Thursday, October 27, 2011

Godzilla vs. Megalon (Toho, 1973)

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

Last night I went through our back files of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and got out their version of Godzilla vs. Megalon — I’d pretty much avoided watching their parodies of Japanese monster movies because the films are oppressive enough au naturel, but they turned out to be genuinely inspired by this one. The plot is a bit less pretextual than usual but is still hardly the most important aspect of this film: it begins with a huge nuclear test that triggers earthquakes all over Japan (with the memory of the Fukushima disaster still fresh I recalled the tsunami and sang, to the tune of “High Hopes,” “Whoops! There goes another nuclear plant!”) and gives us a lot of spectacular footage even though some of it looks like the bomb was wrapped in fireworks to give it a really cool-looking third-stage effect. Then we get a quick glimpse of Monster Island, which seems to be the bullpen where the Toho monsters rest up between movies, and after that we finally meet our first human characters: eccentric inventor Goro Ibuki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), his brother (who lives with him, for some reason) Rokuro (Hiroyuke Kawase) and an obnoxious little kid (I think he’s supposed to be the inventor’s son, though I wasn’t sure which of these nice-looking but boring young actors was supposed to have sired him), whom we see in the water, paddling a weird craft that looks like a giant duck with two miniature dolphins tied to each side to serve as propellers.

The earthquake caused by the nuclear test (ya remember the nuclear test?) causes a whirlpool that sucks the aquatic toy down to the bottom before that entire part of the Sea of Japan dries up and becomes land, though (unfortunately, if your tolerance for movie-kid glucose is as low as mine) the child escapes. The inventor is building a robot called “Jet Jaguar” (I’m not making this up, you know!) that about two-thirds of the way through the movie develops the ability to change size from that of a normal human being to that of Godzilla — a capability that seems to surprise everyone in the movie, including the character who supposedly invented it. The robot turns out to be needed when the Emperor Antonio (Robert Dunham), ruler of the underwater kingdom of “Seatopia,” which supposedly was once on the surface but sank like Atlantis or Lemuria (both of which inspired much better movies than this!), decides to seek revenge on the earthlings whose nuclear tests have already (unknowingly) destroyed one-third of Seatopia by letting loose their guardian monster, Megalon — and the robot (not any of the people!) gets the bright idea of going to Monster Island and summoning Godzilla, who as in a lot of his later films actually appears here on the side of good, to join him in battling Megalon.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is tacky as only a Japanese monster movie can be — there are a lot of ways a movie can be bad, but the people at Toho Studios seem to have worked out an utterly unique one filmmakers in other countries have never been able to duplicate (and remember this was when Akira Kurosawa was under contract to Toho, so the studio was making some of the worst movies of all time and using the profits from them to subsidize some of the best movies of all time) — and it’s got some cool vehicles, including the dune buggy the inventor and his oddball family ride in (swapped midway through the film for a Volkswagen 1600 fastback — one oddity Charles noted is that nobody in this Japanese movie seems to be driving a Japanese car, though I joked that was because they were exporting all of them), as well as a pretty irrelevant subplot involving a pair of thugs who want to steal the robot and to that end kidnap the inventor and the boy and lock them in a freight container for a couple of reels or so until they escape (the MST3K crew joked that one of the thugs looked like Oscar Wilde — it must have been the hair) — the movie is also about half over before we see the monsters fighting, which is what we came for, and the action is pretty ineptly staged, but there’s a kind of comfortable old-school feeling to these movies, with their refreshingly non-gory battles (they were appealing to an audience of children, after all) and their overall air of cheery ineptitude, as if the people making these movies knew exactly where they fit into the overall scheme of things in the movie industry and were, in a way, savoring just how bad these movies could be without crossing the line over into utter unwatchability.

