Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Universal/Relativity, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One thing Charles and I did get at the grocery store two nights ago was a $3 close-out DVD of the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a 2007 Adam Sandler comedy which we’d previously avoided because the plot premise — two straight firefighters decide to pose as a Gay couple to get named as beneficiaries on each other’s pensions — sounded like it could be way too homophobic for our taste. Also I’m generally not a fan of modern-day comedies because the jokes tend to be way too vulgar. This time, however, the film, directed by Dennis Dugan from a script by Barry Fanaro and Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor from a “treatment” by Lew Gallo, itself based on an Australian film called Strange Bedfellows, turned out to be genuinely amusing and also surprisingly sensitive at times, largely because the jokes aren’t at the expense of Gay people but at the expense of people who hate Gay people.

The film takes over 15 minutes’ worth of exposition before we finally get to the “meat” of the plot and introduces us to firefighters Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) and Larry Valentine (Kevin James, whose character’s name apparently came from that of the actor’s real-life brother, Gary Valentine). Larry is a widower with two kids, Eric (Cole Morgen) and Tori (Shelby Adamowsky) — Tori is unremarkable but Eric, though well below puberty, is showing all the stereotyped indicia of impending Gayhood, including a total disinterest in sports and a love of Broadway musicals (his grade school is performing Pippin and Annie Get Your Gun and he auditions for both). He’s never got over the death of his wife three years before — he’s kept all her clothes and turned their bedroom into a shrine — while his friend Chuck is not only single but has racked up a list of female conquests that would have made Don Juan blush: in the opening scene he’s confronted by a girlfriend de jour who’s having a jealous hissy-fit because Chuck bedded her twin sister, and Chuck not only worms his way out of it but has them on the point of deep-kissing each other on a dare when the firefighters are called to duty and they’re let off the hook. (The old gimmick of the interrupted kiss is used throughout the movie, including a cop-out ending that was forced on the filmmakers by the ratings board — more on that later.)

Larry gets worried about the risk of death on the job, especially after he rescues Chuck from a burning building (Chuck got caught up offering Larry yet another one of his dares — that he eat a rat that had been cooked by the blaze — when a floor gave way and sent him hurtling to the ground, and Larry caught him and saved his life), and he tries to have his firefighters’ pension and death benefits made over from his late wife to his children — only he’s told by a homely but man-hungry bureaucrat (Rachel Dratch) that he missed the deadline; he had only a year to file for changes after his wife died, but he could always marry again, and she practically glues herself to the lens as she strongly hints that if he wants to marry again, she’s offering herself as the party of the second part … The plot thickens when Larry sees an item in the New York Post announcing that the city’s domestic partnership law has just gone into effect, and he proposes that he and Chuck register as domestic partners to get each other named as their beneficiaries — only they attract the intention of anti-fraud investigators Glen Aldrich (Matt Winston) and the much-feared Clint Fitzer (Steve Buscemi, who’s practically the funniest person in the film — and who, according to, actually was a New York City firefighter before he became an actor), whom they meet sniffing through their garbage to see if it’s sufficiently “Gay.”

Worried that they’ll be prosecuted, they hire an attorney — a hot-looking straight woman named Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel) whom Chuck predictably falls in love, or at least lust, with at first sight (earlier we’ve seen Chuck’s seduction skills prove so formidable that the woman doctor who treated him after the blaze in which Larry saved his life, who was initially put off by his sexist attitude, ends up frolicking in his bedroom with him and five other girls) — and she advises that one way they can prove their Gay-couple bona fides is to cross the border into Canada and get (legally) married. They do that — at a ridiculous wedding chapel presided over by an Asian (Rob Schneider in heavy makeup) and with a crazy homeless man (Blake Clark) as their witness. When they return home Alex, who has a Gay brother, invites them to a major Gay fundraiser where Chuck punches out a radical-Right minister who’s picketing the event (he’s pretty obviously a caricature of Fred Phelps) and earns instant hero status among New York’s Gay community — only this leads to Fitzer busting them (especially after a New York Post feature comes out with statements from 17 women who’ve bedded Chuck) and putting them on trial in an administrative hearing presided over by Councilmember Banks (Richard Chamberlain), in which they’re dared to kiss each other in public to prove their love. (Earlier they were told to kiss each other after the wedding ceremony, but instead Chuck punched Larry out, then lied his way out of it by saying they were into S/M.)

In the original script they actually kissed, but then the filmmakers found that under the ratings-board rules, any depiction of homosexual affection in a film automatically earns it an “R” rating, so to keep their PG-13 they added a coda in which the hearing is interrupted by their captain in the fire department (Dan Aykroyd), who says they’re not Gay and ends up with the entire crew of their fire station being arrested as parties to the plot, though the embarrassed Councilmember Banks and Alex broker a deal that they get probation and the men of their fire station do a gag calendar and sell it as a benefit for AIDS research. Though I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry has its share of tasteless gags (notably one in which the two have to rescue a man so enormously fat that he literally can’t move under his own power — and as they’re hauling him out of the building he farts), it also has some surprisingly sensitive moments — notably the character of Fred G. Duncan (Ving Rhames), an African-American firefighter who’s inspired by the example of Chuck and Larry to come out as (genuinely) Gay himself.

Most of the Gay jokes in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry are at the expense, not of the Gays, but of the homophobes — indeed, the film’s best scene shows the men who have worked with Chuck and Larry for years backing away from them, getting scared shitless of being in the same shower room with them and refusing to work with them now that they think they’re Gay — and Chuck and Larry themselves telling them off. It’s an interesting issue and one that will probably get a lot more common once “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed and people who’ve served together in U.S. military units suddenly have to confront each other’s genuine sexual orientations. If anything, the movie reinforces Steven Zeeland’s contention in his books on Queers in the military that one of the reasons the military brass fought to keep the ban on Queers serving openly for so long was the sheer amount of physical horseplay, often verging on the sexual, men in these all-male macho settings indulge in, and the sense of innocence about it (as well as the ability to deny its implications) that will be lost once the straight participants know that there are Queers among them who have a quite different idea of what this sort of physical contact between men means.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Tri-Star, 1993)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before Charles and I had watched another, quite different sort of movie comedy: Manhattan Murder Mystery, a 1993 film directed and co-written (with Marshall Brickman) by Woody Allen and originally intended for him and Mia Farrow — only just before shooting was to start, Mia caught Woody having a sexual relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and left him in a jealous hissy-fit, starting a scandal that threatened to derail his career and possibly even send him to prison. So Woody went ahead with the film and recast the female lead with his previous girlfriend, Diane Keaton, with whom he’d worked memorably throughout the 1970’s, most famously in Annie Hall and Manhattan.

The plot of this one casts Allen and Keaton as long-time married couple Larry and Carol Lipton, who in the opening scene are invited for coffee and chat by their apartment neighbors Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). Lillian spends the visit boasting about how well she exercises and how healthy she is, while Paul bores Larry out of his wits by showing him his stamp collection while all the while Larry keeps wanting to get home and watch a Bob Hope movie on TV. (Woody Allen has always named Bob Hope as his favorite comedian and the one that most influenced him, even though Allen’s habit of throwing away his punchlines couldn’t be more different from Hope’s sledgehammer delivery of them.) The next day Lillian suddenly dies, ostensibly of a heart attack, only Larry and Carol become convinced that Paul actually murdered his wife for sinister purposes.

Oddly, though Allen and Brickman fill their script with references to old movies, including Double Indemnity, Vertigo and The Lady from Shanghai — they even make Paul the owner and manager of a revival movie theatre (it’s a film that will make one lament for the death of revival theatres at the hands of video, DVD and cable) so they’ll have an excuse to throw in all these old movie references — the one film they don’t mention is Rear Window, from which Allen and Brickman seem to have borrowed a lot of their plot. No, neither of the amateur detectives is wheelchair-bound, and the action of this film extends a lot farther than that of Hitchcock’s classic (including tracking shots of Larry and Carol following a woman who looks exactly like the dead Lillian), but the principal is the same.

It’s hardly on the level of Annie Hall or Manhattan (or the Allen-Farrow masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters) but it’s a quite clever movie, full of the kind of wry humor Allen is good at, and in some ways it’s a follow-up to The Purple Rose of Cairo in that it’s a movie about movies — in particular about how our expectations and views about life have been shaped by what we’ve seen on the silver screen — though the ending is a genuine surprise [spoiler alert]: it turns out that Paul and Lillian actually killed Lillian’s lookalike sister for her money, then passed Lillian off as the sister, and it ends in a shootout in Paul’s theatre while he’s showing the final scene of The Lady from Shanghai that Allen stages to match the action on screen in Welles’ classic. Manhattan Murder Mystery is minor Allen, and Diane Keaton is heavier than she’d been before — not only in physical size but as a screen presence as well — but it’s still engaging, and a welcome reminder of how great an on-screen performer Allen is himself and how much Allen the actor has been missed in the most recent films of Allen the director.

Daisy Kenyon (20th Century-Fox, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Daisy Kenyon, a 1947 soap opera starring Joan Crawford and directed by Otto Preminger — who in the 1970’s said he had no recollection of making this film at all — made at 20th Century-Fox, which borrowed Crawford from Warners, and in a way it’s what Mildred Pierce might have come off like if the writers of that film hadn’t added a murder that wasn’t in James M. Cain’s original novel. Daisy Kenyon started life as a novel by Elizabeth Janeway and was adapted and scripted by David Hertz, and it’s photographed (by Leon Shamroy) to look like a film noir but it really isn’t (and The Film Noir Encyclopedia doesn’t list it). Crawford plays Daisy Kenyon, who depending on which bits of dialogue you believe is either a writer, illustrator or both for Sunday newspaper supplements, who’s built up a life for herself in New York City and is also dating an influential attorney, Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). It’s a long-term relationship complicated by the fact that Dan is married to Lucille Coverly O’Mara (Ruth Warrick, whose best-known film, Citizen Kane, also cast her as the wife of a powerful man who has a long-term relationship with a mistress) and his law partner is also his father-in-law (the firm is called Coverly, Coverly and O’Mara — the first Coverly is Lucille’s long-dead grandfather — though, thinking of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, I joked it should have been called Coverly, Coverly, Coverly, Coverly and O’Mara) and further complicated by the other man Daisy meets, war veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda).

