Saturday, August 28, 2010

Race: The Power of an Illusion (California Newsreel/PBS, 2003)

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

The film was actually the first two episodes of a 2003 PBS-TV series called Race: The Power of an Illusion, which attempted at once to chronicle the harm racism has done over the years and establish the scientific data showing that “race” is not an essential characteristic of the human species — new tests involving DNA have shown not only that we’re only about 1 to 3 percent different genetically from chimpanzees but also that two people of different “races” can actually be more similar genetically than two people of the same “race.” (This was established through some interesting if rather cutesy-poo scenes with an undergraduate class featuring some quite charming people — including a really cute young white guy named Noah and an African-American woman with the intriguing name Gorgeous — who as part of their science class did tests on their own blood and skin to determine similarities based on mitochondrial DNA, which is found in skin cells and is passed only from the mother, not the father.)

The juxtaposition between episodes one, “The Difference Between Us,” and two, “The Story We Tell,” was powerful — though it’s somewhat weakened by the absence of episode three, “The House We Live In,” which I would hope would have been about how the 19th century claims of a scientific basis for racism were finally refuted in the 20th century, largely as a result of the heroism of Franz Boas, a German-American physicist turned anthropologist who challenged the doctrines of scientific racism. According to the Wikipedia page on him, “Boas is credited as the first scientist to publish the idea that all people — including white and African-Americans — are equal. He often emphasized his abhorrence of racism, and used his work to show that there was no scientific basis for such a bias.” Given that at the turn of the last century — as chronicled in this film — the idea that there was a hierarchy of human races with whites from Northern Europe at the top, people of African descent at the bottom and whites from southern Europe, Asians and Hispanics (in that order) in the middle was considered proven scientific fact, beyond serious dispute, it took real courage for Boas to make those claims, especially since he was teaching at Columbia University in New York City, one of the hotbeds of scientific racism.

The second episode was essentially a history of white supremacy from the late 18th century (when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his book Notes on the State of Virginia that he had what he described as “a supposition only” that Blacks were inferior — ironically, as this film points out, he wrote understandingly and sympathetically about Native Americans but didn’t apply that same sensitivity to African-Americans; then again most of his sources of information about Native Americans were second-hand while his experience with African-Americans came from owning up to 220 of them as slaves) to the end of the 19th century and the weird mix of authorities, including European-born anthropologist Louis Agassiz, who came up with the idea that there were not only different races but even different human species (despite the fact that a male human of any race can have sex with a female human of any other race and produce offspring, which is the basic biological definition of a species — and was the biggest fear of many of the scientific racists: the idea that race-mixing would “mongrelize” the races and drive the “superior” white race down to the level of the “inferior” colored races).

The film quoted Jefferson selectively enough to make him seem like even more of a white supremacist than he was — like Wagner’s writings about Jews, Jefferson’s writings about Blacks show how an otherwise great mind can wrestle with its own prejudices with some degree of intellectual honesty but still let the prejudices win in the end — and as I’ve noted elsewhere there was a major change from the arguments for slavery made in Jefferson’s time, which tended to regard it as a necessary evil stemming from America’s enormous need for labor, and the ones from a generation or two later (the ones made by John C. Calhoun in the 1830’s and the ideologues of the 1850’s and 1860’s — including Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, whose post-war memoir cited the Biblical defenses of slavery and said any minister who preached against the “peculiar institution” was literally being blasphemous) that hailed slavery as a positive good not only for the slaveholders but for the slaves themselves —as the film depicts, Africans were regarded as “naturally” inferior beings whose best fate would be the paternal care of enslavement to their racial betters. (The fact that slavery in practice was almost never as glossily paternalistic as the propaganda described it — both when it was a going concern and afterwards in novels and films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind — didn’t enter into this discussion, though of course a staple of abolitionist propaganda was describing the horrors of actually existing slavery.)

Searching for a scientific underpinning for their prejudices, the scientists of the second half of the 19th century obsessively measured skull shapes and sizes (the bigger the skull, the bigger the brain, and hence the smarter the person, were the assumptions behind this — both, of course, have long since been debunked) and drew illustrations of the different racial “types” that today look like the stuff of penny-dreadful pamphlets and Web postings from the darkest, craziest corners of the ultra-ultra-Right. Throughout the late 19th and the four decades of the 20th century, the eugenics movement — a conscious attempt to breed the “best” of the white race while taking repressive measures (including sterilization and even euthanasia) to eliminate the “inferior” races — was a going concern (one still photo shown in this film is a ghastly picture of the boy and girl who were ranked as top of their racial class in a eugenics festival) — was well respected, highly influential and even had the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court (which upheld the eugenics-motivated sterilization of a supposedly “feeble-minded” woman), and it only fell out of fashion at the end of World War II, after the death camps were liberated and the world got a look at how far Hitler had gone to realize the eugenic vision of an “Aryan”-only paradise on earth.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Harper (Warner Bros., 1966)

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

The film Charles and I watched last night was Harper, the 1966 homage to classic film noir made by producers Jerry Gershwin (any relation to George and Ira? doesn’t say) and Elliott Kastner, directed by Jack Smight and written by William Goldman. Harper began life as The Moving Target, a 1949 novel by a Canadian writer named Kenneth Millar who, after having written two third-person thrillers under his real name, signed this one “John Ross Macdonald” (perhaps to get out from under the shadow of his wife, Margaret Millar, whose books had been more successful than his) and narrated it in the first person from the point of view of its detective hero, Lew Archer — whom he’d named after Miles Archer, the partner of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade who’s killed early on in The Maltese Falcon. Though Hammett was the inspiration for Archer’s name, the characterization and the overall mood were clearly ripped off from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — and though the film wasn’t made until 17 years after the book was published, it still drew heavily on the noir mythos in general and on Chandler in particular, down to having the film open with the detective visiting a rich mansion to interview his latest client — and casting Lauren Bacall as said client, a wheelchair-bound woman (like Christopher Reeve, she was involved in a horse-riding accident) who wants him to find her missing husband.

Sources differ on why the character’s last name was changed from Archer to Harper; one account was it was because the film’s star, Paul Newman, had already had big hits with The Hustler and Hud and superstitiously believed that a title that began with “H” was good for him. (The next year Newman would make a Western called Hombre, continuing the “H” motif, and when Mad magazine parodied his later film Cool Hand Luke as Blue-Eyed Kook one of the characters told him that the torture prisoners were subjected to in “the hole” was watching Hud, Harper, Hombre and The Hustler without a break.) It’s also possible that the derivation of Archer’s name from The Maltese Falcon might have posed some legal problems with Dashiell Hammett’s estate (one post suggested the problem might have been with Ross Macdonald’s estate — impossible because Macdonald was still alive when Harper was filmed) even though Warner Bros. owned the rights to The Maltese Falcon and had since the first version was made in 1931, a decade earlier than the famous one.

Anyway, Bacall’s presence already puts one in mind of The Big Sleep — she’s even reclining similarly on a couch, though in this case it’s explained as because she’s disabled — though the scene with her follows a marvelous opening sequence in which Harper gets up in the morning, finds he’s out of coffee and fishes some old coffee grounds from his trash can and brews himself a terrible cup from the leavings. (He’s doing this in a Chemex drip coffeemaker, a chic item among coffee gourmets in the early 1960’s — my mother had one — and a pricey one because in order to use it one had to buy circular filter paper from the company that made it and fold it in quarters to fit it in, as Newman is shown doing in the film — and that got expensive.) Any movie that begins with a shot of Paul Newman, at the height of his sexiness, in his underwear can’t be all bad, and Harper is a decent enough thriller whose main problem is that it’s stuck in some kind of movie netherworld.

The plot, situations and characters are the stuff of classic noir but the movie is also updated in all the wrong ways — color (overly bright picture-postcard color at that; I’ve often complained of the tendency of modern filmmakers to show almost nothing but browns and dirty greens, but this goes too far in the other direction), the 2.35-1 CinemaScope aspect ratio (though the actual process used was Panavision), which spreads things out too much and doesn’t give one the closed-in feeling of the 1.33-1 standard ratio of the great noirs; a well done but wildly inappropriate musical score by Johnny Mandel (who seemed to think that a Stan Kenton-ish jazz score would be appropriate because one of the dramatis personae is a jazz musician — but the filmmakers would have been better off recruiting one of the composers who scored classic noirs, at least two of whom — Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rosza — were still alive and active in 1966); and a star who’s superficially well cast — he’s got the machismo and charisma to be believable as an heroic private detective but he almost totally lacks the world-weariness of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell or Alan Ladd. (Nine years later Newman would do a sequel, The Drowning Pool, also playing Lew Harper née Archer, and he’d be better in that one not only because the plot was more coherent but because the nine years he’d visibly aged made him more suited to the role. The fact that his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward, was in The Drowning Pool also may have helped.)

The film also isn’t helped by a plot that’s so convoluted and directionless The Big Sleep seems like a model of clarity by comparison: the missing husband, Ralph Sampson, had fooled around with a succession of women of whom the latest was Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) — in the novel she’s a tough broad who plays boogie-woogie piano; in the film she’s a wispy cocktail-lounge singer-pianist whose only connection with her counterpart in the novel is an active heroin addiction — who apparently teamed up with her brother Eddie Rossiter (Tom Steele) and Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Ralph Sampson’s pilot, who was living in a guest house on the Sampson estate (sort of like Kato Kaelin) — or was that Allen Taggert (Robert Wagner)? It’s the sort of plot where it’s not all that easy to tell who’s who or how they relate to each other, and the bizarrely twisted path Harper follows on his investigation leads him to such red herrings as a religious cult leader to whom Ralph Sampson gave a mountain for a retreat, and who’s using the cult as a blind to smuggle in undocumented aliens. (When Harper gets too close, the cult leader starts chanting, “Hermanos de mi alma — hermanos de mi corazón,” and even if you know what the words mean you won’t have any idea what he’s talking about until a small army of black-clad Mexicans appears to beat the shit out of Harper — something that happens to him quite often in the film: it’s a familiar device from classic noir to have the hero get beaten up but this film really overdoes it.)

