Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Film Unfinished (Oscilloscope Films, 2010)

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

The film was called A Film Unfinished, a recent Israeli-produced documentary that managed to find a surprisingly new angle on the Holocaust. It was based on a peculiar production called Das Ghetto [The Ghetto] that was shot by a film crew Germany sent to Warsaw in 1942 to make a movie about the Warsaw Ghetto — only the film was left unfinished in the vaults at the UFA studios in Babelsberg, edited to about an hour’s worth of running time but with no added sound. The film was rediscovered in 1954 by East German film archivists (the Babelsberg studios were located in what became East Berlin and allowed to fall into disrepair, though since the reunification in 1990 they’ve been brought up to date technically and are now an international production center again) and the footage was used in serious anti-Nazi documentaries as an illustration of the horrors of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Only in 1998 an American film researcher, Adrian Wood — who was going through the Babelsberg archives looking for outtakes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia — came upon two additional reels of outtakes from The Ghetto that showed in depth just how heavily staged the footage had been and at least hinted at the agenda of the Nazi propagandists who launched this project in the first place and got the film as far as a silent rough cut before it was abandoned. A Film Unfinished contains all four reels of the edited version of The Ghetto, includes some of the outtakes to illustrate how the scenes were staged, and incorporates on-camera testimonies from some of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto who were still alive (which means that they were children when the horrors of the Ghetto were taking place — Charles lamented that this movie wasn’t made in the 1970’s or 1980’s when some people who experienced the Ghetto as adults would have still been alive). What’s more, in 1969 the German officer who had been in charge of the Ghetto was put on trial by the West German government for war crimes, and as part of this proceeding the court called as a witness Willy Wist, a cameraman who had worked on The Ghetto and was the only individual ever identified as having taken part in the project.

A Film Unfinished includes sequences reproducing Wist’s trial testimony, with an actor playing him and speaking the lines from the court transcript, and intercuts this with the actual German film as well as the testimony of the survivors — who were keeping their own records with the only means they had access to: pen and paper. Judging from what I’d read about the movie beforehand — including comments by its director, Yael Hersonski, about the ways filmed images can be and have been manipulated not only by their creators but by those who have come after them (in the “director’s statement” in the press kit Hersonski writes, “Since the war, these images, created by the perpetrators, have been subjected to mistreatments; in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth”) — I expected more about the history of The Ghetto’s footage and its uses by subsequent filmmakers who, unlike the Nazis themselves, were interested in using it to make the Nazis and their actions as repellent as possible (as the press kit notes, post-war documentarians picked the footage showing people dying in the streets and corpses being buried in mass graves, but not the scenes showing rich, or supposedly rich, Jews enjoying lavish meals and stepping over the poor Jews dying in the streets).

Instead it’s much more a movie about objective truth that tries to use The Ghetto footage both to illustrate the journals the Jews incarcerated in the ghetto left behind and to ponder the enigma of just why the Nazis shot the film in the first place and what they hoped to accomplish by this. This is a bigger enigma than for virtually any other surviving example of Nazi propaganda, not only because the film was never finished or publicly released but because virtually no documentation of its making survives — a real surprise in a culture like Nazi Germany which obsessively documented just about everything it did (in the process creating much of the evidence that was used in the subsequent trials of the Nazi leaders, officers, bureaucrats and servicemembers who survived the war). Not all the Nazi archives survived — at least some of the more reality-based members did realize the incriminating nature of the documents and tried to destroy some of them, and others were lost to bombing raids and the fortunes of war in general — but enough did that we have in-depth documentation of virtually all the major Nazi propaganda films, including who greenlighted them and what Joseph Goebbels and his lieutenants hoped to achieve by them.

The Ghetto remains a mystery not only because only one person who actually worked on it was ever found, but because it’s impossible to look at the footage and wonder how on earth anyone could have turned this raw material into a movie that would communicate the Nazis’ message. The people in the movie are awesomely beautiful, their faces stoic masks of people who had already suffered a great deal and realized that they could be in store for even worse horrors than they had experienced — yet also people who believed that there was still hope for them and they would ultimately be redeemed somehow. Towards the end one of the “witnesses” who survived the Ghetto said that most Jews in the Ghetto in 1942 believed the “deportations” the Nazis were ordering were just that — relocations — and they’d end up in Madagascar or somewhere else where they’d be safe and allowed to put some semblance of normal life back together; and much of the ineffable sadness with which we watch these images comes from the fact that we know what they don’t: that the “deportations” were actually to Nazi death camps where they would be murdered en masse.

Some of the Nazis’ agenda is obvious — among the staged scenes are shots of rich Jews eating lavish meals at a fancy restaurant (according to one survivor these scenes went on for hours and the people in them had to look like they were enjoying themselves while their relatives and friends were starving to death) and walking by the people dying in the streets and turning their backs on the beggars. The filmmakers even staged an elaborate sequence showing a demonstration in the Ghetto being broken up by a Jewish police force — and a few of the people in the scenes seemed to be smiling or surreptitiously waving at the cameras, not so any of the Germans would notice but just tantalizing hints to anyone who might see this that they didn’t take it seriously and the viewers shouldn’t either. There are plenty of instances in the film that show how the Nazis were skewing reality in the ways one would expect — like the scenes allegedly showing Jewish ritual baths in which the Nazis found the oldest, skuzziest-looking bathhouse available and had men and women taking the baths together (which of course wouldn’t have really happened) and a peculiar scene of a funeral for which the Nazis requisitioned the fanciest horse-drawn hearse in the Ghetto and included a coffin. (“What Jew ever gets buried in a coffin?” one of the survivors said while watching this sequence.) The bulk of the 1942 footage was in black-and-white but one of the cameraman sneaked in some Agfacolor film and at one point the images in A Film Unfinished go from black-and-white to color — which just ramps up the intensity of the beauty and the cruelty, the utter monstrosity of the Nazis and the nobility of the people resisting them just by trying to stay alive against the ceaseless onslaughts.

A Film Unfinished fascinates on many levels: the determination of both the Nazis and their victims to document what was going on; the intimidation of the people forced to cooperate with the film — after all, they knew that the Germans could kill them at any time with utter impunity and, as one of the survivors notes, they were always scared when Germans appeared in the Ghetto for any reasons, but they were also a bit relieved when these particular Germans came bearing cameras rather than guns — and the bizarre cluelessness of the Nazis themselves both in shooting this movie and in thinking it would somehow be useful propaganda for them and their cause. The Nazis clearly spent a lot of time and energy creating this movie — yet it’s entirely unknown, except for Wist’s participation, just who was involved in making it — and in Wist’s courtroom testimony he recalled that he was receiving orders from a man whose name he recalled only as “Goldpartridge,” who wore a brown uniform (either a Nazi Party or S.A. uniform, which would have put him well below the Wehrmacht and the S.S. in the Nazi pecking order), and who appeared to be the closest thing the project had to a director, except he was also almost totally unknowledgeable about film and was constantly ordering Wist and other cameramen to shoot in locations where there wasn’t enough light. (Ironically, the darkness of some of the scenes makes them more powerful; the dim lighting just adds to our sense of these people’s suffering.) “We could not find any documentation that concerned a film production, not even one invoice,” Hersonski wrote. “In the case of Nazi bureaucratic documentation this is certainly quite rare.”

Just how the Nazis thought this in-depth documentation of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto could be manipulated into helping their cause and leading viewers to see it in a favorable light is a mystery — and yet there are certainly other examples of the Nazis commissioning propaganda films and then having to withdraw them or restrict their release because they backfired. The 1943 film Titanic seemed to have got greenlighted merely because the script included a German officer on board the ship who was the only one who warned of the danger from icebergs and tried to stop the accident from happening, and either Goebbels or whichever person on his staff who O.K.’d the script didn’t see anything more than, “German good — British bad,” but Titanic is actually a movie about an insane hierarchy whose pursuit of a world’s record led to a ruinous accident, and it’s likely the real reason the film was never released in Germany until after the war (though it was shown in occupied France) was that once it was finished Goebbels realized that people would make the parallel to the Nazi leadership having promised the German people world domination and delivered total destruction.

An even more blatant example was the 1945 documentary Traitors Before the People’s Court, showing the old-line Prussian military officers who had plotted to assassinate Hitler in August 1944 on trial for their lives before prosecutor/judge Roland Friesler — which got a major release until Nazi Gauleiters (regional leaders) told Goebbels to pull it because it was having exactly the opposite effect to the one intended: the officers on trial were coming across as dignified idealists facing certain death with courage, and Friesler emerged (as he does when the film is shown today) as a total nutcase. So it’s entirely possible that The Ghetto was a similarly misconceived propaganda project, and in this case Goebbels or whoever in the Propaganda Ministry realized this and pulled the plug on the project well before the film was put in releasable form.

A Film Unfinished is a bleak movie — any film that tries to deal honestly with Nazi Germany almost has to be — just horror upon horror without the sense of catharsis that made fact-based fiction films dramatizing the Holocaust, like The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List, watchable — indeed about midway through I was tempted to say, “O.K., I know the Holocaust was a bad thing. Enough already!” The fascination of the enigma behind the existence of The Ghetto and the bizarreness of the Nazis’ in-depth documentation of their own crimes against humanity just adds to the revulsion — were the Nazis really such total believers in their own propaganda that they couldn’t “read” these scenes the way any remotely human member of an audience would? Would The Ghetto, if completed, have fulfilled the Nazis’ propaganda purposes via a soundtrack that would have “flipped” the meaning of the images and led viewers to see them the way the Nazis wanted them to be seen? (There was an intriguing example of this in the early 1960’s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee released a film called Operation Abolition about demonstrations disrupting the Committee’s hearings in San Francisco in 1960 — and the American Civil Liberties Union released Operation Correction, which visually was exactly the same movie but had a different soundtrack that attempted to put the demonstrations in context and portray them more sympathetically.)

