Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another Woman’s Husband (Hearst Entertainment/Lifetime, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Another Woman’s Husband, a 2000 film from Hearst Entertainment shown on the Lifetime channel and being pretty much the sort of thing you could guess at from the title and the source. Directed by Noel Nosseck (any relation to Max Nosseck, director of the 1945 Dillinger? didn’t say) from a script by Susan Arnout Smith based on a novel with the rather bland title Swimming Lessons by Anna Tuttle Villegas and Lynette Hugo, Another Woman’s Husband was obviously retitled to let Lifetime’s audiences know exactly what they could expect, and it delivers: swimming instructor Susan Miller (Gail O’Grady) works at a community center, where most of her students are senior citizens (including Charlotte Rae from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s TV series The Facts of Life).

She was born when her mother was 16 and already “playing around” with various men; her mother, Roxie (a marvelously slatternly performance by Sally Kirkland), was already leading a multiple-partner sexual lifestyle when she had Susan and never stopped, making it seem like she did her a big favor by having her and keeping her instead of farming her out to a relative. As a result, Susan went in the other direction, latching on to the first remotely suitable piece of husband material she could find — who was Johnny Miller (Dale Midkiff, darker-haired than the usual Lifetime leading man but otherwise cast pretty much according to type: tall, lanky and reasonably handsome without being drop-dead gorgeous), a fellow student in high school. Susan turned down an athletic scholarship and a chance at the U.S. Olympic swimming team to go to the local state college with Johnny and marry him, and when the movie starts they’ve been together 10 years.

The film cuts between Susan’s life and that of Laurel McArthur (Lisa Rinna), a psychologist with a deathly fear of water — she acquired it during her childhood when her younger brother drowned at a beach while she was supposed to be watching him — and at first we’re not sure what linkage these two stories have until we see Johnny enter the picture, meeting Laurel, calling himself “Jake” and offering her a dinner invitation. Wifey thinks hubby is doing a lot of out-of-town business trips (which he is, or at least was when his eyes started to wander), and the two women meet when “Jake” invites Laurel to go with him on a trip to the Bahamas, she decides that she needs to overcome her aversion to swimming first, and guess whom she goes to in order to learn to swim? That’s right, the wife of the guy she’s having an affair with, though of course she doesn’t know that — yes, this is one of those stories in which two women are, unbeknownst to each other, involved with the same man, and most of the suspense lies in waiting for how they’re going to find out and what’s going to happen when they do.

Before that they even compare notes on the men in their lives — marveling over them having the same last name but not getting that they are the same person since he’s given different forms of his first name — and at first Jake has told Laurel he’s already divorced his previous wife, and it’s only midway through the relationship that Jake sort-of confesses he’s still married. Meanwhile Susan has caught on that Johnny is having an affair because she found his wedding ring, which he stopped wearing and told her had been stolen, in a drawer with some of his things — and he admits the affair but doesn’t tell her with whom.

Johnny tells Susan he wants a separation and Susan at first refuses; Susan confesses that she’s been taking birth-control pills throughout their relationship even though he wanted them to have a child (she says that after her own dysfunctional upbringing she doesn’t trust herself to be a mother); and the final disclosure happens when Al, one of Susan’s students, accidentally drowns after having a heart attack in the community center swimming pool where Susan teaches, she, Johnny and Laurel all attend the funeral, and a marvelous little bit of direction by Nosseck shows Johnny bending over when Laurel arrives so she doesn’t see his face at first — then she does, realizes he’s with Susan and that her best friend is the woman whose husband she’s been having her affair with, and breaks it off. Susan feels betrayed by both her husband and her friend — and by now we feel pretty betrayed by the husband ourselves; he’s clearly an asshole who doesn’t deserve any consideration at all and we can’t help but want both these women to be rid of him — and an interesting twist in the script has Susan go through with her marital breakup but salvage her friendship with Laurel, whom she’s decided is more important than Johnny as a source of emotional support. (One practically expects them to decide they’ve had enough of men, move in together and become Lesbians.)

Another Woman’s Husband is for the most part as banal and obvious as its title, but it’s got one saving grace: a marvelous performance by Gail O’Grady. Even before she speaks, we see by her posture that she’s a closed-in person, holding a lot inside and restraining herself physically and emotionally — the former she can sublimate by working with her senior citizens in the pool, the latter has clearly stunted her — and Susan Arnout Smith has given her some marvelous role-reversal scenes with Sally Kirkland as Rosie: one early on in which Rosie and her boyfriend de jour Al (Michael Kagan), a repulsive hail-fellow-well-met type, can’t wait for this bothersome person to leave so they can get to the down ’n’ dirty (while Susan is acting just like the stereotypical censorious parent who can’t bear to leave her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend alone because she knows what they’ll be doing as soon as she absents herself), and another one later in the game in which Roxie has picked up a much younger man, Mark (Bill Ferrell), and Susan shows up for a confrontation with mom (one she’s literally been waiting all her life for the chance to have!) and scares Mark away when she responds to his “Who are you?” by spitting out, all righteous moral indignation and fervor, “I’m her daughter!”

Mom panics — “I had you really early! Tell him! You’ve got to back me up!,” while a quizzical and repulsed Mark just goes, “How old are you?,” on his way out the door in a tizzy of disgust. Even the clichéd scene in which Laurel takes Susan on a shopping trip to get her out of the drab clothes she’s been wearing all movie — and Susan makes a sudden appearance in an electric blue dress, showing a cleavage and wearing her hair down for the first time in the film — somehow works because O’Grady carries it off with perfect conviction and we’re not thinking, “Oh, not that old plot gimmick.” We’re heaving sighs of relief that this person we’ve grown to like has finally taken a key step out of her self-imposed straitjacket of misery. O’Grady’s performance here deserved better than this sporadically interesting but also awfully predictable script, but even as it stands she makes Another Woman’s Husband much more worth watching than one would guess from the abysmal title and the predictable, clichéd plot.

The Inner Circle (Republic, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles came home he and I watched another movie: The Inner Circle, a 57-minute “B” from Republic in 1946, atmospherically directed by Philip Ford (John Ford’s nephew and a Western specialist — predictably enough, given both his family background and Republic’s main business) from a script by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan based on a radio play by Leonard St. Clair and Lawrence Taylor. This was billed, then and now, as a mystery — we were watching it from a DVD in the Mill Creek Entertainment Dark Crimes boxed set — but it’s really at least as much of a comedy, the sort of light-hearted thriller that was all the rage in the 1930’s (especially after the great success of the Thin Man movies at MGM) but was considered pretty old hat, invalidated by the film noir era, in 1946.

Private detective Johnny Strange (Warren Douglas) is on the phone to the local newspaper, dictating an ad for a new secretary in the sexist verbiage that made clear what bosses thought of secretaries then — “Wanted: secretary to human dynamo. Exclamation point. Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can’t” — when said secretary, or at least a pretty relentless and pushy applicant for the position, pushes her way into Strange’s office and acts like he’s already hired her. The woman is Geraldine Smith (Adele Mara), and the Thin Man-like sparks that instantly fly between her and Strange are among the best parts of the movie. No sooner has she been hired than he gets a call to meet a mysterious woman in front of a particularly busy drugstore (he despairs of finding a parking space on such a crowded street, Geraldine tells him to park in a red zone in front of a fire hydrant, she assures him that if a cop catches him he’ll be able to talk his way out of a ticket, and of course one does and he can’t). She’s dressed in black, has a black veil over her face, speaks in a patently phony Russian accent and tells him to drive her to a particular address, where they find a dead body. She offers him up to $5,000 to help her dispose of the corpse; he says nothing doing, he’s going to call the police — and just then she brains him, takes off her disguise and damned if it doesn’t look just like his newly hired secretary — only it isn’t the secretary but her sister, Anne Travis Lowe (Martha Montgomery), wife of the murdered man, radio announcer Johnny Lowe.

After a series of reels in which things get pretty confusing and gangster Duke York (Ricardo Cortez) enters the action with so little justification we’re sure he’s going to turn out to be the murderer at the end — which he does, though it’s hard to discern his motive (apparently he was having an affair with Anne and wanted her husband out of the way, either that or Johnny had been hooked up with gangsters and had somehow got on Duke’s bad side) — but in the meantime there’s a lot of clever dialogue, quite a few shots with Venetian blinds casting shadows on the action (the poor man’s — or poor studio’s — all-purpose atmosphere trick) and a finale in which Strange stages a mock radio show to discern the killer’s identity. The Inner Circle isn’t much of a movie but it is good, reliable fun — and though Philip Ford as a director is hardly in the same league as his legendary uncle, it’s clear he knew how to handle a camera and get the best out of a quite literate and sometimes even charming script.

It’s also noteworthy as one of the many appearances William Frawley was doing around this time (including several of the crime-series films at Columbia) as a homicide detective — which will seem odd to anyone who knows him only as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy — but he’s actually quite good as a dyspeptic detective, playing the role broadly enough it counts as comic relief without coming off as so stupid we’d wonder how this guy got to be a cop at all, let alone got promoted to detective. At the same time it’s not every movie in which Fred Mertz gets to meet — and, ultimately, to arrest — Sam Spade; it seems as if The Maltese Falcon (the 1931 version) was as important a turning point in Cortez’s career as the same role was a decade later for Bogart, only in the opposite direction: whereas Bogart started as a gangster and Falcon showed he was ready for a (mostly) permanent shift to the right side of the law, Cortez had started out as a romantic leading man (actually Paramount’s replacement for Rudolph Valentino!) and after Falcon got mostly villainous roles.

