Friday, September 30, 2011

The Court of Last Resort (TV, 1957-58)

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

Charles and I eventually got to run the first of six episodes I’d downloaded from of an intriguing true-crime TV show from 1957-58 called The Court of Last Resort, which appears to have been a 1950’s version of the Innocence Project. It was actually formed by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason and himself an attorney in the 1910’s before he gave up practicing law in favor of writing about it. The members of the “Board of Investigators” of the Court of Last Resort were Gardner (listed in the credits as “lawyer, noted author”), Sam Larsen (who appears to have been the Court’s principal investigator — essentially Paul Drake to Gardner’s Perry Mason — and was portrayed on the program by Lyle Bettger, the series’ recurring star), Harry Steeger (publisher), Dr. LeMoyne Snyder (lawyer, doctor of medicine, medicolegal expert), Raymond Schindler (celebrated private detective), Alex Gregory (lie-detector expert), Marshall Houts (professor of law, formerly with the FBI), and Park Street, Jr. (trial lawyer and chair of the Texas Law Enforcement Foundation), and though the show was a complete dramatization — all members of the Court of Last Resort appearing in the main story (as opposed to the tag scene at the end, in which they played themselves) were portrayed by actors.

This particular episode was called “The George Zaccho Case,” was originally aired November 1, 1957 and directed by our old friend Reginald LeBorg, who like a lot of other “B” movie directors grabbed jobs in TV when work in the “B”’s started to dry up. It’s about a Greek-American fisherman, George Zaccho (John Verros), who is accused and convicted of poisoning his wife Rose (Fintan Meyler) with arsenic when she collapses and dies in his living room with a witness — a neighbor who had urged George to call it in as an emergency (the 911 number didn’t exist yet when this was made) and was baffled when George refused — watching the whole thing and eventually testifying against him. Zaccho is convicted largely on circumstantial evidence and motive — his motive being that he’d started an affair with a Latina dancer, Margarite Velez (Lilyan Chauvin) in a beach town he frequently docked at, and he’d supposedly promised to marry her as soon as he could get rid of his current wife, legally or otherwise. (Just how they sustained an affair when they couldn’t communicate is a bit of a mystery — George Zaccho spoke almost nothing but Greek; indeed, when Larsen interviews him the priest of the local Orthodox church has to sit in and interpret — while Velez’s only languages are presumably Spanish and the fractured Spanish-accented English we actually hear from her.)

The Court takes his case largely at the instigation of Zaccho’s adult children, including his son Alex (Nico Minardos), who took over his fishing boat after dad was arrested. The Court gets hold of Mrs. Zaccho’s medical records and discovers that Mrs. Zaccho had been admitted to hospital for arsenic poisoning three times already, including at least one treatment before her husband met the Other Woman, and it turns out that she became an arsenic eater (a plot gimmick also used in one of the Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes radio show, in which a former British music-hall entertainer who married an East Indian potentate, who died and left her his fortune, was about to be poisoned with arsenic despite her having a food taster — who, as part of the plot, had been immunized against it by being fed small doses regularly) because a Gypsy fortune teller named Vera (Irene Tedrow) had told her eating arsenic would clear up her skin rashes and make her skin bright and smooth.

It wasn’t that exciting a program, and our download from suffered from an odd form of distortion — black bars appeared across the screen whenever any rapid movement occurred (I sampled one of the other Court of Last Resort episodes I downloaded and it didn’t seem to suffer from the same problem, which since it also showed up on my computer file of the Zaccho episode seemed to stem from the upload rather than any limitation in the DVD encoding or disc burn on my computer) — but it was certainly worth watching. As a rather hyperbolic reviewer on the site noted about one of the other five Court of Last Resort episodes they have up (I say “hyperbolic” because there are groups like the Innocence Project doing similar work today — and with the advantage of DNA testing, a form of potentially exculpatory evidence that didn’t exist in the 1950’s but which has since freed hundreds of unjustly convicted criminals), “It’s hard to imagine a society where people actually cared that an innocent man would be wrongfully executed. Now we lust for executions. In Mormon Utah they die by firing squad, and we feast on the spectacle.” — 8/4/11


We ran the second in sequence of my downloads of the TV series The Court of Last Resort, “The Clarence Redding Case,” which was about a rather elderly drifter (John Bliefer) accused of raping (the word in the script was “assault” because the writer, James Goldstone, had to tread lightly around the Standards and Practices department of NBC, but it was unmistakable what was really going on) a woman inside a barn — we didn’t see the crime take place, but a 10-year-old boy walked in on it while in progress in an intriguing anticipation of the “guest body-finder” device frequently used on Law and Order and its spinoffs. Redding was arrested and, when the woman died of her injuries, tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death, and the Court of Last Resort got involved just three weeks before he was scheduled to be executed.

It turns out all this happened in a New England village whose economy had gone so far down that there were only 27 people still left in town — too small to sustain their own police force, so members of the citizenry investigated crimes on a volunteer basis (I’d heard of volunteer fire departments before, but a volunteer police department was a new one on me), and when Harry Steeger (Carleton Young), Erle Stanley Gardner’s publisher, hears of the case and assigns investigator Sam Larsen (Lyle Bettger) — as I noted in my comments on the last episode we saw, Larsen, who wasn’t formally a member of the governing board of the Court of Last Resort, was essentially Paul Drake to Gardner’s real-life Perry Mason — to go to the town and start looking into the case, he runs into three people in the town’s general store, of which one was the dead girl’s father, who’s naturally convinced that justice has been done and the man who’s about to be executed for murdering his daughter is in fact guilty. Eventually Larsen digs up the key piece of evidence he needed — the boy witnessed the attacker wearing a red jacket, and Redding’s jacket is white — and Larsen eventually learns that there have been similar assaults in other towns, also committed by a man in a red jacket, so Redding gets freed.

The parallels between the Court of Last Resort and the modern-day Innocence Project are obvious — one reviewer (“jnskjackson”) noted the similarities as well as the key difference: the Innocence Project has had access to DNA testing, a tool that didn’t exist in the late 1950’s — and though the Court members were played by actors (except in a final tag scene in which the real ones, including Gardner, appeared as themselves) the cases were actual ones and Goldstone’s writing and Reginald LeBorg’s direction (as I’ve noted before, Universal did LeBorg no favors assigning him to horror films; he’s far better as a director of physically possible suspense stories than anything science-fictional or supernatural) get the stories on and off the screen effectively in the 26 minutes available to them in the half-hour drama format. I miss the half-hour drama format; the explosion in the time commercial TV devotes to commercials has meant that an “hour” show in the 1950’s was 52 minutes compared to the 42 minutes common today, but even with only 16 rather than 26 additional minutes to fill, a lot of hour-long dramas, especially crime dramas, seem padded out to fill the length, either with the cutesy-poo scenes attempting to “humanize” the protagonists (though the USA Network has made these so much of a trademark they’ve even based their promotional slogan for the entire channel, “Characters Wanted,” on them) or with the insane melodramatic complications that have weighted down otherwise good episodes of Law and Order and shows like it. Like the “B” movie, the half-hour TV crime drama encouraged an economy of storytelling a lot of modern-day shows could definitely benefit from! — 8/6/11


I ran us instead the next episode in sequence of the interesting TV series The Court of Last Resort, a sort of 1950’s precursor to the Innocence Project established in 1948 by, of all people, mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner, whose name was big box-office on TV just then since his character Perry Mason had just been adapted and was a huge ratings hit. Alas, The Court of Last Resort only lasted one season — and that on the chronically weakly rated ABC — because the premise was certainly compelling: a half-hour drama (I miss half-hour dramas; shows like this and both the 1950’s and 1960’s iterations of Dragnet prove that you could do exciting, intense crime stories in half an hour without the dreadful sense of padding that afflicts some longer crime tales being done these days at the now-obligatory hour-long time slot; as I noted in my journal in one of my first comments on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, “The time constraints of the original [Dragnet and its half-hour slot] had forced them to write about relatively simple crimes, ones the viewer could readily imagine actually happening; the new one had to stretch its plotlines over the obligatory hour and therefore had to resort to the kinds of complications that are found almost exclusively in crime fiction rather than crime reality.”