Though Hersonski would have made an even better film if she had included clips from post-war documentaries that used footage from The Ghetto to illustrate her point about the uses and abuses of motion-picture images, as it stands A Film Unfinished is a major work on several levels, not only a dramatization of the Nazi horror from a fresh point of view, yet another nail in the coffin of “Holocaust revisionism” (this film shows David Irving’s dogged insistence that the Nazis didn’t really “mean” to exterminate the Jews and that more of them died in the camps from disease and starvation than were actually executed as so much pedantic cant: whatever the percentage of Jews who died from disease or starvation rather than deliberate murder, the Nazis were responsible for all their deaths because they deliberately created the conditions that starved them and exposed them to disease epidemics in the first place) and also a meditation on just how we know what we think we know, and how even images created under such extreme conditions and showing both the highest nobility and the deepest depravity of which human beings are capable carry with them the agendas of those who created them and those who have invoked them since for their own ideological reasons.

One other thing I want to mention is that this film creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Judenrat — the Jewish Council that functioned in the Warsaw Ghetto and essentially relayed German orders to the Jewish population and facilitated their carrying out. Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem is withering in its scorn for the Jewish Councils and the people who ran them — at times she seemed to hate them as much or more than she hated Eichmann, and to see them largely the way she saw Eichmann: as bureaucrats functioning the way they had been trained to, detached from both the morality and the consequences of their actions. In A Film Unfinished, Czerniakow comes across as a person caught in an impossible position, trying to do the best he could to save his people under impossible conditions, hoping against hope that by compromising and helping the Germans he could run the gantlet of their demands and save as much of the Ghetto’s population as possible, and aware (well before most of the Ghetto’s residents) that the Nazis’ “deportation” orders really were death sentences: in July 1942, two months after the filmmakers of The Ghetto packed up and went back from whence they’d come, Czerniakow responded to a Nazi decree stepping up the “deportations” and ordering the Judenrat to pick out and identify those who were going to be shipped out to the camps, he committed suicide by taking a cyanide capsule he had stashed for such a purpose and — as he wrote himself in his final journal entries — fully intending that as a signal to the rest of the Ghetto population that the game was up, all hope was gone and they were doomed.

Opened by Mistake (Hal Roach/MGM, 1934)

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

I went to the recent TCM “Summer Under the Stars” showcase for actress and comedienne Thelma Todd and dug out a 1934 Hal Roach comedy short called Opened by Mistake because I knew that after A Film Unfinished we both needed something that would make us laugh. This was one of the series of shorts Todd did with Patsy Kelly (who had replaced ZaSu Pitts) in Hal Roach’s ongoing attempt to find a female comedy duo as distaff counterparts to Laurel and Hardy. Neither duo hit the heights Stan and Ollie did, either artistically or commercially — in his book Movie Comedy Teams Leonard Maltin wrote that the Todd-Kelly films “as a whole were better than the Pitts-Todd shorts, but once again it was a case of the stars making material seem better than it was” — but Opened by Mistake, directed by James Parrott (brother of Charley Chase, a Roach comedy star in his own right), is a marvelously funny film.

It begins with Todd and Kelly (both of whom play characters with their real names, as Laurel and Hardy did) both tenuously holding on to jobs, Todd as a nurse and Kelly as a switchboard operator for a Wall Street brokerage. When Kelly ties up the phone (she’s calling Todd — in the middle of an operation! — to ask her about a clue in a crossword puzzle) and prevents her boss (William Burress) from completing a crucial call to another broker needed to keep the company in business, she gets fired and sneaks over to the hospital where Todd both works and lives (which, at least if 1930’s movies are to be believed, was actually a quite common arrangement for nurses at the time). Kelly shows up outside the window of Todd’s room in the pouring rain, and though reluctant at first (another nurse has just been fired for letting a visitor into her room), Todd sneaks her into an empty room — not knowing that that room was being held for a patient scheduled for an emergency appendectomy.

Todd tries to persuade Kelly to go through the operation because, even though she doesn’t need it, at least it will give her a place to stay for a few days (they didn’t do these sorts of things outpatient and ship you out of the hospital the same day like they do now!) — but Kelly is understandably reluctant, and the film devolves into quite good slapstick in which Kelly tries to keep from having the operation by grabbing the anaesthesia hose and placing it over the nose and mouth of the head nurse (Nora Cecil) who’s supposed to be prepping her — and in the process the room fills up with gas and anaesthetizes everyone in it, an effect Parrott achieves by shooting the sequence in slow motion and giving the proceedings an almost balletic quality. This isn’t a great film but it is an engagingly funny one, and suggests that had Todd not died in 1935 Roach may have been able to get her and Kelly the material they needed to launch them as feature-film stars and build them into the attraction their talents deserved.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond (Turner Pictures, 1990)

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

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond was one of the vest-pocket (47 minutes, designed for an hour-long time slot less commercials) Turner Pictures produced when the TNT channel was still their flagship movie channel (and showed some of the same obscurities TCM would specialize in later — I remember recording the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon from TNT, editing out the commercials and using that as my reference for the film until the recent DVD reissue of the 1941 Maltese Falcon, which included the two earlier versions as bonuses) and a pretty good short biography that could have been even better if it had been longer. It begins with her birth in India to British civil servants, her years in boarding school in Britain from the time her parents sent her there at age 6 until they relocated to the mother country themselves when Vivien was 15, her decision to make the stage her career and her sweeping success in Britain in 1935 at age 19 in a play called The Mask of Virtue.

By then she had been engaged to a German student (her parents broke it up) and then married a doctor 13 years her senior, Leigh Holman — she took her stage name from her husband’s first name (she was born Vivian — note the normal spelling — Hartley) — and she went on to intriguing roles in British movies and an infatuation with Laurence Olivier that began with her seeing him on stage even before they worked together for the first time in the 1938 film Fire Over England. Leigh is supposed to have told a friend of hers that someday she would marry Olivier; her friend pointed out that both she and Olivier were already married to other people; yet Leigh insisted, “Nonetheless, someday I’m going to marry Laurence Olivier.” (It does sound like Scarlett O’Hara insisting that she’s going to marry Ashley Wilkes.) The show moves quickly to her casting in Gone With the Wind — for once a much-ballyhooed contest to cast a part came out with a genuine unknown: though she’d been in a supporting role in A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor made at MGM’s short-lived British branch, virtually no one outside the British Commonwealth had ever heard of her (and when David O. Selznick did his famous poll on who should play the leads in Gone With the Wind Leigh had received exactly one vote — from a fan in New Zealand).

The film then zips us through the highlights and lowlights of Leigh’s career and life — the failure of the stage production of Romeo and Juliet she did with Olivier just after Gone With the Wind (which cost them all the money they’d made in Hollywood, she on Gone With the Wind and he on Wuthering Heights); the triumphant success of her follow-up film to Wind, Waterloo Bridge (which seemed to be yet another Hollywood sacrifice to the Great God Xerox; the obvious thought behind the production was, “You liked Vivien Leigh in a doomed love story set against the backdrop of a major war? Well, here she is in another doomed love story set against the backdrop of a major war” — and they even wanted Clark Gable for the male lead, but Leigh had disliked him so much during Gone With the Wind, especially for getting George Cukor fired as director and his drinking buddy Victor Fleming hired instead, that she refused to work with him again), which according to the narration (by Jessica Lange, whose main commonality with Leigh was that they both played Blanche DuBois in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire) was her favorite of her films; then the ups and downs as her chronic tuberculosis put a damper on her energy and her growing mental illness (she seems to have been bipolar) detached her further from reality and drove a wedge between her and Olivier. The story is deeper and richer than the version that got told here — though one reason she made only 19 films (and only eight following Gone With the Wind) was that, like a lot of British actors, she regarded the stage as her true calling and films as something to do merely to pass the time between plays.

The show mentioned her triumph as Blanche DuBois in the film version of Streetcar, which won her her second Academy Award, without noting that she’d previously played the role on stage in London under Olivier’s direction and, according to his later interviews with biographer Donald Spoto, she had drawn on so much of her own mental illness for the part she never fully recovered. It also didn’t mention her miserable experience on the set of Elephant Walk in 1954, when she went back to India, drifted into an affair with co-star Peter Finch and ultimately had a nervous breakdown so severe she was unable to finish the film (Elizabeth Taylor, not exactly a paragon of stability herself, replaced her) — or the hissy-fit that finally ended her marriage to Olivier over the film The Prince and the Showgirl.

This movie was based on Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince, which Olivier and Leigh had done on stage, but the film rights were bought by Marilyn Monroe for the company she co-owned with photographer Milton Greene and they hired Olivier to direct and play the male lead. (The result was a movie in which the showgirl totally out-acted the prince: Monroe, ravishingly and sensually photographed by Jack Cardiff in a much subtler color scheme than she was used to at home, turned in an exquisite and multi-faceted performance while Olivier just played it as schtick.) On the set, Olivier watched as Monroe systematically humiliated her husband, Arthur Miller, treating one of America’s greatest playwrights as her go-fer, and he determined to leave Leigh before she could do the same thing to him. (It probably also didn’t help that the plans of Olivier and Leigh to film Shakespeare’s Macbeth together fell through when Alexander Korda died and they weren’t able to find another producer willing to back them.) Ironically, it was Leigh who put Olivier in touch with modernist playwright John Osborne, who cast him as a down-and-out music-hall performer in The Entertainer — Leigh wanted to be in the play but she was too glamorous to play Olivier’s wife and too old to be his daughter, and eventually the actress who did play his daughter, Joan Plowright, became the third Mrs. Laurence Olivier.

