Friday, July 31, 2009

Let’s Fall in Love (Columbia, 1934)

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

The film was Let’s Fall in Love, a charming semi-musical (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote four songs for it — “Let’s Fall in Love,” which became a standard even though the film itself was quickly forgotten — and “Love is Love Anywhere,” which were used; and “Breakfast Ball” and “This Is Only the Beginning,” which weren’t in the final cut) from Columbia in 1933 (the film was produced between October 23 and November 18 and released December 26, though that was so late in the year that Clive Hirschhorn in The Hollywood Musical listed it as 1934) directed by David Burton from a script by Herbert Fields. Hirschhorn described it as “a satisfying blend of music, romance and comedy,” and that about sums it up.

It’s a behind-the-scenes film about Hollywood, and in particular the Premier Pictures studio, headed by boorish, thickly accented Max Hopper (Gregory Ratoff). He’s currently making a movie called Let’s Fall in Love that’s a personal project of the studio’s star director, Kenneth Lane (Edmund Lowe, top-billed), and the star is Swedish import Hedwig Forsell (Tala Birell), whom Lane discovered working at a drugstore counter just two years earlier and built up into the world’s most famous actress. When the movie opens Lane is teaching the title song to the chorus that’s supposed to accompany Forsell in the film’s big number — only she’s having a diva hissy-fit, yelling successively at her maid, her director, her producer and two women sitting on the set who are wives of major exhibitors who can make or break the film’s chances for success when — if — it ever gets finished and released. When Lane shoots a love scene, Forsell snaps instantly from diva mode to committed actress, only to break off in mid-lovemaking and angrily insist that the script is stupid and she can’t play it. (Judging from the dialogue we’ve already heard for the film-within-the-film, she has a point.) The character is obviously a parody of Greta Garbo — or at least the common image of her — and Fields even cribs such famous lines from the real Garbo as “I vant to be alone” and “I t’ank I go home now.” Birell rises to the challenge and plays her to the nines.

Lane fires her from the project and Max tries to get him to hire an established American actress to replace her, but Lane insists that since the film is set in Sweden he needs a genuinely Swedish woman to play the lead — only after hundreds of Swedish women of all ages and appearances have passed through the doors of Premier’s casting department and none of them have been what Lane was looking for, he’s ready to give up in desperation when suddenly, on a date to a traveling carnival with his assistant (and girlfriend) Gerry Marsh (Miriam Jordan), he sees a girl with an outrageously phony “French” accent running a concession on the midway and instantly decides she’s right for the part. There are only two complications — when the girl, Jean Kendall (Ann Sothern), hears Lane approach her and say he’s in the film business and can put her in the movies, she naturally assumes it’s a cheap pick-up line and turns him down; and, when she relents and agrees to test for his film, she’s not Swedish.

He doesn’t consider that a problem because he’s hatched a plan: he’ll have her move in with a middle-aged Swedish couple, Svente and Lisa Bjorkman (John Qualen and Greta Meyer) — who, though we’re supposed to believe they’re real Swedes, talk with the phony “Swedish” accents of El Brendel-style dialect comedians — and live there for several weeks, during which they’ll give her a crash course in Swedish language and culture so when Lane finally introduces her at the studio, he can pass her off as genuine Swedish actress “Sigrid Lund.” Jean agrees to go through the whole charade because, needless to say, she’s got a crush on Ken — though she’s disappointed when she learns, on the eve of her big film debut, he’s already got a girlfriend — and when Ken hosts a party and invites celebrities and the media to meet his new star, in a fit of jealousy Gerry outs her as an American and not a Swede at all.

Max, thinking of how long Ken put the film on hold to look for a real Swede and how much money that costs him, has an argument with Ken which results in Ken resigning from the studio — but in the meantime the media coverage makes Jean a heroine (“The Girl Who Fooled Hollywood!” the headlines cry, making the rather obvious point that she must be a great actress if she could convince so many people for so long that she was a nationality other than her own) and people flood movie theatres all over the country demanding to see the as-yet unfinished film. There’s just one catch: Jean has disappeared from Hollywood, and Ken has to find her — which he does by tracing her carnival to Kansas City, ultimately winning her back both professionally and personally.

Though this isn’t exactly the freshest story in the world — it wasn’t then, either — Let’s Fall in Love is told with a marvelous wit and insouciant charm that makes up for its triteness and the failure to showcase its title song adequately. We hear it three times — first sung by an adenoidal Irish tenor in the opening sequence (one wonders what possessed the great director Kenneth Lane to put an Irish tenor into a movie about Sweden) and then twice sung by Ann Sothern, who was a personable and likable actress but hardly one of the golden throats of cinematic history. (I couldn’t help but imagine what a breathtaking film this could have been with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the leads!)

One wonders how a film got greenlighted at Columbia that portrayed a studio boss as obnoxious, pushy and unscrupulous — the usual view of Columbia’s real-life head, Harry Cohn — and also how life imitated art four years later when Sam Goldwyn suffered a major embarrassment after Sigrid Gurie, the actress he had supposedly (and with great fanfare and ballyhoo) imported from Norway, turned out to have been born in Flatbush, Brooklyn (though she was at least Norwegian by ancestry; her parents had emigrated from there), thereby ruining the box-office chances of the film he’d starred her in, The Adventures of Marco Polo with Gary Cooper. Interestingly, Let’s Fall in Love was remade at Columbia 14 years later under the title Slightly French — reflecting a change in the country the heroine (Dorothy Lamour) had to pretend to be from from Sweden to France — directed by Douglas Sirk, who rather airily dismissed the movie when he told Jon Halliday, “I have no feeling for this picture at all.”

Love Thy Neighbor (Marvista/Lifetime, 2006)

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

This morning I saw a quite interesting movie I’d recorded off Lifetime: Love Thy Neighbor, a 2006 production from something called Marvista Entertainment (whose logo was actually a view of a seascape with a rock-like island off to the right side — for once one of these paper production companies picked a logo with some real-world tie to its name!), directed by Paul Schneider from a script by Kraig Wenman and dealing with a woman named Laura Benson (Alexandra Paul, top-billed) who’s raising her teenage daughter Erin (Ksenia Solo) more or less on her own. She and her husband Jim (Gary Hudson) are still together, but his job — he works for a major aviation company flying around the world to sell their civilian planes to airlines — keeps him away from home so much Laura is practically a single mother. A couple of burglars, one identified in the cast list only as “Shooter” (James Binkley) and his accomplice, Jack Kim (Sean Baek), decide to take advantage of her male-free lifestyle and break into her house while she and Erin are alone there; they kill the family dog, Fred, but this alerts the police and they arrive at the house, not in time to catch the burglars but at least in time to scare them into fleeing — and later they do catch the shooter while he’s burglarizing another home and Laura learns from the lead police detective on the case, Zeller (John Bourgeois), that the burglar team previously robbed, raped and killed an 80-year-old woman.

Nonetheless, both Laura and Erin suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and, with at least one of the burglars still at large and threatening to return to keep them from testifying, during one of his occasional returns home Jim (ya remember Jim?) decides that the way to keep his wife and daughter safe is to buy a home in a gated community with built-in burglar alarms, a guard at the front gate and heavy-duty security. Erin decides she likes the new house “except for the Alcatraz stuff,” but not surprisingly, this being a Lifetime movie, the security isn’t enough to deter either Kim (who’s eventually arrested, only to be released on bail) or a new threat to the Bensons: their next-door-neighbor, Janis Rivers (Shannon Lawson), who arrives all chirpy and chipper, baking them a key lime pie to welcome them into the neighborhood and offering to be their best friend. Janis has a daughter, Jenny (Michelle Killoran), who’s Erin’s age and virtually catatonic — it’s all too believable that someone with a relentlessly talkative mother who demands to take charge of any and all social situations would respond by shutting up and essentially shutting down.

It’s not surprising that neither Ksenia Solo nor Michelle Killoran look even remotely like the actors purportedly playing their parents — indeed, Killoran would be more believable as Alexandra Paul’s daughter (since at least they’re both blonde) than as Shannon Lawson’s — but that’s a common movie casting faux pas and it doesn’t affect the film much. Anyway, Janis keeps her game face on, constantly offering quotes from 19th century authors and buddying up to the Bensons — including Jim on his rare returns home — until both Laura and we suddenly see a different side of her when her ex-husband Alan (John Jarvis) shows up to return Jenny after a weekend visitation and Janis goes ballistic over his return late and even more so when he tries to give her an affectionate pat on her shoulder. “Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me!” she snarls, giving us a quite different view of this person than the virtual Stepford Mom we’ve seen before. Things really go into overdrive when both Erin and Jenny try out for the high-school girl’s soccer team; Erin makes it but Jenny doesn’t, and Janis takes Laura out to lunch and in a tearful plea asks Laura to pull Erin off the team to make room for Jenny.

