Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Owl and the Sparrow (Annam Films, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Our film at the library last night was Owl and the Sparrow, an intriguing 2007 production from Viet Nam (of all places) written and directed by Stephane Gauger, whom I’d assumed was a Frenchman making a film in France’s former colony but whose Wikipedia page (apparently written by himself) describes him as “Born in Saigon, South Vietnam to an American civilian contractor and his Vietnamese wife, Gauger was raised in Orange County, California and graduated from California State University, Fullerton in theatre arts and French literature.” Gauger apprenticed under cinematographer Matthew Libatique at California State University, Fullerton and got jobs in the business working up from clapper loader to cinematographer and directed a short called Seabirds (1998). He also hooked up with Viet Namese-American filmmakers Tony and Timothy Bui and got jobs as a lighting technician on two of their films, then made his feature-film directorial debut with Owl and the Sparrow, filmed in 15 days for a total cost of $50,000.

Owl and the Sparrow is hard to get into at first, partly because of its relentless pace and because Gauger, acting as his own
cinematographer (on a shoestring budget he was hardly likely to pay somebody else to do something he was fully qualified to do himself!), shot much of it hand-held and on the fly, moving the camera around at an almost dizzying pace and locating his central characters almost accidentally in the crowds around Saigon, where the film takes place. (Incidentally, the city is referred to as Saigon throughout the film
even though the current government of Viet Nam, after winning the war in 1975, officially changed it to “Ho Chi Minh City,” ostensibly to overcome its reputation as a center of decadence and corruption. Charles compared it to the German city of Chemnitz, which was renamed “Karl-Marx-Stadt” by the East German government but whose residents continued to use the old name until it was officially restored after East Germany was absorbed by the West and ceased to exist in 1990.)

In any case, the film eventually focuses on three people: Mr. Hai (The Lu Le), a worker at the Saigon zoo assigned to maintaining the elephant enclosure; Ms. Lan (Cat Ly, top-billed), a flight attendant who’s growing increasingly uncomfortable with her relationship with a sugar-daddy airline pilot and is being chased by a man listed in the dramatis personae only as “The Magician” (an ironic handle due to his utter inability to do the “pick a card, any card” trick) and played by Le Nguyen Vu -- and ends up attracted to Hai; and Thuy (Han Thi Pham), a 10-year-old girl whose parents have died and who’s essentially been turned into a slave laborer by her uncle Minh (Nguyen Hau), a factory owner in Bien Hoa who in the opening scene tears into Thuy for miscutting a batch of wood stalks, which is the final straw that prompts her to run away. She ends up in Saigon and ekes out a living selling roses on the street (where does she get them?), spending many of her nights sleeping on the river bank. She’s taken in by Lan, who takes pity on her and puts her up in her room, and hooks up with Hai after he’s been thrown out of the apartment of his previous girlfriend Phuong (Nguyen Kim Phuong) by a young man — it’s not clear whether he’s a relative or a romantic rival — whom I frankly thought considerably sexier than The Lu Le even though we only see him in that one scene. Hai sees Phuong at her workplace and buys a bouquet from Thuy, telling her to give it to Phuong and find out whether or not she’s started seeing any other boyfriend. Phuong tells Thuy she isn’t but Thuy tells Hai she is — because she’s already decided that Hai belongs with her protector Lan.

A not especially interesting domestic drama suddenly develops weight and sinew when Thuy is captured by a patrol officer and taken to an orphanage — one of six in the city, we’re told — where she’s held until her uncle can come fetch her and bring her back. Hai and Lan try to get her out of the orphanage by posing as her parents — a ruse the orphanage director (Bui Thi Noan) sees through at once because not only do they not have any documents but they’re clearly too young to have sired a 10-year-old girl — and Uncle Minh takes Thuy, only she runs away again. Eventually Hai tracks down Minh and offers him a deal; he’ll get Thuy a job as his assistant at the zoo, she’ll live on the premises and Minh will get money for allowing this to happen. Just where Hai is going to get the money to pay off a factory owner remains a mystery, but the way Minh’s eyes light up when Hai mentions a payoff is a marvelously subtle bit of acting by Nguyen Hau.

Charles noted that Owl and the Sparrow seemed reminiscent of a Warner Bros. movie from the 1930’s — which it does not only in the, shall we say, venerability of its clichéd plot devices but also in the sheer decorousness of its plot: in a modern U.S. film on the same premise the little girl would have run away because her uncle was sexually molesting, not just economically exploiting, her, and the young leads would have rescued her from a life of child sexual slavery instead of simple homelessness. Charles also pointed out that the orphanage is clean, bright and visibly well-run, and suggested the Viet Namese government wouldn’t have allowed the filmmakers to depict it as the Dickensian hell-hole we expect movie orphanages to be like — just as they probably wouldn’t have allowed Gauger to show child sexual exploitation or depict Lan as an out-and-out prostitute instead of a semi-“kept” woman.

Owl and the Sparrow is a competent piece of filmmaking (though all those vertiginous camera moves and the many shots of characters with their backs to the camera make a lot of it hard to sit through) but it’s hardly the piece of exotica one would expect from a film both made and set in a locale as terra incognita to American movie-goers as modern-day Viet Nam (indeed, Charles said he could readily imagine it taking place in any U.S. city with a large Viet Namese immigrant population); instead it’s a sort of “comfort movie” (as in “comfort food”) whose whole appeal lies in its familiar plotting and its inevitable (commercially, not dramaturgically) happy ending.

Jam Session (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was Jam Session, a 1944 “B” musical from Columbia starring Ann Miller in what was obviously an attempt to duplicate the success of Reveille with Beverly the previous year. Made by the same director, Charles Barton, it copies the earlier film’s format of casting Miller in a movie with a lot of big bands, each coming on and doing a song before fading back into the woodwork of the plot — only this time, instead of a D.J. (based on the real-life Jean Hay, who coined the name “Reveille with Beverly” for her swing-music show on Armed Forces Radio aimed at boosting the morale of U.S. servicemembers fighting World War II), she plays Terry Baxter, amateur dancer from Waterfall, Kansas (the name of her home town is obviously intended by the writing committee — Harlan Ware and Patterson McNutt, story; and Manuel Seff, screenplay — to evoke the same sense of irony as the “Venus de Milo Arms” apartment building we’ve seen in at least two RKO movies) who wins a round-trip ticket to Hollywood as first prize in a dance contest, rents a “room” that’s just an alcove under a stairwell with only a curtain for privacy (the scene in which a mob of people frantically gathers outside the building at the mere hint of a vacancy is one of the funniest moments in the film) and attempts to break into the movie business via a letter of introduction from the film critic on the Waterfall newspaper to Raymond Stuart (Skeets Gallagher in a surprisingly “straight” performance), production head of Superba Studios.

She meets writer George Carter Haven (Jess Barker, a good deal taller than Alan Ladd but with a similarly taciturn manner that should have marked him for major stardom in noir-type roles), who’s suffering a bad case of writer’s block because Stuart has assigned him to write a movie called Jam Session and somehow fit performances by eight big bands in it. Indeed, the film’s director, Berkeley Bell (George Eldredge) — and no true film buff will need two guesses to figure out the real musical director the writing committee was parodying with that name! — has already started shooting the musical numbers without waiting for Carter Haven (like the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, his last name is two non-hyphenated words) to figure out what sort of story can connect them all.

Virtually all the numbers are shown as movie sequences either in the process of being shot or being viewed in a studio projection room or on a Movieola editing machine, and the film makes a bad mistake by leading off with its best musical performer by far: Louis Armstrong, singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (his first big-band hit, recorded in 1929, which gets a much looser performance here even though the staging is silly: Armstrong is a singing, trumpet-playing bartender whose musicians are lounging around the interior of the bar while a long line of African-American chorines sit at the bar and gape at him in wordless admiration). The musical guest list in Reveille with Beverly was skewed much more towards the swing end of the big-band era than it is here; whereas the earlier film featured more Black performers (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Mills Brothers) and better white ones (Frank Sinatra, Freddie Slack with Ella Mae Morse, and Bob Crosby), Armstrong is the only African-American musical star in Jam Session and most of the white bandleaders are people like Jan Garber, Glen Gray, Teddy Powell and Alvino Rey, whose reputation had been built on the sweet-music side of the big-band style but were trying to keep up with the times by doing swing.

The only white jazz musician featured here is Charlie Barnet, whose number — Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” his theme song — was probably an outtake from Reveille with Beverly since it’s introduced the same way as the songs in that film were: a shot of a spinning record dissolving into a music-video style presentation of the band performing the song identified on the record’s label. (The plot tells us that we’re listening to an acetate but the label we see on screen is a commercial one, Bluebird, the RCA Victor subsidiary Barnet actually recorded for.) Fortunately, the film’s actual plot, though all too predictable and clichéd, is a lot of fun; Miller herself is personable and believable in her part as the wide-eyed innocent but driven girl who’s willing to do just about anything to get into the movies; Barker is excellent in the role of the writer (probably one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a screenwriter by an industry that all too often regarded them, in film plots as well as in real life, as necessary evils); and the situations are old-hat but the writers did manage to ring some fresh changes on them, including having Terry spoil two elaborate film sequences (she ruins a Western chase scene by appearing inside a fleeing stagecoach in modern dress, and spoils one of Berkeley Bell’s musical sequences by tripping over a water cooler, breaking its heavy glass water jug — you have to be my age to remember when these things were routinely made of glass instead of today’s plastic) and also screw up Carter Haven’s script.

