Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932)

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

The first film I screened for us was The Mask of Fu Manchu, a 1932 production by MGM based on a Sax Rohmer novel (yet more evidence of how quickly properties got filmed in those days: the novel was originally published as a serial by Collier’s from May 7 to July 23, 1932 and the film was begun in August 1932 and released November 5 of that year!), directed by Charles Brabin (most famous now as the man who got fired from the silent Ben-Hur and replaced with Fred Niblo), who according to the American Film Institute Catalog replaced the young Charles Vidor on the project. The script credits were even more convoluted: Courtenay Terrett wrote the script Vidor began shooting, Raoul Whitfield and Bayard Veiller were brought in for rewrites and the final screen credits listed Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard as the sole writers. (Woolf worked on The Wizard of Oz — it was his last assignment before his death — and while that may seem a very different property from a Fu Manchu story, Mask and Oz contain at least one element in common: the villain uses an hourglass to mark his/her plan to kill the hero.)

What’s kept this film in circulation well beyond the life of previous Fu Manchu films (which had been produced at Paramount with Warner Oland as Fu Manchu — thus making Charlie Chan at the Opera a “doubles” movie) is the cast: Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac daughter, Fah Lo See, who demands that he keep white captive Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett) alive long enough so she can have his wicked way with him (aided by four Black servants who whip him on her orders while she gives us orgasmic looks while watching — as much as Loy hated parts like this you couldn’t tell from the full-blooded, all-out way she acts it, though how Fu Manchu acquired a retinue of Black muscle-men as manservants in the middle of northern China is left a mystery).

The plot is a farrago of melodramatic nonsense that has almost no dramatic coherence whatsoever, but Brabin paces it so fast we’re blown breathlessly from incident to incident and it doesn’t matter that so little of the film makes any sense. It also helps that cinematographer Tony Gaudio shoots in an atmospheric, “Germanic,” proto-noir style; that Cedric Gibbons’ set designs are large and spectacular (MGM may have recycled some big sets from older movies but it certainly looks like a far more opulent production than Karloff was used to at his home studio, Universal); and that Karloff’s “Asian” makeup is far more convincing than it would be in his other Chinese roles (the Warners melodrama West of Shanghai and the Mr. Wong films at Monogram), though as an actor Karloff was less effective playing an all-out villain than he was in the almost contemporary The Mummy (shot just one month after Mask and released December 23, 1932), in which he was a figure of some sympathy and not purely evil. Lewis Stone’s Nayland Smith (the Scotland Yard inspector who was Fu Manchu’s nemesis — Sherlock Holmes to his Moriarty, as it were) is a pretty stock characterization, but Karen Morley, playing the daughter of kidnapped British explorer Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), is quite good, authoritative and convincing. — 10/25/03


The Mask of Fu Manchu is a really quirky movie — the third film based on Sax Rohmer’s Asiatic Moriarty character (the earlier ones were a 1923 British silent called Cry of the Night Hawk and the 1929 Paramount talkie The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, with “yellowface” actor Warner Oland in the part), based on a Rohmer novel published the same year (1932) the film was made. This film has become legendary mainly because Boris Karloff was cast as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy played his nymphomaniac daughter, Fah Lo See, who tries to seduce the male romantic lead, Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), away from his Anglo girlfriend Sheila Barton (Karen Morley).

The plot is basically a knock-off of King Solomon’s Mines in which Sheila’s father, archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), is kidnapped while in the British museum discussing with several associates a planned expedition to northern China to discover the long-lost tomb of Genghis Khan. Just before his disappearance, Sir Lionel was called into the office of Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British secret service and told to expedite his expedition because it’s crucially important to the peace and security of the world that he acquire the sword and mask of Genghis Khan before Fu Manchu does, since if Fu Manchu gets hold of them he’ll be able to pose as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and rally the people of China to join him in a genocidal war aimed at wiping out the entire white race. (The fact that Genghis Khan was a Mongol usurper and occupier, and most of the Chinese of his time hated him, doesn’t seem to have occurred to Sax Rohmer or the screenwriters, Irene Kuhn, future Wizard of Oz contributor Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard.)

Alas, Sir Lionel is attacked in the British Museum by Fu Manchu’s minions, dressed as mummies; he’s kidnapped, put on a plane and flown to Fu Manchu’s redoubt in Liangchow, China, where he’s tortured by being tied to a table just below a giant bell that continually rings, depriving him of any chance to sleep. Of course he’s also starved and dehydrated — in one scene Fu Manchu comes in carrying a bunch of grapes and waves it across the poor man’s face, the way S/M doms sometimes caress their subs’ faces with floggers or whips to tease them before they actually start flogging or whipping them; later Fu gives him a drink of water and then says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, it’s salt.” (I had visions of Dick Cheney watching this movie and thinking, “How cool! Where can we get one of those bells?”) The purpose of the torture, of course, is to get Sir Lionel to reveal to Fu where the tomb of Genghis Khan is. Meanwhile, the expedition from Britain has set forth and actually discovered the tomb — Nayland Smith took Sir Lionel’s place with it and Terrence and Sheila also came along. (Sheila had to deal with the usual this-is-no-place-for-a-woman crap to get into the expedition, but finally convinced the men to take her not only because she understandably wants to find out what happened to her dad, but he discussed the location of the tomb with her and therefore she’s the only other person who actually knows where it is.)

They’re followed by Fu’s minions, who at times seem to encompass the entire population of China, and the rest of the film is a long chase scene interspersed with torture scenes and picturesque sets reflecting MGM art director Cedric Gibbons’ rather demented idea of Chinese traditions. The Mask of Fu Manchu benefits from MGM’s financial resources — even for a 68-minute programmer like this they really shot the budget on the sets, with the result that the torture devices are spanking-new, gleaming and look genuinely intimidating instead of being thrown together with duct tape and baling wire the way they seemed to be at cheaper studios that tried this sort of film — and from a marvelous pre-Code kinkiness; not only do we see Charles Starrett wearing a loincloth and nothing else (Myrna Loy’s character has ordered him stripped as a preliminary to the sexual fun-and-games she wants to play with him) but we see a whole host of Fu’s manservants, large, muscular and inexplicably African-descended (was there a Black community in China or did Fu import them himself?), similarly undressed: a surprise treat for beefcake fans one doesn’t expect to find in a 1932 movie.

It also has a surprisingly good, emotional performance from the usually wooden Karen Morley — her anguish over her father’s fate and, later, over her betrayal by Terrence (he’s been given a drug by Fu Manchu that gets him to give up the mask and sword of Genghis Khan and also reject her in favor of Fu’s daughter), are totally convincing — and marvelously atmospheric direction by Charles Brabin (and Charles Vidor, uncredited) and cinematography by Tony Gaudio that ably captures the aura of slippery evil intrinsic to the story. On the down side are some ghastly overacting by Karloff — within a month, in The Mummy, he’d again play a mastermind prowling around old graves and looking for relics to serve his sinister purposes, but under Karl Freund’s direction he’d give a beautifully understated, almost heart-rending performance far better than his work here — and the story’s relentless racism.

Fu Manchu introduces himself as a “three-time doctor,” having earned Ph.D.’s in philosophy and law and an M.D. from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, but the message of the film seems to be that educating an Asian that way is a sure-fire recipe for creating a mad, evil genius. The only even remotely sympathetic Chinese character appears at the very end, after Fu has been vanquished and the surviving white principals are on a ship taking them from China to England, when Lewis Stone is about to throw the sword of Genghis Khan overboard (sort of like Gloria Stuart and the jewel at the end of Titanic) so no other Asian madman can get hold of it and try the same stunt, and the expedition’s survivors hear the sound of a bell and freak out — only it's just the ship's dinner gong, being rung by a Chinese steward (Willie Fung) who proudly and happily proclaims his ignorance of all the heavy-duty intellectual subjects Fu Manchu studied way back when.

The Mask of Fu Manchu was significant in Myrna Loy’s career; after this and Thirteen Women (made on loan-out from MGM to RKO) she went to see Louis B. Mayer and demanded, “No more Oriental nymphomaniac roles!” — whereupon Mayer saw her point, told her that from then on she’d only play ladies, sent her to RKO again for a far better loan-out film, Topaze, and then cast her opposite William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man, which sent her career into superstar orbit. I remember watching the 1926 silent Mr. Wu with Charles and wishing MGM had remade it as an early talkie re-teaming Karloff and Loy as Chinese father and daughter (the casting directors at Warners and MGM had noticed the slight slant in Loy’s eyes and decided that fitted her for Asian roles — and Warners had even changed her last name from Williams to Loy to make her sound Chinese!), with Ralph Forbes repeating his role as the boyfriend in this Madama Butterfly-esque tale — but they didn’t, even though that would have been a better movie than this one and would have offered Karloff a more multi-dimensional role that probably would have encouraged him to give a subtler and more convincing performance than he does here. — 10/29/09

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Butte, America (Rattlesnake Productions/PBS, 2009)

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

The show was an Independent Lens production called Butte, America, an extraordinary hour-long history of Butte, Montana from the 1870’s — when Thomas A. Edison’s invention of the electric light and (even more important long-term) the electric power grid vastly increased the demand for Butte’s principal product, copper — to 1982, when the company that owned Butte’s mines (having acquired or put out of business all its competitors in the early years of the 20th century), Anaconda Copper, finally declared them played out and abruptly shut down operations, leaving Butte a virtual ghost town. The filmmaker, Pamela Roberts, picked Butte as a subject partly because she used to visit the place in her childhood but mostly because she saw Butte as a sort of microcosm of the American corporate economy and how it played out in a typical industrial community (she explicitly compared Butte to Pittsburgh and Flint as industrial cities that rose and fall with the production of a particular product).