Monday, June 28, 2010

55 Days at Peking (Samuel Bronston/United Artists, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a film I recently recorded from Turner Classic Movies, the 1963 Samuel Bronston production 55 Days at Peking (an awkwardly cadenced title — wouldn’t “55 Days in Peking” have made more sense?), a 2 1/2-hour movie with an all-star (Western) cast dealing with the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 and in particular with the siege of the international community in Peking that the Boxers kept going for the titular 55 days. This could have been an interesting and compelling film, but instead it was just more of the usual Hollywood cheese — even though it was filmed neither in the U.S. (where the cost was prohibitive) nor in China (which in 1963 was still universally referred to in the U.S. as “Red China” and treated as so remote and off the radar screen it could have been located on Mars for all most Americans knew about it — when American journalist Lisa Hobbs published a book called I Saw Red China in 1966, she became a nationwide celebrity, not only for having brought back a first-hand account of this mysterious place but for having flouted the U.S. law making travel to mainland China illegal to do it) but in Bronston’s favorite stomping grounds, Spain.

He built a 60-acre replica of 1900 Peking (the city is now known as Beijing — same name, different transliteration of the Chinese characters), focusing on the two key locales in his story: the International Quarter, where the foreign diplomats from the world’s largest powers were housed and given extraterritorial privileges — meaning they weren’t subject to Chinese law but to the laws of their home countries instead — and the nearby Forbidden City from which the Empress Dowager (played by Flora Robson — and it was ironic indeed that an actress who had played Queen Elizabeth I of England at least twice was cast here as a ferociously anti-Western Chinese leader!) and a succession of puppet emperors ruled China and tried vainly to cope with the Western nations’ (and Japan’s) superior armed forces and military technology. A film that was actually about the Boxer Rebellion and told the story — or at least attempted to — from both sides’ point of view, along the lines of Khartoum (a later historical vehicle for Charlton Heston) or Tora! Tora! Tora!, might have been interesting, but the script of 55 Days at Peking — by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon and (uncredited) Ben Barzman, with Robert Hamer credited with additional dialogue — remained resolutely pro-Western and pro-imperialist in its point of view, focusing almost exclusively on the international quarter with only occasional cutaways to the court of the Empress Dowager, who first decided to encourage the Boxers in hopes they could reverse China’s fortunes against the Western powers and undo some of the humiliating concessions China had been forced to give as the price for not being annihilated militarily, then reversed course after (at least in this film’s retelling of history) the film’s hero, U.S. Marine Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), blew up a Chinese armory and thereby cost them a lot of their ammunition, as well as humiliating Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), the leader of the pro-Boxer faction in the Empress Dowager’s court, and thereby boosting the fortunes of General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn),who had wanted the Empress Dowager to suppress the Boxers and conciliate the West.

The central characters are Major Lewis; the Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), a widow whose previous husband, a Russian officer, committed suicide after he caught her having an affair with a Chinese general; and Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), the British legation chief, who talks all the other great-power diplomats into staying in the compound after the Empress Dowager has asked them all to leave. There’s also a tear-jerking story involving the half-British, half-Chinese girl Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon, one of only two actual Asians in the credited cast — and the other, Ichizo Itami, is a Japanese playing Japanese Col. Shiba — though there are some other Asians listed on’s page for the film, including Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman, who played an uncredited bit part and also did the background paintings for the film’s credits), who’s orphaned and apparently adopted by Heston’s character at the end; and another tear-jerking plot line involving the apparent death of Robertson’s son, who’s shot down for real while he’s playing war (someone’s stupid attempt at irony) but several reels later, just when we’ve forgotten all about him, we’re told he’s still alive.

The film is just a lot of waiting for things to happen — the Boxers make their first appearance at the international headquarters in what can only be referred to as a production number, a sort of combination ballet and martial-arts demonstration in which they challenge Major Lewis to try to touch them with his sword (this is the only hint in the script of the Boxers’ belief that proper training would make them invulnerable to bullets and other Western weapons) about 50 minutes into the film, and it’s another hour or so (including an intermission) before the armory raid occurs — and so many fireworks go off that one gets the impression Major Lewis has made a mistake and blown up China’s pyrotechnic storage facility instead. Then it’s another long wait before the final attempt by the Boxers to storm the international quarter and the Westerners’ success in lifting the siege — aided by the reinforcements sent in from outside by the countries whose diplomats and embassies are under siege, which had been delayed by General Jung-Lu’s army but got through at last after the Empress Dowager switched sides and allowed the general to stop mounting resistance to the Western troops (and when they arrive a company of Gurkhas, Asians fighting on the side of the imperialists, are leading the way).

I was interested in 55 Days at Peking because Nicholas Ray is the credited director, but he was obviously disinterested in the assignment and got fired from the film before it was finished — producer Bronston had British director Guy Green and second-unit director Andrew Marton finish the film. Ray and Yordan had collaborated productively on the 1959 King of Kings (the most commercially successful film Ray ever made!) but the magic didn’t strike twice. It didn’t help that virtually the entire cast was white — though, according to an trivia poster, Bronston raided virtually every Chinese restaurant in Spain for Chinese émigrés to serve as extras, with the result that for the duration of the shoot it was nearly impossible to obtain a Chinese meal in Spain. As it stands, 55 Days at Peking is a dull movie which even its ineptly staged, unexciting action scenes can’t redeem — and the final triumph of Western and Japanese imperialism over Chinese sovereignty seems a bit creepy, especially now that the economies of the Western countries and Japan are in free-fall and China is riding high, obviously readying itself for world domination in the next generation or two.

Chasing Yesterday (RKO, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning, from 3 to 4:20 a.m., I watched the first in an all-day (14 hours’ worth) Turner Classic Movies tribute to actress Anne Shirley — odd since it’s neither her birthday (she was born April 17, 1918) nor the anniversary of her death (the Fourth of July, 1993). Alas, they’re not showing either of her two best-known films, A Man to Remember (1938) or Murder, My Sweet (1944, and her last big-screen appearance even though she lived another 49 years!), nor are they running The Powers Girl, a movie I’ve been interested in seeing since I watched the RCA Centennial Collection DVD on Benny Goodman and saw two clips from it featuring Goodman’s band.

The tribute led off with a 1935 release called Chasing Yesterday, a story based on an 1881 novel called The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France (a more prestigious writer than Hollywood usually drew on in the 1930’s for vehicles for teenagers!) which cast Shirley as Jeanne Alexandre but doesn’t introduce her until this 77-minute film is already 15 minutes old. Instead the focus at the start is on retired professor Sylvestre Bonnard (O. P. Heggie), who lives alone except for an irascible maid, Therese (Helen Westley). He’s visited by a traveling bookseller, Aristide Coccoz (John Qualen), on a dark and stormy night (which can’t help but put us in mind of Heggie’s most famous credit, as the blind hermit who takes in the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein); Therese wants to turn the man away but Sylvestre insists on inviting him in, giving him a chance to dry out by Sylvestre’s fire, and ultimately buying all his books.

Sylvestre is supposedly working under university auspices on the definitive history of early Christianity, and he’s amassed an enormous book collection of his own, many of them priceless medieval manuscript copies. He’s also never married because he cherishes the memory of his lost love Clementine; she left him, married someone else and eventually died, and his only memento of her is a love note she wrote him on a torn corner of a page from an ultra-rare tome called The Golden Legend, a book he needs for his research and of which only one copy is known to exist. (By this time I was already relating to this tale of a fanatic book collector!) With the love note having the same effect on him that that madeleine had on Proust, Sylvestre decides to travel to Lausanne, where he grew up and where Clementine lived — and he finds that not only is she dead, so is her husband, but they had a daughter, Jeanne, who’s grown up to teenagerhood in wretched conditions combining the worst of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.

Her legal guardian is a nasty, scheming attorney named Mouche (Étienne Girardot) — the script takes pains to inform us that the name means “fly,” as in the insect, in French — and he’s put her in a boarding school run by a fanatical disciplinarian, Mademoiselle Prefere (Elizabeth Patterson), who takes away the candy Sylvestre gives Jeanne when they finally meet because it’s bad for her health. Sylvestre tricks Mouche into giving him written permission to have Jeanne visit him in Paris — with Mlle. Prefere going along as her chaperone and ultimately falling in love, more or less, with the professor. Well, at least she wants to marry him because she wants the prestige of being the wife of a member of the … well, it’s supposed to be the official government body honoring intellectuals but screenwriter Francis Edward Faragoh can’t make up his mind whether it’s called “the Academy” or “the Institute.”

Jeanne and Mlle. Prefere visit the professor regularly until one day Jeanne feels impelled to confess that the professor didn’t really say all those kind things about Mlle. Prefere’s looks — she just made all that up so she’d be allowed to see the kindly old man who was in love with her late mother — whereupon Mlle. Prefere goes into a furious rage at being deceived and punishes Jeanne by making her scrub the floors of the school, while forbidding the professor from ever seeing Jeanne again. Undaunted, the professor asks Jeanne to leave with him, and she does — and Mouche accuses Sylvestre of kidnapping her. Sylvestre asks him for an authorization to adopt Jeanne, and Mouche at first says no way, then offers to do it but only for a bribe so huge Sylvestre has to sell off his rare-book collection to raise the money. When the auction fails, Mouche threatens to have Sylvestre sent to jail for having extracted the permission under false pretenses — until Sylvestre is saved by a deus ex machina in the form of Coccoz (ya remember Coccoz?), who brings the professor the copy of The Golden Legend — which he’s acquired from, of all people, Mouche, who sold it to him from a cache of books Mouche had stolen from a library years before and stored in his attic.