The MST3K crew were especially inspired by this one, particularly in the dance sequence in the Seatopian court (where they decided, based on the peaked hats the female dancers were wearing, that this was a ballet version of the Ku Klux Klan) and in the final segment, in which they took the action song at the end of the film, “Gojira to Jetto Jagâ de Panchi Panchi Panchi”  (“With Godzilla and Jet Jaguar, Punch Punch Punch”) — which for some reason the U.S. distributor, a company called Cinema Shares (shares what? Your pain? Your disappointment that this isn’t a better movie?) left in Japanese even though the rest of the film is (typically badly) dubbed in English — and added subtitles that purported to translate it and actually mocked it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (Warners, 1937)

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

Charles downloaded his old résumé from my computer before we turned in and ran a movie, Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde, made at Warners in 1937 just after Fly Away Baby. This was a considerably duller movie than Fly Away, Baby, too, despite a quite promising opening: Torchy (Glenda Farrell) is on a plane, sitting next to a mysterious woman, Theresa Gray (Natalie Moorhead). A porter comes by and gives them both telegrams, but he gives each one to the wrong woman, so Theresa receives the one from police detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) that he’ll marry her as soon as she gets back in town, while Torchy receives one meant for Theresa from her lover, “Harvey,” breaking off their affair. “Harvey” turns out to be actor Harvey Hammond, who becomes involved in a plot hatched by Torchy’s rival reporters who, fearing they’ll be shut out of police stories when Torchy marries McBride, decide to embarrass her by hiring Hammond to fake his own death so she’ll report his murder — and a competing newspaper owned by Theresa’s husband Mortimer Gray (Charles Wilson) will discredit her by reporting him as alive and well. Only somebody takes advantage of this elaborate plot to kill Harvey for real, and Torchy and McBride spend six surprisingly slow-paced reels trying to figure out who.

As the American Film Institute Catalog summarizes it, “The suspects in his death are Grace Brown, an actress in Hammond’s company; her boyfriend Hugo Brand; Mrs. Jenny Hammond, who was jealous of Hammond’s love for Grace; and Theresa Gray, Hammond’s discarded lover” — though the real killer scenarists Robertson White and David Diamond decided on was Mortimer Gray, Theresa’s husband, who was jealous of Hammond for seducing and abandoning Mrs. Gray. It’s a dénouement that strains credibility and hardly seems worth waiting for — and though Frank McDonald repeated as director this is hardly an effort in the same league as Fly Away Baby, which had a faster pace as well as a genuinely mysterious plot and a much more credible ending. (Incidentally the American Film Institute Catalog claims that the plot of Adventurous Blonde is similar to that of Back in Circulation, released by Warners just two months earlier — but aside from the fact that both stories deal with a reporter proving an adulterous wife innocent of murder I detected no particular similarities, and the pathos of Back in Circulation — both in the suspect’s character and in that of the reporter, who puts her job on the line since her editor is convinced the woman is guilty and wants her to write it that way — is totally absent here.) — 6/18/03


Charles and I didn’t get back until well past 9:30 and we only had time for a short movie: Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (at least that’s what the title is in the credits and in the American Film Institute Catalog; TCM’s schedule listed it simply as Adventurous Blonde), third in the series (I had a few of them scattered on sporadic videotapes but I took advantage of TCM’s decision last June 30 — the anniversary of Glenda Farrell’s birthday — to tape them all in sequence) and one I think Charles and I had seen before even though I don’t have a log entry for it on my “Movies” Zip disc. It came right after the dazzlingly inventive Fly Away Baby and suffered from the comparison; it deals with the attempt of reporters for rival papers to discredit both Torchy Blane and her cop fiancé, Lt. Steve McBride of the homicide division (Barton MacLane, about whose performances in these films William K. Everson wrote that his “main concession to his playing of the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum”) by bribing actor Harvey Hammond (Leland Hodgson) to pose as a corpse, so Torchy will report his murder and then get shamed out of the business when he turns up alive — only someone takes advantage of this situation to kill him for real (don’t you just hate it when that happens?).