At his wit’s end to come up with a story idea for Jam Session, Carter Haven has suddenly hit on the idea of basing it on Terry’s own experiences — only he doesn’t know her as Terry Baxter but as “Betty Smith,” a name she’s chosen to pose as his secretary and get on the Superba lot that way. He dictates her a story that’s basically the plot of the movie we’ve seen thus far — only, well aware of what Hollywood studio bosses really think of writers, he has her pair off with a director instead of a writer at the end — but, totally incompetent at taking dictation or typing herself, she hires a professional stenographer, tries to reconstruct Carter Haven’s story idea and comes up with an incoherent mess that leads Stuart (whom Terry, in a plot gimmick apparently derived from the 1938 Columbia movie If You Could Only Cook even though others, notably George Arliss in The Millionaire, had used it before that, has met incognito while outside the studio posing as an average person to get an idea of what real people think and therefore will want to see in their movies) to fire Carter Haven and bring on another writer.

There’s a big musical number at a Hollywood show featuring singer Nan Wynn — who was probably grateful for the opportunity to be seen in a Columbia movie after having been hired by the studio mostly to be Rita Hayworth’s voice double in her musicals — and it ends the way you expect it to, with Terry Baxter becoming Superba’s newest musical star and featured in an elaborate number, supposedly set in a defense plant but actually looking (as Charles pointed out) rather like Metropolis: The Musical (at one point Miller, dressed in a black lamé sailor’s suit, gets upstaged on screen by a pair of spinning propellers), doing a song called “Victory Polka” that was featured on the Time-Life anthology of V-Discs (special records produced by the U.S. government and sent free to servicemembers while the record industry, beset by two strikes against it by the American Federation of Musicians, couldn’t record new songs) in versions by the Andrews Sisters and Kay Kyser.

Miller’s version actually keeps pace with these recordings — which is not the case with most of the other songs in Jam Session that were also played by more committed swing artists: two of the songs in the movie, “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” and “‘Murder,’ He Says,” were also recorded by Anita O’Day (and “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” also exists in a performance by Armstrong from an August 17, 1943 “Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands” broadcast in Dallas), and not surprisingly these jazz singers have it all over their counterparts, Helen Englet (at least that’s what the name sounds like when an off-screen D.J. announces it) with Jan Garber on “Salt Lake City” and an unidentified singer with Teddy Powell on “‘Murder,’ He Says.” Still, Jam Session is an engaging movie and well worth one’s while.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Boy! What a Girl (Herald Productions, 1947)

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

The film was Boy! What a Girl, a 1947 “race movie” from a studio called Herald Productions, which turned out to be unexpectedly interesting as an unusually sophisticated depiction (for the time) of a Transgender character as well as the appearances of some major jazz names, notably bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Sid Catlett (alas separately, not together!). Directed by Arthur H. Leonard, who also co-produced (with Jack Goldberg), and written by Vincent Valentini, Boy! What a Girl is unusually well staged for an indie with an almost all African-American cast (white drummer Gene Krupa, on the downgrade from his sensational popularity earlier in the 1940’s, makes a brief appearance taking over from Catlett at the drums with Catlett’s band; the sequence seems to be a knock-off of the scene in the short Jammin’ the Blues from three years earlier in which Catlett took over the drums from Jo Jones in mid-song literally without missing a beat, and director Leonard ignores the fact that Krupa was much shorter than Catlett and therefore couldn’t have played his drum set without adjusting it first, but still it’s highly unusual to see a white performer, and a major “name” at that, appearing in a race movie!).

Most of the race films were made with stock-still cameras and hissy sound equipment; the sound here is better than the race-movie norm (though still hissy and well below the standard for even a “B” movie from the major studios) and the camerawork by Leonard and cinematographer George Webber is relatively creative, with moving-camera shots discovering the action on the fly instead of waiting for the actors to bring it to us. At first the film seems to be a relatively clichéd story of an impecunious would-be producer, Jim Walton (Elwood Smith), attempting to hold his cast together long enough to get the backing he’s been promised, half from an African-American beauty named “Madame Deborah” (Sybil Lewis) recently returned from Paris, and the other half from Mr. Cummings (Alan Jackson), a well-to-do man he previously met in Chicago, when he also romanced Cummings’ daughter Cristola (Betty Mays). Cummings père liked Jim but didn’t think of him as appropriate son-in-law material, and he also has a fear of wanna-bes after his money for one wild scheme or another — and he’s worried that Jim is both when he sees him and his cast members living in a grungy building and throwing rent parties to raise the money to pay their landlord, Donaldson (Warren Patterson), who noses around the building like Benoît in La Bohème and predictably sticks his nose in at the worst possible moments.

The film seems like a ripoff of all those Depression-era musicals like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, which Warner Bros. made with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler starring and Busby Berkeley doing the spectacular production numbers that made his reputation, with an admixture of the Marx Brothers’ Room Service as well, but it gets considerably more interesting when, just as Cummings is arriving in town (we first see him in an overhead P.O.V. shot from Jim’s apartment, driving up in a horse-drawn carriage with his two daughters, Cristola and Francine [Sheila Guyse], in tow), Jim receives a telegram from Madame Deborah that her train has been delayed and she won’t be able to make it for a week. Fearing that unless he produces a “Madame Deborah” he’ll lose Cummings as a backer, Jim hits on an idea: he gets Bumpsie (Tim Moore, top-billed), a female impersonator in his production, to pose as Madame Deborah and reassure Cummings that the half of the show he isn’t financing is being taken care of. Only Cummings ends up falling in love with Madame Deborah — as does Donaldson, making up a love triangle no major-studio producer would have dared in 1947.

Bumpsie is a comedy part, but the joke isn’t on the Transgender performer but on the two straight (in both senses) men who take her for a real woman and fall for her — Cummings even gets a moving scene about how he hasn’t dated since his daughter’s mother died but now he feels like he’s finally met a companion he can be comfortable with and who can give them away at their weddings, which are likely to happen sooner than he likes because not only are Jim and Cristola in love, but Francine has fallen for Jim’s assistant Harry Diggs (Duke Williams). It’s especially fascinating in that Tim Moore’s drag is barely credible — we can easily read him as a man and I suspect the original audiences in 1947 could too — but nonetheless Cummings and Donaldson both fall for him in the sincere belief that he’s really a she. The sheer audacity of Boy! What a Girl (which seems to be anticipating the famous final scene of Some Like It Hot by a dozen years) makes it worth watching and puts it far above the race-movie norm, and the musical acts it features are just frosting on the cake: Slam Stewart doing two numbers, Sid Catlett and his band playing some jumpin’ music on the cusp between jazz and R&B, and a few lesser known talents that are almost as appealing: singer Ann Cornell, whose style seems midway between Billie Holiday and Lena Horne with a hint of Dinah Washington (hey, if you’re going to copy, copy the best!), does a nice job on a song called “I Just Refuse to Sing the Blues” and Deek Watson and the Black Dots, a vocal quartet with one guitar — their name was clearly inspired, shall we say, by the Ink Spots but musically they sound much more like the Mills Brothers (and it’s indicative of the great and enduring popularity and quality of the Mills Brothers that they had so many imitators) — do a version of Mary Lou Williams’ “Satchel Mouth Baby” (later revived in the 1950’s by Johnnie Ray as “Pretty-Eyed Baby”) and another song called “Just in Case You Change Your Mind.”

Unlike a lot of other race musicals, which (even more than the white musicals of the time!) are a bunch of great songs with a lot of boring stuff between them, Boy! What a Girl is a highly entertaining movie all the way through; the cast is generally at least professionally competent (and Moore is considerably more than that!) and the Transgender premise of the plot (obliquely signaled by the title) ought to earn this movie some attention among the students of Queer cinema, especially since there’ve been even fewer movies about the “T” in “LGBT” than there’ve been about the “L,” “G” and “B”! Incidentally, according to an imdb.com contributor, Tim Moore went on to TV stardom (of sorts) as the Kingfish in the 1950’s TV version of Amos ’n’ Andy (the one for which NBC, realizing that they could get away with a white cast on radio but on TV the show’s creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, would look like just what they were — two white performers in not-very-convincing blackface — cast genuine African-Americans in the roles), and this inspired a reissue of Boy! What a Girl under the new title “Kingfish” of Comedy: Queen of the Show!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Frontline: "The Confessions" (PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

This morning I also watched the November 9 Frontline episode "The Confessions," directed by Ofra Bikel (who did the "Innocence Lost" programs in the 1990's exposing the myths behind one particularly high-profile prosecution of alleged ritual Satanic sexual abusers of children) and another show themed on the conflicts between actual truth and the priorities of the legal system. It all began in Norfolk, Virginia in 1997, when a sailor returned home from sea expecting to be reunited with his wife, Michelle Bosco, and instead found her corpse, repeatedly stabbed and also raped, in their bedroom. The sailor went to the home of his next-door neighbor, also a Navy man, named Danial [sic] Williams, and called 9/11 from Williams' home -- and the police suspected Williams of the crime, arrested him, gave him a polygraph test (which they told him he'd failed even though he'd passed it) and finally, after 11 hours of high-stress interrogation by a police detective named Robert Glenn Ford (who usually went by his middle and last names, perhaps relishing a connection with the old movie star), confessed to a crime he hadn't in fact committed.

There was only one minor problem with the police case -- the DNA from the semen found in Michelle Bosco's body didn't match Williams' -- and rather than acknowledge their error and let Williams go, they concocted the idea that there must have been more than one perpetrator and if they just leaned on Williams even harder they'd get the names of his co-rapists. The police fastened onto another sailor named Joe Dick, Jr. -- a slightly built, nerdy guy whose face was dominated by the black-framed Buddy Holly-style glasses he wore -- and Detective Ford, who really emerges as the principal villain of the piece, ran him through the interrogation meatgrinder and got Dick not only to confess but ultimately to believe on one level that he actually had committed the crime. When Dick's DNA didn't match the crime scene sample either, instead of re-examining their theory of the crime the police started leaning harder on both Williams and Dick, deciding that they were going to keep expanding the number of people they thought were involved in Michelle Bosco's rape and murder until they finally found the man whose DNA would match the crime scene. Ultimately they charged eight different people -- including Omar Ballard, an African-American (the other seven were all white) who was already in prison for another brutal sexual assault committed two weeks before Michelle Bosco's rape-murder, and whose DNA did match the crime scene -- but rather than reach the common-sense conclusion that Ballard was Bosco's rapist and killer and none of the others were involved (ironically Ballard actually maintained in his own confession that he acted alone, as he did in a phone interview from prison included in this show), they decided that the seven white guys had met in the parking lot of the apartment building in which the Boscos lived, they'd already planned to rape and murder Michelle and they just couldn't figure out how to get into her apartment, whereupon Ballard volunteered to help them.