Now that they’re both technically criminals, Mouche realizes that he can’t swear out a complaint against Sylvestre without going to prison himself, so he agrees to let Sylvestre adopt Jeanne and she returns to the nice old professor (Heggie in this film is made up to look strikingly like President Franklin Roosevelt, which may have made him more credible as a good guy to a lot of the 1935 audience) and the nice young boyfriend, Henri (Trent Durkin), whom she’d started dating on her earlier trips to Paris. At times almost unbearably soapy, Chasing Yesterday is a weird combination of Cinderella and a G-rated version of Lolita saved from oblivion by the real charm with which it’s told and the felicitous direction by the usually hacky George Nicholls, Jr.; this isn’t a great movie (and probably no one thought it was in 1935 either!) but it’s a genuinely appealing one in its quirky little way.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Mighty Wind (Castle Rock Entertainment/Warner Bros., 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a movie from our recent haul of closeout DVD’s from Vons that I’d been particularly interested in seeing when it first came out but had somehow missed until now: A Mighty Wind, a 2003 “mockumentary” from director and co-writer (with Eugene Levy) Christopher Guest that was billed as doing for (or to) folk music what This Is Spinal Tap — also co-written by Guest — had done for (or to) heavy metal. It does and it doesn’t: though it’s a wonderfully amusing movie the humor is a lot more gentle and less savage than that of Spinal Tap, which I suspect is because Guest simply likes folk music better than he does heavy metal and as a result he made fun of it in a much more sensitive and loving way — which isn’t all good or all bad: it just makes the two films quite different. Whereas Spinal Tap is a zany, ludicrous comedy about a group of people the filmmakers consider utterly ridiculous, A Mighty Wind is an easygoing send-up whose biggest target, in a way, is the whole idea of “folk music” as a genre. When asked about the growing popularity of folk music in the late 1950’s, Louis Armstrong said, “Ain’t no kind of music but folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song!”

A Mighty Wind begins with a mock newscast announcing the death of Irving Steinbloom (1920-2003), a veteran folk music manager, concert promoter and record-company owner (the character seems to have been based on Pete Seeger’s long-time manager Harold Leventhal), and the central plot premise is the effort of Steinbloom’s son Jonathan to reunite the three biggest groups in his dad’s stable — the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers and “America’s folk sweethearts,” Mitch and Mickey — for a tribute concert at New York’s Town Hall. The New Main Street Singers (who are pretty obviously parodied from the New Christy Minstrels — whom I saw in concert at Lake Tahoe with my father in 1966 and liked without having any idea that the original Christy Minstrels had been a 19th century group until I saw the 1939 biopic Swanee River, with Don Ameche as Stephen Foster and Al Jolson as E. P. Christy, whose Christy’s Minstrels had introduced many of Foster’s biggest hits) were a spinoff from the original Main Street Singers, a 1960’s pop-folk ensemble whose founder, George Menschell (Paul Dooley), recalled putting his original five-piece group together with the four-member Clapper Family after jamming with them at a hootenanny (a word I haven’t heard used seriously in decades!) and deciding to form a nine-piece group, what he called a “neuftet.”

The Folksmen — Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest), Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer) and Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) — were equally obviously patterned on the real-life Kingston Trio: same instruments (banjo, guitar and bass), same wretchedly preppy stage outfits, same penchant for pop-folk tunes including novelties like “Old Joe’s Place” (whose lyrics, among other things, warn you that there’s a hearse parked outside waiting in case anything goes that wrong with the food) and, we’re told, got together when college buddies Alan and Mark, who sang tenor and bass, respectively, needed someone in the middle and ran into Jerry at a folk club. They also recall that they were signed to Steinbloom’s Folktown Records, the hip label everyone wanted to be on, but were later demoted to the cheaper subsidiary Folktone — with worse distribution (“no distribution at all, actually”) and no spindle hole in the center of the records (“they kind of wobbled on top of the spindle, but if you cut your own hole you’d have a pretty good product”).

Mitch [Cohen] and Mickey [Devlin] (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) seem to have been parodying the real-life folk duo Ian and Sylvia, with a bit of Sonny and Cher as well; billed as “the sweethearts of folk music,” they became especially famous for the song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” in which they took a hesitation beat towards the end and actually kissed on stage before finishing the song. By the time they made their last album they were defiantly no longer the happy lovebirds they’d been projecting in their publicity; a mock interviewee who witnessed their final recording sessions recalled Mickey throwing things at Mitch — mike stands, mikes, chairs, anything she could grab — while Mitch just sat back and masochistically took it all. Mitch put out two solo albums after the breakup, one of which showed him in a straitjacket while the other had him in a graveyard posing in front of a mock tombstone (an idea I suggest Guest got from the cover of Phil Ochs’ album Rehearsals for Retirement) and contained song titles that sounded like veiled or not-so-veiled threats to murder Mickey. Mickey, in turn, quit the music business and settled down to a suburban housewife’s existence as Mrs. Leonard Crabbe, wife of the CEO of a company that made catheters (Mr. Crabbe is played by an actor with the almost totally appropriate name Jim Piddock).

The New Main Street Singers, of which Menschell is the only member who was also in the first Main Street Singers, were organized by manager Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard), a former TV sitcom star who’d been trying to make it as a stand-up comedian with material Guest and Levy probably had a lot of fun making so deliberately lame, and are fronted by a couple, Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), whose aw-shucks, good-natured demeanor hides the fact that when they met Laurie was making porn movies for ex-Main Street Singer Chuck Weisman (Keva Rosenfeld) at his “Three Wisemans’ Sex Shop” in San Francisco until he and his brothers/partners were busted for “something involving benwa balls.” Both Terry and Laurie are “witches in nature’s colors,” making preposterous statements about the human condition like Terry’s, “This is not an occult science. This is not one of those crazy systems of divination and astrology. That stuff’s hooey, and you’ve got to have a screw loose to go in for that sort of thing. Our beliefs are fairly commonplace and simple to understand. Humankind is simply materialized color operating on the 49th vibration. You would make that conclusion walking down the street or going to the store” — and when they’re about to perform on stage they get centered by making an hilarious prayer to various colors.

The concert is backed by Lars Olfen (Ed Begley, Jr.), executive with the “Public Broadcasting Network” — who doesn’t mind that not many people under 30 have heard of any of these acts because not many people under 30 watch public television anyway — who agrees to air the concert live. There are the usual conflicts between people who haven’t been involved with each other for ages — including a nice rehearsal sequence in an upstate New York farm which I suspect was inspired by the genuine folk-music documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time, which showed the Weavers rehearsing for their last reunion concerts (in 1980, produced by the real Harold Leventhal) on member Pete Seeger’s upstate New York farm — and the biggest problems involve Mitch and Mickey: Mickey is a bored suburban housewife but with no particularly burning desire to return to the stage, and Mitch is a barely functional psychological basket case who talks in halting tones and seems to be living on psychotropic drugs. At the climax of the film Mitch wanders off in the middle of the tribute concert, just 10 minutes before he’s supposed to go on, and Jonathan Steinbloom signals to the Folksmen to keep going — and they launch into an extended rap introducing a song they sing about the Spanish Civil War, only Mitch turns up while they’re still talking and Jonathan cuts them off before they have a chance to begin the song.

Mickey is furious with him until he brings her a perfect rose he found for her while he was out, and the two go on — and there’s some quite good suspense editing as director Guest keeps us on the edge of our seats as to whether Mitch and Mickey will do the famous climactic kiss on their big hit song. There’s also an epilogue, billed as “six months later,” in which [spoiler alert!] the New Main Street Singers get a TV series called Supreme Folk in which they play the members of the Supreme Court (they are America’s most powerful judges by day and still play folk music by night; Mickey agrees to appear with her husband at medical conventions, holding forth from his company’s booth with a song advertising its wares; and the Folksmen continue to play amusement parks, parties and other gigs at which they’re basically not listened to — though with a difference: bass singer Mark Stubb has gone through gender-reassignment surgery and is now a woman, though still singing the lowest part on all their songs. Though the title song — performed simultaneously by all three groups as the finale of their big TV show — is vaguely political (its sentiments about equality and freedom pretty obviously inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), for the most part the folk music A Mighty Wind lampoons is the safe, bland Top 40-aimed folk of the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels, not the edgy, political folk of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the previous generation and Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs in the 1960’s.

Adding a character based on Dylan or Joan Baez and having that person rail against the commercialism and lack of political engagement of the other performers would have made A Mighty Wind an even funnier movie than it is, but it’s still a delightful movie — and for once the “additional scenes” (they don’t call them “deleted scenes”) on the DVD genuinely add to the disc’s entertainment value instead of just hanging there as curiosities. Among them are a press conference announcing the reunion show at which, asked how they feel about rap and hip-hop, Mitch Cohen says rap is “a second cousin to folk” and Mark Stubb calls rap “nothing but folk music with the melody removed and a lot of profanity thrown in,” and a great interview with the Folksmen in which they say that all their most successful LP’s had one-word titles ending in “-ing” but with the “g” removed and replaced with an apostrophe — Hitchin’, Ramblin’, Wishin’, Pickin’ — and their commercial downfall began when they broke faith with the audience and released an album called Saying Something, a two-word title with the final “g”’s in both words left on. (There was a real-life parallel to this, not in folk but in the jazz world; when Prestige Records released the albums Miles Davis had recorded for them in a marathon session he booked in 1956 to finish his commitment to them so he could move to the major Columbia label, they gave them similar titles to the fictitious albums by the Folksmen: Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’, stretching — or should I say “stretchin’”? — their release schedule to 1961 so Miles had “new” material on Prestige five years after he’d stopped recording for them.) There are also complete song performances from the faked film clips of the groups as supposedly seen on TV in the 1960’s (often with younger actors playing the members) and a segment supposedly representing what the PBN telecast of the final concert looked like.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Two 20th Century-Fox 1942 Horror "B"’s: “The Undying Monster” and “Dr. Renault’s Secret”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I had watched a couple of genuinely engaging horror movies from 20th Century-Fox, both “B”’s — one lasting 63 minutes, the other just 58 — in a brief attempt by Fox to play on Universal’s turf. These were included in the two Fox Horror Classics boxed sets along with more prestigious movies — Chandu the Magician (1932), The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and Dragonwyck (1946), all of which except Chandu were really more Gothic melodramas than horror films (The Lodger was a remake of a Marie Belloc Lowndes novel that had been filmed twice before, including the famous 1926 silent version with Alfred Hitchcock directing; and Dragonwyck was a potboiler adaptation of a popular novel that had more in common with Rebecca than anything that would have been considered horror, then or now).