The show had little to say about the post-Olivier Leigh except via an interview with Stanley Kramer, who directed Leigh’s last film, Ship of Fools (as I wrote about that movie earlier, it aspired to greatness and achieved goodness — it aspired to great and powerful enduring statements about the human condition and achieved quality entertainment without any particular depth — but at least it allowed Leigh to make her exit in a film of quality rather than a cheap, disgusting horror movie), which was also represented by an intriguing clip in which Leigh’s character pinches her own cheeks to make them glow red just before she goes out — a trick she’d learned during her research to play Scarlett O’Hara. It also showed clips of her appearing in Atlanta for the 1961 reissue of Gone With the Wind — a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War — and noted the irony that her film legacy is scanty but still looms large in cultural history: after all, she was the female lead in a movie that’s at least one of the leading contenders for the “greatest film of all time” title.

Flowers from a Stranger (CBS-TV “Studio One,” 1949)

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

The show was one of those interesting episodes from the CBS series Studio One, “Flowers from a Stranger,” aired during the show’s first season on May 25, 1949, directed by Paul Nickell from a script by Worthington Miner (the old-time Broadway director who was in overall charge of the show) based on a story by Dorothée Carousso, and featuring Felicia Montealegre (who a year after this aired would become Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, thereby establishing his heterosexual bona fides and ultimately helping him get the appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic — it scotched all the rumors about his sexual orientation that had held back his career to that point) as Lorna Wilson, née Trotter, née Deschamps (the last was a pseudonym she adopted during a brief attempt to make a career as a concert pianist over the objections of her parents), wife of Dr. Kim Wilson (Robert Duke), who runs a mental institution with a particularly obnoxious female patient who can be managed only by another staff member, the sinister Dr. Nestri (Yul Brynner, early enough in his career that he still had hair — he’d already made his film debut a year before in Port of New York but his star-making stage role in The King and I would come a year later, in 1950).

Through much of the show Lorna’s character seems so demented herself — she freaks when she receives the titular flowers and they turn out to be white carnations, which for reasons only explained later she has an intense phobia towards — I was expecting a twist in which it would turn out that she was the demented mental patient, she had only hallucinated her marriage to Dr. Wilson and everything we had seen in the program was merely her delusional system. Instead it turns out that Dr. Nestri — who’s described somewhat elliptically as a Holocaust survivor — had had an adulterous affair with Lorna’s mother, who like Lorna herself had pursued an artistic career over the objections of her family, and Dr. Nestri had killed Lorna’s mom and faked it to look like a suicide, only Lorna as a girl had witnessed the murder and then repressed the memory, only to regain it from the trauma of seeing the white carnation and dreaming of a song her mom had played.

The earlier events were represented by a series of filmed flashbacks that were by far the most visually interesting parts of this presentation — and make one wonder why TV clung so long to live presentation when film was already a mature technology and it would have seemed that the Hollywood studios, which had routinely made shorts and “B” films, should have been able to tap the TV market by making shows of similar length (a half-hour sitcom is basically the length of a two-reeler and an hour-long drama is a bit shorter than the average “B” feature) and using the far more flexible medium of film. Live TV seems to have been a hangover from the days of radio, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s had been built around live performance rather than recordings because the records of the early period, with their limited frequency range and nasty surface noise, sounded definitely inferior to live broadcasts. That wasn’t the case by the 1950’s — in which records proved the salvation of radio as a medium — but nonetheless many of the radio people who ran early TV steadfastly insisted on live broadcasting even after Desi Arnaz had proven the artistic and commercial effectiveness of filming with a studio audience (not only did the shows look better on film than they did live, but they could be rerun), and it was only the advent of videotape that finally killed off live TV.

Flowers from a Stranger is one of the better Studio Ones we’ve seen, a bit derivative of Gaslight but still genuinely thrilling despite the relentless overacting of Felicia Montealegre — one doesn’t expect to see a show with Yul Brynner in which he’s the more understated of the two principals! I’d encountered Montealegre only once before, on the infamous Columbia LP (reissued on CD by Sony) of Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “Kaddish,” a memorial to John F. Kennedy in which Mr. Bernstein wrote a ridiculous narration basically yelling at God for allowing JFK’s assassination to happen — and Mrs. Bernstein hurled her husband’s text at the microphones with a violent anger that was supposed to be moving and instead just came off as silly. I had made allowances for her performances on the basis that she was reading the narration the way her husband wanted — but in Flowers from a Stranger she’s screaming her lines out in just about the same way, which suggests that maybe that was the only way she knew how to act.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Incubus (Contempo III Productions, 1966)

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

The film was Incubus, a 1966 effort written and directed by Leslie Stevens for something called “Contempo III Productions,” a movie about devils attempting to entrap human souls shot in Big Sur, California (with extensive location work at the grounds of one of the famous missions — I joked that in the history of films shot at missions in that part of California, at the top of the quality scale is Vertigo and at the bottom is Incubus) and distinguished in that all the dialogue is in Esperanto. Charles has been an Esperantist for years — he was attending regular meetings of the local Esperanto Club when we first started dating and still is in touch with some of the people who were in it — and when I mentioned to him that Incubus had come out on DVD and asked if he would be interested in it, he said it had a notorious reputation among Esperantists because the Esperanto in it was very badly pronounced — as if none of the actors in it had known Esperanto and all had learned their lines phonetically.

The film opens with a long tracking shot through some wild landscapes that makes it look as if once upon a time Stevens had seen Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and had an orgasm then and there, though for most of the movie his inspiration — both thematic and visual — seemed to be Ingmar Bergman. It’s a story about God and the Devil, it’s filmed in an unusual language, the visual look is high-contrast black-and-white, there are a lot of stark closeups of the characters and the script is so elliptical that at times the characters aren’t sure of their own identities. After the opening we end up on Big Sur’s famous beach and meet Kia (Allyson Ames), a succubus — meaning a devil’s minion who picks out living people who have already degraded themselves morally, finishes the job and dispatches their souls to hell — and she’s shown at work on one such person, luring him into the water with her and then stepping on his face so he drowns. Then she and her older sister Amael (Eloise Hart), who also seems to be her direct supervisor in the devil’s hierarchy, have an argument: Kia (whose name is pronounced “KY-uh,” not “KEE-uh” as in the modern-day car) insists that the real challenge would be to seduce someone who was morally blameless and win his soul for hell.

Amael tries to stop her but Kia won’t be deterred, and the morally blameless soul she’s set her sights upon belongs to Marc (William Shatner, top-billed and proving throughout that he’s just as adept at overacting in a language he doesn’t understand as he is in English), an officer in some sort of military service (at least we intuit that from his costume), who’s living with a woman named Arndis (Ann Atmar), who’s supposed to be his sister but whose relationship, if indeed it is biological rather than romantic, seems on the verge of heading for Die Walküre territory any moment. (So maybe Marc’s soul isn’t so morally pure after all.) Much of the movie is simply Marc and Kia walking through the woods together, sometimes next to each other, sometimes with her following him and sometimes with him following her — this is the sort of movie you could sleep through for major stretches and not miss much — until Amael decides to help kick-start the damnation of Marc by kidnapping Arndis (we get a shot of her upside down — and she’s not the only character here who gets filmed upside-down; apparently Stevens liked that effect) and ultimately summoning the Incubus (Milos Milos — that’s what his credit said!) to assume human form and either seduce her or torture her to death; she resists the former so ends up stuck with the latter.

Marc goes apoplectic with grief and rage after Arndis dies — judging from Charles’ reaction, the scene in which Marc screams the Esperanto for “My sister! My sister!” is the most unintentionally hilarious mispronunciation of the language in the entire movie — but in a final sequence taking place under the cross of the mission (for all his Bergmanic pretensions, Leslie Stevens doesn’t have the most sophisticated sense of symbolism imaginable), Marc succeeds not only in holding on to his own salvation but bringing Kia over to the light side as they both die, despite the last-ditch attempt of the Incubus to get them both on Satan’s eternal team by changing into his natural form — which looks like a badly made velveteen costume of a person with a goat’s head and proves that Stevens should have heeded the word of St. Val Lewton: if you don’t have the budget to create a truly convincing monster, don’t try; instead suggest the evil one’s presence with sound alone.

Midway through Incubus — which comes off as a bizarre mixture of Lolita and Faust with admixtures of The Terror, that really silly movie Roger Corman filmed in three days to take advantage of extra days he had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson under contract after finishing The Raven early — I joked to Charles that had Roger Corman directed Incubus it would be just as cheesy and stupid, but also a lot more fun; and Charles said Incubus was the work of a director at Roger Corman’s talent level aspiring to Ingmar Bergman’s. It’s the sort of bad movie that’s utterly haunting, at least partly because so many things in it do go well: Conrad Hall’s high-contrast cinematography expertly creates the mood (and certainly deserved a better script!), as does Dominic Frontiere’s bizarrely spooky musical score (already heard, it seems, in a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits). It’s true that the film is almost an object lesson in how not to pronounce Esperanto (Charles pointed out that from the beginning, when narrator Paolo Cossa is giving us the exposition, he’s accenting virtually every multi-syllable word on the last syllable, something that is never done in Esperanto), and one trivia poster said that Stevens deliberately wanted the film to be incomprehensible, while another defended Shatner in particular by saying he grew up in Montreal and thereby may have been pronouncing Esperanto as if it were French. (Not so, said Charles; Shatner’s mistakes were those of a native English speaker, not a French speaker.)