This episode was called “The Case of John Smith” and deals with an attempt to prove the innocence of a man who’d been convicted — actually pushed by a court-appointed attorney into copping a plea to murdering a shopowner during a robbery after a police officer intimidated and beat (literally!) him into a confession (something actually quite common in those pre-Miranda days; it’s hard these days for police to get away with a physical assault on a suspect in custody but they still use coercive interrogation techniques) — 22 years earlier, though surprisingly it doesn’t really go into the difficulties of reconstructing events that occurred so long ago and it seems as if all the principals except the man “John Smith” (it’s not his real name; he was orphaned as a child, apparently left on the streets when his parents died, and he speaks with a thick foreign accent — probably the normal one of Than Wyenn, the actor who plays him) supposedly murdered seem to be alive and within reach of the investigation of private eye Raymond Schindler (Robert H. Harris), who eventually uncovers Smith’s alibi witness. It turns out that on the night of the murder he bought bread and beans for a fellow homeless person, Carl Halsted (Karl Swenson), and Halsted not only remembered but eventually got off the street and became a successful businessperson in California, but never forgot Smith’s kindness to him because the date it all happened was his birthday.

This is the sort of story that’s a bit hard to believe without the assurances of the narrator (Lyle Bettger in his role as Sam Larsen, principal researcher and leg man for the Court of Last Resort) that it’s all true, but it’s a well done tale, incisively written by Ken Kolb and powerfully directed by Reginald LeBorg, who on the strength of both these TV shows and his film credits was a quite good suspense director Universal unwisely pushed into horror films when they had him under contract in the 1940’s. — 8/12/11


This Court of Last Resort episode was called “The Frank Clark Case” and dealt with a murder from 1956 (the show aired in early 1958 so it was a relatively fresh crime, not one from 22 years earlier like “The John Smith Case”) in which a man named Frank Clark (Dan Barton) was accused of knifing a middle-aged man, Peter Lucenic (Gene Roth), in his home, leaping out of his open window and being seen by his next-door neighbor, Eleanor Stacy (a marvelously twitchy performance by Virginia Vincent), as he fled through the clotheslines full of laundry she’d hung to dry in her backyard. At first Clark, whom we see only from behind, looks like your stereotypical movie/TV “juvenile delinquent” from the period, but later we’re told that he’s 30 (and the real Dan Barton was even older than that, born September 20, 1921, which would have made him 36 when the episode was filmed) even though he’s still living with his older sister Roberta (played by Marian Seldes, who in fact was seven years younger than Barton — born August 23, 1928 — and who’s still alive and working!) and her husband Paul Farrell (Stanley Adams), who’s lamenting the sheer amount of money and time Roberta has already spent on various lawyers and investigators futilely promising to exonerate Frank.

The Court of Last Resort’s investigator, Sam Farrell (Lyle Bettger), takes up the case and talks to the police captain who led the official investigation, Captain Cunningham (Harold J. Stone) — and no, we don’t ever find out his first name — and eventually he finds that the $200 Lucenic had lying around in his room but which wasn’t found either on him or on Frank was in fact stolen by Eleanor Stacy, who used it to keep her car from being repossessed. But she picked it up off the street where Lucenic’s killer had dropped it — and in a quite surprising twist given that the series, and the Court of Last Resort itself, were both products of the work of novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the character of Perry Mason, it turns out that Frank Clark really did commit the murder: Eleanor saved the money clip which was holding the bills together when she found them, and it turns out to match exactly one Paul Farrell had: a gift from Frank Clark, who made one for his brother-in-law and an identical one for himself in the machine shop where he worked. Roberta had been convinced Frank couldn’t have committed the crime because he’d been home with her the entire afternoon — except that she wasn’t feeling well that day, Frank gave her some medicine, the medicine made her sleepy and she dozed off, she thought for only a minute or two but in fact for longer than that, long enough for Frank to slip out to steal Lucenic’s cash, only Lucenic was home unexpectedly, surprised Frank and Frank killed him by stabbing him with a screwdriver he had in his tool box and he’d taken along to jimmy Lucenic’s window open to burglarize him.

It’s a nice little vest-pocket drama and the ending is legitimately surprising without getting into the absurd melodramatics of many recent Law and Order episodes — and, as I’ve written before about the half-hour crime dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, not only this one but the original Dragnets as well, they have something of the same economy of storytelling as the “B”-movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the time limit forced the writers (even on shows which were totally fiction and not, like this one, at least ostensibly based on true stories) to focus on crimes that could have happened and not the elaborate, far-fetched and definitely fictional plots of today’s hour-long shows in the genre! — 8/14/11


I dug out the disc of the Court of Last Resort TV shows and played the next-to-last episode of the six I’d been able to find on, and in many ways it was the best of the five we’ve seen so far: “The Jacob Loveless Case,” which aside from its status as a true story is a magnificent tale of injustice, prosecutorial misconduct and the destructiveness of secrets that could well have made a quite good plot for a film noir. It opens in 1936, with a young couple necking (standing up!) in a field in Texas when an assailant comes up and shoots them both. (The young couple don’t look at all like people from 1936 — at least if the movies of the period are accurate touchstones to judge by — they’re dressed in 1950’s clothes and wear their hair in 1950’s styles, but they’re not on long enough for that to matter.) Jacob Loveless (Barry Atwater) is arrested and charged with killing those two nice young people for the $4 and change they were carrying, and since he’s still a teenager himself he isn’t given the death penalty but is sentenced to life in prison. Once in prison the illiterate Loveless not only learns to read but finds solace in books and ultimately gets assigned to run the prison library as his behind-bars job.

He appears before the parole board four times, but the first three times the prosecutor in his case, Edward Kruger (Onslow Stevens), appears before the board and talks them into not paroling him, while the fourth time Loveless applies he finds Kruger actually on the parole board, stubbornly refusing to recuse himself or to allow the other board members to vote to parole Loveless. Though he insists all along he’s been innocent of the original crime, he’s given up on seeking a pardon — in a nicely turned speech (the screenwriter was Sam Rolfe), Loveless says he doesn’t care anymore what it says on his ticket out of prison, as long as it gets him out — but when Court of Last Resort investigator Sam Larsen (Lyle Bettger, the series’ star) starts researching the case in association with Raymond Cole, who replaced Kruger as D.A. when Kruger retired, he finds out that the real killer was Mort Walker (Paul Newlan), owner of the property where the killings took place and a hot-tempered man who eagerly resorts to threats of bodily harm whenever anyone trespasses, no matter how innocently.

Loveless’s alibi witness was Walker’s daughter, who sandbagged his case by changing her story when she realized her dad was the actual killer — and she’s lived as a recluse on the Walker property ever since, never going out and certainly never dating, working or doing anything to establish an existence independent of the dad she lied for. Kruger’s guilt feelings about the case have led him to alcoholism and turned his wife Josephine (Louise Lewis) into a classic long-suffering co-dependent — they haven’t had any children — and Larsen and Cole muse over the irony that Loveless, even though he’s spent 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, has actually come through the experience with less emotional scarring than anyone else involved. Though this episode was missing the “tag” scene with real Court of Last Resort members that has enlivened some of the previous ones, it was still quite good, well written by Rolfe and directed by Reginald LeBorg ( credits Peter Godfrey as director, but LeBorg is the name on the original credits), who as I’ve pointed out suffered professionally from the decision of his bosses at Universal in the 1940’s to give him horror films with supernatural or science-fiction premises, when his strength was in suspense stories. — 9/28/11


Charles and I ended up watching the last of the six episodes of the quite interesting 1957-58 TV series The Court of Last Resort we’d been able to download from “The Mary Morales Case,” which in some ways was the most unusual of them all, featuring a surprise opening — instead of a narrator announcing what the prosecution’s theory of the case was, it opened with a sequence showing Juan Morales (Joe De Santis), who’d brought his family — himself, his wife Mary (Marian Seldes, who had previously appeared as Roberta, the older sister of the genuinely guilty Frank Clark, on an earlier Court of Last Resort episode), and their chronically ill young son Miguel, who is talked about a great deal but never shown as an on-screen character — from Laredo, Texas to Arizona in hope of finding work now that an injury to his hand that had idled him for three years had finally healed and he now could work. Joe spots Mary talking to a white trucker in a local diner, leaps to the worst (and wrong) conclusion, goes back to his own truck, gets out his automatic pistol, enters the diner and …

Then the narrator (Lyle Bettger in his role as Sam Larsen, principal investigator for the Court of Last Resort) announces that the charge was murder and the accused was not Juan Morales but his wife Mary and it’s not until quite a bit later in the show that we find out what really happened. Juan waved his gun around and then went up to the diner’s bar and ordered a drink (he’d already been established as at least an incipient alcoholic, his drinking attributed to his troubles at home and his inability either to provide for his wife or pay for medical care for their son) while Mary skulked out in shame, embarrassed at the way her husband had treated her and anxious to get even. She did so by taking the gun herself, first removing its magazine so it (presumably) wouldn’t fire, intending to give her husband “the scare of his life” by holding it on him, only by sheer happenstance she pulled the trigger and the gun went off since Mary hadn’t realized that there would still be one live round in the chamber even though she’d removed all the other bullets. What’s more, the victim was not her husband but a beloved older woman who had just happened to enter the diner at that point.

