Monday, November 30, 2009

The Black Cat (Universal, 1941)

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

The film last night was The Black Cat, a Universal horror-comedy made in 1941 and not to be confused with the marvelously surreal (it was a spacey script to begin with and got even more confusing when first the American and then the British film censors got through with it!) 1934 horror film The Black Cat, also from Universal, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Karloff isn’t in this one, but Lugosi is — playing a manservant, as he would in the later Night Monster, though this time in thick makeup that seems to have been intended to make him look like a Gypsy and therefore justify his ineradicable Hungarian accent. The plot of the 1941 The Black Cat has nothing to do with that of the 1934 version, and neither has anything to do with the plot of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Black Cat” which both films claim as their inspiration.

The 1941 The Black Cat is that old familiar chestnut about the greedy relatives waiting impatiently for the family patriarch to die — only in this case it’s a family matriarch, Henrietta Winslow (Cecelia Loftus), who may be in a wheelchair and on death’s door but she’s still determined to give her family members a hard time as they sit around her living room waiting and hoping for her to croak soon. Henrietta is a mad eccentric who built a huge mansion and lived in it alone except for a pride of cats; she took them in, gave them food and houseroom, and built a special crematorium in her backyard (accessible directly from the house through a secret passage that, like most such devices in movies, is only discovered by accident midway through) whereby she could cremate her cats when they died. What’s more, she made the oven big enough to cremate a human, so she could be disposed of in the same way as her cats when the time came. The only wrinkle was that she absolutely forbade any black cats on the premises because she considered them harbingers of death — though she built a statue of a black cat in her crematorium and a black cat has sneaked onto the premises anyway and made itself at home with the other cats.

She ultimately gets stabbed with a knitting needle in the crematorium, after she’s read her will but before she’s revealed that she’s put in a codicil that the money she’s willed her family members will only be paid out once her maidservant Abigail (Gale Sondergaard, who plays in such a superb battle-axe fashion she makes Judith Anderson in Rebecca — a part Sondergaard was actually considered for — seem warm and fuzzy by comparison) — and the cats all die. The family members are a bit hard to get straight — they include her grandson Montague Hartley (Basil Rathbone), his brother Richard (Alan Ladd, billed 11th in the original credits but second in the Realart reissue trailer also included in this DVD — obviously they moved him up after the explosive success of This Gun for Hire made him a superstar at Paramount), Montague’s wife Myrna (Gladys Cooper), a grandson from a different son-in-law named Stanley Borden (John Eldredge as the milquetoast, as usual) whose father was a brilliant architect who passed on none of his talent to his son, and a few other miscellaneous descendants: Elaine Winslow (Anne Gwynne), whom Henrietta wills the bulk of her estate because “you’re the least bad of all of them,” and Margaret Gordon (Claire Dodd).

But the real stars of the film are the ostensible comic-relief players, distant relative “Gil” Smith (Broderick Crawford), who’s hoping to sell Henrietta’s house and all its belongings; and Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), the person he’s hoping to sell it to, who comes along with a little hand drill to put holes in the furniture and call them wormholes so they’ll be worth more in the antiques market. Herbert is a good deal funnier than he was in some of his Warners vehicles but he still outwears his welcome pretty quickly, and in turns of screen time the oppressive presence of Broderick Crawford makes him the real star of the film, no matter what it says in the billing. At least two of the writers, Robert Lees and Frederick Rinaldo, were also better known for comedy (they were industriously cranking out the Abbott and Costello vehicles for Universal at the same time this was made, and producer Burt Kelly was also supervising A&C) — the other writers were Eric Taylor and Robert Neville, and the director was Albert S. Rogell, not exactly atop the “A” list of the time but still a better-known filmmaker than most of the hacks who churned out these things for Universal.

The filmmakers were obviously trying for the same marvelously nervy mixture of comedy and horror James Whale and his writers, Benn W. Levy and R. C. Sherriff, hit in the 1932 film The Old Dark House, and though they don’t come anywhere near hailing distance of Whale’s masterpiece the 1941 The Black Cat is a charming little film that tweaks a few of the genre conventions — even though Lugosi is wasted, as he usually was on his rare excursions back to the major studios by 1941, and Rathbone could have made more of an impression with more screen time but still acts the scenes he does have with his usual power and authority. At one point Broderick Crawford’s character says of Rathbone’s, “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes” — an in-joke reference to Rathbone’s two films as Holmes for 20th Century-Fox in 1939 (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and possibly also an advance promotion for his upcoming series of 12 Holmes films for Universal.

The 1941 Black Cat is hardly in the same league as the marvelous 1934 film of the same title, but on its own it’s suitably light-hearted (despite the murders and the mild scare scenes) and entertaining — and Orson Welles saw it when it first came out and decided, on the basis of the marvelous chiaroscuro lighting and atmospheric camera angles, to hire its cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons (also a film about a dysfunctional family inhabiting a crumbling old Victorian mansion). Still, there have been better “takes” on the situation of a bunch of greedy relatives with their hands out awaiting the death of a rich person in their family — and it did occur to me that as long as Universal wanted to do a dark comedy around this situation, they might have been better advised to buy the film rights to Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi and put their legendary comedy star, W. C. Fields, in the lead!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Angels & Demons (Sony/Columbia, 2009)

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

I had a chance to show Angels & Demons, the much-ballyhooed follow-up to The Da Vinci Code — likewise based on a novel by Dan Brown featuring the character of Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon messing around in a mystery involving the Roman Catholic Church. (Just about everything written about these movies or the books they’re based on has taken pains to point out that “symbology” is a nonexistent academic discipline Dan Brown made up for his fiction — presumably lest credulous students flock to colleges asking to major in it.) I read Angels and Demons before I read The Da Vinci Code — though after the sensational success of The Da Vinci Code had made Dan Brown a worldwide household name — and by chance I happened to be reading it, a novel set around a conclave of the College of Cardinals to elect a new Pope, just as John Paul II finally died and a real conclave occurred, though it passed with far less melodrama than the one depicted here: it elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, former head of the modern-day descendant of the Holy Inquisition, in one ballot.

Anyway, Angels and Demons not only seemed to me a better book than The Da Vinci Code, it seemed a better movie as well — even though there’s an annoying bit of dialogue early on that turned it from a Da Vinci Code prequel into a sequel. Though many of the creative principals remained the same — director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, writer Akiva Goldsman (bolstered this time around by David Koepp) and star Tom Hanks — Angels and Demons came off as a more successful thriller, better paced and lacking the biggest weakness of Da Vinci Code the movie — the deadly seriousness with which the material was presented and the resulting slow, stately pace as if Howard and company were filming a literary masterpiece instead of an engaging potboiler.

Well, this time around Howard discovered (or rediscovered) suspense pacing and created an exciting, relentless thriller out of Brown’s plot: the Pope has mysteriously died and a secret sect that claims to be reviving the Illuminati (actually an 18th century organization founded by Adam Weishaupt and a favorite of conspiracy-mongers ever since) has kidnapped the “Preferiti,” the four Cardinals who had been the favorites in the Papal election. One of the inspirations for this book was John Langdon, an artist who managed to create several Gothic-lettered “ambigrams” — meaning a piece of writing that looks the same upside down as it does right-side up — with the word “Illuminati” as well as the four classical elements: “Earth,” “Fire,” “Water” and “Air.” (Brown got the last name of his central character from his artist friend.) The gimmick is that the Illuminati plan to murder all four kidnapped cardinals, one each hour from 8 to 11 p.m., and then at midnight they plan to detonate a nuclear device consisting of pure antimatter and therefore vaporize the entire Vatican and thus destroy the church worldwide.

They acquired the antimatter from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and the chief scientist in charge of the project is murdered and his assistant Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) joins forces with Langdon in a chase across Rome despite the opposition of the Swiss Guards, the official force guarding the Pope (basically to him what the Secret Service is to the President) and the apparent assistant of the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), who was Italian in the book but is Irish here. The Camerlengo is the chief assistant to the Pope and takes over the administration of Vatican City for the nine days after a pope’s death that the College of Cardinals meets in secret session to pick his replacement. He’s easily the most engaging character in the film (as he was in the book as well) — his only real competition is Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the avuncular chair of the conclave and one who agrees to take that post to beg off on any papal ambitions himself — and therefore anyone familiar with Dan Brown’s fiction and its recurring patterns will just know that he’s going to turn out to be the bad guy at the end (though Charles guessed it would be Cardinal Strauss who turned out to be the bad guy and mastermind of the whole plot).

It seems that after having been taken in by the previous Pope when he was still a child, the Camerlengo grew up in the Vatican with the Pope as essentially a father figure — and served him until he was ready to make an accommodation with the scientists doing research at the Large Hadron Collider and accept the so-called “God particle, “ the Higgs-Boson particle that supposedly is what causes things to have mass, not as a threat to Catholic belief but as the final proof from the scientific world that God indeed exists. To the Camerlengo, that’s heresy, so he kills his Papal benefactor and hatches a plot to take over the church himself by creating the illusion that the Illuminati have reorganized and the church is at war with them; he will eliminate the four principal competitors to the papacy, stage a spectacular last-minute rescue (when the antimatter bomb is found, he takes it up in a helicopter and then bails out, so the bomb will explode safely in mid-sky) and get himself elected Pope by acclamation, whereupon he’ll lead a new Counter-Reformation aimed at extirpating any connection or hint of a peace between religion and science.

As a plot line, it’s a perfectly serviceable premise for a thriller even though it’s hardly any more than that — like The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons is a simple adventure tale masquerading as a meditation on God and man’s place in the universe — but it’s well done, it’s engaging, it’s (faintly) credible within the conventions of the genre and, though there are a few risible moments, overall it’s a much better movie than The Da Vinci Code: more engaging, more exciting and simply more fun.

Road House (20th Century-Fox, 1948)

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

Last Wednesday night Charles and I watched two movies, one from a recent DVD purchase and one I’d recorded off TCM the same night. The new recording was Road House, a pretty good 1948 film noir about the rivalry between long-time friends Jefty (the odd first name is short for “Jefferson T.”) Robbins (Richard Widmark) and Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), co-owners of Jefty’s Road House, an odd establishment in a small town called Elton, 15 miles from the Canadian border (screenwriter/producer Edward Chodorov, adapting an “original” story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul, carefully tells us Elton is 15 miles from the Canadian border but omits what U.S. state it’s in), and the falling-out between these old friends — not only have they known each other literally since boyhood, but Jefty actually took Pete in after they served together in World War II and allowed him to live in the road house as well as co-own and co-manage it. All that changes when Jefty hires singer/pianist Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino, top-billed and so hard-boiled one suspects you could strike a match on her face) for $250 a week for six weeks — twice her usual going rate — with the obvious intention of getting into her pants.

The first half-hour of Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco at 20th Century-Fox just after he had been fired by Jack Warner (ironically after having had the biggest success of his career to that time, Johnny Belinda — just as Warner fired John Huston after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo; those films may have made money, but Warners’ number one grosser in 1948 was Doris Day’s film debut, Romance on the High Seas, and Warner decided that melodrama and noir were out and staked the future of his studio on more musical vehicles for Day) and with two other Warners refugees involved, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and star Ida Lupino.

In his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the 1969 book The Celluloid Muse, Negulesco recalled that when he handed him the script for Road House, Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with Road House. Now take it and do it like that.” Negulesco didn’t quite catch the insouciance of the Cagney-O’Brien buddy pictures (though Zanuck’s remark is indicative that he saw Widmark as another Cagney type, able to imbue psychopathology with a fascinating overlay of charm and a bad-guy actor who could also be used as a good-guy action hero, as he’d be in Panic in the Streets two years later), mainly because it was 1948 instead of the mid-1930’s and the moment for such high-spirited male-bonding pictures had passed and the Zeitgeist had got darker, at least in the movie world.

For the first half-hour Road House shines, mainly on the strength of Chodorov’s hard-boiled dialogue (especially for Lupino), and while it sags a bit in the middle it picks up again in the final third, when Jefty finds out just when he’s about to propose to Lily that she’s really in love with Pete, and he wreaks an unusual revenge on Pete: he frames him for stealing $2,600 from the road house’s weekly receipts (he admits to taking the $600 he was owed as a partner, but no more) and gets Pete paroled into his custody, thereby turning Pete into a virtual slave — and as the final reels progress Jefty gallops towards total psychopathology and threatens the lives of both Pete and Lily until Lily steals his pistol and shoots him in self-defense just as Jefty is about to crush her with a boulder.

Among the interesting attractions of Road House are Ida Lupino’s non-vocals — she can’t sing in the usual sense but she can croak out songs like “One for My Baby” and “Again” (written by the film’s musical director, Lionel Newman, with lyrics by one Dorcas Cochran, and like “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” it was a hit for Vic Damone but was sung far better by Mel Tormé) with just the right sort of world-weariness and borderline competence one would expect from a singer at the level of talent and status in the business the script tells us she is — even though Celeste Holm had the second female lead (Susan, who works at the road house and has an unrequited crush on Pete even though she’s enough of a good sport to help Pete and Lily get together at the end) and I could readily imagine her thinking, “I was in Oklahoma!, one of the most successful musicals of all time, and I have to listen to Ida Lupino get all the songs?” I was also amused by one particularly imaginative use of music; in one scene Lily and Pete are hanging out in a boat on the lake near the road house, and as they listen to the radio Lily recalls that her mom wanted her to be an opera singer and that ambition got dashed when she suddenly lost her voice — and the piece on the soundtrack is “Elsa’s Dream” (“Einsam in trüben Tagen”) from Wagner’s Lohengrin, appropriate because like Elsa, Lily is hoping for a knight-like figure who will love her and get her out of her virtual enslavement to the bad guy.

