Sunday, July 31, 2011

Riot Squad a.k.a. Police Patrol (Harry S. Webb/Merit/Mayfair, 1933)

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

The film was a download from called Police Patrol, which turned out to be a 1950’s TV reissue title for a 1933 Harry S. Webb production released first by Merit and then by Mayfair (studios, or attempts to start studios, came and went so quickly during the Depression years that often a company would go out of business while its films were in release and another company would take over their distribution) called Riot Squad. Neither title is that appropriate for the story, which is a thriller (at least in intent) about police officers but they’re shown doing little if any patrolling and there is no riot. (Probably Harry S. Webb couldn’t have afforded to stage one on his budget.)

The print we were watching was the 1950’s Police Patrol version, with a new set of opening credits that gave the title and the cast members but no one else — no writers, director, cinematographer or anything — but references like the American Film Institute Catalog (which marked the movie “not viewed”) and (which called it a “lost film”!) reveal that Harry S. Webb both produced and directed, the screenplay was by Jack Natteford and Barney Sarecky (who was later involved as a producer on some of the Bela Lugosi Monograms, in connection with which it’s irresistible to point out that his last name rhymes with “drecky”), the cinematographers were Roy Overbaugh and H. C. Ramsay, the film editor was Fred Bain and the sound recorder was Tom Lambert, assisted by M. Leon and J. C. Landrick.

The cast was almost as obscure as the behind-the-camera folk; the only actor I’d heard of before was Madge Bellamy, top-billed — she’d been a silent ingénue of some reputation, had fallen in the early sound era, but had made her best-remembered film, as the heroine of White Zombie (another Lugosi connection!), the year before this one. Riot Squad begins with our two police-officer heroes, detectives Bob Larkin (Pat O’Malley) and Mac McCue (James Flavin), coming across a dying gangster and asking who killed him. With the rotten sound quality of this film (especially as it’s no doubt deteriorated over the years) at first I thought the actor said, “No one,” and was intending on keeping his omertá to his grave, but later it developed that the noise he made just before he expired was “Nolan.” Nolan (Harrison Greene) is a nightclub owner who’s the head of the rackets in town, but the real boss — at least it’s hinted from a phone call between the two — is his girlfriend Lil Daley (Madge Bellamy).

Nolan’s right-hand man, Diamonds Janeck (Addison Richards), tells Lil she should seduce McCue so the gang can set him up and kill him, thereby eliminating the key witness to Nolan’s guilt, but McCue leaves Lil’s apartment before the trap can be sprung. The next day, Larkin, with his own designs on Lil, visits her and McCue recognizes his car outside and steals his distributor cap. Larkin is late getting back to the police station and he and McCue get in a fight, allowing a prisoner to escape. Because of this, the police chief at first tells Larkin and McCue they’re fired, but later relents — sort of: they can continue to be cops, but they’re busted from plainclothesmen back to uniforms and assigned to the worst job in the department, the riot squad. McCue testifies against Nolan and he’s convicted, but before Judge Moore (Ralph Lewis) is to sentence him, his daughter Peggy (Alene Carroll) disappears. McCue asks Lil where Peggy is, Lil’s maid Ruth (Bee Eddels) overhears him, and Ruth calls Jareck, who has McCue kidnapped. Eventually Larkin finds out where McCue and Peggy are being held and leads the riot squad there, where they’re released, Larkin is paired with Lil and McCue with Peggy.

What’s frustrating about Riot Squad is it’s actually a pretty serviceable crime story for the period that with major-studio production values and actors (imagine it at Warners with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and Bette Davis!) could have been an exciting, entertaining thriller. Instead it gets the full weight of the budgetary limits on indie producers in the early 1930’s. Webb’s direction is reasonably paced (though without the relentless speed a Warners director would have brought to it) but the cinematography is bland, showing scenes that cry out for the noir treatment in harmonious gray tones and offering almost no close-ups: the camera is miles away from the action and scene after scene gets played in a static setup before an immobile camera. Turn the sound off and ignore the cars and this would look like a film from 1913, not 1933.

The acting is also nothing to write home about — except for Bellamy, who made it clear why she’s the one member of the cast you’re likely to have heard of before: though she’s hamstrung by the failure of writers Natteford and Sarecky to give her character much of a motivation or to give her much of a handle on when she stops being an agent of the gang out to entrap the cops and when she starts genuinely falling in love with one of them, she still manages to create a convincingly multidimensional characterization in what is — let’s face it — the only part in the whole movie the writers actually made a genuinely conflicted character. The rest of it is a routine indie for the day, not especially bad but not the gripping gangster movie the story had every right to be, either.

Family Sins (Fisher Television Productions, 2004)

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

I watched a quite gripping movie I recorded last night from Lifetime, Family Sins, a 2004 production originally aired on CBS and telling the more-or-less true story of Frances Burt (played by Kirstie Alley and called “Brenda Geck” in the film, a deliberately ugly last name which seemed designed as a signal to the audience that as goody-two-shoes as she seems in the early scenes, we’re really supposed to hate her). She was a real-life mother and foster mother in Providence, Rhode Island (though the locale was changed to “Adelaide, New Hampshire” in the film and is actually “played” by Calgary, Alberta, Canada, since Canadian government money was a large part of the film’s financing) who was a pillar of the community, a friend of the city’s mayor and the reverend of her church, a landlord with a lot of properties — and a criminal mastermind who recruited the members of her family, biological, marital (one of her key conspirators was her son-in-law Gary Crandall — played by short, dark and very handsome Tygh Runyan) or foster, to commit crimes for her.

Among her criminal enterprises were arson — when you fell behind on the rent to her, her usual solution was to burglarize your home, torch it and then sell your stuff later — shoplifting (one of her “kids” is taught how to boost stuff from stores at age 10), insurance scams on her supposedly “accidentally” burned buildings, and kidnapping — since one of her “foster children,” Marie Devereaux (Deanna Milligan), is actually the child of a former friend and tenant of Brenda’s, Nadine Devereaux (Kathleen Wilhoite), who made the mistake of crossing Our Villainess. It seems that one day Brenda went to visit her and infant Marie soiled her diaper — and Nadine didn’t have a replacement available, so Brenda immediately talked her into moving out of the apartment and into Brenda’s own home, where she locked Nadine in the basement, starved her (giving her only enough food to keep her alive, and that only at irregular intervals) and told Marie that from then on she was supposed to use the word “Mom” to Brenda, not the crazy woman in the basement (who, not surprisingly, eventually did become pretty crazy from the effects of her imprisonment).

This went on, amazingly, for 18 years, until Brenda’s husband and co-conspirator (but definitely second banana) Ken Geck (Kenneth McNulty), who’d previously been helping himself to Nadine’s body — as was at least one of the Gecks’ biological sons — decided to rape Marie, sneaking into her bedroom one night and telling her, “Think of someone you like.” Marie got pregnant and gave birth to a son, Jeremy (Brandon Baylis), and three years later (there are some pretty wrenching time shifts in the first third of this film, and though it takes place over an 18-year period Kirstie Alley doesn’t seem to age visibly) — though Baylis looks closer to five than three in the escape sequence — Marie takes her son and gets out of the Geck menagerie, finds both a job and a living space in a trailer motel, and then makes complaints to the Department of Youth and Family Services and then to the state assistant district attorney, Philip Rothman (Will Patton). Rothman sends a police officer to investigate and the cop gets “snowed” by Brenda’s well-honed angel-of-mercy act, so nothing happens until Marie passes a department-store window in which there’s a TV blasting the news report from a Michael Turko-style activist reporter named Douglas Cain (Louis Koutis). She appeals to Cain, who does a story about her, and the report propels Rothman into action; he goes after other witnesses and gets the son-in-law, who’s moved out himself after (we learn later) a chilling scene in which the Gecks literally handcuffed him to a chair and tortured him, then threatened him with the loss of any contact with his two children if he turned state’s evidence (and as one of Brenda Geck’s principal fire-starters he has a lot to tell).

The rest of the story turns on Brenda’s attempts to derail the prosecution, both legal and illegal — in addition to taking aim at the credibility of the witnesses against her (Rothman learns that Marie once failed a mental competency test, and Marie insists that Brenda set up the test and deliberately ordered her to throw it so she could have that to use against her at some future date) Brenda also makes calls from prison to a Black hit-man named Leroy Hobbs (Viv Leacock — a boy named Viv?) and has him break into Marie’s trailer and threaten to kidnap Nadine and/or Jeremy. The film is directed quite effectively by Graeme Clifford and vividly acted, especially by Alley, whose performance is a tour de force; she plays Brenda neither as raving psycho nor coolly collected psycho but as a woman constantly on the defensive, able so totally to compartmentalize her mind (what George Orwell called “doublethink”) that she can not only declare herself the world’s greatest mother and get other people to believe her but believe it herself as well even though she’s literally training her kids to steal for her (the opening sequence, which is chilling enough as it is but becomes even more creepy later, is of a Mother’s Day party in which all the family members are giving Brenda household appliances and other expensive gifts — which, we realize later, they stole from the local big-box store and which she later “returned” for cash as part of her scam).