Four of the men were actually convicted on the basis of their confessions, and one of them served out his sentence, while the other three were granted a "conditional pardon" by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine shortly before he left office -- he set them free but did not exonerate them, which means they still have to register as sex offenders and if they want to live in a new neighborhood, all their neighbors have to be told of their crimes and asked if they are willing to allow them to be there, and if just one neighbor says no, they can't live there. Their attorneys are still working on their total freedom, but the main point of the show (one can't help but be reminded of Franz Kafka's The Trial -- though if Joseph K. had sought to get out of being punished himself by implicating seven other people The Trial would be an even kinkier and more frightening book than it is!) is the unreliability of confessions, especially when (as here) the police recorded only the parts they wanted to record, after they had (at least according to the defendants) heavily coached them, smoothed out inconsistencies in their stories and made sure the confessions matched the physical evidence -- which meant having to go over the stories with the defendants and change them as the police theory of the case changed -- so there's no documentary evidence that the defendants were coerced into making these confessions.

Most people who condemned the use of torture by U.S. military and contractors at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere against detainees in the so-called "war on terror" assumed that the normal system of police interrogation is an acceptable alternative to torture; what this program documents is that sometimes a really harsh, in-your-face interrogation can have the same aspect as physical torture, especially in the degree to which an interrogator can make the subject's life so miserable that eventually s/he gives the officer what s/he wants just to get the experience to stop. One interviewee mentioned a practice of the medieval Inquisition of "showing the instruments" -- before they actually started torturing anybody, they would show the tools by which they would torture them if they felt they had to, and many people got the message and confessed under the threat of torture without the authorities needing to torture them for real. Bikel's film argues that the constantly reiterated invocations of the death penalty by Detective Ford were the equivalent of "showing the instruments" -- over and over again Ford told the people he was interrogating that if they maintained their innocence and went to trial, they would be sentenced to death, and therefore confessing was the only way they could save their lives -- which certainly hints that the real reason law enforcement generally supports the death penalty is that if it were eliminated, they would have that much less leverage to get accused people to talk or, later in the process, to accept plea bargains and thereby eliminate the risk of a trial.

It's a dispiriting look at how our criminal justice system works (or doesn't) and how easy it really is for sufficiently determined law-enforcement people to railroad the innocent -- and another argument for the proposition that all police interrogations should be recorded, not just the parts it suits the police to record. (The California legislature passed such a bill just this year, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)

One Step Beyond: "Make Me Not a Witch" (Worldvision/Alcoa, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a show we'd recently downloaded called "Make Me Not a Witch" from the late-1950's TV series One Step Beyond, a combination Twilight Zone knockoff and anticipation of The X-Files that distinguished itself from the other anthology TV series in its genre (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the earlier but more recently rediscovered Tales of Tomorrow) in that all its stories dealt with the supernatural. As John Newland, who not only hosted the show the way Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone but also directed many of the episodes, including this one, said in his closing commentary, "Next week, and every week, we'll be bringing you the personal records of the rarest kind of human experience: man's adventure in the world of the unknown, that mysterious psychic world beyond our five senses. This is your invitation to take with us that astonishing... one step beyond."

"Make Me Not a Witch" stars Patty McCormick, three years after her star-making role as Rhoda, the bratty serial-killer girl in The Bad Seed, as Emmy Horvath, daughter of rustic farmer Jed Horvath (Leo Penn) and his wife (Eileen Ryan), who suddenly discovers she has the ability to read minds. Mom is discomfited by this and dad is outright hostile -- in so many words he tells Emma that her new-found power is a curse from the devil -- so, even though the family isn't Catholic, she goes to see the local priest (Robert Emhardt) to tell him about the gift and ask if that means she's a witch (hence the show's title). If this were being made today she'd probably read the priest's mind, find that he wanted to molest her and get the hell out of there A.S.A.P., but this being 1959 the priest is a sympathetic character. Meanwhile, in a rather abrupt series of cuts, we see two children stranded on a little rock in the middle of the local bay (we're in Massachusetts, though the rustic accents the actors affected sounded more Midwestern to me); it's the end of a spit of land that at low tide can be walked to, but at high tide disappears altogether.

Then, in another confusing cut, we end up in a hospital room watching an old fisherman (Pedro Rigas) who's about to die and who's already lost the power of speech. It seems that he's the one man who knows where the two missing children are, but he can't say anything -- so the priest goes to the Horvaths' home and pleads with Emmy's parents to let her go to the hospital and see if she can obtain the information by reading the fisherman's minds. After a lot of suspenseful misgivings she does so, only to realize that she can read the fisherman's mind, all right, but she can't understand it -- it turns out because he's thinking in Spanish. So the priest, who does know some Spanish, tells her simply to repeat the words the old man is thinking without thought of what they mean, the priest is able to translate them, the kids are saved -- and then Emmy loses her gift as quickly as she got it. I had good memories of One Step Beyond because my mother, with her long-standing interest in the supernatural, was especially fond of it and watched it regularly in reruns in the early 1960's, and though I think some of the other episodes in the show were stronger than this one, it was still well plotted (except for those glaring cut-ins of characters whose significance only becomes apparent later), well acted and effectively staged by director Newland. It certainly would be interesting to see more of the episodes!

Friday, November 26, 2010

LennonNYC (Two Lefts Don't Make a Right Productions, American Masters, Thirteen for WNET.org, PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Charles and I watched LennonNYC, a PBS American Masters documentary about the last nine years of John Lennon's life -- the period during which he lived in the U.S. and fought the U.S. government for the right to remain here, had his infamous "lost weekend" meltdown in Los Angeles in 1973, pulled himself together, reconciled with Yoko Ono, spent five years raising their son Sean while she handled the complicated business affairs from his years with the Beatles and his continuing income from their legacy, then worked with her on the comeback album Double Fantasy and was murdered three weeks after the record's release. Calling John Lennon an "American master" seems to me to be stretching a point just a little bit -- though he won permanent resident status in late 1975 and quite likely would have applied for U.S. citizenship had he lived longer (he had just become eligible a couple of weeks before he died). PBS paired this with Lennon Naked, the compelling if somewhat distorted dramatization of Lennon's life from 1968 (with earlier flashbacks) to 1971, thereby making this documentary seem a sort-of sequel to the dramatized (and partially fictionalized) Lennon Naked since it begins just when Lennon Naked ends, with Lennon's relocation to the U.S.

LennonNYC -- I think John Lennon himself would have appreciated the wordplay in the title (Lennon always had an affection for puns and wordplay, from the poetry he published to the lyrics of his songs to his jokes at press conferences and even the name of his most famous band) -- covers a surprising lot of ground in its two-hour running time, including Lennon's disgust with his native Britain (he said that when he was in New York City both he and Yoko Ono were treated like serious artists, whereas in London he was looked on as a bad boy who'd proved himself unworthy of his fame and she was outright hated, often in explicitly racist terms -- the girls who'd previously idolized him as one of the Beatles would actually yell at him, "Why do you need a Chink girl? Aren't white girls good enough for you?," and while the racism has declined the anti-Yoko animus hasn't: even in the documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin one of the Russian Beatles fans in a 21st century sequence was wearing a T-shirt which read, "I'm still pissed off at Yoko"), his involvement with Left-wing politics in general and Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis (three-eighths of the infamous "Chicago Eight" put on trial by the U.S. government for allegedly conspiring to foment riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago) in particular and the apoplectic reaction of both the Nixon administration and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to the plan Lennon and the activists had to mobilize young voters in the 1972 election by having Lennon do a concert tour with voter registrars working the audiences.

Apparently Lennon's political involvement in the U.S. began when he was recruited to play at a benefit concert for the legal defense fund of John Sinclair, a 1960's white radical and music critic who had founded an organization in Detroit called the White Panthers and recruited a band called the MC5 to be its house group (later they hooked up with future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau and he pulled them away from the Left and tried to make them a mainstream success), and was arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Lennon not only showed up at the rally in his support but actually brought a new song, "John Sinclair" (on which he played slide guitar on one of those all-metal instruments the traditional blues musicians favored), to play at the rally -- and just two days later an appeals court found Sinclair's sentence disproportionate to his crime and ordered him released. This convinced both Lennon and the U.S. activists of the power he had to alter the political equations in the U.S. and shift the balance of power in the electorate Leftward -- and so they planned a politically-themed album and a concert tour and voter registration drive in support of it. (Today the idea of a major rock act touring with voter registrars working the audience doesn't seem all that radical; MTV would do it with Rock the Vote 20 years later.)

To accompany them, Lennon and Ono picked the band Elephant's Memory, fixtures on the New York scene and apparently the go-to band for any Leftist political organization needing someone to play at an event -- and the record they made was Some Time in New York City. As things turned out, Lennon was caught between the relentless attitude of the Nixon administration and its determination to deport him -- his immigration lawyer was interviewed for the show and he built a case indicating that other British musicians who had been convicted on drug charges in the U.K. (the official pretext for Lennon's expulsion), including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, had been allowed in the U.S. -- and the rotten reviews Some Time in New York City and the One-to-One benefit concerts he gave in New York City with Elephant's Memory, performing material from the new album as well as its predecessors in Lennon's solo canon (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) and just one Beatles song, "Come Together." (At the time Paul McCartney, the only former Beatle who was doing regular live tours, was disinclined to play the Beatles' songs too: it seems that each time Paul goes out he fills more and more of his set list with Beatles material.)