It’s an intensely moving historical film that could probably be even more moving if it were longer — especially since in the promotional interview on the PBS Web site for the film, Roberts answered the question of which scene she shot most moved her, “We shot a scene—that did not make the cut—with an underground miner we took back into the mine for the first time in over 30 years. He broke down and cried tears of joy for the opportunity to go underground again—he loved mining. And then came tears of sorrow as he recalled his longtime partner who was killed by an explosion. It was very revealing and very touching.” (The story about the miner whose mining partner — a relationship that seems to have much the same emotional overlay as a police partnership — was killed is in the movie; the heartrending return to the mineshaft after 30 years, alas, is not.) She also said that what she would have wanted to include in a longer movie was “more about the lives of the women I interviewed. Their lives and experiences were so interesting, but often devalued in their own eyes. Also, more about Butte today and the current economic resurgence through its restoration and preservation economy.” All of this makes me hope Roberts still has her outtakes and can use them to make a longer version of the film for theatrical and/or home video release.

Still, what we have of Butte, America tells a story that comes surprisingly close to Roberts’ stated intent of encapsulating all the changes in America between 1870 and 1982:

• starting with the early “rush” as fortunes seemingly were to be made in Butte;

• the evolution of Anaconda Copper as the strongest and, eventually, the only company in town;

• the way the city was literally built on top of the mines;

• the company-town aspect of it (workers technically owned their homes but not the land they stood on — for which they paid the company $2 per month “ground rent” — which meant they could be thrown off the land for any reason at any time);

• the degree to which Anaconda Copper not only ran the workers’ lives and drove wages to subsistence levels (which, as Marx pointed out, is what capitalists always do unless government either regulates wages directly or allows the existence of a strong labor movement) but controlled the city’s and the state’s politics as well (editorial cartoonists doing work opposed to the company, its power and its agenda inevitably riffed on the company’s name and drew it as a giant snake squeezing life out of everything in its way);

• the boom time for workers that lasted from the mid-1930’s (when the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union successfully organized Anaconda after previous unions had died due to company opposition, internal infighting or both) to the 1950’s, when Anaconda opened its first mine in Chile and started squeezing wages down in Butte and demanding concessions from the unions;

• the impact of Salvador Allende’s election as president of Chile in 1970 and his nationalization of Anaconda’s mines there, which led to a sudden plunge in the company’s profitability to which it responded by squeezing Butte’s workers even further;

• the exhaustion of Butte’s high-grade ore (which had to be mined like coal — digging underground tunnels, planting dynamite to dislodge the ore and using picks to ship it out on cars running on tracks) and the company’s conversion to open-pit mining of the low-grade ore that was left;

• the environmental hazards of the operation, including the diseases the miners got from inhaling silica dust as they worked (the dust, similar to glass, collected in and around their lungs and ultimately had a similar effect to pneumonia) as well as the horrific amount of pollution left over when the mines finally closed and Anaconda turned off its pumps, thereby allowing water full of heavy metals and toxic chemicals to flow straight into the city’s water supply (the lake outside Butte is now one of the most heavily polluted Superfund sites in the country);

• as well as the company’s alternation between grand seigneur and pillager, literally bulldozing entire neighborhoods overnight to expand the open pits in the later days (the images here looked like the Israeli army in occupied Palestine!) and setting fire to the amusement park Anaconda had opened years before and claimed it was part of an obligation to the workers. (The fire was supposedly accidental, but the townspeople Roberts interviewed were sure it was set deliberately because the park was in the way of Anaconda’s latest plan for expanding the open pits.)

Butte, America actually does what Roberts set out to do — set Butte’s story against America’s in the 20th century and in particular the metamorphosis of industrial production from a dirty, exploitative job to a relatively well-paid one (thanks to organized labor and a government that supported and facilitated its existence — if we’ve learned one thing about labor in the last 50 years, it’s that it can only exist when the government uses its authority to force the private sector to recognize it; once that authority was withdrawn, America’s labor movement underwent a slow collapse until now, when it’s only American labor’s success in organizing the government’s own workers that is keeping it in business at all) and then back to an underpaid, exploitative one on the long slide towards ceasing to exist at all as America de-industrializes and declares entire segments of its population and its cities surplus and not worth bothering about.

Butte, America is a powerful story, sometimes visually beautiful (Roberts found a considerable amount of footage from virtually the entire arc of Butte’s history, and the faces of the miners as they prepared to descend into the earth to work are extraordinarily moving) and sometimes terrifying, always underscoring the lesson that a corporation has no morals, no ideals, no compassion, nothing but a relentless drive to maximize profits for its shareholders; and since it has no morals, it has no compunction about breaking any commitments it makes to its workers, consumers or anyone else. Butte, America is at once a monument to what capitalism can create and a damnation of how easily it can destroy it all again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Copyright Criminals (Changing Images/ITVS, 2009)

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

The library movie last Monday was a fascinating one: Copyright Criminals, made for the Independent Television and Video Service (ITVS), which supplies programming to PBS stations that want it (which usually isn’t the one in San Diego!), co-directed by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod based on McLeod’s book of the same title. There are a number of films that could be made with that title growing out of the increasing stringency of copyright laws — how giant corporations, with their near-total domination of politics and governance, are extending copyright protections for longer and longer periods (aiming to change the basis of U.S. copyright law from its constitutional basis — ensuring artists and inventors a limited-time monopoly on selling their work in order to encourage them to create — to creating a permanent intellectual-property right held not by the actual creators but by the corporations that bought the rights from them in the first place) and tightening up the criteria under which others can use copyrighted material on a “fair use” basis; and the paradoxical advent of digital technology that has made duplication (both outright copying and re-use) far easier and thereby threatened the technological assumption behind copyright law: the ability to ban the sale of physical copies of the material by anyone other than the copyright holder or an authorized licensee.

What Franzen and McLeod chose to focus on was a form of artistic creativity, copyright infringement or both that actually pre-dates digital technology: so-called “sampling,” the use of snippets of previously recorded music to create a new background track, usually as a background for rap (or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism for rap favored by people who like it). The filmmakers take a pretty ardently pro-sampling point of view, saying basically that this was an art form created by young African-Americans in depressed areas like the South Bronx in New York and Compton in Los Angeles County, people who wanted to make music but couldn’t afford conventional instruments — so they worked with turntables, lifting bits and pieces from old records (mostly funk from the 1970’s by artists like James Brown, Rick James and George Clinton, the mastermind behind Parliament and Funkadelic — which were actually exactly the same people, except Parliament used horn players and Funkadelic did not, but because they were technically two separate bands Clinton signed them to two different labels: a throwback to the time Duke Ellington had “exclusive” contracts with several different labels at once, sometimes recording under his own name and sometimes as “The Harlem Footwarmers” or some other pseudonym de jour) to create a musical texture over which rappers would perform.

Nobody really cared much as long as these were just young Black kids busking on streetcorners, either not recording at all or just selling homemade cassettes; but when sampling started being the basis of multi-million selling records like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De la Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, the music industry started fighting back, suing and winning. The result is that now the only people who get to sample are highly successful artists who can afford the often stratospheric licensing fees and people still doing it underground, keeping under the radar of the music industry and — this being the 21st century — distributing the work not on homemade mix tapes but on Web sites.

I must confess to far more mixed feelings about sampling than those reflected in this film — I can acknowledge the argument that by sampling, people are creating new works of art based on old ones (we wouldn’t have a lot of Shakespeare’s plays if he’d had to worry about copyright — while it undoubtedly drove him nuts that there was no legal way he could protect something once he’d performed it, he also took full advantage of the lack of copyright laws to recycle his plots from the work of others; one has to wonder if Hamlet would exist if Shakespeare had had to deal with modern-style copyright laws and thereby either would have had to license the plot from Thomas Kyd or worry about Kyd suing him; likewise one wonders if Matisse would have bothered to do collages if he’d had to worry about the publisher of Le Figaro suing him for appropriating their front pages and demanding a cut of every picture he sold containing their “content” — just as Shepard Fairey is now facing a lawsuit from Associated Press over his Obama “Hope” image) and there ought to be a legal avenue by which they can express their sort of creativity without making it prohibitively expensive.

At the same time, they are basing their creations on previously created material, many of whose creators are still alive and deserve to be compensated. To make the moral situation even muddier, the people who hold the copyrights and are demanding major sums of money to “clear” samples they own legally aren’t always the same people who created them — a defense the “copyright criminals” frequently make in their own defense (“Hey, we’re not ripping off the original artists — you’re the ones who did that!”) Certainly the most poignant person profiled in Copyright Criminals is Clyde Stubblefield. Never heard of him? I hadn’t either, even though he was James Brown’s drummer in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and created many of the basic rhythm patters that have been used ever since not only in the funk-soul genre Brown helped create but on rap records and plenty of other places.

The first person who ripped off Stubblefield’s work without giving him either credit or royalties was James Brown; in the film Stubblefield (who’s still alive, performs at small clubs in the Detroit area and bills himself as “The Original ‘Funky Drummer,’” after a song in which Brown used his drum licks and paid tribute to him) said that he would frequently just jam a rhythm pattern, Brown’s bass player would join in, then his guitarists would come in and start playing licks on top of the rhythms that were taking shape, and finally Brown would come in, start singing along and making up words off the top of his head — and eventually this would become a full-fledged song, only Brown would take composer credit exclusively himself and not co-credit the musicians who had actually worked out the musical basis of the new song. Brown figured the musicians were being compensated by their regular salaries as part of his band and therefore never offered them credit or royalties — and neither did the companies that sold Brown’s records or published his songs, so Stubblefield isn’t getting royalties either from continuing sales of Brown’s old records or from the multi-million selling rap hits built around his drumming.

One of the strategies Franzen and McLeod use is to point out that many of the groups suing to demand royalties from records containing samples of their work themselves practiced earlier forms of sampling — like the Beatles (though apparently the lawsuits over the Beatles’ work are coming from their record company, EMI, and not from the surviving Beatles themselves or the estates of the dead ones), who built the track “Revolution #9” almost exclusively from the 1960’s technological equivalent of samples. They could have made a point detailing the history of sampling back even further — “Revolution #9” was based on a genre invented by French composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the late 1940’s called musique concrète, in which they pieced together snippets of sound — taking advantage of the newly invented technology of magnetic tape — and created musical works by splicing these together and manipulating them electronically; like much of the rest of the avant-garde art world’s influence on the Beatles in their later years, musique concrète became part of their world via Yoko Ono, who was thoroughly familiar with it and encouraged John Lennon to experiment with its techniques.