There’s also Ralph Sampson’s oversexed daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) and the family attorney, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill, too boring an actor to live up to the potential of this rather interesting role), a middle-aged man who’s formed a schoolboy-ish crush on Miranda and is willing to do virtually anything to possess her, including kill her dad just when Harper has finally located where the kidnappers have stashed him. In the book there was a sense of wrenching tragedy when Archer realized how close he had come to locating the missing man alive and instead he finds him dead at the hands of his friend, who had ironically recommended him to Mrs. Sampson in the first place; but in the movie the moment comes and goes without much emotional impact other than the sense that the mystery has finally been resolved.

Had the makers of Harper filmed it as all-out noir — in narrow-screen black-and-white and with a late-Romantic orchestral score instead of Mandel’s jazzy strains (though there were other late-1960’s thrillers with noir pretensions, like Madigan and Marlowe, that suffered even more from their jazz scores than Harper does!) — they might have had a better movie. Had they updated it completely, dispensed with the noir trappings and staged the basic plot as a contemporary action thriller, that might also have worked better; instead they tried to have it both ways and ended up with a film that worked neither as noir nor as action, and wasted an all-star cast (including Janet Leigh as Harper’s ex-wife and Shelley Winters as a drunken old sot — a ripoff of Jessie Florian in Murder, My Sweet a.k.a. Farewell, My Lovely — who in one sequence tries to torture Betty Fraley to give up the secret of where she and her brother stashed the ransom money they collected for Sampson; one would think she’d have seen enough movies to know she didn’t have to bother torturing her; all you have to do to get an active drug addict to talk is to withhold the drug and wait until they go into withdrawal) on a movie that’s not bad in itself but falls significantly below its potential.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dixie Jamboree (PRC, 1944)

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

Charles and I eventually watched Dixie Jamboree, the companion feature to Career Girl on the Frances Langford DVD from Critics’ Choice and a peculiar film because Lawrence Taylor’s “original” story — converted into a screenplay by Sam Neuman, who also wrote the lyrics to Michael Breen’s songs — is an almost dead-on ripoff of Show Boat with only a modern-day gangster plot overlaid on the proceedings. Indeed, the film — directed by Christy Cabanne, the least illustrious of the four assistants to D. W. Griffith who became directors in their own right (the others were Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Raoul Walsh!) — seems to be heading for noir territory in its opening sequence, as gangsters Tony Sardell (Lyle Talbot, midway down his career descent from co-starring with Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers in the 1930’s to providing shards of professionalism in Ed Wood’s films in the 1950’s) and Jack “Curly” Burger (Frank Jenks, who doesn’t look particularly curly).

They’re stranded in a Missouri riverboat town and want a way they can sneak out of the state and high-tail it to New Orleans to avoid capture by the cops who are hot on their tails, and just then into the cheap bar they’re drinking in and planning strategy come Captain Jackson (Guy Kibbee, who gets above-the-title billing along with Langford and appears to have lost some weight since his days of character-actor glory at Warners), master of the Mississippi’s last show boat, the Eulabelle, and his sidekick, “Professor” (Charles Butterworth, whose dry wit really enlivens the proceedings; in one sequence, when some of the show boat performers get into an argument, Captain Jackson says, “Come on, people! Let’s not throw things at each other!” — and the Professor says, “No, let’s let the audience do that”). Upon hearing that the Eulabelle is headed to New Orleans, Tony and Curly offer the captain $100 to board as passengers — and he, of course, accepts.

They park their show boat at the next town and offer a free sample performance — just like the troupe of Captain Andy Hawks, his bitchy wife Parthenia (the bitchy wife of the captain in Dixie Jamboree is named Eulabelle and played by sour-faced Almira Sessions; the show boat is named after her) and their daughter Magnolia in the real Show Boat — only the star of this show boat is not the captain’s daughter but his niece, Susan Jackson (Frances Langford). Her big song is interrupted by a street trumpet player, Jeff Calhoun (Eddie Quillan, briefly a star in the early 1930’s in films like the first Girl Crazy and Broadway to Hollywood and here trying vainly for a comeback), who says he can only play when he gets a “tingle” from something or someone who inspires him — and of course it’s Susan who’s his current inspiration.

Captain Jackson immediately hires him for the show and then has to deal with the uncertainty of his inspiration — while the Professor, realizing that Jeff can’t remember anything he’s played a moment after he’s played it, follows him around and writes down his improvisations (a gag that was already pretty lame in the 1938 RKO musical Radio City Revels and didn’t get any better when RKO reclaimed it for the 1946 musical Ding Dong Williams — and which shows the patronizing attitude towards jazz and its practitioners that ruled Hollywood even when jazz was so popular they felt they had to fit it into movies somewhere).

Dixie Jamboree had the potential to be a not-bad movie but instead it wastes 70 minutes in a series of unspeakably boring clichés; the borrowings from Show Boat (including a stentorian number for a Black bass-baritone deckhand, “You Ain’t Right with the Lord,” which isn’t a bad song but is hardly “Old Man River” either) sit uneasily with the gangster-movie elements and there’s the predictable soap-opera complications as well, as fellow show-boat performer Yvette (Fifi D’Orsay, who has a certain charm but if you’ve seen one of her performances you really have seen them all; she’s playing the same character here as she did in Going Hollywood and Something to Sing About) tries to vamp Jeff and succeeds only in killing his inspiration and getting Susan jealous; meanwhile Tony the gangster has the hots for Susan, and he’s managed to convince her that he’s a gentleman while Jeff is just a tramp trumpeter — only everything turns out right in the end, of course: Jeff gets both Susan and the $10,000 reward the cops were offering for Tony’s capture, dead or alive.

Dixie Jamboree has some good moments; Langford’s singing is quite good (as is that of the anonymous Black soloist on “You Ain’t Right with the Lord”) and whoever they got to be Eddie Quillan’s trumpet double is also excellent, with a real grasp of jazz. (My guess is it’s Andy Secrest, who replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Paul Whiteman band and later settled in L.A. doing studio work — he was a particular favorite of Bing Crosby, who wanted Bix’s sound on his records and so, with the original dead, naturally reached out to the guy who’d replaced him in the first place; Secrest also played on Connee Boswell’s records and the trumpeter here has the kind of lyricism Secrest was famous for.) There’s also a slightly amusing subplot consisting of Captain Jackson’s inability to find the formula for the patent medicine the show boat used to sell — they’re still selling it, but now it’s just a bit of peppermint flavoring in water — and the gangsters hiding their bootleg liquor in the boat’s water tank, which suddenly gives the remedy the “kick” the Professor remembered as the taste of the original.

But all of this is in the context of a movie that seems to last a lot longer than 70 minutes — thanks largely to Cabanne’s almost soporific direction, which makes us all too aware of the great gulf of talent between Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein and Michael Breen/Sam Neuman. Charles also noticed there seems to be some uncertainty as to when this film takes place; the references to bootlegging would tend to indicate the Prohibition years (1920-1933) and the males are dressed in the clothes of 1944, but there are no cars, telephones or other definitive indications of modernity. It’s an O.K. movie but it’s not surprising that Frances Langford’s major fame was as a radio singer rather than a film star; she’s basically attractive physically but, as in Career Girl, she’s wearing a ridiculous upward-combed hairdo and her face is wretchedly made up in a way that only emphasizes its angularity. She’d later get better photography and sound recording, though (alas!) not necessarily better plots, when RKO signed her and put her into things like The Bamboo Blonde, another derivative “B” musical but one with a certain topicality and a major-studio finish Dixie Jamboree certainly could have used.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Yankee Clipper (Cecil B. DeMille Pictures/Producers’ Distributing Corporation, 1927)

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

The movie was The Yankee Clipper, a film from the tail end of the silent era (1927), produced by Cecil B. DeMille’s company and released through Producers’ Distributing Corporation (PDC), DeMille’s second attempt at being present at the creation of a major studio. Alas, it didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as his first (he was part of the Lasky Feature Play Company that eventually became part of Paramount); within two years after it opened with DeMille’s film The Volga Boatmen (which starred William Boyd, also the star of The Yankee Clipper even though his enduring fame would be for the series of Westerns he starred in as Hopalong Cassidy in the late 1930’s and 1940’s), his investors went behind his back and negotiated the sale of his studio to Pathé, which in turn would shortly be absorbed by RKO.

DeMille couldn’t direct The Yankee Clipper himself because he was busy working on The King of Kings, and the writing credits are typically convoluted for the late silent era — Denison Clift for “story,” Garrett Fort and Garnett Weston for “adaptation” and John W. Krafft for titles (I guess DeMille’s personal favorite writer, Jeanie MacPherson, was too busy on King of Kings too), but DeMille’s personality shines (or dulls) all the way through this movie even if he had no more than an executive role in getting it made. It opens with a series of portentous titles shown over a shot of a rolling sea — explaining how the U.S. let go of its hard-won supremacy over the sea and only now (in 1927) was it getting it back, then announcing that this movie would show how the U.S. became king of the seas in the first place over its long-term rival, England — and then it shows first the court of Queen Victoria and then the White House office of president Zachary Taylor. It soon develops that British Lord Huntington (Louis Payne) has built a new ship, the Lord of the Isles, which he expects will be the fastest thing on the seas and cut the trading time between the U.K. and Foochow, China — only Hal Winslow (William Boyd), son of American shipbuilder Thomas Winslow (Burr McIntosh), has built an even faster ship, the Yankee Clipper, and the two ships and their crews meet in Foochow, where Chinese tea trader Louqing (or whatever his name was; doesn’t list him as a character) makes them a deal: they’ll race their ships from Foochow to Boston, and the winner receives not only a monopoly on the Chinese tea trade for their country but also the loser’s ship.