Rothman calls her a “sociopath” in court, but the description doesn’t quite seem to cover the extent of her crimes or her craziness — she seems capable of a twisted sort of affection and even loyalty — and one of the most bizarre aspects of this movie was how she was able to get away with this for so long. What’s even odder is that, while the ending of the movie made it seem like she was going to prison for a very long time (she gets a 30-year sentence and her husband gets 25), in fact the real Frances Burt’s sentence was reduced to 11 years (the other 19 were suspended) and she served only seven, from 1994 to 2001 — which means she’d already been released on probation when this film was made. Maybe there is something to the oft-expressed Right-wing belief that the U.S. is too easy on criminals, especially white ones …

Friday, July 29, 2011

Shadows Over Shanghai (Fine Arts/Grand National, 1938)

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

The film I picked last night was Shadows Over Shanghai, a quite good production from Franklyn Warner’s Fine Arts Pictures, released through Grand National, a download from but a technically better one than usual because it had been uploaded in high-quality MPEG-2 format. Directed by Charles Lamont, who was also named “associate producer,” from a script by Joseph Hoffman based on an original story by Richard Sale (a thriller writer of some repute later on), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938) was a nicely done international-intrigue movie centered around the desire of heroine Irene Roma (Linda Gray) to get out of China with a priceless amulet which supposedly will help ensure the success of China’s armed resistance against Japan. We don’t know until midway through the movie that what she’s supposed to do with the amulet — given to her by her brother, pilot Peter Roma (Edward Woods), after his plane was shot down over the Red Cross orphanage where she was working by renegade Russian general Igor Sargoza (Robert Barrat), who’s after the amulet for his own purposes.

Peter tells Irene that the one person in Shanghai she can trust is Howard Barclay (Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother playing a good guy for a change — given this actor’s reputation, throughout the movie we’re half-expecting him to sell her out to the villains at the end, but no-o-o-o-o), and when she meets him in a hotel he’s rooming with photojournalist Johnny McGinty (James Dunn, who seems to have set out to prove he could be just as obnoxious as Lee Tracy had been in similar roles). Johnny has a carte blanche letter giving him the right to leave China any time he wishes as long as it’s on an American vessel, but Irene doesn’t even have a passport — and, hoping that he could instantly have her declared a U.S. citizen once he tied the knot, Johnny enters into a legally binding marriage with Irene — only it turns out that she still needs a passport and can only obtain one from the Chinese authorities. (Later it turns out that she’s not actually American — even though she’s been working for the American Red Cross and speaking English with a flawless American accent all movie — and the script doesn’t really specify where she is from.)

Unfortunately, while all this has been going on the American ship Irene originally wanted to take has sailed, and she and Johnny are stuck seeking passage on a Japanese liner and then transferring to a U.S. ship at Manila. Along the way they hang on to the amulet, first concealing it inside Johnny’s camera — until he sees an attack in the streets of Shanghai and wants to use the camera to document it — and then in an incense burner given to Irene by her Chinese friend Lun Sat Li (Chester Gun), which unbeknownst to any of the good guys was intercepted by two Chinese thugs (Richard Loo and Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son, Victor Sen Yung, the latter billed as “Victor Young”!) so Sargoza’s rival bad guy, Japanese general Fuji Yokohama (Paul Sutton), could have it booby-trapped with a small bomb set to go off whenever the incense burner was heated — which of course it eventually is. Johnny and Barclay eventually use the booby-trapped burner to blow up Sargoza (they know it’s booby-trapped because Yokohama has kidnapped them and told them) and assume the amulet is destroyed — not that it matters that much anymore because in the meantime President Franklin Roosevelt has declared an embargo on shipping any arms to China for any side in their wars in U.S. vessels. Then it turns out that Barclay rescued the amulet from the incense burner before giving it to Sargoza and setting off the trap, and it ends with the three principals on the Japanese ship and Barclay definitely looking like the third one who makes a crowd as he dangles the amulet in front of Johnny and Irene, who at the moment are only intent on getting to the U.S. in one piece and making their marriage work for real.

Shadows Over Shanghai
is actually quite a nice, comfortable thriller, with enough reversals to keep the plot interesting without taxing audience credibility, and it also is far better technically than the average 1930’s indie: though some of the footage of airplanes involved in dogfights and bombing raids is obviously stock from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (a movie that got raided for years for its spectacular aerial footage, much of it shot from a camera plane flown by Hughes himself), the matching between stock, new footage and newsreel shots of Shanghai is superbly done, as well as one could have expected from a major studio at the time, and given that there were surprisingly few really effective thrillers made in the U.S. in the 1930’s (Hollywood made great gangster films but genuinely didn’t do other sorts of crime well), this one was a pleasant surprise, well acted (despite Dunn’s moments of insufferability and the sense that Robert Barrat’s villain role might have originally been intended for Bela Lugosi, which would have made a good movie even better) and effectively scripted and directed.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Devil Girl from Mars (Danziger Bros., 1954)

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

Last night’s San Diego Public Library “Schlockfest” movie was Devil Girl from Mars, a 1954 British entry from the Danziger producing brothers (Edward J. and Harry Lee) in the cycle of films about man-hungry women from other planets seeking the intervention of Earth’s males to reproduce since their own men have been either killed or exiled as a result of a nuclear war. It’s a sedate little movie that, except for a scene on a highway in which scientist Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty) and the film’s male lead, reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), are driving to the site of a supposed meteor crash (which really is, of course, the landing site of the Devil Girl’s spacecraft), all of it remains resolutely either inside or just in front of an inn in Scotland where all the dramatis personae gather.

Among them are escaped convict Robert Justin, a.k.a. Albert Simpson (Peter Reynolds), who was in prison for murdering his wife and is being cared for by pub waitress Doris (Adrienne Corri) — the gimmick being that Doris was his girlfriend before he dumped her and married the woman he’s been convicted of killing, and naturally Doris rubs it in that he’d have been a lot better off if he’d stayed with her instead — as well as model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), hiding out at the inn for reasons screenwriter James Eastwood (no relation, I presume), adapting a play by himself and John C. Mather (one doesn’t expect there to be a science-fiction play, especially one about extraterrestrials invading Earth) makes pretty unclear, who of course falls for Michael Carter (even though he’s not especially good looking and he’s so truculent she hasn’t been drawn to him for his winning personality, either), as well as the inn’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) and their nephew Tommy (Albert Richmond), bratty and obnoxiously cute in the manner of virtually all post-Temple movie prepubescents.

The film’s exposition drones on and on and on for about 20 minutes of its running time, during which you’ll be saying, “Bring on the devil girl from Mars, already!” Then a flying saucer — a quite convincing one, solidly constructed and with a spinning rotor on its outer rim that seems to be how it propels itself through an atmosphere (it also has a rocket jet on its bottom, which is evidently how it moves through space) — lands on the front lawn of the inn, and out steps the Devil Girl herself, Nyah (pronounce “NYE-uh,” not like the similarly spelled kid’s insult), dressed in a fetching all-leather outfit with a pleated top and skin-tight leggings below the waist. (According to the “trivia” entries on this film’s page, the costume was actually made of polyvinyl chloride — though it looks enough like leather I can readily imagine some of the Leatherwomen of my acquaintance wanting copies — and the actress playing her, Patricia Laffan, wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything during shooting days because the costume was so tight they would have had to dismantle it, then reassemble it on her body, if she’d needed to use the bathroom while encased in it. Some of the actors on the original Star Trek TV series had that problem, too.)

The Devil Girl promptly announces that she’s there to pick a man as breeding stock for her race, and once the Martians repopulate themselves using the human stud service they intend to conquer Earth completely (she even asks directions to London!) and enslave the men and destroy the women — though if this is indeed her intent, her later actions belie it; she seems undecided as to which man to take with her and at one point takes Tommy, who at least theoretically isn’t yet old enough to serve as a human stallion for Mars’s breeding program. The rest of the movie is just a series of demonstrations of the superiority of Mars’s weapons technology — Michael attempts to fire a gun at her and she’s invulnerable to the bullets (it’s not quite clear how — whether her leather is armor-plated or she’s protecting herself with an invisible force field like the one she’s thrown around her ship), and later the characters attempt to electrocute her with a wire strung across the front doorway, equally futilely.

Though the alien is malevolent it’s clear that the writers and director David MacDonald were influenced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, since not only are the spacecraft similar in conception but they gave Nyah a robot familiar in a box-like metal suit who helps keep the earthlings under control. The scientist sneaks aboard Nyah’s craft and realizes that it’s powered by nuclear energy from a source unknown to humans, an organic metal (I’m not making this up, you know!) that reacts with far more power than the fissionable or fusionable elements we know and also allows the craft to repair itself whenever it’s damaged. The writers make Nyah so invulnerable, in fact, that it’s hard through much of this 77-minute movie exactly how they’re going to have the Earthlings defeat her — but in the end the escaped convict Albert Simpson agrees to return with her to Mars, much to Doris’s discomfiture, and using the information the professor gathered during his brief trip on board the ship, he blows it up and sacrifices his own life to kill Nyah and hopefully give the remaining Martians second thoughts about any more hostile dealings with Earth.

Devil Girl from Mars is actually a quite competent film in a disreputable genre — it’s not exactly thrill-a-minute exciting but it doesn’t reach the exquisite dullness of Cat Women on the Moon or Fire Maidens from Outer Space either; the effects are convincing, the acting is competent and it lacks the ineptitude that helped sink Plan Nine from Outer Space — though as I’ve noted in these pages before, the more lousy sci-fi movies from other directors in the 1950’s I see, the better Ed Wood looks: for all their crudity and borderline incompetence, Wood’s films have an energy to them which those of a lot of other people working in the indie and “B” salt mines lacked. Supposedly John Wilson’s Official Razzie® Movie Guide lists Devil Girl from Mars as one of “The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made,” which seems decidedly unfair to it; it doesn’t have the major-studio competence (or the peacenik message) of The Day the Earth Stood Still or the drama and pathos of Teenagers from Outer Space (a much tackier film in terms of production values but also far better written and more deeply characterized) but on its own it’s a quite competent film, and though she’s not especially scary Patricia Laffan as Nyah does project a striking screen presence, not only because of That Outfit but her own success as an actress in capturing the character’s irritating pretensions to invulnerability.