Laura, not surprisingly, refuses — and from then on it’s all-out war as Janis calls in an anonymous (false) report that Erin has been seen taking steroids, forcing her off the team until she can be drug-tested — and when the drug test is about to come back clean, Janis strikes again and tells the school principal that the coach has been having an affair with the mother of one of the students in exchange for giving his paramour’s daughter special treatment. She also fakes a threatening note, made up of words clipped from magazine headlines in the best tradition of 1930’s gangster movies, that purports to come from Kim and threatens that he knows where Laura lives and will come back and kill her the way he did her dog — “Ruff Ruff.” Things really heat up when Janis butchers Laura’s cat (a stray cat wandered in when they were moving in and Erin joked to her mom, “It looks like we’ve been adopted,” words she later used about Janis as well) and confronts her in her home (Laura makes the mistake of turning off all that high-tech security and letting her in, thinking it’s Detective Zeller), beating her up and trying to stab her with a knife and club Erin to death with a fireplace poker — and there’s a hot confrontation scene which ends with Janis falling through a stair rail on the top floor of the house and crashing to the floor below, though the blow only stuns her and she’s taken into custody alive at the end.

Love Thy Neighbor (one wishes they could have found room to play Bing Crosby’s 1934 song of the same title from his film We’re Not Dressing, creating the ironic effect the makers of Watchmen went for when they had the opening murder take place to the strains of Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable”) is a pretty generic example of what Maureen Dowd derisively referred to as Lifetime’s “pussies in peril” movies, but at least it’s well constructed and suspenseful (though Paul Schneider — as if consciously seeking to copy the style of his far more famous near-namesake, Paul Schrader — pretty relentlessly overdirects), and it has one first-rate performance: Shannon Lawson’s as the villainess. The sort of person politely referred to as “a woman of size” — big but not completely unattractive and sufficiently hot that she can bat her eyes (and other things) at security guard Crowley (Rod Crawford) and thereby get him to see her conflicts with Laura her way — Lawson probably didn’t get many offers for roles this big and meaty, and given one she seized every opportunity.

The character basically comes off as a grown-up version of Rhoda Penmark from Maxwell Anderson’s play The Bad Seed (the Production Code Administration mandated that she die in the movie, but in the play she lives while her mom dies), able to conceal her psychopathology under a mask of sweetness and lovability and to turn her nature and her whole affect around on a dime as the spirit moves her, suddenly letting loose the monster underneath the relentlessly chipper perfect-suburbanite exterior. An unhinged woman with a record of assault and domestic violence (“She has a mean right hook,” Zeller warns Laura a few scenes before Laura finds herself on the receiving end of it), whose final descent into madness appears to have been sparked when her ex-husband (the typical lanky, sandy-haired milquetoast Lifetime’s casting department generally likes in roles like this) sued for custody of Jenny and looked like he was about to win, Janis is a vividly written character brought to intense and unforgettable life by Lawson’s finely honed acting.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Watchmen (Warners/Paramount, 2009)

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

The film Watchmen began its life as a comic-book serial published by DC in 1986-87, drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons from a script by Alan Moore — who’s become noted in the comics world for his innovative long-form scripts and his Salinger-esque hatred of the movie business; as essentially a writer-for-hire he hasn’t been able to prevent the filmization of his works completely (as Salinger has ever since he sold one story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” to Sam Goldwyn in the early 1950’s and was appalled at the saccharine soap opera it turned into as the 1952 film My Foolish Heart), but he has denounced every one of the films made from his works, and on Watchmen he went so far as to decline screen credit, so the film’s opening titles (itself a refreshing return to tradition in a movie industry that increasingly relegates all its credits — even the name of the film itself! — to the end) attribute the script to David Hayter and Alex Tse based on a “graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons,” with nary a mention of who his co-creator was.

Watchmen was first published as a series of normal-length comic books and then reprinted in complete form as a book-length “graphic novel” (the term of art for a comic book with pretensions), and since it was created in the mid-1980’s it takes place then — albeit in an alternate-reality version of the 1980’s in which Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) successfully got the 22nd Amendment repealed (as he actually planned to do following his landslide re-election victory in 1972 — only the metastasizing Watergate scandal undid his political capital and channeled his energies into sheer survival rather than extending his term in office) and is now (1985) just beginning his fifth term in office. He was able to stay in office that long partly because of Doctor Manhattan née Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), who like the Incredible Hulk gained super-powers as the result of a nuclear-energy experiment gone awry — only Jon turned blue instead of green, he went about naked from then on (his cock is clearly visible in the film, apparently even more than it was in the comic — where the appearance of a male with a visible penis was itself a major departure from the norms of the form) and he gained not only physical brawn but an ability to manipulate time and space and an increase of his already formidable intellectual and physical powers.

The main characters of Watchmen are the assemblage of super-heroes so named, who’ve had to go into retirement since the passage of the Keene Act in 1981 forbade people from going about wearing masks; they are themselves an offshoot of another group of superheroes called the Minutemen, formed in 1940 to help America emerge triumphant in its upcoming involvement in World War II, and at least two of the members of the Watchmen, Nite Owl a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman — a woman named Malin, top-billed), are descendants of the originals from the Minutemen (Stephen McHattie and Carla Gugino, respectively) — and not only is the new Silk Spectre the daughter of the original, her father, it turns out midway through the movie, is the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), yet another Watchman who attempted to rape the original Spectre but then came back and somehow managed to seduce her into having sex with him willingly.

The main Watchman is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose gimmick is that his mask is white with black splotches on it but the splotches constantly change form and shape — not all that different from the gimmicky (and physically impossible) villains Chester Gould had Dick Tracy confront in the later years of the comic strip (my favorite was “Spots,” a crook who had spots … not on his face but trailing along beside it, in mid-air), but an effect in which for once the movie medium scores over the graphic novel: all Dave Gibbons could do is vary the pattern of Rorschach’s spots every time he drew him, while the filmmakers can animate his spots and have them change before our eyes. In the opening scene the Comedian is murdered, and Rorschach — who spends most of his time wandering the mean streets of the Watchmen’s home city (we’re supposed to think it’s New York, I suppose) and spouting off pseudo-poetic lines that make it sound as if Allen Ginsberg or Charles Bukowski has suddenly acquired a super-power: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’... and I’ll whisper, ‘No’” — determines that there’s a mysterious masked avenger who is attempting to eliminate all the Watchmen as part of some sinister scheme for which he needs a world without superheroes.

Rorschach is also depicted as a disgusted Right-winger, continually sounding off against the liberals who have ruined America — suggesting that had the story of Watchmen actually followed American history instead of inventing its own alternative version, instead of taking long nocturnal walks through seedy neighborhoods and living in a dump. Rorschach could have made a lot of money as a talk-radio host.

Anyway, after a long series of sometimes powerful and more often just confusing incidents involving love, sex (Silk Spectre begins the movie as Doctor Manhattan’s lover and ends it as Nite Owl’s), jealousy, the media (in one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, Doctor Manhattan, who though rarely seen is acknowledged in the public eye as the power behind Nixon’s throne, grants a TV interview and then disrupts the studio and vaporizes all its inhabitants when he doesn’t like the line of questioning he’s being subjected to), Mars (where Doctor Manhattan flees because after his girlfriend jilts him he no longer feels any connection to Earth) and the threat of nuclear annihilation over the war in Afghanistan, in which Nixon (still with Henry Kissinger as his right-hand man) and the Soviet premier are threatening all-out war between the superpowers as both the Russians and the Americans mass troops and high-tech weaponry on the Afghan border, Watchmen drags along for over three hours (the theatrical release was 162 minutes but I called Columbia House to change my order to the 186-minute director’s cut once I heard that the longer one existed) — and the U.S. military leadership meets with Nixon in a set obviously patterned on the War Room in Dr. Strangelove (one of many older and, quite frankly, better movies Watchmen quotes from) — the plot, such as it is, resolves in Antarctica, where yet another former Watchman, Ozymandias a.k.a. Adrian Veidt — as in Conrad (Matthew Goode, the one genuinely handsome male in the cast), has built what’s supposedly a clean-energy plant that can eliminate shortages and scarcity worldwide.

Only it’s really a device that will set off nuclear mega-weapons in all the world’s most important cities, including New York, London, Paris and Moscow, because Veidt has apparently absorbed the theories of the deep ecologists and decided that the only way the world’s people will allow themselves to bury national, tribal and racial divisions and hatreds is if some horrendous disaster befalls them, millions of humans are killed and the remaining members of the human race find it necessary to pull together in the post-catastrophe world. Adrian’s plan actually goes off as scheduled, and the other Watchmen decide that he’s right and the truth needs to be concealed from the human race to maximize the potential for world peace as a result — except for Rorschach, who’s killed by Nite Owl when he threatens to reveal the details of Veidt’s plot — and though he dies his diary ends up in the hands of a Right-wing newspaper called the New Frontiersman, which eagerly prints it to debunk the whole peace movement and undo Veidt’s plot.

Watchmen is a movie that virtually epitomizes everything that’s wrong with modern-day filmmaking — and I say that with a great deal of sorrow because it’s a film you want very much to like; though it’s aiming for the blockbuster comic-movie crowd it’s also aiming a lot higher than that, it’s attempting to deal with Big Issues both emotional and political, and its script is rich with allusions (the smiley-face button that was the Comedian’s symbol with drops of his blood on it, the watch — Veidt says his father was a watchmaker who gave up his craft when he realized Einstein was right when he said space and time were relative — the “nuclear doomsday clock” which when the action begins is set at five to midnight — and a whole plethora of enigmatic clues which form unifying threads throughout the film) and is well put together for the genre. But Watchmen suffers from too many of the sins of modern-day filmmaking for it to be enjoyable.