About the only real weakness in Road House is the casting of Cornel Wilde — he’s a boring actor who never took to film noir and the incandescence of Richard Widmark (oddly billed fourth, even after his great success in Kiss of Death) and Ida Lupino makes him seem even worse by comparison. I can’t help wishing they could have got someone more to the noir manner born — someone like Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd or even Dick Powell — instead of Wilde, who seemed to have used up all his great moments when he played Chopin.

Night Monster (Universal, 1942)

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

The movie we finally did watch last night was the companion piece to Wednesday night’s last movie, Captive Wild Woman, on the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive collection: Night Monster, a quite engaging 1942 piece of atmospherics produced and directed by Ford Beebe (who’s got short shrift in the histories of Universal horror because he was best known as the director of the Flash Gordon serials, but I’ve loved The Invisible Man’s Revenge so much over the years I took Beebe’s dual credit as a hopeful sign — and I was right) and a rather quirky rewrite of the already quirky film The Old Dark House overlaid with physical disability (or the appearance of same), an (East) Indian swami, a possibly insane woman and a revenge plot directed against the medical profession.

The plot: a New England small town near a fog-shrouded seacoast lives in fear of the so-called “Night Monster,” which emerges from the fog to wreak havoc. Its first victim — at least the first one we actually get to know — is Milly Carson (Janet Shaw), a housemaid who threatens to report the sinister doings at the Ingston Towers, the sinister old pile where she works, to the police. Laurie (Leif Erickson, whose presence here puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from James Dean — Erickson and Dean appeared together in that rather odd 1951 Roman Catholic TV production called Hill Number One, based on the last days of Christ with Erickson as Pontius Pilate and Dean as the Apostle John, which when we watched it together Charles described as “an infomercial for rosary beads”), the Ingston family’s chauffeur, offers her a ride to town after housekeeper Sarah Judd (Doris Lloyd) fires her for threatening to talk, but midway to town Laurie parks the station wagon and tries to rape her (shown with surprising explicitness for a “post-Code” movie!).

She gets out of the car at the first opportunity and, of course, is a sitting duck for the Night Monster — only as the monster gets her, Dr. Lynne Harper (Irene Hervey) a passing motorist who’s had trouble with her own car, hears her screams. Shortly thereafter Dr. Harper, who’s been summoned to Ingston Towers to treat the mentally unbalanced Margaret Ingston (Fay Helm), gets a ride to Ingston Towers from Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a mystery/horror writer who’s on his way to Ingston Towers for reasons screenwriter Clarence Upson Young doesn’t pause in his exposition long enough to explain. Ingston Towers is owned by Margaret’s brother, Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), who has summoned three doctors of his own — Dr. King (Lionel Atwill), Dr. Timmons (Frank Reicher) and Dr. Phipps (Francis Pierlot) — because they attempted to treat him for something or other and committed such spectacular medical malpractice that they left him in a wheelchair and with blackened hands and arms so withered that he can’t pick up anything for himself. (There’s a fascinating scene of the chauffeur Laurie literally picking Kurt up and cradling him like a baby as he carries him from his bed to his wheelchair — and I couldn’t help but think how that goes against everything I’ve been taught about how to transfer a chair-bound person.)

There’s also Rolf (Bela Lugosi, inexplicably top-billed and probably grateful for the chance to be working at a major studio again even though it’s a nothing part and just about anyone could have played it), a sinister butler who pushes down the hang-up button on the house phone just when Milly is trying to call out with her warning to the police; and Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a swami who’s teaching Kurt an East Indian trick of mind-over-matter, as well as Sarah Judd — who runs the household with such fierce authority she makes Judith Anderson in Rebecca seem like Mother Teresa by comparison, ordering about not only the other servants (including a broken-looking man named Torque, played by Cyril Delavanti, who staffs the front gate of the grounds of Ingston Towers and seems to have been the prototype for the equally sinister doorman in Manos: The Hands of Fate).

Night Monster has a plot — several plots, actually — that makes almost no sense at all, but rarely has that mattered less: cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s chiaroscuro lighting and vertiginous moving-camera shots maintain the atmosphere, and the performances are generally excellent — particularly Fay Helm’s; she bathes every line in acid and creates a far more credible villain than the real “night monster” — who turns out, as just about every hardened moviegoer either in 1942 or now would have no trouble guessing, to be Kurt Ingston, who’s been able to overcome his disability by means of the mind-over-matter discipline Agor Singh taught him; in the finale, he’s shot in the back by one of the local cops just as he was about to take out Dick Baldwin and Dr. Harper, while meantime back at Ingston Towers, Margaret Ingston declares that the house and the entire family are evil and she’s going to burn the place down (evoking both The Old Dark House and Rebecca!), which she does, taking out nasty ol’ Sarah Judd at the same time and confounding at least one set of audience expectations: one expected Dr. Harper to be able to cure Margaret instead of Margaret totally losing it at the end. Night Monster is yet another one of those triumphs of style over (lack of) substance and proof that as late as 1942, with the batteries of their original Laemmle-era inspirations running pretty low, Universal could still create a neatly unsettling, entertaining old-dark-house thriller with a fair quotient of chills.

Captive Wild Woman (Universal, 1943)

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

Certainly Night Monster is a much better movie than Captive Wild Woman, its DVD disc-mate which Charles and I watched Wednesday night right after the 1948 Road House (itself not to be confused with the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle of that name, which was not a remake but a totally different story). Captive Wild Woman seems to have had two purposes in mind: to create a distaff version of the Wolf-Man character and to recycle quite a lot of footage of African jungle animals — particularly lions and tigers — Universal had left over from a 1933 semi-documentary called The Big Cage, which had starred real-life animal trapper and trainer Clyde Beatty (referred to here as “BEE-tee,” by the way — I’d always assumed the name was pronounced “BAY-tee,” but it wasn’t), including a lot of footage showing Beatty from the back cracking a whip at the lions and tigers to keep them in line. (I’ve read that, unlike lions, tigers are totally untamable — and it’s noteworthy that the filmmakers of The Big Cage created the illusion of tame tigers by running footage of them in slow motion and sometimes reversing it so the tigers appear to be backing up on Beatty’s cue.)

Captive Wild Woman had a committee-written script — Ted Fithian and Neil P. Varnick, story; Griffin Jay (three years before his career nadir, The Devil Bat’s Daughter) and Henry Sucher, screenplay — and it was directed by, of all people, Edward Dmytryk, who had already had his big commercial breakthrough the year earlier with Hitler’s Children at his home studio, RKO. Why Universal thought this piece of committee-written cheese needed the services of a loan-out director when any number of in-house hacks could have done a similar job with it is a mystery — and, assuming he actually had a choice in the matter, why Dmytryk took the job is an even bigger mystery. (Fortunately, the next year he would make the film noir masterpiece Murder, My Sweet and firmly establish himself on the “A”-list, a status broken only by his blacklisting as one of the Hollywood 10.)

Captive Wild Woman centers around a circus owned by John Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan) which has just commissioned Clyde Beatty to do an animal act involving mixed breeds — 20 lions and 20 tigers in the same ring at once — despite the rivalry between the two species. When Beatty (who is never seen in the film) backs out, Whipple reluctantly accepts the offer of his assistant trainer, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, who didn’t usually play romantic leads but whose short, stocky build enabled him to match the footage of the real Clyde Beatty from The Big Cage), to run the act. Meanwhile, Mason’s girlfriend Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers, playing yet another screaming damsel in distress), another member of the circus troupe, is worried about her sister Dorothy (Martha MacVicar, later known as Martha Vickers and superb as Lauren Bacall’s sister in The Big Sleep and in her own right in The Big Bluff), who’s ill with unspecified ailments that Beth is convinced can best be treated by the internationally renowned glandular specialist Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine, top-billed and in a way warming up for his role as a mad scientist who literally invents a new gland in 1957’s The Unearthly), who’s convinced that by manipulating glands one can literally transform one species of animal into another.

To do this he takes Cheela (Ray Corrigan), a female gorilla (so Ray’s casting here is both trans-specific and transgender!) who was delivered to the Whipple circus, and manipulates her glands so she becomes a human female, Paula Dupree (Acquanetta). Paula signs on to help Mason do his animal-taming act at the circus, since she seems to have a mysterious power over the animals; the problem is she also falls in love with Mason, and when she realizes he only has eyes for her human-born rival Beth, the shock sends her into a devolutionary spiral and she ends up regaining her ape form. This pisses off Dr. Walters no end, especially since in order to govern her behavior he had to sacrifice his long-suffering nurse, Strand (Fay Helm), by splicing her cerebrum into Cheela’s/Paula’s head to bolster her higher brain functions. Captive Wild Woman has some things going for it, including an exciting final sequence that cross-cuts between the circus (a bolt of lightning has flipped out the animals in the middle of Mason’s act and caused them to escape, predictably panicking the crowd) and the gorilla-turned-human-turned-gorilla-again on the loose, ultimately saving Mason from being clawed to death by the untamable lion Nero, only to be picked off herself by a local police officer who either ignores or simply doesn’t hear in time Mason’s entreaties not to shoot the ape.

Also, the were-ape makeup by Jack P. Pierce is one of his better late creations — for my money even more convincing than the Wolf-Man getup — and John P. Fulton’s double-exposures are hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly believable in documenting the woman-to-ape change. But it doesn’t help that Acquanetta, though certainly easy on the eyes, literally can’t act at all — maybe audiences “read” her non-performance in this film as the dramatizaton of a character literally new to human existence, including human language; but she talked in that same dull first-day-of-acting-school way in later films (like the Lon Chaney, Jr. Inner Sanctum vehicle Dead Man’s Eyes) in which she played human-born humans. For some inexplicable reason, Captive Wild Woman was successful enough that Universal made two, count ’em, two sequels to it — Jungle Woman (1944), in which Acquanetta repeated her role and haunted a college campus; and Jungle Captive (1945), in which actress Vicky Lane took over as the apewoman. Seen today, though, Captive Wild Woman has little to offer other than the animal footage and a cool efficiency to the direction — it probably wasn’t a credit Edward Dmytryk was proud of, though at least it didn’t do his career any long-term harm!

Our Mother’s Murder (Morgan Hill/Universal/USA, 1997)

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

The Lifetime movie I watched this morning was actually one that had been on the USA Network back in 1997, originally titled Daughters but now called Our Mother’s Murder — which rather gives away the ending. The story is based on the true-life tale of newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Morrell (Roxanne Hart), who divorced her first husband Tony Morrell (Ryan Michael) for reasons writer Richard DeLong Adams doesn’t bother to explain. By the time the film opens Anne’s daughters Alex (Holly Marie Combs, top-billed) and Annie (Sarah Chalke) are about ready to get out of high school (“prep school,” actually, they being rich kids in upstate New York) and go on to college when mother Anne suddenly starts dating Scott Douglas (James Wilder), a remodeling contractor she met in a sports bar while they were watching the Super Bowl. Things move quickly as Scott marries Anne, impregnates her and thereby creates a new daughter, “Tory” (short for Victoria), then reveals himself to be an alcoholic and wife-batterer — and with Mom intimidated into silence by fear, particularly the fear that Scott will disappear with Tory and so she’ll never see her new daughter again, it’s up to Alex and Annie to try to save their mom from this creep who’s, predictably, stealing her blind as well as making her life hell.

She gets up enough gumption to divorce him, but then her lawyer tells her that since she can’t prove she’s been abused — it’s just your word against his, she’s told — she can’t keep Scott from having a parental role in their daughter’s life, and the courts will look more kindly on her petition for sole custody if she at least tries to reconcile with him. She accordingly does so, letting him move back in with her and putting up with his presence and the fear he instills in her as much as possible. Things keep going like this, with the Morrell daughters putting their own romantic lives on hold until they can be sure their mom will be safe, until the holiday season — where Anne’s attempt to get an order evicting Scott from their house is frustrated by the fact that the courts are closed for the holidays, and on New Year’s Eve Alex goes out with her boyfriend Jimmy (Jonathan Scarfe) — he’s got a cottage for the weekend so they can be by themselves, Annie gets invited to a party and goes, and Scott takes advantage of having Anne home alone by sneaking into her place and bashing her head in with a hammer. She hangs on in the hospital for six days until she croaks, he abandons his car and leaves the murder weapon behind, and eventually he’s found three months later drowned in the Hudson River after it melts during spring thaw.

It’s not much different from your average Lifetime movie (though it seems to have at least a brief theatrical release since its page lists an MPAA rating) but it’s unusually well done, directed quietly but suspensefully by Bill L. Norton, Adams’ script could have tapped some of the darker aspects of his tale — we really don’t get much of an idea of What Makes Scott Run, whether he’s a conscious gold-digger who loses control of himself and the situation or a troubled young man in over his head from the start, who responds to his uneasy situation (including the likely sense of being “unmanned” by living off his wife’s fortune) by getting drunk and lashing out at his wife. It’s also not clear just why he kills her or how he hopes to get away with it — assuming he does hope to get away with it and is thinking that rationally as a criminal, which is debatable — but on the whole Our Mother’s Murder makes sense as drama.