Complicating all of this is the inevitable romantic triangle between Hal, Huntington’s daughter Lady Jocelyn (Elinor Fair) and her fiancé Paul de Vigny (John Miljan, one of only three cast members of The Yankee Clipper whose career survived into the talkies; Miljan’s sound films mostly cast him as the same sort of oily villain he plays here). Before providing live accompaniment to this showing at the Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park, Dennis James joked with the audience that they should feel free to cheer the hero and hiss the villain — and Paul as a character provided lots of pretexts for audience hisses. We get his number early on when we see him with his Chinese mistress Wing Toy (played by the legendary erotic dancer Sally Rand, though in this movie she’s only seen fully clothed — in the 1934 film Bolero she performed her famous fan dance, or at least as much of it as she and Paramount could get by the Production Code Administration even during the period of loose Code enforcement commonly, though inaccurately, described by movie critics and buffs as “pre-Code”), telling her that he has to marry Jocelyn to get his hands on her family’s money but that Wing Toy remains the only girl he loves.

He gets worse: thanks to an obnoxious plot contrivance both he and Jocelyn end up stuck on the American ship as it sails, and since an oceangoing boat race is not the most intrinsically exciting spectacle in the world Paul’s machinations to sabotage Hal’s ship provide most of the film’s dramatic interest: he cowers in an isolated room when the ship hits a typhoon off the coast of South America (one the British ship is lucky enough to miss) and he hides the ship’s all-important casks of drinking water, thereby fomenting a mutiny — and doing absolutely nothing when lecherous seaman Portuguese Joe (played by Walter Long with two big earrings that make it look like he quit the film business to become Mr. Clean, though in fact he survived into the sound era and played villains in the Laurel and Hardy movies and was also Miles Archer to Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade in the 1931 film of The Maltese Falcon) tries to rape Lady Jocelyn — of course it’s Hal that saves her from the Fate Worse Than Death.

Though DeMille didn’t direct this movie personally, it probably would have been better if he had; the person who did, Rupert Julian, made some memorable films but, like Ray Enright in the sound era, seemed always to be sucking off some more talented filmmaker who worked on the same project (Erich von Stroheim on The Merry-Go-Round, Lon Chaney and Edward Sedgwick on The Phantom of the Opera and DeMille here). Had DeMille directed this personally, it still would have been as melodramatic as all get-out but it would have had an energy and drive it largely lacked under Julian; as it was, it was a fun but formulaic movie that at times looked like a beta version of the James Cameron Titanic — one could readily imagine Boyd, Fair and Miljan playing the parts Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane had in Titanic. I suspect this film was chosen less for its intrinsic value as entertainment than for its having been a personal project of Dennis James, who recorded an accompaniment for the Flicker Alley DVD release they were showing and announced before the show that this was one of the few silent films for which the original score survived.

Remember that “silent” movies were almost always accompanied by something — a full orchestra in the largest theatres in the big cities, an organ in a theatre that couldn’t afford an orchestra, a string trio in a theatre that couldn’t afford an organ and a piano (usually a ratty old out-of-tune upright) in a theatre that couldn’t afford a string trio. The major films of the silent era usually had scores especially composed, or at least prepared, for them — often liberally filled out with pre-existing songs that related to the subject of the movie (here we got to hear “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main” and other similarly “nautical” numbers) — and a few silent-era composers, notably Hugo Reisenfeld, continued into the sound era as composers of background scores. Most of the silent-era scores no longer exist — leaving James and others to cobble together accompaniments based on existing music from the early 20th century and improvisations resembling what a theatre organist would have played when these films were new — but this one did, and I could see how James would be thrilled by playing a film and getting this close to what 1927 audiences heard as well as saw.

Frankly, if they wanted to show a silent film that took place at sea, I could have thought of a number of better ones, including the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk (a good deal closer to the plot of the Rafael Sabatini novel than its nominal 1940 remake with Errol Flynn — and with a star, Milton Sills, who certainly held his own in the looks, sexiness and charisma departments with Flynn), the 1922 Down to the Sea in Ships (an early credit for Clara Bow, though it’s mostly a male-oriented action film about whaling), Moran of the “Lady Letty” (Rudolph Valentino’s action vehicle for 1922 and one in which he’s far more butch than the androgynous “sheik” image he got stuck with then and has been stereotyped as since) and perhaps the best silent film made about sailing ships, Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 production of The Black Pirate, also distinguished by being only the third feature shot entirely in color (two-strip Technicolor) and the first with a major star.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Career Girl (PRC, 1944)

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

I ran the first film on the Critics’ Choice two-movie DVD tribute to singer Frances Langford: Career Girl, a 1944 mini-musical from PRC (the sort of film I’m tempted to call a “mono-musical” since Langford is the only singing member of the cast). I had thought the film might be about a woman working in an office and seeking a career in the business world; instead, it’s about Joan Terry, a woman from Kansas City who had a triumph in little theatre and decided the world was ready to see her on the Broadway stage, despite the insistence of her boyfriend back home, James Blake (Craig Woods), that her real destiny was to be his wife and nothing else. As the film opens she’s moving out of the expensive (well, as expensive as PRC’s art department could make it look, anyway) hotel — she’s closed out her savings account back home and turned it into a cashier’s check to pay her bill — and into the Benton Arms rooming house, whereupon the film turns into a pretty obvious knock-off of the 1937 RKO classic Stage Door, only director Wallace Fox is several ticks of talent down from Gregory La Cava and Frances Langford (despite her genuinely pretty voice) and Iris Adrian likewise are barely in the same ballpark as Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers!

The film plods along for about 69 minutes in which writers David Silverstein, Stanley Rauh (“original” story) and Sam Neuman (screenplay) push Our Heroine farther and farther down the financial ladder, despite the intervention of a rich playboy, Steve Dexter (Edward Norris, tall, dark and considerably more handsome than most of the PRC leading men), who takes her out on a date and hits all the big New York nightspots (including, via stock footage, the Cotton Club, which had actually closed four years before this film was made) before leaving town and then suddenly returning at the end of the film to facilitate her replacing an indisposed star in a major new musical. Though Langford sings well and at least three of the songs are worthy vehicles for her voice (“Some Day” by Morey Amsterdam and Tony Romano, and “Blue in Love Again” — which could do with a revival — and “A Dream Came True” by Sam Neuman and Michael Breen), Career Girl is the sort of movie you can’t sit through without being all too well aware that not only has this plot been done to death, but the earlier versions with “A”-list stars were considerably better.

It doesn’t help that the final sequence features Langford and a chorus line (all of whom are dressed in shorts with weird objects stuck on their crotches that makes it look like they’re nude and showing ample amounts of pubic hair — how they ever got that one past the Production Code Administration is a mystery to me!) rehearsing a production number called “That’s How the Rhumba Began,” an Amsterdam-Romano song that sounds like Amsterdam was consciously looking for a piece of faux-exotica to follow up his mega-hit “Rum and Coca-Cola” for the Andrews Sisters that year, a lame ending to a movie that had at least been solidly professional before — even though Langford’s makeup and especially her hair are atrocities that shouldn’t have been visited on a basically attractive woman.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Heart and Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser (Final Cut Media, 2006)

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

The film I picked was Heart and Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser (notice the order of the two common nouns in the subtitle, an accurate reflection of the agenda of this film), which I saw the second half of when Turner Classic Movies aired it on a night they were paying tribute to this great songwriter and it piqued my curiosity enough that I wanted to collect some of Loesser’s more beautiful and obscure songs and pick up the book A Most Remarkable Fella by his daughter Susan (by his first wife, singer Lynn Garland Loesser).

Though the documentary isn’t formally an adaptation of Susan Loesser’s book, she was interviewed for it (as were her brother John, her stepmother Jo Sullivan Loesser and her half-sister Emily) and the portrait of Loesser offered here is pretty much the same as the one in her book: short, quick-fused (Loesser’s epic rages were short-lived — I can relate! — but frighteningly intense; in probably the worst one, he slapped Guys and Dolls leading lady Isabel Bigley across the face during a rehearsal because he didn’t approve of what she was doing to one of his songs; that night he sent her a dozen roses and the next day the rehearsals continued with neither party mentioning the incident again), the product of a long apprenticeship through Tin Pan Alley, the Hollywood studios (he went to the film capital in 1936 on a six-month contract with Universal, worked his way up to Paramount and then MGM, but seemed to be used there largely to write songs for Betty Hutton to fracture) and finally mega-success on Broadway with Guys and Dolls.