Rolling Stone called Some Time in New York City "artistic suicide," and the negative reaction to the album and the concerts (which seems pretty inexplicable today -- the One-to-One Concerts were recorded and filmed, though they weren't released until 1982, and they reveal Lennon in top form, performing energetically and fully in command of his art) scared him out of any further live appearances until a one-shot in Madison Square Garden in 1974 on a dare from Elton John. (Lennon was quite bitterly homophobic -- in the 1970 Rolling Stone interviews he blamed Brian Epstein's business mistakes on his sexual orientation -- until his collaborations with Elton John and David Bowie in the mid-1970's turned him around; shortly after he recorded with Elton John he accepted an invitation to contribute to a publication raising money for Gay rights and did a series of cartoons with text called "why make it sad to be gay?") Though Phil Spector co-produced it -- as he had virtually all Lennon's previous solo records -- Some Time in New York City was designed to be rough-edged, and what comes across now as a precursor to punk just seemed in the early 1970's like artistic sloppiness, and with a few exceptions the lyrics are pretty direct sloganeering and lack the poetry and emotion of Bob Dylan's best political songs.

Taking "the personal is political" to lengths probably unimagined by the feminists who coined the slogan, LennonNYC directly links the (temporary) breakup of John's and Yoko's relationship to Nixon's re-election in 1972: according to this show, Lennon reacted to the news by getting drunk and taking a woman into the bedroom of the apartment where he and some of his activist friends were watching the returns on TV and fucking her, making so much noise -- with Yoko right there in the other room! -- that the other people there put on a Dylan record and turned the volume up loud to drown out the sound of John's in-your-face adultery. Then Yoko decided to send him off to Los Angeles with her assistant, May Pang, as a sort of caregiver and chaperone (and, though it's not made clear here, John ended up seducing her), and he spent most of 1973 there, attempting to record an album of rock 'n' roll covers with Phil Spector producing.

This remains one of the most misunderstood projects of Lennon's career: its origins had been in a successful plagiarism suit filed by Morris Levy, who owned the publishing rights to Chuck Berry's song "You Can't Catch Me," against Lennon for having appropriated both its melody and a snatch of its lyric in "Come Together." As part of the settlement Lennon agreed to make a recording of "You Can't Catch Me" and other rock oldies and give it to Levy to distribute, and to fulfill this commitment he decided to hire Spector and, rather than collaborate with him, just to sing with Spector's famous "wall-of-sound" arrangements behind him. The album might have worked out acceptably if Spector hadn't started his own descent into madness, and if he had recorded it the way he'd done his classic productions in the 1960's -- hiring his instrumentalists and perfecting the backing track in the studio, and then and only then bringing in the singer(s) to add the vocal. Instead Lennon insisted on recording his vocals and the backings at the same time, and as the studio chatter tapes included in this film reveal, he was fine at the beginning of every session. The problem was that he was drinking a gallon or more of vodka every day, bringing the jug into the studio with him and keeping it by his side, swigging between takes, like an old-style bluesman -- and as he got more and more drunk, he got more and more combative and quarrelsome until he was too busy arguing with everyone to sing. (It's interesting how a legal drug, alcohol, screwed up John Lennon's creativity in ways marijuana, LSD and even heroin hadn't.)

The sessions actually produced eight songs -- though two of them were issued only on Levy's version of the album, Roots (which he produced himself from a two-track tape Lennon sent him purely as documentation that he had finished it), while two others remained unreleased until 1986 -- and director Michael Epstein confused matters by playing over some of his footage of Lennon in L.A. excerpts from the second round of Rock and Roll sessions, completed in New York after Lennon sobered up and recorded the album Walls and Bridges, with the same musicians he had used on Walls and Bridges, turning in far better and more incisive performances of the old rock hits. Ultimately John and Yoko reunited at the Madison Square Garden concert Elton John gave in November 1974 -- they had recorded two songs together, a cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" released under Elton John's name and the original "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" under John Lennon's name for Walls and Bridges. "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" was picked as the first single from Walls and Bridges, and Elton John suggested to John Lennon that he appear as a guest at his New York concert and the two would perform the two songs as an encore. Lennon, still petrified at the thought of playing live, said, “I’ll do it if ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’ hits number one on the U.S. charts.” He didn’t think his record would do that well, but it did -- and he went through with his agreement with Elton John and they even did a third song, “I Saw Her Standing There” (which Lennon introduced as a song written by “an old, estranged fiancee of mine .. called Paul”), which Elton John released as the B-side of his single “Philadelphia Freedom.”

Yoko was at the concert and that night she agreed to a reconciliation, and the rest of the documentary was a brief precis of the so-called “house-husband” years of Lennon’s life, his decision to return to the studio and make the Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey albums (though the latter was not released until early 1984 because after the shock of John’s death it took Yoko that long to recover enough to listen to the tapes and prepare them for release) and his murder, though the name of Lennon’s killer is never mentioned here and director/writer Epstein avoids any account of the killing or any involvement in the ongoing debate over the killer’s motives. (The killer, Mark David Chapman, was supposedly either a “deranged fan” or a disturbed individual under the delusion that he was John Lennon and the one who had recorded Double Fantasy was an impostor he had to eliminate. In fact, he was a fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven Lennon for having said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” or for writing a song with a lyric that said, “Imagine no religion,” and he had even been in a prayer group that had prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”)

About the only direct mention of Lennon’s death in LennonNYC is the footage of the improvised memorials that were put up outside the Dakota, the exclusive New York apartment building where John and Yoko had been living (and where I believe Yoko still lives), and a clip from Yoko saying, “Why would anyone want to kill an artist?” (Oddly, Lennon’s death was the third in a series of tragedies against people involved in peace activism over nine days in late 1980: on November 30 the octogenarian founder of the Catholic Worker organization, Dorothy Day, had died of natural causes: four days later the four Maryknoll nuns were killed in El Salvador, and John Lennon was murdered four days after that. I remember thinking at the time that the confluence of those events was an indication of bad karma from the election of Ronald Reagan as President.) LennonNYC is overall a marvelous film, presenting John Lennon in all his maddening complexity -- a useful antidote to the corrosive cynicism of Lennon Naked director Edmund Coulthard and writer Robert Jones, who seemed to have cherry-picked the life of their subject to include only the worst bits -- and once again underscoring the tragedy that Lennon was killed just when he’d finally grown up, accepted responsibility for his life and his actions and found a modicum of peace in his own head -- so much so that when Paul McCartney heard Double Fantasy in the three weeks between his release and Lennon’s death, he told a friend, “John’s made exactly the same kind of ‘home, family, love’ album he used to make fun of me for making!”

When Andrew Came Home (Hearst Entertainment/Lifetime, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

This morning I watched a movie from my Lifetime backlog, When Andrew Came Home, directed by Artie Mandelberg from a script by Susan Rice and released by Hearst Entertainment to the Lifetime channel in 2000 (and it’s interesting that the most blatantly dated aspect of this movie is that no one in it has a cell phone). I had thought it was about a woman, Gail Carlson (Park Overall -- is that an actress or a pair of pants?), whose son Andrew (played by Evan Laszlo at five and Seth Adkins at 10) was kidnapped by a stranger and exploited sexually. In fact (and though the film is presented as fiction it’s supposedly based on a true story), Andrew’s abductor is his father Ted (Carl Marotte), presented as an attractive and charismatic but also manipulative and self-centered man who’s never forgiven Gail for leaving him, or for taking up with a far duller and more milquetoast replacement, Ed (Jason Beghe).

The film opens at a barbecue with Gail, Ed and their relatives, at which Ted shows up because his court-ordered visitation with Andrew is scheduled to start then, with a woman companion so young one of Gail’s co-workers jokes, “Is that your girlfriend -- or your girlfriend’s daughter?,” and later refers to her as “Blue Jeans Barbie.” Ted takes Andrew for his scheduled visitation -- Gail lets him go in spite of a premonition she has and her disinclination to let Andrew go when he’s coming down with a cold or something -- and never brings him back. Five years later, Gail and Ed -- who in the meantime have married and have a son of their own, two-year-old Ed, Jr. (played by twins Hugo and Oliver Hardinge -- a common casting dodge to keep from breaking the laws against how long a child actor can be worked) -- receive a call from Ted offering to let them have Andrew back, but only if they follow a series of instructions running them ragged going from park bench to phone booth to bus stop like characters in a movie about a kidnapping for ransom.

We never see Ted again and we don’t know what possessed him to dump Andrew back on his mother after all this time, but we soon get an idea as Andrew has almost literally gone feral: during the five years he’s spent with dad and dad’s girlfriend he’s been kept on the run, living mostly in motels, not going to school or seeing doctors, and he’s literally reverted to a pre-verbal state. He can’t read or write and he’s basically impassive -- Rice doesn’t use the A-word but through much of the film she certainly makes Andrew seem autistic -- though he’s also prone to sudden violent outbursts and he’s less responsive to his mother than to anyone else. A social worker tells Gail she thinks the best thing for Andrew would be to send him to a special residential school for a year or so where he could get the kind of custom-tailored help he would need to advance academically and relate normally to other children.