It’s generally well cast (though Sarah Chalke doesn’t look credible either as Roxanne Hart’s daughter or Holly Marie Combs’ sister) and, not surprisingly, the actor who comes off the best is James Wilder, not only because the villains in these sorts of tales are usually more interesting than the heroes but also because he’s drop-dead gorgeous — far better looking than the general run of blankly semi-attractive lanky, sandy-haired men Lifetime usually casts as its male leads — and he doesn’t make Scott more of a schemer than he should be. Wilder also ably depicts the character’s surface charm and knows just when to drop the mask and let us see the monster beneath. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more than just one brief soft-core porn scene between Wilder and Hart — not only would more of their sex life have added directly to the entertainment value, it would also have made it more believable that Anne would stay with him despite being abused (I’ve heard from people who’ve actually been victims of domestic violence that one reason they stayed in their relationships as long as they did was “the make-up sex was fabulous!”). Despite the dorky title (though Daughters was so ambiguous it would hardly have been better!), Our Mother’s Murder is actually one of the better things I’ve seen on Lifetime, a nice mixture of emotion and thrills that one only wishes could have had a happier ending.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

House of Horrors (Universal, 1946)

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

I ran another item from the Universal Cult Horror Collection box: House of Horrors, a generically titled 1946 effort that I’ve always quite liked even though it’s notorious as the next-to-last film made by Rondo Hatton, a genuinely tragic figure whose real life was much more compelling than any of his movies. Hatton was born on April 22, 1894 in Hagerstown, Maryland and in 1912 moved with his family to Tampa, Florida, where as a young man was quite attractive, a star high-school athlete and very popular. All that changed when he went to fight in World War I, was caught in a German poison-gas attack, and survived but contracted acromegaly, a rare disease in which the body overproduces human growth hormone and the extremities swell up to grotesque proportions. Hatton got a job after the war as a reporter with the Tampa Tribune, and in 1930 he was covering the location trip of a movie company shooting a film called Hell Harbor. His grotesque appearance caught the eye of the film’s director, Henry King who gave him a small role in the movie.

According to, he also played a juror in the 1931 William Wellman masterpiece, Safe in Hell, but then didn’t work in films again until 1936, when he and his second wife had the idea of moving to Hollywood and allowing the movie companies to exploit his real “monstrous” face and gait. He was mostly cast in minor roles — albeit sometimes minor roles in quite important movies like In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Moon and Sixpence and the 1939 Dieterle/Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — until 1944, when Universal signed him and decided to give him a major buildup as a horror star. They launched his new career by casting him as a mute, monstrous murderer in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce film The Pearl of Death, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” in which Hatton played an invented character, “The Hoxton Creeper,” the hired-gun killer used by master jewel thief Giles Conover (Miles Mander) to knock off anyone in the way of his pursuit of the Borgia Pearl.

Universal used him again in movies like Jungle Captive and The Spider Woman Strikes Back and then decided to launch his career as a monster star with House of Horrors — shot under the working titles Joan Medford Is Missing (which doesn’t happen until the final reel!) and Murder Mansion (there isn’t a mansion — murderous or otherwise — in the film at all). Universal used writer Dwight V. Babcock to concoct an “original” story for Hatton’s monster-star debut, George Bricker to turn it into a screenplay and (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough to direct — and the surprise is that House of Horrors, though made at the tail end of Universal’s Gothic horror cycle, turned out to be quite good.

Part of the film’s quality comes from Yarbrough’s flair for Gothic atmosphere — unlike William Nigh with The Strange Case of Dr. Rx, Yarbrough emerged from the salt mines of the sub-“B” studios (in his case PRC instead of Monogram) and actually took full advantage of the resources of a major studio with state-of-the-art production facilities; he and cinematographer Maury Gertsman included some extensive moving-camera shots, dark, chiaroscuro lighting, appropriately doomy music from the Universal stock library and an overall aura of chill far above most of the routine Universal horror product of the time. Another plus is the performance of Martin Kosleck, an actor best known for playing Joseph Goebbels twice (in 1944’s The Master Race and 1962’s Hitler) and perfectly cast here as Marcel Delange, an artist who creates clay sculptures of oddly distorted figures that look fine to me but arouse the ire of vicious art critics F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) and Hal Ormiston (Howard Freeman).

The film opens in Delange’s studio, where he is lamenting that all he has to live on is bread and cheese, and at night he has to work by candlelight because he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, but he’s hopeful that a rich collector, Mr. Samuels (Byron Foulger), will buy one of his works and allow him to eat a decent meal, feed his cat all the milk the animal could want, and get his lights turned on again. Alas, Samuels arrives at Delange’s studio with critic Harmon in tow — and Harmon viciously assaults Delange’s work and gets the artist so mad he throws both of them out of his studio, then smashes the sculpture Harmon just talked Samuels out of buying. Delange then walks to a convenient river and is about to End It All by throwing himself in, whereupon he sees someone else in the water and rescues him instead.

The man he’s saved is “The Creeper” (no other name, though in the listing for Hatton he’s identified as “Hal Moffet” because that was his name in the next “Creeper” movie, The Brute Man). Once the two are together, the plot draws on such unlikely ancestors in the Universal canon as The Bride of Frankenstein (the monster taken in and befriended by a stranger) and the 1935 The Raven (the monster exploited by a madman for personal revenge). Delange wins the Creeper’s affections by buying him food (albeit with the Creeper’s own money: $3 he found on the Creeper when he pulled him out of the river) and being nice to him, and in return the Creeper faithfully goes out and murders the art critics he hears Delange rail against. In the course of his tirades Delange takes care to give the Creeper the addresses of the people he wants to kill, thereby turning his attentions from knocking off women (it’s established early on that he’s become a wanted killer because of his habit of approaching women on the street for sex; when they inevitably scream at the sight of him, he attacks them with such force that he breaks their spines) to becoming Delange’s avenging devil.

Mixed up in all of this is commercial artist Steve Morrow (Robert Lowery, two years before he became the movies’ second Batman), who does girlie pictures for magazine covers and has also attracted Harmon’s ire because, as Harmon puts it, “No girl really looks like that.” (Actually Joan Fulton, the actress playing Morrow’s model, really does look that good.) The plot incidents are pretty predictable — it ends with Morrow’s girlfriend, art critic Joan Medford (Virginia Grey), trapped in Delange’s studio; she convinces the Creeper that Delange means to turn him in to the police, and so the Creeper kills Delange and is about to kill Joan as well when the representative of the official police, lieutenant Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin), who had previously suspected Steve of the murders because he and Harmon had a public argument, shoots the Creeper through the window of Delange’s studio and thereby saves Joan’s life.

It’s not a particularly ambitious movie, and Hatton’s appearance inspires more sympathy than fright — which I actually think is a good thing. Harry and Michael Medved, in their book The Golden Turkey Awards, nominated Hatton for their “P. T. Barnum award for the Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity” (the other nominees were conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton in Chained for Life, Billy Curtis in the 1973 gangster spoof Little Cigars and the winners, the entire cast of The Terror of Tiny Town), but despite his difficult-to-look-at appearance Hatton actually strikes notes of pity and pathos — maybe not the kind of pathos Boris Karloff could have achieved if he’d been playing this part in one of Jack P. Pierce’s makeups (ironically Pierce gets screen credit for this film where he didn’t for the first two Frankenstein movies, despite the crucial importance of his famous makeup to those films’ success), but still an oddly moving performance that suggests (as does his actual biography) that Hatton was a decent and loving human being under those grotesque gas-distorted features.

Aside from that, House of Horrors plays out with a cool professionalism, ably recycling admittedly well-worn materials and a much better film than the two other “new” items in the Cult Horror Classics box, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx and The Mad Ghoul. (The fourth and fifth films in the box, Murders in the Zoo and The Mad Doctor of Market Street, are both ones Charles and I had seen relatively recently and quite liked, Murders in the Zoo for its unusually graphic violence for a 1933 film and both for Lionel Atwill’s underplayed urbanity as the villains of the pieces.)

Hatton lived to make only one other film, The Brute Man, produced at Universal with the same director and writers (with M. Coates Webster added to the writing team this time), but the combination of Hatton’s death on February 2, 1946 (from two heart attacks in rapid succession — apparently heart attacks are a side effect of acromegaly) and Universal’s decision to merge with International Pictures and get out of the “B”-movie business led Universal to sell the rights to The Brute Man to director Yarbrough’s old stomping ground, PRC. Ironically, two years earlier PRC had made a film called The Monster Maker that used acromegaly as a plot device — as did Universal’s 1955 film Tarantula.

The Gay Falcon (RKO, 1941)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched The Gay Falcon, a 1941 detective thriller from RKO that was at least nominally based on Michael Arlen’s good-bad detective-thief character, The Falcon. RKO’s inspiration for making a series of movies based on The Falcon was that Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar a.k.a. The Saint, had pulled the rights to his character and left RKO scrambling to find a replacement character that could be played by the same actor, the urbane and sardonic George Sanders. RKO even advertised the film as “Fiction’s slickest super sleuth, created by Michael Arlen and portrayed by the star who thrilled you as ‘The Saint,’” and, as William Everson noted in his book The Detective in Film, “All that was really retained of the original stories was The Falcon’s fondness for the ladies and the smoothness with which he moved in high society. … With George Sanders starring, the movie series did little more than change his name from the Saint to the Falcon.” Indeed, the movie series did so little more than change the character’s name from the Saint to the Falcon that Leslie Charteris actually filed a plagiarism suit against RKO, though there doesn’t seem to be a record of how it turned out.

The Gay Falcon is also the only one of RKO’s many Falcon movies (the first three starring Sanders, the next one — The Falcon’s Brother — co-starring Sanders and his real-life brother Tom Conway as brothers, enabling the writers and producer to kill Sanders’ character off at the end of the film and continue the series with Conway in the lead as the original Falcon’s brother) to be based on an actual Michael Arlen story — and if all the Arlen Falcon tales were as dull as this one, it’s no wonder RKO sought out other writers for the later episodes (including buying Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely for the third Falcon film, The Falcon Takes Over, in 1942 before remaking it two years later as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Edward Dmytryk directing).

The Gay Falcon is an incredibly dull movie that seems a good deal longer than its actual 67 minutes, with a surprisingly uninteresting plot line about the priceless “Monsoon Diamond,” prize possession of Mrs. Vera Gardner (Lucile Gleason, surprisingly effective as a society woman given that she usually played the proletarian wife of her real-life husband, James Gleason), who brings it to a party hosted by Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper), despite the fact that Wood’s parties are becoming notorious because at each one of them, a woman is robbed of her jewels. There’s a lot of back and forth between the two women in the Falcon’s life, fiancée Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie) and Elinor Benford (Anne Hunter), who recruits him to get involved in Ms. Wood’s case, and when Mrs. Gardner is murdered at a Wood-hosted party by a member of the jewel-thief ring, the story becomes a whodunit in which to no one’s particular surprise (at least no one who’s seen enough movies to recognize one of the hoariest old clichés when he or she encounters one) Ms. Wood herself turns out to be the mastermind of the ring, stealing the jewels as part of an insurance scam that involves claiming them as a “loss” and collecting on her policies as well as having the jewels herself to dispose of on the black market.

The most interesting aspects of this movie are a quite good villain performance by Turhan Bey as Manuel Retana, one of the actual thieves working for Ms. Wood, and some surprisingly noir-ish compositions from director Irving Reis and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who would later shoot some of RKO’s greatest noirs, including Out of the Past). At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I’m tempted to say based on my memories of the later Falcon films that the series actually got better with Tom Conway in the lead — not surprisingly given their real-life sibling status, they were two quite similar “types,” but Sanders comes off as a bit too dour for the role and Conway did the lightness and insouciance of the character better. (Sanders was their actual family name; Conway changed his because he wanted to make it on his own merits and not because people associated him with his already established brother.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

“Pirate Radio”: Two Views

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans and writer/director Richard Curtis on the set of Pirate Radio. (Alex Bailey/MCT; copyright © 2009.)


Frat-Boy Romp Through the British Invasion


“One boat, eight D.J.’s, no morals.” That’s how Pirate Radio, the new film by writer-director Richard Curtis, is being advertised. But though Pirate Radio is a work of fiction, it’s inspired by true events in Britain in the mid-1960’s. At the time, British rock bands — the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds and others — were the most popular in the world; indeed, they sold so many records and drew so many concertgoers in the U.S. as well as the U.K. that they were known as the “British Invasion.” But the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) only broadcast rock ’n’ roll on the AM band two hours a day — and to serve a rock-hungry public a group of independent entrepreneurs hit on the idea of breaking the BBC’s monopoly and broadcasting all-rock programs from stations aboard ships, moored in international waters off the British coast and therefore at least theoretically out of the reach of British law.

At least that’s the legend the film tells. The BBC wasn’t as uniformly hostile to rock as it’s depicted in this movie. The Beatles themselves had a half-hour weekly program on the BBC, Pop Go the Beatles, in which they played not only their hits but material (mostly covers of 1950’s hits by their American heroes, including Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and the Coasters) they never otherwise recorded — and in 1994 some of these songs were issued on CD’s and turned out to be among the most exciting and dynamic performances the Beatles ever gave. What the BBC did refuse to do was play rock ’n’ roll records for more than two hours a day. In the U.S. in the 1930’s and 1940’s U.S. radio stations had generally avoided playing commercial records, partly because the record companies didn’t want them to (the reasoning was that you wouldn’t buy a record if you could hear it on the air for free) and partly because they didn’t think records sounded good enough for the radio. Improvements in sound quality and the development of radio as a promotional medium for records changed all that in the U.S. in the 1950’s — but the BBC still clung to the idea that if they were going to broadcast rock at all, they were going to do it the old-fashioned way, with the musicians in their own studios performing in real time.