There’s some grimly humorous by-play between the two men in Daisy’s life as they continually poach each other’s cabs (a great deal is made of the fact that World War II and its drain on military-age personnel has reduced the number of cab drivers in New York City and thereby made it irresponsible for someone to keep a cab waiting), but that’s about all the comic relief you get from this singularly grim tale whose greatest points of interest are the hints of depth and emotion in the story that the Production Code kept from being developed to any degree. There’s a sense that Fonda’s character is suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his wartime service — but given that this was the year after Paramount had forced Raymond Chandler to rewrite the ending of The Blue Dahlia because the U.S. military had threatened never again to cooperate with any Paramount production if Chandler’s original ending, in which the killer was a man who’d been driven homicidally crazy by a brain injury suffered in combat, had been used, no wonder Fox, Preminger and Hertz treaded carefully around that plot point. As a result, Fonda’s character seems neurasthenic to the point of almost total detachment, and Fonda’s naturalistic acting style fades so completely in the background you wonder how a person so remote from ordinary reality could possibly even function in the world, much less fall in love with Joan Crawford and sustain a relationship with her.

What’s more, as the O’Maras’ marriage falls apart, there’s an implication that Lucille is taking her frustrations over her husband out on their older daughter Rosamund (Peggy Ann Garner, who’d played the child version of the title role in Jane Eyre and had already established a reputation for suffering picturesquely through Hollywood’s version of a hellish childhood), who shows up in one scene with her ear boxed and explains the injury with the sort of lame excuse used by battered wives to let their husbands off the hook. The plot has Daisy breaking off with Dan and marrying Peter on the rebound — only in the meantime Lucille has decided she doesn’t love Dan anymore and is going to divorce him, only she’s going to do it in New York, and since at the time the only grounds for divorce in New York state were adultery, that means she’s going to name Daisy as co-respondent and put Dan through a messy trial and air all his dirty linen in public unless Dan agrees to give Lucille sole custody of their children and essentially write them out of his life. He refuses and the trial duly happens, only in the middle of it Dan decides to give up, give Lucille the kids and not contest the case, hoping that this (and quitting his job with Lucille’s dad and starting his own practice) will create the clean slate he needs to win back Daisy — and Peter hints that he’ll be willing to divorce Daisy so she can marry Dan, but only if Daisy asks him personally.

The three finally confront each other at Peter’s New England cottage (he’s from a wealthy family there and before the war made a living as a yacht designer; after the war he’s working on building a fleet of boats for the local fishermen, which was apparently supposed to indicate that the war had humanized him and made him more interested in working people than the rich), only Daisy gets tired of waiting, takes out her car in the snow and, just as we’re saying, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have her crash her car in the snow,” they have her crash her car in the snow. I had rather hoped at this point that the two men would get in their own car and follow her, the two cars would have an accident and all three of these obnoxiously annoying principals would die, but no such luck — the car rolls over but Daisy gets out of it relatively unscathed, rejects Dan’s proposal and announces her intention to stay with Peter, thus satisfying the Production Code at the expense of dramatic credibility.

Daisy Kenyon is a decent soap opera with fabulous photography, but it’s a weak movie in terms of acting — Crawford delivers a muscle-bound performance that was what her 1947 audiences expected for her, Andrews seems more perplexed than anything else by the ragbag of motivations Janeway and Hertz created for his character, and Fonda is the weakest of the principals, underacting so much that he’s hardly even there — the character really cried out for John Garfield, who had already worked with Crawford on Humoresque and could have made Peter a genuinely tormented character instead of a neurasthenic one. I would have imagined a Joan Crawford movie directed by Otto Preminger to be some sort of bitter clash of the ego titans, but apparently Preminger pretty much went along with his star’s dictates, even yielding to her insistence that the set be kept at a frigid 58 degrees — and when Andrews and Fonda complained that they were too cold, Crawford bought them long-johns …

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cruel, Cruel Love (Keystone, 1914)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a couple of oddball movies I’d downloaded from One was Cruel, Cruel Love, a Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy from 1914 made while Chaplin was still groping his way towards a film character. Here he’s cast not as the lovable “Tramp” but on the other end of the socioeconomic scale, an aristocrat (the page for the film lists his character as “Lord Helpus” but that’s not made clear in the version we saw — also lists this as a two-reeler but the version we saw was just eight minutes) who’s dressed in top hat and sport coat with tails and has a considerably longer (but still visibly fake) moustache than the Chaplin we know — though the effect is somewhat off-putting since he’s still doing the famous gestures and, indeed, he’s overacting a lot more than he did as the “Tramp.” The gimmick in this one is he’s courting a woman of his own class (Minta Durfee, the first Mrs. Fatty Arbuckle) while her maid (Eva Nelson) is in unrequited love with him. When Chaplin leaves Minta’s home (incidentally the characters bear the same first names as the actors playing them) the maid accosts him on a park bench, Minta catches them necking and immediately breaks up with him, so Chaplin resolves to take poison — only his butler (Edgar Kennedy — I had no idea he’d ever worked with Chaplin!) substitutes water for the poison. Nonetheless Chaplin gets an hysterically overacted “death” scene (much the way Laurel and Hardy got visibly drunk on the fake “liquor” — actually tea — in Blotto: yet more evidence of how much Stan Laurel owed to Chaplin!) before the truth comes out and he and Minta reconcile.

The film was directed by George Nichols, whom Chaplin recalled in his autobiography as “an oldish man in his late fifties who had been in motion pictures since their inception. … He had but one gag, which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another. I tried to suggest subtler business, but … he would not listen. ‘We have no time, no time!’ he would cry. … Although I only mildly rebelled, it appears that he went to [Mack] Sennett saying that I was a son of a bitch to work with.” It’s a pretty relentless bit of typical Mack Sennett comedy, but Chaplin is good in it even though his early Keystones document just how much his work improved once he finally persuaded Sennett to let him write and direct his own films (the five-film Chaplin at Keystone compilation contains three films Chaplin didn’t direct and two that he did — including what may be his first masterpiece, The Rounders, based on an old music-hall sketch Chaplin had performed and a brilliantly funny showcase for Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle; indeed, one could make the case that Laurel and Hardy spent virtually their whole career remaking The Rounders!).

Trouble at Melody Mesa (Three Crowns, 1944, rel. 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Certainly it was better than the other film we watched last night, an hour-long “B” Western called Trouble at Melody Mesa, which according to was actually made in 1944 but not released until 1949 (the titles have a copyright notice for 1948 but there’s no evidence that it was ever actually copyrighted), which was issued under the studio name “Three Crowns Productions” and was a pretty abysmal piece of filmmaking, directed by W. Merle Connell from an “original” (quotes definitely merited!) script by Ned Dandy and starred Brad King as federal marshal Brad King (virtually all the actors in this film use their real names!), who’s out to break up a land-grabbing scheme targeting the Henshaw ranch, whose rightful owner has just been murdered by his brother-in-law Mark Simmons (I. Stanford Jolley, virtually the only person associated with this film I’d heard of before!) by stringing a rope between two trees so the brother, an expert horseman, would trip over it (actually his horse would) and he would die in the fall and it would look like an accident.

Only Mark’s sister Mathilda (Lorraine Simmons, virtually the only person in this movie who shows even a hint of star charisma) is on to him and ultimately she and Brad solve the mystery, save the ranch and more or less end up together. The opening credits list about eight songs, some of them performed by a band at the barn dance that closes the film (except for a chase climax that seems decidedly beside the point!), and two by the real-life brothers Walt and Cal Shrum, also playing themselves in this weird and irritating movie. It’s just Standard Western Plot 1-A with a few songs grafted on (of which virtually the only one that’s memorable is Paula Blackburn’s engaging cover of Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” the first country hit ever by a solo woman artist), and it didn’t help that the print we were watching was in atrocious condition, with a scratch through the whole thing that multiplied into two or three or more scratches that had us wondering, “Did someone try to project this film in a meat cutter?”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nights in Rodanthe (di Novi/Village Roadshow/Warner Bros., 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Nights in Rodanthe, a romantic melodrama and, ironically, our second film in a row that was a soap opera about a doctor whose carefully ordered life goes off the rails when someone dies in his care and he feels responsible. The stars were Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and this film hadn’t particularly interested me when I saw it clogging the racks at the grocery stores, but in one of my madder moments I decided to do a search on the Columbia House Web site for anything Christopher Meloni was in that wasn’t Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and this film came up along with a viral (in the literal infectious-agent sense rather than the computer sense) horror/drama called Carriers and the animated film Green Lantern: First Flight, in which Meloni was the voice of the Earth Green Lantern and was essentially playing his SVU role in a science-fiction superhero context: the member of a law enforcement organization who goes off the rails, gets censured by his superiors but ultimately saves the day.

Nights in Rodanthe
is based on a novel by romance specialist Nicholas Sparks and directed by George C. Wolfe (who’s much better known for serious stage work, including the world premiere production of Angels in America, than for a commercial film like this) from a script by Ann Peacock and John Romano. It opens with put-upon housewife Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane), who’s just separated from her husband Jack (Christopher Meloni) after he started an affair with another woman, continued it behind her back for seven months and then announced that he wanted to leave her. As the movie starts she’s rushing her two kids, teenage daughter Amanda (Mae Whitman) — who’s having her adolescent rebellion on steroids; she seems to make it a point of always having loud music blasting away, often on headphones, so she doesn’t have to hear, much less pay attention to, a word her mom says — and pre-pubescent son Danny (Charlie Tahan), off to a visit with their father in Orlando, Florida, while she’s getting ready for a trip of her own to spend time with her African-American friend Jean (Viola Davis) at a bed-and-breakfast Jean owns and runs at Rodanthe on the so-called “Outer Banks” of the North Carolina coastline.