Monte Carlo Nights (Monogram, 1934)

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

The film was Monte Carlo Nights, an unoriginal but genuinely entertaining hour-long number from the later days of Monogram’s first iteration, directed by William Nigh (usually not a good sign, but this time around he actually turned in a directorial effort with some energy and seemed genuinely to care about what he was doing) from a script by Norman Houston based on a story called “Numbers of Death” (which would probably have been a better title — though it’s called Monte Carlo Nights the setting doesn’t move to Monte Carlo until 35 minutes into this 61-minute movie) by veteran mystery writer E. Phillips Oppenheim. It starts at a horse racing track — though the first 35 minutes of the movie take place in the U.S. it’s still drenched in gambling and the locales thereof — at which playboy Larry Sturgis (John Darrow) is sitting with a blonde gold-digger, Mazie (Billie Van Every), but is also cruising heiress Mary Vernon (Mary Brian, top-billed) in the next box. Larry is scheduled to ride his own horse in the next race, a steeplechase (Charles noted that John Darrow looked far too big and robust to be playing a jockey, though it was billed as a “gentleman race” and perhaps that meant they relaxed the weight rules for owner-ridden horses), and when John takes a tumble off his horse his gold-digging date ignores him but Mary rushes out to where he’s fallen and rides with him to the hospital in the back of his car. The two fall in love and Mary is determined to marry him despite the opposition of her Aunt Emma (Kate Campbell) and her own concerns about how much he gambles.

On the eve of their wedding — after he’s been late for the wedding rehearsal because he was paying off the gold-digger and her attorney — he takes her to an illegal casino, wins $11,000 at the roulette table and then gets rowdy and abusive when Brandon (Carl Stockdale), the casino’s owner, asks him to leave. He goes to Brandon’s office to collect a check for his winnings and somebody else, hiding behind a curtain, pulls out a gun and shoots Brandon dead. Idiotically, Larry picks up the gun, and the next thing he knows he’s being arrested for the murder by his old friend, police inspector Ned Gunby (a surprisingly understated performance by George “Gabby” Hayes, billed here without the nickname). Earlier Gunby had asked Larry to help him find a gambler who murdered a bank messenger in a robbery; the only clue to his identity is a slip of paper found on the scene with four numbers written on it, evidently representing a roulette system (hence Oppenheim’s original title “Numbers of Death”), and Gunby concludes that the crook was there at the casino and killed Brandon so Larry couldn’t reveal that he’d seen him play the four numbers of the mystery system.

Larry is convicted of manslaughter and given a 10-year sentence, but on the train to prison his fellow prisoner Butch Meeker (Jack Curtis), to whom he’s handcuffed, escapes and literally pulls Larry with him. Butch dies in the escape and Larry manages to make it look like he too is dead, then goes to Monte Carlo after he learns the identities of the people who played the Numbers of Death that night, Jim Daggett (Robert Frazer) and his girlfriend Blondie Roberts (Astrid Allwyn, whose name is misspelled “Allyn” on the credits), who were identified by Brandon’s croupier (George Cleveland). Larry traces them to Monte Carlo (we finally got there!) and dates a woman named Madelon, but she’s not a real girlfriend; she’s a decoy as part of his scheme to entrap Daggett and Blondie by catching them playing their system. There’s a shoot-out between Larry and Gunby in which Gunby is wounded, but later he becomes convinced of Larry’s innocence, and eventually Daggett and Blondie are caught, Larry and Mary reunite, and they plan to get married and honeymoon in Monte Carlo (as they originally planned) — and then, since Mary doesn’t want Larry to gamble again, he plans to join the police force at the end.

Monte Carlo Nights isn’t exactly fresh screenwriting, and the title promises much more of a romantic thriller than the rather ordinary crime drama we get (the second half of the film could just as easily have taken place in Nevada!), but it’s good drama, it holds the interest and it’s the sort of pleasing entertainment churned out by the yard during the studio days. It’s also noteworthy that William Nigh could make a genuinely interesting movie — though oddly the U.S.-set first half is more exciting than the Monte Carlo-set second half, which seems to have combined standing sets and stock shots of the real Monte Carlo casino for a not altogether convincing depiction of the legendary principality. The acting is competent; it’s nice to see Mary Brian cast as something other than W. C. Fields’ long-suffering daughter (or the woman who tried to break up Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in the 1931 version of The Front Page), and John Darrow is an O.K. romantic lead (good-looking and personable enough we can understand why Mary stays with him and keeps the proverbial torch burning even when he’s sent up for manslaughter, escapes and then is presumed dead), but Astrid Allwyn has too little to do and there aren’t the array of great character actors that livened up many an otherwise doggy movie in Hollywood’s golden years. Still, Monte Carlo Nights is a fun movie, considerably better than one would expect from the later records of its studio and its director!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Punch-Drunk Love (New Line/Revolution/Ghoulardi, 2002)

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

The film was Punch-Drunk Love, a 2002 movie written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Adam Sandler, and Charles and I recently picked this up from the remainder table at Vons in hopes this would have the place in Sandler’s oeuvre that the marvelous Stranger than Fiction has in Will Ferrell’s: the one time Sandler actually acted in a great film that aimed for sophisticated humor. Well, it is and it isn’t: it’s a basically good story but a movie that has a lot of longueurs and, like most of Anderson’s films, is better in parts than as a whole. Sandler plays Barry Egan, who was the eighth child in his family and the only male; his seven older sisters have been henpecking him all his life and have kept him in a state of arrested development that’s like he has seven mothers, all telling him what to do at once. His only way out is to smash things, which he has a reputation for doing and which we see him doing several times in the film, and in the rapidity of his fits of anger — they come quickly, he does whatever destructive thing he has to do to get rid of them and then they go — he quite frankly reminded me of me. (I especially winced when he put his fist through the wall of his office, right through the map of the United States on his wall.)

He has a job, of sorts; he runs a novelty toy company, which though it doesn’t have much visible business seems to be doing well enough that he can take long periods off. He also — and this was the basis for the film in the first place — has realized that the Healthy Choice prepared-meal company is offering a frequent-flyer program (remember frequent-flyer programs?) that allows you to amass thousands of free miles at surprisingly low cost. According to a trivia post on, Anderson read a story in Time magazine about a man named David Phillips, a civil engineer at the University of California, who amassed 1.25 million frequent-flyer miles by buying $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding. Barry does the same thing, and he stacks the pudding inside his office in a neat pile that makes it look like the pudding is itself some kind of promotion he’s offering to his customers. He also accidentally takes delivery of a harmonium — it’s left outside the door of his unit in the industrial park where his company is headquartered — and he spends the whole movie playing with it, mostly picking out a song that becomes the basis of Jon Brion’s score, which otherwise is mostly electronic burbles and gurgles.

And since Barry is an alienated movie lead, he has all the indicia of movie alienation, including being totally hopeless in his relationships with members of the opposite sex (one of the horrible things his sisters did to him was call him “Gay boy” throughout his childhood — and in the house party they’ve all insisted he go to they’re still calling him “Gay boy” even though there’s no evidence we’re supposed to take that literally). At one particularly depressed moment in his life — just after he’s asked one of his brothers-in-law, a dentist, to recommend a psychiatrist because he breaks down in uncontrollable crying fits fairly often (gee, he could run for Congress as a Republican and ultimately get to be Speaker!) — he calls a phone-sex line just for something to do. He gives up quite a lot of personal information to the service, including his credit-card number, his home phone number (it’s explained to him that he doesn’t get connected immediately; the woman they’re setting him up with will call him back) and even his social security number (“just to verify your credit-card information,” he’s told), a level of intrusiveness he’s momentarily suspicious of but ultimately sloughs off his concerns and gives up all the data he’s asked for (a scene which in the age of the Internet and the degree to which it’s made identity theft incredibly easier “plays” as even scarier than it no doubt did in 2002!).

Then, in what I thought was the movie’s most delightful scene, it turns out that Barry is utterly clueless about what to do on a phone-sex line; the woman he’s talking to runs down all her usual seduction lines and asks him if he’s pulled his pants down, if he’s stroking his cock, if he’s lying naked — he’s actually standing up with a cordless phone in his hand, fully dressed and totally oblivious to his need to participate in the fantasy. Afterwards Barry actually meets a woman the old-fashioned way: Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who left her car outside Barry’s building while she was looking for a mechanic and even gave Barry the key to hold for her — that’s how much she trusted him even before she knew him! Barry and Lena start dating, sort of, though they’re escorted out of one fancy restaurant after he’s punched out the restroom in one of his rages and they don’t actually consummate their relationship until they take a trip together to Hawai’i (one not covered by his frequent-flyer miles after he finds they take six to eight weeks to redeem!) — and, recalling the many other movies Charles and I had seen in the early 2000’s in which the protagonists got laid and simultaneously someone drowned to death, I joked, “Well, at least no one had to drown for them to have sex.” “Not yet,” said Charles.

The problem is just when his relationship with Lena is burgeoning, he’s also having to fight off retribution from the phone-sex company, which turns out to be based out of a mattress outlet in Utah. They’ve worked out a scam in which the woman posing as the phone-sex operator calls the customer back and says she needs money for her rent; if he refuses, she gets angry and reminds him that they have his credit card information and his home address and phone number; if he destroys his credit card and gets a new one — and Barry, though not exactly one of the brightest bulbs in the human firmament, at least had enough brains to do that — she calls back and said, “You shouldn’t have done that”; and it ends with the man in charge of the mattress store (and the phone-sex scam) telling Barry he’s a “pervert” and he’s going to send his four brothers to L.A. (where Barry lives) to beat him up — which indeed happens — and that he’s secure in his assumption that Barry will never report any of this to the police because he won’t want to admit that he’s a pervert who calls phone-sex lines for his kicks. (Had the people in Utah been depicted as dyed-in-the-wool Mormons who think it’s a righteous thing to do to scam the sinners in L.A. out of money and put it to God’s use, this movie would have been even more pointed in its satire than it is and Anderson could have made the guy running the scam a vivid character in the way he did with Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker in Magnolia.)