This seemed to me to be the best advice Gail was given all movie, but not surprisingly after having not seen her son for five years she refuses to lose him again and therefore insists on keeping him at home and sending him to regular public school -- at which he’s predictably bullied for his utter inability to play sports (he’s playing outfield in a baseball game and when a fly ball comes his way he just stares at it and doesn’t even try to catch it, and when the team’s captain chews him out and calls him a “girl” Andrew takes out his dick and pees on him, though naturally we don’t see this action and only hear about it later when Andrew, Gail, the other boy and the other boy’s mother are summoned to the principal’s office over the incident) and is unable to do schoolwork at his grade level. So Gail insists on home-schooling him. In a chilling scene we see Andrew climb to the roof of his house with a box containing some objects that he had just before he was kidnapped -- a balsa-wood model plane and a book of matches with which he had lighted a firework the day he was taken -- and he plays with the plane, strikes one of the matches, and accidentally sets his family’s house on fire.

Ed, fearing for the safety of his own son, moves to his mother’s house and takes Ed, Jr. with him; later he returns, but in the meantime Gail has got the idea that she might be better able to reach Andrew in an unfamiliar environment, so she moves herself and Andrew in with her brother Jack (Craig Eldridge), Jack lives on a farm and Andrew immediately takes to farm life, eagerly helping Jack with chores while shunning the academic drills his mom is putting him through because the state (this is happening in Virginia) is going to take Andrew away and put him in a residential school if he doesn’t dramatically improve his academic abilities by the end of the summer.

When Andrew Came Home is a manipulative tear-jerker but it’s also a powerful drama, and among my mixed emotions watching it were concern for the toll on Seth Adkins; one wonders what director Mandelberg put this boy through to get the full-blooded performance he got out of him, and what ongoing effects this is going to have on Adkins’ own grounding in reality. It can’t have been easy on this child to go to the edges of madness he had to visit to play this role at all, let alone as well and utterly convincingly as he does. It’s the sort of movie that makes you admire the skill behind the child star’s performance, but also to wonder whether any entertainment is worth doing this to a child!

A Christmas Carol (CBS/Desilu, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The program was an intriguing 1954 adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol from the Alcoa Aluminum-sponsored anthology drama series Shower of Stars, filmed (not broadcast live) at Desilu Studios in 1954 and originally made in color, in the CBS scanning-wheel color system that could only be received if you owned a CBS-made or -licensed color TV set, though (alas) the only surviving record of the show is a kinescope in black-and-white. The show had a top-of-the-line cast both in front of and behind the cameras: Fredric March (wearing one of the most outrageously obvious fake noses I've ever seen) was Scrooge and Basil Rathbone was the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley -- marking a reunion of them from the cast of the 1935 MGM version of Anna Karenina, in which Rathbone played the title character's husband and March was Count Vronsky, whom she cheats on him with.

The director was a minor figure named Ralph Levy but the screenplay was written by Maxwell Anderson and the complete musical score by Bernard Herrmann -- and the two collaborated on at least three songs that were included as part of the package. (This may be the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol that qualifies as a musical: it certainly pre-dates the 1962 Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and the Broadway musical Scrooge, later filmed in 1981 with Albert Finney as Scrooge.) One of them was a duet between the young Scrooge (Craig Hill) and his girlfriend Belle (Sally Fraser, who doubles as the Ghost of Christmas Past -- the resemblance between them becomes a plot point in Anderson's script) in which Belle's voice is doubled by the great Marilyn Horne on her way to becoming one of the great opera stars of all time. (This was the same year she was Dorothy Dandridge's voice double for the 1954 film Carmen Jones; 18 years later, in 1972, she would sing Bizet's Carmen at the Met with Leonard Bernstein conducting and record the score for Deutsche Grammophon, thereby becoming to my knowledge the only person to record both Carmen and Carmen Jones.)

The story is well-known to anyone who hasn't lived their whole life in a yurt in Ulan Bator, and so much of the fun is how they deal with the familiar plot points and what they emphasize -- I regretted the omission of the flashback scene in which Scrooge, as a boy, is left behind at his boarding school during Christmas because everyone else at the school has a family to spend the holidays with and Scrooge -- an orphan, like so many other Dickens leading characters -- doesn't, and also the scene after Scrooge's reclamation in which he sends the young boy he accosts from his window to buy a huge turkey for the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, but for the rest Anderson had chosen wisely and I can only regret that he had to cut the story even more severely for an hour-long running time (less commercials, not included here) to fit in the songs. Quite frankly, these are no great shakes: Tiny Tim's big solo (though whether it's Christopher Cook, who plays the role on screen, or a voice double I don't know) is offensive enough the first time and later, when Scrooge visits the Cratchits at the end and Tiny Tim offers to sing it for him, it seems the final test of Scrooge's forebearance -- will he be nice and say yes, or will he react like a normal person and tell Tiny Tim to shut up, and get the hell out of there if the kid doesn't comply.

The show was well done all around but quite frankly I wish they had reversed the casting of the above-the-title leads and had Rathbone playing Scrooge: March comes off as merely a crotchety old man but Rathbone, with his more incisive diction and his more flamboyant acting style, would have thrown himself into the part with more verve on both sides of his reclamation. (I don't know if Rathbone ever played Scrooge, but March did the part again four years later for another TV series, this one an anthology in which all the shows starred him and were based on stories by Dickens.) Otherwise it's an intriguing adaptation, and though the change usually comes without supernatural assistance the pattern of Scrooge's life -- spending the first half unscrupulously making money and the second half giving much of it away in philanthropies of one sort or another -- is actually quite a common one in the lives of the very rich, from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie a century ago to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros today.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

West of Shanghai (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

I celebrated Boris Karloff's birthday last night with the two films TCM showed as part of an all-day tribute to him that I'd recorded because I hadn't had them in the collection before -- and one of them I'd never even seen before. The first film in our Boris Karloff double bill was West of Shanghai, a 1937 Warners' "B" that had a weird history. It began as a 1920 play by Porter Emerson Browne called The Bad Man that was set in the American West and dealt with a group of people at the mercy of a good-bad outlaw. The play was filmed in its original Western setting twice, as a silent in 1923 with Holbrook Blinn repeating his starring role from the stage version, and in 1930 with Walter Huston.

Then in 1937 Warners' "B" production head Bryan Foy decided to remodel it and relocate it to the warlord-dominated region of northern China, and cast Boris Karloff in the lead -- perhaps because he'd been so effective as a Chinese villain in MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu five years earlier. Unfortunately, the film suffered by the comparison because, for all its racist stereotyping The Mask of Fu Manchu had at least had a literate script (by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard) that allowed Karloff's character to speak in perfect English (Fu Manchu was established as having gone to universities in three Western countries, including the United Kingdom, and acquired a doctorate in each one) and project a marvelously understated form of villainy. West of Shanghai scenarist Crane Wilbur, on the other hand, gave Karloff's character, warlord Wu Yen Fang, lines of horribly offensive and nearly unspeakable pidgin-English to speak, and director John Farrow (Mia Farrow's father -- but you probably knew that already) completed the crime against Karloff by having him utter Wilbur's awful dialogue in a mincing fashion that seemed far from the authority producer Foy had hoped Karloff could bring to the role when he assigned him to it.

The plot concerns a newly discovered oil field in Fang's realm that has the potential to earn millions -- only the guy who actually discovered it, Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver), owes $50,000 to loan shark Myron Galt (Douglas Wood), and Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez, second-billed), representative of a major oil company, plans to gain control of the field by giving Hallet the money to pay back Galt's loan in exchange for three-quarters of the field's income. Creed brings along his wife Jane (Beverly Roberts), who's already fallen out of love with him before the film begins and ends up falling in love with Hallet. Government general Chow Fu-Shan (Vladimir Sokoloff) is killed, Hallet saves Fang's life and Fang, out of gratitude, offers to steal Creed's money, pay off Galt's loan and thereby put Hallet back in charge of the oil field. He also offers to kill Creed so Hallet will be free to marry Mrs. Creed -- only Mr. Creed bribes a captain in Fang's army to start a revolution. The rebellious captain is tricked by Cheng (Richard Loo -- what a concept! There's actually one Chinese character in this film being played by a real-life Chinese actor!), Fang's right-hand man (and part-time English tutor), into giving up, but meanwhile Hallet has sent his own Chinese sidekick to alert the Nationalist government to send their own army to rescue the white people and break Fang's power, and in the final sequence the Seventh Cavalry -- oops, I mean the Nationalist army -- rides to the rescue, save the white people (except for Creed, whom Fang has conveniently killed in the meantime) and execute Fang.

With better writing, West of Shanghai could have been a not-bad movie, but Wilbur totally fails to dramatize the culture clash between East and West one would have thought would be at the heart of a film like this, and Karloff's mincing performance is one of the worst of his career. Fortunately, in his next Chinese role, as private detective James Lee Wong in Monogram's knock-offs of the Charlie Chan movies, Karloff was once again allowed to speak perfect English and carry himself like the dignified figure he always was, even in his most blatantly evil roles.

You'll Find Out (RKO, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The other Karloff movie on our double bill last night was You'll Find Out, a peculiar 1940 production from RKO, produced and directed by musical pioneer David Butler, and a follow-up to the surprise hit of 1939, That's Right-You're Wrong, the feature-film debut of Kay Kyser and his band. Of all the big band leaders of 1939 Kyser -- not Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller or anyone more legendary to later swing fans -- made the most money because he had the most successes in the most media: he had a successful radio quiz show, Kay Kyser's College of Musical Knowledge (depicted in virtually all his movies), and he was able not only to trot his band onto Hollywood soundstages for insertion numbers in big musicals starring other people, he had a strong enough personality to have hit movies on the strength of his own character as the charming rube from Rocky Mount, North Carolina (also, by weird coincidence, the birthplace of modern jazz musician Thelonious Monk) who seemed perpetually overwhelmed by his own success.