Also, one of the most delightful parts of their film was strictly speaking not a sample at all; it was Little Roger and the Goosebumps’ legendary record “Gilligan’s Island Stairway,” their recording of the theme song from the Gilligan’s Island TV show sung to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” — and a record that seemed bound for hit status until Led Zeppelin sued and got it taken off the market. The filmmakers here accompanied the Little Roger parody with a mash-up video overlaying the Gilligan’s Island credits with Led Zeppelin concert footage — and the audience (I think it’s safe to assume that I was the only person in that room who had actually heard “Gilligan’s Island Stairway” before) reacted to the song with the same admiration for the band’s audacity that I did when I first heard it in 1979.

Franzen and McLeod could have bolstered their everybody-does-it argument by referencing a copyright controversy that involved Led Zeppelin at the other end — the song “Whole Lotta Love” on their first album, which they claimed was their rewrite of an old blues song in the public domain. Along came Willie Dixon, pointing out — and proving in court — that it wasn’t a public-domain song; he had written it himself and it was copyrighted. The final settlement simply took Jimmy Page’s and Robert Plant’s names off the composer credits of the Zeppelin version and put Willie Dixon’s on — and while most of the resulting royalties went to Dixon’s publisher, Arc Music (a subsidiary of Chess Records), Dixon made enough from the song to be able to live a comfortable existence for the rest of his life.

I’ll admit that I’d probably be a lot more sympathetic to the concept of sampling if I had more affection for the rap genre with which it is most closely associated — as it is, my distaste for the aggressive ugliness of rap as a sound and its gravitation towards socially unconscious subject matter (the days when Public Enemy would sample a Malcolm X speech have long since given way to the modern-day rappers boasting about how much money they make, how much bling they wear, how many women they’ve fucked, how many Gays they’ve beaten up and how many “gangstas” they’ve killed) has made me rather prejudiced against them. I’ll also acknowledge that I’ve made some pretty sour jokes about D.J.’s that I’m at least partially willing to take back now that I’ve seen this film — I once said that calling a D.J. an “artist” was like calling the guy who hung the Mona Lisa on the Louvre wall an “artist” — and that now that I’ve seen the art of classic D.J. sampling with turntables “up close and personal” in this film, I’m ready to concede that it takes a level of skill that has at least some commonality with playing a musical instrument. (At the same time I still admire the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk for not needing to sample; if he wanted, say, a Charlie Parker lick for one of his compositions, he had the musical talent and skill to play it himself.)

It’s interesting to note — as this film does in passing — that turntable sampling had become such an essential tool of rap that when the copyright holders started coming down hard on the samplers, some of them responded by recording their own drum and bass lines, then mastering them to vinyl so the D.J.’s could “sample” these new, purpose-made recordings and thereby get the same sound while being in the clear legally. The most valuable insight into Copyright Criminals is it shows not only how outdated traditional copyright law has become in the digital age (especially now that digital technology has “democratized” sampling even further — now you don’t even need the skill to handle vinyl records on a pair of turntables; you can input sounds, chop them up and manipulate them on a computer) but also how traditional copyright law has become in many ways an impediment to creativity rather than an encouragement of it — just as the vast extension of patent rights to scientific discoveries has slowed research rather than sped it up (despite Big Pharma’s claim of “no patents, no cures,” the fact is that academic researchers are now scared to go near certain lines of research for fear they’ll accidentally infringe on a patent held by another researcher or a pharmaceutical company and get themselves sued), especially as the major media corporations pursue ever more restrictive copyright laws and seek ultimately either to abolish the concept of “fair use” altogether or so restrict it that basically corporations have perpetual ownership of content and anyone using it has essentially to rent it from them.

My solution would be to restrict the total term of a copyright to 50 years — the good-sense solution that most European countries adopted but is now under attack there (there’s a major push on the British parliament to amend their copyright laws to match the bloated terms of U.S. copyrights — and I suspect that just as the push for perpetual copyrights in the U.S. was masterminded by the Walt Disney company, which didn’t want Mickey Mouse coming into the public domain, so the current pressure in Britain is probably coming from EMI to make sure that the Beatles’ recordings don’t start entering the public domain in 2012, as they would under current British law) — and to institute compulsory licensing as the solution to things like sampling. Much use of copyrighted material is already covered by compulsory licensing — particularly the performance of phonograph records on radio and the public performance of copyrighted songs (one person interviewed in Copyright Criminals points out that if you just want to cover “Stairway to Heaven,” there’s an established body of law governing your right to do so and you know in advance exactly how much it will cost you, but if you want to rewrite or parody it, it has to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and the copyright holder can either price it prohibitively or flat-out say no, you can’t do it at all — which means that Little Roger got screwed because they parodied someone without a sense of humor, while Steve Dahl got to release and have a hit on “Do Ya Think I’m Disco?,” his parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” just because Stewart thought it was funny and let it go).

I personally think compulsory licensing is fair: it says to the copyright holder that you have the right to be compensated for use of this material but not the right to prevent it from being reused at all. And for the inevitable conflicts I’d recommend setting up a special “copyright court,” modeled on the arbitration panels the Screen Writers’ Guild and Screen Directors’ Guild set up to adjudicate who deserves credit on films multiple writers or directors have worked on — the courts would look at how much of a previously copyrighted work was used, how extensively it was sampled and how significant its use was (a James Brown sample whose sampler wanted us to hear it and go, “That’s James Brown!,” seems quite different artistically from one whose sampler was just using a vocal grunt as part of a broader texture and didn’t want it to be recognizable), and rule on what percentage, if any, of the income from the new work should go to the copyright owner of the original.

Mr. B Natural (Kling Films/Conn Instruments, 1957)

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

I dashed home after the movie and when Charles got here we ended up running a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of War of the Colossal Beast, a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man — originally titled Revenge of the Colossal Man, which would have made more sense (there really isn’t much of a “war” going on in this one), which they prefaced with their marvelous takeoff of an unwittingly surreal promotional film from the Conn musical instruments company in 1957, Mr. B Natural. The MST3K crew really went to town on this bizarre band short, whose oddest aspect was the transgender casting of the title character.

The film opens with a giant white cut-out representing a musical staff with notes on it, only one of the notes comes to life and introduces himself as “Mr. B Natural,” also known as “The Spirit of Music.” Only Mr. B Natural is actually played by actress (if, in the immortal words of Dwight MacDonald, I may use the term for courtesy) Betty Luster, who combines an annoyingly chipper manner, a voice that sounds like Beverly Sills on helium and a voluptuous figure that is all too obviously female — if the breasts that show through the musical-note jacket she’s wearing (which looks like something she picked up at Liberace’s garage sale just before he started wearing sequins) didn’t “out” her as a woman, her ample hips and big butt (revealingly encased in blue denim) would be enough to do so. The plot, if it can be called that, calls for Mr./Ms. B Natural to emerge from the locker of junior-high student Buzz Turner (Bruce Podewell), who’s complaining that the “in” crowd at school has ostracized him, and tell him that if he learns to play an instrument and gets in the band he’ll be considered cool.

Mr./Ms. B appears magically in several other places in Buzz’s life, including his bedroom (if she tried that now she’d be arrested on suspicion of child molestation!), and finally persuades him to take up trumpet and badger his dad to buy him one. There’s a scene at a music store in which the unctuous store clerk fields the question of Papa Turner, “Is quality really important?” with an insistence that it is (“Of course!” I imagined him saying; “The Conn company isn’t spending all this money to make this movie just so you can buy him a Selmer!” — though the production budget didn’t look like it was more than about $12.98) and an assurance that they can buy the horn on installments. The final sequence shows Buzz playing a trumpet solo at a school dance, and one thing I’d give the makers of the film credit for is they didn’t make him sound too good — he plays like what the character is supposed to be, a kid who’s just started lessons and developed a basic technique but is still a little uncomfortable with the horn, not an accomplished virtuoso — but the rest of the movie is just silly when it isn’t hitting heights of unintended surrealism, notably in the gender ambiguity of the title character.

The MST3K crew had a field day with this one, not only ridiculing the transgender casting (”Mr. B Natural, you’re hot!”) but also the uniform Caucasian-ness of the dramatis personae (“We’re white, we’re so white, we’re white as can be,” they sing along to one of the pieces played on-screen by the two real-life school bands featured, the Miami Senior High School Band and the Waukegan Elementary School Band) and the overall dorkiness of the production even by the meager standards of 1950’s industrial films. They also did an hilarious sketch in which robots Tom Servo and Crow hold a formal debate over Mr. B Natural’s true gender.

War of the Colossal Beast (Carmel/American-International, 1958)

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

War of the Colossal Beast proved to be a flawed film and have its moments of silliness, but it was actually a decent genre piece, better than most of the films Mystery Science Theatre 3000 ridiculed and almost good enough for you to question why they wanted to do it at all. It’s a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man, made by the same people — producer-director-writer Bert I. Gordon and American International Pictures — who did the original; the first one was released in 1957 and this sequel came out in 1958 — and this time George Worthing Yates, who worked on the script for the first film but didn’t get credit, here gets credit for turning Gordon’s story into a screenplay.

The film starts with Miguel (Robert Hernandez) frantically driving a truck through the wilds of northern Mexico, fleeing an unseen menace, until his truck gets stuck in a mud flat and he survives, but the truck disappears. The truck’s owner, John Swanson (George Becwar, the actor who caused Edward D. Wood, Jr. all that trouble with the union on the set of Bride of the Monster), goes to Mexico to complain to the local police, and after a couple of reels of exposition it turns out that the truck was picked up whole by the Amazing Colossal Man, who stuck his hand into it like a Cracker Jack box (I made the joke a few seconds before the MST3K crew did, too), pulled out the food it contained and ate it. It turns out he’s been doing this to quite a few trucks in the neighborhood since he escaped his fall off the Boulder Dam at the end of the first movie. It also turns out that, though it didn’t kill him, the fall did poke out one of his eyes, seriously scar his face and turn him into a different actor (Dean Parkin instead of Glenn Langan).