The traumas surrounding Incubus might have made a more interesting movie than the film itself; according to various contributors, on the way to the location the crew encountered a hippie-type and blew him off when he asked them who they were and what they were filming. The hippie then put a curse on the production, and whether it was the result of a curse or not there was quite a lot of bad stuff associated both with the film and its cast members. Milos Milos was involved in a murder-suicide with Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife, Ann Atmar also committed suicide and the film itself, after a modestly successful release in France, was lost when the processing lab mistakenly destroyed the negative and all prints — and the film was thought completely lost until a French print turned up in the 1990’s and was restored for a DVD release. It’s a fascinating film in a curious way — mainly due to the chasm between its aspirations and its actual achievement — but this is one lost movie (unlike such welcome rediscoveries as Rex Ingram’s The Magician — which could have been an object lesson to Leslie Stevens on how to make a movie about Satanism — and The Black Camel) that wouldn’t have been much of a tragedy if it had stayed lost.

Two Charley Chase Shorts: “The Real McCoy” and “Young Ironsides” (Hal Roach/MGM, 1930-1931)

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

Afterwards Charles and I looked for something short we could watch just as a cinematic palate-cleanser after the miserable experience of Incubus, and I found it in a couple of Charley Chase shorts from Hal Roach (released through MGM) in the early 1930’s that TCM had shown as filler following their presentation of Miss Mend (a four-hour plus Soviet silent from 1926 that was apparently issued originally as a serial, though the version Flicker Alley prepared for TCM isn’t a serial — it’s just spliced together to create a very long feature). The first short on the agenda was The Real McCoy, made in 1930, directed by one Warren Doane (a name otherwise unknown to me) and with no writer credit, which starts with a long silent scene in which Chase is driving down a rural road in a sports car (at least what passed for one in the U.S. in 1930) and Edgar Kennedy, as a motorcycle cop, is in hot pursuit. Chase misses a “Detour-Bridge Out” sign and drives off a washed-out bridge into a creek — and so does Kennedy in the middle of following him — but not before he’s seen a hot-looking blonde (Thelma Todd) and decided he wants to stay in this small town to get in her pants.

He tries various means to get to know her, including attempting to pose as a mountain man because he’s been told (by the Kennedy character) that the people in the mountains distrust outsiders and therefore he’ll never be able to get next to her if he can’t appear to be one of the locals. He poses as the last of the McCoys (as in the Hatfields and … ) and is warned that the locals will shoot him at any opportunity if they find out he’s an outsider, but they’re too gallant to murder a cripple. Immediately on hearing that, Chase starts affecting a limp wherever he walks. As part of his mountain-man outfit he gets a hat made out of skunk fur, but a hunter who sees the hat over the edge of a fence thinks it’s a live skunk and shoots it off Chase’s head — and when Chase picks it up again he doesn’t get the hat: he gets an actual, odoriferous skunk and puts it on top of his head, then wonders, when he finally does get let into Thelma’s house, why she keeps insisting on first opening the windows and then closing them again. She offers to take his hat — and then immediately throws it away again. Meeting her again under less fragrant circumstances, he gets her to agree to be his date at the local square dance — whereupon someone challenges his mountain-man pose and insists he prove his bona fides by joining the local bluegrass ensemble in a song — which Chase sings quite capably, besides playing a dizzying array of instruments including banjo, violin, jew’s harp and ocarina. (Charley Chase, musical star — who knew?)

The finale is set off by another series of complications: on one of his initial attempts to approach Thelma, Charley split his pants open and Kennedy helpfully pinned them back up … with his cop’s badge. Well, in a community full of moonshiners holding a police badge is virtually a death sentence — and when Chase takes off his coat at the dance the badge is revealed on his ass and he has to get away again, only to find that his sports car (which has been fished out of the water in the meantime) won’t move because its back wheel is stuck in mud. (He thinks it’s moving because a square-shaped array of clotheslines is being blown in the wind behind him — the wind is turning the clothes into sails and spinning the thing, an ironic gag based on the carousels with painted backdrops by which movie backgrounds were frequently supplied before the advent of process screens.)

The Real McCoy is the sort of simple, basic comedy at which Hal Roach’s studio excelled, though the film they showed after it, Young Ironsides (the title is a pun on the naval costume drama Old Ironsides about the 1812 War, produced by Paramount in 1926, but the two films otherwise have nothing in common and this one is not a spoof of the other), was even funnier and a good deal more typical Roach fare. The director was Charley Chase’s brother, James Parrott (Parrott was the family name and Charley’s own directorial efforts were signed “Charley Parrott”) and the writer was H. M. “Beanie” Walker, who began at Roach as a title writer and was one of the few who graduated from that job to full-fledged screenwriter in the talkie era. This time the story is about the efforts of Muriel Evans (the name of both character and actress) to enter the big beauty contest at Ocean Beach, and the efforts of her father, J. Caldwall Evans (Clarence Wilson, the great comic villain of W. C. Fields’ movies Tillie and Gus and The Old-Fashioned Way), to stop her. In order to stop her he hires a detective named “Fearless” (Charley Chase) — who of course is introduced when a mouse crawls up his walking stick and he erupts with comic fright, doing a pratfall across the Evans’ living room and breaking up a serving cart — for $1,000.

Fearless traces her to the pageant, tries to get on the 10th floor where the beauty-contest girls are staying, is kept out by the house detective (Heinie Conklin) but has already met Muriel Evans on the train and fallen in love with her without knowing who she is. There are some racy gags in this one, reflecting this film’s position in the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, including one in which Chase is on a train attempting to eat a stalk of asparagus, only the asparagus keeps going limp and collapsing before he can get it into his mouth — and if that weren’t Gay enough, there’s a scene in which he’s in a compartment with Muriel and a large man (an almost unrecognizable Billy Gilbert). The train goes through a tunnel and the room is plunged into pitch-darkness, and Chase is muttering endearments to his ladylove — only when the lights go on again, you guessed it, Charlie is muttering endearments to Billy Gilbert instead. Our Hero apologizes, and Gilbert, in the queeniest voice imaginable, says, “Oh, no! I don’t mind at all!” Eventually Chase gets to the hotel where the contest is being held and thinks he’s locked Muriel in her closet so she can’t get out and appear in the contest — only it turns out he’s locked in the house detective instead, and the house detective arrests Chase for owing $1,000 in room rent back east.

Just then, in a legitimately surprising finish, Muriel finds out that her father was supposed to pay Chase $1,000 to keep her out of the beauty contest and she withdraws, insists that dad pay Chase the money, and thereby gets her new boyfriend off the hook at last. These aren’t great films but they are reliable laugh-getters and considerably funnier than anything being made today, not only because they don’t depend on cheap sex jokes for their humor but also because they’re considerably better constructed, with gag following and topping gag after gag in a style of continuously increasing merriment that Hollywood seems to have long since forgotten.

The Chinese Ring (Monogram, 1947)

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

The night before Charles and I had watched the last Charlie Chan movie in the recent four-disc TCM DVD set of the later Monogram Chans — three of the last ones with Sidney Toler, including Dark Alibi (a quite good “B” thriller with a strong plot — centered around a deserted theatrical warehouse and Chan’s efforts to find an unjustly convicted man innocent just days before he’s scheduled to be executed — it was certainly the last good Chan in the sequence with Toler, who was diagnosed with cancer around this time and was already fatally ill when he made the next two in the box, Dangerous Money and The Trap) and this one, The Chinese Ring from 1947 and the first of the six final Monogram Chans made with actor Roland Winters.

Like Toler, Winters was American-born, and since he didn’t have the slightly slanted eyes that had made it easier for Toler and Warner Oland to appear Asian, he ultimately had to squint on camera during every take. “They tried makeup on my eyes, but it wouldn’t work,” Winters later recalled. “They fiddled around with wax for the eyes, putty and stuff. But it didn’t work either. So I did it myself. I just squinted. Before every shot, the director would say, ‘Remember the eyes!’” In order to save money, Monogram recycled at least two of the plots for their last six Chans from the Oriental-detective series they’d done from 1938 to 1940 with Boris Karloff playing James Lee Wong — movies that got made because Monogram wanted to cash in on the popularity of the Warner Oland Chans at Fox and Karloff signed for because horror films had faded in popularity and it was a convenient way to keep working. The Chinese Ring was based on a film that has always been my favorite of the Wongs — the third one in the sequence, Mr. Wong in Chinatown — and the same screenwriter, W. Scott Darling, was credited, though I don’t know whether Darling did any actual work on The Chinese Ring or they simply copied his script so exactly (except for changing the character names) no other writer qualified for credit.

After the low energy of the last two Toler Chans, it was a pleasure to see Roland Winters acting the role with some of the power and authority Toler had had in his better, healthier days, and even getting a few Chan aphorisms into his dialogue (some of them, as Charles pointed out, coming directly from Earl Derr Biggers’ original Chan novels). The opening reel is quite well done: a mysterious young woman comes to Chan’s home at night and doesn’t see him, but does see his Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung — his last name misspelled “Young” as it was in all his Chan films for Monogram), and his manservant Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, who’d been one of the highlights in previous Monogram Chans but who seems wasted in this one, mainly because he didn’t get the custom-tailored comic material that showed him off at his best). She won’t tell either of them what she wants, and soon enough she’s killed with a dart from a poisoned blowgun by a man lurking outside in front of an open window. (This happened in so many of the Chan films one would think Charlie Chan would finally learn his lesson and realize that the only way to preserve the lives of his houseguests was to keep his windows closed.) The only clues to her identity are a Chinese ring she left behind — which Charlie Chan immediately recognizes — and a scrawl reading, “Cap’t. K — ” she left on a pad on his desk.