The inspiration of the pioneers of what came to be called “pirate radio” — not only because they were operating in defiance of British law but because they were literally doing so at sea — was not only to play rock records on the air but to copy the format of American Top 40 radio. That meant a high-energy presentation in which the disc jockeys wouldn’t just politely tell you what the song was called and who was playing it, the way the BBC’s announcers did; they’d practically scream out the titles and band names, carry on a running line of patter to project their own personalities and sometimes even talk over the music. It also meant that they would accept advertising and support themselves financially through commercials, the way American stations did. In her 1966 book on British rock, The Pop Makers, author Caroline Silver described how the most popular of the pirate stations, Radio Caroline — named after U.S. President Kennedy’s daughter and the real-life model for the fictitious “Radio Rock” in Pirate Radio — operated:

“Unlike licensed British radio stations, which do not broadcast commercials, Radio Caroline is a commercial station, accepting advertisements which are paid for at the rate of 100 pounds sterling ($280) a minute. With this money, Caroline operates two radio ships, Caroline North and Caroline South, from which it transmits continuous pop music interspersed with commercials. Since unlicensed broadcasting is not permitted on British territory, both the ships are moored in international waters, which means they must always be at least three miles out to sea. Caroline South lies off the southeast coast of England; Caroline North is moored in the Irish Sea near Liverpool. Their programs are enormously popular with British teenagers. The name ‘pirate’ was given to the radio ships by the press. In response, disc jockeys working on board the ships wear T-shirts with skulls and crossbones on them.”

The real Radio Caroline was powerful and well-heeled enough to run the Caroline Club, a fan club which gave it both extra promotion and an additional source of income in membership dues; and to promote live shows on the British mainland — including a November 1965 concert called Zowie One at the New Brighton Tower ballroom near Liverpool (one of the places the Beatles had played in the early days) in which 11 bands, including the well-known Yardbirds, played for free in exchange for promotion on Radio Caroline. The movie “Radio Rock” is a considerably raunchier operation, in which — unlike the real pirate D.J.’s — the fictional ones hardly ever leave the ship. It comes off as less a radio station — even a counter-cultural one — than a giant, ongoing frat party at sea. The plot of Pirate Radio intersperses three story lines: the coming-of-age story of young naïf Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s sent to the station’s ship by his hyper-sexual mother Charlotte (Emma Thompson); the rivalries among the D.J.’s themselves — particularly the charismatic Gavin Cavanaugh (Rhys Ifans) and “The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American expat hired by Radio Rock to give their programs the authentic U.S. “feel” they were aiming for; and the efforts of the British government to shut down the pirate stations.

The real 1960’s pirate D.J.’s were regularly ferried back and forth between the radio ships and dry (British) land, where they got to socialize, hang out in pubs and generally have normal lives. The movie D.J.’s are a bunch of horny straight guys trapped on the ship almost 24/7 with only one female — a Lesbian cook named Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) — and supplied with food, drink and sex only at two-week intervals when a launch comes to the ship bearing women. Among the ship’s permanent residents are the self-consciously aristocratic owner Quentin (Bill Nighy), whom Carl at one point thinks is his father. (Asked by one of the D.J.’s who his dad was, Carl laconically says, “Some guy who fucked my mum one night and left without leaving a thank-you or an address.”) The assorted D.J.’s include Dave (Nick Frost), who takes on the task of getting Carl his first chance at sex — an effort which ends a good deal better for Dave than Carl when he comes between him and nice-girl Marianne (Talulah Riley), Quentin’s niece and the woman Carl really wants but is too scared to ask.

The forces of authority are led by Cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (an almost unrecognizable Kenneth Branagh) and his assistants, Twatt (Jack Davenport) and Miss C (Sinèad Matthews) — in the original draft of the script she was called “Miss Clit” but Curtis blessedly decided that two characters whose names were sexual innuendi were at least one too many. Coming off as refugees from Monty Python (whose initial run on BBC-TV started in 1969, three years after the prime of pirate radio), these three are caricatures of the evil authority figures common in rock ’n’ roll movies. Dormandy is a social reactionary who wants to impose his own preference for classical music on the entire country, and he’s also sufficiently screwed-up sexually that he continually talks about wanting to “grab the testicles” of the radio pirates and squeeze them.

The conceit that there’s an ongoing battle for the soul of radio between elitists who want to stick the public with boring classical music and down-to-earth folks who want to give audiences the pop they want is as old as the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly — also based on a real-life radio personality (a woman named Jean Hay who broadcast a swing-music show to American servicemembers in World War II) and also refusing to acknowledge the possibility that there might be some people out there who like both classical and pop. It’s an especially ironic plot gimmick for a movie set in 1960’s Britain, where many of the rockers drew on the classics for inspiration (Paul McCartney wrote a piccolo trumpet into “Penny Lane” after he heard one in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, and Procol Harum turned a Bach organ chorale into “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and were quite proud of themselves for doing so.

There’s another older movie that has a similar authorities-vs.-youth conflict over music, and it was also both made and set in Britain: It’s Trad, Dad! (released in the U.S. as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), a 1962 production directed by Richard Lester and drawing on the same cheeky sensibilities as his later films with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! In some ways it’s even cheekier than Pirate Radio — complete with a narrator who takes an active part in the action — made during a time when film censorship was considerably stricter in both the U.K. and the U.S. and the kind of sexual content splashed across the screen in Pirate Radio would have been inconceivable. Nonetheless, Pirate Radio (released in Britain — and listed on the Web site — as The Boat That Rocked, a more ambiguous title) is quite likable, a rambunctious romp, nicely acted and so ferociously energetic that though it’s relatively long (135 minutes) it doesn’t seem padded, as so many two-hour-plus movies these days do.

Pirate Radio is being sold as a star vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman, probably because he won the Academy Award for playing the title role of Capote, but it’s really an ensemble film. Certainly Hoffman’s role as the grizzled “Count” is as far from the nattily dressed, queeny Truman Capote as could be imagined — a nice tribute to the actor’s versatility — but Rhys Ifans’ Gavin is a more striking and more charismatic character. (Ifans previously starred in a charming Australian import from 2004 called Danny Deckchair, in which he’s a proletarian loser whose life changes when he equips his deck chair with helium balloons and flies: a live-action precursor to the recent computer-animated hit Up.) As Carl, Tom Sturridge is perfectly cast, attractive but sufficiently guileless that we can believe he’s still a virgin when the action starts — and Emma Thompson delivers a force-of-nature performance as his mom, making an indelible impression in just five minutes of screen time. Bill Nighy is O.K. as Quentin — though I couldn’t help but wish Curtis had cast Branagh in this role and got Monty Python veteran John Cleese to play Dormandy — and of the three “baddies” it’s Jack Davenport’s Twatt who makes the strongest impression, projecting the character’s bullying nature as well as his fear of losing his job if he can’t figure out a legal way to get Radio Rock and its pirate brethren off the air.

Though Curtis draws on many real-life incidents involving the pirate radio ships for plot elements — including an on-air marriage of one of the D.J.’s and a shipwreck scene he directs in what appears to be a deliberate parody of the James Cameron Titanic — the most moving plot element is the dramatization of just how powerfully the pirate stations reached their audience and built a sense of community. Early on in the film Curtis shows a young boy sneaking a portable radio out of his dresser drawer and keeping it under his pillow so he can listen to Radio Rock clandestinely while his parents think he’s sleeping — a scene Curtis remembered from his own childhood. Throughout the film Curtis cuts between the broadcasting activities aboard Radio Rock’s ship and people of various ages and stations in life listening to them and cherishing the D.J.’s as virtual friends. (Even the station’s newscaster, played by Will Adamsdale as the expected WKRP in Cincinnati nerd stereotype, seems to spend more time talking about the doings of the D.J.’s than anything that’s happening outside the ship.) This powerful sense of rock ’n’ roll radio as a community builder — immortalized in the 1960’s by songs like Bob Seger’s “Heavy Music” and Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” — is, more than anything else, what makes Pirate Radio more than just a raunchy comedy with an intriguing premise.

The ending of Pirate Radio portrays the battle between the pirates and the authorities as one in which the pirates lost the battle but won the war. Curtis doesn’t tell us that the British government’s response to pirate radio was both to beat them and join them; while Parliament was passing the Marine Offences Act to make the pirate broadcasters illegal, the BBC was creating a 24-hour rock channel, Radio One, and even hiring some of the pirate stations’ star D.J.’s — including Radio Caroline’s Johnny Walker (real-life model for “The Count”) and Radio London’s John Peel. Nor does he mention that the real crusader against pirate radio in the British government wasn’t a cookie-cutter Right-winger like the fictional Dormandy; he was Tony Benn, a radical socialist in the Labor Party (he’d been born into an aristocratic family as Anthony Wedgwood-Benn but had cut down his name to match his Leftist politics). Curtis’ final credits boast that there are now half a million radio stations in the world playing rock and pop full-time, but in his zeal for an affirmative ending he ignores just how homogenized and dull commercial rock radio has become; a little over a decade after Seger and Reed penned their songs about the power and community of broadcast rock, the best songs about rock on the air were cynical anti-commercialist diatribes like Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio” and the Clash’s “Capital Radio.”

Nonetheless, Pirate Radio is a dazzling film, a fun romp that manages to put a fresh spin on the hoary old clichés of the rock ’n’ roll movie and make some pretty well-worn situations seem new and amusing. Occasionally Curtis seems to have written his script around the music — one gets the impression the film uses “Marianne” and “Elenor” as character names just because there were songs from the period with those titles — but with strong, vital music like this that’s not a problem. Ironically, the songs by American acts — the Beach Boys, Turtles, Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Aaron Neville and the Box Tops — seem to hold up at least marginally better than the ones by the Brits, the Kinks and the Who excepted. But there are enough music cues in this film that if they included all of them on the soundtrack CD, it would be a boxed set. Though one could imagine an even more interesting film with the 1960’s radio pirates as its basis, this one is quite entertaining and well worth your while.


Something for Everyone

by D J CEE

Pirate Radio has something for everyone. Saying some thing like this is usually lazy and evasive, but this film really does have just about everything.

(Full disclosure: I was a D.J. on Free Radio San Diego for about five years and was asked to do this review because I might have a unique take. This movie is about a very different time, and my pirate experiences only vaguely resemble the fictionalized history Pirate Radio offers.)

Let’s check everything off and be sure that Pirate Radio does have something for everyone.

Sex: Yes, plenty; about as much as you can have in an R-rated film and still have time for anything else. (While the gigantic popularity of Radio Caroline, the main inspiration for the film, might have given the D.J.’s an edge with women, a man today would have better luck being in the worst band in town than being a pirate D.J.)

Heartbreak: Yes. One D.J.’s marriage collapses as soon as it begins. (See also sex.)

Coming of age/Journey of Discovery: Yes. Much of the film focuses on a young man just expelled from school, who for no rational reason ends up living on the pirate radio ship. He also loses his virginity. (See also sex.)

Violence/Catastrophe: Not much in the way of violence, personal violence. There’s a rivalry between D.J.’s that approaches insanity. The real action comes toward the end. There’s a police raid (something too familiar to radio pirates today) that puts you on the edge of the seat. The real action comes at the end in a shipwreck that draws on The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic.

Comedy: Yes. Lots. Sometimes just right. Sometimes a bit jarring: the Pythonesque scenes of Kenneth Branagh as the government minister working to close down pirate radio just try too hard.

Now while it’s fun to dissect a movie, you will have much more fun seeing this one. It will make you talk to your friends. You’ll wonder why some things are unavoidable on radio while others are entirely absent. You’ll remember times that you got together with others for a purpose.

Perhaps more than the sex, catastrophe, comedy or great ensemble acting, this movie is about the power of music. Even if you don’t like rock ’n’ roll, or any sort of popular music, you have almost certainly been under the spell of a musician. Screaming, hollering, running around in front of the bandstand (or the pulpit) demonstrates the power of music. Falling into a trance at a piano recital demonstrates music’s power. Risking prison, confiscations, and astronomical fines just to broadcast makes music’s hold on us plain. Celebrating the power of music and uncensored speech is what pirate radio is all about. Happily, it’s what this movie is about.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (Universal, 1942)

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

The movie Charles and I watched last night was another entry from the Cult Horror Classics boxed set produced jointly by Universal and TCM: The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, copyrighted 1941 but not released until 1942, which I had vague memories of having seen on TV in the 1970’s but couldn’t remember any more of than Patric Knowles’ interesting vocal inflections when he pronounced the name “Doctor Rx.” Knowles got top billing as private detective Jerry Church, who has just returned to New York City following a mysterious trip out of town, where he’s discussed giving up crime as a career and moving back to his native Boston to work for his family’s bond-selling firm. (Let’s see if we have this right: he wants to move out of New York City to be involved in the financial markets?) His friend (and friendly rival), police detective captain Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald), wants him to stay in town and work on finding the mysterious “Doctor Rx,” who has been knocking off notorious criminals after the great criminal defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds) succeeds in persuading juries to acquit them.