Loesser began as a lyric writer only — his first songs to achieve any recognition at all were written with composer Joseph Meyer (“Junk Man” and “I Wish I Were Twins,” both from 1934, introduced by Benny Goodman and Fats Waller, respectively) and throughout his Hollywood career he was mostly supplying words for ace songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Akst, Arthur Schwartz and Burton Lane. His wife Lynn kept encouraging him to compose, pointing out that on many occasions the “dummy” tunes he wrote to have something to fit his lyrics to were better than the settings the superstar composers he was working with came up with later — and when Loesser wrote the lyric to “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” Lynn said, “That’s the melody. Don’t farm it out to anyone else.” He didn’t, and had a war-themed mega-hit. The film also tells the story of his song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he wrote for himself and his wife to perform at parties — they kept doing this for five years, 1944 to 1949, until (much to her disgust) he sold it to MGM for the score of the Esther Williams musical Neptune’s Daughter, and it won the Academy Award for Best Song. (The film didn’t mention that when it was nominated, Hollywood’s other songwriters protested on the ground that it wasn’t a new song — “How can you call it a new song? Frank Loesser and his wife have been singing it at parties for five years!” — but the Academy ruled that since it hadn’t been performed professionally before it was used in the film, it was within the rules and was eligible for the award.)

In the meantime Loesser began to build a reputation in Hollywood as a composer as well as a lyric writer, and he got a job offer from Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin to do the songs for a musical version of Charley’s Aunt called Where’s Charley? — but only the lyrics: Harold Arlen was supposed to write the music. Then Harold Arlen’s house burned down, and he was (understandably) so upset that he couldn’t work for a while, so Feuer and Martin asked Loesser to recommend a replacement composer — and Loesser recommended himself. The musical was a success, though more as a Ray Bolger vehicle than for an especially scintillating score — it did generate a lovely romantic ballad, “Once in Love with Amy,” recorded beautifully by Frank Sinatra (a singer Loesser would end up hating — more on that later) — and Loesser returned to Hollywood for a featured role as an actor in a Betty Hutton vehicle called Red, Hot and Blue! for which he also wrote the songs (and he’s quite engaging as a piano-playing gangster — considerably more engaging than the film’s stars, Hutton and Victor Mature, or the clichéd innocent-woman-gets-mixed-up-with-gangsters plot, or the dull direction by John Farrow, Mia’s dad, of a script that really needed the genre-bending touch of Preston Sturges).

Once he completed his Hollywood assignments he returned to New York to stay — he’d work on only one more film after 1950, Sam Goldwyn’s mega-production Hans Christian Andersen — and Feuer and Martin engaged him to write music and lyrics for a musical they had in mind based on the stories of Damon Runyon which became Guys and Dolls. This was a troubled production — the original book writer was Jo Swerling but his stuff was unusable and, asked by Feuer and Martin to recommend somebody to replace him, Loesser came up with Abe Burrows. (According to Susan Loesser, nothing of Swerling’s is in the script we know now, but his contract required that they give him credit no matter whether or not they actually used any of his writing in the final version.) Guys and Dolls is described in this film’s rather portentous narration as “the perfect musical” (the perfect musical? What about Show Boat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story?); it ran for 1,200 performances and is always, at least it’s claimed here, being revived somewhere (the show offers montages of stills from the original Broadway cast accompanied by the cast album on Decca; clips from the 1955 film, produced by Sam Goldwyn and starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons; bits of a Broadway revival with Matthew Broderick; and excerpts from a Blair High School production that looks surprisingly promising).

The film then takes us through the rest of Loesser’s career: The Most Happy Fella — based on Sidney Howard’s play They Knew What They Wanted and written entirely by Loesser — not just words and music but the book, too — and a hit that ran over 600 performances even though for musical innovation it was overshadowed by My Fair Lady, which had opened four months earlier; Greenwillow, Loesser’s first flop, based on a novel by B. J. Chute (the initials stood for Beatrice Joy) whose flaws as a basis for dramatization are all too accurately summed up by Susan Loesser: “a whimsical, near-fairytale of a novel … the story of an imaginary village peopled by quaint-spoken characters in a faraway time … a charming little book, filled with magic and moral lessons. But it has no real drama, very little conflict, and no villain”; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which reunited him with Cy Feuer, Ernie Martin and Abe Burrows and was a smash hit; Pleasures and Palaces, a farce set in Russia during the court of Catherine the Great, which proved so lame and unworkable Loesser closed it out of town without bringing it to Broadway; and Señor Discretion Himself, yet another fable-like tale, based on a short story by Budd Schulberg (of all people; a Fantasticks-like tale set in Mexico, it hardly seems to belong to the same universe as Schulberg’s most famous writings, What Makes Sammy Run?, The Disenchanted and his script for On the Waterfront), which Loesser abandoned before even putting it into tryouts and which wasn’t produced until 2004, 35 years after Loesser’s death. (Loesser was a chain smoker — few photos of him without a cigarette in his mouth exist — and he died at 59 of smoking-related diseases, lung cancer and emphysema.) During the later portion of this movie one gets the impression that Loesser was one of those immensely talented artists who wasn’t conscious of what he did well and what he didn’t do well: if you compare his three hit shows — Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, it’s interesting that all of them have strong bases in class, in both the economic and social meanings of the word: the urban lumpenproletariat in Guys and Dolls, the agricultural ranch setting of The Most Happy Fella (even though Loesser’s adaptation eliminated the political “edge” of Howard’s play, in which the young hired hand with a bad case of wanderlust is also an IWW organizer) and the white-collar corporate world of How to Succeed … — whereas his flops took him away from America and from any recognizable economic and social strata.

Certainly this show — written and directed by Walter J. Gottlieb and narrated by Jerry Whiddon — makes Loesser seem like much more of an innovator than he really was: he may have been one of America’s great songwriters but he wasn’t the pioneer Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers were. Due at least partly to that long apprenticeship largely out of the public eye in the Hollywood studios, Loesser didn’t really hit his stride as a full-fledged Broadway songwriter until the late 1940’s — while the “golden age of American songwriting” was already coming to an end, though he and Frederick Loewe would pump a bit more life into it and keep it going longer than it otherwise might have lasted. Charles found this show annoying in its worse-than-usual case of “firstitis,” the tendency of biographies in all media to inflate the importance of their subjects and give them credit for far more innovation than they deserve. Gottlieb claims Loesser for pioneering the contrapuntal duet in a Broadway musical — but it had been done long, long before, by Irving Berlin in 1914 (“Play a Simple Melody”). Indeed, Berlin had got upset when George Gershwin got credit for pioneering a contrapuntal duet, “Mine,” in Let ’Em Eat Cake in 1933, nearly two decades after “Play a Simple Melody.” Loesser’s lyrics certainly featured dazzling wordplay — but Cole Porter’s and Lorenz Hart’s had done that well before him. By the time this documentary was over Charles was joking, “It’s nice to know Frank Loesser invented music — or at least he invented the song,” a slight but valid exaggeration of all the “first” claims Gottlieb had for Loesser.

Heart and Soul (the title comes from an early song for which Loesser wrote the words and Hoagy Carmichael the music; it’s a simple enough melody to play on piano that it’s one of the first songs just about every aspiring pianist learns) touches on an issue that’s much more important in Susan Loesser’s book: the bizarre relationship Loesser had with his parents and his brother Arthur, all of whom listened to nothing but classical music. Frank grew up with regular chamber-music sessions at his home, and his brother Arthur became a concert pianist and eventually head of the piano department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Arthur’s published comments on Frank’s success drip with snobbish patronization (though they’re not quite as patronizing as they sound in the movie): “He knows that popular songs are largely formulas without intrinsic distinction, that thousands of people can make songs that are just as ‘good’ as the most successful, that a song is a flimsy, perishable article of merchandise whose success often depends on an immediate topicality and which is frequently cold-bloodedly tailored to the imponderables of a fleeting situation … The interesting thing is that despite all this Frank has so many bright and amusing ideas … A hundred and forty million people, including newspaper editors and star politicians, docilely babble the words he puts into their mouths; but only a minor fraction of these persons knows that he is the author of their little pleasure. A relatively small number of people have ever heard of Frank Loesser; he is far less famous than his songs.” It’s less evidence of any bad blood between the Loessers (they seem to have been a quite close-knit family) than the quite typical snobbery with which fans of classical music frequently looked down on people who listened to anything else — and vice versa: in the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly heroine Beverly Ross (Ann Miller) takes pride that she aces a classical D.J. (Franklin Pangborn) out of his morning show so she can play swing music for servicemembers; and in the 1949 film A Kiss in the Dark heroine Polly Haines (Jane Wyman) upbraids classical pianist Eric Phillips (David Niven) when he plays an old song by Victor Herbert and she says, “You see? There’s nothing wrong with music just because people happen to like it” — when Phillips has already been depicted as a superstar who’s sold 27,000 tickets for a classical recital at the Hollywood Bowl, which indicates that there are people who happen to like his music, too.

It does seem after a while that Loesser’s temper and notorious pickiness as to how his songs were performed may have come at least in part from the patronization he got at the hands of his relatives; he was famous for auditioning singers by having them do Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” raising the key each time they repeated it and asking them to project (“Loud Is Good,” ran the sign he posted backstage during rehearsals for one of his shows — which may explain why he was able to tolerate writing for Betty Hutton as long as he did and makes it surprising that, aside from a wartime collaboration called “Why Do They Call a Private a Private?,” he never wrote for Ethel Merman), and one aspect of this show that amazed me when I first saw it was how much better he got on with Marlon Brando than with Frank Sinatra during the making of the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls.

While virtually everyone else who has written about this film has questioned the bizarre decision of producer Sam Goldwyn to cast Brando and Sinatra in a musical and give Brando the part with all the good songs (Goldwyn’s biographer Samuel Marx said flat-out the film would have been better if they’d switched roles and another Goldwyn biographer, Carol Easton, said, “’BRANDO SINGS!’ the ads promised — or warned”), Loesser liked Brando better precisely because he wasn’t a professional singer and therefore was willing to follow Loesser’s orders on how to accent and phrase his vocals, while Sinatra came on set with an attitude that nobody was going to tell him how a song should be phrased — which led to a series of nasty arguments that, while they stopped just short of fisticuffs, ended with Loesser refusing to speak to Sinatra and Sinatra announcing he’d no longer perform any of Loesser’s songs. (He relented in time to record an absolutely incandescent version of “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls — offering definitive proof that Goldwyn and his director, Joseph Mankiewicz, had given Sinatra the wrong role in the film.)