There’s an attempt — actually more successful than it was in the first film — to turn the Colossal Man into a character of pathos à la the Frankenstein monster (especially in the James Whale movies) and King Kong — though the accident at the end of film one has cost him his ability to speak in this one and it’s his sister Joyce (Sally Fraser — taking the place of the character of his still normal-sized girlfriend in the first film) who acts as his interlocutor and talks about how the gigantic growth process turned him into a freak. This isn’t a great movie, and for an attempt to engender sympathy for the monster it’s hardly in the same league as Frankenstein or King Kong, but it’s got its points — the film moves, the story makes (relative) sense, the “uglification” of the monster (the fact that he’s badly scarred and not just an unnaturally large human the way he was in the first film) anticipates The Incredible Hulk, and the acting is at least decent and in Sally Forrest’s case better than that.

There’s also a surprisingly creative ending; caught in a trap, the monster kills himself by deliberately grabbing electrical power lines — and at the moment he touches them, the image goes from black-and-white into color and stays that way for the remaining minute or so of the film. Offhand I can’t think of any other movie that has just its last few feet in color — though there was a color insert at the end of the 1956 film I Married a Woman (homely George Gobel is married to sexpot Diana Dors and doubts her love for him until the end) and the 1940’s films The Picture of Dorian Gray and Portrait of Jennie used color inserts to depict the titular artworks even though the rest of those films were in black-and-white. In 1958 American-International used a color final scene far more effectively in How to Make a Monster (and it helped that it was considerably longer — more like a whole final reel in color than just the last few shots!) and here it’s an interesting if not especially compelling effect that put the colossal beast to rest for the last time. ( lists a 1962 film called Revenge of the Colossal Beasts, but it’s just an amateur short produced and directed by the 14-year-old John Carpenter.)

The Land That Time Forgot (Amicus/American-International, 1975)

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

Eventually I ran Charles a movie I’d recorded off TCM earlier in the day: The Land That Time Forgot, a 1975 co-production between the British-based Amicus company (which was founded in the wake of the initial success of Hammer in the 1950’s to make similar kinds of films and capitalize on the same market) and American-International. It was based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in 1918 and set two years earlier (and by an interesting chance, Charles happened to have re-read the novel recently), and tells the story of a German U-boat which sinks an American passenger ship with a secret hold of munitions bound for England. The remaining passengers, including the film’s leading couple, Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure, the only American in an otherwise all-British cast) and Lisa Clayton (played by an actress with the almost incomprehensible name Susan Penhaligon — if I’d encountered her last name out of context I’d probably have figured it was a scientific apparatus to see the molecular structure of chemicals), try to hijack the sub and use it to escape to an Allied, or at least neutral, port.

The German sub commander, von Schoenvorts (John McEnery) — a name which frankly sounds more Dutch or Afrikaner than German — sabotages them by sneaking a magnet into the ship’s compass so that when the hijackers think it’s headed west, it’s actually headed south — only they end up in a surprisingly cold stretch of sea featuring icebergs, and eventually a mountain that’s a giant wall of ice with only a small inlet through which the sub can pass looms out of the sea. They take the inlet (if they hadn’t, there’d have been no movie!) and discover a verdant paradise but also a “land that time forgot,” in which virtually the entire evolution of animal life on earth is happening all at once, from aggressive protozoans (shown by some odd little cartoons representing P.O.V. shots of the scientists looking through microscopes at samples of the native water) to dinosaurs, either predatory land-based or amphibian ones or pterodactyls. There are also two warring tribes of cave people, one discernibly whiter and more technologically advanced than the other, who naturally are bitter rivals and go out of their way to kill each other when the dinosaurs and other creatures on the island aren’t doing that for them. (Charles noted that in the book it’s clearly stated that the whiter a human sub-species’ skin, the more advanced it is — a clearly racist concept but one that put Burroughs squarely within mainstream thought in his time.)

Eventually the various humans, still bearing bits of their tribal rivalries (remember this is all happening while World War I is in full swing), make their way up the island’s central river and find the source of all life on it: two giant brown pots that look like huge coconuts, containing a white fluid that is apparently supposed to represent the “primordial soup” out of which life first formed, a process that in this “land that time forgot” is apparently continually going on. At the end, the other surviving humans (the ones that haven’t become dino-food in the meantime — the amphibian dinosaurs in this film are depicted as meat-eaters, which the real ones weren’t) get in the sub and try to escape, but strand Bowen and Lisa on the island — which turns out to be a good thing for Bowen and Lisa, since at that moment the volcano on the island chooses to erupt, the sub sinks from the volcanic disturbance and only Bowen and Lisa are left alive to eke out an existence on the island — which they apparently do successfully enough that the producers made a sequel, The People That Time Forgot.

The last shot we see is Bowen writing down the whole story and sealing it into a bottle — which was found in a 1975-set framing sequence at the beginning by a sailor who opened the bottle, read the manuscript and thereby set up a flashback containing most of the rest of the film. On TCM the film was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, who ridiculed the cheesy special effects and said anyone looking for a Jurassic Park level of credibility in the dinosaur shots would be sorely disappointed. He was unfair to the film; the land- and sea-based dinosaurs are quite believable — several orders of magnitude above all the cheesy 1950’s monster-fests that used either actors in dino-suits (was anybody ever really scared by Godzilla when he looked so much like a human in an especially elaborate Hallowe’en costume, which is essentially what he was?) or living lizards with horned plates and other protuberances crudely glued on to represent prehistoric reptiles — though the pterodctyls are almost unbearably crude, simple cut-outs that don’t flap their wings or move their mouths. (The fact that this was 1975, well before the digital era, was no excuse — not when Willis O’Brien and his crew on King Kong 42 years earlier was able to create a fully convincing pterodactyl which flapped its wings — suspended on piano wire, which washed out in the bright lights then used for filming — and opened its mouth wide enough to pick up Fay Wray in it and prepare to eat her until Kong grabbed hold of it, killed it and thereby spared her.)

Charles mentioned that the book contained far more elaborate and interesting creatures than the film — including a race of flying humans — but it’s obvious Amicus had blown its effects budget just doing the dinosaurs and didn’t have any money to spare on winged people. (Derek Meddings got credit for supervising the effects and Roger Dicken was credited — or, in the case of the pterodactyls, blamed — for doing the dinosaurs.) The Land That Time Forgot was scripted by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock — I hadn’t heard of Cawthorn before but Moorcock was a well-known and highly respected British science-fiction writer who could probably have written a better adaptation (or, even better, given Amicus an original) if they’d wanted one — and directed by Kevin Connor, who turned out to be quite good at suspense and at dramatizing the antagonisms between the 1916 humans — the opening sequences in which the British and German contingents duel for control of the submarine well before it gets to the island that time forgot are among the most entertaining parts of the film — but stolid and dull in pace, taking 91 minutes to tell a story that a 1930’s filmmaker probably could have done in 70 minutes. (There was a longer 102-minute cut released in Japan, but in line with Hammer’s practice at the time, that one’s additional running time probably consisted mostly of extra gore.) The Land That Time Forgot — recently remade in a direct-to-video version — is a fun movie for what it is but it could have been even more exciting; at that, I’d probably rather sit through this than the recent disaster Land of the Lost!

Blond Cheat (RKO, 1938)

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

Fortunately I’d picked a short one from the backlog: Blond Cheat, a 61-minute 1938 “B” from RKO that starred a virtually all-British cast (so much so that at first Charles and I wondered if the film had actually been shot there, though it wasn’t) headed by pre-stardom Joan Fontaine and Derrick de Marney (the latter known to modern audiences mostly for his turn as the young and innocent murder suspect in Hitchcock’s marvelous 1937 Young and Innocent) in a film based on a story by Aladar Laszlo (spelled “Lazlo” on the credits here), the Hungarian playwright whose play The Honest Finder became the basis for Paramount’s marvelous 1932 release Trouble in Paradise, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins.

Blond Cheat isn’t as compelling a story as Trouble in Paradise, but it still shows Laszlo’s penchant for flipping our moral attitude towards the characters and showing people being manipulated behind the scenes in ways that aren’t readily apparent. The real secret protagonists are pawnbroker Rufus Trent (Cecil Kellaway, a first-rate character actor who got wasted playing dotty scientists in 1950’s sci-fi films) and his socially ambitious wife Genevieve (Cecil Cunningham). Genevieve has forced her husband to rename his pawnshop a “loan office” and, at least judging from what we see on screen, to remodel it as a deco extravaganza with such an enormous lobby we can’t help but wonder when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are going to show up to dance in its floor show. She also wants to marry off her daughter Roberta (Lilian Bond from James Whale’s 1932 classic The Old Dark House) to Michael Ashburn (Derrick de Marney), who comes from an old aristocratic family even though he’s currently broke and forced to work at Rufus’s pawn- — excuse me, loan office.

Those plans get derailed when Julie Evans (Joan Fontaine) and her supposed uncle (Olaf Hytten) burst into the loan company just as it’s closing and borrow 400 pounds, putting up Julie’s earrings as collateral and then telling Michael that since she’s been wearing them since childhood, they can’t be removed. So Michael has to treat her as “human collateral,” never letting her out of her sight even though that means breaking a dinner date with his fiancée and her parents at the posh “Piccadilly Club.” We eventually learn that Julie is actually an aspiring musical star (an odd casting for Fontaine after she did so dismally as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in the otherwise enchanting A Damsel in Distress) and the “uncle” is Paul Douglas, a producer who wants to star her in a show — which Rufus Trent has agreed to back if Julie can break off Roberta’s engagement to Michael and leave her free to marry the man she really wants, clerk Gilbert Potts (Robert Coote).