For You'll Find Out Butler and James V. Kern (they have joint credit for the film's story and Kern sole credit for the actual script) essentially decided to graft Kyser and his show onto a reworking of The Cat and the Canary (which, probably not coincidentally, had been remade successfully the year before by Paramount as a vehicle for Bob Hope), in which Kyser's manager, Chuck Deems (an almost unrecognizably young Dennis O'Keefe), gets an offer from his girlfriend Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) for the band to play at her upcoming 21st birthday party at the old-dark-house of her aunt Margo (Alma Kruger). It turns out that Margo has got involved in spiritualism and is being fleeced by phony psychic Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi), who claims to be able to contact the spirit of her dead brother (Janis's dad).

Janis is initially unconcerned for Margo's well-being because her father's old attorney, Judge Mainwaring (Boris Karloff) -- whose last name the characters pronounce exactly the way it's spelled instead of using the usual British pronunciation, "Mannering," with which the same name is pronounced in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man two years later -- is there, presumably protecting Margo's and Janis' interests. In fact Mainwaring and Saliano are in league to grab the old woman's money before anyone can discover the secret codicil in her brother's will that gives her control of the Bellacrest fortune only until Janis turns 21, after which it goes to Janis, who's clear-eyed, reality-based and not inclined to pay it to a phony psychic. Janis calls Dr. Fenninger, a well-known debunker of fake spiritualists, but a third member of the conspiracy (Peter Lorre) kidnaps him and impersonates him.

The subsequent goings-on aren't particularly horrific but they do offer a fair complement of thrills, as Kyser unwittingly discovers the headquarters room from which Saliano masterminds his paraphernalia to create the impression that he's actually contacting spirits from the great beyond (a thrilling reminder of the days when fake psychics actually put on a show for their marks instead of just saying vague things like, "Something terrible happened to you once," and eliciting responses like, "Really? However did you know?"), then wrestles Mainwaring to the ground as he, revealing himself as the actor who was impersonating the dead brother's ghost at Saliano's seance, holds a gun on the others -- though the finale features Prince, the dog owned by Kyser's clown singer/trumpeter "Ish Kabibble" (Merwyn Bogue), fetching the bomb the three baddies have set to blow up the house and all the good guys and carrying it over to the villains' hideout, blowing them up instead -- while Kyser decides to use the sonovox, a piece of electronic equipment Saliano had used in his phony seances, to have his instruments literally "sing" his new song, "Like the Fellow Once Said."

Though it's a bit disappointing that the only movie to co-star Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre would be a madcap comedy (albeit one in which their roles are relatively "straight"), You'll Find Out is a charming entertainment, well staged and with good novelty songs by composer James McHugh and lyricist John Mercer -- oddly formal versions of the first names of people who were usually billed as "Jimmy" and "Johnny," respectively!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lennon Naked (Blast! Films/BBC, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was Lennon Naked, yet another biopic of at least one of the Beatles (and John tends to be the focus of virtually every movie made about the Beatles, not only because he founded the group in the first place but because he was by far the most dramatically compelling character -- the one with the most harrowing backstory and the one most in touch with, and eager to share, his most wrenching emotional traumas) and one which focused so relentlessly on his dysfunctional relationships with his relatives (particularly his father) and his first wife, Cynthia Powell, that the reviewers I've read slammed it in ways that reminded me about Grover Sales' dismissal of the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues -- that it was like making a film about Van Gogh, eliminating Gauguin and all the other real-life artists he knew as characters, and showing him cutting his ear off for the full running time.

Lennon Naked, directed by Edmund Coulthard from a script by Robert Jones (a disclaimer at the front of the film informs us, "The following drama is based on real events, although some scenes are the invention of the writer"), begins in 1964, when Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear) arranges a meeting betwen John Lennon (Christopher Eccleston, who's quite effective and credible-looking in the role -- he's got both the appearance and the acid quality of Lennon's speaking voice totally down -- even though he made this film at 46, six years older than Lennon was when he was killed) and his long-estranged father Fred (Christopher Fairbank, whose performance is marvelous in its pathos even though he's so much shorter, skinnier and more dumpy-looking than Eccleston it's hard to believe in them as father and son). In the car Lennon toys with both Brian and the chauffeur, pretending to the driver that he and Brian are lovers (it's interesting how the real Brian Epstein was a self-hating closet queen but he seems to become more "out" with every movie incarnation of him) and making no secret of his nervousness about meeting his dad and his continuing bitterness over his father's having abandoned him when he was six.

It turns out that Robert Jones' reading of Lennon's life centers around a "Rosebud" moment that determines his future course just as thoroughly as that scene when the young Charlie Kane got pulled away from his mother and his sled: they were at a seaside resort when Fred Lennon announced to his wife Julia (they were already separated by then and Julia was living with Ronnie Duykins, a Liverpool waiter John Lennon referred to in interviews as "Twitchy" because he had a chronically blinking eye) that he was moving to New Zealand and giving his son the choice: stay with his mother in Liverpool or come with him.

The way it's dramatized in the film (which makes a powerful scene even though it's not the way virtually any Beatles or Lennon biographer has told it), John at first said he was going with his dad, then as he saw his mom walking away with her head bowed down in sadness changed his mind and ran after her, only to be told that she was going to turn him over to her sister, the legendary Aunt Mimi, to raise -- so at age six John Lennon was simultaneously abandoned by both his parents. (One wouldn't know from this film that John afterwards reconciled with his mother, whom he recalled as a free spirit and who bought him his first guitar and taught him how to play it, and John was far more devastated by her subsequent death in an auto accident than he'd been by her putting him with Mimi in the first place -- or that the near-simultaneous death of Paul McCartney's mother from cancer gave them a powerful bond that made them, at least for a time, far more than just two young kids playing together in a band.)

Whatever its accuracy, though, Jones' conceptualization of Lennon as a young man permanently stuck in the traumas of his youth and unable to enjoy either his career or his fame works powerfully as drama and eloquently frames many of the familiar incidents in John's life -- his first art show with Yoko, the making of the Two Virgins album (they sat up all night making amateur tapes and then had sex for the first time when they were done), the bed-in for peace (and the angry confrontation with reporter Gloria Emerson, played by Debora Weston), his meeting with Dr. Arthur "Primal Scream" Janov and the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album that resulted (though we don't get to see John record it -- in fact the film doesn't include any footage of Lennon functioning as a creative musician), and his final decision to leave Great Britain and move to New York in November 1971 (and I hadn't realized until I saw the ending credit of this film that he never returned to the country of his birth at any time during the remaining nine years of his life).

One could pick apart Lennon Naked as biography, but on its own terms it works as drama even though, presumably due to copyright problems, no music by the Beatles appears: we hear snatches of four of Lennon's solo recordings ("Mother," "God," "Out the Blue" and, rather anachronistically, "I'm Losing You" from Double Fantasy played over a scene of John and Yoko arguing early in their relationship) and of one of Yoko's more lyrical recordings, "Remember Love," and during an early sequence taking place while the Beatles are still together we hear "Money (That's What I Want)," one of the greatest of the Beatles' early recordings -- only we don't hear their version, we hear the original hit by Motown artist Barrett Strong instead.

Director Coulthard overdoes the symbolism a bit -- one starts to dread the prospect of yet another scene of Lennon submerging himself in water, apparently ready to drown himself -- but overall this is a good movie, and the acting is first-rate throughout except for one jarring exception: Andrew Scott as Paul McCartney. Scott looks the part, all right, but his attempt to do Paul's speaking voice comes off sounding more like the Monty Python "Gumby" character than the real deal. One imdb.com commentator refers to Lennon as "a man-child who did not mature," and though that's certainly arguable (Lennon's real biography shows a much more complex, multi-faceted man than the one that emerges here) and it's hard to reconcile the almost psychopathically self-absorbed creature we see here with the Lennon who wrote "Imagine," the film powerfully presents its version of John Lennon and emerges as genuinely moving drama on its own terms.

Deep Down (Independent Television Service/Kentucky Educational Television, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was Deep Down, a 2009 documentary about the village of Maytown, Kentucky, located in the middle of the Appalachians, and the Miller Bros. Coal Company's attempt to get permits to do a mountaintop removal mine on top of the hills overlooking Willow Creek Holler. (I'd heard the word "holler" in this context before -- notably in the song "Coal Miner's Daughter," in which Loretta Lynn proudly proclaims herself as having been born in "Butcher Holler" -- but I didn't realize what it meant: it's simply Appalachia-speak for "canyon.")

The film was directed by Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen for the PBS Independent Lens series, and from the publicity surrounding it I expected it to be considerably nastier and more confrontational than it turned out; instead it's a kind of lyrical poem to the beauty of the Appalachians and the people who live there and a serious, refreshingly non-propagandistic meditation on the nature of capitalism and how it affects people who have always lived close to the land and have been largely dependent on coal for generations. The sympathies of the filmmakers are clearly with Barbara May, who organizes her fellow Maytown residents (was the town named after her family? It's certainly possible) to oppose the mine by asking the Kentucky land management board for a petition declaring the Willow Creek area "lands unsuitable for mining," but Rubin and Gilomen are honest enough to show the "other side" as well.

Their other central character is Terry Ratliff, who lives in a house he built himself on the other side of the holler from Barbara May and who is so defiantly independent he boasts that there isn't a single level or plumb wall or beam in his self-constructed home; indeed, he tells us that he resents being called a "carpenter" since he's deliberately avoided making anything level, something that obsesses any real professional carpenter. He takes the filmmakers to a hilltop, radiantly beautiful in the orange of an Appalachian sunset and covered with ample growths of native plants, and announces that this was a mountain that was flattened 30 years before by a mining company and, as they (and we) can see, it grew back just fine.