Loesser emerges from Heart and Soul as a bundle of contradictions: a hard-headed businessman who was also generous to up-and-comers; a victim of musical snobbery as well as a practitioner of it (when rock ’n’ roll came in he had the same horrified reaction as just about everyone else from his generation in showbiz — the show mentions that he lived long enough to see, or at least hear the songs from, the musical Hair and, predictably, he hated it), a family man who rather unceremoniously dumped his first wife for a younger successor, a largely private person in one of the most exposed businesses in the world (he noted early on that selling songs wasn’t that different from selling anything else: it all depended on you getting out there and making contacts that could help you) and a man full of life and vitality who smoked himself into an early grave. Certainly Arthur Loesser had a point about his brother being less famous than his brother’s songs — there were quite a few songs mentioned in this film and in Susan Loesser’s book (including “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” lovingly phrased by Ella Fitzgerald on her Swinging Christmas LP on Verve ) that I hadn’t realized were Loesser’s — and Heart and Soul overall is a marvelous tribute to a songwriter who achieved success and became famous in his own right but didn’t become the sort of household name some of his predecessors in the field had done.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tales of Tomorrow (George F. Foley Productions, TV series, 1951-1953)

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

The first Tales from Tomorrow episode was called “Ice from Space,” and dealt with a top-secret military base at which an experimental rocket was fired up, didn’t come down for two days and upon its return contained what appeared to be a block of ice but which actually turned out to be an animate ice-creature from another planet who set about chilling the area around the base so all humans would eventually die and its kind could take over the Earth. Done as a movie or a filmed TV show, this could actually have been the premise for a quite exciting sci-fi story, but given the exigencies of live TV (this show was aired on ABC on August 8, 1952) — the limited sets and the almost nonexistent special effects — the story was considerably weaker than it might have been. Still, it was nicely tense, and a very young and almost unrecognizable Paul Newman had a bit part as one of the soldiers (Charles recognized him before I did!).

The other Tales from Tomorrow episode, “Youth on Tap,” was far better, a genuinely chilling tale of a 160-year-old scientist who has figured out a way of giving himself eternal youth by inventing an electronic gadget that not only draws blood from his potential victims but also saps them of their “youth energy,” turning them into instant old people. It’s not exactly a fresh fantasy idea — H. P. Lovecraft did something similar with his story “Cool Air” (only with refrigeration instead of blood and electricity), and I think Poe did a story like this even before — but it was marvelously well done, with good acting, taut writing and capable direction.

Charles couldn’t help but wonder why mad scientists in movies are almost always depicted as having bottomless personal fortunes they can draw on for their diabolical experiments — the guy in this show had $1,000 in cash on him to draw on whenever he needed a new transfusion victim — and (though one of the things I liked about the 1936 British film with Boris Karloff, The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a. The Man Who Lived Again, was precisely that it did address the issue of just how a mad scientist would be able to finance his experiments) I pointed out that, as Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis had said in the documentary I’d just finished transcribing, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries almost all scientists had been “self-supported aristocrats doing science for the fun of it” (and Irving Stone in his novel about Charles Darwin, The Origin, made a great deal out of the fact that Darwin had a private income and therefore didn’t have to support himself with his researches, and therefore had a lot more intellectual freedom than colleagues like Thomas Huxley who had to hold down jobs in academia to make ends meet), and this tradition definitely seems to have survived in the fiction about “mad scientists.” — 7/20/97


Afterwards I ran Charles a Tales of Tomorrow episode called “The Great Silence,” starring Burgess Meredith as a Washington state farmer who is part of a massive epidemic in which people lose their voices; and a Lights Out with Basil Rathbone called “Dead Man’s Coat.” The three episodes of Tales of Tomorrow I’ve seen so far are so well written and compellingly dramatized that it’s clear that if this show had been produced on film from the get-go instead of being done “live,” it would have the same cult reputation as The Twilight Zone (and would have been re-run to death, like The Twilight Zone, long ago). While not quite at the level of “Youth on Tap,” “The Great Silence” was a chilling story in which — skirting on the thin edge of comedy but not quite going over — Meredith and the actress playing his wife ably enact the sheer frustration of people having to communicate with each other in spite of having been mysteriously deprived of the power of speech. (You may ask why don’t they write each other notes. As we find out later on in the program, they’re illiterate.)

The “official” explanation of the “Great Silence” is that it’s caused by a cloud of radiation from hydrogen bomb tests (at the time this show aired in 1951 no hydrogen bomb had actually been tested) and will end as soon as the cloud dissipates. Meredith learns better — while going outside to hunt he stumbles upon an alien being who’s controlling the phenomenon from his flying saucer — and he’s frustrated by his inability to explain to the authorities what’s going on, since not only has the “Great Silence” rendered him mute, he can’t write either. So he takes matters into his own hands, uses some dynamite he has around the farm to blow up the flying saucer — and in a chilling final scene, his wife starts talking to him and he asks her to be quiet as he dies. As I said, the writing is powerful enough that the show is worth watching, even though we have to watch it on ancient kinescopes and the production values were never that great anyway. — 8/18/97


I ran three old TV shows, two of them with James Dean. One was The Bells of Cockaigne (a.k.a. “Dean/Bells/Cock”), broadcast live on NBC November 17, 1953; the other was the Tales of Tomorrow episode, “The Enemy Within,” broadcast live on ABC six months earlier (May 1, 1953). The third one we watched was an Invisible Man episode from the 1958 British TV series based (very loosely) on H. G. Wells’ famous character.

Out of the two Dean shows, the Tales of Tomorrow promised to be interesting because it co-starred Dean with Rod Steiger — a seemingly natural pairing because they were both strong Method actors — but it was actually rather disappointing. It was really a showcase for Margaret Phillips, who played the wife of scientist Steiger (Dean is Steiger’s lab assistant and only appears in one scene, though for trivia enthusiasts it marks one of the few times Dean acted while wearing his glasses — he was terribly nearsighted and in his films he would rehearse with his glasses on, taking them off only when the cameras were actually rolling and he’d memorized his moves).

Steiger has spent the last three years inventing a serum that eliminates inhibitions and lets out the evil side of a person’s character (it would seem to be a singularly useless discovery, but his hope is that he can reverse the process and create an antidote that would bring out a person’s good side — his speech makes it sound as if he is trying to invent Prozac!), and when one of the test tubes leaks the serum onto a pie in Steiger’s refrigerator, his wife eats some of the contaminated pie. Phillips, an actress I’d never otherwise heard of, is actually quite good playing the dual character, and it builds to a final climax in which Steiger tries to talk her out of committing suicide long enough for the serum to wear off and her to regain her normal character — but aside from the curiosity value of Dean’s appearance, it wasn’t one of the stronger Tales of Tomorrow shows I’ve seen. — 8/27/97


Charles and I had a videotape mini-marathon that began with Boris Karloff’s Tales of Tomorrow TV appearance, “Past Tense,” an all-too-typical (for Karloff) mad-scientist story in which he plays a doctor who invents a time machine and conceives a plan to make himself rich by going back into the past and selling penicillin at a time when it hadn’t been discovered yet. Karloff turned in a reliably good performance in a show that wasn’t anywhere nearly as chilling as the best Tales of Tomorrow episodes (and the final frisson was rather spoiled by where the Sci-Fi Channel chose to put the last commercial break). — 2/23/98


Eventually I ran Charles a couple of movies. One was a 27-minute episode from the early 1950’s science-fiction series Tales of Tomorrow, an adaptation of “Frankenstein” originally aired live on January 18, 1952. Charles and I had seen some Tales of Tomorrow episodes I recorded off the Sci-Fi Channel (now cursed with the ridiculous, offensive and meaningless moniker “SyFy”!) in the 1990’s and I had been quite taken with this show, particularly the imagination of the writing, and convinced that had this been a filmed series instead of one shown live and surviving only in ratty-looking kinescopes, it would have been rerun to death the way The Twilight Zone was and would have the reputation Rod Serling’s acknowledged classic series does as well.

This one was scripted by Henry Myers, who had the impossible challenge of doing justice to Mary Shelley’s classic novel within a half-hour TV time slot, and who solved that problem (more or less) by moving the story’s setting to the present day. Victor Frankenstein (John Newland) has purchased an old castle on an island in a Swiss lake, accessible only by rowboat (which makes one wonder how all the scientific gimcracks in his lab were brought there), and he’s visited by his old professor (Raymond Bramley) and his girlfriend Elizabeth (Mary Alice Moore — the page for this show lists her as “Frankenstein’s Wife” but, as in Shelley’s novel and the 1932 film, they’re merely engaged, not actually wed), who in this version is the professor’s daughter. The old prof laughs at the thought that Victor might actually be on the brink of creating an artificial man, but of course he really is — and the monster is played by Lon Chaney, Jr., 10 years after he portrayed the role in Jack Pierce’s famous makeup in the fourth film in Universal’s cycle, The Ghost of Frankenstein.