After a few up-and-down complications that test the limits of the Production Code, two robbers steal the supposedly unremovable earrings and it turns out they are also actors, hired by Genevieve to break up the burgeoning romance between Michael and Julie and thereby steer Michael’s romantic attentions back towards Roberta. Though a committee of screenwriters (Charles Kaufman — not the current one — Paul Yawitz, Viola Brothers Shore and Harry Segall) do a serviceable job of turning Laszlo’s interesting if convoluted story into a script, they don’t have the flair that Samson Raphaelson brought to Trouble in Paradise, and to say that director Joseph Santley (who actually made a few rather interesting movies) is no Lubitsch is putting it quite politely, but Blond Cheat is actually a nicely done movie even though, despite only lasting an hour, it still feels a bit slow and padded for the material. Maybe it should have been a short … — 6/24/06


The night before Charles and I had watched a quite charming movie — and one which seemed vaguely familiar — called Blond Cheat, made at RKO in 1938 as part of their failed attempt to make a major star of Joan Fontaine. (Eventually they dropped her, and she landed the part of the lead in the 1940 Rebecca, produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock — and that film made her a star at last.) It’s set in London and accordingly RKO recruited almost their whole cast from Hollywood’s British colony — including Derrick de Marney, fresh from his own Hitchcock connection (he’s the innocent suspect accused of murder in Young and Innocent), as the male lead. De Marney plays Michael Ashburn, general manager of the Trafalgar Loan Company — a sort of glorified pawnshop — who on the night he is to dine at the exclusive Piccadilly Club with his fiancée, stuck-up rich bitch Roberta Trent (Lilian Bond) is accosted by Paul Douglas (Olaf Hytten), who insists he must borrow 400 pounds immediately and puts up the earrings worn by his niece, Julie Evans (Joan Fontaine), for collateral.

Only when Michael asks Julie to remove the earrings so her uncle can pawn them, he’s told that she’s worn them so long that they’ve grown in and can’t be removed without a surgical operation — so she’s just going to have to spend the weekend with him (the film opens on a Friday afternoon) until her uncle comes back on Monday to redeem them — and her. The debt of the “original” story by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo (spelled “Lazlo” in his credit) — whose works also furnished the bases for the much better-known films Trouble in Paradise and (sort of) Top Hat — to the tale filmed by MGM in 1931 as The Man in Possession and in 1937 as Personal Property is pretty obvious (one of Hollywood’s usual writing committees — Charles Kaufman, Paul Yawitz, Viola Brothers Shore and Harry Segall — turned Laszlo’s story into a script), but Blond Cheat has a discernible charm of its own.

Partly that’s due to the performance by Fontaine, who manages to go through the entire movie with something of the comic malevolence of Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby — positively taking joy in screwing up the plans of the man she’s attached herself to — and add some grit to a tale that in lesser hands might have turned into a pretty dull comic soufflé. The plot resolution really doesn’t make much sense — it turns out that “Douglas” is actually a theatrical impresario who puts on the floor shows at the Piccadilly Club, and Julie is an aspiring actress and singer auditioning for a spot in one (and she does a production number at the end, singing in an obviously dubbed voice). The gimmick is that Julie is supposed to show her skill as an actress by posing as Douglas’ niece and getting Michael embroiled so deeply in their plot that it breaks up his engagement — though why Douglas wants to break up Michael’s engagement to Roberta is never made clear — and in the end Michael crashes the stage in the middle of Julie’s number (she got the job) and proposes to her, while Roberta is left with foofy glasses-wearing Gilbert Potts (Robert Coote), another member of the Trafalgar staff, as a consolation prize.

But despite the lapses in plot logic, Blond Crazy is a nice little film, directed by Joseph Santley (co-director of the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, an experience which stood him in good stead here) with just the right touch of lightness and insouciance, and while it’s hardly laugh-out-loud funny it arouses a lot of smiling and chuckling and it’s a perfectly nice little light entertainment that, at only an hour in length, takes care not to overstay its welcome. — 10/25/09

Queen Family (North Carolina Public Television, 2006)

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

I ran him a curtain-raiser: a half-hour documentary called Queen Family that was literally about a family named Queen — a 90-plus matriarch named Mary Jane Queen and her eight children — who are keeping the tradition of amateur music-making on the front porch going into a world where it’s rapidly dying out. The official synopsis on the PBS Web site described it thusly: “The mountains of Appalachia are home to a folk music tradition that traces its roots to England, Scotland and Ireland. Mary Jane Queen, daughter of a renowned banjo player, brought together the traditions of two Appalachian families when she married musician Claude Queen in 1935. Ninety-two year old Mary Jane and her eight children continue the tradition today, singing and playing the music passed down from their ancestors, among the first Irish-Americans to settle in Jackson County, North Carolina. The Queen family has come to represent mountain music, language, culture and the closeness of family and community in the Southern Highlands. In this documentary, the iconic family describes and exemplifies a way of life and traditions that are quickly passing, with original and traditional mountain music played literally on the back porch. 30 minutes.”

Aside from that last reference to the “back porch” — the Queens far more commonly perform on their front porch (and treasure a wood-burned sign that was the last thing Claude Queen did for the family before he died; it reads “Queens’ Picking Place” and hangs on the front of their house) — the film is a marvelous half-hour slice of life even though the Queens aren’t quite as isolated as the myth-making would have us believe. In the opening narration they’re described as having won an award for best traditional bluegrass group at a local music festival (so they have performed on land other than their own property!), and later on they acknowledged having had a battery-powered radio that enabled them, when they were growing up, to tune to WSM (the Grand Ole Opry station) and other local radio stations that broadcast bluegrass and country music. (They particularly remembered hearing Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.)

Mary Jane Queen has one of those authoritative old voices that may crack and break all over the place (though give her a break; she’s over 90 and this gives no impression of what she would have sounded like in her youth) but nonetheless she sings with cutting power and soul; she does lead on most of the songs heard here and it’s clear who wears the proverbial pants in the family. The music was mostly familiar bluegrass and gospel standards like “Black Jack Davy” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — though there were a few surprises, including a flash uptempo guitar duet by Mark Queen and one of his brothers that was amazing in its sheer virtuosity and made me sit up and think, “These guys aren’t just amateur folk musicians — they can pick!” There’s even a spectacular scene in which two of the Queens play the same guitar at the same time, with surprising adeptness: the first time I’ve ever seen anyone attempt guitar four-hands.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wild Boys of the Road (Warners, as “First National,” 1933)

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

I decided to reproduce a recent double-bill on TCM, Wild Boys of the Road and Girls of the Road (I guess the girls weren’t quite so “wild”), presented as part of their current salute to films about the Depression, both the ones made during it and the ones made about it afterwards. Though with similar stories and themes, they couldn’t have been more different. Wild Boys of the Road starts out as a typical student film, with Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and his friend Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) trying to get into a “Sophomore Frolic” dance for which admission is 75 cents for boys and free for girls. Eddie has enough for his own ticket but not enough to stake Tommy, so he dresses Tommy in drag and gets him in for free — but a watchman catches Tommy taking off his wig and dress and revealing a suit under it, and Our Heroes and their dates all get thrown out. Tommy tells Eddie he plans to drop out of school and look for work, and Eddie says he’ll ask his dad (Grant Mitchell) if his employer can give Tommy a job — but Eddie finds out that his dad has been laid off himself.

Not wanting to burden his family, Eddie takes off on the road with Tommy, and on the first train they hop they meet Grace (Rochelle Hudson), a young woman dressed as a man so she can “ride the rods” without having to worry about sexual assault. The first 20 minutes or so of this film are pretty silly, but once the “wild” boys actually get on the road it becomes a near-masterpiece, directed with an utter lack of sentimentality by William A. Wellman (who in a 1927 Paramount silent called Beggars for Life had already pulled the gimmick of having a woman hobo dress as a man — in that one she was played by Louise Brooks, who named it as her favorite of her films) and putting its characters through a series of ordeals, leavened only by a series of all too transitory breaks. They’re busted en masse by police, find a modicum of decency in a homeless encampment until it too is raided, and in the scene everyone remembers from this film Tommy collapses on a railroad track and, though he manages to pull himself far enough away that he doesn’t die when the train inevitably comes, does lose a leg in the crash and is put through intense pain both at the scene of the accident and later, when a sympathetic doctor (Arthur Hohl) treats him, during his ministrations.

The ending is a bizarre piece of propaganda for the Roosevelt administration: after being arrested for attempting to hold up a theatre, Eddie — who agreed to take a note to the theatre cashier for a promise of $5, which he was planning to use so he could buy a coat to work a legitimate job as an elevator boy (the two men who made this offer to him were such obvious gangster types I guess we’re supposed to assume that Eddie never went to the movies even when his family still had money) — and his two friends, Tommy and Grace, end up before a judge who has an NRA poster on the wall above his chair, and who ultimately gives them a chance to work themselves out of their predicament on condition that they promise to return home to their parents as soon as they’ve earned the money to do so. The ending is overly blatant and strikes a false note, but the rest of the film, written by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahearn, has been so powerful (interestingly anticipating some of the scenes of The Grapes of Wrath even though it was made three years before John Steinbeck’s novel was published) that one can forgive it.

Wild Boys of the Road is one of Wellman’s triumphs as a Warners contractee, rivaling The Public Enemy and the awesome (and woefully little-known) Safe in Hell, and it’s also a film that uses the greater sexual and moral freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” era not to titillate but to make a powerful dramatic point: in one sequence a railroad man catches Grace washing out her clothes, realizes she’s a girl, and rapes her — and the “wild boys” band together and push him off the train, presumably killing him (though in fact he disappears from the story altogether and we don’t find out if he lives or dies). Though the “R-word” is never used (even in the “pre-Code” days there was enough enforcement of the Production Code that they couldn’t quite go there), the scene is pretty obvious and quite intense, especially in capturing Rochelle Hudson’s sense of having been violated in a way that seems modern.