It turns out that she was the victim of a scam by two con artists, both of them with names beginning with K — Captain Kong, who commanded the ship that brought her from China; and Kelso, owner of a phony airplane factory; she had come with a small fortune to buy planes for her faction in the Chinese civil war (a plot line that was a bit more dated in 1947 than it had been in 1939) and they were trying to scam her out of it, only her real killer was her banker, Armstrong (Byron Foulger), who had ripped off her money even before the phony airplane company could do so and killed her when she was about to discover what he’d done. The Chinese Ring could have been a movie on the level of its predecessor except that Monogram assigned it to an even duller director than the one who made the original, William Nigh — William Beaudine, who made one of the worst Bela Lugosi Monograms (The Ape Man) and whose only truly great film was the 1934 comedy The Old-Fashioned Way, starring (and written by) W. C. Fields. But then again, Fields was one of those people with whom anybody could direct a great movie: all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus, and the mikes were open wide enough to capture his dialogue. Beaudine’s handling of The Chinese Ring works beautifully in the genuinely suspenseful and atmospheric opening sequence, but for the remaining six reels he’s so dull he makes Nigh look like Alfred Hitchcock by comparison — and The Chinese Ring emerges as the sort of mediocre movie that just misses cut-above-the-normal-“B” status.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Trap (Monogram, 1946)

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

Released November 30, 1946 — two and one-half months before the death of its star, Sidney Toler, from cancer — The Trap was the last Charlie Chan film with Toler and his last film, period, since once he resumed the Chan series at Monogram in 1944 with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service after a two-year hiatus following the cancellation of the series at 20th Century-Fox, he played nothing else except an Anglo detective named Sully in a 1945 film called It’s In the Bag — and incidentally my entry on Dangerous Money was wrong: Toler did appear in one of the Sternberg-Dietrich films, but not Shanghai Express and not as an Asian — that was Warner Oland! — but the next one, Blonde Venus, as a non-Asian but still a detective.

The Trap is actually a surprisingly entertaining film, directed by Howard Bretherton from another script by Miriam Kissinger, though it’s hardly surprising that Toler walked his way through the part of Charlie Chan with little or none of his previous authority — let’s face it, the man was dying! The Trap opens with some nice black-and-white nature shots of the beach at Malibu, then cuts to a sign of a Malibu Beach realty office — so at least Malibu is playing itself in this film rather than standing in for Coney Island, Dover or Monaco. We then see a cop (played by Kirk Alyn, the movies’ first live-action Superman — he played the role in two Columbia serials in the late 1940’s before George Reeves got it in a B-movie and then on TV — so Toler as Chan got to appear in movies with a future Superman as well as a future Batman, Robert Lowery, in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and Murder Over New York, the latter of which also featured former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez!) flag down a station wagon and accuse its driver of speeding.

The driver is circus impresario Cole-King (Howard Negley), who’s finished his troupe’s season and has rented a house on Malibu Beach for himself and the female members of his company to rest. His show’s star, Marcia (Anne Nagel, who usually played nice girls but here is quite effective as a bitch), is a prima donna in both senses of the word, throwing her weight around, insisting on a room of her own and a separate room for her Chinese maid San Toy (Barbara Jean Wong) while all the other girls have to sleep in the same room. She makes herself so hated by everybody in the troupe any reasonably movie-savvy audience member assumes she’ll be the first one to get killed — and Miriam Kissinger throws us a reasonably surprising curveball and instead makes the first victim Lois (Jan Bryant), another member of the troupe whom Marcia knew was underage and thereby blackmailed into stealing some letters from a third troupe member, Adelaide Brandt (Tanis Chandler) — though Marcia duly disappears and all the other girls are suspects, including Clementine (Rita Quigley), who’s supposed to have been a star in whichever European country she came from, France or Switzerland (Miriam Kissinger seems never to have decided which, and Quigley’s accent is as ambiguous as the script on this point).

Toler doesn’t enter into the action until 16 minutes into this 62-minute film — withholding the presence of the detective until an actual crime is committed is an acceptable genre convention, though here it may also have been to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on the terminally ill star — through a neat bit of mistaken identity: it seems that the Chinese servant girl San Toy has been dating Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung — once again Monogram insisted on spelling his last name “Young”!) and she’s called over to where he’s staying and asked for “Detective Chan,” and their chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, making a welcome return to the series after his replacement by the less amusing Willie Best in Dangerous Money, even though Kissinger didn’t bother coming up with much in the way of material for him and so he’s moderately amusing instead of screamingly funny) relays the message to Charlie Chan instead. There are a few interesting characters, including a forbidding maidservant who runs the Old Dark House where the circus girls are holing up, who’s given the ridiculous name “Mrs. Weebles” and is played by Minerva Urecal in so blatant an imitation of Judith Anderson’s performance as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca one expects her to announce imperiously, “I happen to be the president of the Judith Anderson Fan Club!” (The page on The Trap lists her character as “Miss Weebles,” but I distinctly heard “Mrs.” on the soundtrack.) Also on board are a physical therapist, Dr. Brandt (Walden Boyle), husband of Adelaide — and though we’ve originally been led to believe there’s some sort of nasty sex scandal behind the blackmail plot, it turns out that the letters Adelaide had in her trunk, that Marcia wanted Lois to steal, were to the California state medical board aimed at getting Dr. Brandt, a European refugee, admitted to practice medicine in the U.S.

The film has a comfortable air; the sets are more substantial than usual in a Monogram movie and the cinematography by James S. Brown, Jr. is well lit and even occasionally atmospheric (and well served by the TCM-Warner Home Video transfer); and the acting, especially from Nagel, Boyle and Urecal, is also better than average for a Monogram Chan, and though the “solution” to the mystery is a bit of a cheat — the girls (Marcia later turns up dead, her corpse found on the beach in a clump of seaweed), garroted by a silk cord, were killed by Mrs. Thorn (Lois Austin), ex-wife of Cole-King, who hoped he would take her back when she returned to the circus; instead he hired her as wardrobe mistress and she hatched a revenge plot that for some bizarre reason Miriam Kissinger didn’t make too clear took the form of knocking off his performers and thereby embarrassing him and putting him out of business — the film is fun. One amusing mistake: when Lois is killed in the house the circus’s press agent, Rick Daniels (Larry Blake), suggests that they take the body out and dump it on the beach to make it look like a drowning death instead of a murder. “How can you possibly be so callused?” Cole-King replies — obviously the word meant was ‘callous.” The Trap wasn’t a bad movie for Toler to make his exit on, but for anyone who remembers the power he (and Warner Oland before him!) had brought to the role at Fox it’s rather sad to watch his low-energy performance here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dangerous Money (Monogram, 1946)

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

I cracked open the TCM Home Video boxed set of four of the Monogram Charlie Chan movies, one of which — the marvelous Dark Alibi, directed by Phil Karlson (this and his other entry in the series, The Shanghai Cobra, are by a pretty wide margin the best of the Monogram Chans — Dark Alibi has a genuinely thrilling story and both benefit quite handsomely by a director who was on his way up rather than on his way down, and who clearly gave a damn about what he was doing) — we’d already seen. The one we ran last night was Dangerous Money, Toler’s next-to-last film in the role (indeed, his next-to-last film, period) before he died in 1947 after one more Monogram Chan, The Trap (also included in the box).

Our spider-senses started to tingle from the opening credits, which didn’t include Benson Fong (as Charlie’s Number Three Son and successor to the sidekick role Keye Luke had had in the Warner Oland Chans and Victor Sen Yung in the Tolers at Fox) and, more seriously, didn’t include Mantan Moreland either — though Moreland mostly played the stupid Black servant stereotype, he was able to get a bit of street-smarts into his characterization and as a result he and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson are about the only Black comedians from this era of Hollywood film whose work is still funny. Alas, Fong was replaced by Victor Sen Yung, returning to the series for the remaining Monogram Chans (except for the very last one, Sky Dragon — the title refers to an airplane — which went even farther back in Chan history and brought back Keye Luke!); Fox had left off his Anglo first name and billed him as “Sen Yung,” and Monogram re-Victored him but misspelled his last name “Young”! Moreland was replaced by Willie Best, who had fought back against the producers who had insisted on billing him as “Sleep ’n Eat” in his earliest films and had won the accolade from Bob Hope (who, for all his Right-wing reputation, was anti-racist well before anti-racism was cool) as the greatest natural comedian he’d ever worked with, but who somehow never managed to transcend that stupid, scared servant stereotype the way Moreland did. (Intriguingly, in working out a character name for him screenwriter Miriam Kissinger — no relation, I presume — called him “Chattanooga Brown,” whereas Moreland had been named after another Southern city: “Birmingham Brown.”)

The title of Dangerous Money refers to “hot money” the U.S. Treasury Department is worried about being passed in the Philippines, along with art treasures that are being stolen from collectors in Australia and New Zealand and smuggled through the Philippines into the U.S. The opening scene shows Chan on board a ship sailing from San Francisco to Samoa, trying to have a confidential conversation with a Treasury Department agent who’s a close friend of his, while various passengers walk by them on the decks for reasons either innocuous and sinister. It’s by far the best sequence in the film (which incidentally is beautifully transferred on this Warner Home Video DVD — the technical quality is so far above the downloads and public-domain videotapes and DVD’s of the Monogram Chans it’s worth spending the extra money for the authorized editions if you’re really serious about these films) and it climaxes when an unseen hand saws through a rope on board the ship and a pulley crashes down and nearly kills the agent — Chan managed to push him out of the way at the last minute. But as anyone who’s seen the previous films in the series would immediately guess, the agent’s reprieve is just a temporary one: he’s killed by a thrown (we think) knife in the middle of an on-board show that features a professional knife-thrower (though he’s a red herring and is later murdered himself).