It’s got one of those crazy-quilt stories in which literally anything can happen — which means that you can’t create a legitimate sense of surprise because you haven’t created a baseline of audience expectations you can then startle them by violating. Instead you watch this movie drone on and on and, when the plot takes a particularly fantastic turn, you say, “Oh, yeah, they’re on Mars. Right.” It’s also one of those modern-day movies that seems to have been edited with a vegetable chopper, in which the filmmakers (including Zack Snyder, who got the assignment to direct Watchmen after the success of his film 300, based on another Alan Moore graphic-novel script about the battle of Thermopylae, meaning they were interested in his command of on-screen action more than any ability to work with actors or create a film that makes sense) seem utterly convinced that if they hold a shot for more than about three seconds the entire audience will get ADHD and walk out or get bored — and it’s another one of those damnable films in which the director and writers maintain an almost anthropological distance from their characters, attempting to be “cool” and only achieving an emotional coldness which carefully avoids giving us any characters we can like or relate to, and any more than the most basic, simplistic emotional conflicts between them.

Much of the publicity surrounding Watchmen — which was in development at one studio or another for over 20 years and ran through quite a few putative directors and actors before the one we have finally got made — centered around the desire of the filmmakers to remain faithful to the graphic novel so the hard-core fans would be sure to like the movie, Maybe they should have spent some more time worrying about who else would like the movie; as it stands, Watchmen is an overwhelming film, but not necessarily in the positive sense of that term — it drones on and on and on, and some of the imagery is breathtakingly beautiful (director Snyder deliberately worked from Gibbons’ original drawings instead of storyboarding the action on his own) but little or none of this movie makes much sense — and I couldn’t help wishing that Larry and Adam Wachowski had been given the nod to do this, because in V for Vendetta they took an Alan Moore-scripted graphic novel and made a film that (despite a few of the same flaws as Watchmen, notably scenes that seemed to exist more to show off their visual virtuosity than to add to the plot or characterizations) has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, a hero we can root for (despite, or perhaps because of, his flaws), and a story that taps real human emotions and ends in legitimate and even moving tragedy.

Watchmen was one of the most intensely hyped films of this year, and three studios fought in court over its box-office receipts — but it was a commercial disappointment and after it was made Warners’ studio head announced that they would never again make a comic-book movie with an “R” rating (as if that were the problem — commercial or artistic — with this film!).

Sicko (Dog Eat Dog/Weinstein Co./Lionsgate, 2007)

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

Michael Moore’s Sicko, two years after its release, turns out to be unexpectedly timely in the middle of the debate in Washington, D.C. over health care “reform” — though I use the term in quotes because the entire deliberation at the federal level has been committed to the idea that, whatever happens, the current structure of the U.S.’s private, for-profit health insurance industry as the bulwark of health coverage must be kept intact. I would argue — and I’m sure, on the basis of his film, that Moore would agree with me — that universal coverage and a private insurance industry are mutually incompatible: you can have one or the other, but not both. The reason is very simple: it’s the enormous profits the health insurance companies are making (mostly for their shareholders but also for their CEO’s and other top executives) that are sucking resources out of the system that otherwise could be used to extend coverage to the currently uninsured. The resources to cover everybody exist nowhere else — which is why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that the so-called “reform” being pushed by the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress would cost a whopping $1 trillion more than the current system.

Sicko the movie is typical Michael Moore — a good amount of grandstanding and a liberal dose of wit (sometimes clever, sometimes heavy-handed) to make a serious point: that everywhere else in the advanced industrialized world, government guarantees its citizens access to health care as a right and it is simply accepted as a matter of practicality and realism that the health care system will be funded primarily by taxes — and will make its services available to anyone, regardless of coverage, employment status, pre-existing conditions or ability to pay. It’s a movie that went absolutely nowhere, though, in terms of affecting the debate over health care — on the July 10, 2009 episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal, Wendell Potter, former public relations director for Cigna, boasted of his and the industry’s efforts that “blunted” the potential political impact of Sicko:

“WENDELL POTTER: I thought that he hit the nail on the head with his movie. But the industry, from the moment that the industry learned that Michael Moore was taking on the health care industry, it was really concerned.

“BILL MOYERS: What were they afraid of?

“WENDELL POTTER: They were afraid that people would believe Michael Moore.

“BILL MOYERS: We obtained a copy of the game plan that was adopted by the industry’s trade association, AHIP. And it spells out the industry strategies in gold letters. It says, ‘Highlight horror stories of government-run systems.’ What was that about?

“WENDELL POTTER: The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you’re heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern.

“BILL MOYERS: And there was a political strategy. ‘Position Sicko as a threat to Democrats’ larger agenda.’ What does that mean?

“WENDELL POTTER: That means that part of the effort to discredit this film was to use lobbyists and their own staff to go onto Capitol Hill and say, ‘Look, you don’t want to believe this movie. You don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to endorse it. And if you do, we can make things tough for you.’


“WENDELL POTTER: By running ads, commercials in your home district when you’re running for re-election, not contributing to your campaigns again, or contributing to your competitor.

“BILL MOYERS: This is fascinating. You know, ‘Build awareness among centrist Democratic policy organizations … including the Democratic Leadership Council.’ … Then it says, ‘Message to Democratic insiders. Embracing Moore is one-way ticket back to minority party status.’


“BILL MOYERS: Now, that’s exactly what they did, didn’t they? They … radicalized Moore, so that his message was discredited because the messenger was seen to be radical.

“WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely.”

Sicko is full of grim horror stories (though the film as it exists didn’t confirm my fear that it would be too gross to watch), including the uninsured patient who sliced off the tips of two of his fingers with a table saw and was told by the hospital that he could have a choice: they could reattach his middle finger for $60,000 or his ring finger for just $12,000. There’s also the incredibly moving testimony of Dr. Linda Peeno, speaking before a congressional committee in 1996 virtually in tears as she told about her routine denials of health insurance claims, including one that actually resulted in someone’s death — and for which service she was handsomely rewarded by her insurance company, as part of a system that routinely gives bonuses to doctors in charge of review panels based on how many claims they deny: the more denials you issue, the more money you get:

“My name is Linda Peeno. I am here primarily today to make a public confession: In the Spring of 1987, as a physician, I denied a man a necessary operation that would of saved his life, and thus caused his death. No person, and no group has held me accountable for this, because in fact, what I did was I saved a company a half a million dollars for this. And for the more, this particular act secured my reputation as a good medical director, and it insured my continued advancement in the health care field. I went from making a few hundred dollars a week as a medical reviewer, to an escalating six-figure income as a physician executive. In all my work, I had one primary duty, and that was to use my medical expertise for the financial benefit for the organization which I worked. And I was told repeatedly that I was not denying care, I was simply denying payment. I know how managed care pains and kills patients. So I am here to tell you about the dirty work of managed care. And I’m haunted by the thousands of pieces of paper in which I have written that deadly word, ‘denied.’”

Sicko is basically a morality play, alternating dire stories from the U.S. health care system — individuals denied medical coverage (including a middle-aged couple forced to move into their daughter’s basement and share house-room with her computer because he had three heart attacks and lost his coverage, and she got cancer), individuals turned down flat by insurers who didn’t want their business at all because the companies feared they would cost far more than they’d bring in in premiums (there’s a receding crawl, accompanied by the Star Wars main theme, showing all the “pre-existing conditions” insurers routinely turn down potential customers based on), coverage conveniently pulled because the insurer’s detectives (one of the detectives, who’s since left the business because he, like Linda Peeno, actually had an attack of conscience, is one of Moore’s most fascinating interviews) uncovered a “pre-existing condition” (like the woman who was denied a claim for a $72,000 operation because years before she had had a yeast infection and sought medical care for it, and she hadn’t disclosed that on her application — indeed, the detective Moore interviewed said that in some states you can be denied coverage even for a health problem you didn’t seek treatment for based on a “prudent-person” doctrine that a normal person in that situation would have sought care) and in some cases the deaths of several patients (including an 18-month-old girl and the African-American husband of a white woman who actually worked at the hospital where she was trying to get her husband treated for bone-marrow cancer, who in the middle of a hostile hearing suddenly said, “Is it because he’s Black and I’m white?,” and stormed out of the room) — with happy tales of how wonderfully single-payer health care works in the rest of the civilized world.

Moore visits Canada (where he encounters an American woman who claims to be the common-law wife of a Canadian just so she can access the single-payer health care system — I’d known about people in the northern U.S. crossing the border into Canada to buy prescription drugs more cheaply but I’d never before heard of Americans going to Canada and using subterfuges to get actual health care), Britain, France and Cuba — the last the most controversial part of his movie; at the time the Chicago Tribune reported that Moore was actually under investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for having filmed in Cuba and they were threatening to seize his film, so he had to sneak it out of the country to show it at the Cannes Film Festival — in which he gathered together a group of Americans that had been denied care, including some people who’d volunteered their services as rescue workers at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks, and sought to get them onto the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay after Republican Senators boasted during Congressional hearings that the detainees there didn’t have it so bad because the base had state-of-the-art hospital facilities in which the detainees got state-of-the-art care.