The one we watched last night was The Undying Monster, a werewolf tale obviously dashed off by Fox to take advantage of the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man the year before — though the source for the story was a 1922 novel by one Jessie Douglas Kerruish (a woman, as if you couldn’t guess from the “i” in her first name) that has been hailed over the years as one of the most inventive and original werewolf novels ever published. Alas, screenwriters Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby used little but the basic situation of Kerruish’s book — and not even all that much of it. Kerruish’s book had told a tale of a British (in the novel they’re Welsh; in the movie they’re English, perhaps to avoid comparisons since The Wolf Man had been set in Wales) family named Hammand, who for centuries have lived under a lycanthropic curse, either because a Hammand had sold his soul to the devil hundreds of years back or the Hammands generally had dabbled in black magic, unleashed some dark forces and frequently died young as a consequence. The curse is expressed in a rhyme: “Where grow pines and firs amain/Under stars, sans heat or rain/Chief of Hammand, beware thy bane.” The last two surviving Hammands are Oliver and his sister Swanhild, and in order to protect her Oliver engages a psychic detective, Luna Bartendale, and the two of them go through old records and buildings looking for clues in an elaborate search that sounds from the synopsis I read as if Dan Brown were to do a werewolf novel.

Charles actually found a couple of sources on the Internet to download the entire book — which should be an interesting “read” — and I already suspect that had they stuck closer to what Kerruish wrote they’d have had the basis for a far more interesting movie. What they finally filmed was a story that took Kerruish’s basic material and reworked it into as close a copy of The Wolf Man as they could manage without inviting a plagiarism suit from the famously litigious Universal: the family name is spelled the more familiar way, “Hammond,” and though Oliver (John Howard) retains his first name from the novel, his sister takes on a less off-the-wall moniker, Helga (Heather Angel, reunited with Howard from the series of Bulldog Drummond movies they made together at Paramount in the late 1930’s)—though that’s still an unusual name for a British woman. Instead of a female psychic detective, the lead is a male forensic scientist working with the local police, Robert Curtis (James Ellison), who’s also involved as assistant to Dr. Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher, a decade after he became a horror-film legend by inadvertently reading the Scroll of Thoth and reviving Boris Karloff in The Mummy, and going mad when he saw what he’d done). Hayward and Jacoby deserve credit for making Helga Hammond a far more interesting character than the usual screaming female common in these productions — she’s intelligent, courageous and eager to find out the Hammond family secret virtually everyone else in the movie is trying to cover up.

Eventually, to no one’s particular surprise (at least no one in the audience’s, anyway), Oliver Hammond himself turns out to be the werewolf, and his transformations are explained as delusions: he was so obsessed with the idea that his family was cursed that he believed himself to be a werewolf and killed people the way this mythical monster would (though that doesn’t explain how he actually transforms physically into a hirsute creature in the final scene). The movie is talky and has long exposition scenes in which virtually nothing happens, and also suffers from too much of the unfunny “comic relief” producers of this sort of movie thought they needed, but it has one saving grace: the direction by German expat John Brahm. (Indeed, the first Fox Horror Classics boxed set could have been billed as a tribute to Brahm, since all three movies in it — The Undying Monster, The Lodger and Hangover Square — were directed by him.) For years I’d pretty much written off Brahm as an inferior Fritz Lang imitator — a judgment based particularly on his 1939 film Let Us Live, a blatant ripoff of Lang’s You Only Live Once that cast the same male star, Henry Fonda, and unlike Lang’s film had an out-and-out happy ending that made a mockery of the material — but these three Fox Gothics are among the finest looking and most atmospheric movies in the Gothic genre ever turned out by a Hollywood studio.

Brahm pursues the chiaroscuro look associated with German directors — and later with film noir in general — so relentlessly that even otherwise bland exposition scenes, like an exchange between Dr. Colbert and two other characters in the doctor’s lab, get the full half-shadow treatment (and the DVD transfer is utterly superb, doing full justice to Brahm’s visual design and cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s superb execution of it). There’s even a shameless cop of Joseph Lewis’s famous fireplace-point-of-view shot in The Invisible Ghost, and Brahm uses the effect for the same reason Lewis did: to liven up visually an otherwise dull dialogue scene. The Undying Monster was made at a time when aesthetic leadership in American horror films was passing from Universal to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO, and there are scenes here which could have used Lewton’s celebrated restraint (to me the ending would have been far more powerful if we’d never seen the werewolf and his presence had been suggested, Lewton-style, with sound effects alone), but for the most part The Undying Monster is a tough, interesting movie, not the film it would have been if Fox had actually used Kerruish’s novel instead of just embracing it as a defense against a Universal lawsuit, but handsomely produced (many of the sets, both interiors and exteriors, had been built for the 1939 film The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film) and with glorious atmospherics by Brahm — who would far surpass his work here two years later in The Lodger, with a bigger budget, a stronger story and a more able cast (George Sanders, Merle Oberon and Laird Cregar).

The night before last Charles and I had run Dr. Renault’s Secret, a film Fox released one month before The Undying Monster and based on a book by a more famous author than Jessie Douglas Kerruish; Gaston Leroux, who published The Phantom of the Opera in 1911, Cheri-Bibi in 1916 (this was the basis for the quite interesting 1931 MGM film The Phantom of Paris, originally intended for Lon Chaney, Sr. but cast with John Gilbert after Chaney’s death the previous year) and the basis for Dr. Renault’s Secret, a book called Balaoo, in 1922. Dr. Renault’s Secret had a stronger cast than The Undying Monster — it starred J. Carrol Naish as Noel (no last name), the strange assistant of Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco), whose titular “secret” is that Noel is really an ape, transformed by Dr. Renault’s unique medical procedures into a rather twitchy and slow-witted human, but one whose ape nature periodically comes out and leads him to kill. The derivation from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is pretty obvious — though Dr. Renault’s Secret hardly has the hallucinatory power of the 1933 film The Island of Lost Souls, the first (and by far the best) of the three films made from Wells’ novel — and so is its debt to Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (also the source for an early-1930’s film that’s considerably better than Dr. Renault’s Secret).

Both this film and The Undying Monster suffer from the decision of the “suits” at Fox to make them mysteries as well as horror films; Val Lewton was able to get away with keeping the audience in suspense as to whether or not there was anything supernatural about the events depicted, but these Fox movies hewed much closer to the more blatant Universal horror school and their “surprises” are so obvious you find yourself thinking. “Will they drop this pretense and admit the monster exists already?” George Zucco’s performance really makes this film, even though he’s a bit restrained and his more outwardly florid acting in his similarly plotted films for PRC — The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk and The Flying Serpent — is frankly a lot more fun. Aside from him and Naish, the rest of the cast — Shepperd Strudwick as the male lead, Renault’s assistant Dr. Larry Forbes; and Lynne Roberts as Dr. Renault’s daughter Madelon, with whom Forbes is unsurprisingly in love — is serviceable but hardly at the level of Heather Angel’s searing acting in The Undying Monster.

The director is Harry Lachman, who made one genuinely great film — the 1935 Dante’s Inferno, with Spencer Tracy as a carnival barker who becomes an entertainment magnate, then overextends himself and loses it all; it’s a good melodrama and it contains two marvelous sequences, a 10-minute montage set in Dante’s Hell (designed and executed by Rudolph Maté, the great French cinematographer and, later, director who got the job because Lachman had befriended him in Europe) and a closing scene in which Tracy’s pleasure ship catches fire and Rita Hayworth (under her original last name, Cansino) makes her film debut in a spectacular dance sequence. Lachman’s name is on another worthwhile movie, the 1936 Laurel and Hardy comedy Our Relations, but then it didn’t take much to direct a Laurel and Hardy comedy — all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at them and in focus — and most of the rest of his output seems to have been Fox “B”’s, including some of the later Sidney Toler Charlie Chans. Lachman’s work here is fast-paced — it had to be to get the story told in 57 minutes — and good-looking, taking full advantage of all the standing sets on the Fox lot, but it’s hardly as inspired as John Brahm’s work in The Undying Monster even though the film as a whole is better constructed, more action-oriented and with far less deadly-dull exposition than The Undying Monster (thank you, writers William Bruckner and Robert F. Metzler).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chandu the Magician (Fox, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1932 Fox film Chandu the Magician, which I’d been curious enough about while we were watching the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu to order from along with the rest of the films released in the two Fox Horror Classics boxed sets. The film is billed as being based on the radio serial by Harry A. Earnshaw, Vera M. Oldham and Raymond R. Morgan — though the movie was actually released on or about September 30, 1932, 10 days before the radio show started broadcasting locally on Los Angeles radio station KHJ (it spread nationwide on the Mutual network in the mid-1930’s). Like The Return of Chandu, Chandu the Magician centers around not only Chandu himself — his true name is Frank Chandler and he’s a nice white boy who in the opening sequence is being initiated into a cult of white magicians from India by a leader called “The Yogi” in a scene one could easily imagine Dan Brown writing today — but his immediate family as well.