Wild Boys of the Road also gains from its blessedly sparing use of music — the idea of underscoring dialogue scenes was still in its infancy; Jack Warner wasn’t yet issuing ukases that the music should start when it said “Warner Bros. Presents” and not let up until it said “The End,” and aside from the opening and closing credits and a powerful montage scene of various “wild boys” (including the principals and seemingly thousands of others) in the middle, the film is unscored and is actually more powerful from the lack of music. The scene in which Tommy loses his leg on the tracks has been shown in just about every documentary on Wellman, Warners in the 1930’s or how Hollywood dealt with the Depression, but if anything it’s even more powerful in context — and Wild Boys of the Road emerges as a near-masterpiece, tough, gritty and blessedly free of compromise until that regrettable but inevitable ending.

Girls of the Road (Columbia, 1940)

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

After the power and impact of Wild Boys of the Road, Girls of the Road was a return to “reality” as usually seen by the movie camera. Robert D. Andrews’ “original” screenplay focused not on the “wild girls” themselves but on an outsider who enters their ranks to snoop — in this case Kay Warren (Ann Dvorak), daughter and secretary to Governor Warren (Howard Hickman) of the carefully unnamed state where this story takes place (the writers and director of Wild Boys of the Road kept their film carefully grounded in genuine geography), who hears a couple of well-minded civic reformers give a report to her dad on conditions for women on the road, realizes that the report will just get shit-canned if someone doesn’t go out there and document the real life of the “road girls,” and naturally decides to be that person herself, taking off for the road with a nice coat and slacks and $200 on her.

This film was made in 1940, when the Depression was no longer a “live” issue, and its main purpose seems to have been to titillate the audience with as much sexual suggestion as Andrews and the director, Nick Grindé (who’s actually a considerably more interesting filmmaker here than he was in the contemporary “mad scientist” sci-fi/horror films he was making at Columbia with Boris Karloff as his star), could cram into a “post-Code” film. The Lesbian subtexts are veiled but still there — seeing tough-as-nails Mickey (Helen Mack), the hobo Kay first antagonizes and then befriends, one almost expects them to become a Lesbian couple with Mickey as the butch and Kay as the femme — and there’s an even harder type when they get to an abandoned show boat that’s being run as a camp for female tramps by an even tougher broad. At the same time there’s vulnerable Irene (Marjorie Cooley), who’s carrying a box containing a white wedding dress because, in a spectacular example of misplaced priorities, she wanted to go back home to her fiancé but she didn’t have enough money for both a bus ticket and a wedding dress, so she bought the dress and tried to hitch back — and naturally, as the only girl in the dramatis personae who actually has a relationship (even though we never see her boyfriend), she’s the one who dies. The film’s stars, Dvorak, Mack and Lola Lane (playing yet another attitude queen from the road), supposedly got busted in Saugus, California by a police chief who were convinced they were real hoboes, not just actresses playing them.

Girls of the Road isn’t a bad movie, but it suffers so much by comparison with Wild Boys of the Road it probably wasn’t a good idea for either TCM or us to screen them consecutively. The “road girls” themselves may be wearing the most dirty and disheveled trousers in Columbia’s wardrobe department, but throughout the movie their hair is perfectly permed and their eyebrows plucked. There are plot holes galore — in one scene Elly steals Kay’s clothes and Irene’s wedding dress but somehow misses the $200 bankroll Kay had stashed (I was expecting this scene to anticipate the gimmick in Sullivan’s Travels in which the person who was pretending to be a hobo suddenly finds himself cut off from all his money and resources and forced to live as one, but no dice) — and there’s music, music, music (done by Columbia’s usual committee of stock-music composers, including Sidney Cutner, Ben Oakland, George Parrish, Gregory Stone and Dimitri Tiomkin), underscoring scenes Wellman powerfully left silent in Wild Boys of the Road (including a copy of the scene in which the hoboes throw the rapist off the train — only in this version the girls attack before the rape occurs and the assailant definitely survives).

Girls of the Road
isn’t a bad movie, most of the acting is perfectly fine (though I’m not much of an Ann Dvorak fan and I still think the 1932 film Three on a Match would have been better if she and Bette Davis had switched roles), and the “happy ending” (the governor’s daughter, returned to her normal social status, uses her influence and contact to build a “girls’ castle” — a home in which the “girls of the road” can settle and get rehabilitated) is actually more convincing than the one stuck on Wild Boys of the Road, but especially compared to Wellman’s near-masterpiece, Girls of the Road simply partakes too much of the standard-issue silliness that generally crept into 1930’s Hollywood films when they tried to take on serious social, political or economic issues.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One Romantic Night a.k.a. The Swan (United Artists, 1930)

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

The film we picked was One Romantic Night, a.k.a. The Swan, a 1930 United Artists release that was the second of three films based on Ferenc Molnar’s play “A hattyú,” meaning “The Swan.” The print we were watching came from a recent TCM showing as part of a day-long festival for D. W. Griffith’s greatest star, Lillian Gish, on her birthday, October 14. On one level it was quite a good movie; the splendiferous sets by William Cameron Menzies and Paul French eloquently framed the action; the pacing of Paul L. Stein’s direction was good and the actors mostly delivered their lines naturalistically, with few of those deadly pauses that marred many early talkies and actually made them seem less realistic than silent films.

On the other hand, it was saddled with a really silly story, one of those love-vs.-duty things: Gish plays Alexandra, daughter of a royal family who lost their throne but still retain their title — and her mom, Beatrice (Marie Dressler, acting with the same transcendent authority she showed in Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, and likewise out-pointing the leads), is determined to rehabilitate the family’s coffers and royal standing by getting Alexandra to marry Prince Albert (Rod LaRocque). Meanwhile, Prince Albert himself isn’t interested in marrying anybody — he’s having too much fun “playing the field” (when he was introduced Charles asked me why he wasn’t singing the lusty songs of the male lead in The Merry Widow) and going through women like a reaper through a wheat field. The entire film takes place on the estate of Alexandra and her parents, and focuses on Beatrice’s attempts to have another man court Alexandra so Albert will get so jealous of Alexandra that he’ll pop the question just to make sure someone else doesn’t get her.

The other man she has in mind is Dr. Nicholas Haller (Conrad Nagel, never any great shakes as an actor but considerably better-looking and sexier than LaRocque!), tutor to Alexandra and her two younger brothers, who’s had an unrequited crush on her and doesn’t seem to mind being used by her mom as a cat’s-paw even though he’s all too aware that he doesn’t stand a chance with a card-carrying princess. At the end, Albert receives a telegram that he’s been ordered by his family to marry Princess Marie of Hohenhauen — only Beatrice checks her copy of Gotha’s Almanac and figures out that there is no such person, but not before Albert has used that information to get Alexandra to run away with him, thinking that pairing up with him is going to cost him his throne and they’ll spend the rest of their days as two footloose ex-royals in South America.

It’s much ado about nothing, really, and both Gish and LaRocque seem a bit nervous about acting in sound films (it was her first talkie, though not his) and Dressler and Nagel both do more credible jobs of acting with their voices. Marie Dressler had the advantage over a lot of other Hollywood actors dealing with the talkie transition of having had extensive experience in both live plays and silent films — this meant she knew movies and she knew dialogue, and here as in Anna Christie it shows in a much greater level of confidence in the process and her ability to create a character in it than that of many of her co-stars. As for Nagel, he was so often tapped for major roles in the early years of sound that he joked that he and his wife could no longer just go to the movies for their own entertainment because they couldn’t find a picture playing anywhere that he wasn’t in.

It’s odd that this piece of Ruritanian cheese has been filmed three times — and though Lillian Gish would act again (even though she made only one other movie, 1933’s His Double Life — in the next 12 years) the stars of the other two versions would not. The first version of The Swan was a silent filmed at Paramount in 1926, just before its lead, Frances Howard, quit acting to marry Sam Goldwyn; and the last version was made at MGM in 1956 just before, in one of those ironic real-life situations that wouldn’t be believed in fiction, its star, Grace Kelly, quit the business to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco and become a princess in real life.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three Views of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”

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

Last night Charles and I watched a great movie, one that tied in with the trip we’re currently taking through the BBC-TV miniseries An Age of Kings that adapted eight of Shakespeare’s history plays into a continuous cycle from the deposing of Richard II in 1399 to the Battle of Bosworth Field and the accession of the Tudors in 1485. Having recently seen the two Age of Kings episodes dealing with Henry V (his reign and Shakespeare’s play about him), I was curious as a point of comparison to run Laurence Olivier’s masterly film of the same play from 1944. The film is actually called The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France — a title, including the variant spellings (it wouldn’t be until Samuel Johnson wrote his famous English-language dictionary that the spellings of English words would be regularized and systematized), that might well have adorned one of the original printed editions of the play or been posted on a playbill of the time — not that a playbill would have done much good since most of the people in Shakespeare’s audiences couldn’t read. (It’s generally assumed that Shakespeare and his rival theatre company managers sent out barkers with bells to herald that a performance of such-and-such a play was about to occur and how much it would cost to get in.)

Olivier’s three Shakespeare films as actor-director — Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III (he actually appeared in films of two other Shakespeare plays, As You Like It and Othello, but did not direct those) — have often been regarded as the last word on how to bring the Bard to the screen, and while there are other approaches that work (I’ve always been quite partial to the Orson Welles Macbeth — at least once I had a chance to see the restored 107-minute version of the film — with its Caligari-esque stylizations mirroring Macbeth’s diseased mind), Olivier’s Shakespeare films are clearly the work of a man who loved the author and the theatrical tradition from which he sprang.

In fact, Henry V works on various levels of artifice — the film actually begins in May 1600, starting with a flag fluttering in the air and opening up to reveal the main title credit, then a pan shot over the London of the time (a marvelously convincing model by special-effects genius W. Percy Day, who would later work his magic with Michael Powell on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) that comes to rest inside the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s company is about to put on a performance of the play. For the first 37 minutes of the movie we remain pretty much inside the Globe — sometimes going backstage and watching the characters hurriedly putting on their costumes and wigs before going on, mostly witnessing the play as spectators in Shakespeare’s time would (presumably) have seen it (though there’s an anachronism in Olivier’s use of signboards to tell the audience when the scene changes — as noted above, very few people in Shakespeare’s London could actually read) — and it’s only about one-quarter of the way through the movie, when Henry V’s expeditionary force finally sails to France, that the film opens up and uses the full resources of cinema to tell its story.