What she doesn’t know is that Jean isn’t going to be there with her — she said she needed to go into town to buy supplies for the inn but she’s really there to date a really hot-looking Black guy with a West Indian accent (we only glimpse him in one scene but his chest is shirtless and he is hot!) — but that, even though it’s winter and there’s a major risk of a storm, there’s a paying guest at the place. The guest is Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere, still a nice-looking man but definitely one who hasn’t weathered the years well), who’s there because he’s at a low ebb in his career: not only is he estranged from his son Mark (an uncredited James Franco), also a doctor, who’s left the U.S. to run a free clinic in Ecuador, but a patient of his, Jill Torrelson (Linda Molloy), died on his operating table during a routine removal of a facial cyst (it was the fourth of five operations this frantic assembly-line surgeon was supposed to perform that day). Dr. Flanner is in Rodanthe to contact Jill’s surviving relatives, her husband Robert (Scott Glenn) and their son Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), to see if he can talk them out of the multi-million dollar wrongful-death lawsuit they’ve already filed against him.

After a few nice scenes in which Dr. Flanner and Adrienne dance around each other, she makes him dinner (that is part of what he’s paying for!), they listen to what’s supposed to be the local radio station (a paradise of cool that plays things like the Count Basie-Lester Young classic “Jive at Five,” Dinah Washington’s version of “Backwater Blues” and Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — where do I find a station this hip?) as well as a record on Jean’s LP player (the Washington/Brook Benton duet “A Rockin’ Good Way”), and finally end up literally blown into each other’s arms by a major storm that rolls in and puts the power out. They end up in the same bed and the next morning, once cell phone service is restored to the area, Adrienne gets a call from her estranged husband Jack telling her that their son Danny had an asthma attack during the night and is in hospital because Jack didn’t wake him up during the night to run his inhaler. (So this is yet another one in that odd series of movies in which something bad has to happen to one of the heroine’s children so she can get laid.)

Despite the likely opposition of Adrienne’s kids, both of whom are rooting for mom and dad to get back together, she and Paul plan to stay together as soon as he returns from a trip to Ecuador to help his son Mark with the clinic — only [spoiler alert!] Paul never returns: on the last night a storm destroys the clinic and the building collapses on Paul, who’d gone back in to salvage some medical supplies, and Mark turns up on Adrienne’s doorstep and gives her the bad news, telling her that even though Paul is dead, Mark is glad Adrienne and his dad knew each other because their affair redeemed him and turned him from an egomaniac into a human being. The film ends on the beach at Rodanthe, where Adrienne sees a herd of wild horses that she and Paul had talked about during their idyll — which I guess is supposed to indicate that even though he’s dead he’s sent her a message from beyond the grave.

Weighted down with implausible situations and maddeningly arbitrary plot twists, as well as surprisingly little screen time for Richard Gere (he doesn’t enter until this 97-minute movie is already 15 minutes old, and he exits for good — except for a flashback scene, narrated by Mark, explaining how he died — at the two-thirds mark), Nights in Rodanthe is actually a quite haunting movie. The writers and director Wolfe are willing to create characters that we not only identify with and want to see get their hearts’ desires but feel for emotionally. There are lots of nice little touches, like the frantically played Bach piece on piano that introduces the flashback showing Dr. Flanner’s lethal operation (the music is explained when as he’s going into the operating room, someone asks him if he wants to hear Miles Davis, and he says, “No — Bach today!,” establishing the flippancy with which he treats his profession that his biggest concern when he’s about to do an operation is that he hear the “right” music as he works) and the way storms are used both to bring the hero and heroine together and to separate them permanently (the sort of “good construction” screenwriters of the 1930’s and 1940’s were supposed to have an instinct for, but modern-day movie writers almost can’t be bothered with), even though there are little annoyances along the way, like the inability of the actors to agree on a common pronunciation for the name “Rodanthe.” The “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the Web page for the film gives the proper pronunciation as “Row-DAN’-thee” but often the actors alternate between that and “Row-DAHN-tee.”

It’s a well-acted movie (though Meloni, my hero, is wasted as the boor of a husband — ironically he was shooting this film around the same time as the Law and Order: SVU writers were giving him a story arc featuring a separation and eventual reconciliation with his wife, but his character here is all the boorish aspects of Elliot Stabler and none of his compensating nobility; in fact we don’t even find out what Jack Willis does for a living, though it’s well-paid enough that he can afford quite an elaborate home for himself and his family and his wife doesn’t, or at least seemingly doesn’t, have to work — it is established that she was an aspiring artist when they married, as was her friend Jean, but she gave it up when she married Jack and only takes it up again at the end) and Diane Lane looks exactly as she should, suffering the crow’s feet and other indicia of age but still a good-looking and plausibly attractive woman. It’s also a movie that leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next — it occurred to me that had this basic story been made in the 1930’s her character would have returned to her husband at the end, having grown from the experience but also won a renewed determination to make her marriage work (indeed, the idea that a married — though separated — woman would have an affair and then the man would die is classic “redemption through suffering” as preached by the old Production Code!), and I’m still not sure that that wouldn’t be the best outcome (or the one I would have picked if I were writing this!), and watching this movie right after By Appointment Only I was surprised that the modern movie would be deeper and emotionally richer than the old one with a similar story line. Well, I guess it had to happen sometime

Saturday, March 26, 2011

By Appointment Only (Invincible, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was By Appointment Only, another download of a movie made by Invincible Pictures (the sister company of Chesterfield) in 1933, a print which ran only 56 minutes even though the running time listed by the American Film Institute Catalog is “63 or 66-67 minutes.” Directed by Frank R. Strayer (whose most famous credits are the Columbia Blondie movies, though he also made two quite impressive horror indies in the early 1930’s, The Vampire Bat for Majestic and Condemned to Live for Invincible) from a script by himself and Robert Ellis, By Appointment Only is a weird medical soap opera whose central character is Dr. Michael Travers (Lew Cody, a silent-era “B”-lister on his way down), a busy society doctor who takes big fees from female hypochondriacs and uses them to fund giving charity care to poor people.

Alas, his schedule is so relentlessly busy that on September 14, his birthday (Strayer and Ellis discreetly refrain from telling us which birthday), when he’s hoping for a quiet dinner at home with his fiancée, Diane Manners (Aileen Pringle), he instead ends up presiding over the death of Mary Carroll (Claire McDowell), a dowdy-looking woman in a shabby black dress who’d come into his office at 2:30 p.m., stayed all day waiting for a hole to open up in his schedule (Marceline Day, the receptionist Buster Keaton fell for in The Cameraman, is in this one as Brownie, the doc’s faithful secretary) only to croak from cardiac failure on the doctor’s operating table once he finally did get to see her. Whether from a sense of atonement or just basic human decency, Dr. Travers responds to the sudden appearance of Mary’s 14-year-old daughter Judy (Sally O’Neil) by adopting her as his ward (she’s an orphan because her father had died several years before). Meanwhile, Diane is worried about the scapegrace antics of her nephew Dick (Edward Morgan), though the Strayer-Ellis script doesn’t tell us much about what those are, and Dr. Travers sends Judy off to school and goes off on a long-planned trip to Europe to tout the benefits of a new procedure for heart surgery he’s invented.

When he returns, it’s nearly four years later, Judy is now 18 and Dr. Travers is now attracted to her as a woman — even though meanwhile she’s fallen in love with Dick Manners. The doctor tells Judy she should wait rather than marrying Dick immediately, and Dick suspects that Travers is in love with Judy himself — which Travers admits, while Judy informs Dick that she’s in love with Travers and if he proposes to her, she’ll say yes. Judy makes the mistake of telling this to Dick while they’re riding in Dick’s car, with Dick driving, and Dick gets angry and says, “If you want Dr. Travers, then I’ll get you to him — as soon as possible!” Accordingly, he stomps on his car’s accelerator and, just when you’re thinking, “Oh, no, they’re going to have the car crash and one of them is going to be critically injured and Dr. Travers is going to have to save them,” the car crashes and Judy is critically injured (though Dick is unscathed) and Dr. Travers has to do a super-operation to save her life. The final scene is a wedding at which it appears that Judy is going to marry Travers at long last — only in a trick ending it turns out Travers is just giving her away; she actually marries Dick and, as Dick and Judy take the vows, Travers and Diane repeat them privately.