Not surprisingly, Moore wasn’t able to get his people to Guantánamo, but he was able to land them on Cuban soil (there’s a grimly funny credit to the effect that Department of Homeland Security regulations prohibit him from showing just how) and to get them treated in the Cuban health care system. He also shot an interview with Alecia Guevara, a Cuban pediatrician and daughter of Che Guevara (who’ll, you recall, originally trained as a doctor and whose first role in the Cuban revolution was as a medic treating revolutionary fighters in the field, before he rose to become a participant and a commander in actual combat), who says, “Cuba is a little island in the Caribbean with little to no resources. We can do a lot to improve the people’s health. This does not happen in the United States. Why are we able and you are not?” Wendell Potter made a similar point in his interview on Bill Moyers’ Journal (a fascinating tale that’s basically Cinderella in reverse: he got off his company-issued private plane, where he was served dinner on gold-rimmed plates with gold-plated utensils to eat it with, and attended a health fair in Tennessee and saw the uninsured literally flocking to get tests and treatments in crudely set-up stations in open-air booths, and that was his “aha!” moment during which he realized how the industry that paid him so well had screwed up America’s health-care system), when he said that the movie contained “a great truth,” which was:

“That we shouldn’t fear government involvement in our health care system. That there is an appropriate role for government, and it’s been proven in the countries that were in that movie.

“You know, we have more people who are uninsured in this country than the entire population of Canada. And that if you include the people who are underinsured, more people than in the United Kingdom. We have huge numbers of people who are also just a lay-off away from joining the ranks of the uninsured, or being purged by their insurance company, and winding up there.

“And another thing is that the advocates of reform or the opponents of reform are those who are saying that we need to be careful about what we do here, because we don’t want the government to take away your choice of a health plan. It’s more likely that your employer and your insurer is going to switch you from a plan that you’re in now to one that you don’t want. You might be in the plan you like now.

“But chances are, pretty soon, you’re going to be enrolled in one of these high deductible plans in which you’re going to find that much more of the cost is being shifted to you than you ever imagined.”

The real message of Sicko — and it’s a quite depressing one — is just how far apart we are from the rest of the industrialized world in terms of basic values, and in particular how we see ourselves and our relationship with the state. The countries that have been able to pull off successful single-payer systems — in the movie, Britain and France along with Canada (a former colony of both of them) and Cuba (a country whose revolutionary government overthrew capitalism 50 years ago) — all have something of a feudal heritage, and while the official justification of feudalism as a mutually beneficial relationship in which the serfs received protection and security from the landowner in return for a share of their produce was honored in practice far more in the breach than in the observance, nonetheless it built into those countries’ social DNA a sense of a mutual obligation between government and the citizenry.

The United States, by contrast, was never a feudal society — it was capitalist from the get-go (the only serious competitor to capitalism as an economic system in the U.S. was the slave-based landed aristocracy of the South, and that conflict was settled by the Civil War) — and has had a very different conception of the role of government, basically one in which government is seen as inherently suppressive of individual rights and therefore must be kept in check as much as possible. One of the grimmest parts of Sicko is the montage showing how the private health industry (not only the insurance companies but also the American Medical Association and the various trade associations including the hospital industry and especially the pharmaceutical companies) has killed attempts to establish government-based health care programs again and again with exactly the same rhetoric each time: it’ll take away your freedom to choose your own doctor, you’ll be forced into a government-run system where government bureaucrats will get in between you and your doctor and decide what care you can or can’t receive — and aside from a couple of slip-ups at the height of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” in the 1960’s, where he was able to slip through Medicare and Medicaid (Mad magazine bitterly summed up the AMA’s opposition to Medicare when they joked, “Medicare robs older people of their freedom to choose the doctor they cannot afford to go to”), the health business has managed to kill every initiative to set up anything even remotely resembling the kind of health-care guarantees every other developed country gives its citizens.

The fact that they’ve been the same arguments every time — and they’re being trotted out again (with some interesting new wrinkles: before I saw the movie I’d heard a bit of Mark Levin’s talk show in which he quoted an article purporting to debunk all the claims that are made that other countries have better health outcomes and do more preventive care; he said that infant mortality rates are deceptive because they fail to take into account genetic differences between countries — to which one can only wonder exactly where he thinks most of the current U.S. population came from? All those despicable European countries that actually have universal single-payer health care! — and that if you factored out auto accidents and gunshot deaths, the U.S. life expectancy would exceed those in Europe … which seemed to me a place a Right-winger like Levin would ordinarily not want to go, since it suggests that we have too many cars and too many guns!) — is less depressing than the fact that they work every time.

Americans simply buy the idea that having a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor is the epitome of social evil, while having a private bureaucrat between you and your doctor is just part of the price you pay for “freedom.” It really has to do with a difference in philosophy between this country and the rest of the world, the extent to which the ideal of “rugged individualism” is encoded into our social DNA and that except under particularly stressful conditions Americans instinctively reject collectivist solutions to our social problems and embrace individualistic ones instead. Moore has a fascinating interview with Tony Benn (formerly Sir Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, retired British politician who gave up his hereditary title and abbreviated his name to accord with his strongly Leftist “Old Labour” politics) in which, right after a montage of how much debt Americans live under, Benn says, “Keeping people hopeless and pessimistic — see I think there are two ways in which people are controlled — first of all frighten people and secondly demoralize them. An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.”

The implication is that Americans are fearful and hopeless and that they’re deliberately kept that way by their government and corporations so they won’t revolt the way people routinely do in countries like France, where governments who try to cut back on the society’s public benefits or employers who try to cut wages and perks are routinely met by tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets. (One of the most fascinating aspects of Sicko was that Moore depicted the European welfare state in a positive fashion; when the U.S. media deign to mention it at all, it’s usually in a context of condemning European governments and employers for “spoiling” their people with 35-hour workweeks, six-month maternity leaves, five-week vacations and the rest of it — and thereby their economies are falling behind ours since we’re energizing ourselves by working multiple jobs, never taking time off and having the discipline of the market unimpeded by any dangerously socialist ideas about the government taking care of us. The fact that the U.S. economy isn’t appreciably stronger than the European ones by objective measures doesn’t enter into it any more than the fact that other countries’ health care systems keep their people alive longer and healthier.) One of Moore’s interviews with a Canadian explains just what a gulf there is between our perceptions of government’s proper role in society and theirs:

“Michael Moore: I’m wondering why you expect your fellow Canadians, who don’t have your problem, why should they, through their tax dollars, have to pay for a problem you have.

“Canadian: Because we would do the same for them. It’s just the way it’s always been, and so we hope it’ll always be.

“Michael Moore: Right. But if you just had to pay for your problem, and don’t pay for everybody else’s problem, just take care of yourself.

“Canadian: Well, there are lots of people who aren’t in a position to be able to do that. And somebody has to look out for them.”

Moore himself movingly articulates the communitarian perspective in his peroration at the end — just after he mentions that in what he wanted us to read as noble but which came off to me as an offensively patronizing act of noblesse oblige that he anonymously donated $12,000 to the proprietor of the nation’s leading anti-Michael Moore Web site after that person had said he might have to take it down because he could no longer afford both the maintenance of his site and the health insurance his wife needed — in which he says:

“It was hard for me to acknowledge that in the end, we truly are all in the same boat. And that now matter what are differences, we sink or swim together. That’s how it seems to be everywhere else. They take care of each other, no matter what their disagreements. You know, when we see a good idea from another country, we grab it. If they build a better car, we drive it. If they make a better wine, we drink it. So if they’ve come up with a better way to treat the sick, to teach their kids, to take care of their babies, to simply be good to each other, then what’s our problem? Why can’t we do that? They live in a world of ‘we’, not ‘me’. We’ll never fix anything until we get that one basic thing right. And powerful forces hope that we never do. And that we remain the only country in the western world without free, universal health care. You know, if we ever did remove the chokehold of medical bills, college loans, daycare, and everything else that makes us afraid to step out of line, well, watch out. ‘Cause it will be a new day in America.”

Don’t hold your breath, though: as Cathleen Decker noted in a fascinating article on the California budget crisis in the July 26 Los Angeles Times, despite their reputation as living in one of the most “liberal” states in the country, Californians have decisively rejected the idea that government has much of anything positive to offer in terms of solving social problems. Her article contrasted the major expansion of California government under Pat Brown’s governorship (1959-1967) to the anti-government attitude of Californians today: “In Brown’s California, there was a broad consensus that government was a competent force for good. Now, among Californians of all political ideologies, there is the opposite: a repudiation of government and, even more, of any confidence in the governor and the Legislature to act competently. On that matter, at least, California as a whole has shifted to the Right.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Terror of Tiny Town (Buell/Astor/Columbia, 1938)

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

The film was The Terror of Tiny Town, producer Jed Buell’s 1938 novelty Western with a cast of little people — as in “midgets.” All midgets. (There is supposedly a version in which you see a normal-sized human at the beginning just for purposes of comparison, but I’ve never seen it.) Buell put ads in entertainment newspapers all across the country advertising “Big Salaries for Little People” and reportedly spent $100,000 on this film — a modest budget even in 1938 but considerably more than most “B” Westerns cost. He also hired normal-sized hacks to direct and write it — Sam Newfield and Fred Myton, respectively, who later reunited for a lot of PRC’s early gangster and horror output — and used Edward Kilenyi to score the film, though I have no idea whether that’s Kilenyi, Sr. (who was one of George Gershwin’s music teachers) or Kilenyi, Jr. (a concert pianist who recorded the complete Chopin waltzes for Remington in the early 1950’s). It was shot in some of the familiar “B” Western locations, including the Lazy A Ranch in Santa Susana, California (later infamous as the hangout from which Charles Manson’s “Family” set out to commit the ritual murders he thought were going to start a race war) as well as Newhall and Placentia Canyons.