There are the usual quirky suspects, including Professor Martin (Emmett Vogan), an ichthyologist who has his own private museum in Samoa (where the second half of the film takes place, apparently to reuse the sets Monogram had left over from Call of the Jungle and similar South Seas non-epics); salesman P. T. Burke (Dick Elliott), who’s really a blackmailer; the people he’s blackmailing, purser George Brace (Joseph Allen) and his girlfriend, Rona Simmonds (Gloria Warren), who’s been forced to help the gang smuggle the usual objets d’art we’re told are priceless but look like cheap bling, as usual — and just about everybody in the dramatis personae turns out to be involved in the plot, either carrying it out or on the side of law enforcement trying to stop it. The ringleaders, according to the big dramatic revelation at the end, are Reverend Dr. Whipple (Leslie Denison) — did Chan start to suspect him when he caught him squeezing the toilet paper? — and his “wife,” who turns out to be smuggler Joe Murdock (Alan Douglas), who’s gone in drag through the entire movie as a cover (they hid their money inside the stuffed fish in Professor Martin’s museum — in which Willie Best ends up in a mock wrestling match with a model octopus in the funniest scene in the film). It’s also revealed that the fatal knives that have been stabbing people in the back throughout the movie haven’t been thrown, but have been shot from a harpoon-like gun — which Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) predictably goes wild with at the end of the film.

Dangerous Money has a legitimately surprising ending but it’s one of those movies in which we really don’t care whodunit, though overall the film is relatively well made — William Sickner’s cinematography has a nice sense of atmosphere and is blessedly free of the shadow “moustaches” with which he adorned some of the women characters in earlier films; and the director, Terry Morse, had done some better-than-average “B”’s at Warners and knew how to stage an effective chase scene even though he was hamstrung by Monogram’s limited set-construction budget: the actors chase each other all too revealingly around the same pieces of ship’s decks and the single staircase leading them, sets that become so familiar we want to wave and say hello to them. The acting is less competent than the staging and the cinematography; Toler is visibly old and tiring of the role — this looks like a film made by a star who had less than a year to live — and as Charles noted, sometimes he speaks in his familiar Chan voice and sometimes in his normal American inflections with no hint of a Chinese accent, and he’s not always attentive to the need to slow down his line delivery to portray the inscrutable Chinese — but then he’d already played Chan in 20 previous films (more than any other actor in the role) and one could understand him being tired of the part and longing for the days when he’d got to do his faux-Chinese act in great movies like the Sternberg-Dietrich Shanghai Express.

College Confidential (Universal-International, 1960)

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

Charles and I also screened the film College Confidential, one I’d been curious about since I’d caught a bit of it on TCM one Friday night and an unlikely movie produced and directed by Albert Zugsmith, who in cooperation with great directors had made marvelous films at Universal-International like Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels and Touch of Evil. Alas, shortly after that Zugsmith decided that he didn’t need people like Douglas Sirk or Orson Welles and he could direct his productions himself — resulting in High School Confidential, a movie I haven’t seen since the 1970’s but which I recall as a slovenly production whose only saving graces were exciting sequences of Jerry Lee Lewis performing the title song at the beginning and end of the film.

College Confidential was marketed as a follow-up, since it had a similar teen-exploitation theme and shared at least one major star (if you could call her that) with its prep predecessor: Mamie Van Doren. She plays Sally Blake, daughter of Ted (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Edna (Pamela — Mrs. James — Mason), who in the opening scene gets let out of one of the big-finned cars popular in 1960, when this film was made, at 2:45 a.m. after a wild night of parking and petting (and it’s a measure of how dated this film is that those are the words used in the script by Irving Shulman, adapted from an “original” story by, you guessed it, Albert Zugsmith himself) with her boyfriend. To avoid getting him pinned with the blame, she lies and says she spent the night with Professor Steve “Mac” MacInter (Steve Allen, top-billed and a co-producer of the film), a sociologist at Collins College who’s doing a research project on teen attitudes towards morality, including but not limited to sexual morality. The professor is being sponsored by the head of the Collins sociology department, Henry Addison (Herbert Marshall — whose presence here puts Mamie Van Doren one degree of separation from Greta Garbo!), and is also engaged to Addison’s daughter — though she breaks off the engagement when she catches the professor in his office, with the door locked, with exchange student Gozo Lazlo (Ziva Rodann).

As utterly unlikely as it would seem that the sexual union of Elisha Cook, Jr. and Pamela Mason would wreak Mamie Van Doren on the world, the genetic unlikelihood of her putative parentage is actually one of the most entertaining things about this quirky movie, which for the most part achieves bad-movie brilliance and occasionally flirts with serious issues about sex, censorship and the pitfalls of traditional morality. Mac meets up with New York Times reporter Betty Duquesne (played by Allen’s real-life wife, Jayne Meadows, who occasionally shows signs of the power she brought to her marvelous portrayal of the villainess in The Lady in the Lake pre-Allen 13 years earlier), who received an anonymous letter alerting her to the student-professor sex going on at Collins under the guise of “sociological research,” and the crisis builds to a head when so many allegations are made against Mac that he’s actually put on trial by local magistrate Sam Grover (Mickey Shaughnessy) on charges of corrupting the morals of youth. In fact, that’s where the movie begins — with a courtroom (actually the main space of Grover’s general store, which is how he makes his living) filled to the brim with real-life reporters and columnists of the day, including Walter Winchell (on the downgrade as a journalist but soon to make a quirky comeback as the narrator on the TV series The Untouchables), Sheilah Graham (who puts Mamie Van Doren one degree of separation from F. Scott Fitzgerald!), Louis Sobol and Earl Wilson, all there to cover a case they’re comparing to the Scopes trial.

The hearing — a preliminary proceeding to determine if there’s enough evidence against Mac to refer to a grand jury, which will then consider an indictment and a subsequent trial in which Grover rather oddly calls a “real court” — turns out to be something of a fizzle even though we’ve already seen the event on which most of the charges are based, a party Mac gave at his beach house for the students involved in the survey in which he was supposed to serve them non-alcoholic punch and show them the movies he’d taken earlier of them at play at the local lake (“played” by Ray Corrigan’s Hollywood ranch), only somebody spiked the punch and spliced a porn movie at the end of the lakeshore footage. Though he’s not supposed to testify, Mac makes a speech in court about advancing knowledge and all the misunderstood scientists and researchers of generations past; he also confesses that he’s a recovering alcoholic — he’d done a previous research project among homeless people and, in order to gain their confidence, had drunk along with them until he was addicted — and in a “surprise” ending Charles guessed and I didn’t, it turns out that the whole thing was masterminded by Sam Grover, who wanted to start a controversy so all those famous people would come to town and launch his daughter Fay (Cathy Crosby) on a screen career — a career she doesn’t want because, as she whines, “All I want is to get married!

College Confidential is a film very much of its time — though the U.S. remains as screwed up in its cultural response to sex now as it was then — and it’s variably acted: Mr. and Mrs. Allen actually bring real authority to their preposterous roles, Elisha Cook, Jr. (playing a legitimate departure from his usual small-time crook roles) takes the acting honors among the rest of the cast, and Mamie Van Doren acts credibly in some scenes but blows her believability by whining, moping or screaming through others (she was hardly in the same league as her role model, Marilyn Monroe, but she wasn’t totally untalented either); Conway Twitty sings a song and a much wimpier pop-rocker of the era, Randy Sparks, sings two songs — one of which quite obviously took its melody from “Down by the Riverside,” presumably Zugsmith exploiting something that was already in the public domain, which led me to joke to Charles, “I liked it better with the original lyrics” — plus a reprise (the fact that the less talented musician gets more screen time is typical of the way Zugsmith’s self-directed projects consistently wasted the talents attached to them); and the lakeshore footage at least allows both cheesecake and beefcake fans some glimpses of nubile young flesh (though the males are wearing the loose-fitting shorts of the day and therefore you get little or nothing in the basket department).

It’s a movie that probably had more potential than was realized — it’s clear from Irving Shulman’s clunky writing why Nicholas Ray fired him from Rebel Without a Cause and replaced him with Stewart Stern! — and even within the strictures of the Production Code and the prevailing mores c. 1960 could have made some statements about academic and sexual freedom and been a lot more interesting than it was, but it’s still a nice, engaging bit of good clean dirty fun — though the funniest line of the film is an “in” joke: when Sally Blake, played by Mamie Van Doren, takes the witness stand Walter Winchell describes her as “a Mamie Van Doren type”!

The Woman Condemned (Willis Kent Productions, 1934)

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

The night before last Charles and I had squeezed in a movie at the end of the evening: The Woman Condemned, a 1934 film from Willis Kent Productions with direction credited to Mrs. Wallace Reid (most of the women directors who tried to crack the glass ceiling on that job in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s are forgotten but Mrs. Wallace Reid — some of whose films were credited under her own name, Dorothy Davenport — is even more forgotten than most; if she has any reputation at all today it’s as the director of both the silent and sound versions of The Road to Ruin, a slightly better-than-average exploitation number whose main selling point was probably her reputation as the widow of the first Hollywood movie star to die a drug-related death) and with no writing credit at all, so it’s impossible to determine just who to blame for the dull, soporific script that wasted a potentially compelling premise.