The film opens with Church and Hurd examining the corpse of Dr. Rx’s fifth victim (he leaves slips of paper at the scene of each crime with his signature and a numeral keeping score of how many people he’s killed) — well, actually it opens with a long radio prologue in which a news announcer describes the Dr. Rx slayings and gives us the backstory we need to ‘get” the rest of the movie. The film isn’t really a horror movie at all; it’s a murder mystery, and a not particularly challenging one at that; Lionel Atwill appears as one of the most transparently obvious red herrings in film history — obviously his appearance and the title were supposed to evoke memories of his 1932 chiller Doctor “X” but the quality gap between that film and this one is pretty enormous, and Atwill makes such fleeting (and quirky) appearances here he’s barely in the film until the final reel. The gimmick is that Dr. Rx is not only a free-lance avenger of people who deserve to be convicted of murder but are in fact acquitted, he’s also a mad scientist obsessed with the idea of transplanting a human brain in an ape’s body and vice versa — but the one scene that depicts this seems so out-of-place with the rest of the movie it seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx
was written by Clarence Upson Young from an original story by an uncredited Alex Gottlieb (later a producer at Universal and then at Warners) and directed by William Nigh — almost always a bad sign; like William Beaudine, Nigh got to work with A-list stars in the silent era, made a lot of money, lost it all in the 1929 stock-market crash and thereafter had to support himself with whatever job assignments he could get. The ape-man interlude at least allowed Nigh to relive one of the (relative) high points in his career: The Monster, an MGM silent he directed in 1926 in which Lon Chaney, Sr. played a mad scientist (for the only time in his career) with a similar interest in ape-to-man brain transplants — but it sits uneasily in the middle of a film whose denouement is all too predictable: the super-lawyer Dudley Crispin is himself Doctor Rx, first acquitting his clients and then knocking them off because he knows they’re really guilty. The film moves along — or doesn’t — at Nigh’s usual plodding pace, and though he seems relieved to be working at a major studio (at least he didn’t have to worry about the sets falling down on the actors at any moment!) he doesn’t really bring much distinction to this one as opposed to his work at Monogram, and he doesn’t even include any of the Venetian blind shots that were usually his sole efforts at visual atmosphere.

The cast doesn’t help; Patric Knowles is a personable young actor who did a good job as Errol Flynn’s brother in the 1936 The Charge of the Light Brigade but was just too lightweight a personality to be able to carry a film on his own. Anne Gwynne, his romantic interest (they pose as merely a dating couple for the first half of the movie and then suddenly, and for reasons only Clarence Upson Young could have explained, reveal that they were actually married on that mysterious trip Knowles had just returned from when the film opened), is likewise a nice, personable actress without any particular charisma or depth. Atwill, though billed second, is utterly wasted (the Cult Horror Classics box also includes two much better vehicles for him, Murders at the Zoo and The Mad Doctor of Market Street), as is Shemp Howard, whose presence seems to promise funnier-than-usual “comic relief” but who instead is cast in an almost completely serious supporting part. (Shemp made movies with “name” comedians like W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello and Olsen and Johnson before replacing his brother Curly in the Three Stooges — where his dry wit fit rather oddly with the precise physical slapstick the Stooges were known for — and he got enough laughs in his great movies one can forgive him his odd lapse in this film.)

The real star of this movie is the other comic-relief guy, Mantan Moreland, perfectly cast as Knowles’ manservant and given the grandiloquent character name “Horatio B. Fitz Washington.” As usual, Moreland manages at once to live up to the stupid Black servant stereotype and totally transcend it — whether he’s chewing out another character for not knowing who George Washington was and loudly proclaiming his pride in having as his namesake the man who crossed the Mississippi to win the American revolution (of course, it was really the Delaware!) or acting to a surprising extent as the voice of reason, not comic stupidity, in the film, Moreland is easily the most watchable actor in it — and one suspects screenwriter Young was aware it was going to turn out that way, since he gave Moreland both the film’s first line of dialogue and its last. Next to Moreland, the film’s most entertaining aspect is the gorgeous Art Deco apartment art director Martin Obzina created for Knowles to live in — a good thing, too, since so much of this movie takes place in that apartment it gets an oddly claustrophobic feeling and gives us all too much time to admire Obzina’s set design. Even when Young creates an intense dramatic scene — a newly acquitted client of Crispin’s takes a medicinal powder and croaks right in the courtroom — Nigh muffs it in the staging, and the scene becomes even more inexplicable later when Knowles assures us the man was neither poisoned nor strangled (as Doctor Rx’s previous victims had been), leaving us wondering just how the guy did die.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is one of Universal’s most forgettable movies from the early 1940’s, and why Universal and TCM put this in their “Cult Horror Classics” boxed set when it’s neither a horror film nor a classic is a bigger mystery than the secret identity of Doctor Rx in the film — especially since the 1934 masterpiece The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (also with Lionel Atwill) and the intriguing 1942 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Mystery of Marie Roget (also with Patric Knowles) remain frustratingly unavailable.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mad Ghoul (Universal, 1943)

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

The film was The Mad Ghoul, a 1943 Universal horror production which I hadn’t seen since the old Robert Wilkins Creature Feature days in the Bay Area in the 1970’s but which I had fond memories of if only because it was yet another example of how Egyptian-American actor Turhan Bey escaped the usual fate of people of color in classic-era Hollywood. Just about any other actor of color would have been relegated to the title role, while the white Anglo-Saxon co-lead with a bland name like David Bruce would have been the hero; instead, producer Ben Pivar and director James P. Hogan had Bruce play the titular monster and Bey got to end up with the female lead, Evelyn Ankers, at the end.

Aside from that, The Mad Ghoul is a pretty small chip off the old horror log, with George Zucco billed third (after Bruce and Ankers, in that order) but really the star as chemistry professor Dr. Alfred Morris. It begins with him giving a college class in which he shows slides of ancient Mayan paintings, in one of which puffs of white smoke appear in the design. Morris explains that this is evidence that the Mayans actually had a form of poison gas, which he is attempting to replicate in his lab (the fact that it would have been far more likely to be tobacco smoke doesn’t occur to him — or to the film’s writers, Paul Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg, adapting a story by former Lubitsch and Valentino collaborator Hans Kräly). Like the heroine of the Lifetime movie Student Seduction, professor Zucco notes that student Ted Allison (Bruce) is neglecting his chemistry studies and offers to tutor him privately — and over the summer (the class we’ve seen depicted at the beginning is supposed to be the last one of the term) Ted starts coming over to Morris’s house, where he learns that Morris has already discovered the Mayan gas formula and that it doesn’t kill its victims, but puts them into a weakened “death in life” state in which they’re susceptible to being commanded by a superior will.

Romance then rears its attractive head in the person of Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers), who’s about to graduate from the music department and pursue a lucrative career as a concert singer with Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey, billed fifth) as her accompanist. (Charles questioned why an Egyptian actor with a noticeable accent would be playing a character named “Iverson,” but I reasoned he could have been the product of a British father and a Egyptian mother, much like the Zita Johann character in Universal’s 1932 classic, The Mummy.) According to a trivia note on the Universal-TCM DVD, Ankers wanted to do her own singing for the role — she could have — but because the shooting schedule was so short, producer Pivar had her mime to three recordings already in Universal’s music library by singer Lillian Cornell, including “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from Balfe’s operetta The Bohemian Girl and a piece called “Our Love Will Live” cobbled together from the famous opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. (The dubbing was more obvious than usual, mainly because Cornell’s records were so old the sound on them was grainy and distorted, and clearly inferior to the rest of the soundtrack.)

Isabel was previously dating Ted but has decided he’s too young and shallow for her — and she confesses to Dr. Morris that she wants someone older and more worldly. Morris has a crush on her himself and thinks she means him, but she doesn’t — she means her accompanist Eric. Thinking this will pave the way for him to get Isabel, Dr. Morris mixes his crystals containing his Mayan gas formula with water (in a crucible that was a familiar prop to Zucco, who’d also used it to brew the tana-leaf tea with which he revived the Mummy in Universal’s later films in the cycle), locks Ted in the basement lab as the gas is being released, and thereby turns him into the Mad Ghoul. He actually becomes one of Universal’s most disappointing and least scary monsters, looking like a cross between a punk rocker and Moe Howard’s younger brother. Jack P. Pierce’s usual makeup genius was out to lunch for the duration of this project, and there was also no attempt through colored filters or double exposures to do Ted’s man-to-monster or monster-to-man transformations on screen. Instead David Bruce merely puts his hands over his head and sinks his head in his lap (he always seems to be sitting down when the “changes” happen), and when he raises his head again and lets us see his face it’s the monster’s.

It turns out that the only thing that can change Ted back to a normal human being is blood drawn from the heart of a recently deceased human being — which means that he and Dr. Morris end up following Isabel around on her concert tour, with Ted in his monster state neatly removing the hearts from the newly dead (using a fresh corpse if one is available, creating one themselves by committing murder if it isn’t) and Isabel getting upset that the concerts she’s giving and the acclaim she’s getting are being eclipsed in the media by the exploits of the killer ghoul. Reporter “Scoop” McClure (Robert Armstrong, fourth-billed and as authoritative as ever even though Hollywood ill-used this ballsy actor by sending him back to the character-player salt mines after his star turns in King Kong and Son of Kong) notices the juxtaposition that a ghoul victim turns up dead in every city in which Isabel performs — no one else in the movie seems to pick up on that — and he and the cops (including a young Charles McGraw) finally track the ghoul to Isabel’s final performance (on the famous set built for the 1925 Phantom of the Opera) and the cops shoot Ted down just as he’s about to kill Eric — which was Dr. Morris’s plan: turn Ted into a monster and use his zombie-like control over him to get him to kill Eric, so both his rivals for Isabel’s love would be eliminated and she’d have nowhere else to go.

The Mad Ghoul isn’t much of a movie — its derivations from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are too obvious, and it’s made with a cool professionalism throughout but it still isn’t very exciting. Zucco was making even tackier films in the mid-1940’s — including The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk and The Flying Serpent for PRC — but somehow those crude movies have an energy The Mad Ghoul lacks, probably because Hogan didn’t let Zucco chew the scenery the way PRC director Sam Newfield (who made all of those movies, either under his own name or as “Sherman Scott”) did, and somehow an under-wraps Zucco is a less effective Zucco. Universal deserves points for having Turhan Bey get the girl (as they did again in the 1945 historical epic Sudan with Maria Montez and Jon Hall) in spite of his ethnicity, but otherwise The Mad Ghoul is a pretty standard by-the-numbers horror exercise and yet one more piece of evidence that by 1943 artistic leadership in U.S. horror films had decisively shifted from Universal to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Age of Kings (BBC-TV, 1960)

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

I broke open the DVD boxed set of An Age of Kings, the remarkable 1960 British TV cycle in which the BBC, under producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes, took eight of Shakespeare’s history plays — Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III — and edited them into a 15-part mini-series telling the story of Britain’s royal family and the civil wars between various relatives for the crown between 1399, when Richard II was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke; and 1485, when the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, was defeated at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII.

The show ran the plays in historical chronological order rather than in the order Shakespeare wrote them — he actually wrote the last four before the first four (and it shows in the greater maturity of the language and dramatic complexity in the first four than the last ones), and it’s not altogether clear just how much of the three Henry VI plays — the earliest ones in the accepted Shakespeare canon — is actually Shakespeare’s writing. Earlier versions of these plays exist, and it seems likely that Shakespeare’s company just picked up the scripts (remember that in the 1500’s there were no copyright laws; everything was in the public domain, and one reason so few plays were published during this era and why so few play scripts exist was that theatre companies wanted to keep their scripts as secure as possible so rivals couldn’t rip off a hit play and perform it themselves) and he patched them together and pumped them up with his own writing. When I read Henry VI, Part 1 in a separate edition it was clear to me that the only scene that was definitely Shakespeare’s was a scene in a garden in which the rivals pick red and white roses, symbolizing the rival Houses of Lancaster and York that would fight the Wars of the Roses in the second half of the cycle — and since earlier versions of this play don’t contain the scene, it seemed obvious that Shakespeare had written it in to tie the first Henry VI play with the two sequels, which were closer to his mature style.

An Age of Kings was personally important to me because National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to PBS, picked up the American rights and I watched the shows on KQED in Marin County when I was growing up — at first tuning in only to the introductions by Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who set the context for each episode and untangled the often snarled genealogy of the British royals at the time so you could tell who was who, how they were related and how much of a claim each would-be king really had to the throne. KQED ran the series every year from 1961 to about 1964 or 1965, at first showing the episodes once weekly, and then, for the last year they had the rights they “stripped” them and showed them daily for 15 days in a row — and they were my introduction to Shakespeare. Indeed, they were so powerful an introduction not only to Shakespeare but to stage-based drama altogether that for a long time I thought all plays were written in blank verse and dealt with the kinds of mythological, historical or otherwise “elevated” subjects as Shakespeare’s did.

The other thing An Age of Kings is famous for is the cast, particularly two actors who went on to bigger and better things: Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in the first four episodes two years before he filmed Dr. No and launched the James Bond series; and Judi Dench, who as a young actress played Catherine, the French princess Henry V marries to solidify his claim to the French throne, and who would become world-famous in her old age for playing hereditary female monarchs: Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and Victoria in Mrs. Brown. (She too would eventually make it into the James Bond series, as the first female “M” in the most recent Bond films.) So when I heard that An Age of Kings was coming out on DVD I rushed to order it (in fact, I got two copies, one for myself and one for my mother because I realized she’d have many of the same memories of it I had and therefore be as eager to see it again as I was), and last night I screened the first three episodes: “This Hollow Crown” and “The Deposing of a King,” based on Richard II; and “Rebellion from the North,” based on the first half of Henry IV, Part 1.