 Adventurous Blonde wasn’t much of an entry in the series — it missed the relative audacity of Fly Away Baby and the Warners’ backstage atmosphere of the first one, Smart Blonde (which benefited majorly from the presence of the great Wini Shaw in the cast), and the sight of Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane making out in the back of a taxi is hardly stimulating or particularly erotic (one wants to walk into the screen and tell her, “You could certainly do a lot better than him!”), but the film is fun even though the mystery isn’t all that mysterious and it doesn’t help the whodunit status of this story that Torchy gets the key clue even before any of the other principals are introduced (on a train coming back to New York City from the ending of Fly Away Baby she runs into a married woman who was having an affair with Hammond, which he had just broken off by telegram, and not at all surprisingly the killer turns out to be the rival publisher whose reporters organized the “fake” Hammond death, who was also the husband of Hammond’s paramour). This one was pretty routinely written (by Robertson White and David Diamond) and directed (by Frank McDonald), but Glenda Farrell in full cry is always fun to watch and she really “makes” this movie. — 7/4/04


This morning TCM was running a series of Warners “B”’s and I watched one I’d seen before, Adventurous Blonde, a 1937 entry in the Torchy Blane series that features a particularly insidious prank played on New York Express writer Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell in a role perfectly suited to her rambunctious acting style and rapid delivery of dialogue) by reporters on the rival paper, the Globe. The Globe reporters pay $500 to actor Harvey Hammond (Leland Hodgson), whose new play is about to open on Broadway, to pose as “dead” for a publicity stunt. The idea is that Blane and her boyfriend, homicide detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane, anybody’s idea of a romantic leading man … in a nightmare), will discover the “body,” a former deputy coroner will pronounce him “dead,” Blane will phone in the story to her paper — and then the Globe will scoop the world with the news that Hammond is really alive.

Only — as anyone who’d seen more than three movies in his or her life might have guessed — while Hammond is lying on his living-room floor, a stocking (which he’s supposed to have been strangled with) around his neck, someone comes in, tightens the stocking and actually kills him. The films relied on the old gimmick of Torchy and McBride’s wedding plans constantly being interrupted by one case or another, though as William K. Everson wrote in The Detective in Film, “they were such an ill-matched couple that audiences were hardly holding their breath awaiting the union.” He added, “Barton MacLane’s main concession to his playing the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum.” (Probably MacLane’s best movie was The Maltese Falcon, in which he didn’t do much shouting — probably first-time director John Huston told him to calm it down — but still managed to express his cop character’s utter loathing for his nemesis, private eye Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart.)

The writers, Robertson White and David Diamond, cheated a bit by opening the film on a plane which Torchy is taking to New York; she’s sitting next to a mystery woman and the on-board steward (back when they were still men!) hands them both telegrams, and they realize he’s mixed them up so each got the other’s message — and the message Torchy reads was that the woman has been having an affair with a man named Harvey but he’s breaking it off. Of course, the man is Harvey Hammond and the woman is Theresa Gray (Natalie Moorhead), wife of Globe publisher Mortimer Gray (Charles Wilson). Hammond, it seems, is such an ardent pursuer of women other than the one he’s been married to for over 20 years (Virginia Brissac) that he’s dumped Theresa for the leading lady in his new play, Grace Brown (Anne Nagel), who’s in love with the play’s second lead, Hugo Brand (Anderson Lawlor) — as part of the fake “death” of Harvey Hammond, the wife posed as a disabled aunt and Hugo and Grace as the actor’s butler and the “aunt”’s nurse, respectively — he’s left a lot of women in his wake and a lot of disgruntled people of both genders with one of the most powerful motives there is to want him dead.

Both the Express and the Globe make offers to the women in the case to print their “confessions” to the crime, and Torchy actually gets a confession from Theresa Gray — but it’s actually a ruse to entrap her husband, publisher Mortimer Gray, who turns out to be the real killer since he was mad at Hammond for seducing his wife. The Torchy Blane series films are quite good in their lighthearted way — the American Film Institute Catalog notes the similarity in plot to the film Back in Circulation (which also used the gimmick of a reporter being entrapped to print a false story) but the two movies have little else but that gimmick in common — and though Warners made a mistake in doing two of them with actresses other than Glenda Farrell as Torchy (Lola Lane in Torchy Blane in Panama and a young and clearly uncomfortable Jane Wyman in Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite), the films are fun and exciting; this one was directed by Frank McDonald but it doesn’t really matter who made them because they’re all in the zippy Warners house style and their fast pace matches Farrell’s performances. — 10/26/11