Chandu is played by Edmund Lowe, who’d co-starred as Victor McLaglen’s sidekick in the 1926 blockbuster hit What Price Glory? (which had spun off an entire series, one of which, Women of All Nations, co-starred the young Humphrey Bogart) and had managed to build a career on his own even though he was at best a mediocre actor, good-looking and personable but not especially charismatic. As William K. Everson noted about Lowe in The Detective in Film, aside from his star-making role in What Price Glory? “Lowe never seemed to attempt an in-depth characterization. Whether he was playing Chandu the Magician or Philo Vance, he was always exactly the same: the veneer was polished but there was no subtlety or differentiation between roles beneath it.” It’s ironic that in a competition between another actor and Bela Lugosi in the same role, Lugosi would come off as the subtler and more multidimensional performer, but there it is: as both the mystic Chandu and the romantic desperately fighting to protect his love interest, Egyptian Princess Nadji, Lugosi’s acting is rich and powerful while Lowe’s is empty, superficially “right” for the part but emotionally disconnected from it.

The ironies multiply with the supporting cast members and the overall plotting: whereas The Return of Chandu was a serial that was plotted like a feature — relying less on baroque action scenes for its thrills and more on suspense and (relatively) careful plot construction — Chandu the Magician was a feature that was plotted like a serial. Five people worked on the Chandu the Magician screenplay — Barry Conners and Philip Klein, credited; and Guy Bolton, Harry Segall and Bradley King, uncredited — and that’s usually a bad sign: the final script offers little or no character development and is just a mechanical device to set up thrilling action scenes. Upon his initiation, Chandu is told by “the Yogi” that his first assignment is going to be to defeat the evil Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who has stolen a death ray invented by Chandu’s presumably sympathetic brother-in-law Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) and intends to use it to conquer the world. (As I’ve pointed out in these pages several times before, in 1932 Mussolini and Stalin were both in full power and Hitler was about to take over Germany, so the idea of maniacal dictators seeking to conquer the world was a real danger and not just the stuff of pulp fiction.) Roxor is based in Egypt, where the Regents — Robert, his wife (Chandu’s sister) Dorothy (Virginia Hammond) and their children, son Bobby (Nestor Aber) and daughter Betty Lou (June Vlasek) — the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis is clearer than the movie itself that Bobby and Betty Lou are brother and sister and not boyfriend and girlfriend, as I’d thought the characters were in The Return of Chandu — had been living.

That’s about all the plot there is to it: most of the film is action sequences and hair’s-breadth escapes — notably one in which Roxor locks Chandu into a sarcophagus and dumps him down a long shaft into the sea, as well as a finale in which Roxor, having finally tortured Robert Regent enough to get him to reveal the secret of how to work the death ray, imagines using it to blow up Paris, London and other major metropolises — as well as Chandu falling for Nadji and saving her from Abdullah (Weldon Heyburn), a member of Roxor’s entourage with the hots for her. There’s also a bizarre comic-relief character, Albert Miggles (Herbert Mundin), who eats up all too much screen time having odd conversations with his conscience (represented by a half-size image of Mundin talking to the real one in a way that had already been used by Lawrence Tibbett in Cuban Love Song and would become one of moviedom’s more annoying clichés) and doing the usual unfunny schtick associated with “comic relief” actors in these productions.

Where Chandu the Magician scores is in the astonishing physical look of the film: William Cameron Menzies is credited as co-director (with Marcel Varnel), and though Max Parker is the art director of record the Menzies “look” is readily apparent in those cavernous sets and effects like the utterly convincing grotto into which Roxor keeps threatening to drop the various other characters. But the plot is little more than a pretext for action-porn and the cast (aside from Lugosi, and even he has little to do but overact relentlessly and snarl at the camera in a part that, unlike Dracula, Murder Legendre in White Zombie or Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue, isn’t even a particularly interesting or complicated villain) is surprisingly weak: every member of the Regent family is cast with a less competent actor than the ones who played them in the Principal serial, and Irene Ware as Nadji utterly misses the haunting quality Maria Alba brought to the same part in The Return of Chandu.

Through much of Chandu the Magician I couldn’t help but wish that Lugosi had been hired to play both Chandu and Roxor — the dual casting wouldn’t have been that difficult to set up since the two characters meet only in the final scene (and even then they have very little screen time together, and in most of what they do have together only one is facing the camera — which would have made it relatively easy to double them), and with Lugosi in both parts we would have had the best of both worlds: his utterly convincing portrayal of the romantic mystic (even his love scenes with Maria Alba in The Return of Chandu are far more convincing than those between Edmund Lowe and Irene Ware here!) and his over-the-top ravings as the villain. As it stands, though, a lot of Lugosi’s parts are surprisingly short — probably because he only learned the simplest, lowest-level English and had to learn his lines phonetically, and it’s likely his producers didn’t want to wait for the sheer length of time it would have taken him to learn a lot of lines that way — and Chandu the Magician is one of those movies in which he has very little screen time, though he dominates every scene he’s in. Chandu the Magician is the sort of movie that’s fun the way it stands but could have been a lot better if the quality of the acting and writing had matched the stunning visuals of the direction and James Wong Howe’s cinematography — who, here as in so many of his other credits in the early 1930’s, was shooting noir before noir was cool.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Return of Chandu (Principal Productions, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I started us on the first two episodes of the 12-episode 1934 serial, The Return of Chandu. This one started out as a comic strip and radio program called Chandu the Magician — the title character’s name was actually Frank Chandler but the Easterners he visited on his world travels called him “Chandu” because that was the closest they could come to saying “Chandler.” It was filmed under the title Chandu the Magician by Fox in 1933, with Edmund Lowe as Chandler/Chandu and Bela Lugosi in a supporting role as a villain named Roxor — and then in 1934 the rights were picked up by producer Sol Lesser and his Principal Productions company, and Lesser made a serial called The Return of Chandu with Lugosi in the lead — the only time in his entire American film career Lugosi actually got to play a hero.

It’s my understanding that the original comics and radio show had disclaimed any supernatural powers for Chandler/Chandu — he was depicted as a Houdini-like stage magician showing up psychic mediums and others who did claim supernatural powers by demonstrating he could do the same things with his skills as a stage magician — but in this serial, written by Barry Barringer and directed by Ray Taylor, the first thing Lugosi does when we see him is escape a trap from two killers at the airport (he’s just flown in from his latest Oriental trip) by turning himself invisible. The next thing he does is, still unseen, knock a glass of poisoned wine out of the hand of Egyptian princess Nadji just as she’s about to drink it, following which he emerges, suddenly visible, at the high-class party his sister, Dorothy Regent (silent-screen veteran Clara Kimball Young), was throwing for Nadji — who, it turns out, is the target of an attempted kidnapping by members of the cult of Ubasti, an Egyptian god that is represented by a cat (virtually all the Egyptian gods had animal avatars) and is supposedly a link to the sunken continent of — no, not Atlantis this time, but Lemuria.

Apparently an Egyptian princess of Pharaonic royal blood must be sacrificed to bring back to life Ossana, founding high priestess of the cult of Ubasti, and when Ossana does her second coming Lemuria will rise from the sea and take its place on the surface as a legitimate continent again — and presumably all the Lemurians who were drowned when it sank will also come back to life. The gangsters, led by Vindhyan (Lucien Prival), are targeting Nadji because she’s the last Pharaonic princess of Egypt left, and therefore the only one they can bring Ossana back to life by killing. Perhaps someone could explain to me who I would have to kill to bring Barry Barringer back to life long enough to tell me why he gave all his “Egyptian” characters (East) Indian names, but aside from that — judging from its first two episodes — The Return of Chandu is a pretty good serial, lacking the intense action highlights of its brethren from Republic and Universal but quite creatively directed by Ray Taylor, who actually seems to have a clue about what to do to make a good-looking film on a limited budget.

Taylor’s work is full of moving-camera shots, heavy-duty closeups and other effects the independent studios usually skimped on because they took too long to set up, and there’s a marvelous opening in each episode in which we see a Ubasti cultist strike a large gong, and the circular shape of the gong dissolves into the first setting in each episode. I know what you’re thinking, but this serial was made at least a decade before J. Arthur Rank adopted the arm (whose owner was unseen) striking a gong as the trademark of his releasing company! — 6/7/10


I ran Charles the third and fourth episodes of the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu — which came to a surprisingly satisfying ending because producer Sol Lesser was experimenting with various formats to blur the distinction between serial and feature. In some of his movies during this period he released them as what he called “feature-serials” — a programmer-length (about 60 to 70 minutes) first episode that would give exposition needed to follow the rest of the plot and could also be shown as a stand-alone movie with a real ending instead of a cliff-hanger, followed by eight or so serial episodes. For The Return of Chandu he released the first four episodes, relatively complete, in a feature edit, then tacked on a serial-style “teaser” on the end of episode four to set up a transition in the plot whereby the central characters leave the U.S. and sail (most of the third and fourth episodes take place on ocean-going yachts) to the island of Lemuria, or what’s left of the once continental-sized piece of land of that name that sank into the ocean (or so says the legend screenwriter Barry Barringer was tapping into for his plot), where the remaining eight episodes of the serial take place — and Lesser also re-edited the final eight episodes into a second feature called Chandu on the Magic Island.