There’s really no comparison between the two performances, though; unable for copyright reasons to use the Universal makeup, Vin Kehoe made Chaney up to look like Tor Johnson’s “Lobo” characterization in Ed Wood’s movies, and Chaney — apparently so drunk he was unaware that he was actually on TV and not just doing a dress rehearsal — moves through part one gingerly, afraid to crash into any part of the set and break anything. He gets a bit better in part two, though it’s not his fault that Myers doesn’t supply any motivation for the monster’s rampages — though there’s a hint of the gimmick in the original novel that Victor flees in terror at the ugliness of the creature he’s just loosed upon the world and that’s what warps the Monster’s nature from potentially decent human being to machine-like killer. There certainly isn’t any hint of the pathos James Whale brought to the characterization of the monster in the first two Universal films, or of the intensity and precision with which Boris Karloff acted the role before first Chaney, then Bela Lugosi and finally Glenn Strange took it over.

The monster murders the Frankenstein maid (Peggy Allenby) and nearly kills her husband, the butler (Farrell Pelly); eventually Victor and the professor drive it out of a window and it falls 200 feet to the lake, but the monster survives even that, though it proves vulnerable to simple gunfire at the end. Directed in the usual live-TV traffic-cop style by Don Medford, this “Frankenstein” show is an engaging one but simply doesn’t do the story justice — nor, given the limited time they had to tell it in, should one have expected it to — and frankly the producer of Tales of Tomorrow, George Foley, was better off when he commissioned original scripts than when he tried to dramatize the classics of the sci-fi and horror genres. — 8/9/10


We picked out the second episode from the Critics’ Choice DVD of Tales of Tomorrow, “The Crystal Egg,” ostensibly based on a story by H. G. Wells but moved unobtrusively to a contemporary (1950’s) setting, in which a junk dealer, Mr. Cave (Edgar Stehli), has a mysterious customer interested in buying a cut-glass crystal oval. They’re dickering over the price when the guy gives Cave a couple of pounds (they did keep the story setting in England!) to hold the piece. Curious about why the guy would be interested in it, Cave loans it overnight to his friend, Cambridge astronomy professor Frederick Vaneck (Thomas Mitchell, top-billed) — who spends the night locked in his lab with the crystal and realizes it’s a sort of window that gives him the power to see the surface of Mars, including a life form that looks like a one-eyed otter. Vaneck pleads with Cave to be allowed to keep the crystal, but Cave takes it from him and is in turn waylaid in the street. The crystal is stolen and Vaneck is reduced to sounding totally crazy when he tries to tell people (including a journal editor who’s published previous articles of his) what he saw in it.

After the disappointment of the Tales of Tomorrow “Frankenstein,” this show was the real article: a compact story that could easily be told in half an hour, a chilling central premise and brilliant execution from script writer Mel Goldberg, director Charles S. Dubin and a quite good cast. This is one live TV show where they didn’t just blow the acting budget on one old movie star; Sally Gracie as Vaneck’s girlfriend Georgette was a bit on the whiny side (when she badgered Vaneck to take her to a movie I joked that the films she wanted to see were Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — all films in which Thomas Mitchell had key supporting roles) but Josephine Brown as Cave’s wife was properly long-suffering and Gage Clarke as Vaneck’s sympathetic editor was also quite good. As I’ve noted before, had it been shot on film instead of done live Tales of Tomorrow would probably have the same reputation The Twilight Zone does now — and would probably have similarly been rerun to death. It’s an engaging program and one that deserves to be better known, and not only as an important early credit for later movie superstars like James Dean, Rod Steiger and Paul Newman. — 8/10/10


The night before last Charles and I watched another episode in the Tales of Tomorrow DVD from Critics’ Choice: “Appointment on Mars,” aired June 22, 1952, a chilling tale whose writer, S. A. Lombino, pretty obviously ripped off the basic situation from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only instead of Mexico he set it on Mars. Three astronauts — Robbie (Leslie Nielsen), Bart (William Redfield) and Jack (Brian Keith, billed as “Robert Keith, Jr.”) — have flown to Mars on a spaceship built for them by an international mining conglomerate in exchange for half of whatever valuable minerals they discover on the Red Planet. They discover treasure, all right — Robbie’s Geiger counter starts clicking away like the percussion section of an Afro-Cuban band and they realize Mars has enormous deposits of uranium — and they stake a claim, but pretty soon Robbie’s rabbit’s foot mysteriously disappears and he starts tearing into his comrades about it. (It was a felicitous touch on Lombino’s part to make the scientist of the crew also the superstitious one.)

Eventually the astronauts, consumed by increasing degrees of paranoia, kill each other — and then two disembodied voices (Mark Allen and Sam Locante) representing Martians are heard on the soundtrack congratulating each other for being able to freak out the Earth invaders into destroying each other and thereby keeping Mars and its minerals safe for the indigenous population. Tautly directed by Don Melford, this is an excellent episode, vividly staged and brilliantly acted — this is one early credit for Nielsen in which he can still be taken seriously despite his late-1970’s/early-1980’s comeback as a deadpan comedian, which leaves people (certainly Charles!) tempted to laugh every time he comes on screen — that once again makes me regret that Tales of Tomorrow was done “live” and survives only through lousy kinescopes instead of being filmed like later, similar shows such as The Twilight Zone (which once you’ve seen Tales of Tomorrow doesn’t seem as pioneering as it’s been ballyhooed ever since it was on!) and The Outer Limits. — 8/12/10


Charles and I ended up watching the last episode of Tales of Tomorrow included on the Critics’ Choice DVD, “Ice from Space,” which had also been mentioned at the head of my movie-journal entry on the show because we’d watched it before in a VHS tape I’d recorded from the Sci-Fi Channel (before it acquired the horrid new computer-generated name “SyFy”), and which turned out this time better than I’d thought it was before (mainly because I was comparing it to another Tales of Tomorrow episode I’d liked better) It’s a taut suspense tale about a rocket (represented by, you guessed it, a stock clip of a V-2 launch from a captured Nazi newsreel) that is shot off from a military base and mysteriously disappears, then finally returns to earth bearing a large chunk of blue ice that chills everything and everyone around it until people start dying and it has frozen hundreds of square miles of desert around it.

The humans are Major Dozier (Edmond Ryan), commander of the base and the rocket project; Congressmember Burns (Raymond Bailey), who happens to be visiting the base when all of this happens and who spends most of the episode tearing into Major Dozier for the amount of money he’s spending on the project and telling him that his father, also a military officer, would have handled it all better (I had visions of producer Mort Abrahams telling screenwriter E. H. Frank, “Your father could have written a better script than this!”); Dr. Meshkoff (Michael Gorrin), the inevitable foreign-accented rocket scientist who was the “brains” behind the project; and the two servicemembers assigned to retrieve the rocket and stand guard over the ice, a lieutenant (Sam Locante) who dies from the effects of the ice-from-space induced cold; and his sidekick, Sgt. Wilson (a young, dark-haired Paul Newman in his very first professional acting credit in any medium),whose Method-induced hysteria adds to the intense and almost ribald old-Hollywood overacting of the rest of the cast.

The film bears a striking resemblance to The Thing, the 1951 version, not only because Raymond Bailey as the Congressmember looks a good deal like the actor who played the reporter in The Thing but because it’s also about a confrontation between an isolated group of people and an implacably destructive alien being in a military base under arctic temperatures (though in The Thing the arctic temperatures were normal for the polar base where the thing’s spaceship landed).

Though hampered a bit by the half-hour running time and the cheapness and crudity of the live-TV production (I’ve already commented that had Tales of Tomorrow been shot on film, it would have been re-run to death the way The Twilight Zone was and would probably have the same cult following), “Ice from Space” is great melodrama, a provocatively premised suspense thriller well plotted by Frank and effectively staged by director Don Medford, leading to a predictable but still moving conclusion in which Major Dozier has the ice-from-space loaded back onto the rocket and flies off with it (it was designed to carry a human but no person had flown in it before) to sacrifice his own life to send the Ice from Space back from whence it came, or at least to get it away from causing any further harm to earth: a tough, moving, no-nonsense drama from a surprisingly good series that was virtually forgotten until its episodes resurfaced in the 1990’s! — 8/20/10

Friday, August 13, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Color Force/20th Century-Fox, 2010)

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

After we watched Shattered [see below], Charles said he wanted a comedy — “something that will make me laugh, or at least smile” — and so I went ahead and ran the film I had wanted to watch last night anyway: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a 2010 release from 20th Century-Fox of a production by something called “Color Force.” It started life as a series of “graphic novels” (i.e., very long comic books with bound spines) of that quirky title, written and drawn by Jeff Kinney — and the producers got two separate two-person writing teams (Jackie and Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah) to assemble a script for Thor Freudenthal to direct. The plot of the film deals with suburban kid Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, who for someone his age is quite cute and doesn’t look particularly wimpy at all) and his first year at middle school, where he hatches a series of schemes to make himself seem important and well respected by his peers, only of course none of them turn out the way he intended them to.

Also in the dramatis personae are his family from hell — father Frank (Steve Zahn), mother Susan (Rachael Harris), sadistic older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) and a younger brother, Manny (split between twins Connor and Owen Fielding — a common gambit in casting a very young character so they can have two people who look alike shoot the scenes and not work either kid longer than the legal maximum), who — thanks to a trauma the Heffley parents blame on Greg — has never quite got toilet-trained (he eats dinner from a commode-equipped high chair, apparently because it comes out just as fast as it goes in). The opening scene is a sheer delight: Greg’s alarm clock goes off, he gets out of bed with virtually nothing on (NAMBLA’s membership isn’t the intended audience for this film but they’d have a delight with this sequence anyway) and frantically dresses for his first day at middle school … at 4 a.m.: his brother Rodrick played a sadistic trick on him and reset his clock.