Terry seems inclined to lease his land to the mining company at first, but gradually his doubts grow as he ponders the horror stories he's heard from other people in other communities who signed coal-company leases -- and then found themselves either paid much less than they were promised by the salespeople or not paid anything at all (apparently it's a common dodge in the area for a coal company to declare bankruptcy just as the mine is played out, and the new company that takes over to announce that they're not bound by the debts of the predecessors and therefore the people have given their land away for nothing). Ultimately he doesn't lease his land, and we se a sequence of his daughter Carly marrying a young man named Steve (we never see Carly's mother or learn what happened to her), whom we're told is as ornery and independent as his new father-in-law.

At first I was disappointed that Deep Down wasn't more confrontational -- the only time we see anyone who works for Miller Bros. (which we learn is a subsidiary of a much larger company that takes over its assets after it declares bankruptcy when their request for a permit to mine by mountaintop removal is denied) is at the hearing over the land unsuitable for mining petition, and we also see some fascinating sequences in which, this being the middle of the "Bible Belt," both pro- and anti-mining speakers quote the Bible and claim that God is on their side -- but as it wound on I found myself much more sympathetic to the softer, warmer, more lyrical approach Rubin and Gilomen actually used and quite impressed by the film.

Even the use of bluegrass music as background, which I found almost abominably cliched at first, had a basis in fact: it turned out both May and Ratliff were members of a bluegrass music school in the area and the scenes in which people on opposite sides of the mining controversy nonetheless sit down together to play guitars, banjos and fiddles in the traditional style of their forebears just add to the overall haunting quality of this surprisingly lyrical, understated film that, like the pioneering cinema verite movies of the early 1960's, doesn't use a third-person narration (when Rubin and Gilomen need to provide us with exposition to help us understand what is going on, they use one of their interviews with local people to supply it) and therefore doesn't impose a blatant editorial "we" on the material.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Paramount, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Our main movie event last night was the 1933 Paramount live-action version of Alice in Wonderland, put in production after independent producer Bud Pollard rushed another adaptation of Lewis Carroll's famous novel(s, actually -- like most Alice films, this one, scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, conflates Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There) into theatres in 1931 (it was the first sound version of Carroll's tales) and Walt Disney's attempt to produce one in color with a live-action Mary Pickford playing Alice and the other characters appearing in animated form fell through.

This version starred Charlotte Henry as Alice, used virtually the entire Paramount contract list (Mae West and the Marx Brothers are the only major Paramount stars of the time who weren't in it) in heavy-duty costumes as the supporting characters, was staged on spectacular sets (Robert Odell is credited as the designer but it's hard to believe Menzies didn't have a hand in it) and ran 76 minutes (which required leaving out great chunks of Carroll's stories but also kept the film short enough that the elaborate sets, costumes and impeccable special effects remained charming and entertaining and didn't become oppressively cute). It's a film that could have used color -- though the black-and-white cinematography by Henry Sharp and Bert Glennon is beautiful, rich in contrasts and shading, and done full justice by the excellent DVD transfer by Universal Home Video -- but for the most part it's an utterly amazing movie.

There's one animated sequence, created by the Fleischer Brothers (Paramount's go-to guys for animation then), adapting "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (there's an especially good sight gag when the "oyster bed" is shown as just that, a long, ribbon-like bed in which the oysters sleep), but the rest is all live-action and features such demented casting as Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen (her fierce mien in the role makes it far more believable than it was before that she was on the short list for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, along with Gale Sondergaard, before Margaret Hamilton finally landed the role), Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter (who'd have thought Johnny Depp would ever remake an Edward Everett Horton role?), and above all W. C. Fields as a superbly characterized Humpty Dumpty. (The critics of the time thought Fields stole the movie, and that seems to be the modern consensus as well.)

Paramount entrusted the direction to Norman Z. McLeod, fresh off his successes with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and he too turns in a great job, alive to the wonder and fantasy of the story. Yes, some of it does get too literal, and Mankiewicz and Menzies had the same problem faced by everybody who's tried to dramatize Alice in Wonderland -- it doesn't have a through-line. It's just a series of disconnected fantasy episodes involving the same central character, and it lacks the powerful quest narrative that makes The Wizard of Oz so much more engaging as a plot for a movie.

But it's genuinely charming, Charlotte Henry (though a bit too old for the role) makes a wonderfully innocent Alice, the producers and scriptwriters wisely avoided inserting any songs other than the ones Carroll actually wrote, the production values are impressive and the effects are believable even by today's standards and must have seemed astonishing in 1933. Alas, Alice in Wonderland was a box-office flop -- it lost Paramount a ton of money at the height of the Depression, when they could least afford it, and probably did more than any other single film to drive the studio into bankruptcy (from which the enormous successes of Mae West and Bing Crosby rescued it) -- and it dried up the market for elaborate fantasies and children's-literature adaptations in general until Walt Disney put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into production as the world's first feature-length all-animated film, spent what just about everyone else in Hollywood (including his brother and business partner Roy) thought was an insane amount of money, released it in 1937 and had not only a blockbuster hit but a film that is still bringing in income. (Disney finally got around to Alice in Wonderland in 1951 and had a substantial hit, though not on the blockbuster level of Snow White.)

Murder on a Honeymoon (RKO, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Charles had made a request to see the third in the RKO Hildegarde Winters series, Murder on a Honeymoon, filmed in 1934-35 and Edna May Oliver's last appearance as Stuart Palmer's schoolteacher-detective -- and actually the best of Oliver's three films in the series despite the assignment of a much less creative director (Lloyd Corrigan instead of George Archainbaud) who, except for one sequence taking place inside the Catalina Island Casino after hours (featuring a heavy echo on the sound to suggest that the scene takes place in an empty, cavernous space -- six years before Orson Welles supposedly innovated that in the Thatcher Library sequence in Citizen Kane), doesn't try for the marvelously Gothic atmospheric effects that made Archainbaud's two films in the series, The Penguin Pool Murder and Murder on the Blackboard, fun to watch visually even if the atmospherics didn't relate that well to the plot.

What makes this film special is the audacity of the story, derived by screenwriters Seton I. Miller and Robert Benchley (the latter an odd name to see on a screenplay credit, especially for a movie in which he doesn't appear) from a novel by Withers creator Stuart Palmer called The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (a key element in the plot when the direction a pepper tree is facing relative to the sea changes overnight, indicating to Withers and police inspector Oscar Piper [James Gleason] that someone has buried a body under it and replaced it backwards). It begins with a murder that takes place on board an airplane -- a gimmick the Charlie Chan series used at least twice but which may have been pioneered here. The victim is Roswell T. Forrest (George Meeker), a witness whose testimony is considered crucial to a case against a New York Mob boss that is about to go to trial, and he dies aboard a plane ferrying him and a crowd of tourists out to Catalina Island.

The local police are convinced Forrest simply had a heart attack, but Piper, who flies out from New York to investigate the case because his department had jurisdiction over the case in which Forrest was to testify, briefs Withers about the case against the Mob boss and Forrest's importance to it. Withers has already futilely tried to convince the Catalina police and coroner's office that Forrest was murdered -- she takes special offense to the fact that the medical examiner merely gave the body a cursory once-over and, what's more, did it in a bathing suit since he was called to the office directly from the beach -- and she gets Britt, the Catalina police chief, to question the other passengers on the plane and investigate the case as a homicide. The other passengers include film director Joseph Tate (Leo G. Carroll), on Catalina to scout locations for his next movie and incidentally to work on the script; aspiring actress Phyllis La Font (Lola Lane), who naturally is trying to get Tate to notice her so he'll cast her in his next film; retired liquor smuggler Captain Beegle (DeWitt Jennings); and newlyweds Marvin and Kay Deving (Harry Ellerbe and Dorothy Libaire).

During the course of the investigation Withers confronts an officious groundskeeper at the Catalina hotel who complains that all the goldfish in a certain pond have died -- and she realizes that the murderer dispatched Forrest with a carton of poisoned cigarettes and then disposed of them by dumping them in the goldfish pond. Suspicion falls on one of the hotel guests, Arthur T. Mack (Morgan Wallace), if only because Piper reveals that a gangster named MacArthur offered $10,000 for a successful hit on Forrest and Withers reasons that "Mack" may simply be a contraction of "MacArthur." Withers scores the combination of Mack's post office box and removes an envelope containing $10,000, then stations a porter (Willie Best, still stuck with the stupid pseudonym "Sleep 'n Eat") to stand watch over the box and let her know who picks up mail from it -- only the porter, being the usual stereotyped Black idiot, gets the numbers transposed and reports on the wrong box, so his information is useless. Marvin Deving is lured to the empty casino and is killed -- and later Mack is also found dead. Meanwhile, a man named Kelsey arrives at Catalina and, in a plot twist anticipating yet another RKO movie, The Narrow Margin, it turns out that he is really Forrest and it was Kelsey, Forrest's bodyguard, who was killed on the plane and his body stolen and buried under the pepper tree so the cops and the coroner couldn't prove he was poisoned.

Withers deduces that the Devings, posing as an innocent honeymoon couple, were actually the hit people and that Marvin was killed because he and Mack had an argument -- when Marvin didn't get the money for killing the supposed "Forrest" he assumed Mack had double-crossed him and kept the money for himself, so he planned to report this to the police, Mack killed him before he could do so, and Kay killed Mack out of revenge. Murder on a Honeymoon is a much more compelling thriller story than most of them made in the U.S. in the 1930's; the reversals at least make sense and the ending is a marvelous inversion on the usual cliches, and it's marvelously acted by a first-rate cast, including the little-known couple playing the honeymooning hit people, while the script is peppered with neat wisecracks (including Withers' joke on the name "Beegle") that are pretty obviously Benchley's work.