What’s most interesting about The Return of Chandu — aside from its highly unusual casting of Bela Lugosi as a good guy (at which he’s actually quite effective: producers and casting directors should have given him more roles like this!) — is that for a serial it’s surprisingly laid-back, creating its thrills more from suspense than from action. Director Ray Taylor handles it quite differently from the whip-crackers at the Republic thrill factory, aided by a script that mostly avoids fisticuffs and the sorts of elaborate, hard-to-believe cliff-hangers the Republic writers specialized in (indeed, the ending of episode two literally is a cliff-hanger — thanks, apparently, to a curse the villains put on Chandu’s car, he almost literally drives it off the side of a cliff, recovering just in time and getting into psychic contact with his mentor, “The Yogi,” who takes over and drives Chandu’s car by remote control the rest of the way).

The Return of Chandu is actually a pretty compelling movie. Taylor is much more interested in mood than most serial directors, his camera is surprisingly mobile for a serial, and he seems to have requisitioned every “exotic” piece of music in Abe Meyer’s stock library and actually uses these cheesy “Oriental” themes in a creative way that adds to the atmosphere (and Taylor, unlike a lot of other people who made serials — and program and “B” features, for that matter — in those days knows when to make the music shut up). The Return of Chandu is a pretty quirky movie that isn’t what you expect from a serial, yet it’s also quite effective in creating a quite different sort of “thrill ride” from the serial norm. — 6/9/10


For the last two nights Charles and I had screened episodes five through eight of The Return of Chandu, the quite interesting and unusual 1934 serial production by Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures (I joked that it later merged with a company called Interest Pictures to form Principal and Interest Pictures). These episodes take place at a key juncture in the script by Barry Barringer at which the action shifts decisively from southern California (the home base of magician Frank Chandler, known in the East as “Chandu,” the heroic character played by Bela Lugosi — though contrary to the poster on this is not the only film Lugosi made in the U.S. in which he played a heroic character; in 1935, a year after The Return of Chandu, Lugosi made Murder by Television, in which he played a detective who’s the twin brother of a murder victim; after Lugosi I is dispatched Lugosi II comes on the scene and solves the crime, though Lugosi II appeared on screen so briefly — only in the last 10 minutes — he didn't get much of a chance to be a hero) to the island of Lemuria, fragment of an otherwise lost and sunken continent whose surviving inhabitants worship the Egyptian cat-god Ubasti.

They’re seeking Chandu’s light-o’-love, Nadji (Maria Alba, who in the earlier episodes was playing a genuinely conflicted character along the lines of Zita Johann’s marvelous performance in the 1932 version of The Mummy but in the scenes on the island turns into the usual hapless damsel in distress, whose only plot function is repeatedly to get kidnapped and then rescued), the last surviving princess of the ancient Egyptian royal blood. They need an ancient Egyptian princess to use as a human sacrifice to revivify the mummy of the last high priestess of Lemuria, Ossana, which according to the Ubasti religion will cause Lemuria to rise from the sea and resume its former continental glory. The juncture in the story is significant because Sol Lesser’s release strategy for this one was to put out the first four episodes as a self-contained feature, also called The Return of Chandu, and then cut down episodes five through 12 into a second feature, Chandu on the Magic Island, released in 1935 (a year after the release of the serial and the first feature).

What makes this serial unusual is that it has virtually no action; Barringer and director Ray Taylor decided to make it more about suspense than thrills — it’s a compelling melodrama but it doesn’t have the sheer dynamism of most serials, which is a good thing in a way because this makes it a more thoughtful film in which the heroes solve their problems more with brains than brawn. There are also some hauntingly beautiful closeups of Lugosi — especially in the sequence just after he’s trapped in a small cell by a trap door — that make it surprisingly believable that he played romantic leads in Hungary and Germany before he came to the U.S. and got “typed” first as a character actor and then, after his great success in Dracula both on stage (1927) and film (1931), as a horror star. The down side of the action-free approach (so far we’re two-thirds of the way through this serial and there’s been only one big fight scene!) is that the cliffhangers have a perfunctory feel to them and most of them aren’t particularly hazardous — it seems as if Lesser, Taylor and Barringer were thinking more in feature than in serial terms and the cliffhangers they shot have a by-the-numbers quality that reflects their disinterest in the whole gimmick — but The Return of Chandu is surprisingly well produced for an independent serial (Lesser rented space on the Pathé lot, and some key sequences in the film use the great gate constructed for King Kong, filmed by RKO before they spun off the Pathé studio to save money), with elaborate sets and lots of extras — though it’s disappointing that the script tells us that Lugosi’s yacht sinks at the end of episode six but all we get is a stationary shot of a white something-or-other floating in the ocean; there was no attempt, even with models, to stage the actual sinking.

Also, it helps that the overall restraint of the serial gets carried over into the acting: Chandu is one of Lugosi’s most underacted performances — unlike a lot of other actors who tried to cross over from villains to heroes, he realized that he couldn’t snarl and chew the scenery when he was playing a character the audience was actually supposed to like — and the other actors (including silent-screen veteran Clara Kimball Young as Chandler’s sister and the surprisingly hot-looking Deane Benton as her son) also play in a relatively calm, unmelodramatic fashion. One of the few down sides to these episodes was their reliance on some pretty cornball music cues — early on in the serial director Taylor deployed Abe Meyer’s rent-a-score with commendable restraint but midway through he started trying to punctuate the action with some pretty cheesy “suspense” themes from Meyer’s library. But overall The Return of Chandu is an engaging serial with a refreshing performance from Lugosi that indicates he should have played fewer villains and more good guys — just as, on the basis of his marvelous psycho role in The Invisible Man’s Revenge, Jon Hall should have played fewer heroes and more villains! — 6/16/10


I showed the last four episodes of The Return of Chandu, the very interesting 1934 “feature-serial” produced by Sol Lesser for his Principal Productions company and released both as a 12-episode serial (the form in which we watched it) and two feature films, one consisting of the first four chapters and also called The Return of Chandu, while the second feature version was edited down from the remaining eight chapters and called Chandu on the Magic Island. Interestingly, after the first eight episodes had avoided most of the tricks of the serial trade — the cliffhangers were pretty perfunctory and director Ray Taylor and screenwriter Barry Barringer were more interested in creating thrills via suspense than action — the last four were much more “serial-like,” starting with the lulu of a cliff-hanger Barringer supplied between episodes eight and nine: Chandu (Bela Lugosi) and his new-found friend on the island of Lemuria, white-haired “white magician” Tyba (Josef Swickard, 13 years after he had played Rudolph Valentino’s father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), have to swing on a chain to get themselves over a chasm; not only is the chain slowly detaching itself from the rock into which its mounting bracket has been screwed, but there’s a tiger at the bottom of the chasm, alive, well, and just waiting for one or both of the humans to fall and supply the beast that night’s dinner (and of course director Taylor doesn’t resist the obvious shots of human-looking bones around the tiger’s lair just so we get the message how the beast survives).

There’s also an engaging one between nine and 10: Chandu is worried about how he can get his girlfriend, Princess Nadji (Maria Alba), away from the sinister cultists of Ubasti who are about to sacrifice her to their cat-like god in order to revive the mummy of the long-dead priestess Ossana (who’s depicted on screen, even though she never does get revived, and whom I suspect was also played by Alba, with a special effect used to make it look like they’re laying next to each other on the sacrificial table; they look almost identical), when the cultists vastly outnumber him. Chandu gets a message from “The Yogi,” the unseen guru who provides him with aid at critical moments, that he can do it by using the “High Incantations,” but these are booby-trapped: if they’re used for a selfish purpose they mean instant death to the magician or sorcerer who tries to use them. “There is another way,” Tyba informs him, mentioning that he has a spell that will make Chandu invisible — but only for a limited period of time, until the sands in Tyba’s hourglass run out (had Barry Barringer seen the 1924 film Waxworks, which as far as I know is the first movie to use this gimmick far more famous today from The Wizard of Oz?) — which Chandu uses in a series of surprisingly slapstick scenes that essentially turns the Ubasti congregants, especially their security people, into the Keystone Kult.

He also, not surprisingly, wastes a good deal of his invisibility time that way and reappears inopportunely right in the middle of Ubasti Central — and Nadji agrees with the cultists to renounce Chandu’s love and accept being sacrificed if the cultists will send Chandu and his sister (Clara Kimball Young), nephew (Deane Benton) and niece-in-law (Phyllis Ludwig) away unharmed. Of course the cultists double-cross them, and in the climactic sequence just as the Ubastians are about to sacrifice Nadji, Chandu renounces her love and uses the High Incantations to blow the cultists away (when the cat statue that has dominated their altar falls into the fire pit through which the Ubastians showed Chandu — and us — a recap of some of the previous episodes in episode 10, something like the water-fountain TV with which Boris Karloff showed Zita Johann the images of their past life together in the 1932 The Mummy — Charles joked, “They’re burning the giant Garfield!”), and then in a final tag scene back in L.A. (home base of Chandu the Magician in his previous incarnations as a comic strip and radio show) Chandu and Nadji are happily canoodling on a love seat in the garden of their home and they both make themselves invisible to foil the paparazzi that have crashed the grounds to take their pictures.