Other significant characters include Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron), Greg’s best friend in grade school but a social encumbrance in middle school because he’s fat, red-headed and dorky, and Our Hero doesn’t want him around sabotaging his chances to crack the inner circle but also doesn’t have the heart to tell him to get lost, and a whole host of people who either reach out to him and he rebuffs or who rebuff him before he has the chance to know him. Among the latter are Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil), the school bitch who’s been beating Greg up since fourth grade; Bryce Anderson (Owen Best), the boy all the girls are after because they say he has a cute butt (“How can it be ‘cute’? It’s a butt!” asks the clueless Rowley); and Collin (Alex Ferris), whom Rowley picks up when he dumps Greg after a broken hand — courtesy of a weird game Greg was playing with him in which he throws a football at Rowley while he’s riding a tricycle — suddenly turns Rowley into a school star while Greg is still considered too terminally wimpy to bother with.

The plot is full of quirky contrivances — a piece of rancid, moldy cheese that has been stuck on the school playground for years and around which has formed a superstition that anyone who touches it is the “cheese boy” or “cheese girl” and is automatically a school pariah; three teenage tough guys in a red pickup truck who fasten onto Greg and Rowley after they innocently cross their paths one Hallowe’en night; an audition for a school production of The Wizard of Oz in which the drama teacher makes all the students try out with her favorite song, the legendarily overwrought Jim Steinman production “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that was an early-1980’s comeback record for singer Bonnie Tyler (according to an “trivia” posting, Tyler actually supplied the voices for all the kids auditioning with her song, but I don’t believe that — they sound like authentic kids’ voices to me); the production itself, in which Greg gets cast as one of the ambulatory apple trees, only instead of getting to pelt Dorothy (Patty Ferrell, who else?) with apples as in the movie has to join his fellow trees in a sappy trio telling how much they love her and wish her well in her quest; and Rodrick’s avocation, as drummer for a thoroughly lousy punk band (he grips the drumsticks as if they were clubs and he was murdering the drums with them instead of playing them) called Löded Diper. There are a few of the bathroom jokes that seem de rigueur in today’s movie “comedies,” though at least one of them (Greg, locked in his bedroom by brother Rodrick, is forced out by the call of nature and ends up pissing on his brother, whom by now we’re convinced thoroughly deserved it) is actually hilarious.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is hardly a great movie, and it’s derivative as all get-out — among the influences I counted were Meet Me in St. Louis (especially the Hallowe’en scene), A Christmas Story, virtually every Peanuts special ever filmed (Kinney’s original drawings, in which Greg is simply a few ovals with limbs and three tufts of hair sticking out of an otherwise bald head, make his debt to Charles Schultz even more obvious than the movie does — in a lot of ways Greg Heffley is Charlie Brown a few years older) and Todd Solondz’ first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (his own middle-school nightmare, and though Solondz’ protagonist is a girl instead of a boy the two films are close enough Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes off as almost a spoof of Welcome to the Dollhouse) — but it’s also quite amusing, hardly screamingly funny but still well worth your while and a movie that will give you a good time even if it might also flash you uncomfortably back to your own years in middle school.

At one point early on Greg muses that middle school is a dumb idea, just a place to park kids on their way from grade school to their emergence as teenagers — and I remember that seventh grade was the most miserable one of my own school years. I had just been pulled out of the private school (run, oddly given my mother’s politics, by a couple of Right-wingers who saw a “Back to Basics” curriculum as part of their plan to breed the new generation of Right-wing revolutionaries to run the world) in which I’d spent grades three through six and thrust into the public-school arena. I wasn’t ready for competitive P.E. and I was at the bottom of my class in that department, and though I did well in academic subjects that was decidedly not cool. About the one thing I did to try to get accepted by my peers was give up all my female friends — it was made clear to me early on that “real men” didn’t hang out with girls — and that made me incredibly miserable, as did the unmerciful teasing I got all year, though I did learn one valuable lesson from it: I learned not to give a damn what anyone thought of me or how I lived and to have enough pride and confidence in myself to go my own way. (Ironically, while a lot of people report that their lives fall apart once they get to high school, I did quite well there actually; in high school I was finally on a campus big enough for me to find other kids I could be simpatico with and who shared my interests so I could befriend them without compromising who I was and wanted to be.) Though (fortunately) the junior high school (the hideous neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) I went to didn’t have a cafeteria — if it had, the insane pecking order shown in this movie and in Welcome to the Dollhouse would no doubt have existed there — in just about every other respect I can recall it was exactly like the one depicted here.

Shattered (Icon/Lions’ Gate, 2007)

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

The film was Shattered, billed as a tough, no-nonsense thriller built around the hoary old plot line of an ordinary (albeit pretty affluent) couple, Neil and Abby Randall (Gerard Butler and Maria Bello), who after about 20 minutes of almost unbearably saccharine exposition (it’s learned that he is an advertising executive who’s in a cutthroat race for a promotion against a colleague and is giving himself an unfair hands-up by stealing his colleague’s ideas, and she’s a former photographer who’s getting restive and beginning to regret her decision to quit her career to be a full-time housewife and mother) are depicted as going out separately, she to a girlfriend for some party time and he to a presentation for a potential agency client out in the middle of nowhere. They’re startled when, in their SUV, they’re suddenly accosted by a gun-waving psycho in the back seat; he’s Tom Ryan (Pierce Brosnan, top-billed and also listed as “executive producer,” which could mean anything from he had a hand in developing the property, or he had nothing to do with the film besides acting in it but was a big enough star to demand the “executive producer” credit and the extra fee that came with it), who says he has their daughter captive.

At first Tom comes off as a mercenary kidnapper who’s researched the Randalls in depth, knows exactly how much money they have in their bank account and demands it all as a ransom. Neil at first tries to put him off with a lie — he says he has only $90,000 when in fact he has $142,000 and change, and Tom knows it — but eventually the Randalls extract their life savings, put it in a metal box and hand it to Tom, who abruptly sets fire to it (“I literally have money to burn,” he says, in one of the many weird jokes that adorn William Morrissey’s script) and throws the briefcase with the flaming cash stash out of the car and into the water while they’re on a bridge. Things get worse for Our Hero and Heroine when Tom announces that “for the next 24 hours, I’m God” and that he’s doing this to test the idea that people will do anything to rescue their kids from danger, no matter how humiliating. He assigns both Abby and Neil to deliver mysterious packages for him, telling Neil it’s a cache of secret documents he stole from a competitor that will finish him in the advertising business if he’s discovered having had them — he lets Neil use his cell phone to tell Abby not to deliver the envelope, but she insists that they have to follow all Tom’s orders and delivers it anyway. Later, when it’s Neil’s turn to hand over the mysterious package (a box instead of an envelope this time) Neil opens the package and finds out it’s empty.

Tom sets Neil up with a phony cell-phone call directing him to a hotel where their daughter’s baby-sitter, who’s supposedly a confederate in Tom’s plot, is supposedly holding her — only the only other person in the room is, of course, Tom himself. By the time Neil finally decides to go to the police, it doesn’t do any good because Tom has protected himself by forcing Abby to go into the same police station and explain that she’s leaving Neil for Tom, and therefore if Neil shows up and makes a complaint he’s just a jealous husband unwilling to accept her having left him, and the police should therefore ignore him — which they do. About 70 minutes into this 95-minute movie, we get the first of two plot reversals [spoiler alert!] which lead the film into its climax: Tom forces Neil to drive out to the secret hideout where he was supposed to meet the ad client — only the person actually there is Judy (Claudette Mink), Tom’s wife, with whom Neil has been having an affair. Somehow Tom found out about the affair, learned whom his wife was having it with, and hatched this whole kidnapping plot as revenge — and there’s a grim scene in which Tom orders Neil to shoot Judy or his daughter will die … and Neil actually pulls the trigger on his adulterous girlfriend, though of course the gun is empty. Then, with Neil thoroughly humiliated, writer Morrissey pulls a second reversal [double spoiler alert!] in which it turns out that Abby was in on the plot all along: both the people he was cuckolding were in league to humiliate him, and the daughter was never kidnapped at all — while the rest of the movie was going on she was fast asleep in her own bed at home. We see flashbacks to the previous plot incidents and find that the “money” Tom burned was one authentic bundle of cash and a lot of cut-up newspaper; the documents Abby was delivering that were supposedly going to destroy Neil’s career were blank; and the whole thing was a setup merely to make Neil miserable and wipe him out as a human being.

Shattered was originally called Butterfly on a Wheel — a reference to Alexander Pope’s poem “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” which contains the line, “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” — and is that most frustrating of all bad movies, a bad movie that’s almost good. Produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions and released by Lions’ Gate, Shattered was directed by Mike Barker — who shows a good grasp of the basics of suspense even though his best directorial efforts are repeatedly undercut by Morrissey’s script and Pierce Brosnan’s almost mechanical acting. Brosnan first achieved fame in the title character of the TV series Remington Steele and, of course, he had his greatest successes as James Bond — but as good as he was in those parts, he’s an extremely limited actor who apparently can only play that type of roguish hero. He’s utterly unbelievable as a villain — one can’t help but wish Sean Connery, the first Bond and by far the rangiest actor who’s ever played 007 (though Daniel Craig might give him some competition in that department), could have played this part about three decades ago: the role demands Connery’s edgy intensity and gets instead Brosnan’s odd gruffness.