Larsen investigates the crime and runs into a brick wall composed as much of racism as shame — it seems virtually all the townspeople couldn’t have cared less whether Mary was guilty of murder or manslaughter, and if they didn’t exactly lie on the witness stand they, shall we say, shaded their recollections on the ground that the defendant was a Mexican and “those people” can’t be controlled and need either to go home or be jailed. Given the ferocity of the modern-day Right’s war on so-called “illegal aliens” (and the way Texas Governor Rick Perry’s pursuit of the Republican nomination for President seems to have been derailed by virtually the only compassionate thing he’s ever done in his political career, the granting of in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants), the racism of the townspeople as depicted by screenwriters Max Ehrlich and Arthur Weiss hits home today. What complicates things even further is that Mary Morales requested a local attorney, and Juan Morales wrote the attorney a letter — but since he’d been jailed himself on a minor (and possibly trumped-up) charge, he gave the letter to a sheriff’s deputy and asked him to deliver it to the attorney, and the deputy instead just tore it up and threw it away, so Mary got stuck with a court-appointed counsel and there was reasonable grounds for a reversal on appeal on the ground that she was denied the counsel of her choice.

Eventually Larsen presents his side of the case and demonstrates what happened by bringing in an identical model of gun, taking out the clip, and then firing it out the window while the original judge and prosecutor are meeting with him (being sure to aim at the ground so the bullet still in the gun will land without hurting anyone) — and the judge is sufficiently moved to order a new trial, though frankly I would rather have seen Mary Morales’ conviction downgraded to manslaughter and her sentence commuted to time served. The Court of Last Resort — founded by defense attorney turned successful mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, whose reputation rests mainly on his series of stories featuring super-defense attorney Perry Mason — anticipates the Innocence Project, though in some ways it’s even more remarkable since they functioned before the availability of DNA evidence and their investigator often had to dredge up the records of cases from two decades earlier, with all the problems attendant thereto, like the deaths of key witnesses and the loss of physical evidence. It’s a real pity the show only lasted one season — some of the stories have been quite compelling dramas as well as true incidents — and even more of a pity that a modern-day version probably wouldn’t last much longer in this hard-line, lock-’em-up, “tough on crime” age. — 9/30/11

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wonder Bar (Warner Bros./First National, 1934)

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

Wonder Bar was the one time Busby Berkeley and Al Jolson worked together in the same film. It was based on a 1931 stage musical, also starring Jolson — which, depending on what source I read, was either a modest success or a modest flop — and marked his return to Warners at a time when his career was in the doldrums. His previous film, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (retitled Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp for British release because in English English “bum” is a vulgarism for the human posterior — the retitling being more difficult than usual because the entire opening scene needed to be reshot to a re-recording of the title song with the changed lyric), had been a total failure at the box office and his career needed a pick-me-up badly. Warners obviously had only limited faith in Jolson’s appeal c. 1934 because they packed the film with star power — Jolson played “Al Wonder,” owner and manager of a super-nightclub in Paris; Dick Powell played his bandleader (having those two sets of leather lungs in the same movie gets a bit wearing after a while!); Dolores Del Rio (fresh from starring in Flying Down to Rio at RKO — a film remembered now only as the first Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie) plays the club’s dancing star; Ricardo Cortez plays her on-stage dancing partner, who supplements his living by working as a gigolo off-stage; and Kay Francis plays the married socialite who hangs out at the club.

The plot: both Jolson and Powell have unrequited crushes on Del Rio, who only has eyes for Cortez — who in turn just loves Francis and is trying to seduce her from her husband. For comic relief those two standbys of the Berkeley movies, Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee, play American tourists who keep trying to escape the iron thumbs of their wives (Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly, respectively) — who in turn are anxious to slip away from them to sample the male members of the Parisian demi-monde. (One gigolo attempts to seduce Fazenda by handing her a card — one of a large supply, all with different messages, he carries with him at all times — saying she reminds him of his mother. Frankly, I thought she’d regard that as more insult than invitation.) There are also other indications of this movie’s origins in the waning days of the Hollywood glasnost: in an early scene (excerpted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet) a man approaches a couple on the dance floor and says, “Mind if I cut in?” — whereupon he astounds the woman by dancing off with her boyfriend — and Jolson, surveying the scene from the bandstand, says, “My, my — boys will be boys!” And Wonder Bar is also strikingly reminiscent of Night World, the movie Berkeley made at Universal two years earlier with Boris Karloff as the owner of a nightclub, not only in its subject matter (one night in the life of the club) and Grand Hotel-ish multiple plotting, but also in its darkness.

While it doesn’t end in the bloodbath of Night World (in which, in the space of about three minutes of screen time, the gangsters who have targeted Karloff’s club kill his doorman, Clarence Muse, Karloff himself and his faithless wife, Dorothy Revier, and are about to shoot down the romantic leads — Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke — as well when policeman Robert Emmet O’Connor finally enters the scene and shoots them instead!), Wonder Bar does have a surprisingly noir-ish set of plot twists at the end: Del Rio, jealous because Cortez is about to run off with Francis, stabs him while they’re in the middle of the dance floor doing their act, and in order to get his corpse out of the club and avoid scandal Jolson and one of his assistants put him in the car of a suicidal baron who’s planned to kill himself after spending the last money he has in the world on a night at Wonder Bar — with the result that when the baron deliberately crashes his car later both bodies are found and the police assume they were both killed in an accident.

Berkeley’s contribution to Wonder Bar falls in two numbers, “Don’t Say Goodnight” (one of his typical abstract extravaganzas) and “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule,” the big finale and the one time he ever got to stage a number with Jolson. I’ve always suspected that the racist character of this big blackface number was what kept Wonder Bar from being reissued in the early 1970’s along with many of the other big Berkeley musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935) — though, even though it manages to include just about every conceivable racist stereotype of African-Americans in its tale of Jolson dying and going to an all-Black heaven with his half-donkey, half-horse co-star, it’s also the most convincing and the most imaginative part of the movie, an extravagant fantasy that clearly influenced Bobby Connolly’s finale to Eddie Cantor’s film Kid Millions and the Emerald City sequences in The Wizard of Oz — and it also features Jolson’s most moving and soulful singing in the film. Indeed, Michael Freedland’s Jolson biography suggested that this was the best musical sequence he ever put on film! — 9/7/98


I’d just bought a number of DVD’s from the Turner Classic Movies Web site, including the three movies Al Jolson made for Warner Bros. on the second leg of his contract there — Wonder Bar (1934), Go Into Your Dance (1935) and The Singing Kid (1936) — as well as a number of Marlene Dietrich’s films, including a five-movie box containing three of the Sternbergs (Morocco, 1930; Blonde Venus, 1932; and The Devil Is a Woman, 1934) as well as her Universal film with René Clair directing (The Flame of New Orleans, 1941) and her return to Paramount for Golden Earrings (1947), and another set containing her rarely seen film The Song of Songs (directed by Rouben Mamoulian in 1933 after Paramount decided to try a temporary separation of her and Sternberg) in a box with something Charles and I had recently seen from a TCM showing, This Is the Night (Cary Grant’s first feature film, from 1932, a quite charming Lubitsch-esque comedy directed by Frank Tuttle) — and though Charles and I had seen it years before, I decided to run Wonder Bar. Jolson returned to Warner Bros. in something resembling commercial disgrace — his immediately previous film, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! (United Artists, 1933), had been a box-office disaster (though seen today it’s an uneven but definitely interesting and entertaining movie containing one of the most restrained, almost Chaplin-esque performances of Jolson’s career) — and for his return Warners based the film on a 1931 stage musical in which Jolson had also appeared (though in typical Hollywood practice of the time they used very little of the show besides its title and its central premise, in which Jolson is the owner and star entertainer of a super-nightclub in Paris), which itself had been based on a 1930 German play called Die Wunderbar (that pronunciation is actually heard several times in the movie, possibly because Jolson had almost certainly grown up speaking Yiddish as well as English and thereby lapsed into German-sounding pronunciations at times) by Geza Herczeg and Karl Farkas, with music by Robert Katscher.