Buell actually recruited a fairly competent cast; Harry Earles, the genuinely talented midget actor who had appeared in both versions of The Unholy Three, had mostly retired from movies after Freaks in 1932 (his other career, with his sisters Daisy, Grace and Tiny, was as an act with the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey circus, with which they performed until they retired in the mid-1950’s; Harry died in 1985), so he wasn’t available, but for the lead hero they got Billy Curtis, a competent actor who was still appearing in featured roles into the 1970’s; while the heroine, Yvonne Moray, is surprisingly charming and winsome and would probably have had a bigger career if there’d been more of a call for midget ingénues back then. The plot — Myton was truly stretching credibility when he took a credit for “original” story! — is your standard “B” Western intrigue dealing with villain Pat Haines (played by an actor identified only as “Little Billy”), who’s rustling cattle from the two rival ranches just outside Tiny Town, Lawson’s and Preston’s, and making it look as if each ranch is being rustled by the other.

Though the novelty casting of The Terror of Tiny Town makes it impossible to take it seriously — especially since some of the sets and props have been scaled down to fit the size of the actors (the “horses” they ride are ponies) while others haven’t been (they get into saloons by walking under the normal-sized swinging doors and likewise evade fences by walking under them, and the midget actor playing a blacksmith has to put a shoe on the movie’s one full-sized horse) — it’s very carefully not played for laughs, and surprisingly it’s at its most entertaining when it’s simply following the conventions of a “B” Western and we can ignore the odd casting.

There’s actually one great scene in the movie — Haines’ men attempt to ambush the stagecoach bringing the heroine to Tiny Town -— in which Newfield does some quite good suspense editing and cinematographer Mack Stengler (later a house man at Monogram) finds some unusual (at least for a “B”) camera angles — and there are also five songs (this was made at the height of the “singing cowboy” craze, after all), one of which is a genuinely charming novelty called “Mister Jack and Missus Jill,” which contemplates the wedding of the famous duo from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme. (That’s funny; for some reason I’d always thought of them as brother and sister, even though nothing in the original specifies their relationship.) Interestingly, the women in the cast — Moray and Nita Krebs (as “The Vampire,” Haines’ girlfriend, who does a number in the Tiny Town saloon that’s an obvious parody of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco) — do their own singing, while the men are dubbed by singers who don’t sound at all like them and were probably non-midgets.

The problem is that The Terror of Tiny Town is a one-joke movie, and the joke isn’t particularly funny — it’s not really offensive (there’s nothing in this movie that is making the midgets the butt of “sizist” ridicule); it’s just not amusing either. One quirky aspect is that in the opening credits the characters aren’t named, but just given “types” — thus we’re told that Billy Curtis plays “The Hero,” Yvonne Moray “The Heroine,” Pat Haines “The Villain,” Bill Platt “The Rich Uncle,” and so on — a device that got revived in the 1960’s by independent filmmakers who thought they were being oh so innovative by not giving their characters names. Though The Terror of Tiny Town was picked up for distribution by a (relatively) major studio, Columbia, it must have been a box-office disappointment because Buell didn’t get to follow through on his ideas for other films with all-midget casts — including one that sounds absolutely fascinating: Problem Child.

Apparently Buell had hooked up with the virtually forgotten (by 1938) Mack Sennett to make a comedy featuring some of the midgets from Tiny Town, and he had caught Stan Laurel while he was temporarily on the outs with both Oliver Hardy and Hal Roach and offered him the role of the son of a midget couple who unexpectedly grows up full-sized and has a hard time coping with the miniaturized world in which his parents live. Had Laurel been permitted to develop his own gags for this film, it might have been screamingly funny and oddly touching at the same time; instead it was never made, and he returned to Hardy for the independent production The Flying Deuces and then the two settled with Roach for the films A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea — while many of the little people who’d been recruited to Hollywood for The Terror of Tiny Town went on themselves to fill out the ranks of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz: straight from one of the worst movies of all time to one of the best!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Daredevil (20th Century Fox/Regency/Marvel, 2003)

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

I ran a disc Charles had downloaded recently: the 2006 “Rifftrax” version of the 2003 superhero film Daredevil, from 20th Century-Fox and Marvel Entertainment. “Rifftrax” is the latest venture from the final cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — Mike Nelson as himself, Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo and Bill Corbett as Crow — in which they record snarky soundtracks to be played over feature films and sell their works as mp3’s, along with a program you can use to synch their riff tracks to a commercial DVD of the film they’re lampooning.

The 2003 Daredevil was a potentially interesting movie based on one of Marvel’s quirkier characters — Daredevil, son of a prizefighter who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and was blinded as a boy when an accident involving a toxic-waste truck led to some foul liquid being splashed into his eyes, rendering them non-functional and turning them a steely grey color, eyeballs and all. His non-hero name is Matt Murdock, and despite his handicap he grows up to be an attorney and does justice in the courtrooms by day and on the streets at night, billing himself as “Daredevil — The Man Without Fear!” In this film Daredevil himself is played by Ben Affleck — who for some really quirky reason doesn’t come off as well as a superhero as he did as an actor playing a superhero (George Reeves playing Superman) in Hollywoodland three years later — and the film opens with a closeup of a rat prowling the streets of New York City (we expect to hear Michael Jackson crooning “Ben” at any moment!) — and then Daredevil himself comes crashing to earth in the middle of a Roman Catholic church, shattering its stained-glass window as he does so, and he’s revived by his parish priest, Father Everett (Derrick O’Connor) — this may be the first superhero movie I’ve ever seen that took pains to let us know the superhero’s religion.

Anyway, we find out about two-thirds of the movie later that Daredevil suffered these injuries in the middle of a battle with Bullseye (Colin Farrell, who for my money is a lot sexier than Ben Affleck even in his villain’s drag, which is basically a lot of studded leather clothing and a bull’s-eye scar carved into his forehead), hired hit man of the Kingpin, the organized crime boss of New York City, whom at first we’re led to believe is Nick Manolis (Lennie Loftin) but we eventually learn is Black gangster Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan). So six years before an African-American became president of the United States for real, one became a gangland boss in a movie — even though he’s played in a rather retro fashion and comes across more like Bumpy Johnson, the real-life numbers king depicted at the end of his life in the film American Gangster (where ex-Mod Squad member Clarence Williams III played him) than like anybody we’d expect to see running a whole city’s crime syndicate today.

The version of Daredevil the Rifftrax folks were ridiculing was the 100-minute theatrical version (there’s also a 133-minute director’s cut on DVD, and at least one commentator on swears by it — sometimes, as with The Butterfly Effect, seeing the director’s cut is a far better experience than watching the original theatrical release, but something tells me that in this case all it would add to the experience is length), and it’s virtually a compendium of all the aspects of the superhero genre at its modern-day worst: murky, brown-dominated cinematography; sotto voce line deliveries from the hero; preposterous super-powers (for somebody who’s supposed to be a normal guy who trained to be a superhero, like Batman, Daredevil has such overdeveloped acrobatic skills he’s practically able to fly and he seems — though this may just be sloppy scripting on the part of director/writer Mark Steven Johnson — to be able to make it rain any time he wants merely by willing it to); a ridiculous female lead (Jennifer Garner as “Elektra Natchios” — “Electric nachos?” the Rifftrax crew inevitably joked — who comes on with acrobatic skills of her own and a pair of elaborate daggers, one in each hand, which Bullseye easily takes from her and uses against her; she also spends several reels hating Daredevil because Bullseye killed Elektra’s father and framed Daredevil for it); maddeningly arbitrary plotting; a slow, deliberate pace that takes the edge off the action scenes that are the one reason anybody bothers to go see a movie like this; and, above all, an infuriating sense of its own self-importance, an attempt to get us to see this as not just a fun excursion in a trashy but entertaining genre but some important statement about the human condition.

Daredevil was billed in the comics as “The Man Without Fear,” and Johnson takes that conceit and runs with it far faster and further than he ought to have — virtually all the villains in the movie take it upon themselves to teach him fear (thinking of Wagner’s Siegfried, I couldn’t help but joke, “He has to go through the magic fire and rescue the woman who’s lying on the rock on the other side of it … ”), leading to a series of pretty pointless confrontations that obviously kept Ben Affleck’s stunt doubles, Tim Connolly and Christopher Caso, busy but are too dully staged and paced to be much fun for us. Johnson also clearly wanted to project Daredevil as tapping into the iconography of Satan, and while his red costume with the little Batman-like horns on the cowl does lend itself to that interpretation, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that in the world the rest of us live in a daredevil is someone like Evel Kneivel, the sort of entertainer who astonishes his audience by risking his life in live performances of pointless stunts, and doesn’t advance himself as an agent of the Dark Side unless he’s specifically chosen that as his marketing strategy.