Punch-Drunk Love ends more or less happily with Barry and Lena together at least for the nonce, and the weird collection of symbols (the harmonium, the pudding, the colored bars to which the screen frequently dissolves) Anderson loves to stick in his movies seems to be working for them. It’s a weird enough movie that at the beginning one expects another Repo Man (only in that movie there would have been some terrible energy source concealed in the harmonium; in Punch-Drunk Love the harmonium is just a harmonium, and there’s a charming little scene with Adam Sandler patching its bellows with duct tape), and it actually goes along softer but not necessarily kinder or gentler lines. It’s a weirdly engaging movie but also a somewhat frustrating one in that we really don’t get that close to Barry or find out What Makes Barry Run — Anderson is yet another modern director who’s almost terminally detached from his characters and wants us to be, too, and I couldn’t help thinking what the young Woody Allen could have done with this concept as both director and star. Still, it’s a good movie and it’s nice to know that Adam Sandler can do films that aren’t totally, mind-numbingly stupid — even though it’s hardly on the level of Will Ferrell’s masterpiece (and I have enough of an imp of the perverse to like writing a sentence combining “Will Ferrell” and “masterpiece”), Stranger Than Fiction.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sing Me a Love Song (Warners, 1937)

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

The film was Sing Me a Love Song, one of an interesting package of “B” musicals from the 1930’s Turner Classic Movies showed in one afternoon, one of the movies Warner Bros. made with operatic tenor James Melton, whom they signed with great fanfare and put in a movie called Stars Over Broadway with Busby Berkeley doing the dance direction. Apparently they were hoping Melton might be their Nelson Eddy, but they seem to have lost faith in Stars Over Broadway even before it was finished, since they cut from the film an elaborate number Berkeley had wanted to do to the song “September in the Rain” in which he would have staged a chorus line of dancing trees. Berkeley never got over the fact that he wasn’t allowed to film his dancing-tree fantasy (and the song “September in the Rain,” now a standard, had to wait two years before it was formally introduced in a film even though snatches of it can be heard in the background score to Stars Over Broadway) and the incident led to his decision to leave Warners once his contract was up.

As for Melton, Stars Over Broadway was a flop and so he got bounced down to the “B” unit for this one, a trifling tale which begins with Melton as department-store heir Jerry Haines, Jr., singing with an orchestra playing in a bandshell located at the end of a swimming pool in Palm Beach, Florida, doing a pretty ghastly song called “That’s the Least You Can Do for the Ladies” (Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote the songs for this one but they run the gamut from mediocre to dreadful — apparently they were saving all their good songs from the period for the Busby Berkeley spectaculars), when he receives a delegation from his store in the persons of Messrs. Barton (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Willard (Charles Halton), saying that the place is suffering financially and he needs to come to New York and take charge personally. About the last thing Jerry wants to do with his life is run a department store, but he hits on an idea: as long as he’s going to be stuck with the store, the very least he can do is learn how it functions from the bottom up, so he asks for a job in the music department — where he’s already met, and started to cruise, song demonstrator Jean Martin (Patricia Ellis), who of course has responded to him with hate at first sight — under the assumed name “Jerry Hanley.”

What makes this one special is the supporting cast, a virtual who’s-who of comic-relief actors of the time (though Franklin Pangborn and Frank McHugh aren’t represented): Hugh Herbert as kleptomaniac Siegfried Hammerschlag (Herbert’s “woo-woo” act could get tiresome at times, but this film offers him a rare opportunity to shine as a physical comedian); ZaSu Pitts as Jean’s accident-prone co-worker Gwen, who’s broken so many records, musical instruments and whatnot (in one scene she takes a huge bass drum with a torn drumhead and says she’s going to cart it home on the subway because “as long as I’m paying for it, I might as well keep it”) that she’s lucky if she can take home $2 after all the docks from her pay; Allen Jenkins as her fiancé, elevator operator Christopher Cross (little did we know that someday there’d be a terminally bland and boring singer of that name!), who claims that he and Jerry Haines, Jr. are “just like that” and therefore he can lobby Jerry to get anything he wants, from having the employees’ lunch room redone to rehiring people who get fired; and Walter Catlett as supercilious floor manager Sprague.

The film moves through several reels of romantic and comic intrigue, as Jerry is determined to get Jean to date him — one of their dates ends up with both of them in jail because Jerry has “borrowed” an evening outfit for Jean from the store and taken her to a fancy nightclub, and they’re arrested for shoplifting and burglary — and Chris accidentally discovers that two of the four directors of the store company, Malcolm (Charles Richman) and Goodrich (Granville Bates), are deliberately running the store into the ground (they’ve ordered $250,000 worth of unsaleable merchandise) so Haines can be driven out and they can take the store over. It all ends happily, of course, with Jerry revealing himself — and Jean, with the idiocy of the typical movie ingénue of the day, uses that as an excuse to leave him and forces him to assign Chris the task of tracing her — and, using an idea Jean had had earlier of running a mobile department store on a train so customers in the hinterlands can purchase goods straight from New York without the hassle of ordering them by mail, Jerry bails the store out of financial trouble and ends up with a going business and Jean back at his side.

Sing Me a Love Song is a charmingly plotted film with a high laugh quotient — its most surrealistic scene comes towards the end, when Jerry discovers that Siegfried Hammerschlag is the son of the owner of United Railways, and he agrees not to prosecute Siegfried for shoplifting if the Hammerschlags (Siegfried has a father and two brothers, and all four Hammerschlags are played by Hugh Herbert!) will give him a train for his mobile-store idea — though James Melton’s singing gets a bit wearying after a while: he’s got a fine voice but it doesn’t seem to go with his rather pasty face, and as with a lot of other singers with operatic backgrounds Hollywood imported and tried to make stars out of in the 1930’s, actual hard-core opera (after his movie career petered out with just one more film, Melody for Two, he returned to New York and the Met, and he got to record the love duet and aria “Addio, fiorito asil” from Madama Butterfly for an RCA Victor album of excerpts that also featured Licia Albanese) suited him much better than the lukewarm pop songs he got to sing here, and it’s easy to guess why the movie stardom that had found Lawrence Tibbett, Grace Moore, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald eluded James Melton.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America (Republic, 1944)

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

I showed the first two episodes of the 1944 Republic serial Captain America, which I recently downloaded from (the downloads crashed so often I ended up having to do each episode one at a time, and though episode one ran normally episode two had an annoying gap of about a second or so between picture and sound, a glitch we’ve encountered in at least two other recent downloads), and which turned out to be a fun superhero romp even though it had its drawbacks: the special effects seem laughable by current standards (though the disintegration of a model skyscraper at the end of episode one still packs a punch) and Dick Purcell, playing Captain America’s secret identity — crusading district attorney Grant Gardner — looks considerably beefier, shall we say, than the stunt person actually wearing the Captain America suit.

Anyone familiar with the Captain America mythos as originally created by Marvel Comics (or whatever it was called pre-1950) in the World War II years will immediately note that this Captain America is not the comic-book Captain America; just as Republic’s writers changed Dick Tracy from a Chicago Police Department detective to an FBI agent, they junked the original backstory of Captain America and invented their own. In the comics, Captain America was Steve Rogers, whose general puniness rendered him 4-F in the World War II-era draft but who was subject to an experiment that filled out his frame and gave him artificially induced strength. The inventor of this process intended to create entire armies of artificially strengthened men but was killed before he could expose anyone but Steve to the process — and of course, this being a comic book, the secret of how he did it died with him.

Republic rejected all that and took away Captain America’s artificially enhanced strength (so in this reading he’s a Batman-style hero, an ordinary human who has willed himself to superhero status) along with his cape and the shield that was his principal weapon in the comics (I still remember the lyrics from the theme song to the 1960’s cartoon adaptation: “When Captain America throws his mighty shield/All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield”), and changed the basic color of his costume from white to black — so instead of being red, white and blue he’s red, black and blue in the film. But the serial is still a lot of fun, partly due to the casting of spunky Lorna Gray as Grant Gardner’s secretary, assistant and (it’s hinted) love interest — Republic’s serials always featured stronger, more feminist women than other studios’ — and especially Lionel Atwill as the villain of the piece, Dr. Cyrus Maldor (“from Mordor,” I mentally joked).

The first lines of the serial are Atwill’s voice, hypnotically inducing someone to commit suicide by driving his car off a cliff — which he promptly does — he’s taken on the nom de crime of “The Scarab” and has extracted a chemical from a rare orchid that allows him to take over the mind of anyone he can expose to it, to the point where they obediently divulge their secret information and then kill themselves when he tells them to. It’s nice for once to be watching a serial that lets us know who the villain is from the get-go instead of doing the hackneyed “who-is-it?” suspense number and withholding his (or her) identity until the last episode (and sometimes, given how cavalier the usual relationship of serial writers to the concept of continuity was, the character revealed as the villain in the final episode was often someone who’d been shown in the same frame as the villain earlier on!) — and Atwill, who had played virtually the same character as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, is in utterly superb form even though, after his marvelous turn as the criminologist hero of Lady in the Death House, it’s a bit disappointing to see him relegated to villainy in this serial and the PRC film Crime, Inc. the following year.