Seen today, what most impresses about An Age of Kings is the sheer speed with which it moves — Michael Hayes keeps the pace moving forward and creates the impression of a history that is moving at such blazing speed even the participants seem overwhelmed by it — and the uniformly excellent quality of the acting, especially its naturalism. An article I read years ago — written by someone whose name I have, alas, long since forgotten — argued that the only way Shakespeare can work for a modern audience is if the actors manage to convince us that they talk this way all the time. In An Age of Kings they meet that challenge handsomely and convince us that they are real people, speaking the language of a bygone age but facing personal, psychological and political issues very familiar to us today.

All too many Shakespeare productions approach the language far too reverently — treating it like a dose of intellectual medicine (“listen to this, it’s good for you”) and chanting the lines in an annoying sing-song pattern, as if they’re too frightened of the iambic pentameter even to try to utter it like normal speech. Not here. From the first three episodes one gets the impression that Shakespeare was aware of mental illnesses we’ve known and categorized today, and depicted them accurately in his characters, even though medical science in his time was almost clueless about the diseases of the body and totally clueless about the diseases of the brain. I first had that thought watching the surviving 1953 kinescope of Orson Welles in a Peter Brook-directed TV production of King Lear, and it occurred to me that what Welles was portraying was an almost clinically exact picture of Alzheimer’s disease — and that Shakespeare may have observed similarly out-of-it old people and written their condition into the role of Lear. I had a similar feeling watching the two Age of Kings episodes based on Richard II and seeing Richard’s mercurial moods — alternating in rapid succession in the opening scene between letting the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray go forward, then stopping the duel and sending them into exile — Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 10 years, then cutting Bolingbroke’s exile from 10 years to six — and later between resisting Bolingbroke’s challenge to his authority and yielding to it — and suddenly reading Richard’s abrupt changes in mood as what would now be called bipolar disorder.

I also found myself “getting” parts of the play I hadn’t before and finding new meanings as a middle-aged adult that had eluded me when I saw these shows as a child — like the almost screaming-queen quality with which David William played Richard II (one does get the impression that the commoners Bushy, Bagot and Green, whom he’s elevated with knighthoods and made part of his entourage, are also his Gay boyfriends — and given that he was the great-grandson of Britain’s Gay monarch Edward II, vividly and openly characterized as Queer in Christopher Marlowe’s play about him, that would make a certain degree of sense) or the serious drinking Prince Hal (Robert Hardy) does in Henry IV, Part 1. Indeed, one could draw a parallel between Hal, later King Henry V, and George W. Bush: both members of hereditary ruling families who grew up as wastrels and alcoholics, pulled themselves together, eventually succeeded their fathers as heads of state and launched foreign wars that began with quick victories but eventually turned into extended occupations and quagmires.

One thing that comes off strongly from the first three episodes of An Age of Kings was how conservative Shakespeare really was. He was far, far ahead of his time in understanding human psychology and creating multidimensional characters that evoke the unchanging parts of human nature, but he was very much of his time in his reverence for class distinctions and the whole concept of “the divine right of kings.” The entire history cycle begins with an attack on the natural kingly order and ends with that order being restored with the defeat of Richard III and the ascension of the House of Tudor — and while modern historians might regard the Tudors, who were farther removed from the royal line than any of the rival claimants Shakespeare depicts in these plays, as parvenu pretenders, they were the reigning house when he wrote them, he had to suck up to them or risk his career or his life, and they had brought back a sense of stability (ironically reflected by Josephine Tey in the novel The Daughter of Time — which she wrote as part of her mission to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation from the damage that had been done to it by the Tudor-era propaganda of Shakespeare and the historian Raphael Holinshed, who was his principal source — when early on she joked that when British schoolchildren got to the Battle of Bosworth Field, they rejoiced because “the Wars of the Roses were over and now they could go on to the Tudors, who were dull but easy to follow”).

One running theme in these plays is the idea that kings forfeit their authority to rule when they appeal to the common people for help — Richard weakens his just status as monarch when he brings Bushy, Bagot and Green into his inner circle; and Bolingbroke only underscores the illegitimacy of his claim when he directly appeals to the commoners for support. Remember that Shakespeare was the son of a gentleman who for mysterious reasons had been dispossessed, and the thing he was proudest of at the end of his life was not that he had written a series of literary masterpieces that would be performed centuries after his death, or even that he’d kept a theatrical company together and working for at least two decades, but that he had replenished his family fortunes — reason enough that his death certificate described him as “William Shakespeare, Gent.”

Richard II is no more tragic as a character than when he realizes that the promise under which he took the throne (22 years earlier, at age 11, when even though he was a boy and couldn’t yet rule in his own right he was expected to be in some sort of magic contact with the people so that his mere presence would settle the Peasant’s Revolt) that he had a mandate from God to rule for the rest of his life, has been taken away from him by Bolingbroke with the sheer power of earthly force — despite the extent to which the concept “divine right of kings” sits oddly on us now that for centuries a mandate from the people has replaced a mandate from heaven as the social mechanism for conferring legitimacy on a ruler. (Even 20th century dictatorships regularly trotted their people out to the polls to vote in rigged “elections” to establish at least the fig leaf of popular support.)

The acting in An Age of Kings is generally extraordinary, though I did find Frank Pettingell’s Sir John Falstaff a bit of a trial (and, referencing the film My Own Private Idaho, Charles joked that Robert Hardy looked nothing like Keanu Reeves!); he’s right enough for the part, but I’ve never stopped wishing that the 20th century comedian Shakespeare seemed almost mystically to be anticipating when he created this old, fat, drunken but still lovable braggart — W. C. Fields — had had the chance to play the role on film. (The closest we came to seeing Fields in a classic is his marvelous reading of Mr. Micawber in the 1935 film David Copperfield.) Remember that Falstaff has that “Sir” on the front end of his name, indicating that he fell from at least some level of social distinction and wasn’t a tavern drunk all his life!

And though I’m not sure anyone would have guessed watching An Age of Kings that out of all the actors in it, Sean Connery would have been the one to achieve superstardom (both my mom and I thought at the time it was going to be Robert Hardy!), it’s certainly a testament to his versatility that he could be so effective as the appropriately named Hotspur — tough, hot-blooded, quick to anger and obsessively concerned with maintaining his “honor” (and with his Scottish accent far more in evidence than usual) — and just two years later make it big in an almost completely different role as James Bond, the icon of cool. — 10/8/09


I ran episode four of Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, “The Road to Shrewsbury” — Shrewsbury being the town in the north of England, close to the Scottish border, where the decisive battle happened that ended the main rebellion against King Henry IV (there would be others, and the next two episodes deal with them) and solidified his place on the throne. The episode is based on the second half of the play Henry IV, Part 1 — Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime (which surprised Charles, who thought of the histories as sort of also-rans in the Shakespeare canon — not all that odd since aside from Henry V and Richard III, they’re not as often performed today as the comedies and especially the tragedies) and the second most popular play of the entire Elizabethan era (number one was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy), mainly due to the success of the comic character, Sir John Falstaff (reportedly based on a real-life hanger-on in Elizabeth’s court named Sir Jonas Oldacre). Falstaff was so popular, in fact, that Shakespeare wrote two more plays depicting him, Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

What amazed Charles most about this production was, as he put it, “they were doing Shakespeare on a Dr. Who budget” — the BBC had only so much money and so they went to their familiar locations when they absolutely needed an outdoor sequence, and the battle of Shrewsbury itself is merely a few isolated people squabbling in the woods. The final duel between the two Harrys (Harry Percy, Earl of Hotspur; and Harry of Monmouth, later King Henry V) in which our Prince Hal kills Hotspur and thereby establishes his war-cred for the British throne takes place on the balcony and consists mainly of Robert Hardy and Sean Connery just hacking away at each other until Hardy gets the chance to stab the future James Bond. (As I mentioned in my comments on the third episode, “Rebellion From the North,” it’s hard to imagine from seeing the two together in this film that Connery would become an international superstar and Hardy, a charismatic personality and a fine actor who holds his own as Henry against the inevitable comparisons with Laurence Olivier, wouldn’t!)

At that — as I’ve pointed out before in my notes on films set in the medieval period — this sort of rather crude sword-play was probably far closer to how medieval swordfights actually went than the elaborately choreographed duels Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power fought on-screen against Basil Rathbone (who resented dueling with Flynn because he’d actually studied fencing — Flynn hadn’t — and yet the scripts always called for him to lose), Henry Daniell, George Sanders and others from Hollywood’s villains’ hall of fame. As anemic as the battle of Shrewsbury looks in this re-creation — it looks more like something staged by an impoverished group of Wars of the Roses re-enactors than a serious attempt to depict an historical incident — it’s at least closer to the probable reality than the way director Rowland V. Lee staged Bosworth Field in the 1939 film Tower of London (which was the Richard III story transposed into a Universal horror film) as armies moving in strict formations, more like a Busby Berkeley production than the “fog of war” then or now.

Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight — also based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays — probably got it right; his budget (supplied by a Spanish production company) was adequate for a fair number of extras, but the battle as Welles staged it is a confused series of fights in which Henry IV’s forces won more by wearing down the rebels (whom they outnumbered — Shakespeare’s text says Henry IV had an army of 30,000, while two of the main rebel forces never made it to the battle at all and thus the rebels were hopelessly disadvantaged) than scoring any decisive victory in the field. It’s also worthy of note that An Age of Kings doesn’t skirt the gorier parts of the story but manages to stage them tastefully — I’m still impressed at the way David William’s eyes bulged out when Richard II is stabbed in the back by a gang of free-lance assassins who think (wrongly) it will curry them favor with the new king to eliminate the old one, and at the end of “The Road to Shrewsbury” a few bodies draped in grotesque positions powerfully suggest the brutality of the battle without going overboard on the blood and guts (and it’s that shot over which the final credits come up).

What holds up best in “The Road to Shrewsbury” is the marvelous meditation on “honor” and the ultimate silliness of war that Shakespeare built into the script — as conservative (in the literal sense) as Shakespeare may have been about the divine right of kings, and as dismissive as he was of the very idea that the common people ought to have a say in the way they were governed, he was also not at all a glorifier of war; what comes through most strongly in the play’s treatment of the battle is the sheer pointlessness of it, the way Hotspur’s obsession with “honor” literally leads to his death (when the rest of the rebel forces don’t show Hotspur’s reaction is that the victory will be even sweeter, and his “honor” even greater, if it’s achieved against the odds of numbers; and when Henry IV sends out a peace feeler before the battle, offering both an amnesty and to apologize for whatever slights the rebels think he did them if they’ll lay down their arms and give up their challenge to his power, the other rebels carefully conceal this from Hotspur because they’re afraid that the deal will assuage his concern over his “honor,” and therefore he’ll want to take it), while Shakespeare’s sympathies are clearly with Falstaff, who gives a famous speech ridiculing the whole concept of “honor” — especially that you generally have to die in battle to achieve it — and he ends up dishonorable but still alive. (This speech was incorporated by Arrigo Boïto into his libretto for Verdi’s opera Falstaff, even though the opera’s basic plot and most of its text came from The Merry Wives of Windsor.)

Overall, An Age of Kings lives up to my memories and its formidable reputation even though it’s a mystery why, after having been so ubiquitous on the nascent U.S. public broadcasting network in the early 1960’s it so totally faded from sight until its release on DVD last year. (My guess is that some of the actors in it, or their heirs, weren’t willing to authorize it to be shown again without royalty payments far larger than what the BBC could or would pay.) It’s certainly a worthwhile translation of Shakespeare’s plays into the language of television; it should be required viewing for any actor interested in playing Shakespeare; and it also serves as a good introduction both to Shakespeare in general and to some of his less performed scripts. — 10/9/09


I ran parts five and six of An Age of Kings, “The New Conspiracy” and “Uneasy Lies the Head,” which correspond to Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2. Like a lot of modern-day producers, Shakespeare not only did a sequel to his first Henry IV play because the first one had been so popular, he emphasized the element that had been crucial to its box-office success: the character of Sir John Falstaff. At the same time, it’s a very odd play indeed because its theme is decrepitude and decay; the characters and the conflicts that seemed so fresh in the first play are old and tired here; many of the characters themselves are suffering visibly from the effects of age (when Falstaff goes to the country and meets his old friend Justice Shallow to recruit young boys for Henry IV’s army, they reminisce on their mutual friends who have died and Falstaff says, “We have seen the chimes at midnight” — a phrase Orson Welles used as the title of his movie based on the two Henry IV plays, in which he played Falstaff as well as directing), and even the ones who aren’t seem tired.

The play opens with the rebels who failed to get rid of Henry IV the first time dredging up their old, tired plot and trying again — indeed, there’s a fascinating scene at the beginning in which the first person who comes to Northumberland’s castle with news of the battle has it wrong, telling the earl that their side won a great victory; and it’s only later that he gets the truth that not only did the rebels get their asses kicked but his son Hotspur is dead. Even the first words out of the mouth of Prince Hal, who doesn’t enter until 23 minutes into the 59-minute first episode, are, “Before God, I am exceeding weary” — weary, it turns out, of the burden of having to pretend to be a wastrel so people will be surprised when he finally mounts the throne and becomes a responsible king.