Daredevil is one of those movies that just sort of drones on (one reason I definitely think I wouldn’t like it any better if it were half an hour longer!), blowing the potential in the material and with so relentlessly dark and unappealing a set of characters that Jon Favreau as Matt Murdock’s law partner (who’s concerned about all the pro bono work Matt is doing and wants to get their firm some clients who will actually pay) is easily the most likable person in the film. It’s also cursed with a voice-over narration, delivered by Affleck in the sepulchral tones of Liberace in The Loved One and so stupidly written by Johnson it wasn’t always easy to tell the movie’s actual voiceover from the ones the Rifftrax crew were supplying — which were funny enough (especially the lampoons of other Affleck bombs, like Gigli), though without the endearing characterizations they played on MST3K they just sound like three wise guys you’ve invited over who insist on talking over the film you’re showing them.

Dick Tracy at RKO, 1945-1947

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

I had showed the first RKO Dick Tracy, made in 1945 and the inaugural effort in a series of four before RKO got out of the “B” business altogether in 1947. I’ve always liked the RKO Tracys — even the first two, made with Morgan Conway in the title role (prior to RKO’s “B”-feature ventures, Dick Tracy had only appeared on the screen in four Republic serials, played by Ralph Byrd — after the relative box-office disappointment of the second RKO Tracy, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, RKO took Conway off the series and hired Byrd, who made their last two Tracy films and starred as the detective again in a 1951-52 TV series that lasted a year — it was popular and would have been renewed except that Ralph Byrd died over the summer, and the producers decided to cancel it rather than risk a replacement who wouldn’t be accepted by audiences as Tracy the way Byrd had been — and that was the end of Tracy on screen until the Warren Beatty extravaganza of 1990). Conway is a perfectly fine Tracy, reasonably handsome and authoritative, though he lacked the famously jutting chin of Chester Gould’s cartoon.

The 1945 Dick Tracy was a film in a bit of a netherworld of its own, half straightforward cops-and-robbers yarn and half film noir, in which the mystery is who is the sinister “Splitface” who seems to be knifing people to death at random, and what is the connection between his victims. Eventually the connection turns out to be that the 14 people on his hit list are the 12 jurors and two alternates responsible for his conviction, who otherwise run all over the map in terms of income, status and career. Dick Tracy was written by Eric Taylor based on Gould’s comic strip, and for the most part (except for the mortician named “Deathridge”) he avoided the campy names with which Gould usually adorned his people. It opens with an out-and-out quote from RKO’s Cat People, which had featured Simone Simon stalking Jane Randolph through a green patch of urban soil — in this case a woman schoolteacher is being stalked by a psycho killer, she turns back and he isn’t there, then she starts walking forwards again and he is there, and he catches and kills her — and even shot on the very same set (a tree-lined walkway) Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had used for the similar scene in Cat People.

From that point the movie becomes an intriguing game of spot-the-set, and watchable mainly because of Conway, Anne Jeffreys as Tess Trueheart (she was as good as the girlfriend of a super-cop as she’d been as the girlfriend of a super-crook in Dillinger) and Mike Mazurki’s awesome performance as Splitface. Though the script gives him little or nothing in the way of motivation, Mazurki brings unexpected pathos to his role by playing Splitface much the way he did Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet (RKO’s noir masterpiece from 1944 based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely), giving the character far more depth and range than Taylor supplied in his script and making us almost feel sorry for the guy. There’s a hint that Splitface is actually a rarely seen and never photographed nightclub owner, Steve Owens (Morgan Wallace) — his daughter Judith, played by a young and almost unrecognizable Jane Greer, is an important character — but different actors play the two men.

The director is William Berke, who mostly ground out hack entries in the Falcon series with Tom Conway (including The Falcon in Mexico, for which he had Orson Welles as his uncredited co-director — a few clips of the Latin American scenes for Welles’ unfinished documentary It’s All True made their way into The Falcon in Mexico) but who here also seems to have been watching some noir movies, since much of the 1945 Dick Tracy is vividly atmospheric and visually quite distinguished, albeit sometimes more atmospheric than it needs to be to tell a relatively simple story. — 7/20/09


I turned on the TV and VCR to do some cueing and in the meantime managed to watch almost all of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. The history of the Tracy character in film is four (relatively) big-budget Republic serials between 1937 and 1941 starring Ralph Byrd (the third of which co-starred a young actress named Phyllis Isley, who later achieved fame as Jennifer Jones); then four RKO “B”’s in 1945-47, the first two of which starred Morgan Conway as Tracy and the last two returned Ralph Byrd to the role; then a TV series in the early 1950’s, also with Byrd, which got good ratings but only lasted one season because Byrd died during the summer hiatus; then nothing until the big-budget version from 1990 with Warren Beatty and Madonna, a beautiful-looking film (Beatty and his production designer wisely eschewed the past-is-brown look in favor of a broad, intense palette copied from the color panels of Chester Gould’s comic strip) but something of a dud dramatically.

This one was the second of RKO’s four and the last to star Morgan Conway, whom William K. Everson called “somewhat dour” — he did a lot of crimefighter roles at the time and is good as the prosecutor in the contemporaneous The Truth about Murder but not quite right for a superhero cop — along with Anne Jeffreys as Tess Trueheart (Jeffreys left the series when Conway did) and Ian Keith as the Barrymore-esque ham actor Vitamin Flintheart (alas, Keith’s own career had suffered from the same disease — alcoholism — that had screwed up John Barrymore’s, though within the campy writing of this character he’s actually quite good). The titular Cueball is played by Dick Wessel, and his appearance is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film: dressed in a worn leather jacket and wearing a cowboy hat that supplies the leather band he uses to strangle people, his favorite mode of murder, he looks at once convincingly proletarian and almost sexy in his relentless butchness, which is a relief given that aside from him and Tracy just about every other male in this film is a screaming queen: Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire), owner of a jewelry store whose employees, unbeknownst to him (or maybe beknownst to him after all, since the writers on this film — Luci Ward, story; and Dane Lussier and Robert E. Kent, script — weren’t exactly big on plot clarity), have hatched a plot to import $300,000 worth of uncut diamonds and sent Cueball, a.k.a. Harry Lake, to steal them; Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton), antique dealer; his clerk Higby (Milton Parsons) and Simon Little (Byron Foulger), Sparkle’s diamond cutter.

The story isn’t much but this film hardly deserves a listing in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time — it’s actually a pretty good crime “B” and benefits from the fact that it was made at the height of the noir cycle and director Gordon Douglas (who went on to biggers and betters) and cinematographer George Diskant threw a lot of noir compositions that helped enliven what could otherwise have been a quite ordinary film — though there’s nothing as interesting here as the quite surprising plot of the first RKO Dick Tracy, which cast Mike Mazurki as the villain in what was essentially a repeat of his role in Murder, My Sweet and actually gave him a surprising degree of pathos (surprising for the villain in a Dick Tracy story, anyway). There’s also a nice hard-woman performance from Rita Corday as Mona Clyde, Sparkle’s secretary and the mastermind of the jewel-robbery plot — though how a nice bad-girl like her got mixed up with a nasty bad-guy like Cueball remains a mystery, and the clue by which Tracy traces Cueball and discovers his real identity — Butch (Jimmy Clemons), friend of Tracy’s adopted son Junior (Jimmy Crane), is wearing a hat with the band just like the one Cueball is using as his murder weapon, and Tracy traces the hats to a workshop at the New Mexico prison from which Cueball had been released a month before — is clever though a bit arch.

Though uneasily perched between Gould’s comic-strip aesthetic (including the ridiculous, campy character names that were a stock in trade for him) and film noir, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is quite an entertaining film in a series that aimed relatively high for a “B” crime show, though the first and last RKO Tracys remain the best mainly because they had the best bad guys (Mazurki in the first and Boris Karloff as, inevitably, “Gruesome” in the last). Also worthy of note is the animated neon sign that advertises the dive bar in which the crooks meet, the Dripping Dagger (I think RKO used that same bar set in every Tracy movie but changed its name each time), and Esther Howard’s performance as Filthy Flora, the Dripping Dagger’s owner; she played the very similar character of Jessie Florian in Murder, My Sweet and brought some of the same sadness here (and anticipated the pathos of Thelma Ritter’s role in Pickup on South Street). — 3/15/07


Dick Tracy did well enough at the box office that RKO went ahead and made three sequels, of which the first, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, was released towards the end of 1946 and retained Morgan Conway as Tracy but had a new director (Gordon Douglas, later marked for biggers and betters) and new writers (Luci Ward, story; and crime veteran Dane Lussier and the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent, script). This time the writers did incorporate the deliberately campy names Tracy cooked up for both his associates and his adversaries: among the former are Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys again, though having little to do until the end, when she masquerades as a society woman to catch the baddies red-handed and actually does a quite credible job) and ham actor Vitamin Flintheart (an obvious caricature on the then recently deceased John Barrymore, enacted by Ian Keith in his best flaming-queen style), while among the baddies are jeweler “Jules Sparkle” (Harry Cheshire); his diamond cutter “Simon Little” (Byron Foulger, who wears ultra-thick glasses throughout and comes off so much like Anthony Edwards in the movie Northfork its writer-directors, brothers Michael and Mark Polish, might have patterned their character after him), antiques dealer “Percival Priceless” (Douglas Walton) and “Dripping Dagger” bar owner “Filthy Flora” (Esther Howard, who like Mike Mazurki in the first RKO Dick Tracy was recycling a characterization she’d played in Murder, My Sweet — as Jessie Florian, alcoholic widow of a bar owner).