Doctor Bull (Fox. 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Since I had the Ford at Fox box out already -- the sheer size and elaborateness of that thing has been a major discourager towards us actually watching the discs contained in it -- I decided to run the 1933 film Doctor Bull, the first of three of Ford's Will Rogers vehicles included in it (the others were Judge Priest and Steamboat 'Round the Bend). I'd been a bit nervous about these entries in the box because, as much as I admire Rogers as a comedian, a personality and a fellow progressive (his radio broadcasts and recordings from the 1920's and 1930's sound incredibly premonitory of live issues today, including the conditions of Native Americans -- Rogers was part-Cherokee and he was fond of joking, "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower; they met it" -- the environment and greed as a political force), I worried that the combination of him and Ford would produce almost unbearably sentimental stories of small-town Americana.

That's exactly what this one is -- supposedly based on a 1933 novel by James Gould Cozzens called The Last Adam (24 years later Cozzens would produce a magnum opus called By Love Possessed, all about a fancy clock and the generations of an upper-class family that had owned it, which would be hailed as the Great American Novel until veteran progressive scolds Dwight Macdonald and Dorothy Parker would savage it in their reviews, so it was surprising to see him credited as a story source this early), Doctor Bull has a striking plot similarity to One Man's Journey, made by RKO the previous year with a less impressive director (John Robertson) but a more "dramatic" actor, Lionel Barrymore (13 years after Robertson handled brother John in the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably his most famous credit). Both are about small-town doctors who are the subjects of gossip, who are nearly fired by the town elders but are redeemed when they invent new sera that create miracle cures and stop major epidemics that are threatening the towns. Doctor Bull benefits from Ford's direction -- the opening scene, which depicts a mail delivery to the fictitious town of "New Winton," Connecticut (at least we presume it's Connecticut because just after it stops in "New Winton" the train stops in a genuine Connecticut city, New Haven) and its sorting in an office that's also the home of the local telephone switchboard, features some virtuosic direction and moving-camera shots (George Schneiderman, the man who shot Ford's great silents at Fox, returns as his cinematographer) that are all rather beside the point in this sentimental and straightforward story.

The plot deals with Doctor Bull's rather diffident courtship of widow Janet Cardmaker (Vera Allen) and the opposition of her relatives, the Banning family (Banning was her maiden name), most especially her brother Herbert (Burton Churchill), who inadvertently caused the typhoid epidemic that threatens the town when he located a new power plant too close to the reservoir, over Dr. Bull's objections, and the rain washed untreated sewage from the workers' encampment into the reservoir. Dr. Bull also treats a young man (Howard Lally) who got paralyzed from a 50-foot fall, and Herbert Banning's daughter Virginia (Rochelle Hudson, a year after she played a similarly "ruined" girl in Mae West's vehicle She Done Him Wrong, and she turns in another quiet, understated and subtly moving performance here), who got pregnant from a night with a college football player who turned out to be the son of a Senator. In Cozzens' original novel Dr. Bull gave her an abortion, but even at the end of the so-called "pre-Code" period that was too much for a Hollywood movie.The censors also forced Ford and screenwriters Philip Klein, Jane Storm and Paul Green to change the character of soda jerk Larry Ward from an STD victim to a harmless hypochondriac, played for comic relief by Andy Devine.

Doctor Bull is a likable movie but there's not much dramatic meat on those old cliched bones, and according to the American Film Institute Catalog Ford got so frustrated with the project that a Motion Picture Daily reporter said that when two of the writers suggested that Ford reshoot a scene from a different angle, Ford said, "Better consult Mr. Rogers. He does most of the directing on this picture." That didn't stop Ford from continuing to make Will Rogers-style films even after Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935 and was therefore no longer around to star in them; Tobacco Road (1941) is clearly an attempt to do a Rogers film with Charley "Uncle Henry" Grapewin in what would undoubtedly had been Rogers' role if he'd still been alive, and in 1953 Ford even did a direct sequel to Judge Priest, one of his Rogers films, as The Sun Shines Bright with Charlie Winninger in Rogers' old role.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin (BBC, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The show was actually a quite interesting one: it was called How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin and offered the theory that the Beatles did more than any other social or political force, including the internal dissident and samizdat movement, to bring down the Soviet Union and its cult of conformity. What made it even more compelling than it might otherwise have been is that the director was an old BBC hand named Leslie Woodhead, who in 1962 did the documentary The Mersey Sound about the Beatles themselves -- well, them and two other, lesser known groups from Liverpool -- which has become legendary because the footage of them performing "Some Other Guy" from the Cavern Club appears to be the earliest extant audio-visual record of the Beatles performing. (Interestingly, in the clip -- which inevitably appears here -- Paul McCartney is readily recognizable but John Lennon still has his hair cut Teddy-boy short, though his nasal voice singing lead on the song is instantly obvious.)

In the 1980's he began to explore the cultural influence of the Beatles on Soviet and subsequent Russian and Ukrainian culture (since virtually all the major cities in the former Soviet Union were in either Russia or Ukraine that makes sense) and ultimately came up with a film that offers some fascinating perspectives on the breadth of the Beatles' influence even though he doesn't really get into why the Beatles, of all cultural phenomena from the West, should have struck a responsive chord with repressed Soviet teens. One interviewee mentions that in the early 1960's the Soviet Union actually seemed "cool" to its young people -- Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space and the ruler was the charismatic Nikita Khrushchev, whose "thaw" had expanded the range of cultural alternatives (though not all that far where pop music was concerned -- most Russian pop music was based on native folk music and featured ensembles with accordions and balalaikas and adenoidal singers who would have been considered hopelessly square even by Lawrence Welk's audience in the West) as well as acknowledging at least some of the sins of Stalin and his regime.

Then, just as the Beatles' first flush of popularity was cresting worldwide, Khrushchev was overthrown and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and a far less exciting group of geriatric cadres -- and the Russian young people wanted a more dynamic and stimulating form of culture. They found it on the BBC's Radio Luxembourg service, which beamed the Beatles and other British rock sounds over Western Europe and was surreptitiously tape-recorded by Soviet fans. The fans found a way to make Beatles' records available by using disc-cutting booths -- readily available in the Soviet Union so people could send audio letters to their soldier relatives, lovers and buddies -- and cutting home records from the bootleg tapes onto discarded X-ray films from hospitals, then selling these discs (since they were flexible you could put them in your sleeve) on the street like illicit drugs -- they were called "ribs," reflecting both their origins in medical photographs and how they were stored by the people selling them.

Eventually the Soviet state record company, Melodiya, realized how much money they were losing by not making the Beatles' music more or less legitimately available -- so, without bothering to pay royalties either to the Beatles themselves or to EMI, Melodiya issued a three-song EP from Let It Be in 1970 (about a decade earlier than this show would have it) and followed it up with a succession of Beatles' LP's. One of Woodhead's most fascinating interviewees was of a man who started as a consumer of Beatles' "ribs," then worked his way into a position at Melodiya and managed to get virtually the Beatles' entire catalog issued in the U.S.S.R. -- and paid himself an odd tribute by inserting his own photo into the cover of the Russian edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There was also an account of some of the more bizarre urban legends surrounding the Beatles in Russia, including the one that they actually performed there -- supposedly, while they were flying to Japan for their 1966 tour, their plane had to stop at a Soviet military base to refuel and while they were there they got out acoustic guitars for an impromptu jam on the wing of the plane -- and ones that had John Lennon visiting a Moscow hotel and other Beatles turning up in the Soviet Union. (The stories seem to have been sparked by the Beatles' song "Back in the U.S.S.R." -- though more sober-minded Beatles fans in the West heard that song as the parody of the Beach Boys' "California Girls" Paul McCartney admitted he intended, Russian fans couldn't believe the Beatles would have recorded a song called "Back in the U.S.S.R." if they'd never been there in the first place.)

Ironically, while the attempts by Soviet authorities to suppress the Beatles' music (including a bizarre anti-Beatles propaganda film the Soviet government commissioned in 1965, which took out-of-context bits of Beatles trivia -- like the stoned-out performances they had once given in Hamburg, dressed in nothing but underwear and with toilet seats around their necks, and their manager, Brian Epstein, being a "London [sic] fairy" -- to tell Soviet youth how awful and decadent they were, which probably only further publicized the Beatles and led young people who hadn't been especially interested in them before to check them out) are a running theme of this film, virtually no Beatles music actually appears in it: all we get is that early BBC clip of "Some Other Guy" from the Cavern Club and a couple of clips from Paul McCartney's 2003 and 2008 concerts in Moscow and Kiev, respectively. Apparently a force even more effective than the Soviet state, the Western copyright regime, kept Woodhead from being able to use the Beatles' actual recordings; instead most of the Beatles' music we hear is from Russian cover bands, whose thick accents (though at least one interviewee says he was inspired by the Beatles to study English and make his career as a linguist, most of the groups that perform Beatles' music in Russia seem to have learned the words phonetically and probably know no other English) and musical sloppiness are endearing and campy (and ironically Woodhead extensively features Russian covers of "Rock and Roll Music," which of course isn't a Beatles original at all -- it's a Chuck Berry song the Beatles themselves covered).

Needless to say, Paul McCartney's actual appearances in the former Soviet Union make the inevitable climax of the film -- while Western culture has largely moved beyond this veneration of the Beatles (when I interviewed the satirical folk duo the Prince Myshkins, member Rick Burkhardt lamented that when he was growing up you had to have a favorite Beatle, and now culture-history professors have to explain to their students just who the Beatles were), it's still very much alive and well in this part of the world, to the point that Beatles tribute concerts and festivals draw not only people who were teenagers when the Beatles were all alive and a working band but younger people as well. One worm-turning sequence appears when the adenoidal crooner whom the Soviets were pushing in the 1960's as the approved culture hero they wanted their young people to like turns up at a Beatles festival and sings "Hey Jude." Though it's hard for me to accept Woodhead's conceit that one rock group (albeit the most popular and influential one of all time) could have brought down a superpower, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is still a fascinating little movie and an engaging slice of cultural history.