Just how they were able to renounce their previous renunciations of love for each other (a gimmick I suspect Barringer borrowed from Wagner’s Ring) remains a mystery locked in Barry Barringer’s spirit (I’d probably have to sacrifice a modern-day screenwriter to revive him so I could ask him to explain that, as well as the plot hole in episode 9 — where Chandu is shown needing Tyba’s help becoming invisible, a feat he managed all by himself in episode 1 and does again in episode 12 — and the oddity I pointed out when we started watching the serial, which is why the members of a cult that supposedly originated in Pharaonic Egypt all have names like “Nadji,” “Vindhyan” and “Vitras” that make them sound like people from India), but it’s really refreshing for us (and no doubt it was for Bela Lugosi as well) to see him in a movie in which he not only played the hero but even got the girl at the end! — 6/21/10

Capitalism: A Love Story (Overture, Starz, Paramount Vantage, Liberty Media, Anchor Bay, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was one I’d recently ordered from Columbia House and which I’d really wanted to see: Michael Moore’s latest Leftist documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story — which he clearly intended (or at least hoped) as a political game-changer that would force Americans to re-examine their infatuation with the private sector and the alleged infallibility of the “free market” — and which instead, like his last film Sicko (a methodical destruction of the myths surrounding America’s health-care non-system and an open propaganda piece for single-payer), came and went, got seen by a disappointingly small number of people and didn’t affect the political debate one whit. He’s not kidding with that title: America really does have a love affair with capitalism, which seems not to have abated much even while real-world capitalism did that spectacular flame-out and near-total self-destruction in late 2008 (you remember) and even while the love affair is totally unrequited.

Basically, Moore’s is a tale of sin, redemption and new sin: in his telling of economic history, the struggles of organized labor in the 1930’s (let’s face it: for Michael Moore all roads lead back to Flint, Michigan, where he grew up and his father worked in the AC spark plug plant, a division of General Motors, for 30 years, and he shows film clips of the 1937 GM sit-down strike in Flint as well as clips from his film Roger and Me and a few glimpses of Flint today, such a barren wasteland that he and his father can’t quite locate the spot where the plant Moore, Sr. worked in for 30 years once stood), America’s emergence at the end of World War II as the world’s largest industrial power (helped, Moore points out and illustrates with film clips, by the destruction of the industrial infrastructure of Germany and Japan by U.S. and Allied bombing raids during World War II) and the lack of international competition for the U.S. auto industry in the 1950’s led to a golden age in which people had industrial jobs for life, they were able to lead middle-class lifestyles (including regular vacations and employer-paid health care) and send their kids to college without student loans.

Then … I’d date the era when that started to fall apart as the 1960’s but Moore puts it a decade later, when Jimmy Carter (who comes off rather well in Capitalism: A Love Story — from Moore’s film you wouldn’t get the impression that the deregulatory frenzy that reached its peak under Reagan and subsequent presidents really began in the four years of Carter and a Democratic Congress, but in fact it did) made his “era of limits” speech (the speech is remembered as the “malaise” speech, though Carter at no time used that word — judging from the clip included here, it seems as if Carter was attempting to level with the American people about the challenges ahead and the need to scale back their expectations of the future in the face of rising energy prices and the impending end of cheap fossil fuels — and attempting to level with the American people about such matters is a mistake no American president has done since, at least not until Obama threw out a few hints along those lines in his recent Oval Office speech about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) and the American people responded by throwing him out of office and putting in someone who told them what they wanted to hear: that America had an unlimited future if we’d only get all those pesky government bureaucrats out of the way, unleash the power of the private sector and give them tax cuts so they’d have more money to stimulate the economy and pull us out of recession. Moore’s treatment of Ronald Reagan is cheerily irreverent — a nice antidote to the relentless Republican propaganda that has turned him into a virtual saint, seemingly deserving of a place alongside Washington and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore (and, to the American Right, more deserving of a place there than RINO Theodore Roosevelt, who actually said nasty things about corporations and was the first U.S. president to make preserving the environment a priority).

Capitalism: A Love Story is at its best when it documents the human costs of rampant capitalism and the deregulatory mania that has been sustained by both major U.S. political parties at least since the 1970’s: the airline pilots who have to work second jobs as waiters or collect food stamps (or both) to make ends meet; companies like Wal-Mart that take out life insurance policies on their employees (industry-speak for this is “dead peasant” policies!) with themselves as the beneficiaries, so their workers are literally worth more to them dead than alive; the people who’ve lost their homes and farms because they signed up for refinancings they couldn’t afford once the economy turned south (and for those inclined to blame every foreclosure victim for having got in over their heads, Moore deftly intercuts this with old commercials for Countrywide and similar companies illustrating just how the people were misled and sold a bit of goods). It’s at its weakest when Moore tries to pull the old-fashioned agent provocateur stunts that made his reputation — like trying to get into the offices of Goldman Sachs and AIG to make citizens’ arrests of their CEO’s and, when he fails, wrapping their buildings in crime-scene tape — moments of levity that worked in his early films but seem to clash with his increasingly somber message.

It occurred to me, beginning with Bowling for Columbine, that Moore lost his faith in America’s leadership class: when he made Roger and Me he still seemed to have the idea that both America’s political and corporate ruling class would clean up their act and move away from such highly destructive actions once they realized how many real-world people they were hurting. Moore may never have been that naïve in real life, but that’s the impression he gave in his early films — until Bowling for Columbine, when his radicalism began to turn into a fatalism, a suggestion that there’s just something mean and nasty about the American character that leads them to blind faith in the “free market” and a worship of greed and corporate power.

When I reviewed Bowling for Columbine in 2003 I quoted Moore’s comments at the Cannes Film Festival when he introduced that movie — “Historians will write about us in the same way we now read of the Greeks and Romans — as warrior cultures hell-bent on killing people. We think of ourselves as more civilized, but trust me, five hundred years from now that’s how historians and anthropologists will describe us — as a very strange group” — and it’s worth noting that he begins Capitalism: A Love Story almost exactly the same way: with an Encyclopedia Britannica film from the 1950’s about life in ancient Rome (depicted by clips from a Hollywood extravaganza — the 1952 Quo Vadis?, I suspect — because life in ancient Rome was shown far more spectacularly than it could have been on a Britannica film’s budget) in which a narrator made the point that Rome had once been a republic, governed by elected leaders, until its worship of money and greed led it to become an empire, a dictatorship in which virtually every sort of power and privilege were for sale.

What’s most disappointing about Capitalism: A Love Story to me is that Moore offers surprisingly little insight into why Americans have this fierce, ongoing, unrequited love affair with capitalism, to the point where any alternative way of organizing the economy (even the kinds of worker self-determination practiced in Germany, the guaranteed labor rights of the U.S.-dictated constitution in Japan, or even the handful of U.S. businesses that are run as worker-owned cooperatives — two of which he profiles in the film) seems utterly inconceivable. Moore savors the irony that Americans fiercely believe in their democratic right to elect their political leaders but are equally convinced that it’s right, proper and part of the divine order for them to be subjected to dictatorial control at work, but aside from pointing out some of the propaganda that comes from the ruling class and its media that leads them to believe that (including clips from some 1950’s “educational” films promoting private ownership and the profit motive as well as the libertarian myth that capitalism makes its citizens “free to choose” how hard to work and how far to advance — when, as I pointed out in a letter I wrote to the Los Angeles Times on the death of Milton Friedman in 2006 and they not surprisingly didn’t print, “too often the choices people get to make under Friedman’s economic policies are between food or rent, between food or health care, between accepting whopping pay cuts or risking losing their jobs to outsourcing”).

Moore really doesn’t offer much insight into what there is about the American character that has accepted capitalism in general and, in the post-Reagan era, lassiez-faire in particular, as part of our historical legacy and a bulwark of our society right along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (none of which, as Moore points out here, contain any specific references to capitalism or even private property in general — though James Madison did say in Federalist #10 that “an equal distribution of wealth” was one of the social evils the Constitution had been created to prevent — so the Right-wingers who insist that private property and, by implication, capitalism are built into the U.S. constitutional system have a better argument than Moore concedes to them here). Had Moore gone into more depth about why Americans still love capitalism even as it makes their lives more and more miserable every year, Capitalism: A Love Story would be an even stronger film than it is.

Capitalism: A Love Story ends with the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president, and though Moore isn’t sparing of the Democratic party — he notes how the connections between the economic policy-making arm of the U.S. government and the investment banking business in general, and Goldman Sachs in particular, were just as strong under Bill Clinton’s administration as under George W. Bush’s; and he also points out that just as soon as it looked like Obama was going to win the big investment banks and financial institutions started pouring money into his campaign (“like they always do,” he laconically said) — I suspect even he wasn’t prepared for the utter fealty Obama’s administration would show towards the financial industry and the way he would essentially subcontract his economic policy to it (just as both Clinton and Bush had done before him). Moore doesn’t even mention that Obama, as a U.S. senator, voted for the $700 billion bank bailout bill in October!

Interestingly, Moore questions whether the U.S. economy was even in a state of unusual crisis in September 2008, when the bankruptcy and collapse of Lehman Brothers led to the biggest one-day drop in the Dow Jones average in its history and the demand that Congress immediately pass the bailout bill with absolutely no strings attached on Treasury Secretary (and ex-Goldman CEO) Henry Paulson’s decisions about what to do with the money. He equates this with the phony story about “weapons of mass destruction” the Bush administration used to sell both Congress and the American people on the necessity to attack Iraq — and, though he shows the figures of how Obama rose in the polls in the last two months of the campaign, he doesn’t make the point (although his numbers do) that if it hadn’t been for the Lehman bankruptcy and the resulting economic scare, Obama probably would not be President today: John McCain had held a steady lead from the Republican convention until the Lehman bankruptcy, and it was only after that that Obama caught up with and overtook him.