The film opens with the final broadcast of singer Jane Merrick’s (Lola Lane) radio show for the season — she’s taking a layoff and hasn’t told either the network, the ad agency that put the show together, or the sponsor how long she’s going to be out — and no sooner has she done her last show than she disappears completely. Jim Wallace (Jason Robards, Sr.), her producer, who’s had an unrequited crush on her, hires a private detective agency to find her — and the head of the agency tells him that because of Jane’s fame, he’ll have to assign an undercover operative to tail her and even Jim won’t know who this person is. The person turns out to be Barbara Hammond (Claudia Dell, top-billed — two years after she co-starred in the first version of Destry Rides Again with Tom Mix at Universal), who gets caught on the fire escape outside Jane’s apartment and is arrested for burglary. Crime reporter Jerry Beal (Richard Hemingway — presumably no relation) is immediately smitten with her and tells the night-court judge he’s engaged to her — whereupon the judge immediately marries them. She wants to get the marriage annulled but he wants to make a go of it, and asks her on a dinner date. It turns out that the two men, Jim and Jerry, are friends, and Jim persuades Jerry not to publish the story of Jane’s disappearance.

Barbara sneaks into Jane’s apartment and overhears a conversation between her and a thug who’s apparently been blackmailing her, then sees the thug shoot her dead — only Jane appears as a live character later in the story. Barbara gets arrested and charged with the murder (she picked up the murder weapon at the scene and got her fingerprints on it, a mistake a trained private detective shouldn’t have made), and Jerry launches his own investigation and traces the still-living Jane to a sanitarium operated by a Dr. Wagner (Mischa Auer, playing a serious role — as he usually did in Willis Kent’s productions before he got typecast as a comedian), and at one point it looks like Dr. Wagner is a mad scientist working on a bizarre experiment to bring Jane back to life. He isn’t, though — he’s just a surgeon doing a plastic job on her to remove an embarrassing birthmark — and eventually it turns out that the murder victim wasn’t Jane but her twin sister (that’s such a cliché no wonder the screenwriter wanted to remain anonymous!), and Jane agrees to impersonate her sister’s ghost to trick the killer, gangster “Dapper Dan,” who murdered Jane’s sister after she broke up their relationship.

The Woman Condemned is one of those 1930’s indies that takes a potentially provocative premise and totally ruins it by inept execution; the acting is barely competent, too much of the action is staged in dull long shots, for something that’s supposed to be a thriller there’s almost no sense of pace, and cinematographer James Diamond offers utterly no sense of atmosphere; the story cries out for proto-noir visual effects and gets scene after scene of evenly lit gray tones with utterly no attempt to create any drama visually. It’s especially disappointing since the only other Davenport-directed film I’ve seen, the sound version of The Road to Ruin, contained at least a few visually compelling shots — not this one, though.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Live Once, Die Twice (Anne Carlucci Productions, J. B. Media, Power/Lifetime, 2006)

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

The film was Live Once, Die Twice, made in 2006 by Anne Carlucci Productions in association with J. B. Media and Power (it seems that no movie, no matter how small, can be made by just one company anymore), which had the makings of a potentially good thriller if the screenwriter, John Benjamin Martin, had known how to keep his story within at least the thin bounds of plausibility instead of throwing us so many wrenching curveballs that it was hard to keep suspending disbelief over and over again every time Martin wanted us to. The film opens with a scene inside a metal works, with some sort of molten metal being poured into molds and turned into ingots, though what metal we’re dealing with and the significance of this whole thing is not made clear until later.

We then meet contented suburban housewife Nicole Lauker (Kellie Martin) and her husband Evan (Martin Cummins) in the throes of a hot sexual encounter — the sort of soft-core porn sequence that makes a lot of Lifetime’s movies worth watching even if they aren’t especially interesting otherwise (and Cummins is medium-height and sandy-haired but is a lot hunkier than the norm for a Lifetime leading man). As far as Nicole knows, Evan is a commercial real-estate broker and his job requires him to do a lot of traveling and be out of town at least half of every year. Just then he’s scheduled to go on a fishing trip with his buddies Daniel Dagan (Edward Yankie) and George Bobich (Wladyslaw Padowicz). She shows up at the dock trying to make a half-assed attempt to get them to take her with them — Evan says ”it’s a guy thing” and refuses — and Nicole briefly wonders why they don’t seem to have packed any bait when they’re supposedly going fishing, and instead virtually everything they’ve packed is beer — that and a mysterious cooler whose contents are so heavy Nicole says, “What have you got in this thing — lead?”

Then Nicole receives word that Evan and George (Dan called in to say he’d been in an “accident” and bailed on the trip at the last minute) have presumably been killed when their boat exploded, and after that she starts getting attention from the FBI, in the form of a pair of African-American agents, one male (Danny Blanco Hall) and one female (Millie Tresierra) — though severely butch and with her hair cut shorter than her partner’s — who are convinced that her husband was part of a criminal conspiracy and so was she. Nicole also gets visited by Dan, who tells her that her husband was in a criminal conspiracy — not drugs, as the police and FBI couple have been hinting, but smuggling platinum, and the people who hired Evan to smuggle it are going to be after her because they’d just entrusted him with $5 million worth of the stuff and they’re going to want either him, the platinum or the money. Shortly thereafter Dan is murdered — he’s found decapitated — and it becomes clear that Evan faked his own death to get away from the thugs, who kidnap Nicole and take him to the room where they tortured and killed Dan but release her because they think if they kill her they’ll never get back the platinum.

Nicole finds among her husband’s effects a letter addressed to a man in Detroit, and giving the FBI agents the slip — she has her best friend Lucy (Sadie LeBlanc) disguise herself as her and take her car and credit cards to Washington, D.C. — she makes her way to Detroit, where she finds a former stripper, Zoë Ravena (Cindy Sampson),whose husband, Luke Ravena, turns out to be the same person as Evan — indeed, as Nicole soon discovers, the two aliases are anagrams of each other. Zoë recommends that they hire a friend of hers, Earl “Mac” MacDuff (Bruce Gray), an ex-cop turned bounty hunter, to help them find Evan — and they eventually do, running him down in Canada (where he’s fled and assumed yet a third alias that’s an anagram of the other two) and setting up a final shoot-out on Evan’s boat — Evan, in screenwriter Martin’s last and most ridiculous plot contrivance, has convinced Nicole that he’s really an agent of the State Department who infiltrated a ring of platinum smugglers to bring them to book — Evan nearly kills Zoë and does kill Mac before Nicole shoots him with a dart from a miniature harpoon gun (I’m not making this up, you know!).

Live Once, Die Twice is a thriller with real potential, directed with quite good suspense chops by Stefan Pleszczynski and quite well acted (the performances are well above the Lifetime norm) but hamstrung by the sheer unlikelihood of the plot gimmicks with which Martin larded his script; just when we’re in a nice thriller groove and really feeling for the characters and their perils, he throws in a weird twist that plunges our suspension of disbelief back down to zero. Still, it’s a workmanlike film and it’s fun in a cheesy, dorky way.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

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

The last two nights Charles and I watched the final films we hadn’t seen before from the volume five boxed set of the Charlie Chan series at 20th Century-Fox. The night before last we ran Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, the one David Zinman chose as representative of the series in his book on classic-era movie series, Saturday Afternoon at the Bijou. Made four films before the end of the Fox Chan series (Murder Over New York, Charlie Chan in Rio and Castle in the Desert followed it), Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum was directed by Lynn Shores (which sounds like the name of a beach, not a person!) from a script by John Larkin, and is indicative of the feeling of the “suits” at Fox that the old Chan formula was losing its audience appeal and needed to be invigorated.

In this case, they decided to add quite effective horror and Gothic elements — virtually the whole film takes place inside the titular wax museum on the proverbial dark and stormy night, and the crooks rewire the museum’s telephone lines to establish that the good guys are isolated there and have no way to reach the outside world. The film opens at the trial of Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence), a convicted murder and associate of the notorious gangster Butcher Dagan, who’s presumed to have died a decade earlier, who has just been convicted of murder on the basis of Charlie Chan’s evidence: Chan (Sidney Toler) is in the courtroom as the judge pronounces a death sentence, and is still sitting there calmly when he hears a commotion in the hall: it seems McBirney grabbed the gun of one of the deputies and escaped. The cops trace him to the wax museum owned by Dr. Cream (C. Henry Gordon), who’s actually a disgraced former plastic surgeon who’s operating the wax museum as a front: his real business is doing illegal plastic surgeries on crooks to disguise their appearance. McBirney shows up and demands Dr. Cream’s services — he gets them, but spends most of the movie with his face completely bandaged, like the Invisible Man — and Chan and his number two son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) go to the wax museum — which, as a promotion, plays host to a live radio drama once a week which tells the story of a crime depicted in one of the museum’s exhibits.

This week the show is about the case of Joe Rocke, convicted and executed of a murder which Chan has since become convinced he didn’t commit; and his widow (Hilda Vaughn) crashes the show and disguises herself as one of the wax exhibits to spy on the show and see if it’s going to do justice to her husband or be biased to reinforce the original verdict that he was guilty. Also on the scene are Lily Latimer (Joan Valerie), Dr. Cream’s assistant — at one point Jimmy Chan overhears her telling Cream, “I hope we’re not going to get double-crossed,” but Larkin drops this plot point and nothing is heard of it again — and criminologist Dr. Otto Von Brom (Michael Visaroff), who switches chairs with Chan and is killed by a poisoned dart from a blow gun. Also there are the staff members of the radio program, producer Tom Agnew (Ted Osborn) and reporter Mary Bolton (Marguerite Chapman) — she pleads with him to keep the broadcast on the air once Von Brom is murdered in the middle of it, but he calls the station to say he’s signing off and get them to put on a music program instead — and the various characters picturesquely skulk around the wax museum for a few reels until McBirney is also found dead. Chan has deduced that Butcher Dagan never actually died; instead he got a new face from Dr. Cream and he’s involved in the new murders, working incognito as one of the people at the wax museum and killing Von Brom when he discovered Dagan’s new identity. Eventually Chan tricks a confession out of Agnew, the radio producer, whom he began to suspect when he cut off the broadcast so abruptly (“Small nose for news in radio man brings aroma of suspicion,” Chan says).