The serial is full of high-tech gimmicks and well-done action scenes (though Republic doesn’t seem to have been able to get the top tier of stunt people this time; the fight scenes feature some of the most obvious punch-pulling I’ve ever seen in a movie), including one of the most outrageous cliffhangers in serial history — the bad guys (minions of the Scarab) decide to destroy the good guys en masse by heading for the building where a disintegrator ray is being demonstrated, forcing the good guys into a vault, then ramping up the power on the disintegrator until the entire building collapses and takes all the good guys out with it. It also has several unintentionally funny lines, including an interview with one scientist who announces that he’s invented a vibrating machine that can destroy matter and the person talking to him says, “Tell me about your vibrator … ” — 6/24/11


Relishing the comparison between a new superhero movie and an old one, I ran chapters three and four of the Republic serial Captain America, which is a perfectly acceptable actioner and is about as arbitrarily plotted as any superhero action movie today (contrary to David Thomson, there have always been genres of cinema where spectacle has been more important than narrative coherence) — we got these as a download from and they were afflicted with the same annoying synchronization problems as episode two (the sound is about a second ahead of the picture — Charles’ player has a setting to make minor adjustments in synch, but this couldn’t adjust it enough to fix the problem). The Captain America serial is typical Republic product, with well-staged fight scenes (if you can accept the obvious punch-pulling by the participants), relentless action, a surprisingly feminist take (in one scene the female lead, Lorna Gray, actually gets to shoot down one of the bad guys — in other studios’ serials the women were just there to be damsels in distress, but in Republic serials they frequently got to participate in the action and help good triumph over evil), and an especially compelling villain performance by Lionel Atwill.

I read his biography page on and was startled that his career had been derailed by a scandal in 1944 — he was caught hosting a party at his home at which pornographic films were being shown and, according to some reports, orgies and even rapes were taking place; he refused to testify before the grand jury to shield his friends from exposure; he served six months and then was released when the prosecutors decided there was nothing to prosecute, but this killed his employability at the major studios and only Republic and PRC would still give him work (and in fact he died in the middle of shooting a serial, Lost City of the Jungle, in 1946 and the company just hired someone else to finish the role — a major studio producing a feature would handle the death of a supporting actor by recasting and reshooting the entire role, but that’s now how things got done on Poverty Row). He’s as good as ever, playing a part called Dr. Maldor (“of Mordor,” I couldn’t help but joke) —’s page on the serial gives the character’s first name as “Cyrus” but I don’t recall him or anyone else actually using that name for him in the film itself. — 6/26/11


I ran chapter five of the Captain America serial, which was pretty much more of the same — the setting for the big action set-piece this time was a cardboard box company and the villain, Lionel Atwill as The Scarab a.k.a. “Professor Maldor,” and his minions threatened to decapitate heroine Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) with a guillotine-like machine for cutting large numbers of cardboard pieces at once. Captain America has all the virtues of Republic serials — acceptable acting (except for Atwill, who’s quite a bit better than “acceptable”: he’s as chillingly effective as ever in a role that quite obviously owes a lot to his portrayal of Professor Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier), a proto-feminist heroine who can take care of herself in the action sequences, well staged action scenes and a relentless pace from co-directors Elmer Clifton and John English that makes the exposition sequences between the action highlights far less dull than usual.

Unfortunately it has all the flaws of a Republic serial: glitchy plotting, bizarre contrivances (in the opening scene Atwill as the Scarab is keeping track of his robot-controlled explosive truck from a camera located behind it — impossible because the shot we see could only have come from a camera in another vehicle following the truck, and the only vehicle following the truck belongs to the good guys … the sequence would be believable if it had been established that the good guys were following in a video-equipped truck and Atwill had hacked into their signal, but that’s probably not something a 1944 screenwriter would have thought of), an overall air of sloppiness, a lack of imagination (in their quite different ways, the 1934 Return of Chandu and 1943 Columbia Batman showed it was possible for a serial to be very imaginative indeed and still deliver the thrills its audience would expect), a sameness in the perils our hero and heroine are put through, and a rewrite of the basic source material to take out the compelling central premise of the original (Captain America as the product of a wartime experiment in taking a 90-pound weakling and artificially turning him into a superman through scientific means) and substitute something pretty flat and ordinary (Captain America as a D.A. who, like Batman and the Green Hornet, is a normal human being who fights crime in a provocative costume — and whose stunt double is quite obviously slimmer and hunkier than Dick Purcell, who plays him in D.A. drag). — 6/30/11


Charles and I watched episode six of the Captain America serial, “Vault of Vengeance” (I suspect someone on the writing committee had fun with these titles; they seem to have ramped up the usual unwitting campiness of these things to something that seemed deliberate), and it was O.K. even though the cliffhanger by which Captain America’s secretary/girlfriend Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) was saved from having her head chopped off by the guillotine-like cardboard box cutter was a bit of a cheat. — 7/2/11


I ran episodes seven and eight of the Captain America serial, both of which benefited from quite spectacular cliffhangers — the one at the end of episode six placed Captain America at the bottom of a mineshaft with a huge bucket of slag plummeting down at him (though slowly enough that he was able to roll away from it in time), and the one at the end of episode seven, “Wholesale Destruction,” featured an entire oil refinery blowing up because its owner, J. C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), had resisted the extortion demands of the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), first refusing to pay him and then paying him off but marking the bill numbers first and actually publishing them in the newspapers (which seemed dumb to me: why not mark the bills but not tell anybody you’re doing that, so whenever one of the marked bills shows up in a transaction it can be traced?), though once again Captain America simply rolled himself out of danger before the building (clearly a model, but a quite effective and convincing one by Republic’s special-effects maestros, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker) exploded.

Charles pointed out that the writers of this serial seemed quite unconcerned about the amount of collateral damage the villains were causing — as long as the principals escaped unscathed, it was O.K. if hundreds of other people died or millions of dollars’ worth of property were destroyed — though bear in mind that this serial was made in 1944, in the middle of World War II, when bombing raids targeting civilians were commonplace and being indulged in by both sides. The episode eight cliffhanger also looks like a lulu: called “Cremation in the Skies,” it features Captain America’s a.k.a. Grant Gardner’s secretary/assistant/girlfriend, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), taking off in a small plane to visit the grandson of one of the now-deceased members of the Mayan expedition (still annoyingly pronounced “MAY-an” instead of the correct “MY-un”) to see if he can give a clue as to the provenance of the blow gun used in an attempted murder of Henley after his factory was blown up — and the villains, using a shoe-shine boy as their spy (the kid overhears Gardner and Gray talking about their plans), target the plane because if the grandson remembers where his now-dead granddad got the gun, it will “out” respected Dr. Maldor (Lionel Atwill) as the villainous Scarab.

We’re still having synch problems with the episodes in this serial — seven seemed as much as five to 10 seconds off and eight was closer but still annoyingly unsynchronized — but one of the most entertaining parts of it is the sheer visual presence of Lionel Atwill: he’s so good being bad, even though his part here is so derivative of his role as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, he tries to kill Henley with an air gun, albeit a considerably lower-tech weapon than the one in the Sherlock Holmes stories! — 7/15/11


I ran chapters nine and 10 of the 1944 Captain America serial for Republic on the eve of the premiere of the new big-budget movie of the real Captain America (preserving the origin story in Marvel Comics that the Republic people, probably for budgetary reasons, removed: as the serial stands, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why a tough district attorney on the trail of a serial killer should don a suit with a motif based on the U.S. flag, call himself “Captain America” and appear inside the suit as a considerably thinner, trimmer and more buff stunt double). This one had some real lulus in the cliffhangers: episode eight, “Cremation in the Clouds” (even for a serial this has some quite dire chapter titles), ends with a plane presumably being flown by Captain America’s assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), blowing up in the sky, courtesy of a time bomb planted there by the baddies — only in the opening scenes of episode nine we find out that Captain America got away from the baddies who were going after him long enough to radio Gail and tell her to bail out of the plane, and of course she just happened to be wearing a parachute — at least that’s what we assume was in the clunky backpack she had on — only the crash utterly destroyed the Mayan blow-gun Gail was supposed to be flying to the grandson of the professor who originally discovered it on the ill-fated expedition whose members are being knocked off, one by one, by Professor Maldor (Lionel Atwill), a.k.a. The Scarab.

Undaunted, the good guys make up a fake blow gun and put out the word that it’s from a plaster casting of the original — the guy who constructed it jokes that the Scarab’s men will have a lot of fun trying to decipher the fake Mayan hieroglyphics with which he adorned it (I joked that it would turn out to be the Mayan for, “There was an old man from Nantucket … ”) — which the Scarab’s men go after, and the end of chapter nine, “Triple Tragedy,” is as bonkers as the end of chapter eight: Gail traces the baddies to their lair but just happens to be standing over a trap door, whose lever the bad guys pull so she disappears into a hole under the floor of their hideout, which turns out to be an old barn full of powder (we see large black canisters helpfully labeled “POWDER”) which the baddies blow up, hoping to take out Captain America and Dale — they survive, of course, but the barn blows up and with it more potential evidence identifying the Scarab (who, somewhat off the norm for a serial, we’ve known from the get-go is really Maldor but none of the characters — at least the good ones — have).

Captain America is a pretty mediocre superhero serial, with well-staged action scenes by directors John English and Elmer Clifton (the latter a former star for D. W. Griffith: he was Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation and the “Rhapsode” in Intolerance) but a singularly unimaginative script from the writing committee and Republic’s typically slapdash and “cheating” chapter endings: the sort of Republic serial that led me to joke that anyone who’d seen one of these movies could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went over the cliff, they jumped out of it … — 7/21/11


I ran chapters 11 and 12 of the 1944 Captain America serial with the idea that we’ll finish the piece and then go out to see the newly released Marvel/Disney version, also set in the 1940’s, directed by Joe Johnston (a promising sign giving his success with the lovely, pastoral October Sky) with Chris Evans (who’s already appeared in the Marvel Universe as the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies — which rank among my favorite recent superhero films because they are blessedly free of the forced seriousness Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi brought to the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, respectively — and while Raimi’s presence and Andrew Garfield’s casting in the next Spider-Man promise a great deal, the fact that Nolan is helming the next Superman movie makes me disinclined to see it even though Christopher Meloni has supposedly signed up for a major role, though what major role I don’t know: are they going to have him shave his head and play Luthor?).