What the film doesn’t mention — probably because it hadn’t happened yet when Moore finished shooting — is that the populist uprising against the bank bailout legislation that killed the first version in the House of Representatives would ultimately evolve into the Right-wing “tea party” movement and into a demand for less, not more, government involvement in the economy. Moore does provide one clue as to why that happened when he points out that the bankers finally got their bailout by getting the Congressional Democratic leadership to adopt it — but he doesn’t show what we now know: that this actually helped the Right by essentially making the Democrats, in the public imagination, the party of Wall Street and giving the tea-party crowd the organizing tool they needed to get people to vote Republican (and extremist Right-wing lassiez-faire Republican at that — among the “tea party”’s biggest targets are Republicans like Utah Senator Robert Bennett who voted for the bailout).

The ironic result is that, contrary to Moore’s desperate hope that the 2008 financial crisis and the recession it produced would make more Americans skeptical of capitalism and willing at least to look at alternative ways of organizing and managing an economy, its actual long-term political result appears to be a move towards even more deregulation, more unfettered capitalism, and a more destructive economy. For all the grousing about the bailout, it’s not at all clear whether the alternative of defeating it altogether (rather than tying it to re-regulation and antitrust actions against the largest financial institutions to reduce both their economic and political power) would have been any better: the result of no bailout at all would quite likely have been an economic train wreck and a new depression rather than just a new recession, as some of the big banks not only failed but took down companies that actually make goods and services on which the American people depend down with them.

What the Obama administration and its hapless record has shown is not only that Democrats have to stop nominating and electing presidents with an allergy to ideology — on the contrary, progressives have to be every bit as militant about holding Democrats to their principles as the activist Right has been with Republicans — but that it’s unclear whether any Democratic administration and Congress can govern given the relentless and flagrantly hypocritical propaganda onslaught they will face from an increasingly Right-wing media, both the far-Right media party of talk radio and Fox News but a more conservative center-Right “mainstream” media — the big-city newspapers, broadcast TV networks and CNN — who are being driven to the Right by the ratings success of Fox and other Right-wing outlets. This is why, if Michael Moore gets to make another movie — which might be problematic given that his last two, Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, have been box-office flops — I’d like to see him do it about the media and their role in driving American politics ever further and further Right. — 6/19/10


On Saturday night Charles and I screened at least some of the special features attached to the DVD of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. These included longer interviews with some of the people featured in the main part of the film — Congressmember Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who doesn’t use the “S”-word but does dare suggest the unmentionable (at least in the U.S.) idea that maybe there just might be another economic system that might do a better job than capitalism in ensuring the economic survival and dignity of Americans; Father Dick Preston, a Roman Catholic priest who makes the point that capitalism goes against the values not only of Christianity but of the world’s (or at least the West’s) other major religions as well; and Max Rameau, who with his partner Bernadine runs a Miami-based organization called Take Back the Land, which specializes in resisting foreclosures and getting people who’ve been foreclosed on back into their homes, nonviolently but not always strictly legally.

There were also several features on people and institutions that weren’t included in the main film that was released theatrically, including author and former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges on the links between capitalism, imperialism, empire and war; UC Berkeley professor and best-selling author (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Michael Pollan on how capitalism shapes the economics of food (including ensuring that the people who make the most money off food are not the ones who grow and raise it on farms, but the companies that buy their produce and package it into product); Fred Schepartz, Rebecca Kemble, Brian Hill, Brian Warneke and Karl Schulte, employee-owners of the cooperatively owned Union Cab Co. in Madison, Wisconsin (Kemble, an academic who completed everything needed for a Ph.D. in anthropology except the dissertation and then realized that she was learning far more about human beings and what makes them tick as a cabdriver than she ever learned as an anthropologist-in-training, was the most interesting interviewee, especially when she said bluntly that she couldn’t see why anyone would want to make more than $300,000 a year); an interview with professor Tom Webb on worker-owned cooperatives; an interview with political scientist Dr. Roxanne Emerson Junker on the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which was founded in the early 20th century as a result of farmers believing they were getting screwed by the existing private banks, and which is capitalized largely by the state government, which deposits its tax receipts there and therefore earns a half-billion dollars a year in interest without having to do anything for it; as well as the usual trailers (including the “teaser” trailer in which Michael Moore announced that the theatre ushers were going to be coming down the aisles asking audience members to contribute to the needy bankers at Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG) and credits, and one of the most fascinating extras of all: the complete speech then-President Jimmy Carter gave to the nation on July 15, 1979.

Carter’s speech was at once a dispiriting call for the nation and its people to acknowledge that the era of cheap fossil fuel was over and we were going to have to adjust, a ringing demand to Congress that they pass legislation to kick-start the transition to renewable energy and a rather pathetic plea to his listeners to “say something nice about America.” This is the speech that has gone down in the history books as the “malaise” speech even though Carter never actually used that word, and Carter’s subsequent electoral defeat has been a lesson to future politicians never again to address the American people with any appeal that even approached the kind of intelligent “leveling” Carter attempted. Indeed, the Republicans were overjoyed when Barack Obama gave his energy speech last week, again calling for a transition to renewables, an acknowledgment that we can no longer depend on cheap fossil fuels and we’re going to have to make long-term adjustments in our lifestyle to save not only our pocketbooks but the planet; they eagerly compared it to this speech of Carter’s and said it will similarly ensure that Obama, like Carter, will be a one-term President: a propaganda strategy that really underscored Chris Hedges’ comment here that America no longer has dreams, just illusions.

The really sad thing about Capitalism: A Love Story is that one gets the impression that here — as with his last film, Sicko, about the U.S. health care system and how poorly it functions relative to those in other countries in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and other measurable indicia of health — Michael Moore is really pissing in the wind. His calls for an evolution away from dog-eat-dog capitalism (it’s with a weird, sinister irony that his production company is called “Dog Eat Dog Films” and its logo is an animation of a smaller dog suddenly growing a bigger mouth and gobbling up a larger dog) in the direction of a more cooperative economic system that would ensure everyone a basic standard of living at the cost of allowing fewer, if any, people to become super-rich are sad to hear in a world that, if anything, is moving headlong in the other direction.

His citations of Europe as the example America should be following also ring hollow in an era in which Europe is becoming more like America, not the other way around: the most recent elections in Europe’s three richest and most economically important countries — Britain, Germany and France — all brought conservatives to power, and Europe’s overall economic crisis is being used as a pretext for whacking cuts in social services and a much weakened, if not entirely eliminated, welfare state. Meanwhile, the radical Right in this country is crowing about Europe getting its comeuppance and proving once again (at least according to their point of view) that socialism doesn’t work in the long term because only a free market, individual enterprise and the use of mega-riches as the lure needed to get anybody to do anything productive for the economy actually produces the kinds of growth needed to boost the economy to a point where it can take care of everybody.

The message boards on the page of Capitalism: A Love Story were unwittingly revealing; they were mostly dominated by Libertarian Right-wingers denouncing the film and saying things like “capitalism is the most moral economic system ever invented” (and it’s true to form for the modern-day Right that they regard that as so blindingly self-evident they don’t think it even needs to be defended with evidence) and capitalism is a more progressive economic system than any that preceded it. That is something no one seriously doubts today — even Karl Marx conceded that one — and Moore’s own movie admits that there was a point in the 1950’s when a suitably regulated capitalism, in which aggressive government action and a strong labor movement put limits on the capitalists’ tendency to drive wages to subsistence levels and instead forced them to pay their workers enough so the workers became middle class and were able to buy the products they produced, gave most Americans (or at least most white Americans) a quite comfortable lifestyle.

It’s not how capitalism begins that’s the big problem; it’s how it ends, with companies finding it ever more difficult to grow their businesses and make more money, combining into trusts and oligopolies, driving the threat of meaningful competition out of the system and either pressuring or bribing the government to deregulate them, and ending up squeezing ordinary working people more and more until the capitalist society resembles the land-based aristocracy capitalism arose as a progressive challenge to in the first place: a handful of people at the top living in luxury, a huge majority at the bottom suffering in misery, and little or nothing in between. One of the grim ironies is that a capitalist country institutes these reforms only when there is a strong Leftist movement — whether it’s communist, socialist or anarchist really makes no difference — that threatens the very existence of capitalism; without such a Leftist threat (and there’s virtually nowhere in the U.S. or Europe where the Left is a serious threat today), the capitalists put pressure on the government to end regulations and the recognition of unions so they can go back to squeezing their workers dry to make more money.

At the same time, as I noted when Charles and I watched the main movie, America’s emotional commitment to capitalism really is a love story — however unrequited (we love the capitalists heart and soul, and how do the capitalists repay us? By laying us off, driving down our wages, shipping our jobs overseas and raising their prices, as well as running unsafe workplaces and polluting the environment to a level that the future existence of the human race itself is in jeopardy from their actions) — to the point where New Left Review writer Fredric Jameson wrote in 2003, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” If there’s a grain of hope in Capitalism: A Love Story it lies in the possibility of organizing worker-owned cooperatives and having them compete with capitalist enterprises in a free market — one part of the Union Cab story that fascinated me is that, contrary to the assertion of conservatives that a cooperative workplace cannot long survive because the workers will simply pay themselves the entire receipts and not save enough to maintain the business, the worker/owners at Union Cab are well aware of what they need to keep as overhead and vote accordingly at their governing meetings — though of course the capitalist system will make it as hard as possible for such enterprises to exist, either by keeping them from obtaining credit or banding together to drive them out of business through undercutting them competitively.

Rather than Joseph Stalin’s rallying cry of “socialism in one country” (of course the system Stalin put in place has nothing to do with what either Michael Moore or I mean when we call ourselves “socialists”!), maybe the only realistic call we can make in the future is “socialism in one workplace,” with the hope that at least we can spread it one workplace at a time and create little islands of cooperation in the middle of a great sea of relentless competition and profit-taking. — 6/21/10