Warners commissioned a new score by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), who’d supplied the songs for the big hits Berkeley had been making with Dick Powell and the real-life Mrs. Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade), though according to one of Katscher’s original songs, “Elizabeth (The Queen),” survived as one of the instrumentals played by the band at Wonder Bar when they’re not presenting their floor show. Warners also supplied an all-star cast rather than rely on Jolson as the only — or even the biggest — audience draw, and the plot of the film, scripted by Earl Baldwin, is a sort of musical version of Grand Hotel (also based on a German story!). Al Wonder (Al Jolson) is both the proprietor and the star performer at the Wonder Bar, a super-nightclub in Paris. His main entertainment attraction, other than himself, is the dance team of Harry (Ricardo Cortez) and Inez (Dolores del Rio), who do a waltz number that segues into Busby Berkeley’s super-production of “Don’t Say Goodnight” and later do a surprisingly graphically filmed apache dance which involves Harry flicking a whip at Inez — and, in one closeup, Inez seemingly taking it full in the face, though apparently the whip just misses her because it doesn’t leave any welts. Harry is also a gigolo who abandons Inez — who seems genuinely in love with him, don’t ask why — to chase after Liane Renaud (Kay Francis), wife of banker R. H. Renaud (Henry Kolker). Liane has given Harry a very pricey necklace her husband had given her, and then claimed that she lost it; the husband, whose suspicions have been roused by his wife taking “dancing lessons” from Henry every morning when she had never previously shown any interest in dancing, has hired detectives, and in order to get rid of the necklace and convert it into ready cash Harry sells it to Al Wonder, who in turn gives it to Liane to get her husband off her case.

Meanwhile, Al Wonder has an unrequited crush on Inez (we first see Al in bed with Inez there with him; then the scene dissolves to a shot of Al in bed alone and we realize he’s merely been dreaming that she was with him), and Al’s musical director, Tommy (Dick Powell — the mind reels at those two sets of leather lungs, Jolson’s and Powell’s, both singing in the same film!), is also in love with Inez and wants her to abandon no-good Harry and get together with him instead. As if that weren’t enough plot, there are great comic-relief performances by Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as two American tourists anxious to ditch the wives and find alternative female company for their visit to Paris — while their wives (Ruth Donnelly and the great silent comedienne Louise Fazenda) are equally anxious to ditch them for the affections of a gigolo who comes equipped with pre-written cards with his phone number and a note he thinks will win the heart (or at least the body) of whatever woman he’s after at the moment. The one he uses on them is one that says they remind him of his mother — which would seem to me more of an insult than an invitation, but in the movie it seems to have the desired effect. There’s also an army officer and stockbroker, Captain Hugo von Ferring (Robert Barrat), who’s been ruined in the latest stock-market crash and draws out the last remaining money in his bank account, intending to have one last wild evening at Wonder Bar and then commit suicide by driving his car off a conveniently located cliff.

There’s even more plot to it than that: in one famous scene that was excerpted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, a young man approaches a couple on the dance floor, says, “Mind if I cut in?,” and ignores the woman to dance off with the other man — whereupon Jolson (who apparently, like Humphrey Bogart, was the sort of straight man who was so secure in his own sexuality he didn’t mind making Gay jokes that targeted people who disliked Gays, not Gays themselves; one of Jolson’s biggest hit songs was “Pretty Baby” by the Black Gay New Orleans pianist-composer Tony Jackson) says, “Boys will be boys — woooo!” The various plot lines get resolved when Inez confronts Harry and stabs him with a knife they used in their act — it’s pretty clear that she didn’t intend to kill him, but she does — and to cover for her Al has the body taken out and put in von Ferring’s car so when von Ferring deliberately crashes it, the police will think both men died in an accident. Inez pairs off with Tommy, Liane and her husband reconcile and Al finishes the movie with its most spectacular production number, “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.” Jolson gets two big songs in this movie, and Berkeley supplies two big numbers — one, “Don’t Say Goodnight,” is spectacular enough (the trailer for the film advertised “250 of the World’s Most Beautiful Girls,” though that’s almost certainly an exaggeration, and we see the girls dancing around with movable columns and arranging themselves in the kaleidoscope formation, shot from overhead, that was Berkeley’s trademark) but a little too derivative of what Berkeley had done before.

“Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” is like almost nothing else in movie history, infuriating in the patronizing racism with which it depicts Blacks (though its vision of a heaven in which Uncle Tom, Old Black Joe, the Emperor Jones and Abraham Lincoln — who seems to be the token white person — coexist, and foodstuffs like pork chops, baked chicken and the inevitable watermelon magically appear without any human preparation needed, isn’t all that different from the one in Harry McClintock’s astonishing 1928 recording of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” heard in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, “where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs … and they hung the jerk who invented work,” a whiteface performer recording for a white audience) but also astonishing not only in Berkeley’s visual imagination (he’d almost certainly seen the Fritz Lang Siegfried, since Jolson and his mule ascend to Heaven on the same sort of Rainbow Bridge Lang’s characters used to reach Valhalla) but the sheer soul with which Jolson sings the song. Unlike Eddie Cantor and other contemporaries, who sang in blackface pretty much the same way they did in whiteface (as marvelous as Whoopee! is, Cantor’s performance of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in blackface sounds rather disappointingly like his whiteface singing in the rest of the movie), Jolson didn’t. Of Jolson’s two big numbers in Wonder Bar, one — the opening, “Vive la France” — is done in whiteface, and his voice is a forward-placed high tenor, nervous and shrill, with a fast and often annoying vibrato that makes him sound like he’s on speed. For “Mule,” he drops his register, slows down his vibrato, sings from deeper in his chest and his voice takes on some of the weight and power of the genuine African-American singers on which he was modeling himself.

Despite the use of the word “pickanninny” in the song’s verse (which bothered Charles more than the racist stereotypes in Berkeley’s images!), Jolson sings “Mule” with real eloquence and soul, reminding us that like such later singers and performers as Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Benny Goodman, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray and, of course, Elvis Presley, Jolson brought the sound of Black music to a white audience. In fact, Jolson did it twice, once in 1911 when he suddenly emerged as a Broadway star after a long apprenticeship in minstrel shows, and once in 1946 when he made his late-in-life comeback on the strength of the blockbuster popularity of the biopic The Jolson Story. White audiences that had started to be bored by the bland “crooners” were suddenly electrified by the sound of Jolson’s ballsy, uninhibited style, and he paved the way for later Black-influenced white singers like Laine, Ray and Presley: yes, Jolson was an important part of the prehistory of rock ’n’ roll. Wonder Bar is an amazing movie, nicely balanced between comic, dramatic and musical elements, a last gasp of the relative freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” era (the Code office tried to get Warners to get rid of the Gay sequence, but Warners refused) and, despite the problematic (to say the least!) racial politics of the “Mule” number (which probably kept this from being revived and finding a new audience in the early 1970’s as some of the other Berkeley films did), a worthy showcase for the one on-screen meeting of Al Jolson and Busby Berkeley. — 9/29/11

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anthony Adverse (Warner Bros., 1936)

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

The film was Anthony Adverse, based on a 1,224-page blockbuster novel by one Hervey Allen (who, like Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, seems to have been a 20th century writer deliberately writing in the picaresque 19th century style of people like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray) which was published in 1933 and which, Charles once told me, was such a huge success that its sales single-handedly kept many bookstores from going under during the Depression. The screen rights were acquired by Warner Bros. for $40,000 and their production of an epic-length (141-minute) movie based on a blockbuster novel was the final step in Warners’ winning acceptance as a full-fledged major studio and not just the little company that made those cool gangster movies and musicals. Anthony Adverse has one of the most convoluted plot lines of all time: it begins in Leghorn, Italy, where Spanish nobleman Don Luis (Claude Rains) has gone to bathe in the local spas in order to cure his gout. He’s married to a much younger woman, an Englishwoman named Maria Bonnyfeather (Anita Louise), but she’s sufficiently restive that she’s having an affair with Denis Moore (Louis Hayward) and planning to run away with him — only Don Luis catches them, challenges Denis to a duel and kills him. Maria dies later giving birth to Denis’s child, and Don Luis abandons the baby on the steps of the local convent on St. Anthony’s feast day.