By Appointment Only is a perfectly decent movie that has nothing special to offer — Strayer’s direction is more than competent, making expert use of moving cameras and quick cutting to keep the story from getting dull even though it’s mostly people talking in rooms (or at outdoor parties), but the story is all too predictable and about the only unusual thing about it is that, despite the fact that Travers and Diane aren’t married, they seem just about as bored with each other as any long-term married couple, especially since they hardly ever see each other: Travers because of the time demands of his practice and Diane because of her role as a social woman and a patroness of the opera (the night of Travers’ birthday dinner she bails so she can attend a reception for a famous singer), and while it’s nice to see a movie in which all the protagonists are basically likable (a far cry from the tendency in today’s films in which the characters are depicted so relentlessly unsympathetic one throws up one’s hands in frustration and asks oneself, “Just who in this movie are we supposed to like?”), Strayer and Ellis went too far in the other direction: the dramatic conflicts don’t seem to have any edge because we don’t feel a stake in the events turning out one way as opposed to another (and Dick as a character is such a cipher we really don’t have any idea whether we’re supposed to think of him as a good long-term match for Judy or not). Still, By Appointment Only is O.K. entertainment and surprisingly more compelling as drama than Bombs Over Burma!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bombs Over Burma (PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, Charles and I ran a movie I’d downloaded from which had got a good review from Don Miller in his 1970’s book “B” Movies but which turned out to be a major disappointment: Bombs Over Burma, a 1942 PRC war movie starring Anna May Wong as a schoolteacher in Chungking, China (she starts her lesson teaching her Chinese pupils in Chinese — this 65-minute movie is already nearly three minutes old before we hear a word of English — but her lesson soon shifts to English and the film’s soundtrack stays there) who’s sent to a town on the China/Burma border to escort a convoy back to Chungking — only along the way the travelers on her bus are stranded at an inn (shades of Roar of the Dragon!) and they have to stay there while the big suspense issue is who in the party is the spy relaying all the information about the convoys to the Japanese. The print we were watching was of pretty poor quality even for an download — blurry and with a soundtrack that alternated annoyingly between hissy and muddy — and the film itself, despite the promising credits to Joseph H. Lewis as director and co-writer (the “original” story — quotes definitely intended — was by one George Wellington Pardy and the script was by Lewis and Milton Raison), was simply dull.

Wong seemed to be sleepwalking through her part; Noel Madison as her romantic interest (though it was a nice bit of anti-racist casting to give her a white co-star and have them fall for each other without any indication that this was a big deal) was actually more personable and more interesting than the star; Nedrick Young and Teala Loring as the second leads were O.K. but dispensable (Loring was a blonde, which may have triggered memories for Wong of having made virtually the same story a decade earlier under far superior auspices as Shanghai Express — at Paramount instead of PRC, with Josef von Sternberg as director and Marlene Dietrich as the blonde!). Lewis wasn’t capable of directing a movie without visual interest, and though he was working on the incredibly overfamiliar Republic Western locations (any moment one expected to see cowboys and Indians riding by on horseback!) and obviously the trucks representing the convoys (there are two of them, one a decoy for the other, just to add to the general confusion of this hopelessly muddled script) are driving around the same rocks over and over and over again, he did get the occasional creative angle and there’s a nice set of close-ups towards the end as the camera looks into the face of each member of the stranded party before finally revealing, to utterly no one’s (in the audience, anyway) surprise that the supercilious British tourist Sir Roger Howe (Leslie Dennison) is the bad guy.

Aside from the horrendous misnomer of the title (it’s called Bombs Over Burma but the entire movie takes place in China) and the preachy dialogue about the strength and resilience of the Chinese people, Bombs Over Burma is a real disappointment; the pace is so slow and the editing so relentlessly unsuspenseful it’s hard to believe this is the same director who did Gun Crazy just seven years later, and the film just drags on and on without grabbing hold of any of the story’s potentials for suspense, surprise or action. I’ll say one more good thing for Lewis’s direction (besides his creative camera angles): he leaves most of the film unscored — which, given the cheesiness of the “Oriental” theme we heard under the opening credits, is probably just as well — but this is still a pretty dull movie, just another “B” without the bits of style and panache Lewis gave to some of his other assignments around that time, including The Invisible Ghost with Bela Lugosi for Monogram and The Mad Doctor of Market Street with Lionel Atwill for Universal.

Daughter of Horror (H.K.F. Productions, J. J. Parker Productions, Exploitation International, 1955/58)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before Charles and I had squeezed in another cheapie but one at the other end of the quality scale from Bombs Over Burma: Daughter of Horror, a schlocky title for what turned out to be an experimental film which aimed for, and sometimes achieved, art. It was released in 1958 by a studio which quite openly proclaimed its aims in its very name — “Exploitation Productions International” (!) — and though the opening credits had some interesting names on them, neither a writer nor a director were credited. It took a visit to the Web page on the film to find out why: the movie had actually been made by writer/director Jack Parker in 1955 and called Dementia, and his original intent was to make what Sergei Eisenstein, speaking to a Hollywood audience in 1930, called “the sound film” as opposed to the talkie: that is, a movie that would not contain dialogue but would include a soundtrack of music and effects to heighten the drama without taking away from the essentially visual nature of the film medium. (Eisenstein made the spectacularly wrong prediction that the dialogue film wouldn’t survive and what he called “the sound film” would be the standard for the future.)

Dementia was banned by the New York state censors and not released until three years later, when Exploitation bought the rights, cut about seven minutes out of it, changed the title and added a narrator — Ed McMahon, of all people, though I must admit I didn’t recognize his voice! — to break into the action periodically and explain what was going on, much the way the U.S. company that released Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (a visually driven but not entirely dialogue-free film) here as Castle of Doom in 1932 added a narrator and made cuts, thereby turning a great film into a piece of schlock. Apparently the original narration-free version of Dementia survives and both versions were released as a DVD package by Kino on Video a few years ago — though it was the Daughter of Horror version that TCM showed as part of their “Friday Night Underground” series.

After a long sequence in which the narrator talks over a black screen — there are a few luminous dots on it and it’s clear some are supposed to represent stars while others are just imperfections in the surviving print — the narrator tells us that what we are about to see is the story of a madwoman, moving through our world but not really of it. The woman, listed in the credits as “The Gamine” (Adrienne Barrett), goes out into the city and picks up — or is picked up by, we’re not sure which — a heavy-set man (Bruno VeSota) whose intentions toward her are decidedly dishonorable, and when she realizes that she kills him, then realizes that in attempting to rape her he grabbed a pendant from around her neck and tore it off, and it’s still in his hand and could link her to the killing if the police find the body. So she uses her switchblade knife (she never seems to leave home without one) and hacks off his hand — the sequence is bloodless and hinted at just off-screen but we still get the message and it’s a genuine shock — then dumps it in the basket of a street flower seller. (We’re given a flashback sequence to her childhood in which her madness is explained by her witnessing her father shoot her mother to death — in front of a mirror that shatters from the fatal bullet, which suggests that at some point Jack Parker had seen Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — whereupon she picked up her switchblade, which she seemed always to carry even then, and stabbed her dad with it, killing him.)

She has a few more intense adventures as she wanders through the city and finally ends up in a jazz nightclub where Shorty Rogers and his band (Shorty Rogers was a big name in the white jazz world in the early 1950’s, on a level with Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Shelly Manne, though his vogue didn’t last very long) are performing their piece “Wig Alley.” Eventually the action returns to the hotel room where the woman was living and from whence she ventured out, and it shows her stirring from her bed as the narrator proclaims that it was all a dream … or was it? Jack Parker seems to have been going for the same sort of poetic horror that Herk Harvey aimed for in Carnival of Souls seven years later, and though he didn’t have the magnificent baroque bathhouse to shoot in that Harvey did, Parker achieved a similarly atmospheric brand of horror even though his film isn’t quite as wrenchingly emotional. Like Harvey, Parker found a leading actress who’s not drop-dead gorgeous but not downright ugly either — a woman who might get the sort of male attention she desired but also might get a slimeball like VeSota’s character — and he managed to recruit some quite impressive “names” to work on his movie. The musical score (an even more crucial element than usual in a dialogue-free film) was by the major French composer George Antheil, and it features a woman — or at least her voice — who was involved in two Academy Award winners for Best Picture: Marni Nixon, who voice-doubled for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. (She’s used here as a wordless, high-pitched “vapor voice,” and despite the skill with which she negotiates Antheil’s vocal part, the sound gets annoyingly shrill after a while and one gets the impression that even if the heroine weren’t already crazy at the start of the film, she would be driven so by the sound of Marni Nixon’s vapor voice right in her ear 24/7.)

The musical director (i.e., conductor) is Ernest Gold, who would go on to write and conduct the music for the film Exodus and have a major hit on the theme song, and the cinematographer is William Thompson, who had shot for Dwain Esper in the 1930’s and Ed Wood in the 1950’s — he actually was far more talented than you’d think from these associations, but he didn’t get the major-studio assignments he deserved because he only had one eye. (So what? The eye he did have had excellent visual taste.) Daughter of Horror is a far more engaging work than the piece of stupid drive-in schlock one would expect from that title and an under-an-hour running time, and though the original narration-less Dementia might be a bit more difficult to follow, it’s probably an even better movie than Daughter of Horror (and, according to one reviewer, it featured a smoother transition from the rest of the movie into the scene in the jazz club — the abrupt cut to the nightclub interior and the quick switch from George Antheil’s music to Shorty Rogers’ is one piece of Daughter of Horror that doesn’t quite come off). The odd enduring fame of Daughter of Horror came from an unexpected source: it’s the movie used as the film-within-a-film in The Blob when the red-jelly monster comes oozing out of the projection booth into the auditorium!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Caught (Enterprise-MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Caught, a 1949 film noir made at the short-lived Enterprise Studio, which had a major-studio distribution deal through MGM and involved John Garfield (who was the star of their one major hit, Body and Soul), Charles Boyer and Ginger Rogers (though I don’t think La Ginger ever actually made a film for them) as well as David Loew of the Loew family, founders of MGM’s parent company, as their principal financial backer. Future director Robert Aldrich, who worked as an assistant director and production manager at Enterprise, recalled to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, “The studio’s main problem was that it had one hit and about nine disasters. The hit was Body and Soul. It cost a million dollars more than it should have because [director] Robert Rossen was given his head.”

By the time Enterprise produced Caught for director Max Ophuls (embarrassingly spelled “Opuls” on his credit!) they had blown their seed capital on a big film called Arch of Triumph, based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Milestone recalled the experience in his own Celluloid Muse interview: “The basic mistake … was that the script was much too long. I wanted to shorten it, but they refused because they were anxious to duplicate the success of the nearly four-hour long Gone With the Wind, which had just been reissued. … [But] by the time the picture was finished, the bottom had fallen out of the market and they no longer wanted four-hour pictures, so we had to cut the damned thing down to the more conventional two hours, which is easier to do on paper than on celluloid.” Arch of Triumph cost $4 million in 1948 dollars, and as a result Enterprise declared bankruptcy while Caught was still shooting.