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a finely honed little suspenser with effective elements of horror — and it’s helped by the fact that at the time wax musea weren’t as hackneyed a setting for horror films than they were later: in fact, before this film the only important horror films set in a wax museum were Paul Leni’s 1924 German film Waxworks and the 1933 Warners production Mystery of the Wax Museum (its even more successful — but less good — 1953 remake House of Wax really established the wax museum as one of the clichéd horror settings, as well as “typing” Vincent Price as a horror actor instead of the lounge-lizard type he’d usually played earlier) — proof that given proper handling, there was life in the old Chan series yet, though the humor that had played so important a part in the success of the earlier films (“Chan became an enduring movie hero because he brought a gentle spoofing quality to a favorite genre,” Zinman wrote) had now just started to get in the way; all too often one wonders why Chan doesn’t just strangle that scapegrace son of his and send him to his ancestors early!

Castle in the Desert (20th Century-Fox, 1942)

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

Last night Charles and I finished the last Charlie Chan Fox box with Castle in the Desert, the studio’s last Chan movie (1942) and a surprisingly strong finish for the series — especially in an era when movie series usually petered out in pathetically weak episodes that just rehashed the central premises of earlier ones, to diminishing effect.

Directed by Harry Lachman (their go-to guy for Chan films by the end — of the seven movies in the final Fox box, Lachman directed four) from a script by John Larkin, Castle in the Desert benefits from a basis in one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Chan novels, The Chinese Parrot, instead of a story concocted by the studio — and also from a quite strong cast from Hollywood’s cadre of character actors: Douglass Dumbrille as Paul Manderley (a name clearly inspired by the success of Rebecca two years earlier), an expert on the Borgias who’s writing a biography of Cesare Borgia and has built himself a castle in the desert that’s so isolated it lacks electricity and a telephone (both modern conveniences he has eschewed so he can decorate it in medieval style and really live the Borgias’ era — though he’s still dressed in modern clothes instead of those of Renaissance Venice); Lenita Lane as his wife, Lucretia Borgia Manderley — yes, like the lead characters in The Florentine Dagger, she’s supposed to be a modern-day descendant of those Borgias (and I couldn’t help but wonder if Biggers and Florentine Dagger author Ben Hecht thought of the idea independently and, if not, who influenced whom!); Henry Daniell as antiques dealer Watson King, who’s really a federal agent and is really really [spoiler alert!] the villain of the piece; Ethel Griffies as a nutty pseudo-spiritualist who keeps claiming to predict the deaths of the other characters; Steven Geray as Dr. Retling, Paul Manderley’s personal physician; and the marvelously queeny Milton Parsons (later a regular in RKO’s short-lived Dick Tracy series) as private detective Arthur Fletcher, one of the murder victims — only he really isn’t; he’s been given a drug that only makes him appear dead (“the drug Friar Laurence gave Juliet,” Daniell’s character helpfully — or maybe not so helpfully — explains).

When antiquities expert Professor Gleason (Lucien Littlefield) drops dead at the Manderley castle, and is later found to be poisoned, Paul’s staff has the corpse sneaked out of the house and dumped in the nearby village hotel (whose owner and staff are as afraid of the castle as their counterparts were in Dracula) — and when Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) shows up no one will drive him out there except for a private cabbie in a station wagon who charges him $25 (in 1942 dollars!) and still won’t go any nearer than two miles away. (Paul’s worried about being caught up in a scandal because under his father’s will, that would give the executors of his estate an excuse to have his $25 million fortune taken away from him — and he’s also shown through most of the film with a triangular mask over half his face, supposedly hiding the scars from a car accident, though towards the end Chan cuts off the mask and his face is normal underneath it.)

While Castle in the Desert makes us regret all the more the loss of the earlier version of the story, filmed under Biggers’ title by Universal in 1928 and directed by Paul Leni with Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin as Chan (maybe he wasn’t Chinese, but he was at least Asian!) — given Leni’s flair for old-dark-house stories in The Cat and the Canary that was probably an excellent film — and it also makes us almost too aware that Biggers’ most famous piece of non-Chan writing was the original story source for Seven Keys to Baldpate — it’s still an engaging piece of work, effectively directed by Lachman, who uses some of the eccentric camera angles he’d also brought to Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and gets marvelous Gothic cinematography out of Virgil Miller, whose beautiful chiaroscuro images are a far cry from the straightforward lighting most mystery films got in the pre-noir era. I’d always assumed that Fox stopped making Chan films simply because they thought the series was played out — on this one they not only left Chan’s name out of the title but replaced the standard credit design of previous Chan-series entries with a completely different typeface and set of graphics (and Sidney Toler’s below-the-title opening credit did not specify that he was playing Chan!), but one contributor said it was because Fox was cutting back production due to World War II. Whatever the reason, Fox at least took this series out with a bang; Castle in the Desert is one of the best Fox Chans with Toler and a welcome finish to the studio’s 13 years’ worth of Chan films.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Murder Over New York (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

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

Charles and I eventually ran another movie from the final Charlie Chan boxed set from 20th Century-Fox: Murder Over New York, a late Chan (five films from the end of the Fox series) and one whose non-inclusion of Chan’s name in the title (according to the American Film Institute Catalog, the studio originally was going to call it Charlie Chan in New York but didn’t want it confused with previous entries in the series — presumably the one they were worried about was Charlie Chan on Broadway) bespeaks growing doubt among the “suits” at Fox about the continuing commercial viability of the Chan character, It’s actually one of the better Chans of its era — not as good as the rather hyperbolic commentator Humphrey Fish seemed to think (“there is not one single level that this fails on, not one single level, not one!” — and that’s far from the only exclamation point in his post) but still an engaging mystery.

It begins with Chan in New York being greeted by his old friend, former Scotland Yard inspector Hugh Drake (Frederick Worlock), who’s now working for British military intelligence investigating a case of suspected sabotage in the crash of a prototype bomber built by the Kirby aircraft company, headed by George Kirby (Ricardo Cortez). As just about anyone who’s seen the previous Chans could guess, Drake is killed almost immediately — indeed, one begins to wonder why Scotland Yard inspectors keep befriending Chan given what happens to their life expectancy after that! — and Chan, his son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) — of whom Charlie says, “My Number Two Son, without whose help many cases would have been solved sooner” (Lester Ziffren’s script this time out is considerably wittier than his norm), and New York police inspector Vance (Donald MacBride, playing much the same perpetual exasperation he showed as the hotel manager the Marx Brothers were trying to con in Room Service) believe that the killer was an international saboteur and terrorist named Paul Narvo. So the mystery becomes which of the supporting cast members is Narvo in disguise.

Among the suspects are Herbert Fenton (Melville Cooper), who says he went to college with Drake but hasn’t seen him in years; actress June Preston (a marvelously “theatrical” performance by the reversibly-named Joan Valerie); Ralph Percy (Kane Richmond), a designer at Kirby’s company; Boggs (Leyland Hodgson), Kirby’s butler; and David Elliott (Robert Lowery), a chemical engineer — relevant because Drake was killed with a glass capsule containing the poison gas “tetragene,” which kills on the initial inhalation before it quickly neutralizes itself and leaves a tell-tale smell which Jimmy Chan recognized from a demonstration in his undergraduate chemistry class. Chan traces Narvo’s ex-wife, Patricia Shaw (Marjorie Weaver), who’s dating Elliott and is willing to let herself be put in harm’s way to trap Narvo. Along the way Kirby himself is killed, also with a poison gas pellet (the Chan series was plagiarizing itself here — murder with a thin container of gas that burst on cue was used in the 1935 film Charlie Chan in Egypt and already stolen by writers at another studio for the 1938 film Mr. Wong, Detective).

Chan works out an inventive way of trapping the killer: he invites all the suspects on board the new bomber prototype for its test flight, sure that Narvo will give himself away by grabbing the tetragene pellet (which has been planted on the plane so that it will not go off as long as the plane is either climbing or flying level, but as soon as the plane dives gravity will roll it down and it will burst when it hits the floor) — of course, Chan has already found the tetragene pellet and substituted a harmless one. Fenton gives himself away as having planted the pellet in the first place (with the aid of a couple of corrupt Kirby company mechanics in Narvo’s pay), but Chan deduces that he’s simply a Narvo underling instead of the man himself, and in one of the most preposterous denouements in any mystery film he reveals that the real Narvo is David Elliott, who was dating his ex-wife without her knowing because he’d previously been so badly injured in a car accident that he’d not only had plastic surgery on his face but it had also altered his vocal cords so his voice wasn’t the one she knew as his.

Nonetheless, despite the silly ending, Murder Over New York is a quite well-paced film, long on excitement and with a reasonable action quotient, and while it doesn’t really have any of those quirky atmospherics Lachman would bring to the more weakly plotted Dead Men Tell it is a well-made mystery thriller and it’s helped by drawing on several plot elements from Earl Derr Biggers’ novel Behind That Curtain (filmed by Fox twice previously, under its own title as an excruciatingly dull early talkie in 1929 and as the now-lost Charlie Chan’s Chance in 1932) — the Chan series films were generally considerably stronger when they adapted, or at least borrowed from, Biggers’ original Chan stories than when the writers just made up new ones featuring the Chan character. Still, given that the co-stars in this one include a former Sam Spade (Cortez) and a future Batman (Lowery), one can't help but wish all three of those characters could have teamed up to solve the mystery!