The sisters name the child Anthony and raise him until he’s 10, when local priest Father Xavier (Henry O’Neill) takes him to his grandfather, expatriate British merchant John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), who notices the resemblance and adopts the boy, giving him the last name “Adverse” in recognition of the difficult life he’s had so far. Anthony grows up to be played by Fredric March ­— Warners may have had the resources to produce this story at the level it needed, including elaborate sets and 98 actors (78 of whom have speaking roles), but they still had to go off-lot and hire a freelancer for the title role (though quite frankly Errol Flynn, a Warners contractee who had just rocketed to stardom as a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Robert Donat in Captain Blood, might have actually been a better choice: for all March’s considerable versatility and talent as an actor, he didn’t have the sort of dash the character demanded and Flynn could have brought to it in spades) — and to be a responsible and successful businessman in Bonnyfeather’s operation.

The problem is he was born in 1773, and so he’s sailing into adulthood right at one of the most tumultuous times in European history, with the fall of the monarchy in France and the rise of Napoleon following the Reign of Terror plunging all Europe into war. Love rears its head in the plot at about this point, with Anthony falling in love with Angela Guisseppi (Olivia de Havilland), daughter of Bonnyfeather’s cool and an aspiring opera singer (we find out she has a voice when she and Anthony are taking a carriage ride through the countryside and she suddenly starts singing to the accompaniment of the unseen Warner Bros. studio orchestra — though her voice was actually dubbed by Diana Gaylen). The two are married secretly, but just after they consummate the marriage (through most of the film we’re actually left under the impression that they didn’t do that, but towards the end Angela reappears with a boy she tells Anthony is his son) Anthony is called to Havana to collect a major debt without which the Bonnyfeather business will fold. He leaves a note for Angela outside the convent but it’s blown away in the wind, so he ends up leaving for Havana — and from there he heads for Africa when he finds out that Bonnyfeather’s debtor was a slave trader and the only way he’s going to be able to raise the money to save his grandfather’s business is to enter the slave trade himself.

Anthony ends up spending a miserable three years in Africa, getting rich and having a sort-of affair with native (or at least semi-native) woman Neleta (Steffi Duna) but losing his conscience — monk Brother François (Pedro de Cordoba) is there, ministering to the natives and telling Anthony he should quit the slave trade and leave before he goes over to the dark side completely. But Anthony sticks it out until he’s been there for three years and has made the money to pay off Bonnyfeather’s debt completely, and just as that happens Brother François dies and forgives Anthony his sins literally with his dying breath, enabling Our Hero to go back to Leghorn with a clear conscience. Only once he gets there he finds that John Bonnyfeather is dead and he will inherit the Bonnyfeather fortune if he can get to Paris to claim it. Otherwise the fortune will go to Bonnyfeather’s housekeeper, Faith Paleologus (Gale Sondergaard, who won the first-ever Academy Award for best supporting actress for this role), who in the meantime has hooked up with Don Luis (ya remember Don Luis?) and blackmailed him into marrying her. The two would-be claimants race by coach from Italy to Paris, and Anthony escapes an ambush Don Luis and Faith cooked up to try to kill him. When he gets there, Anthony meets up with an old friend from his days in Leghorn, banker Vincent Nolte (Donald Woods), who needs a large sum of money being held in Mexico for Napoleon, without which both the French government’s finances and his own will collapse. Anthony agrees to put up his own fortune as collateral and to go to the New World in search of the money, but first he wants to find Angela — who proves surprisingly easy to find: she’s still singing (in a quite elaborate opera sequence from a work by Baron Alberto Franchetti, the Puccini contemporary who composed operas as an avocation and allowed the Ricordi music-publishing company to do him out of the rights to Tosca because Ricordi’s executives knew a Puccini Tosca would make them a hell of a lot more money than a Franchetti Tosca would have) but she’s now known as Mademoiselle Georges and is the mistress of Napoleon (Rollo Lloyd).

They meet at her home in the Paris suburb of Passy and she says she can’t see him anymore but he can take her son on his trip to the New World — and for some reason the script makes a big to-do about his never having been there before even though he’s already been to Cuba — and Anthony gets onto an American ship (we see it flying the Stars and Stripes) for a new life with his son (Billy Mauch) in the New World. (Frankly, where I thought this was going was that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo would be the deus ex machina that would free Angela from her ties to him and allow her and Anthony to get back together, even though he’d also be rendered penniless because the collapse of Napoleon’s government would cost him all the money he put up to cover Nolte’s debt.) It’s a surprisingly bittersweet ending for a movie made in 1936, which in addition to being based on a blockbuster novel was a blockbuster itself, making Warners tons of money then and again when they reissued it in 1948 (and tried to take Gale Sondergaard’s name off the credits because her husband was blacklisted Hollywood 10 writer/director Herbert J. Biberman). It certainly established Warners’ ability to produce at the very highest level — the sets are ample and extensive (apparently the entire African slave village was reproduced life-size over 12 acres of the Warners backlot, though earlier Warners’ productions had had equally impressive sets — like the reproduction of Versailles made for the 1934 film Madame Du Barry), though Warners was still cost-conscious enough that as “Havana” they reused the model of Port-Royal they had built for Captain Blood. 

The American Film Institute Catalog lists some of the alternative casting suggestions that were made — including Kitty Carlisle (who at least wouldn’t have needed a voice double!) as Angela, J. Carrol Naish and Humphrey Bogart (!) as Napoleon, Bette Davis as Faith, Freddie Bartholomew as the young Anthony and Edward G. Robinson and Basil Rathbone as Don Luis (either of them would have been fine, but Claude Rains was ideal). Anthony Adverse was originally supposed to have been directed by William Dieterle, who had done such a stylish job with Madame Du Barry, but instead the assignment went to Mervyn LeRoy, mainly because he was married to Harry Warner’s daughter at the time, and the script was credited to Sheridan Gibney although various other scribes, including Milton Krims (who requested credit but lost) and Edward Chodorov, also contributed. Anthony Adverse was a quite well made and stylish film; though nothing in LeRoy’s previous résumé had indicated he could handle an historical spectacle, he acquitted himself quite well — and the film also benefits from a wall-to-wall musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that won him the first of his two Academy Awards (The Adventures of Robin Hood was the other), a gorgeously overripe composition that for once virtually fulfills Jack Warner’s wish that the music start when it says “Warner Bros. Presents” and not stop until it says “The End.” The score is quite good enough one would want to hear it recorded apart from the film — though Charles lampooned it, saying that Korngold had sent Claude Rains off to his healing bath with the sheer amount of sound and fury anyone else would have reserved for the start of a world war.

The problem is the story, which doesn’t seem to have much of a through-line and just flits from incident to incident and dramatic issue to dramatic issue; though the script puts Anthony through a wide variety of dramatic situations, it doesn’t seem like he really grows or changes through them. Not having read the novel (Charles recalled once owning a copy but he never read it, either) I’m not sure whether the fault is Hervey Allen’s or Sheridan Gibney’s et al., but contemporary reviewer Frank S. Nugent sniffed at the final result and said it hadn’t lived up to the promise of the book: he called the film “a bulky, rambling and indecisive photoplay which has not merely taken liberties with the letter of the original but with its spirit . . . For all its sprawling length, [the novel] was cohesive and well rounded. Most of its picaresque quality has been lost in the screen version; its philosophy is vague, its characterization blurred and its story so loosely knit and episodic that its telling seems interminable.”