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball was listed as one of “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss in their book of that title, a dishonor it really doesn’t deserve; it’s actually a quite capable, exciting film in its genre, directed by Douglas with a real flair for suspense and action, and a rapid-fire pace that makes it look more like a Warners film than something from RKO (and indeed Douglas went to work for Warners later). What’s most fascinating about this movie is the extent to which RKO’s casting department filled the cast list with such screaming queens: Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), the thief who’s stolen a set of valuable diamonds for a ring, as well as its other male participants: Douglas Walton as “Priceless,” Byron Foulger as Little, Milton Parsons as Priceless’s clerk (and, we almost get the impression, his boyfriend) and Skelton Knaggs as Little’s associate. Even some of the good guys — notably Ian Keith as Flintheart and Lyle Latell as Tracy’s partner, Pat Patton — seem pretty queeny. The idea seems to have been to make Tracy and Cueball (Dick Wessel) the only butch guys in the whole film — the crime ring all those queer boys are participating in is run, natch, by a tough-as-nails woman, Rita Corday (under her cover as Mona, Sparkle’s secretary) — and Cueball easily overpowers all the Gay guys in the gang.

Wearing a blue-collar worker’s outfit — a leather jacket and work pants — and topped with that big head with no hair, Cueball ends up looking like a giant, self-ambulating penis, “screwing” his fellow crooks figuratively (by refusing to give them the jewels he took from Abbott and constantly raising his price for them) and almost literally — especially since his preferred murder method, which involves removing the leather band from his hat and strangling his victims with it, requires close physical contact which Douglas shoots in a way that heightens the sublimated lust = death sexuality. (The band also fulfills an important plot purpose; Cueball had made them while serving a stretch in prison, and Tracy is thereby able to trace him and learn his real name, Harry Lake.) The “family” interludes — with Tracy’s ward Junior (itself a pretty kinky relationship, though clearly we weren’t meant to think so), his friend Butch (who’s wearing one of the hatbands, which gives Tracy the clue he needs to link them to Cueball), Tess Trueheart (in other crime series the hero had to put off marrying his girlfriend because he was always being called away to solve a crime; in these films, she can’t even land a dinner date with Tracy before he’s called away!) — aren’t as interesting as all the quirky sexual hints surrounding the villains, but the film is strongly plotted, the action is logical and even the ending, which Medved and Dreyfuss ridiculed — Tracy has traced Cueball to a railroad yard, Cueball has got his foot caught in between two rails, and “just when you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, they’re not going to have him get hit by a train,’ he gets hit by a train” — adds to the aura of invincible masculinity surrounding Cueball by suggesting that neither the criminal justice system nor even a cop with a gun was sufficient to take him out: it had to be an accident, an “act of God.” — 7/20/09


The film I picked out was Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, next in sequence in the RKO series and the return of Ralph Byrd to the role of Dick Tracy — Byrd was hardly as good an actor as Morgan Conway but he was better for the role physically, with his tall physique and prominent chin at least approximating the famously angular jutting chin Chester Gould had given the character in the comics. Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is probably the weakest of the RKO Tracys, mainly because there isn’t much of a plot — the super-villain this time is “The Claw” (Jack Lambert), who’s just a swarthy proletarian thug distinguished only by having a sharp hook where his right hand should be (and using it as a supremely lethal murder weapon — it’s interesting how the writers of the first three RKO Tracys avoided gunplay as much as possible and favored crooks who murdered their victims in ways that required physical contact: Splitface slit their throats with a knife, Cueball strangled them with a hatband and the Claw impaled them on his hook-like artificial hand).

In the opening, “The Claw” steals a shipment of furs from the Collins company — “clawing” the night watchman at the Collins plant to do it — and most of the rest of it is a series of very dark action scenes (sometimes too dark to make out what’s supposed to be going on) interspersed with a lot of dull palaver involving Tracy, his partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (regrettably replaced by Kay Christopher — maybe Anne Jeffreys, who played Tess in the previous two films with Conway, felt wasted in the role, which she was), Collins company owner Humphries (Charles Marsh) and two people from the Honesty Insurance Company: vice-president Peter Premium (William B. Davidson) and investigator Mr. Cudd (Al Bridge). There are a few scenes for atmosphere — the grungy bar that appeared as the “Dripping Dagger” in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is here called the “Blinking Skull” — it’s the same set; only the animated neon sign in the window has changed — and one of the most interesting (and, here, wasted) characters in the series, “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), a Tracy informant who poses as a blind homeless beggar to keep an eye on the criminal underworld, hangs out in front of the bar, which is owned this time around by a man, Jigger (Wade Crosby).

There’s also a nice scene in which Tracy encounters Longshot Lillie the female fence (Bernadene Hayes) and recognizes her from previous criminal encounters — but eventually believes her when she said she had nothing to do with the fur heist because, as we’ve figured out about two or three reels before the characters do, the “robbery” was really an inside job: Humphries arranged for his own merchandise to be stolen and fenced so he could scam the insurance company, claim the loss and also make money from a criminal sale of the furs. Written by Robert Stephen Brode — peculiarly, RKO never seemed to use the same writers more than once on this series — and directed by John Rawlins, fresh from Universal where he’d done a couple of the Jon Hall-Maria Montez films as well as the first modern-dress Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of TerrorDick Tracy’s Dilemma (a “cheating” title since at no time is Dick Tracy faced with any kind of dilemma in the plot — one would have expected a story involving Tess or one of Tracy’s friends being kidnapped and his dilemma being to go after the crooks or let them go to save his friends) is strong in the atmosphere department but surprisingly weak as a thriller, and also bereft of the marvelous Gay undertones that made Dick Tracy vs. Cueball so much fun; out of all the queens from the cast of Cueball, Ian Keith as Tracy’s actor friend Vitamin Flintheart (obviously a caricature of John Barrymore) is the only one that returns, and even he seems under wraps this time around.

Fortunately, for the next (and, alas, last) episode in their series RKO would get a truly inspired villain — Gruesome (Boris Karloff — who else? One wonders if they owed him a film on his contract after having cancelled Val Lewton’s planned production of Blackbeard, which they eventually revived but cast Robert Newton in the pirate role originally intended for Karloff) — and ramp up the camp aspects to produce a film that pretty much junked the noir affectations of the earlier RKO Tracys but probably came closer to the spirit of the Gould comics than any of the previous ones. It’s also worthy of note that in Britain, where the Tracy comics weren’t published, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma was retitled Mark of the Claw — which probably left audiences expecting a horror film instead of the lukewarm cops ’n’ robbers melodrama they actually got! — 7/22/09


Our “feature” for last night was the fourth and last in the RKO Dick Tracy series — a short-lived effort RKO launched in 1945 just as they were edging their way out of the “B” business. They’d ended the Falcon detective series in 1946 but they kept the Tracy series going a year longer, attempting to liven it up by replacing contract player Morgan Conway as Tracy with Ralph Byrd — who’d made the part his own in four Republic serials from 1937 to 1941 (those oddly changed Tracy from a Chicago police detective to an FBI agent!) — in the third film (frankly, Byrd looks more like the Chester Gould comics but Conway is the better actor!) and, for the fourth, not only brought along a particularly illustrious actor as the guest villain but gave him top billing.

He is, of course, Boris Karloff, who as I speculated in my notes on Dick Tracy’s Dilemma may have been owed one more film by RKO under his contract to appear in the Val Lewton productions The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. (Lewton planned to follow those up by starring Karloff in a pirate melodrama, Blackbeard, for which RKO was willing to give him a higher budget. Then Lewton did his usual meticulous research and found that the pirates of Blackbeard’s day hadn’t sailed in large ships; rather, they’d put together fleets of fast, maneuverable cutters with which they surrounded the large cargo ships they intended to rob — much the way today’s much talked-about pirates use speedboats — and he became determined to show that kind of piracy in his film. The RKO bosses angrily replied that they weren’t spending all that money for a movie showing Boris Karloff captaining a fleet of fishing boats, so they cancelled the project, fired Lewton, and later revived it and had Robert Newton as Blackbeard sailing a large, ungainly and historically inaccurate vessel.)

Anyway, they concocted a villain called “Gruesome” for Karloff to play, giving a performance that oddly recalled his pre-Frankenstein work in the movie The Criminal Code 16 years before — though the makeup isn’t particularly gruesome at all; he really looks more like a modern-dress version of the cabman John Gray, his role in Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, than an out-and-out monster — and gave him a sidekick, “Melody” (Tony Barrett), who plays piano at the “Hangman’s Knot,” the same dive bar we saw in the two immediately preceding Tracy films but under different identities (the “Dripping Dagger” in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball and the “Blinking Skull” in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma). The two of them team up with a discredited scientist, Dr. Lee Thal (Edward Ashley), who works as a hired-gun researcher at the Wood Plastics Company but in his spare time has invented a gas which leaves anyone who’s exposed to it paralyzed and frozen in place for about 10 to 15 minutes. To make this stuff, he needed to steal a chemical from the State University — which he achieved by getting it from his girlfriend, Dr. Irma M. Learned — “I. M. Learned” — (June Clayworth), assistant to State University physicist Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons), who claims to have been receiving death threats and who turns up missing midway through the film (he’s never seen again and the writing committee — William H. Graffis and Robert E. Kent, story; Robertson White and Eric Taylor, screenplay — never bothers to tell us what happened to him).