The conceit in this one is that Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer) has invented a machine that can restore a dead person to life — provided that the dead person in question hasn’t been dead very long — only the writing committee does precious little with that provocative premise: they have the villain, Dr. Maldor a.k.a. The Scarab (Lionel Atwill), kidnap Dr. Lyman right after Maldor’s henchman Bart Matson (George J. Lewis) dies in a gun battle with the good guys (the good guys hope to keep him alive to pump him for information, including the Scarab’s true identity, but he croaks before that can happen), and the thing is powered by something that looks like an open door to the inferno but which I think was supposed to be a nuclear reactor (it’s hard to think of anything else that could generate a million volts and yet be located inside an ordinary-sized office in an ordinary-sized office building) and Captain America and Matson get into a fight in front of the open door to the inferno as one of the chapter cliffhangers, and guess which one comes out alive (though actually I think they both do).

The episode titles were “The Dead Man Returns” (episode 10 had been called “The Avenging Corpse,” though when Matson is actually revived it doesn’t seem like he’s after vengeance; it’s more like he just wants to get back to work at his job as the Scarab’s assistant and a minor little detail like he was killed and then brought back to life in a science-fictional machine that is the one element in this serial that isn’t physically possible simply doesn’t interest or bother him in the slightest) and “Horror on the Highway,” and of course the titular horror on the highway is a car tipping over in the middle of a chase sequence … though no doubt the writing committee will figure out some cop-out way that Our Hero and Our Heroine (one good thing about this movie is that, like in a lot of Republic serials, the heroine is as spunky, brave and intimately involved in the action as the hero; though she doesn’t get to don a cool costume, Lorna Gray as Captain America’s girlfriend/assistant/secretary Gail Richards is quite feisty and butch in the best tradition of Republic’s serial heroines) will get out of danger! — 7/23/11


Charles and I decided to finish the 1944 Republic serial Captain America, largely to “clear the decks” before we see the new version that was released last Thursday for one special screening here in downtown San Diego and then generally last Friday. The serial had a larger than usual writing committee — Royal K. Cole, Harry L. Fraser, and Joseph F. Poland, script, plus additional credits to Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy and Grant Nelson — and overall, while it isn’t a bad movie and certainly “delivers the goods” to the serial audience — a lot of well-staged if not especially creative action scenes, and decent if not truly exciting cliffhangers (the one at the end of episode 12 showed Captain America’s car going off the side of the road and down a cliff, and the beginning of episode 13 revealed that he used the all-time favorite Republic escape mechanism: just before the car went over the cliff, he opened the door and jumped out of it — Republic used this one so often that when Charles and I watched Zombies of the Stratosphere, during the later episodes as the cliffhanger scene unreeled, we’d both call out to the screen, “Jump! Jump!”), just as the audience for the modern-day Captain America will no doubt be waiting for the big action scenes, 3-D effects and spectacular computer-generated imagery.

The focus of the last three episodes was the so-called Temple of the Emeralds, a jewel-encrusted (or possibly completely constructed of precious gems) building the Mayans (the “MAY-ans,” as they’ve been referred to all serial) supposedly left behind when they … well, when whatever happened to them happened. They left an engraved bronze map in two parts, concealed inside two stone tablets, and as it turned out the ill-fated MAY-an expedition on which Dr. Maldor (Lionel Atwill) was a participant, and whose other members he has been systematically knocking off in his guise as the arch-villain The Scarab, recovered both of them: Maldor had one and Professor Hillman (John Hamilton) had the other, and Hamilton discovered it when his clay tablet accidentally broke and revealed the flat sheet of bronze beneath it.

Thanks to his network of spies in and around the offices of district attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell), who’s also at least nominally Captain America (a few close-ups show Purcell in Captain America drag but virtually all the long shots of Cap are of a shorter, lighter and considerably more agile stunt double) — and also to an electromagnetic wire recorder, an esoteric enough gadget in 1944 that the serial stopped for exposition to explain to the audience just what it was (and the electronics technician who made it for the Scarab is played by Kenne “Horsecock” Duncan, later a semi-regular in Ed Wood’s movies) — the Scarab, a.k.a. Professor Maldor, learns that the other half of the bronze treasure map has been concealed in the clay tablet he had all along, and so he sends his gang to break into Hamilton’s home (his men have no particular trouble evading the police guard Gardner posted there, who for sheer incompetence make the Keystone Kops look like Dirty Harry by comparison), steal the tablet and also kidnap Hillman because he knows how to read MAY-an and Maldor doesn’t.

In a performance by Atwill that owes so much to his role as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon two years earlier, it really puts the capstone on things that the final episodes of this serial even track Secret Weapon plotwise; in that film, you’ll recall, Holmes and Moriarty were racing each other over London for the four parts of a state secret, all of which had to be assembled for the message to be readable. Eventually Maldor realizes Captain America’s secret identity as Grant Gardner; Gardner and his assistant/secretary/girlfriend Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) realize Maldor’s secret identity as the Scarab; the police raid the Scarab’s headquarters at the Drummond antiquities museum — and there’s a real surprise that the villain of a serial is taken alive at the end, which hardly ever happened. There’s also a denouement that gave rise to a “Goofs” posting on the successful capture of the Scarab and the end of his “reign of terror” (though unless you had been accompanying him on that expedition to the MAY-an territory in Mexico, you seemed pretty safe) is hailed on the soundtrack by the tolling of bells and on screen by a shot of … Big Ben, in London, in a film that until that last shot (which quite frankly looked like the same shot that Alexander Korda used as the logo for his company, London Films) has taken place entirely within the United States.

In the power of the action scenes, the slovenliness of the exposition, the welcome spunkiness of the leading female character (for all Republic president Herbert Yates’ fabled conservatism, he put strong women on the screen as action heroines while the major studios generally used them in action films, if at all, only as helpless damsels in distress to be rescued by the butch male hero in the final reel!) and the overall spirit that overcomes the cheapness and the silliness, Captain America is a typical Republic serial even though it doesn’t do justice to the original conception of the character by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (they developed him in 1942 as a war-themed superhero and he was the earliest hero in what’s become known as the Marvel Universe) and would no doubt have been a much better movie if it had — as it is, there’s no particular reason for a district attorney to don a flamboyant costume just to chase after the crooks he’s seeking to prosecute in his other identity! — 7/24/11

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony Pictures “Classics,” 2009)

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

Charles and I had more than enough time to watch a movie last night, and it was a doozy: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam’s 2009 fantasy that was Heath Ledger’s last film — The Dark Knight was Ledger’s last completed film but, like Bela Lugosi, Ledger did work after that on a project he didn’t live to finish but was completed after his death with other actors filling in for him. The other actors were Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, and the publicity for the film indicated that not only were they working for much less than their usual rates ( claims that all three donated their salaries to a trust set up for Ledger’s daughter Matilda) but they were all friends of Ledger’s and appeared in the film as a tribute and a way of ensuring that the public would get to see Ledger’s last work. We were assured that Ledger had completed his entire role except for three fantasy sequences, and since the scenes Ledger hadn’t lived to shoot were fantasies it wouldn’t be too jarring that his character looked like a different person in them. Actually, it turned out that the entire heart of the film is the fantasy sequences; as it stands, it’s as if Fred Astaire had died in the middle of shooting a musical and had already shot the plot portions of the film but none of the numbers, and other dancers had been pressed into service to fill in for him.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a frustrating movie because the sheer beauty and imagination of the visuals makes it worth watching — the fantasies look like Gilliam’s old animation sequences from Monty Python would have if he’d had scads of money to create them — but at the same time it’s that annoying sort of story in which literally anything can happen; written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown (who also had a minor part in the film that was left on the cutting-room floor), it’s a plot that really establishes no ground rules, no audience expectations that the film can astonish us by deviating from. It’s the sort of movie that makes me think of Dwight MacDonald’s comment on Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (actually a much more coherent film than this one!): “If all the cards are wild, you can’t play poker.” The plot, to the extent there is one, concerns aging — and, we eventually find out, literally immortal — Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who runs a traveling show he sets up in carnivals with an oddly assorted group of assistants: his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole); his factotum Anton (Andrew Garfield); and his midget — oops, I mean little person — driver Percy (Verne Troyer). In the opening scene they encounter a drunk who crashes their stage and goes through the “mirror” — actually just a series of foil strips — into the secret world of the Imaginarium, where the fantasies take place (and where he immediately falls face first into a pile of mud and it finally starts to look like a Terry Gilliam film — Gilliam even called his production company “Poo Poo Productions” in honor of his obsession with mud and shit, and covering his characters with them, that stretches back as far as Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Later they come upon Tony (Heath Ledger), who’s hanging by a tree in a deserted spot and whom they rescue and nurse back to health — and who turns out (several reels later) to be the founder of a children’s charity that either he was ripping off himself or had allowed to be taken over by a Russian cartel who were embezzling the proceeds. Much of the film is taken up with the romantic triangle between Tony, Anton (it seems likely Gilliam and McKeown deliberately came up with having the male leads have different forms of the same name) and Valentina, though there’s also another mysterious character that turns up, a black-clad man with a long pasty face and a penchant for cigarettes smoked out of a long holder. He turns out to be the devil and is played by, of all people, Tom Waits (and as much as I loathe his music, in a non-singing role he turned out to be quite understated and effective), and the film builds (more or less) to a climax in which Tony (played by Colin Farrell in the most interesting of the fantasy sequences — indeed he’s so good I couldn’t help wishing they’d scrapped Ledger’s footage and reshot the whole movie with Farrell in the role), his reputation rehabilitated, is about to receive an award from the President (played by Waits from a wheelchair with his cigarette holder in place — obviously he’s supposed to be Franklin Roosevelt) with Valentina on his arm as his wife, when Anton bursts in with an exposé of his charity published in the Sun (how appropriate, given what’s happened since, that it would be a Rupert Murdoch paper!) and the whole thing gets blown: Tony ends up beating Valentina (even though it’s supposed to be a fantasy, the sight of Colin Farrell giving back-handed blows to Lily Cole is pretty terrifying, especially since at the beginning of the sequence he was making love to her in a gondola in a scene reminiscent of the opening of the Giulietta act of The Tales of Hoffmann) and the earth literally opens up and swallows him, leaving Valentina and Anton together and touring with Dr. Parnassus (ya remember Dr. Parnassus?) running a much cut-down version of his show as a puppet theatre.