Comparisons are almost inevitable to Gone With the Wind, another 1930’s blockbuster set against cataclysmic historical events and based on a contemporary novel written (or at least plotted) in 19th century style, but Gone With the Wind holds up far better, partly because of two incandescent performances in the leads, partly because the Civil War is a much bigger and more intimately integrated part of the story of Gone With the Wind than the Napoleonic Wars are of Anthony Adverse, but mostly because even though Gone With the Wind is over an hour longer, the script is better constructed and we don’t get the feeling we sometimes do in Anthony Adverse of wondering why one particular scene is happening after its predecessor instead of the welter of other possibilities the writers had available. It was a well-regarded movie in its day, with four Academy Awards (for Sondergaard, Korngold, cinematographer Tony Gaudio — whose work is black-and-white at its finest, rich in contrasts and utterly luminous, though there are still portions of this film where the sheer beauty and weight of the spectacle leave us wishing for color — and editor Ralph Dawson) and it holds up decently if not spectacularly today.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Phantom Ship (Hammer/Guaranteed, 1935)

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

The film was Phantom Ship, which Charles had downloaded from for two reasons: it was based on the real-life mystery of the Mary Celeste (a derelict ship from New York which was found off the coast of Gibraltar in 1872 with no sign of any crew members, living or dead, on board) and Bela Lugosi was in it. It had some things going for it — like a good cast (including Arthur Margetson, later in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes in Washington and the Orson Welles stage musical based on Around the World in 80 Days, as the Mary Celeste’s captain, and Dennis Hoey — also in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies, as Inspector Lestrade, and Gibson Gowland, McTeague in Stroheim’s Greed, in supporting roles) and marvelously atmospheric and Gothic cinematography by Eric Cross and Geoffrey Faithfull, along with a few chilling moments by screenwriters Denison Clift (who also directed) and Charles Larkworthy, notably a sequence in which in order to avoid a punishment from the captain, a crew member leaps off the mast and goes overboard, and of course the captain refuses to turn the ship around and rescue him. Alas, the script pretty much ignores most of the reality behind the Mary Celeste and also some of the more common myths about it (many of which stem from a short story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote and published about the incident in 1884, just 12 years after it happened) in favor of some pretty hoary old seafaring-movie clichés. In the film the captain, Arthur Briggs (Arthur Margetson), takes along his newly married wife Sarah (the personable Shirley Grey) on his trip after having just won her hand over the rivalry of his best friend, also a captain but one who was willing to stop going to sea and buy a chandler’s (candlemaker’s) shop if she’d married him instead of Briggs. The real Briggs, unlike the movie one, had been married long enough to have had a two-year-old daughter and he took both wife and daughter on his ill-fated trip.

The movie blessedly avoids some of the supernatural explanations that have been offered for the Mary Celeste’s fate but also runs roughshod over the known facts and essentially degenerates into a pretty interminable movie (even though the extant version, the U.S. release, is only 62 minutes long, cut down from a now-lost 80-minute version) in which the plot, to the extent there is one, is the hoary old chestnut about the ship with a maniac on board who’s murdering the other crew members. There’s a hint that the captain and his missus sneaked off before the ship was discovered and everyone else on board died, and in the movie (unlike in real life) some of the corpses of the crew members are found on board by the ship that comes across the wreck and salvages her (though in later court proceedings the salvagers only got one-sixth the value of the Mary Celeste’s cargo — several barrels of pure wood alcohol to be used to fortify wine: that in itself is something of a surprise because I hadn’t realized fortified wine — wine containing additional alcohol added during the bottling process rather than just the alcohol that forms normally during fermentation — existed in the 19th century — indicating there was some suspicion among the members of the Admiralty Court in London that they had been pirates who overpowered the Mary Celeste’s crew and took the cargo by force); also the ship’s lifeboats were destroyed by person or persons unknown early in the voyage, whereas in the real case they were discovered intact and unused.

It’s not much of a movie, and between Shirley Grey singing a couple of songs and accompanying herself at a small organ, and a crew member cranking out sea shanties and accompanying himself on an accordion, it almost qualifies as Mary Celeste: The Musical — and as for Lugosi, this is yet another movie in which the filmmakers wanted his name but didn’t want to wait around for him to learn a long part phonetically, so they cast him as drunken, derelict sailor Anton Lorenzen, a.k.a. A. Gottlieb, and gave him just a few English vocables and grunts here and there, while they made him up to look so disheveled he’s more pathetic than scary. When he’s discovered early on in New York by a tavern owner who puts him on the Mary Celeste because he’s been hired by Briggs to find him a crew by any means necessary, the two reminisce about how he used to be a person of far more impressive stature and dignity than he is now — and I couldn’t help but think, “Yes, my hair was dark then, it was greased back, and I used to have this really cool cape I liked to wear … ”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Honor of the Press (Fanchon Royer/Mayfair, 1932)

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

The film was Honor of the Press, a 1932 Mayfair production that seems to have had roots in the MGM film The Secret Six the year before but otherwise contained a lot of plot gimmicks and devices we’d seen in later films, including the Meet John Doe premise of a millionaire outsider suddenly taking over a failing newspaper, pouring money into it and apparently building it up for some sinister purpose; as well as the “surprise” twist of the 1937 Monogram film The Thirteenth Man in which the publisher himself is the secret boss of the racket the honest people at the newspaper are trying to expose. Honor of the Press is set in the usual carefully unnamed big city, in which the Clarion and the more established Herald are locked in a circulation war which the Clarion is winning because they’re continually scooping the Herald on the crimes committed by the so-called “Gold Baron” and the robbery ring he’s masterminding. They’re also targeting police commissioner Drake (John Ince) and alleging he’s got corrupt ties with the gang and the Herald masterminded his appointment. The plot kicks into gear when Dan Greely (Edward J. Nugent — later in the film the spelling of his name changes to the more familiar “Greeley”) comes in with a letter of recommendation from his former boss at the Wattlesfield Echo, a small-town paper, and city editor Dan Perkins (Russell Simpson) hires him as a new reporter.

The advice columnist, Daisy Tellem (Rita LeRoy) — I presume we’re supposed to think her outrageously phony character name is supposed to be a pseudonym — makes a play for Greely even though she’s already dating the paper’s star reporter, Larry Grayson (Reginald Simpson), who’s responsible for the Gold Baron scoops, while Greely only has eyes for his girlfriend, aspiring actress/singer/dancer June Bonner (Dorothy Gulliver), who’s working as a hat-check girl at a local hotel and waiting for the Big Break. Greely is suspicious of how Grayson is getting the big stories — he thinks Grayson is either part of the Gold Baron’s gang or is getting tips from a member which he responsibly should be passing on to the police to prevent the crimes instead of using them to write about them — and his suspicions are confirmed when Greely attends a big fundraiser being given at the hotel where June works, the Gold Baron’s minions hold it up and steal the attendees’ ultra-valuable jewels, and he sneaks his way to the phone in the hat-check booth and uses it to call in to his paper, only to find that Grayson has already phoned in the story — something he couldn’t have done without advance knowledge of the crime.

There’s a nice subplot in which Greely suggests to the paper’s photographer, “Sorry” Simpson (Franklin Parker), that he use June for a glamour layout in hopes of getting her image out there and helping boost her showbiz career (“You want to lose her that bad?” says “Sorry,” well aware of what happens — at least in the movies — when the person you’re dating suddenly becomes a star), and a final gimmick in which June reads every fifth word of Daisy’s latest column, discovers a hidden love message from Daisy to June’s boyfriend — and Greeley (as he’s spelling his name by then) realizes that the paper has been used as an instrument by the crooks, and publisher Roger Bradley (Wheeler Oakman) is the Gold Baron and has been using a column he writes personally, “Nuggets of Wisdom,” to communicate messages to the gang of where to strike next and where and how to divide the loot after a successful job. Bradley and Grayson are arrested and the Clarion continues its work, with Perkins still as editor and aware of the massive job he’s going to have to do to rehabilitate the reputation of the Clarion.

Honor of the Press has some intriguing aspects — notably a long speech about what the “honor of the press” actually consists of and the need for responsible journalism as a public service — and though it’s otherwise not much of a movie, it’s a quite good one for an early-1930’s indie and it puts some fresh spins on newspaper-movie clichés that hadn’t quite hardened into clichés yet, notably the novelty of having the newspaper itself being used as a conduit for secret messages between an incognito criminal boss and his staff. It’s quite nicely directed by action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason, who co-directed The Phantom Empire three years later (and again used Wheeler Oakman as a clandestine villain!) from a story by M. L. Simmons and J. K. Foster with “dialogue and scenario” by John T. Neville, and though Eddie Nugent’s naïveté gets annoying after a while, the two women are quite good and so is Russell Simpson — playing perhaps the only city editor in movie history who smoked a pipe!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Town Without Pity (Mirisch/United Artists, 1961)

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

The film was Town Without Pity, which was made in 1961 by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists release and produced and directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, son of the legendary German stage director Max Reinhardt (who fled the Nazis in 1933 because he was Jewish, settled in the U.S. and restaged his famous German-language production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English on stage in 1934 and on film for Warner Bros. in 1935) and father of Stephen Reinhardt, the U.S. federal appeals judge in charge of the three-judge panel currently hearing the Proposition 8 appeal. It was based on a novel called The Verdict by Manfred Gregor which was “adapted” by Jan Lustig and turned into a screenplay by George Hurdalek and Silvia Reinhardt (whose precise family relationship to Gottfried isn’t specified on — his wife, I presume, since the site acknowledges that she was three years older than he and born in New York City in 1910 under the name Sylvia Hanlon).