For an unmotivated psycho — which is what we’re supposed to believe for the first 75 minutes — he certainly doesn’t seem to be having much fun terrorizing his presumably innocent victims, and when Morrissey fires his reversals at them none of the three principals are skilled enough actors to make them convincing. Shattered was a decent movie but it wasn’t much better than the common run of similar movies on Lifetime — indeed, one I saw there, Trapped, had a similar plot line (though in that one the kidnapping was for real) and was also a movie-movie with stars of at least some reputation (Charlize Theron, Courtney Love, Stuart Townsend and Kevin Bacon) and a theatrical release; I hadn’t cared for Trapped when I saw it in a bowdlerized version I recorded off Lifetime but compared to Shattered it looked like a masterpiece!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Sea Change (Niijii Films, 2009)

A Sea Change: A Little-Known Side of Climate Change


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS: Top: Sven Huseby and grandson Elias on location in California during filming of A Sea Change, the first film about ocean acidification. (Photo: Daniel de la Calle, copyright © 2009 for Niijii Films.)

Bottom: Scripps Institute of Oceanography graduate students Carolina Behe and Tesa Pierce discuss ocean acidification at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church, August 5, 2010. (Photo: Mark Gabrish Conlan.)

“Imagine a World Without Fish,” says the tag line for A Sea Change, a 2009 documentary film by Barbara Ettinger shown at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church August 5. For Sven Huseby, Ettinger’s husband and essentially the star of her film, a world without fish is so inconceivable that, as he explains to us at the very beginning, he owes his existence to fish. His dad ran a fish market in their native country, Norway; his mom was a maid for a wealthy family who would stop at Huseby’s fish market to pick up food for her employers. She fell in love with the cute fishmonger, married him and Sven was the result. Generations later, Sven, a 60-year-old retired history teacher, finds himself explaining to his grandson Elias — co-star of A Sea Change — just how important the sea and its life are to him, and how they’re in danger from ocean acidification.

Never heard of ocean acidification before? Neither had I — and, for that matter, neither had Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger until they read an article in the November 20, 2006 issue of The New Yorker called “The Darkening Sea.” Written by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Darkening Sea” told the almost totally unknown flip side of the global-warming controversy. The well-known story is how the burning of fossil fuels is releasing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, raising earth’s overall temperature and threatening to melt glaciers and raise the level of the world’s oceans so that small island nations and coastal regions in big countries will be inundated with water.

What Kolbert and her sources in the scientific community explained in “The Darkening Sea” is that all that global-warming bad stuff would be happening even faster if it weren’t for the oceans, which absorb much of the additional carbon dioxide our consumption of coal, oil, natural gas and their derivatives, including gasoline, is pumping into the atmosphere. There’s a catch, though; as all this carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, some of it turns into carbonic acid and lowers its pH level. (In case you forgot high-school chemistry, pH is a measure of how acidic something is on a scale from zero to 14, with zero being totally acid and 14 being totally alkaline. If you had a chemistry set as a kid, the sight of Huseby and some of his scientific sources using pH strips to test samples of ocean water will bring back memories.)

That may not seem like such a big deal, but it is because sea animals have evolved to survive in the slightly alkaline environment (pH 8.2) of natural seawater. As the oceans become more acidic, plenty of species start dying, including plankton — the tiny creatures that, ironically, provide the main food source for the ocean’s largest animals, whales — and coral. “You could have food chains collapse, and fisheries ultimately with them, because most of the fish we get from the ocean are at the end of long food chains,” Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C., told Kolbert for her article. “You probably will see shifts in favor of invertebrates, or the reign of jellyfish.”

Among the stars of A Sea Change are pteropods, a form of zooplankton (there are two sorts of plankton: phytoplankton, which are plants; and zooplankton, which are animals) which are about the size of a child’s fingernail. They are naturally transparent, and the film offers views of their almost unearthly beauty. Huseby and Ettinger call them “sea butterflies” because they move in similar motions with their wing-like fins, and they’re able to survive because of their outer shells. Only as the level of dissolved CO2 in the water goes up and makes the oceans more acidic, their shells become opaque, turn brittle and ultimately disintegrate — making it impossible for the pteropods to survive and jeopardizing the lives of the fish and marine mammals that feed on them.

A Sea Change was presented at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest August 5 with two resource people present to lead a post-film discussion: Carolina Behe and Tesa Pierce, both graduate students at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. Behe raised eyebrows when she talked about having lived in Antarctica on a research trip to collect fish, but that’s been just part of her ocean-going odyssey. “I grew up in Oregon and became a commercial fisherman in Arkansas before moving to New York City and working with corporations who wanted to go green,” Behe explained. “I came to Scripps because I realized that we needed to work on the governmental level and not just do research.”

“I grew up here in San Diego,” said Pierce. “I sailed and rowed, and in biology I looked at a snail and a medical procedure for that snail shell. I want to work on ocean acidification and its effects on biology. I’m in my first year of working with a program that looks at the associations between the ecosystem, economy and politics.” Many of the questions for Behe and Pierce turned on the politics of global warming as an issue and how public opinion is turning against the scientific consensus that there is a major shift in earth’s climate and human activities, particularly fossil fuel use, are responsible.

Polls show a steady decline in the number of Americans who believe humans are causing global warming. Just a few days before the event at the church, U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid had cancelled a scheduled vote on a climate-change bill — one most environmentalists regarded as pathetically weak and unlikely to accomplish much to stop global warming — because he didn’t have the votes even for a much-compromised measure. And here in California, the state’s landmark climate-change bill, AB 32, is under assault at the ballot box by a group of out-of-state oil companies, who’ve qualified an initiative, Proposition 23, to “suspend” the law until unemployment in California goes below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. Since that has happened three times in the last 30 years — and the official unemployment rate in the state is now over 10 percent — that would essentially kill the state’s pioneering response to climate change and probably put out of business many of the start-up companies investing in alternative energy under AB 32’s guarantees of a market for it in California.

“Climate change has been made into a political problem, and it’s become a partisan issue,” Pierce said. Indeed, Pierce noted that the issue has become so politicized, advocates now prefer the term “climate change” over “global warming” because every time the weather becomes unseasonably cool — as it’s been through San Diego in the summer of 2010 — opponents say, “You see? There’s no such thing as global warming! It’s getting colder!” “Not all places will get hotter,” Pierce acknowledged. “Some places will get colder. The point is there’ll be more variability.” (New York’s weather during summer 2010 was among the hottest in history.)

The frustration among both Behe and Pierce — and most of the members of the audience — was palpable, especially since the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans are responsible is overwhelming. “There’s no doubt about it as a scientific fact,” Pierce said. “The uncertainty is over how big the climate changes will be. We should get over the idea that it’s a political problem. If we don’t address it, we will have more and more variations in climate and extreme weather events, like Hurricane Katrina.”

“We need to educate the public, because most people don’t realize how big a problem it is,” added Behe. “Just educate as many people around you and urge them to be politically active” — and start, both she and Pierce said, by urging them to vote against Proposition 23 to preserve California’s leadership in the fight against climate change.

One woman in the audience compared the strategies of oil companies and other corporations with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels to sow doubt about human responsibility for climate change to the decades-long effort by tobacco companies to deny the health hazards of smoking and turn that, too, into a political rather than a scientific issue. She said the oil companies had hired the same public-relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, that the tobacco industry had used, and Hill and Knowlton had used the same P.R. strategy: find a handful of scientists who disagreed with the consensus view, give them and their research a lot of publicity, and thereby convince ordinary people that this was still a controversial and highly debated issue within the scientific community. What’s more, as local activist Nelisse Muga noted, the mainstream media are complicit in this because “they’re telling us exactly what Hill and Knowlton tell them to say, and politicians and people in our leadership are part of this corporate machine.”

Another activist, Miriam Clark, mentioned a New Yorker article about James Hansen, the U.S. government scientist who first announced much of the research documenting human-caused climate change and was attacked and largely silenced for doing so. “The propaganda campaign is not to convince you that it’s not happening, but that there’s a major scientific debate,” she said. “It makes people feel helpless and unable to affect the political debate.”

One woman in the audience said at least part of the problem is that as American civilization has developed, people have not only moved out of rural areas and into cities — artificial environments where they’re less tied to nature than humans have been historically — but that even within cities most people move around frequently and therefore aren’t able to make comparisons to what the weather was like in their area a decade or so ago. North County resident Helen Bourne, who’s lived in the same place 13 years, said, “I’ve noticed a lot of changes. I used to see dolphins a lot, and now I’m seeing them a lot less. If we open our own eyes to nature instead of the news, it would give us better information.”

Not all the questions for Behe and Pierce were about the overall politics and public perceptions of climate change. They also got a few technical queries, including one on just what the evidence is that sea levels are rising. “It’s a very small amount,” Pierce conceded, “a few millimeters a year, but Louisiana is sinking and therefore they’re getting a greater amount of coast rising.” She also discussed how sea animals cope — or try to — with increasingly acid waters, saying that in tidelands the pH levels already vary more than they do in the deep ocean “and organisms can cope with it well, but as you increase the variability they have problems.”

One audience member mentioned Scripps Institute researcher Jeff Severinghaus’s studies of ice cores taken from Greenland. Scientists drill into ice from long-frozen regions and are able to analyze its content of CO2 and other dissolved greenhouse gases and use this information to deduce how the earth’s climate has changed over time. The person who discussed Severinghaus’s research summed up his conclusions: “There are periods of stability and periods of rapid change, and in the last 10,000 years we operated in an unusually flat period of temperature. The only explanations of changes in the ocean [recently] are those that depend on CO2 added by human activity. A longitudinal study at Scripps, replicated elsewhere, has shown a 30 to 40 percent drop in phytoplankton because of ocean acidification and climate change.”

At the close of the meeting, Tanja Winter, veteran activist and founder of the church’s Peace and Democracy Action Group, which put on the showing of A Sea Change, said, “We have to stop thinking about our own provincial neighborhoods. This is a world issue.”

“And it’s going to affect all life,” Behe added.