The other gimmick in what passes for a plot in this film is a race between the devil and Dr. Parnassus to see who can be the first to claim five souls in two days, with Valentina’s soul the prize — since Dr. Parnassus was already an old man when he met and fell in love with Valentina’s mother, the devil offered him a deal: he’d make Parnassus young again and allow him to get Valentina’s mother to fall in love with him, in exchange for which the soul of their child would become the devil’s on its 16th birthday (which explains, sort of, why in the opening sequence Parnassus was lying about Valentina’s age and saying she was only 12 — as if the devil couldn’t see through that!) Aside from the dazzling visuals, there are some interesting touches in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus — including the weird clash of time senses: the imaginarium itself is a traveling theatre that folds up into a self-contained cart drawn by a horse, and the conceit of carnivals and people who make their living by setting up in them as sideshow attractions seems to be decades, or even centuries, old — yet the cars, buildings, street scenes and technological accoutrements (including Tony’s cell phone, whose ring tone is actually heard twice, once in the film itself and once at the end of the credits) mark the setting as our own time.

But this is not the sort of film I usually get into — as I noted above, I generally don’t like stories that are so amorphous and rule-free literally anything can happen; if anything, fantasy requires more discipline and plot logic than any other genre — and the film was a box-office flop, which I suspect it would have been if Heath Ledger had lived to complete it and it had been released normally without all the hype about his friends on the “A”-list coming together and filling out his part so audiences could see Ledger’s last work. It’s not at all clear how Ledger’s career would have progressed if he had lived (or, for that matter, if he’d taken the lead role in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia instead of The Dark Knight), but from what little I’ve seen of his work he seems to have been a strikingly limited actor, superb as the tortured introverts he played in Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain but out of his depth in almost anything else.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sinners in Paradise (Universal, 1938)

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

I ran a movie we’d downloaded from and which I’d burned on the same disc as the 1947 Shoot to Kill (about which, incidentally, Charles said that the phony justice of the peace who married Lawrence Dale and Marian Langdon was actually Dixie Logan in disguise, something I missed even though I got that the “marriage” had been performed by a phony officiant so that Marian couldn’t be accused of bigamy): Sinners in Paradise, a 1938 Universal “B” movie of interest mainly because of its director, James Whale. Whale’s career began to unravel in 1936, when he signed on to do a big-budget musical version of Show Boat for Universal with a stellar cast (Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson!) — only the shoot was a troubled one and the already financially stressed studio was about to collapse due to the budget overruns on Whale’s Show Boat and another big-budget production, John Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession. As a result, Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr., the father-and-son team (Laemmle, Sr. had started the business in the teens and was now grooming his 20-something son for the succession) who owned Universal, had to take out a loan from a shady group of financiers — what today would be called a “hedge fund” — headed by J. Cheever Cowdin, and the terms of the loan provided that if the Laemmles fell behind on their payments, Cowdin could take over the studio in a forced sale. The Laemmles did indeed fall behind, largely because of the cost overruns on Show Boat, and Cowdin seized control of the studio, installed production head Charles Rogers and billed it as “The New Universal.”

The new Universal proved an unexpectedly hostile work environment for Whale, whose open homosexuality hadn’t bothered the Laemmles but did bother his new bosses. Whale’s next film, The Road Back (based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque about post-World War I Germany and ballyhooed as a follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front), was taken away from him and badly butchered in the cutting room. Hoping to get away from Universal, Whale had his partner, David Lewis, set up a one-picture deal for him at Warners with the promise of a long-term contract if his film did well. Unfortunately, Whale made The Great Garrick, a splendid, sophisticated comedy that was too sophisticated for a mass audience, then or now — it was the sort of project destined to be a cult film no matter when it was made — and Warners decided they had no use for him. So Whale went back to Universal with three films left on his contract there, and Rogers decided to use up the three commitments by giving him three cheapies (his biographer James Curtiss estimated that Whale’s salary was the biggest item in these films’ budgets): this one, Wives Under Suspicion (an intriguing remake of Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror with one quirky change: instead of a defense attorney realizing that his own life with his wife is starting to parallel the case he’s trying, in the remake he’s a prosecutor, played by Warren William, who has one of the most macabre props ever seen in a non-horror film: an abacus with toy skulls as the counting beads, with which A.D.A. William keeps track of all the criminals on his target list he’s successfully convicted) and Port of Seven Seas. (Whale referred to them as his “punishment pictures.”)

Though saddled with an over-the-hill gang for a cast, Sinners in Paradise is actually quite a good movie, if a bit quirky — actually a lot quirky. It began life as a story called “Halfway to Shanghai” (which rather gives away the plot!) by Harold Buckley, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Louis Stevens and Lester Cole — and one can readily imagine future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Cole as the source of the surprisingly anti-capitalist social commentary in the script. It begins with the departure of the China Clipper — or, as it’s called in the film, the “Pacific Seabird” — to Shanghai (an uncredited but welcome Dwight Frye is one of the people at the seaport from which it takes off, linking this film to Whale’s glory days and the horror movies that made his reputation), with the usual oddly assorted set of passengers for a disaster movie: nurse Anne Wesson (Madge Evans), who’s fleeing her husband and plans to resume her career in Shanghai; gangster Robert “The Torpedo” Malone (Bruce Cabot), who’s carrying $150,000 he’s planning to smuggle out of the U.S.; his more-or-less girlfriend Iris Compton (Marion Martin, who actually delivers a quite good salty-blonde performance); heiress Doris Bailey, a.k.a. Thelma Chase (Charlotte Wynters), whose auto factory is beset by a sit-down strike; John T. Corey (Gene Lockhart), who’s variously referred to as a U.S. senator and a state senator and who’s being openly lobbied by rival arms dealers Harrison Brand (Morgan Conway, later RKO’s first Dick Tracy) and T. L. Honeyman (Milburn Stone); and Mrs. Franklin Sydney (Nana Bryant), who’s going to China to visit her adult son Thomas.

About a quarter of the way through the 63-minute running time, the plane flies into a storm and goes down; the crew are all killed (except for the flight attendant, Jessup, played by former Western star Don “Red” Barry as comic relief) but the passengers survive. From there the film turns into a combination of Robinson Crusoe and The Admirable Crichton, as the surviving principals find themselves on a desert island with only two inhabitants: Jim Taylor (John Boles) and his Asian version of Friday, Ping (Willie Fung). Taylor has settled in on the island after arriving there a year before, living on fish and coconuts he’s harvested himself in a cottage he’s built himself from the available materials. Taylor offers them dinner but then insists that if they’re going to stay on his island they’ll have to earn their keep, and not surprisingly (given Lester Cole’s presence on the writing committee) a lot of the situations come from the high mucky-mucks, the portly politician and the spoiled heiress, getting their just desserts and having to labor like proletarians.

There’s also a lot of by-play around Taylor’s boat, which is anchored off the island and which could sail the castaways to Shanghai, only Taylor refuses to take them himself. Later he relents — sort of — and authorizes Ping to take them, but insists that the boat holds only six people so some of them will have to stay behind on the island for the three months it will take for the boat to return. Taylor has also hidden the fuel supply and the ignition for the boat’s motor so the castaways can’t steal it, and he insists that he will pick the people who will get to leave immediately — only the corrupt arms dealers hijack the boat, accidentally kill Mrs. Sydney in the crossfire, and shoot Ping in the arm, then realize they have to keep him alive because he knows how to navigate and they don’t. The remaining passengers more or less make the best of it — there’s a great scene in which heiress Chase says she’s dissatisfied with her work assignments and if they’re not changed she’ll … and then she realizes that she’s threatening to do what all those workers in her factory she hates so much are doing because they’re dissatisfied with their working conditions. (This is one movie the House Un-American Activities Committee could have cited as evidence of an openly Communist writer sneaking Leftist content into a film.) Meanwhile, Anne has fallen in love with Jim, and we learn that the reason Jim has been hiding out on the island for a year is that he’s wanted for the murder of Mrs. Sydney’s son — a fact that comes out just as she’s dying on the beach; Jim sees the locket with her son’s picture and recognizes him, but remains silent, figuring it’s just as well that she die while believing her son is still alive. Eventually Anne persuades Jim that he should return to civilization and fight the murder charge against him, Ping returns with the boat — having recaptured it by wounding Honeyman and Brand with his kitchen knife and pushing them overboard — and, with the number of living characters down to the requisite six, they all set sail and leave the island together.

Sinners in Paradise is a pretty derivative movie, and its plot hinges on a lot of far-fetched coincidences, but it’s also a haunting one, well acted by Evans and Boles (both of whom had been perched on the edge of the “A”-list in the early 1930’s without quite making it onto it, and had since fallen definitely onto the “B”-list) and directed with a quiet strength and competence even though he didn’t have a chance to cast the film or work with the writers on its script, and it obviously didn’t hook his interest the way his earlier Laemmle-era projects had — not just the famous horror films (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein) on which his reputation rests but The Kiss Before the Mirror, Remember Last Night? (an off-take on The Thin Man with even more drinking than its model!) and Show Boat (which, like The Magnificent Obsession, turned out to be a blockbuster hit, albeit too late to save either the Laemmles’ control of Universal or its director’s career).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shoot to Kill (Lippert/Screen Guild, 1947)

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

I squeezed in an hour-long movie I’d downloaded from a 1947 “B” noir called Shoot to Kill (not to be confused with a much more famous 1988 film with that same title, starring Sidney Poitier) which managed to crowd quite a few plot elements and some spectacular reversals into a 63-minute running time. It was a Lippert Pictures production, released through Screen Guild Productions, though considerably better than the usual mix of cheap horror movies and Westerns Bob Lippert usually made. Much of the staff seems like PRC in exile — especially David Chudnow, the music supervisor, whose PRC origins show in this film in the virtually wall-to-wall accompaniment of shrilly recorded stock music that sometimes takes away from the power of the movie — though the director is William Berke, who had begun in independent movies and was now returning to them after RKO had let him go when they closed their “B” movie department and ended the Falcon detective series (many of which Berke had directed) in 1946.

