finally brings them back together and leads her to abandon her career and move to New Bedford with him — though there’s a charming Krasna-esque tag scene in which, not knowing his wife is already pregnant, while they’re driving to New Bedford David muses that maybe they should have a child. “I’ll think about it,” says Lynn before she nods off in the passenger seat and the end title comes up. (Just when the two of them stopped their mad rush of work, parties and misunderstandings long enough to have sex is a minor mystery this film leaves unanswered.)

What’s most likable about this movie is what it doesn’t do: it doesn’t moralize against its proto-feminist heroine (the way the somewhat similarly plotted Kept Husbands did); it doesn’t show the couple getting involved with other partners on their way to a reconciliation (a subsidiary character played by Binnie Barnes does sort-of try to vamp David, but she doesn’t seem too serious about it and the writers don’t, either); and it treats the incidents it depicts in a nicely matter-of-fact fashion that makes even the sexist ending easy to take — though given how many two-career, two-income couples there are these days, the central dilemma of the film “reads” very differently today than it did in 1938 (and a modern filmmaker doing the same central premise would approach it very differently, too).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek (Bad Robot/Spyglass Entertainment/Paramount, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 2009 Star Trek movie is actually quite a good action film in the modern manner. The credit goes mainly to director J. J. Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have come up with a story that mostly stays faithful to the Star Trek mythos while legitimately extending it — much like the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It’s essentially a prequel to the 1960’s TV show, opening with the birth of James Tiberius Kirk inside a shuttlecraft that is evacuating his mother Winona (Jennifer Morrison) from the starship U.S.S. Kelvin while it’s under attack from a renegade Romulan vessel commanded by Nero (Eric Bana), seeking to avenge the destruction of Romulus by a supernova and the failure of the Federation to save his planet by destroying the Federation and in particular incinerating its two most important planets, Earth and Vulcan.

Nero demands that the Kelvin’s captain, Robau (Faran Tahir), come aboard his vessel, leaving George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in charge of the Kelvin for about 10 minutes — he attempts to incinerate the ship inside the Romulan vessel and thereby blow it up, first evacuating all the crew members in a series of shuttlecraft (just what the point of the shuttlecraft was was a part of the Star Trek mythos I never quite figured out, since their transporter system would seem to be capable of moving just about any people or equipment anywhere they wanted them, but in this film there are several scenes in which the Romulan ship puts out a force field of some sort that renders the transporters inoperable) — though the gesture fails because we see Nero and his ship (an appealingly abstract concept that looks like the Watts Towers in space) in a sequence taking place 25 years later.

In the meantime the film cuts back and forth between Vulcan and Iowa — where James T. Kirk steals his stepfather’s antique Corvette (the idea that a 20th century car would still be operable four centuries later is one of the weirdest parts of the movie, and Duncan Shepherd wondered in his review where they would get the fossil fuel to power it) and drives it off a cliff, barely reaching safety himself when he’s apprehended by a police officer in a sort of hovercraft motorcycle that’s one of the coolest conveyances in the film. Eventually Kirk grows up to adulthood (and to be played by Chris Pine, who looks surprisingly credible as someone we can imagine as a younger version of William Shatner), at least chronologically — psychologically he’s a big, spoiled boy who’s drawn so much like the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun I joked that this movie could have been called Top Phaser — and on a dare from Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), he enters Starfleet Academy and nearly washes out when he hacks into the computerized training program and screws up a test situation Spock (Zachary Quinto) had written to be unsolvable.

Spock has his own interesting backstory; as all Star Trek devotees know, he’s the product of a Vulcan father, Sarek (Ben Cross) — though his name is never used in the actual script — and a human mother, Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder, of all people). Though he’s grown up as a Vulcan he’s remained torn between both worlds, teased by his all-Vulcan peers as a half-breed and finally admitted into the Vulcan Academy of Sciences — only to resign his commission there when the head of the admitting board makes a hatefully patronizing comment about how far he’d risen “despite your handicap” — a bit of interplanetary racism which decides Spock to tell the Vulcan Academy of Sciences to go hang and enlist in Starfleet instead.

Kirk is about to be washed out of the service on Spock’s recommendation when Starfleet (whose headquarters are in San Francisco — and, interestingly, the Golden Gate Bridge still exists in this vision of the future) receives word of a natural disaster threatening Vulcan and orders seven starships to travel there. Only it’s not a natural disaster; it’s Nero, destroying Vulcan by sending a probe into the planet’s core containing “red matter,” which creates an artificial black hole and sucks the planet into it. On board the Enterprise, Spock is able to rescue a handful of Vulcans — including his dad — but his mom doesn’t make it to the transporter coordinate in time and gets killed along with the rest of the six billion Vulcans. Kirk, who sneaked aboard the Enterprise without authorization but then redeemed himself by correctly assessing the situation and the danger Vulcan was up against, is nonetheless ordered off the ship by Spock and ends up on the planet Delta Vega 4, an icebound world in which he’s menaced by various picturesque monsters that look like higher-tech versions of the one on the Japanese Ultra-Man kids’ TV show; fleeing from them, he dashes into a convenient cave and there meets … Leonard Nimoy, ending his career as a science-fiction star where he began it 57 years ago in Zombies of the Stratosphere.