It’s a tale centered around a U.S. military base in West Germany, and the action kicks off when four U.S. soldiers, frustrated when the local Florida Bar’s barmaids haven’t yet arrived (it’s 6 and they don’t come to work until 7), go walking through the woods and come upon a couple of young German adolescents, Frank Borgmann (Gerhart Lippert) and Karin Steinhof (Christine Kaufmann, billed as “introducing … ” in her first film for a U.S. producer; on her next film, Taras Bulba, she would fall in love with co-star Tony Curtis and he’d leave his wife, Janet Leigh, and marry her). They’re more or less necking in the woods — in a reversal from the way this sort of scene is usually presented, she’s pressing him to become more sexually aggressive and küss mir in the way she really wants to be küssen — and she ultimately denounces him as a mama’s boy (a woman narrator — who’s actually a character in the film, though we don’t know that until later — tells us that he and his mother live alone because his dad was killed in World War II and he has no other family).

He dives into the lake on whose shore they’d been necking, and the four G.I.’s — Jim Larkin (Robert Blake, whose casting as a criminal here as in In Cold Blood is now unintentionally a bit chilling given that he was actually tried, though acquitted, of the murder of his wife), Birdwell “Birdie” Scott (Richard Jaeckel), Chuck Snyder (Frank Sutton) and Joey Haines (Mal Sondock) — come upon her and gang-rape her. Needless to say, the town where the base is located is in an uproar and Karin’s father, Karl Steinhof (Hans Nielsen) — who looks for all the world like all those clueless middle-aged bureaucrats with German names who inhabited the cast lists of the later Universal Frankenstein movies and regularly got killed off by the monster — is especially pissed. Though (West) Germany didn’t have the death penalty, the U.S. military did for crimes committed by its personnel under its jurisdiction, and the townspeople, led by burgomaster [mayor] (Egon von Jordan), demand it. The base commander assigns Col. Jerome Pakenham (E. G. Marshall, who would later play an attorney on the other side of the bar in the TV show The Defenders) to prosecute the case and brings in Major Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas) to defend it.

Most of the rest of the movie takes place in the local high-school gym, which the burgomaster has made available to the Army so the court-martial can be held in public, and Garrett — whose “outsider” status has been made clear when he’s seen making his entrance driving onto the base in a Chevrolet convertible with the film’s theme song (written by Dimitri Tiomkin — who also did the background score and based virtually all the music on the melody of his song — with words by Ned Washington, and sung by Gene Pitney, the sort of high-voiced falsetto male singer who was popular then; one critic dissed him by saying, “Gene Pitney hits notes so high only dogs and recording engineers can hear them”) — is assigned the defense. The trial gets underway, and Garrett alternates between dodging interviews with Inge Körner (Barbara Rütting), a reporter for the German magazine Globus who (it turns out) is the owner of the narrator’s voice we’ve been listening to off and on since the film began; representing his clients as best he can — mainly by savaging the reputation and the morals of Karin, the complaining witness — and trying to get the trial to stop by asking Karl to agree to a plea bargain that will spare the four soldiers the death penalty, in exchange for which Karin won’t have to testify and face the withering cross-examination he intends to give her, since under some legal quirk in the proceedings the soldiers can only be sentenced to death if Karin testifies and undergoes cross-examination.

Karl says he isn’t interested in any deal — Karin isn’t involved in the decision herself partly because she’s 16 and partly because she’s spent most of the movie in hospital (in a large, rather dowdy building called “Stadt Krankenhaus,” which simply means “City Hospital”) and has emerged only to testify — and so Garrett goes ahead with his cross-examination and so effectively tears away at her morals she ends up looking like a common slut/whore. The military judges sentence the defendants to prison terms ranging from 6 to 25 years, and Frank (ya remember Frank?) decides to flee the “town without pity” and take Karin with him — only he decides to finance the trip by forging a check on his mother’s account, and mom catches him, turns him in and has him arrested. Karin kills herself from the shame, and Garrett drives away again, presumably sadder and wiser from the experience, though given that Kirk Douglas has played virtually all his role in that spitting-his-lines-through-clenched-teeth manner he used to express extreme emotional anguish, it’s kind of hard to tell.

The parallels between this movie and Paths of Glory — which also cast Douglas as an officer mounting an unpopular defense of enlisted-man defendants in a controversial court-martial — are all too obvious; we’re evidently supposed to read the Douglas character’s moral dilemma (do I destroy the credibility of a rape victim on the witness stand or do I risk letting my clients fry?) as equivalent to the situation in Paths of Glory (in which the Douglas character is trying to hold his superior officers to account for a suicidal attack they ordered, and are now prosecuting and threatening to hang three soldiers as scapegoats to cover up their own arrogance and idiocy), but we don’t buy it. As Charles pointed out, all too much of Town Without Pity seems to have been constructed to take advantage of the gradual weakening of the Production Code to the point where you could now say “rape” in a movie instead of covering it with the euphemism “criminal assault” (we recall one unintentionally funny moment in a movie in which a woman’s body is found with so many knife wounds she might as well have been a pincushion, and one of the cops says, “Any sign of criminal assault?” “No,” replies his partner, and Charles said, “Right, she just accidentally walked into a meatgrinder”) and could depict its consequences for the victim and her family with at least some degree of accuracy.

Charles said that dated the movie, but in some ways the freedom of the Douglas character to bring up Karin’s previous history to destroy her credibility on the stand dates it even more; this film shows just how vicious a rape prosecution could get for the victim before feminist activists won changes in the law that set limits on the ability of defense attorneys to use the sorts of slimeball tactics with which Douglas’s character wins his case in the film. Town Without Pity also suffers from an excess of melodramatic intensity — it’s the sort of movie that, on a one-to-10 scale, starts at 11 and gradually ratchets it up to the low 20’s — and from an unintentionally funny musical score that stays so resolutely on the melody of That Song that it seems as if it’s the only piece any musician in town actually knows. We hear it arranged in all sorts of fashions, from the vocal version by Gene Pitney to a more-or-less conventional film-music style with strings to a jazz version with sleazy saxophones to a rather haunting knock-off of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans big-band records. It’s a good song (it actually won the Golden Globe award for best song over “Moon River”!) but we get awfully tired of it after a while — though at least it steered Dimitri Tiomkin from the overwrought 1,001-strings style with which he usually wrote film scores.

Also, as Charles pointed out, from the way the film is written and staged there’s utterly no reason for it to take place in Germany — it could happen virtually anywhere there is a U.S. military base, including any U.S. state that didn’t have capital punishment. The writers utterly fail to suggest any lingering antagonisms from the fact that less than 20 years earlier the U.S. and Germany were fighting a war against each other — which in a real-life situation like this would have to have colored their attitudes towards having the U.S. military there at all and especially towards having U.S. servicemembers being put on trial by U.S. authorities for a crime committed against a German — especially with the further irony that the reason the U.S. maintained bases throughout Germany at the time was presumably to defend it against the Soviet Union, which had been a U.S. ally against Germany in World War II. Town Without Pity is decent (or slightly indecent) entertainment that aspires to be much, much more and falls short of its higher aspirations and of the films that had blazed this trail before — not only Paths of Glory but also Anatomy of a Murder, which had depicted rape honestly (and under its real name) two years earlier and considerably more effectively.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (MGM, 1954)

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

For some reason, the San Diego Public Library scheduled as their “Schlock Cinema” item on Wednesday, September 21, not one of the cheap horror or sci-fi “B” movies that usually get shown under rubrics like that, but Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a highly regarded 1954 MGM musical Western that was a big box-office hit “in the day” and actually outgrossed other MGM musicals made that year, including Brigadoon (MGM had skimped on the budget for Seven Brides to have more money to spend on Brigadoon, which had the pre-tested value of being based on a stage hit and also had a more prestigious male lead, Gene Kelly instead of Howard Keel). It was produced by Jack Cummings (generally considered the least of the three major MGM musical producers — the others were Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak) and directed by Stanley Donen, who’d done his best work to that point co-directing with Gene Kelly on On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain and directing Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. Seven Brides was based on the old Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women as told in the biography of Romulus, the supposed founder of Rome, in Plutarch’s Lives. 