The most dramatically “aged” character in the piece is, of course, King Henry IV himself — and actor Tom Fleming deserves enormous credit for portraying both the young Bolingbroke, eager rebel who goes for broke taking on Richard II and winning; the mature monarch who leads his forces to victory at Shrewsbury; and the decrepit old man, barely hanging on (he’s not seen at all in the “New Conspiracy” episode and the first glimpse we get of him is at the start of “Uneasy Lies the Head” — he’s going through a heavy-duty bout of insomnia that anticipates Macbeth’s and has led some writers to suggest that Shakespeare may have been insomniac himself), until he finally dies, regretting that the constant series of rebellions against him (a process he started by his own rebellion against Richard!) has made it impossible for him to lead a new Crusade — and Shakespeare has his dying wish be to be taken to a room in the palace called the “Jerusalem Room” so he can satisfy the prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem, “which vainly I supposed to be the Holy Land.”

Henry IV, Part 2 is full of the kinds of psychological one-on-one conflicts between strong-willed individuals that are consistently the sorts of scenes Shakespeare was best at (he was weakest, ironically, where his contemporary Marlowe was strongest: in dramatizing class conflicts and political struggles that couldn’t be translated into one-on-one terms — and it was interesting that when the Soviet film industry, under Stalin’s lash, moved in the 1930’s away from dramas of class conflict and mass revolution towards more conventional great-man movies of history, the official advice from the government to its filmmakers was to “learn from Shakespeare” how to make the conflicts between individuals stand in for the conflicts between classes).

The best parts of this sometimes creaky play are the final scenes, first between Henry IV and Prince Hal — when he tries the crown on for size, thinking his father already dead, and dad comes back to consciousness and understandably has a hissy-fit that his crazy son couldn’t wait for him to croak before starting to rule — and in which Henry IV advises his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” settling all the tiresome arguments over the succession and the ensuing civil wars by starting a foreign war and thereby uniting the country around a common enemy (and everybody in the court knows just who the common enemy will be: France, which British monarchs had been laying claim to ever since William the Conqueror took over England from his base in Normandy; indeed, as Dr. Frank C. Baxter explained in his introductions to the American showings of An Age of Kings, regrettably omitted from the DVD’s, the vests worn by the royals in the film depict both the British lion and the French fleur de lys, indicating the British monarchs’ claim to be rightful rulers of both countries) — and the final sequence, in which Sir John Falstaff shows up at Henry V’s coronation, thinking he’s going to get to be the power behind the throne, and is instead told coldly, cuttingly, calculatedly, “I know thee not, old man/Fall to thy prayers.”

Oddly, in a performance that is otherwise so insightful, Robert Hardy as Henry V almost throws away the key line and the great speech (“How ill white hairs become a fool and jester” — yet another reference to age in a play that is full of them) that follows — but that’s a minor glitch in a series that’s been uniformly well acted, reflecting the steady performing tradition that has continued in Shakespeare’s country from his day to ours with only one interruption (the 12-year Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, who as a Puritan closed down all public amusements, including all theatres, as frivolous and likely to take people’s attention away from their duty to serve God). There’s even a clever afterword where, through the final credits, we see one of the actors taking off his makeup and he delivers the postlude of Shakespeare’s play, where he promises another installment “with Sir John in it” (a promise he did not fulfill; he narrates Falstaff’s death in Henry V but does not show him as an on-stage character — although Laurence Olivier did in the 1944 film of Henry V, hiring an old music-hall star named George Robey to play Falstaff in a silent scene depicting the death that is merely talked about and speculated on in the script) and to “make you merry with fair Catherine of France,” the French princess whom Henry marries after winning his war in order to solidify his and his heirs’ claim on the French throne. (In An Age of Kings this part was played by the actor who, next to Connery, had the most illustrious subsequent career of anyone in the series: Judi Dench.) — 10/10/09


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 IIIbefore he wrote the first set, and scholars still disagree about how much of the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work. I read Henry VI, Part 1 once and came to the conclusion that only one scene in the piece could be Shakespeare’s — the scene in the garden in which people representing the two contending factions in what’s about to become a civil war pick white and red roses, respectively, to designate which side they’re on, which will become the name of the war.

It’s known that that scene was added after the rest of the play was completed because published versions that don’t credit an author and don’t contain the scene exist — and when I read the whole play the garden scene stood out with the quiet dignity and strength of its writing compared to the overheated, fustian rhetoric of the rest (the opening scene in which someone curses the “bad revolting stars” that took Henry V’s life well before his time sounds like Christopher Marlowe on a very bad day and the rest of the play was probably a collaboration among several Elizabethan hacks, though it’s worth reading as an example of the mediocre run-of-the-mill sort of Elizabethan drama that gives you more of an appreciation of Shakespeare and Marlowe just because it shows you the rut they rose above).

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 and executed 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.

So, when it comes to that, does the aftermath depicted in Henry VI, Part 1 — like the U.S. in Iraq, the British in France win a quick military victory (one could readily imagine Henry V posing over the battlefield at Agincourt with a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished”) followed by a long, draining occupation and the rise of an indigenous opposition led by a freedom fighter — in this case, Jeanne la Pucelle, better known these days as Joan of Arc (more on her later). 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 quirk of Shakespeare’s career is that though he is thought to have started writing plays as early as 1592 (and been involved in the theatre at least a decade before that), he really hit his stride just about at the turn of the century. Henry V and Romeo and Juliet are generally dated 1599 (and because of the Essex connection we have a better idea when Henry V premiered than we do for most of Shakespeare’s plays!) and the play generally assumed to be Shakespeare’s greatest, Hamlet, is from 1600. If one watched An Age of Kings second-half first, and thereby ordered the plays in the sequence in which they were written rather than the one in which they take place, one could get a pretty good picture of Shakespeare’s maturation as a writer from the relative crudities of the Henry VI plays to the melodramatics of Richard III and then, in the four plays starting with Richard II, the coming-together of Shakespeare’s true voice and his dramatic and emotional sophistication at its best.

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).

All the rich allusions and complexities in the first four plays in the Age of Kings cycle have the unintended consequence of making Henry VI, Part 1 seem even weaker than it is — despite a marvelous directorial trick by Michael Hayes: opening the Henry VI, Part 1 episode with the same scene (albeit from a different angle) with which Henry V ended: Henry V’s ceremonial coffin with his crown and battle helmet on it. In some ways Henry VI, Part 1 continues the parallel to more recent events — the collapse of an occupation following an imperial war leads to, and opens the door for, vicious unrest at home (though it wasn’t what Mao was talking about when he coined the phrase “turning imperialist wars into civil wars,” that’s just what happens in the cycle) and the replacement of a strong-willed, decisive leader with a weak one who tries to make nice with all the factions and succeeds only in greasing the skids of his own downfall.

Admittedly the parallel between Henry VI and Obama is a lot more distant than that between Henry V and George W. Bush — after all, one of the downsides of an hereditary monarchy is the fact that it can hand over at least technical power to a child, which is what happened to Henry VI (and one of the bad guys in the play, a corrupt cleric, literally tells us of his intent to kidnap the boy king and hold him hostage so he, not the official regent, can become the actual ruler); and whatever you think of Obama and his performance in office thus far, though he may not have been the progressive crusader his farther-out followers were hoping for, he’s not the constitutional idiot Henry VI grew up to be (at least in Shakespeare’s plays; as with his other historical characters, there’s been a revisionist literature that’s gone back to the primary sources to re-evaluate him and change our Bard-conditioned point of view towards him) either!

After the incandescent brilliance of Henry V (the character and the play), the cut-down version of Henry VI, Part 1 called “The Red Rose and the White” is disappointing, clearly the product of a less sophisticated and talented author (whether or not they were the same person!), and though the acting remains as finely honed as throughout the series and the production values also remain about the same (with Michael Hayes actually being quite creative in his use of a meager BBC-TV budget), the magic just doesn’t quite gel in such a relatively minor play. The only truly complex character in Henry VI, Part 1 is Joan of Arc, who’s going to be a problem in any modern production because in Shakespeare’s time she was considered the witch (literally!) who had cost the English control of France; under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (who canonized her in 1920) and more recent playwrights like Schiller, Shaw, Anouilh and Anderson she’s been rehabilitated and is now regarded as not only a saint but as an icon of liberation and feminism.

Shakespeare meant her as a villain, but at least in the Age of Kings presentation she comes across as a lot more complex than that: savvy enough to see through the imposture of the Dauphin substituting one of his dukes for himself at their first meeting, genuinely inspiring and at least somewhat sympathetic (though at least part of that is how the play comes off to a modern-day viewer with a healthy skepticism towards imperialist adventures of all kinds and a conviction that any occupation — Britain’s of France in the 1400’s, the Nazi occupations during World War II, Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the U.S.’s occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq — will engender a home-grown resistance) until she goes crazy during her trial and stages an almost operatic mad scene at her exit. At least part of the complexity comes from the way Michael Hayes chose to portray her; within the limits of Shakespeare’s script (at least in this highly edited version) he makes her a strong-willed character and even dresses the actress playing her, Eileen Atkins, the way Otto Preminger dressed and made up Jean Seberg in his film of Shaw’s Saint Joan: with close-cropped blonde hair (the real Joan, if the contemporary depictions of her are to be believed, had long brown hair) and a penchant for white unisex garments. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote these scenes), seizing on the English propaganda that described Joan of Arc the way American writers today would depict Osama bin Laden, tried to make her a monomaniacal villainess — but at least as presented here some of Joan’s humanity comes through, and it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for someone who is, after all, fighting for the liberation of her country against a foreign oppressor. — 10/17/09


Our night’s “feature” was “The Fall of a Protector” and “The Rabble from Kent,” the tenth and eleventh episodes of the BBC’s 1960 Shakespeare-based miniseries An Age of Kings, corresponding to Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. The production of An Age of Kings was one of the best things that ever happened to Shakespeare on film or video, but the attempt to use his plays to dramatize the complete history of the Wars of the Roses from the fall of Richard II in 1399 to the death of Richard III and ascension of Henry Tudor to the throne of England in 1485 had one major problem: Shakespeare wrote the first four plays in the cycle — Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry Vafter he wrote the second four, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III.

Indeed, it’s not altogether clear how much of the three Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work; I recall reading Henry VI, Part 1 start-to-finish and being amazed at what a dreadful play it really is, with only one scene (the one in the garden, where the people who will ultimately lead the civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York pluck roses from two bushes, one of red roses and one of white ones, to symbolize which side they’re on, thereby earning the conflict the name “Wars of the Roses”) clearly Shakespeare’s work. In a play otherwise filled with fustian rhetoric and dull hackwork, that scene stood out with the quiet dignity and strength that are Shakespeare’s hallmarks as a writer. It’s not clear exactly who wrote the rest of the play — printed versions exist that pre-date Shakespeare’s production and do not include the garden scene, indicating that Shakespeare added that to a script otherwise by other hands to tie it in with the two other plays in the sequence — though Christopher Marlowe’s name has been offered, and the opening scene of Henry VI, Part 1 might be Marlowe on a really bad day.

Henry VI, Part 2 seems more “Shakespearean,” but there are still long stretches of dull or hacky dialogue it’s hard to match with our perception of Shakespeare honed on his truly great plays. Offhand I suspect that the scenes involving Henry VI himself and his queen, Margaret of Anjou (whom he married as part of a corrupt dynastic deal negotiated by her lover, William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk) are Shakespeare’s work, but it’s hard to tell about the rest. Part of the problem with Henry VI, Part 2 is that it’s really not a self-contained work — the three parts of Henry VI really do seem as if they were written to be mini-series episodes rather than stand-alone dramas; the ending of Part 2, with Richard, Duke of York delivering a soliloquy about how he intends to exploit the conflicts within Henry’s court to grab the throne for himself, is as obviously a set-up for the next episode, rather than an actual resolution of the plot, as the ending of The Matrix Reloaded was.

Henry VI, Part 2 suffers from a confusing plot line in which so many dastardly conspiracies are being hatched against Henry’s reign it’s hard to keep track of them all or remember from scene to scene which side everybody’s on (frankly, I miss the commentaries Frank C. Baxter taped for the U.S. release of these programs that helped explain it all and allowed people who didn’t grow up in Britain and therefore don’t have a thorough familiarity with this slice of its history to follow the plot and remember who was who); between the time he wrote these plays and the time he did his masterpieces Shakespeare improved not only as a poet and dialogue writer but as a dramatic constructionist as well. It also didn’t help that the production values of An Age of Kings — particularly the casting, which had been so impeccable in the first half of the series (Robert Hardy as Henry V — holding his own in the inevitable comparisons with Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh — plus Sean Connery as Hotspur and Judi Dench as Henry’s Queen Katherine!) — started to fall down in this part of the series.

Yes, I know Henry VI was supposed to have been an unworldly young man and a religious devotee who prayed while his kingdom crumbled around him (watching the story in sequence it’s hard not to see the parallel between the similarly unworldly Richard II, who was overthrown by the far more capable Henry Bolingbroke, and Henry VI, whose throne was threatened by Richard, Duke of York), but I really doubt whether either the real Henry VI or the one Shakespeare envisioned when he wrote the play were as neurasthenic as Terry Scully plays him here. The other actors are quite capable but there’s a reason why the people from this series who did have subsequent major careers appeared in the earlier episodes — the standouts are Mary Morris as Margaret of Anjou (who was the subject of the first individual line from a Shakespeare play that became famous out of context — “O tiger’s heart, wrapped in a woman’s hide!”); she senses that the character is essentially Shakespeare’s warmup for Lady Macbeth and plays her that way — and whoever played her lover, the Duke of Suffolk, who turns in a marvelously slimy reading of a character who first sets up the wife of Henry’s uncle and regent, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (John Ringham), for execution as a witch; then has Humphrey murdered on the eve of his trial for treason for fear Henry would acquit him; and ultimately falls himself at the hands of a subtler schemer, Richard, Duke of York (played by Jack May in a surprisingly overwrought style; mostly director Michael Hayes stopped his actors from scenery-chewing but May got away from him and did his beaver impression on the sets), who sets up an agitator named Jack Cade from Kent to stir up the people in London to revolt against the king and royal authority in general (it was Cade who said, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” and later when he denounces someone as a traitor just because he speaks French, it was hard not to see Cade as the great-great ancestor of talk radio) and then marches his own army from Ireland, ostensibly to restore order but actually to set up a military presence in the capital so he can depose the king.