During the shoot Ophuls got shingles and John Berry replaced him — and according to Aldrich, the expectation at the studio was that Berry was going to be allowed to finish the film, whereby the management and the banks that were their principal creditors had decided that Berry was going to shoot only until Ophuls was healthy enough to work, and then Ophuls would take over. “As studio manager I had to go and tell Berry, my friend, that he was fired,” Aldrich recalled. “I couldn’t tell him then — I told him about a year afterwards — why he was fired. It was a very unpleasant period. I would guess that between a third and a half of the finished film is Berry’s. He had been dealt with in a very shabby fashion.” Then, four or five months later, the film needed retakes and Aldrich recalled he got his revenge on Ophuls “because the bank had vested in me much of the power of deciding what retakes to do or not to do. I never got even for the injustice Mr. Berry had suffered, but it was a pleasant two days.” (Interestingly, Caught doesn’t look like a film that had two directors; the visual and dramatic style seems consistent throughout.)

Written by Arthur Laurents (who’s still alive: at 93 he recently pulled the plug on a proposed remake of the musical Gypsy, to have starred Barbra Streisand, by withdrawing the right to use his original book) from a novel called Wild Calendar by one Libbie Block (a writer I’ve otherwise never heard of), Caught is famous for having a principal character — a nearly psychopathic rich man named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) — at least loosely based on Howard Hughes. The film starts in a cheap room shared by Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) and a roommate, in which they’re looking at the ads for jewelry and furs in a fashion magazine and fantasizing being rich enough to afford all that stuff. Leonora — the first name is one she’s assumed herself because it seems to have more cachet than the one her parents gave her — is saving enough money to attend the charm school run by Dorothy Dale (Natalie Schaefer), and one day while she’s working as a clothing model in an upscale department store she’s approached by Franzi (Curt Bois), who invites her to a party being given by Smith Ohlrig on his yacht.

Leonora spends a day or two undecided as to whether to go — her roommate gooses her along and says it’s the one chance she’ll have to meet the sort of rich man she’s fantasizing about marrying — and at the end she waits on the dock and is picked up by a tall, dark stranger who turns out to be Ohlrig himself, who found his own party boring and decided to escape it. He takes her for a wild ride in his fancy car — “Will you please look at the road?” she pleads as he drives her along at reckless speeds — and they date for a while. Ohlrig is shown in a scene with his psychiatrist (Art Smith), in which the psychiatrist tells him he’ll never actually get married — and Ohlrig takes that as a dare and decides then and there to marry Leonora. The wedding is heavily publicized and hailed in the media as a real-life Cinderella story, but needless to say behind the scenes things aren’t happy: Ohlrig turns out to be neurotically controlling and makes Leonora’s life hell until she separates from him.

She takes a job as a receptionist for two doctors, Larry Quinada (James Mason, top-billed, in his first U.S.-made film) and Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson) — Hoffman is an obstetrician and Quinada a pediatrician — and at first she’s a washout but she soon applies herself, and Quinada starts taking an interest in her and dating her. He proposes marriage and it’s only then that she tells him she can’t marry him because she’s married already — and Quinada recalls the publicity surrounding her marriage and remembers why she always looked so familiar. Meanwhile, she’s had a pregnancy test run on herself by Dr. Hoffman, and it turns out she’s carrying Ohlrig’s baby — and Ohlrig seizes on that as the ultimate in leverage to force her either to return to him or, failing that, to give him the baby. Eventually she suffers a miscarriage ex machina that ends Ohlrig’s hold on her, and the implication is that he’s going to dump her and she’ll be free to marry Quinada.

I’d first seen Caught on TV in the 1970’s and recalled it as better than it seems now — for all the potential of a plot dealing with a rich man who regards the people around him, including the one he’s nominally married to, as just that many more possessions to be used as long as they amuse him and discarded once they no longer do, the film seems to rely on a lot of plot contrivances. It’s also problematically cast; Robert Ryan is superb as the psychopathic millionaire but James Mason seems miscast (in his best roles he’s either decadent or downright evil; he’s as unbelievable as the goody-two-shoes doctor as he is as a British actor playing someone with a Latino name) and Barbara Bel Geddes is a good enough choice but only because Hollywood in the late 1940’s wasn’t exactly full of spunky-young-woman types (the Barbara Stanwyck of the mid-1930’s would have been absolutely ideal for this part, but by 1949 Stanwyck would have been too old for it and it’s hard to think who else they could have got — Mercedes McCambridge?). And the moral of the story that money can’t buy happiness and be careful what you wish for because you just might get it is hammered home with the sort of obviousness one would expect from the parlor pinks who were running Enterprise, many of whom would end up blacklisted not long after the studio closed down.

What makes Caught worthwhile is the noir atmosphere created by cinematographer Lee Garmes and art director P. Frank Sylos. The film seems to have been influenced a great deal by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons — though Ophuls, as a European, was in touch with the sources for the chiaroscuro shadows and other appurtenances of what eventually became film noir and probably hadn’t needed to watch Welles’ movies to learn to make a film like this, still Caught not only uses the visual style of Kane and Ambersons but uses it for the same dramatic purpose: to dramatize the plight of rich people whose money isn’t making them at all happy. Supposedly Ophuls’ trademark was moving-camera shots (another Welles specialty!), and the TCM staff member who picked this movie stressed a long sequence inside a jazz nightclub Quinada and Leonore go to, in which Ophuls (or Berry) keeps a single shot going for two continuous minutes without a cut, moving the camera continually. (This was 12 years after Alfred Hitchcock had done a famous moving-camera shot in a similar environment — a dance hall — in Young and Innocent to swoop around the crowd and on up to the bandstand to discover that the band’s drummer, a man with an uncontrollably twitching eye, is the murderer being sought by the innocent young hero who’s been accused of the crime.)

Caught is a quite good movie from the visual standpoint, and Robert Ryan’s performance makes the millionaire seem fearsome but not entirely unsympathetic — though the script uses few details from the real Hughes’ life and the character is far less recognizable as him than Charles Foster Kane was as William Randolph Hearst. The studio was scared stiff throughout the production that Hughes was going to have a Hearst-like hissy-fit over his portrayal and shut down shooting — which he could easily have done because two of the stars, Ryan and Bel Geddes, were on loan from Hughes-owned RKO — and apparently he had rushes of Caught sent to him every day so he could watch them (presumably from the base he had established at the Samuel Goldwyn studio, from which he ran RKO; rather than take an office at RKO itself, he rented one from Goldwyn and on at least one film, Double Dynamite, insisted that every set built for the movie be taken down, shipped to Goldwyn, set up on a Goldwyn stage so he could inspect it, and then if he passed it, the set would be taken down again, shipped back to RKO and set up on an RKO stage for the actual shooting) — but he never complained about the character Ryan was playing. I commented to Charles later that William Randolph Hearst’s hatred of Citizen Kane had little or nothing to do with how he was portrayed in it — what pissed him off, and led him to try to suppress the film, was the presentation of Marion Davies as the untalented and shrewish “Susan Alexander” — and in everything that’s been written about Howard Hughes there’s no evidence that he ever cared enough about any other person to want to defend their honor the way Hearst did with Davies.

Caught was one of only four films Ophuls made in the U.S. (the others were The Exile, a swashbuckler for Universal with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Charles II, obviously attempting the kind of film his dad had excelled in; Letter From an Unknown Woman, a superb Vienna-set soap opera with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan; and The Reckless Moment, another film noir, which I’ve never seen, though the recent remake The Deep End was superb and piques my curiosity about the Ophuls original), and given the way he was run ragged by Robert Aldrich and was literally directing for a collapsing company, it’s no wonder he beat a hasty retreat back to Europe and made the films on which his enduring reputation rests: La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame De … and Lola Montes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Roar of the Dragon (RKO, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Roar of the Dragon, a 1932 RKO production from David O. Selznick’s brief (one-year) tenure as that studio’s head — he was forced out when he got tired of people from RKO’s radio side telling him what sort of movies he should be making and trying to limit his budgets — which reunited star Richard Dix and director Wesley Ruggles from RKO’s 1931 Academy Award Best Picture winner Cimarron in an intense melodrama set in Yulong, a town in Manchuria (leading me to joke that no one knew that during at least one of Dix’s character’s long absences from the action in Cimarron he’d spent a good deal of time in China!), though the film is only sporadically interesting and muffs most of the chances for action its story had to offer.

Written by Howard Estabrook from a novel called A Passage to Hong Kong (which, remember, is clear at the other end of China!) and an unpublished story co-written by Merian C. Cooper (who, you’ll recall, took over as RKO production chief when Selznick was fired but only lasted a year even though during that time he produced the biggest box-office hit RKO ever had, King Kong) and Jane Bigelow, Roar of the Dragon casts Dix as Chauncey Carson (though he’s too self-conscious about his own butchness to let anyone but his on-screen girlfriend know that something as nancy as “Chauncey” is his first name), alcoholic captain of a steamboat (complete with paddle wheel) and sworn enemy of the bandit leader Voronsky (C. Henry Gordon), who’s sworn to kill him because during a previous battle Carson sliced off a good chunk of Voronsky’s ear. Carson receives word that Voronsky is on his way to Yulong and tries to get his passengers out before Voronsky arrived, but that’s impossible because the paddles on his boat’s propellant wheel are badly damaged and it will take a week before the boat is operable again. Voronsky arrives with his minions and holds the passengers hostage inside the Yulong Inn, where Carson tries to command them, strictly rationing food, water and ammunition (he notes wryly that they’re safe as long as their ammunition holds out, and when someone asks him how long that is, he replies, “As long as we don’t use it”).