Henry V overall is a marvelous movie, thanks largely to Olivier’s skill and sensitivity as a director and a text editor (he co-wrote the script with Alan Dent and an uncredited Dallas Bower, using Shakespeare’s dialogue almost exclusively — except for the end of the Boar’s Head scene, when Pistol quotes a few lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great — but cut extensively, sometimes moved lines from one character to another, and incorporated Henry V’s famous kiss-off of Falstaff — “I know thee not, old man/Fall to thy prayers” — from the end of Henry IV, Part 2) and his ability to recruit competent (more than that!) help, not only an amazing cast (Leslie Banks — otherwise best known as the villain in The Most Dangerous Game and the hero in the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much — as the Chorus, Robert Newton as Pistol, Felix Aylmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ernest Thesiger as the French ambassador, Leo Genn as the Constable of France, and quite a few less famous but equally gifted players in the supporting cast, including Harcourt Williams as a decrepit, out-of-it French king and Max Adrian as his son and heir, the Dauphin) but also the brilliant cinematographer Robert Krasker (shooting color for the first time in his life), the great designers Robert and Margaret Furse (who intensively studied paintings of Henry V’s time to determine what the sets should look like, and came up with an appealing mixture of realistic and non-realistic designs that shouldn’t have worked, but did) and, above all, composer William Walton.

With the possible exception of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (whose first film assignment was to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for Warners’ 1935 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), it’s hard to imagine any experienced film composer in 1944 who would have given this score the consistent imagination Walton does; though he falls a bit flat on the Battle of Agincourt (the cues here are pretty much standard back-and-forth “battle music” without the awesome power of Prokofieff’s score for the battle on the ice in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky), throughout the movie Walton’s music does what a film score should do: it amplifies the emotions of the situations without getting in the way of the great dialogue. Interestingly, Walton did not allow the music to be performed independently of the words; when Walton adapted this and his scores for Olivier’s other Shakespeare films for concert performance, he included a part for a narrator reading Shakespeare’s lines.

Much of the interest of Olivier’s Henry V lies in its fascinating balance between three views of the story: Henry V’s French campaign and the Battle of Agincourt as it would have appeared then; the story as it played in Shakespeare’s time; and how it would be seen by a British public in a middle of a war for the country’s very existence. It’s well known that Winston Churchill, who had virtually shut down the British film industry for most of the war (he was concerned about it using men, money and strategic materials needed for the war effort), gave Olivier special dispensation to make this movie, including letting him out of his own enlistment and authorizing producer Filippo del Giudice to spend the money on lavish sets and costumes, and also Technicolor (the first time Shakespeare was ever filmed in color). Olivier was also allowed to film the battle scenes in Ireland (a neutral country in World War II) and to use on-leave servicemembers as his battle extras.

Perhaps as part of his deal to make the film and perhaps also from his own sensitivity to its appeal as a morale-booster, Olivier somewhat sanitized Henry’s character; he deleted Henry’s quick execution of the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey for having plotted his assassination (though he kept in the scene in which Henry pardons another person for speaking out against the King) and he also deleted the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill all the French prisoners they’d taken at Agincourt. (Oddly, Olivier and Dent left in the cue line for this — “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant” — but cut the actual order and its execution, leaving the line somewhat hanging in mid-air.) On the plus side, Olivier and Dent did leave in the opening scene — after the Chorus’s prologue but before the King’s council — in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely anxiously debate Henry V’s threatened revival of a law the House of Commons had considered under Henry IV to seize for the state all estates willed to the Church, and the two reach a consensus that in order to forestall that confiscation they’d better give Henry the answer he wants about the validity of his claim to the throne of France. (Eric Crozier, editing the play for An Age of Kings, left this out and went straight from the prologue to the council scene.)

It should be noted that Shakespeare wrote Henry V at least in part as a morale-booster; the Earl of Essex was about to take a British army to subdue and occupy Ireland, and Shakespeare in 1599 was dredging up this slice of British history from 1415 to inspire the British public to support the war — just as Olivier dredged up Shakespeare’s play in 1944 at least in part to bolster support for Britain’s effort in World War II. So there are essentially three separate views of the events of Agincourt embodied in Olivier’s film, and time has added a fourth; when we see the film today, we can’t help but be affected by the changes in how we view war and both individual and national honor between 1944 and 2009, and in particular how the ghastly slaughters of both 20th century world wars and the bland acceptance that civilians are fair game has changed the morality of war and challenged the whole concept of combat as a test of individual merit and courage.

Having just watched the Age of Kings version of this story, Charles and I couldn’t help but compare the two, not only in the different ways they edited Shakespeare’s text but how differently Olivier as both star and director handled much of it from the way Robert Hardy (who had the advantage of playing Henry V as part of a complete cycle and therefore being able to give us the entire character arc) played it under Michael Hayes’ direction. Oddly, it’s Hardy who’s the more straightforward hero; Olivier’s performance as Henry V is surprisingly edgy, reminding us that in his nation’s existential crisis there were two major leaders who were especially known for their eloquence and ability to move people as public speakers. One was his country’s leader, Churchill; the other was his enemy’s leader, Hitler — and Olivier sometimes seems to be pitching his Henry V midway between Churchill and Hitler (and evoking the ways Churchill consciously used quasi-Shakespearean rhetoric to rally his country).

At times Olivier seems to be mocking Henry’s pretensions to a surprising degree for a movie that started out as a rah-rah piece to boost Allied morale — the opening council scene, played straight in An Age of Kings, becomes low comedy here, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely fumble their way through the elaborate stack of papers purporting to establish the right and justice of Henry’s claim to France. Henry’s big pep talks to his soldiers — the “For Harry, England and St. George” speech outside the walls of Harfleur and the St. Crispian’s Day speech on the morning of Agincourt — really do seem, in Olivier’s readings, like he’s making them up as he goes along, figuring out just what he has to say to these men to get them to go to battle against a force that vastly outnumbers them.

On the other hand, the scenes in the French camp — which Michael Hayes in An Age of Kings plays as high camp — are far more seriously staged here. As James Agee noted in his Time magazine feature on the film, “Olivier transforms the French into sleepy, overconfident, highly intelligent, highly sophisticated noblemen, subtly disunified, casually contemptuous of their Dauphin — an all but definitive embodiment of a civilization a little too ripe to survive.” It’s odd that, in a film so dependent for its appeal on the power of its language — for it was the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s eloquent speech that led a filmmaker to bother with this play 245 years after its premiere — the scene that most sums up the atavistic nature of the French and their culture of chivalry is non-verbal: a grimly amusing shot of a French knight so weighted down by his armor that his assistants have to use a pulley to raise him into the air and then set him down again atop his horse.

Also, for all the edginess of Olivier’s playing in Henry’s big public moments, his performance is strongest when it is quietest — especially in the long sequence just before Agincourt in which Henry disguises himself and walks around the English camp, talking to his countrymen and showing off the love and understanding of the common people Henry got from all those afternoons carousing at the Boar’s Head in the two previous plays in the cycle before he became king. To quote Agee again, “Shakespeare gave to a cynical old soldier the great speech, ‘But if the cause be not good … ’. Olivier puts it in the mouth of a slow-minded country boy (Brian Nissen). The boy’s complete lack of cynicism, his youth, his eyes bright with sleepless danger, the pleasant patience of his delivery, and his Devon repetition of the tolled word ‘die’ as ‘doy,’ lift this wonderful expression of common humanity caught in human war level with the greatness of the king.” (And later in the movie it seemed to me that it was the sight of Nissen’s corpse, one of the mere 29 British soldiers killed in the battle, that provoked Henry’s outburst, “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant,” as if the anguish of seeing someone he had befriended — albeit briefly and casually — killed had provoked Henry’s anger against his enemies.)

Henry V is a movie that’s been a bit overrated — Peter Hall called Olivier’s direction of Henry V as his first film “comparable with Orson Welles’ achievement in directing Citizen Kane,” with which I would disagree (Welles and his writer, Herman Mankiewicz, were working directly from life, not adapting a dramatic poem by a genius author who had already done much of the work), though ironically in the marvelous scene showing the death of Sir John Falstaff (only referred to in Shakespeare’s play) Olivier indulges in two visual quotes from Kane: the long tracking shot through the window of the Boar’s Head into the room in which Falstaff lays dying, and the straight-line horizontal shot of his deathbed instead of the usual three-quarter view from above. That’s not the only visual quote in this movie; the scene in which the British soldiers leap from the trees to ambush the French riding below is straight from The Adventures of Robin Hood (the 1938 version with Errol Flynn).

For me, the attempts to mesh various levels of realism — the reproduction of what Shakespeare’s audiences presumably saw when the play was first produced, the stylized backdrops (in forced perspective) of many of the French “exteriors,” and the naturalism of the battle itself — don’t always work, and the two scenes with Princess Katherine of France (played by Renée Asherson after Olivier’s then-wife, Vivien Leigh, was denied permission to do the role by David O. Selznick, who held her movie contract — Asherson later admitted she only got the role because she was the same size as Leigh and therefore could wear the same costumes without alterations) aren’t totally free from the trap of coyness Shakespeare set in them. But overall it’s a haunting film, mostly devoid of the annoying affectations filmmakers tend to fall into when doing Shakespeare — the actors fulfill their first duty by making us believe that this language is their normal mode of expression; they don’t sing-song their way through it or over-compensate the other way by deliberately breaking Shakespeare’s carefully worked out rhythms — and the multiple levels of reality do bring the story into focus for us and our time far better than a flat-out modern-dress production would have.