Working from a pretty convoluted script by Edwin V. Westrate — I joked that they couldn’t afford an east-rate writer so they got Westrate — Berke managed to come up with a convincing and atmospheric film noir despite, or maybe because of, a no-name cast. (There’s one advantage working with no-name actors: we don’t bring our associations of them with the roles they played in other movies and therefore can more readily accept them as the people the script tells us they are.) The film starts with a rapid (probably shot with speeded-up motion) car chase in which a police car is chasing a civilian car through city streets and onto a mountain road, where the driver of the civilian car loses control and it crashes down the hillside. When the cops inspect the wreckage they find three people — recently appointed district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmond MacDonald), his wife Marian Langdon (Luana Walters, using the first name “Susan,” probably so people wouldn’t think of her as the girl in distress from Monogram’s awful Bela Lugosi movie The Corpse Vanishes) and the criminal Dale recently helped convict and send to prison, Dixie Logan (Douglas Blackley, a.k.a. Robert Kent).

Wondering why the D.A. and his wife would be in the same car as a notorious criminal — who, we learn several reels later, staged a daring prison break (none of which, this being a “B” movie, we actually get to see) and escaped vowing revenge against Dale, the cops can’t wait to question Marian, who’s the only survivor of the crash. She meets with reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Robert Wade), the only genuinely sympathetic character in the film, in her hospital bed and promises him an exclusive story. Then the film fades into flashbacks — and sometimes even into flashbacks within flashbacks — as we get the story from Marian’s recollections. She was vaguely dating Mitch when an opening on Dale’s staff for a secretary opened up, and with Dale’s boss, D.A. John Forsythe (Charles Trowbridge), about to retire, Dale seemed unstoppably headed for the D.A.’s office and a sky’s-the-limit political career — especially when he created a media sensation with the successful prosecution of Dixie Logan. Only — as we started to suspect from the get-go if only because of the hairline-thin “roo” moustache Russell Wade was wearing in the role — Dale is himself a crook, in league with the city’s other major gangsters, Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), Al Collins (Ted Hecht), and Mike Blake (Harry Chesire), and in order to get rid of the competition he framed Logan by bribing two of Logan’s men to testify against him.

Meanwhile, Dale is romancing Marian and she seems to be going along with it (among the shots in the montage sequence showing them dating is a marquee advertising a film starring Carole Lombard, who died five years before this film was made), only once he marries her (the ceremony is performed by a justice of the piece who’s an old family friend of hers) she reveals to him that she knows exactly what his real game is, and the price for her silence is that he’s going to run the D.A.’s office the way she tells him to, protecting the crooks she wants him to protect and leaving alone the ones she wants him to leave alone. Her number one priority is to get Logan officially freed (he’s escaped from prison in the meantime). Dale hatches a plot to nail Miller, Collins and Blake by promising each that he’ll help put the others out of business, then busting them all so he will be the unquestioned boss of the city’s rackets, only Marian tips them and in the final reel she drops the last reversal bomb: she and Dale are not legitimately married because she was really the wife of Dixie Logan, and her whole relationship with Dale — professional and personal — was simply part of a revenge plot to free Logan by destroying the reputation of the man who had busted (and framed) him.

The flashbacks within flashbacks and the neck-snapping reversals get to be a bit too much to take after a while — though modern-day filmmakers like Tony Gilroy put you through more, and less believable, ones — but overall Shoot to Kill (a title that’s never really explained in the movie and which does nothing but give the whole thing a sense of “crimeicity”) is a pretty good noir, reminiscent of quite a few other stories in which the supposed “reformers” in big-city politics are as corrupt as the old guard they’re supposedly out to displace — Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and the 1942 MGM film Kid Glove Killer (as well as the 1938 Crime Does Not Pay short They’re Always Caught, of which Kid Glove Killer was a remake) — but with a few twists and turns of its own that make it worth watching.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Juke Box Rhythm (Clover/Columbia, 1959)

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

The last two nights I’ve been running films from a run of late-1950’s and early-1960’s teen musicals, mostly from Columbia, which TCM recently showed, kicking them off with what’s at least a minor comedy classic, It’s Trad, Dad! Alas, the two we saw more recently were both American productions, with hack directors and writers instead of Richard Lester (later he made the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the tongue-in-cheek approach of It’s Trad, Dad! matches that of the Beatles movies) and writer/producer Milton Subotsky. The night before last we ran Juke Box Rhythm, a 1959 film from Sam Katzman’s Clover company, releasing through Columbia, and a follow-up to the all-star rockfests Katzman had previously produced with DJ Alan Freed both appearing on screen and picking out the talent. Alas, by the time Juke Box Rhythm was made Freed had been driven off the airwaves in disgrace for having accepted payola, and the talent pool for this one was pretty mediocre.

By far the best part of the movie is the three minutes in which Johnny Otis comes on and performs his hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” with a talented pool of quite revealingly clad dancers of both (mainstream) genders doing both hand and foot steps to the Bo Diddley rhythm of the song. Otis himself plays piano and sings (he was usually a drummer but he got someone else to do that this time) and he looks unambiguously white — which he was, though like the 1920’s Chicago clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow he re-invented himself as Black because of his love of Black music. Otis was helped by his Greek ancestry (his original last name was “Veliotes” and he got “Otis” from the last two syllables of his real name), which gave him (relatively) dark skin and curly hair, though when he made this movie he was — ironically — wearing a heavy-duty “process” to get his hair straight (so he was a white looking like a Black looking like a white!). I’ll never forget seeing Charles Brown at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1976 with a full process — and at a time when the “in” hair fashion among African-Americans was the so-called “natural” or “Afro” (“natural” was a singularly inaccurate name for it because of all the pulling and teasing it took to get their hair to stand up that straight!), Brown seemed to have beamed in from another planet.

The other major performers — at least the (genetically) Black ones — in Juke Box Rhythm are The Treniers, a vocal group that were sort of on the “B” list for these things (the ones producers called when they couldn’t get a Black group people outside the Black community had actually heard of, like the Drifters or the Clovers) in “Get Out of the Car,” a novelty reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “It Should’ve Been Me”; and Earl Grant, doing three songs and, as usual, hanging on the stylistic cusp between Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles; like them, he was Black, played piano and sang, and like Charles (but unlike Cole) he doubled on electric organ. Grant’s studio recordings tended to be bland, but his galvanic live album Earl Grant at Basin Street East (which includes two Ray Charles covers!) is well worth listening to. I’d been aware that Grant had sung the theme song over the credits of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life but I hadn’t known that he actually appeared in a movie until I saw this one — and though he’s a bit odd-looking (his face tended towards the bug-eyed and he didn’t project the visual charisma of either Cole or Charles) he’s quite appealing musically.

Oddly, much of the appeal of Juke Box Rhythm is in its plot; the writing committee (Lou Morheim, story; Earl Baldwin and Mary C. McCall, script) made the intriguing decision to graft the central gimmick of Roman Holiday — a princess comes to a big city determined to have fun, and falls in love with a young man who can help her in that regard — onto a backstage musical story one could imagine serving as the basis for a Busby Berkeley movie: Broadway producer George Manton (Brian Donlevy, looking pretty bored) hasn’t had a hit in six years, and he’s also dumped his wife Martha (Marjorie Reynolds) for a wealthy homewrecker (Karin Booth). His son Riff (Jack Jones, making an ill-advised attempt at rock ’n’ roll; once he reverted to his crooner origins in the 1960’s and did essentially Sinatra Lite, he was better off both artistically and commercially) is determined to raise the money for dad to put on his latest show, Juke Box Jamboree, and he sees his opportunity when the visiting princess Ann (Jo Morrow — who has a lovely voice herself but only gets to sing half a song) sneaks out of her hotel room and evades the watchful eye of her aunt and chaperone, Margaret (Frieda Inescort), crashes a jam session Jones and his rock band are having several floors down, and gets herself photographed dancing with him.

A junkman who’s trying to reinvent himself as a fashion designer, Balenko (Hans Conried, for once making a movie with his hair combed!), offers Riff a finder’s fee of $15,000 — just what Riff’s dad needs to put on the show — if he can get the princess to wear his designs to the upcoming coronation in her (carefully unspecified) country. Riff and the princess fall genuinely in love, of course, and though their relationship is derailed when she and her aunt find out about the finder’s fee, they ultimately kiss and make up and it seems like she’s going to walk out on the princess gig and stay in New York with her hot lite-rocker boyfriend — only at the end the writers revert to the Roman Holiday template and end the movie at the airport, where she’s standing on the gangway ready to board the plane that will take her home and both she and Riff momentarily think about rushing towards each other … but don’t. The director is Arthur Dreifuss, he of the notorious Gale Storm musicals from Monogram in the early 1940’s that were so badly photographed she frequently looked like she had a moustache, but he’s in relatively good form here, and though Johnny Otis’s number is far more exciting and vibrant than anything else in the movie, Juke Box Rhythm is a perfectly estimable piece of entertainment and an engaging 82-minute time filler.