There’s a fascinating meeting between Gruesome, Melody, Dr. Thal and his assistant, X-Ray (Skelton Knaggs — the RKO casting department really deserves kudos for bringing back at least two of that marvelous assortment of “queen” types, Parsons and Knaggs, from Dick Tracy vs. Cueball) in which it’s clear that the bookish types are no match for the criminal men of action they’ve recruited, and a great bank robbery scene in which the paralyzing gas is played up for its most comic possibilities — a watchman is frozen in place while chasing a cat (the cat, of course, is frozen too!), a bank customer is caught in mid-sneeze, and so on. Indeed, the whole movie is played up for comic possibilities; the writers follow the Gouldian penchant for naming the characters after what they do (at one point Tracy’s partner, Pat Patton, traces the crooks to a taxidermy shop whose proprietor — whom we don’t see — is called, what else, “Y. Stuffum”); Gruesome is declared dead early on after a beta version of the gas knocks him out — and when he gets up off the morgue slab and escapes once he’s come to, Patton says, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear we were dealing with Boris Karloff!” (That line was obviously copied from the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Karloff played Jonathan Brewster and entered with his back to the audience until his sidekick, Dr. Einstein, asked why he killed the harmless old man they’d run into — and Karloff turned to the audience, showing his face for the first time in the play, and roared, “Because he said I looked like Boris Karloff!”)

The film is essentially a collection of campy chase scenes, but Karloff distinguishes himself and so does the series’ third Tess Trueheart, Anne Gwynne (who’d worked with Karloff before — she’d played his daughter in Black Friday), who witnesses the bank robbery and calls the police because when the gas bomb went off she was inside a phone booth and therefore protected from it. Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome essentially dispensed with the film noir pretensions of the three previous series entries and went for camp — and managed to be the most entertaining of the four precisely for that reason, and not just because of the presence of Karloff as its formidable guest star! — 7/23/09

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Daughter’s Secret (Capital/Lifetime, 2008)

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

Afterwards I watched a Lifetime movie I’d recorded Sunday: My Daughter’s Secret.which sounded like it might have had an interesting premise — suburban single mom Denise (Jennifer Grant) finds that her just-about-to-go-to-college daughter Justine (Nina Dobrev) has been taking a few too many walks on the wild side and is in trouble with the law, and she’s torn between her desire to help her daughter and her duty as a citizen. Alas, My Daughter’s Secret turned out to be considerably milder than the publicity made it sound, and it was one of those horrible stories (the writer was Christine Conradt) where the entire plot is dependent on the central character — Justine — being such an idiot that it’s hard to work up so much sympathy for anyone who would behave so stupidly and keep blowing her chances to get out of her own situation.

In the backstory, Justine has been dating a tall, blond, baby-faced (I kept wondering throughout the movie just how he shaves so closely — or maybe the actor was too young to need to shave at all!) high-school dropout named Brent (Steve Byers). As the film opens Justine is sneaking out of her house — she lives with her mom and mom, in one of the wisest moves anyone in this film has made, has forbidden her to see Brent, a dictate Our Teenage Heroine is, not surprisingly, ignoring — only to find that he’s picked her up in a green SUV he borrowed from the auto body repair shop where he and his brother Reggie (James Gilbert — he’s shorter than Byers, has dark hair and a craggier face; they’re not at all believable as brothers, but that’s the least of this movie’s problems) work; Reggie is with them; and before they socialize there’s a minor little errand Reggie and Brent have to run. The minor little errand turns out to be sticking up the jewelry store where Justine’s mom Denise works — they hired Denise just after Justine’s dad left her and the owners, Albert (Norman Mikeal Berketa) and Frank (whom we never see) and Brent pumped Justine for information about the store’s security systems and also about when they’d have a particularly valuable bit of merchandise it would be especially profitable to steal.

In the course of the robbery Reggie shoots Albert — who at first seems like the sort of fat, pig-like man who usually owns jewelry stores in movies, though later on as we see him lingering in the hospital for about half the rest of the film until he finally expires, it becomes clear that as lousy a first impression as he made, we’re really supposed to like him. The robbery is reported to the police by Denise, who just happened to be in the store’s offices, covering for a night-shift employee (jewelry stores have night shifts?) who was out that day, and Brent keeps Justine from going either to the police or her mom by frightening her and telling her (accurately) that just by having been there and stayed in the car when Reggie told her they needed her to be the “lookout,” she’s as guilty as they are and in jeopardy of being prosecuted as an accessory to murder.

Justine’s biggest mistake was made at the very beginning, when Reggie and Brent left her in the car alone and went in to rob the store. Did she take out her cell phone and call the police? Did she run out of the car? Did she think of driving the car away, stranding the would-be robbers and seeking help from the law? No, she did none of those; she just sat there, either because she was frozen with fear or because she was so loyal to Brent that she wasn’t going to go against him even when he was robbing a jewelry store, and her mom’s employer at that. Throughout the rest of the movie Justine blows off virtually every chance she gets to extricate herself from the situation — Conradt seems to want us to believe she’s got such a bad case of the hots for Brent that she’s willing to do anything, including risking prison, for him, but she’s nowhere near a good enough writer to make us accept that — and My Daughter’s Secret becomes an excessively dull way to spend an hour and a half watching an asinine ninny just dig herself deeper into trouble.

My Daughter’s Secret has a good director, Douglas Jackson, who gets the possessory credit (“A Douglas Jackson Film”) and deserves it; he’s got a flair for dark urban atmosphere (the dramatic lighting of the nighttime scenes is quite beautiful and a far better solution for how to do film noir in color than the dirty green-and-brown look that for some reason has become standard), and he’s also an effective suspense director — but he’s up against the dull, underwritten Conradt script that ignores all the subtleties and nuances this story could have had and at plot point after plot point goes for the easiest, most clichéd resolutions. The hapless actors in this thing do the best they can — Jennifer Grant (Cary’s daughter, by the way) deserves a purple heart for having to play such a lame role as the all-knowing mom who recognizes she can’t run her daughter’s life but still gives it a try — and the two guys are at least cute (and though they’re supposed to be playing brothers they give off body language that makes them look more like a Gay couple — perhaps Conradt should have made Reggie Gay and Brent Bi, making his affair with Justine more opportunistic than romantic — as it stands she never bothered to decide whether Brent was just using Justine or was genuinely in love with her; instead, she tried to write it both ways), but Dobrev goes through the whole movie with a hangdog expression on her face and neither the threat of prison nor the withdrawal of that threat at the end seems to disturb her sang-froid in the slightest.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Confessions of a Go-Go Girl (Nomadic/Lifetime, 2008)

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

This morning I ran a Lifetime TV-movie I’d recorded the night before: Confessions of a Go-Go Girl, the old chestnut about the nice young woman who gets lured into the sex biz and loses almost everything else she found important — her family, her boyfriend, her potential as both a lawyer (the career she was training for when she finished college) and an actress (the one she shifted to when she took a couple of drama classes and got the acting “bug”) — before she finally quits go-go dancing and wins it all back again. There were some potentially interesting themes in Lenore Kletter’s script, based on a play by Jane Morley (since the lead character delivers a monologue about her experiences at the end, were we supposed to take this as autobiographical?) — Our Heroine, Jane McCoy (Chelsea Hobbs), becomes a go-go girl not only to earn the money to work her way through acting school but because it’s a way of taking herself off the ultra-tight leash her parents put her on (they even sent her to Catholic school when they could barely afford it so she would grow up sheltered from the wild side of life); and once she gets into it she finds the sheer power she can wield over men with her body and the instant gratification in the form of tips she gets when she’s having the desired effect on them — but this one gets bobbled in the execution, mainly because Morley and Kletter can’t resist throwing in the most clichéd and ancient scenes in their script.

After she’s carefully concealed her go-go career from them, Chelsea is “outed” when her father (James D. Hopkin), her brother (Graeme Black) and her boyfriend Eric (Travis Milne, a good-looking but rather faceless guy who’s just right for the role, especially in the mix of pleasure and perplexity that crosses his face when the “new” Jane insists on giving him a blow job in the middle of a sidewalk at night) go for the brother’s bachelor party at the new high-class strip club “Tantra” the night Jane is making her debut as a dancer there; or the comeuppance Jane’s friend Angela (Sarah Carter) gets when she goes in for a breast augmentation and ends up dying on the operating table because she was abusing cocaine and it cross-reacted with the anaesthetic. There are some quirky characterizations, including strip-club owner Nick (Corbin Bernsen — and no, the years have not been kind), depicted with a loving avuncularity that goes against everything I’ve ever heard about the sleazepits who actually own strip clubs in the real world; and the dancers’ unofficial den mother, Donna (Rachel Hunter), who works at the club as well as making the other dancers’ costumes and has been able to make enough money to support her 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth (Shae Keebler) all these years — and yes, there’s a hint that Elizabeth is as disgusted with her mom as Jane was about her family, and is going to rebel in the other direction by being very strait-laced and “moral.”

But all the subtleties this story could have developed are lost in a welter of silly clichés by a batch of writers and a director (Grant Harvey) who go for the easy way out of just about every crossroads in their plot and waste some good performances by Hunter, Carter and Tygh Runyan as Kurt, a coke-addicted photographer and Angela’s boyfriend, who claims to be the son of Marlon Brando (and looks enough like him it’s at least faintly believable) and steals $42,000 of Angela’s money and takes off in mid-movie to get back in touch with his inner druggie.