The passengers are a motley crew indeed, many of them cast with actors usually known as comedians — including Edward Everett Horton (TCM was showing this as part of a tribute to him that wisely avoided the Astaire-Rogers movies that are his best-known credits) and ZaSu Pitts (whom it’s impossible to watch in one of those bittersweet comic parts without ruing that the collapse of Erich von Stroheim’s directorial career meant the end of Pitts’s ability to get serious dramatic parts — one can’t help but imagine an alternate universe in which Pitts’s superb performance in Greed turned her career around and gave her the dramatic roles she deserved, much the way Sybil and Norma Rae did for Sally Field half a century later; one can even imagine Pitts winning an Academy Award for best actress and telling the Academy how grateful she was that they liked her, they really, really liked her) — as well as Arline Judge, who really steals this movie: though she’s only the second lead, her quiet, dignified strength (at times she reminded me of Myrna Loy) certainly triumphed over the mincing acting of the nominal female lead, Gwili André, who plays Natasha, a former mistress/sex slave of Voronsky whom Carson is torn between loving and thinking is a Voronsky spy. (There is a Voronsky spy in the Yulong Inn, who at one point tips over the barrel containing their entire supply of drinking water and also sneaks out handkerchiefs on which are written reports about the hostages’ level of food, water and ammo.)

It’s a movie with a few striking scenes — notably an early one in which Voronsky has one of his men heat a knife and apply it to his ear, apparently to cauterize and/or disinfect the wound; and a later, quite shocking one in which merchant Abel Sholem (Arthur Stone) tries to escape to his store to get the hostages some meat, is captured by Voronsky’s gang and literally burned at the stake — from inside the inn’s courtyard the other hostages see Sholem’s body tied to a stake being lifted up and then set afire, and Carson uses the machine gun he has inside the courtyard to blast Sholem’s body and thereby put him out of his misery rather than letting him linger. (I’ve read that being burned at the stake — at least in the classic medieval fashion — was a relatively quick means of execution, since the person died of smoke inhalation well before the body was consumed by the flames; but certain people, including homosexuals, were executed by being tied up and thrown directly onto the fire so they would suffer more than someone being burned at the stake, and this is the origin of the term “faggot” as a reference to Gays.) The ending is a bit of a surprise as it’s Edward Everett Horton, of all people, who mans the machine gun in the climactic sequence, shooting down Voronsky’s men after Voronsky manages to force his way in — Edward Everett Horton, action hero! — and this allows the rest of the hostages to escape and flee to the now-repaired boat even though Horton’s character dies for his pains, and Carson escapes with Natasha. (Frankly, I was hoping Natasha would get killed and Carson would pair up with Arline Judge’s character.)

Roar of the Dragon is full of possibilities that don’t quite make it on screen, despite the slithery atmospherics of Edward Cronjager’s cinematography (virtually the whole movie takes place at night and the half-lit shadows foretell film noir) and an early musical score by Max Steiner, who oddly supplies one of his typically intricate and overwrought scores for the first third or so of the film but then largely shuts up as the action settles inside the Yulong Inn. Overall, Roar of the Dragon isn’t much of a movie, but one could readily imagine it being remade today, only the modern version would take place in (or off the coast of) Somalia with pirates instead of bandits!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ring of Fear (Wayne-Fellows/Warner Bros., 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Ring of Fear, a really peculiar 1954 production by John Wayne (though he’s not in the movie) and Robert Fellows for Warner Bros. release, included in the batch of Wayne-produced films his estate recently sold to Paramount for home video distribution. It’s a movie as schizophrenic as its main character, Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory), who before World War II worked in the circus owned by Clyde Beatty (whose name throughout the movie is pronounced “BEE-tee,” not “BAY-tee”), only he ended up receiving a head wound during combat on Iwo Jima and turned into a homicidal maniac. Three psychiatrists at a mental institution where he’s being held examine him and decide he’s still crazy when they catch him with a photograph of a female circus performer, Valerie St. Dennis (Marian Carr), whom he says was his girlfriend until she married someone else, but he refuses to give any details. Instead he escapes — absurdly easily, cold-cocking anyone who gets in his way with fight moves he seems to have learned from watching John Wayne (or at least Yakima Canutt) movies — and hides out in the Beatty circus until midway through the movie, when he reveals himself and asks for (and gets) back his old job as circus director.

What makes this movie as schizophrenic as its main character (even though the way the character is depicted his mental illness does not seem to be schizophrenia, albeit it’s referred to that way in the dialogue) is that half of it is a standard-issue movie about a circus, emphasizing the sheer joy and fun popularly associated with this form of entertainment, while half of it is a fairly dark thriller about an individual who’s both superficially charming and deeply crazy. Apparently O’Malley nurses a grudge against Clyde Beatty (though since Beatty saved his life from a wild animal there doesn’t seem to be any rational — or irrational, for that matter — reason for O’Malley to hate the man) and an even bigger (and a bit more understandable) one against trapeze star Armand St. Dennis (John Bromfield, undoubtedly with a double from one of Beatty’s usual troupe filling in for him during the stunts), the man his girlfriend married and with whom she’s had a daughter. Beatty (playing himself) notices that his circus is meeting with a series of accidents — or are they accidents? — and to help investigate he calls in, of all people, Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer, whom we’re supposed to believe is really a detective rather than just a guy who wrote about them.

Various things go wrong, including an improperly tied rope that sends Armand crashing to earth in the middle of a big stunt — though he grabs the tent pole and slides down safely even while working without a net — and Beatty and Spillane (playing himself and doing so in a rather rough-hewn but still charming way even though it’s hard, to say the least, to imagine the creator of Mike Hammer behaving so boyishly in real life) trace the sinister doings first to an alcoholic clown named Twitchy (Emmett Lynn) and then, after Twitchy is found murdered (drowned in a tub of water with a bottle of 160-proof rum next to him to give the impression that he drank himself to death), to O’Malley. It’s an engaging movie despite the wrenching rapidity and lack of logic with which it cuts between jolly circus movie and sinister psycho thriller — and it doesn’t help that all the circus acts we see staged are shot with the cameras miles away and with little or no editing, as we’d see them from a good seat in the circus tent. It’s nice to see Pat O’Brien playing the circus’s business manager — even though it’s a pretty nothing role (odd that with Beatty and Spillane first- and second-billed, respectively, the highest a real honest-to-goodness professional actor can get in this movie is third!) — and even more amazing that Wayne’s pet writer, James Edward Grant (for quite a while, if you wanted Wayne for your movie you’d have to hire Grant to rewrite the script), is not only co-credited with the script (with Paul Fix and Phillip MacDonald) but is the director of record as well (though says William A. Wellman co-directed — believable, since some of the scenes involving the psycho seem to have a lot more power and cinematic interest than one would expect from a fellow like Grant — and they also claim Mickey Spillane had a hand in the script, also believable since after all his greatest fame was as a writer and his real-life reputation in that regard is a major plot point in the film).

It’s an odd movie, entertaining (especially when Sean McClory is onscreen pouring on the charm as cover for his true nature) and a real novelty number from a time when circuses were a much more mainstream entertainment than they are today, but rather than portray the madman-in-the-circus theme for the obvious ironic potential, the film just cuts back and forth between jollity and mayhem and gets nowhere pretty fast. It’s also a nice movie in that it was shot in CinemaScope (the original intent was to do it in 3-D, and some of that intent seems to have survived in all the shots of tigers charging the camera lens) and recorded in stereophonic sound — and while only a few of the 1954 prints were in stereo (it required a projector equipped to read magnetic as well as optical soundtracks), fortunately the version we were watching had the stereo sound and it was quite effectively used.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Maurice (Merchant Ivory Productions, Cinecom Pictures, Film Four International, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), based on the novel E. M. Forster wrote over a number of years starting in 1913 (which is about when it takes place) in which he basically “outed” himself as Gay — and which he showed privately to a few friends but would not allow to be published until after his death because he was terrified about the social and (especially) legal consequences of him being found out. When Maurice’s story starts in 1909 the Oscar Wilde scandals were still matters of common memory in Britain and anyone who felt same-sex urges was all too aware of the likely consequences of them. The story (I haven’t read the book) begins in 1909 in King’s College at Cambridge University and focuses on central character Maurice Hill (played by a rather twerpy-looking blond guy named James Wilby) and his best friends, Clive Durham (Hugh Grant, in the role that made him a star) and Viscount Risley (Mark Tandy). When they’re not going to class they’re hanging out to each other and having the same pseudo-profound discussions about life, love, art, music and whatnot that undergraduates have probably been having at least since the days of Plato’s Symposium (which is actually referenced in the dialogue).

In one early scene Risley is defending the music of Wagner against Maurice’s and Clive’s attacks (which made me identify with him right there, even though the real Wagner liked Queers about as much as he liked Jews; he once wrote that he admired everything about the ancient Greeks except “their love — pederasty”), and from his relative boldness and assertiveness we just know that he’s going to be the first one of them to get into serious trouble regarding his homosexual attractions. Clive and Maurice start an affair of sorts, which doesn’t get beyond kissing and necking because Clive insists that male-male love must be on a higher plane than the sordidly “physical,” and even the limited contact they actually have gets Maurice thrown out of university when the dean catches them leaving the campus in a three-wheeled motorbike when Maurice is supposed to be in one of the dean’s classes, and Maurice responds by insulting him. Maurice’s father gets him a job in a stockbroker’s office, where he seems to spend most of his time reading the ticker tape, but he’s still welcome at the country home of Clive’s family even after Clive announces his engagement to Anne (Phoebe Nicholls) and urges Maurice to outgrow his same-sex foolishness, find a nice girl and settle down.