Henry VI, Part 2 is also considerably gorier than Shakespeare got later; though Titus Andronicus (also an early work) has the reputation as Shakespeare’s goriest play, this one comes pretty close — and director Hayes doesn’t decorously cut away from the murders; he displays most of them right on camera before our eyes. It’s worth having An Age of Kings on DVD and it’s fascinating to make my acquaintance with it again — the original miniseries was actually my introduction to Shakespeare — but it does tend to sag in the middle. — 10/28/09


Last night Charles and I ran episodes 12 and 13 of An Age of Kings, the 15-part BBC-TV cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays (all but the first one, King John, and the last one, Henry VIII) telling the full story of British history from 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II and became Henry IV, to 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated the army of Richard III at Bosworth Field, took the Plantagenets off the British throne and inaugurated the House of Tudor, which was still ruling when Shakespeare began his career and wrote these plays. Episodes 12, “The Morning’s War,” and 13, “The Sun in Splendour,” are drawn from the play Henry VI, Part 3, and after the lameness of much of the writing in the first two Henry VI plays (only one scene in the extant Henry VI, Part 1 is clearly Shakespeare’s work and the extent of his authorship of Part 2 is also dubious) it’s a relief to reach Part 3 and experience Shakespeare finally becoming Shakespeare. Though it still has a lot of the gore characteristic of Elizabethan drama in general — not only are the dramatis personae knocked off right and left, they’re killed in full view of the audience (director Michael Hayes averts his cameras from any actual skin-piercing and bloodletting with the swords and daggers, but he gets us close enough that we get the point — it would only be in later plays like Macbeth that Shakespeare would keep the horrors off-stage and realize that leaving them to the audience’s imagination just made them that much more horrible) — we also can sense Shakespeare growing and maturing, not only in the sheer poetic beauty of the writing but also in its quiet dignity and strength (Shakespeare tended at his best to underwrite at a time when most of his contemporaries — even his best one, Marlowe — were melodramatically overwriting). The soliloquy by Henry VI that the producers of An Age of Kings used as the source for the title of Episode 12 reveals Shakespeare becoming Shakespeare:

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with glowing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day or night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind.
Now sways it that way, like that selfsame sea
Forced to retire by the fury of the wind.
Sometimes the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal poise of this fell war.

This speech is not only considerably more eloquent than anything we’ve heard in the first two Henry VI plays, it’s also a good summing-up of the Wars of the Roses as Shakespeare depicted them, complete with dastardly murders and dazzling reversals: Edward IV (Julian Glover), who like a more recent U.S. President had a hard time keeping his dick in his pants, assaults the unassailable virtue of the widow Elizabeth Gray and then finds that the only way she’ll let him screw her is if he marries her. He does so, and promptly pisses off the Earl of Warwick (Frank Windsor), who receives the news while in France negotiating a deal with the French king for Edward to marry a French princess, Bona (Tamara Hinchco). With Warwick and Queen Margaret of Anjou (Mary Morris) both in the French court at the same time bidding for the support of the French king (and it’s indicative of how fast the British power had faded that once Henry V had conquered France, and now the competing sides in a British civil war are bidding for France’s support), Warwick responds by changing sides and, now that he’s deposed Henry VI (Terry Scully) in favor of Edward IV of York, now he signs on with Margaret and plots to restore Henry VI to the throne — which he does, even recruiting Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence (Patrick Garland), to fight against him — only at the last minute George switches sides again and returns to his brother’s fold, thereby providing the decisive forces that allow the York side to win once and for all.

This back-and-forth plotting and abrupt switches in loyalty make Henry VI, Part 3 sound more like a Mafia story than a slice of British history (and though the Mafia were centuries in the future when Shakespeare wrote, Italy was already notorious for gangs of banditti and Shakespeare, who set many of his plays in Italy, probably knew about them). Henry VI, Part 3 is a better play than its two immediate predecessors, but it’s still far below the first four plays in the cycle (which Shakespeare wrote later, even though they take place first), and in general the weaker plays seemed to inspire the Age of Kings producers less and draw weaker casting.

Terry Scully as Henry VI seems to me to be the low point of the series, acting-wise; yes, the guy was supposed to have been a religion-obsessed wimp, but even so it’s hard to imagine he was as weak and pathetic as Scully plays him. His appearance in the role seems to me to be the biggest mistake in an otherwise marvelously cast show — certainly the Yorkist pretenders have it all over him in terms of butchness. Jack May is properly charismatic as Richard, father of the clan; Glover is appropriately tall, blond, a bon vivant and a good soldier even if not exactly the brightest bulb in the kingdom as Edward IV; and Paul Daneman plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester — later Richard III — more as a conventional scheming villain than a devil from hell, though the BBC makeup department saddled him with an anachronistic haircut that makes him look more like a 1950’s U.S. army officer than a medieval prince, and Shakespeare himself sticks him with a motivation to become king even while his brother Edward still lives, when even the historians who agree that Richard was a murderer still acknowledge the depth of the love between the brothers. What does come through in the body language between Julian Glover and Paul Daneman is how much Richard the hunchback (though the “hunch” is de-emphasized in his makeup and costuming here) envies his older brother’s attractiveness, charisma and devil-may-care way with women. — 11/10/09


The film we watched last night was the two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III that made up the final episodes, “The Dangerous Brother” and “The Boar Hunt,” of the 1960 BBC-TV miniseries An Age of Kings. The shows were originally telecast in the U.K. at two-week intervals from April 28 to November 17, 1960 — and though they were clearly taped in a studio without an audience present, I suspect that the first airings of these shows were “live” because occasionally the actors make slips in the dialogue that one expects in a real-time performance but would ordinarily be edited out and retaken in a studio production. Shakespeare wrote the last four plays in this eight-play chronological sequence — the three parts of Henry VI and Richard IIIbefore he wrote the first four (Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry V), and Richard III is the earliest one of the eight that is still part of the standard dramatic repertoire.

Not surprisingly, given the fact that Shakespeare was living and writing in the age of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, Richard III comes off as a black-hearted villain and essentially a serial killer — though less in the psychopathic sense and more like a would-be Mafia don murdering his way to the head of the “family.” At the same time, by 1594 (the date usually thought of as that of Richard III’s premiere) Shakespeare had developed into a subtle enough writer that Richard III isn’t just a villain — and an actor playing him has to register the various moods, now cajoling, now flattering, now promising, now stern and ruthless, Richard assumes to do his dirty work and put himself on the throne of England. In An Age of Kings Richard was played by Paul Daneman, who blessedly avoids the kinds of scenery-chewing some Richards have fallen into and manages to make him totally believable; one gets his cruelty but also his charm, his ability to use his disabilities (his hunchback and his “withered arm,” which he claims he got from sorcery committed by his brother-in-law) to evoke sympathy for his plight.

Richard III is pretty much a one-man show, more so than any other play in the cycle (not even Henry V — the yin to Richard III’s yang in that in Shakespeare’s version of history Henry V is supposed to represent the ideal of a great king and Richard III an equally perfect example of an evil one — presents its protagonist so much front and center and reduces the rest of the cast to supporting roles), especially since Shakespeare uses the soliloquy device more than he had in the rest of the history cycle, periodically interrupting the action so that Richard can tell the audience just what he’s after and how he intends to go about getting it in the next scene. The scene in which Richard seduces Anne and gets her to agree to marry him even though he killed her previous husband Edward and his father, Henry VI, is one of Shakespeare’s most audacious inventions — and a singularly difficult one to pull off, especially when staged (as Shakespeare intended, and as it’s done here) with the corpse of Henry VI in its coffin right there, on stage, as Richard performs his macabre wooing, and it’s a testament to Daneman’s acting skills and Michael Hayes’ direction of him that he pulls it off. (Terry Scully, who played the living Henry VI, gets an acting credit for the role at the end of “The Dangerous Brother” even though he’s only seen as a face through the window in Henry’s coffin.)

The final episode, “The Boar Hunt,” was 75 minutes long (the series episodes were billed as an hour in length but several of them — including both halves of Henry IV, Part 1 and the last half of Henry IV, Part 2 — went considerably over that) and is the one in which Richard finally becomes king but doesn’t have that good a time on the throne — one gets the impression he wonders why he bothered — especially with Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond (one point of confusion, especially to non-Brits, with these plays is the sheer multiplicity of names the characters have — it’s unclear whether “Plantagenet” or “York” is Richard’s birth last name and when he was appointed Duke of Gloucester that word, too, was added to his name — while at the same time they seemed to have only a limited store of first names; as I remarked in my notes on the film Tower of London, Universal’s 1939 adaptation of the Richard III story but with Shakespeare’s dialogue replaced by that of Robert N. Lee, the director Rowland V. Lee’s brother, so many of the dramatis personae were named either Richard or Edward it got awfully confusing and hard to follow after a while), first in exile in France, then sneaking back to England and finally meeting Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field and ultimately defeating him and taking the throne as Henry VII, founder of the House of Tudor.

Shakespeare presents him as an idealized hero — his Tudor propagandist purposes outweighed his usual condemnation of royal usurpers and forced him to present that one in a positive light — and it was ironic to hear him promise over Richard’s dead body to “proclaim a pardon as to the soldiers fled/That in submission will return to us” when the real Henry VII did exactly the opposite: he actually back-dated the start of his reign to the day before the battle so he could, and did, charge those who had fought on Richard’s side with treason and have them executed. (I treasure Josephine Tey’s marvelous novel The Daughter of Time, which in the course of an investigation by a hospitalized Scotland Yard detective fascinated by a reproduction of a contemporary painting of Richard III develops a case exonerating him of the murder of Edward IV’s sons — but you don’t have to whitewash Richard and find him innocent to see Henry VII as a creep who willfully had most of the surviving claimants to the throne put to death to avoid any attempts to repeat the Wars of the Roses, or to wonder about the historians who portray Richard as a black-hearted villain for murdering his nephews while giving Henry VII a pass on similar crimes: as Lacey Baldwin Smith wrote in The Realm of England, “By the very nature of kingship, the elimination of rival contenders to the throne through exile, battle, or execution became the foundation of government policy” under Henry VII — the same argument Richard’s apologists could have made had he won the battle of Bosworth Field.)

Certainly Jerome Willis as Richmond exudes charisma — he comes off as something like a young Elvis and quite a bit more exciting than the real Henry VII (who hasn’t attracted much interest in historians — or dramatists, for that matter; Shakespeare never wrote a play solely about him but, when he took up British history again towards the end of his career, went straight to Henry VIII), ably fulfilling the pro-Tudor propaganda intent of the play (indeed, as a boy Richmond had appeared towards the end of Henry VI, Part 3 in one of those bald-faced “plantings” of a minor character and hints of his forthcoming major importance that is just the sort of cheap dramatic gimmick it’s especially embarrassing to find in a work by the man who’s supposedly the greatest playwright of all time).

One thing I hadn’t realized about An Age of Kings before is that many of the actors played more than one character through the duration of the series — “The Boar Hunt” features Frank Pettingell, who’d played Sir John Falstaff, as the Bishop of Ely; Jack May, who’d played Richard, Duke of York (Edward IV’s and Richard III’s father), as Lord Stanley, whose abrupt change of allegiance and shift of his army from Richard to Richmond gave Richmond the decisive advantage at Bosworth Field (in Shakespeare’s play Stanley is depicted as fighting for Richard — or agreeing to — only because Richard is holding his son hostage; once he receives word that his son has escaped and is safe, he goes with the side he really wanted to be on in the first place); and even Julian Glover, who was Edward IV in the previous episodes, turns up here as the Earl of Oxford.

What makes Richard III a fitting end to the Age of Kings series is mostly Daneman’s smooth performance — he evokes such great names of the acting past as Charles Laughton (he even gets a Laughtonesque scene in which he, as the king, greedily gnaws on chicken bones, though director Hayes at least stopped short of having him throw the bones over his shoulder), John Barrymore (whose one surviving film clip as a Shakespearean actor is as Richard III in a scene from Henry VI, Part 3 in the 1929 Warners revue The Show of Shows) and Basil Rathbone — indeed, Daneman’s Richard often struck me as very much the way Rathbone would have played him in Tower of London if he’d been allowed to use Shakespeare’s dialogue. And what makes Richard III as Shakespeare wrote it a fitting end to the eight-play cycle is, once again, Shakespeare’s greatest strength as a dramatist: not his genius as a poet nor his talent for dramatic structure, but his understanding of human nature and his ability to depict common human “types” that have hardly changed from his day to ours; though both the real Richard III’s life and Shakespeare’s depiction of it came long before Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein lived, there were parts of this play that reminded me of all of them! — 11/18/09