Having set up their new city in territory already occupied by the Sabines (plus ça change, plus ça meme chose), Romulus and his other male followers realized that they weren’t going to be able to continue their community past their own lifetimes unless they got some women in there and had sex with them so they could create a future generation of Romans. The Sabines wanted to keep their womenfolk away from the Romans to make sure they didn’t get to found a competing community, so the Romans planned to kidnap some of the Sabine women and staged a fake “festival” to lure the Sabines and some of the other local clans out of their own cities so the Romans could take their women. Though the incident has gone down in the history books as a “rape,” the Roman historian Livy insisted that none of the Sabine women were ever forced to have sex with Roman men; instead, time, proximity and the success of the Roman men in fighting off the Sabines when they tried to recapture the women worked its way, the Roman men and the Sabine women eventually paired off and Rome was on its way to its historical destiny, but only after a few more brutal battles with its neighbors. This story was a favorite subject of artists, including the Italian sculptor Giambologna, the French painter Nicholas Poussin, Peter-Paul Rubens, Jacques-Louis David and Pablo Picasso.

It also attracted the American writer Stephen Vincent Benét, who produced a short story called “The Sobbin’ Women” (a truly awful pun) parodying it. Benét set his version in 1850’s Oregon and, as adapted for the screen by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, with Dorothy Kingsley, it turned the Romans into the seven Pontipee (an oddly scatological character name for a Production Code-era film!) brothers: Adam (Howard Keel), Benjamin (Jeff Richards), Caleb (Matt Mattox), Daniel (Marc Platt), Ephraim (Jacques D’Amboise), Frankincense a.k.a. Frank (Tommy Rall) and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn). The brothers are rowdy, uncouth and filthy, leaving huge piles of dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, and of course this being a 1950’s movie none of the men can cook worth a darn, so Adam sets out for the nearest town determined to bring back a wife who’ll set his house in order and keep it running smoothly. (This part of the plot line seems to have been inspired, shall we say, by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which the first thing Snow White does after she crashes the dwarfs’ cabin is give it a thorough cleaning.)

The sight of Howard Keel striding down the streets of an Oregon frontier town bellowing the song “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” by Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer and cruising every female he sees, whether she’s married, otherwise “spoken for” or even alive (in a gag the filmmakers might have borrowed from Calamity Jane, released the previous year, one of the “women” he’s cruising turns out to be a mannequin), is one of the most joyous openings a musical has ever had — and shows off Keel to his best advantage. Keel was a striking screen presence and an excellent show singer, but he also had a macho swagger about him that made him difficult to cast, especially as the sort of romantic male lead of most musical stories back then — one thinks of him as the sort of man who’d just grab a woman he wanted instead of approaching her slyly and seducing her as his Show Boat character does (one of many reasons why MGM’s 1951 Show Boat, despite some good elements — notably color, Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead as the show boat’s proprietors, William Warfield as Joe and Ava Gardner as Julie, even though her voice was dubbed and either Judy Garland or Lena Horne could have played it far, far better — is so far inferior to the 1936 version from Universal with Allan Jones, Irene Dunne, the incomparable Helen Morgan and the equally incomparable Paul Robeson). What’s good about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that the macho swagger that made Keel hard to take in softer, more romantic musical roles works beautifully for him here: one sees him striding down those streets, literally believing that acquiring a wife is no different from buying a bag of flour, and one joys in the sheer obliviousness of his machismo while also waiting for him to be taught some valuable life lessons, including that one about women being people.

Anyway, Adam Pontipee gets his wife, Milly (Jane Powell, top-billed), when he sees her chopping up a log for firewood and also serving a huge number of people in the bar where she works and also lives, since her parents own it. Milly accepts Adam’s proposal partly because it means she doesn’t have to marry any of the bar regulars, all of whom have been hitting on her, and partly because she assumes that her new life will be just her, Adam and any children that might come along later in the natural course of events. She’s quickly disabused of those notions and finds herself still being worked to the bone, and she insists that the Pontipee brothers shave off their beards and dress in clean clothes, including their underwear (the scene in which she forces them to take off their long johns so she can wash them is a delightful bit of Code-bending). She also won’t let Adam sleep in the same bed with her until he cleans up his act. The other Pontipee brothers decide they like the idea of a wife so much that each wants one for himself, and so they go to town looking for women — only their boorishness turns off every one they approach. Milly tries to teach them to court properly before the next big event, a combination barn dance and barn raising, and the Pontipee boys actually get some of the local girls interested in them — only the hostility of the townspeople towards them leads to a huge fight in which the newly raised barn collapses again, and the Pontipees’ reputation among the townspeople is back to less than zero.

It’s already been established that Milly brought two books along with her, the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives, and the boys read the story of the Sabine women and decide to do the same thing: they go into town, kidnap the six girls they’re interested in and use the conveniently located “Echo Pass” to trigger an avalanche so the townspeople can’t get to them for four months, until spring comes and the pass thaws out again. What they didn’t do was kidnap a minister to marry them — the original plan — and so Milly forces the men to sleep in the barn and runs the main house as a women’s safe space. She also gets herself pregnant (so she must have let Adam have sex with her at least once), and when the spring thaw arrives and the townspeople prepare to invade the Pontipee homestead and take back their women by force — and the audience wonders how on earth the writers are going to write themselves out of the hole they’ve written themselves into and still stay within the Production Code — Adam’s and Milly’s newborn baby (a girl, which has softened Adam’s heart and made him realize that he wouldn’t want his daughter kidnapped, so his brothers should let the townswomen go) cries, the townspeople ask whose baby is it, Adam’s brothers answer in unison, “Mine!,” and so a mass shotgun wedding is held and all seven brothers have their seven brides as we fade out.

The main reason the San Diego Public Library seems to have shown this as “Schlock Cinema” (though we actually watched it on a DVD at home) is the outrageously “politically incorrect” character of the story, though what could have been a rancidly sexist tale is actually well balanced: Milly, as played by Jane Powell, is tough, spunky and quite willing to order the menfolk around if that’s what it’s going to take to protect the rights of the women, and though based on her work in Calamity Jane Doris Day might have been even better in the role, Powell is certainly good enough despite an odd mismatch between her speaking and singing voices (she sounds like she has a voice double even though she doesn’t!). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers works partly because of the excellent chemistry between the leads (despite MGM’s attempt to make a star team of Keel and Kathryn Grayson, he and Powell play off each other a lot better than he and Grayson ever did) and partly because of the stunning ensemble dances Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd designed.

Though some of the Pontipees were cast with ballet-trained dancers (Ephraim was played by Jacques D’Amboise, whose opening credit announced he was on loan from the New York City Ballet!), Donen told Kidd from the get-go that the one thing he didn’t want the dancing in the film to have was any hint of ballet. What Kidd gave him was the famous barn-dance sequence, which probably owed a lot to Aaron Copland’s similarly “Western” ballet Rodeo (choreographed by Agnes De Mille and premiered in 1942) and is irresistibly athletic and stunningly staged to take advantage of the wide CinemaScope screen format. (Though this sequence is used by Turner Classic Movies as one of the examples of the harm done by panning-and-scanning widescreen films for the home TV format, Seven Brides was actually filmed twice: in the morning the cast and crew shot with a CinemaScope-equipped camera and in the afternoon they shot with a regular-format camera to create a version that could play in theatres that hadn’t yet installed the wide screen, stereo sound system and CinemaScope projector lenses needed to show CinemaScope films. By the time the movie was ready for release, though, so many theatres had set up for CinemaScope that the alternate version wasn’t needed, and it moldered in the MGM vaults until the 1990’s, when TCM showed it and it eventually ended up as a bonus item on the official DVD.)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the sort of movie that was probably a guilty pleasure both for its makers — the writers, director Donen, choreographer Kidd, the cast and songwriters DePaul and Mercer all clearly relished the thought of letting their hair down and creating something rustic and homespun instead of something sleek, sophisticated and urban — and for its audience: it’s the sort of outrageous movie you shouldn’t really like, but you do.