Maurice has not only Clive’s apparently happy — or at least not desperately unhappy — adjustment to heterosexuality to serve as an example, but also the negative example of a scandal involving Risley, who was caught trying to buy the sexual services of a guardsman, disgraced, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and ruined politically (both he and Clive were aspiring politicians) and socially. Maurice accordingly seeks out a doctor who attempts to “cure” him with hypnosis, which works about as well as the “reparative therapy” programs of today, and his attempts to restrain himself fall apart when he meets and falls in love with servant Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), a gamekeeper on the Durham estate. Clive is horrified at this news — it seems that he’s bothered equally by the fact that Maurice is doing “the physical” and that he’s doing it with someone so far below their social class — and even Alec intends to leave England and emigrate to Argentina, only at the last minute he doesn’t get on the boat and instead hangs out in the boat house on the Durham estate, where Maurice meets him for what appears to be at least a sort of happy ending.

Earlier Maurice had told Alec that in order for them to stay together he’d have to give up his stockbroker job, his position and his money — the obvious expedient of hiring Alec as his servant by day while keeping him as his lover by night doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of them (maybe E. M. Forster would have considered that too dangerous) — and the film leaves them paired up. Forster wrote an epilogue to the novel which he later deleted, in which Maurice and Alec did indeed become a couple but Maurice had to join Alec in the working class to do it — the two of them have become woodcutters — and the main action of the epilogue was that Maurice should meet his estranged sister Kitty (played in the film by Kitty Aldridge) and she would express her disapproval of his situations both in work and in life — while Maurice and Alec would feel forced to move out of where they were living and hide even further to avoid detection.

Maurice was filmed in 1987 by the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and almost certainly was greenlighted because they’d just had a major success with another (non-Gay) Forster story, A Room with a View, which had been an international hit and made a star out of Helena Bonham Carter. By now the term “Merchant-Ivory movie” has become a shorthand term for a certain type of film — British in setting and cast, usually based on a major work of British literature, quietly told, acted with impeccable taste … and also long and talky, with little or no cinematic invention and utterly no attempt to find a visually interesting film style to translate the novelist’s prose style into movie terms. (The opposite way to do a literary adaptation is the one Orson Welles chose when he filmed The Magnificent Ambersons, a visually spectacular work even in the truncated form that survives and one which, if you read the book, you will see clearly how Welles was attempting to find a cinematic equivalent to Booth Tarkington’s prose style instead of merely filming the incidents Tarkington wrote about.)

Maurice is no exception; it’s a welcome movie not only because its source is a Gay literary classic but it’s also one of the very first fictional stories about Gays that actually dared a happy ending — Maurice isn’t publicly disgraced, imprisoned, Queer-bashed or driven to suicide, and indeed he does the Romantic-era thing and gives up his privilege and social position for his lover. There are other problems with this film that are inherent in the story; the upper-class twittiness of the major characters gets so wearing after a while I was hoping some rebellious proletarians would come in with machine guns and mow down all the characters — and, surprisingly for a British film, it isn’t all that well acted. James Wilby is cute in a twerpy-twink way but hardly someone you’d imagine as passion’s plaything, straight or Gay; Hugh Grant (who’d later get involved in a real-life incident that, though heterosexual, otherwise paralleled Risley’s disgrace in the film, and would lose a potential star career that had previously been compared to his near-namesake from the classic era, real-life Bisexual Cary Grant) pretty much walks through his role as Clive (though to be fair he’s turning in a superficial performance as a superficial character); and the two most intensely etched performances in the movie are Mark Tandy’s and Rupert Graves’s.

Tandy’s Risley is by far the most charismatic of the three central characters at the beginning, and our anguish at his fate is only compounded by his disappearance from the story, which strips it of its most compelling character (indeed Tandy seemed like he would have been great casting for Sherlock Holmes) — and when Graves as Scudder enters he blows away all the upper-class pretensions not only of Maurice himself but of everyone around him. Indeed, the last third of Maurice comes off as a sort of Gay version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (even though Forster wrote his book before D. H. Lawrence wrote his and neither of them could have been influenced by the other), with Maurice’s enervated upper-class (twit) sensibilities blown away by Scudder’s honesty, earthiness and penchant for swearing — and just as I had the impression when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover that Lawrence ended it just as it was about to get interesting (with Lady Chatterley and Gamekeeper Mellors pairing up and emigrating to Canada for a pioneer existence), so does Maurice — which Forster may have realized when he penned that epilogue before he caught on that it wouldn’t work.

The movie Maurice is engaging in a lot of ways — as I mentioned, it’s refreshing to have a Queer-themed movie (especially one set this far back) which doesn’t end with its protagonists dead or emotionally devastated and empty (one reason I couldn’t understand the Queer-community hype surrounding Brokeback Mountain was it did end with one of the male leads fatally Queer-bashed and the other emotionally devastated and empty, and I would have thought the film hailed by the mainstream Queer community as the Queer movie would have had a more positive ending), and I liked the touch that the favorite piece of music the three student buddies listen to and cherish at the beginning is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique” (the real Tchaikovsky was Gay and suffered a long series of blackmails and other victimizations from people he’d picked up sexually; according to one account of his death, he was forced to drink cholera-tainted water as a disguised suicide by an upper-class “honor court” who sentenced him to death for starting an affair with a nobleman’s son — which, if true, suggests that Oscar Wilde got off easy by comparison!), which is often regarded as a work inspired by Tchaikovsky’s own self-hatred and melancholy over being Queer. It’s a film that, even within the limits of its material, could have been better than it was, but it’s still a milestone in Queer cinema (as Forster’s novel is a milestone in Queer literature) and holds up pretty well today.

Friday, March 18, 2011

City Streets (Paramount, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Not long ago Charles and I screened a quite remarkable movie from TCM’s recent tribute to director Rouben Mamoulian: his second film, City Streets, made at Paramount in 1931 — says it was shot at Paramount’s Astoria studios in Queens (which still exist as Kaufman Astoria Studios, and are still in use, notably by Woody Allen for his New York-set films), but my impression was that Mamoulian had already come out to Hollywood by then and shot the film there. Mamoulian’s previous film, Applause (1929), actually had been made at Astoria — a dark masterwork starring Helen Morgan in a backstage story of almost unrelieved grimness (anyone coming to that film with the expectation that “musical” inevitably means “light, frothy entertainment” would be duly perplexed) that had pushed the envelope in terms of innovative uses of sound. The critics had loved Applause but the audience hadn’t, and Mamoulian continued his career as a stage director (despite the Depression and its inevitable effect on theatrical productions and the availability of the financing for them) until 1931, when Paramount summoned him back and gave him the choice of three stories for a second film.

He hated them all, then ran into Dashiell Hammett — who had also been given a contract by Paramount but hadn’t yet come up with anything filmable. “I told him I was looking for ideas, and he put a suggested outline down in four pages,” Mamoulian later recalled (to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse). “Dashiell wrote a familiar gangster story, and I accepted it, intending to treat it in an original manner. There were several murders, and I had them happen off-screen. And I wanted to use symbolism, a term that’s anathema in Hollywood. In a conversation between two bitchy women [sic — actually it’s between a woman and a man], I simply showed two china cats.” [Mamoulian had an extensive personal collection of such artistic bric-a-brac and brought in two pieces from his own collection.] City Streets is a good movie but a rather quirky one, surprisingly slowly paced (anyone whose expectation of an early-1930’s gangster film has been conditioned by Little Caesar, Public Enemy and the other zippy Warner Bros. speed-fests is going to be surprised here), and it’s several minutes into the film before the leads, Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney, appear.

It begins with the assassination of bootleg beer maker Blackie (Stanley Fields) — who somehow has managed to keep an extensive factory (presumably a legal brewery he kept open after Prohibition by bribing the right authorities) in operation, much to the dismay of Big Boss Mackal (Paul Lukas), the overlord of the city’s illegal booze business, who wants to horn in on it. Mackal gets Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee, making his screen debut and cast as a black-hearted gangster whose only redeeming quality is his love for his daughter — a far cry from the comic-relief ditzes and letches we’re used to seeing him as, though he could be a credible action figure in movies like this and Captain Blood, where he was part of Errol Flynn’s pirate crew), Blackie’s partner, to carry out the killing from him, and rather than show the murder on screen he dissolves from a vat in which the beer is being manufactured to the running water of a river in which Blackie’s hat is floating. After shooting Blackie at the Big Boss’s behest, Cooley hands the gun to his daughter Nan (Sylvia Sidney) — the American Film Institute Catalog identifies Nan as Cooley’s stepdaughter but the film itself says she’s his daughter — figuring that since she has no record and is a woman, even if she’s popped for it the authorities will go easy on her.

Nan has been dating The Kid (Gary Cooper), a carnival sharpshooter, and wants to marry him but is concerned about his finances, or lack thereof; she keeps trying to get him to join her dad’s gang and he keeps refusing. Then Nan is arrested and charged with being an accessory to Blackie’s murder, and she’s convicted and sentenced to prison — where the Kid visits her and, in a scene of intense, frustrated and unabashed romanticism one doesn’t expect to see in an early-1930’s gangster movie, they end up trying to kiss each other through the wire-mesh screen in the visiting room before his time expires and he’s ushered out by the matron. The Kid accepts Cooley’s offer to join the bootlegging gang, hoping that he can make enough money to get Nan’s conviction reversed and get her released — only he begins to enjoy the gangster lifestyle, the money he can make from it and the lavish digs he can now afford. Meanwhile, Nan’s feelings towards her father’s business do a 180° turn when her cellmate is about to be released and she expects to be picked up by her gangster boyfriend, Joe — and Nan witnesses from the window of her cell (an oddly angular contraption that makes it look like she’s doing her time in The Prison of Dr. Caligari) as Joe duly shows up — and is gunned down by members of a rival gang before he and his girlfriend can reunite. (Nan’s trauma over this turn of events is dramatized by a voice-over in which she is unable to sleep because she keeps hearing, in her mind’s ear, her former cellmate’s reassurance that Joe will return to her, her own questioning of Joe’s loyalty, her dad’s offers to let the Kid join his gang and her own assurances that the Kid should do this. It’s been called the first sound flashback ever used in a film, which it may be, and also the first use of a voice-over to represent a character’s thoughts, which it isn’t; Alfred Hitchcock had done that one a year before with Herbert Marshall in his British film Murder!)