Nimoy is playing an older, leather-skinned version of Spock — called “Spock Prime” in the credits — as a visitor from the future who explains that he was supposed to destroy the supernova that annihilated the planet Romulus 129 years in the future, only he failed in the mission and therefore the recent destruction of Vulcan is all his fault even though Nero is exacting revenge for something that hasn’t happened yet (are you getting all this?). Though Zachary Quinto isn’t at all a bad Spock, Nimoy’s appearance has an inevitable air of “step aside, kid, and let the old pro show you how it’s done” about it. Anyway, the old time-traveling Spock explains to Kirk that his destiny is to command the Enterprise with the young Spock as his second-in-command — and, realizing that now that Nero has annihilated Vulcan his next target is Earth, Kirk gets back on board the Enterprise and the crew finally makes it there, with Kirk eventually assuming command after he tricks Spock into showing too much of an emotional investment in the goings-on surrounding the death of his home world, and the good guys finally destroying the bad guys so the movie can end.

Star Trek is actually a quite well constructed modern-day action movie — it runs 127 minutes, enough so that you feel you got your money’s worth but not so long that it starts to drag — and the plot portions are obviously there just to set up the action but don’t have that almost porn-movie uselessness you sense in so many other modern-day blockbusters. For the most part, the film is faithful to the old Star Trek mythos, except in two particulars that really jarred me: the bizarre flirtation between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), much to the displeasure of Kirk, who’s after her himself — why she would throw herself at Spock is a mystery and why he would reciprocate is an even bigger one (it actually reminded me of Sean Ono Lennon, who like his father fell in love with a Japanese woman and co-founded a band with her) — and the total destruction of the planet Vulcan, which was alive and well in the TV episode “Amok Time.” Much is made — more than in the TV series — of Spock’s mixed-race heritage, half-human and half-Vulcan (perhaps inevitably in the age of Obama!) — though somehow more got said about Spock’s mixed heritage in the simple exchange in “Amok Time,” when Celia Lovsky (the widow of Peter Lorre) as the high priestess of Vulcan asked Spock, “Are ye Terran or Vulcan?,” and he answered, “Vulcan,” than in all 127 minutes of this movie.

Indeed, what’s really missing from this movie is the social commentary of the original Star Trek, the ways Gene Roddenberry and his writers were able to make oblique political statements without actually offending either side in a time (the late 1960’s) that was, if anything, even more highly charged ideologically than our own. Without that aspect, the new Star Trek is great entertainment but little more, with the obligatory nods to other movies — Top Gun in the cocksure aspects of the young Kirk’s character and the way he’s redeemed in action; 2001: A Space Odyssey in a quite remarkable scene of Kirk, Sulu (John Cho) and Olsen (one of the so-called “redshirt” characters brought on only to be killed almost immediately) doing a space jump to land on the Romulan drill mechanism and disable it so the Enterprise’s communicators and transporters will work again (the drill emits some sort of wave which jams them) — and as they fall through the air you hear some Kubrickian heavy breathing from inside their spacesuits; and Star Wars all over the place, from the Starfleet bar in San Francisco in which Kirk starts a fight to the scene towards the end in which Kirk and Spock are piloting a shuttlecraft into the bowels of the Romulan ship and they’re so unsure of where they’re going one’s tempted to yell at them, “Use the Force, Jim!”

Much is made of the history of Vulcan and in particular of the device that Vulcan was once nearly torn apart by wars, and its inhabitants learned to suppress their emotions and accept the discipline of logic to learn to survive and live each other in peace — actually a contribution of Leonard Nimoy; the original conception of Vulcanis (to use the first name it had) was as a planet where the people simply lacked emotions naturally, and when Nimoy wrote an analysis of the character of Spock he invented the backstory of Vulcan’s history of destructive wars and their people’s adoption of logic as a way to avoid them — and ever since then the Star Trek writers have run with that and made Vulcan’s emotional past a key element in story after story. Also somewhat disappointing is Eric Bana’s casting as Nero; like the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, he’s overqualified for a villain role; an actor whose stock in trade is wrenching conflicts within his own conscience can’t really be effective as an unmotivated (or undermotivated) psychopath. The 2009 Star Trek is a first-rate movie for what it is, and quite better than most of the big-budget blockbusters getting fired at the popcorn audience these days, and I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect it to have more of the quality of a TV series made in a very different era and for a very different set of audience expectations.