Henry V is an acknowledged landmark in the filming of Shakespeare and in Olivier’s career (it’s indicative of his skill as an actor and his glamour as a personality that he’s able to get away with playing Henry at 37, eight years older than the real Henry was at Agincourt and two years older than Henry was when he died), and a vivid theatrical and dramatic experience even though it by no means exhausts the possibilities of Shakespeare on film. — 10/20/09


The film I picked was the third disc in An Age of Kings, the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays produced by the BBC in 1960 with a cast of those wonderful British actors that seem to recur in each generation. This contained two episodes dealing with the play Henry V, “Signs of War” and “The Band of Brothers,” and the single episode editor Eric Crozier got out of the play Henry VI, Part 1, “The Red Rose and the White.” One problem with presenting the Shakespeare history plays as a cycle is that Shakespeare wrote the second set of four — the three Henry VI plays and Richard III — before he wrote the first set, and scholars still disagree about how much of the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work.

Henry V was Shakespeare’s last history play (aside from Henry VIII, one of his last works and not part of the cycle depicted in An Age of Kings), written in 1599 and apparently at least in part a celebration of the Earl of Essex, who was about to launch a war to subdue Ireland that Queen Elizabeth saw as an analogue to Henry V’s war for France — though as things turned out Essex, unlike Henry V, got his ass kicked by an Irish army led by the Earl of Tyrone, and the defeat cost him Elizabeth’s favor and ultimately led to the plot that finally got him arrested for treason.

On the surface, it’s a glorification of war and imperialism — but that’s only on the surface; as strong and decisive as Henry V appears, the play also contains a lot of dialogue questioning not only some of the actions but the justice and righteousness of his cause itself. Though this scene was deleted from An Age of Kings, the play begins with a nervous debate between two high church officials worried that the new king is going to seize the church’s assets, and accordingly when a cleric is asked for his opinion about the justice of Henry V’s claim to the French throne (in the scene that opens this presentation of the play) naturally he knows he has to give the “right” answer.

Watching An Age of Kings in this go-round I’ve been struck by the parallel between Henry V and George W. Bush — indicative that the source of Shakespeare’s endurance has been the fact that not only did he capture human nature and depict both political and personal issues with an insight rare for the time, but that human nature has changed so little that our species continues to generate situations similar to those Shakespeare wrote about. Both Henry V and George W. Bush were the sons of hereditary rulers, both had youthful periods of licentiousness and wastrel behavior that disappointed their fathers (indeed, both had more strait-laced brothers who had much more of their dad’s favor), and both ultimately rose out of their drinking and carousing to seize the responsibilities of power. The parallel isn’t entirely exact — Henry V instructs his occupying army to treat the French gently, take no French food or other goods without paying for it, and (at least until the scene in the aftermath of Agincourt in which he ordered his army to massacre the French prisoners — a major war crime we’re really not prepared for by the way Shakespeare has drawn Henry V up to that point) to take good care of their prisoners — but the arrogance of the war council with which the play opens and the sheer outrageousness of the idea that, armed with a flimsy claim to the throne of France, Henry V can install himself as king of both countries by sheer will and force of arms ring all too closely parallel to more recent bits of history.

Producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes had more competition on Henry V than on most of the plays in the series — in 1944 Laurence Olivier had done a big-screen feature film (shooting the battle scenes in Ireland, where there was enough unspoiled countryside to stage a medieval battle without any modern anachronisms creeping in), and in 1989 Kenneth Branagh (both starring and directing, as Olivier had) did a remake — and their version suffers in the depiction of the actual battle of Agincourt (which is basically a handful of people hacking away at each other with swords — on a 1960 BBC-TV budget they couldn’t possibly duplicate the massed longbow attacks that actually won the battle for the British), but is certainly competitive with the casting.

I haven’t seen either the Olivier or Branagh films in years, but Robert Hardy is as good a Henry V as I remember his formidable feature-film competitors as being, capturing the character’s sense of justice and morals as well as his arrogance and self-righteousness, his understanding of the common people from having hung out with them before he became king (yet another strong difference between him and George W. Bush), his ability to make quick decisions even if (like the massacre of the French prisoners) they’re not necessarily the best decisions he could have made, and above all his ability to rally a significantly outnumbered army to victory. (In the 1920’s and 1930’s football coaches studied Henry’s St. Crispian’s Day address to figure out how to do pep talks to their teams.) He’s matched by a formidable cast of supporting actors — what’s most amazing about the acting in An Age of Kings is how well the cast members mesh and how they manage to inhabit characters speaking in an unfamiliar sort of English and actually convince us they’re people living 450 years earlier — including the young (but instantly recognizable) Judi Dench as Princess Catherine of France, whom Henry marries to solidify his claim to the French throne but whom he also wants genuinely to love and be loved by.

One of the most interesting aspects of Henry V is the extent to which religion — only peripherally mentioned in the earlier plays, and then usually in a context of frustration (Richard II aghast that God, who supposedly installed him as king, is allowing him to be deposed by a mere mortal; Henry IV’s intention to atone for his sin in deposing Richard by mounting a Crusade, systematically frustrated by the unrest at home and the attempts to organize a revolution against him, one of which — at the start of Henry IV, Part 2 — is led by a clergyman) — takes center stage; with the church already having been suborned, blackmailed or whatever into giving divine blessing to Henry’s actions, the characters cross themselves incessantly and are constantly appealing to God’s favor on their enterprise. (Henry’s eve-of-battle pep talk even keys on the saint whose name-day is the day the battle is taking place.)

Another interesting parallel that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t watching the plays in sequence, in a context like this in which they’re being presented as a single story instead of separate works, is the similarity between Hotspur’s eve-of-battle attitude in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry’s attitude here — particularly when both rally the troops by saying that, contrary to showing fear at the way they’re outnumbered, they should glory in being outnumbered because then the victory will be all the sweeter. Though this really doesn’t come through in Shakespeare, other tellings of the story — like A. M. Maughan’s novel Harry of Monmouth — stress that Henry and Hotspur were boyhood friends (their fathers, after all, were friends and allies until they broke spectacularly right after Richard II’s fall), grew up together and were similar in a lot of ways, and in Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV audibly wishes Hotspur were his son (just as in Henry IV, Part 2 he wishes his younger son, John of Lancaster, were the heir to his throne — as I noted above, yet another parallel to George H. W. Bush and his relative estimation of his children’s fitness to rule; it’s well known that Daddy Bush thought it would be Jeb, not W., who’d be the second President Bush). — 10/17/09


About the Kenneth Branagh Henry V several things are important to say. First of all, did Alistair Cooke really believe it when he said Branagh had no idea, when he was making this film, that he’d be compared to Laurence Olivier — and not just compared, but have a lot of questions asked about him in the who-does-this-guy-think-he-is vein? It’s as if a modern singer were to release an album containing all the songs in Sgt. Pepper, in exactly the same order as on the Beatles’ album, and not expect the inevitable comparisons to be made. What’s more, Branagh’s Henry V seems to have been planned and executed almost deliberately as a modern-day answer to Olivier’s, from 45 years later when audiences are a lot more cynical than they were in Olivier’s day and would be intolerant of a production that used the play as a wartime morale-booster the way Sir Larry did in his film. The differences are summed up in the opening sequences; both Olivier and Branagh retain the Chorus character, but Olivier’s Chorus introduced the story from a replica of the Globe Theatre while Branagh’s does so from a film studio, complete with medieval props and miniature buildings as well as cameras and lights.

Basically, Branagh’s Henry V is the most noir Shakespeare movie I’ve seen since Orson Welles’ Macbeth, to which it bears a lot more resemblance than it does to any production Olivier ever went near. Much of it is in contemporary color noir style — all dank browns and greens, especially in the scenes involving Falstaff (whom Shakespeare removed from Henry V, but both Olivier and Branagh re-introduced, Olivier by a dramatization of the narrated death scene and Branagh through flashbacks drawing on the Henry IV plays for material) — and, predictably, the usually cut opening scene (in which two Catholic priests debate how to keep Henry V from confiscating the Church’s lands, and finally decide to tell him his planned war against France has divine sanction) is retained, which sets up from the beginning what Branagh’s “take” on the story is going to be. It’s a measure of Shakespeare’s richness as an artist that everything Branagh wants to put in the play — the cynicism towards war as an instrument of national policy, the tacit pacifism of reminding people that the essence of war is killing and the deflating of a highly pretentious king and his macho fantasies of himself — is already there, ready to be brought to the forefront by a revisionist director like Branagh instead of glided over or skipped as a mainstreamer would do. On my usual test for a revisionist production — does it shed new light on the original work, and do the deviations from tradition have a serious, readily discernible artistic point? — Branagh’s Henry V passes with flying colors.

Branagh’s Henry V also might be described as the first rock ‘n’ roll Shakespeare movie. His own playing of the title role, more than anything else, gives it that flavor; he comes off as a refugee from a punk-rock band (which, in a sense, Henry was — or at least the medieval equivalent thereof), bursting with barely containable energy. The siege of Harfleur is, visually, the best thing in the movie, even though it takes place at night and is filled with the sound of explosions (hardly something you’d expect to hear in a reproduction of medieval war, however de rigueur they would be in any screen battle taking place after the invention of gunpowder — though the armies of Henry V's time did have artillery, but not hand-held guns). The sequence looks like a heavy-metal MTV video, with Henry riding a horse across a battlefield and sheets of flame coming from the city’s gates. Also awesome is the battle of Agincourt, which could have been staged better but has some incredible shots of the arrows from the English longbows literally raining down on the hapless French troops. Branagh is also to be commended for not having the French all come off like screaming queens (a real temptation, given the deliberately campy lines Shakespeare wrote for them!), though he edged dangerously close to Derek Jarman territory when he had Henry V hug and even kiss a young nobleman who’d been a close friend until he turned traitor, just prior to executing him.

There are some moments of Henry V that simply don’t work. Having the Chorus come on, in the middle of a medieval scene, dressed in a modern greatcoat is jarring. The big “production number” at the end of the battle of Agincourt, in which the troops start singing “Dona nobis pacem” and the music swells to a great climax on the soundtrack, is just Thirties-Hollywood silly (though Shakespeare did call for singing here and both Olivier’s film and An Age of Kings include it). On the whole, however, this is a truly remarkable movie, every bit as legitimate an interpretation of Shakespeare as Olivier’s version, and able to withstand the inevitable comparisons everybody but Branagh himself was ready for from the moment it was released. — 3/8/03