When Nan finally does get out, she’s horrified that the Kid is now part of her dad’s gang, and things get even hairier when the Big Boss, who seems to regard every woman in the vicinity as his property if and when he wants her, dumps his previous girlfriend Aggie (Wynne Gibson) — who’d been Blackie’s girlfriend before the Big Boss had Blackie killed — and insists he’s going to make Nan his mistress. Nan agrees to the deal if he’ll let the Kid live, but goes to the Big Boss’s home with a small gun intending to kill him — only he catches on that she’s hiding a gun in her purse and takes it away from her. Then he throws it away and Aggie picks it up and uses it to kill him. Nan is accused of the murder and the Kid manages to get them both out of the gang life by pretending to take over the mob after the Big Boss’s death; when he and Nan make their escape they’re chased by three of the gang’s thugs, but Nan holds a gun on them and disarms them, and the Kid sends them off, saying, “No hard feelings” (the Big Boss’s words at the beginning of the film to Blackie just before he had him killed), and Mamoulian cuts to a shot of birds in the sky and puts the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on the soundtrack as the film fades out.

Despite its occasional sluggishness, City Streets is quite a good movie, the characters well delineated and the emotions vivid and intense. Though the story got filtered through two other writers after Dashiell Hammett outlined it (Max Marcin was credited with “adaptation” and Oliver H. P. Garrett with the script), Hammett’s world-weary world view is very much in evidence — as is his intriguing fascination with fat characters: the imagination that brought us Mr. Crostlethwaite in his early story “One Hour,” Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon and Sydney George Harper Carp in the comic script Secret Agent X-9, which Hammett scripted and an equally illustrious talent, Alex Raymond, drew for the Hearst syndicate is here in Kibbee’s character and his quirky romantic relationship with someone equally zaftig, Pansy Trevillian (Betty Sinclair), in the second half of the film. I had seen this one only once before — at a revival theatre in San Francisco in the 1970’s — and the big scenes I remembered were that heartrending prison visit between Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney (unusual not only for its desperate romanticism but also the fact that it was the man outside visiting his girlfriend in prison, not the other way around as usual) and Guy Kibbee eating candy with his equally large girlfriend.

City Streets was a major hit when it was first released and still holds up quite well — Gary Cooper’s laconicism and diffidence as an actor are right for the part even though this is one of those movies that justifies the joke about him that all he could say on screen was “yep” and “nope,” the rest of the cast is quite good (it’s a special treat to see Guy Kibbee cast so totally against what later became his movie “type,” and likewise though Paul Lukas would go on to play other villains they usually were either inept or charming, which he decidedly isn’t here), Mamoulian’s symbolism and stylization add weight to the story without overwhelming it, and overall it’s quite a good job within the early-1930’s gangster cycle while at the same time transcending the typical gangster conventions and giving us a pair of leading characters we care about and want to see prevail.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gay Desperado (Pickford/Lasky/UA, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Gay Desperado, a marvelous 1936 comedy-drama directed by Rouben Mamoulian and essentially thrown together by him and writer Wallace Smith after Mamoulian got the assignment to make a film starring Nino Martini, an Italian-born singer who had made one previous Hollywood film, Here’s to Romance, for producer (and former Paramount co-founder) Jesse Lasky at Fox. Lasky got let go by Fox but still had Martini under contract, so with a new contract to work with Mary Pickford’s company to make films for United Artists release, Lasky decided to make another Martini vehicle under his new auspices. Meanwhile, as Mamoulian recalled it in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse, after the exhausting process of making Becky Sharp (the first feature-length film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor), “I went to Mexico for a two-week vacation. I fell in love with Mexico, its beautifully stylized landscapes, its skies always filled with cumulus clouds. I decided I would never rest until I made a film there.”

When he returned Lasky contacted him with a job offer: to do a film based on Gounod’s opera Faust with Martini as star. “It intrigued me, but the script was all wrong,” Mamoulian recalled. “Jesse was desperate; Martini’s first film had flopped, and he couldn’t think of another vehicle. Then while we were talking, a man named [Leo] Birinski arrived with the idea for a Mexican film: Mexican bandits see American gangster films and realize how outmoded their methods are, and go to the movies as a night school and try to follow the gangster methods of America.” Birinski’s idea was that a Mexican bandit gang so inspired would kidnap a radio singer, who Martini would play; but Mamoulian decided that Birinski’s story had a great potential premise for a satire but “the rest of the story was the dreariest you ever heard.” Mamoulian told Lasky he would make the film if he could throw out everything Birinski wrote except the central premise, and he brought in Smith to write what turned out to be a loony comedy (from a director who hadn’t shown that much of a sense of humor before — Love Me Tonight was a sophisticated romantic comedy with music, but it hardly indicated Mamoulian as a suitable director for something this zany) in which Martini plays, not a radio singer, but an entertainer in a dinky movie theatre that, in between showings of the American gangster film bandido Pablo Braganza (Leo Carrillo) uses as inspiration, puts on a silent travelogue during which Martini’s character, Chivo, is called upon to sing.

Chivo gets upset at the way Braganza and his gang members are talking through the gangster movie, and Braganza first threatens to kill him and then drafts him into his gang, essentially as his personal minstrel. (The movie itself looks like stock footage from the 1932 Scarface, sped up to make it look funnier, interspersed with new close-ups of actors supposedly starring in the film-within-the-film.) Their first American-style caper is the kidnapping of American heir Bill Shay (James Blakeley), who’s driving through Mexico in a Rolls-Royce with his girlfriend Jane (Ida Lupino, still speaking with her native British accent) — actually their original intent is just to steal the car because a fast vehicle is one of the ingredients for American gangsterdom they’ve learned from the movies, but when Shay tries to talk his way out of his predicament by telling the bandits who his father is, they decide to hold him for $10,000 ransom and also decide they’ll be willing to throw in the girl for another $1,000. Chivo is immediately smitten with Jane but thinks that she and Bill are already married (they were going into Mexico with the intent of getting married there but they hadn’t yet done so when they were taken), and he’s sympathetic enough that Jane can tell he isn’t really a bandit and, not surprisingly, falls for him over the nerd she’d been traveling with — only Chivo lets them both go and Braganza summons a real American gangster, Butch (Stanley Fields), to tell him what to do now.

Butch recaptures Bill and Jane and decides to go through with the ransom demand, upping it to $100,000. Chivo gets arrested by the Mexican police but talks his way out of it by agreeing to set up the bandits; Butch and the American gang are arrested, but the police captain (Allan Garcia) decides that without Braganza still at large his life would have no meaning, so he gives Braganza and his bandidos the 15-minute head start he asked for, and they get away, while Chivo and Jane pair up for a new life north of the border. Though Mamoulian didn’t actually get to shoot the film in Mexico — Arizona “played” it — he and his cinematographer, Lucien Andriot, made the film look like a Mexican movie, with great red-filtered shots of sky with clouds looming over it and the omnipresent cacti (though at least Mamoulian and Smith didn’t have the bandit gang take target practice on the cacti the way Mexican writer-director Fernando de Fuentes did in his equally marvelous Vámonos con Pancho Villa), that gives an oddly sinister backdrop to the zany antics on screen.

Martini also gets to do a lot of singing, and though Mamoulian and Smith weren’t really going for an “integrated musical” the way Mamoulian and Samuel Hoffenstein had done on Love Me Tonight (to my mind still the best film musical ever made, bar none), they manage not only to work in a potential hit, “The World Is Mine,” but do some gag riffs off the music. In one scene, Braganza crashes a radio station and he and his gang hold guns on the station personnel to force them to let Chivo sing on the air — and he picks “Celeste Aïda,” complete with the opening recitative. When the trumpet parts come blasting in just after the first vocal phrase, the station manager is startled and Chivo has to reassure him that that’s part of the music as Verdi wrote it. Both Charles and I were amused to see this shortly after we’d watched The Great Caruso, in which another “pop” tenor with operatic ambitions, Mario Lanza, had sung this aria in a much more respectful and “serious” context.

The Gay Desperado is a truly great film, a wonderfully funny character comedy whose elements — romance, music, crime — actually blend instead of clashing, and even Martini’s ineptitude as an actor comes off as a kind of gawkish sincerity (a pity Mamoulian never made a film with Nelson Eddy!). This was a surprising rediscovery that we were almost denied; the film contained a UCLA preservation credit, and whatever restoration work they did on it, the film had a marvelous visual “look” — the man who’d just made what’s generally (though wrongly) considered the first color feature returned to the glories of red-filtered black-and-white and left one wondering why anyone ever thought the movies needed color.

Incidentally, the American Film Institute Catalog entry on The Gay Desperado claims that the title was the winning entry in a public opinion poll asking people what the film should be called (it got between 21,000 and 25,000 votes, though the catalog doesn’t say how many total votes were cast) and lists a couple of the crazier releases UA’s publicity department came up with to promote the film. They claimed that the sombrero Leo Carrillo wears in the film had been the property of Pancho Villa and had been personally presented to the filmmakers by Villa’s widow, and that Allan Garcia and another actor in the film, Mariano Valenzuela, had previously encountered each other in 1911, when Garcia was a Maderista revolutionary and Valenzuela an army corporal — a reverse of their casting in the film, with Garcia as a police captain and Valenzuela as a bandit. Yeah, right