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rich Relations (Cameo/Imperial, 1937)

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

The film last night was Rich Relations, a 1937 production from an independent company variously known as Cameo and Imperial — the credits of the print we were watching said Imperial but the American Film Institute Catalog identifies Cameo as the producing studio and Imperial as the distributor — the same outfit that gave us the rather dubious but not totally uninteresting 1935 thriller (at least in intent) Murder by Television with Bela Lugosi. Rich Relations was available for download from and I was interested in it because it featured two actors I particularly like but who, for whatever reasons, never became major stars, Ralph Forbes (who played the Pinkerton role in the 1926 Mr. Wu, essentially a rewrite of Madama Butterfly only set in China instead of Japan, and with the heroine’s father not only very much alive but actually the male lead, and who starred in the marvelous 1933 film The Phantom Broadcast) and Barry K. Norton (an Anglo-looking but Argentinian-born actor equally at home in English and Spanish; he played the David Manners role in the Spanish version of the 1930 Dracula and was the juvenile male lead in Frank Capra’s 1933 Lady for a Day).

Unfortunately, Rich Relations turned out to be one of those mediocre movies which timidly went where hundreds of movies (and no doubt thousands of novels and stage plays before that!) had gone before. Produced and directed by Clifford Sanforth from a script compiled (it’s hard to say “written”!) by Joseph O’Donnell, Rich Relations tells the story of one Nancy Tilton (Frances Grant, a personable but uncharismatic young actress), who applies for a job as secretary and stenographer at an insurance company office run by Dave Walton (Ralph Forbes). She gets the job less because of any intrinsic talent (in an inventive opening montage that’s director Sanforth’s most creative work in the film, she’s shown as part of a split screen with three other applicants for the job and then another effects shot showing how many other people are applying, jobs being as hard to come by in that era’s depression as they are in the current one.

Once she’s hired, she’s plunged into a sexual maelstrom that’s the most fascinating aspect of this film: in this era of hyper-concern about “sexual harassment” it’s odd, to say the least, to be flashed back to a time when women in the workplace were expected to endure sexual advances from men in the same workplace as part of the cost of being allowed to work at all — and what’s more, they had to carefully juggle the adverse potential consequences to their careers of saying no or saying yes. Nancy soon learns that the reasons she got the job have nothing to do with her talents, such as they may be; the office Don Juan, Don Blair (Barry K. Norton), wanted her on the staff because she’s got red hair (though, this being a black-and-white film, we have to take that on faith) and redheads turn him on (though after a while we get the impression that anything human, female and not too much older than he turns him on!), while Dave Walton wanted her because he was under the impression that she was one of the “Chicago Tiltons,” a rich family, and he reasons that a woman who doesn’t have to work for economic reasons will be better at her job.

Unfortunately, the film squanders a potentially interesting premise and becomes a quite ordinary romantic-triangle movie in which Nancy is torn between Dave and Don — at one point, anticipating the brutal and almost sadistic tactics of the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire characters in Holiday Inn, Don picks Nancy up at her home while she’s about to go on a date with Dave, takes her for a drive, promises to bring her back before Don is scheduled to come by, then pretends to have car trouble — he tells her the car has already lost a cylinder and might lose another two any moment (and there’s a knowing wink between him and the gas-station attendant who, of course, knows what B.S. this is) — and there’s a complication in that Don was already having an affair with another woman at the office, a blonde named Trixie Lane (Muriel Evans). Trixie is understandably jealous of Nancy and anxious to break Nancy and Don up. Meanwhile, Don has introduced Nancy to his parents, and they’ve assumed that she’s one of the “Chicago Tiltons,” while she’s been very careful all movie to avoid saying she is but also to avoid saying she isn’t. The real Tiltons, who’ve been in Europe all this time, suddenly return to Chicago and Nancy is worried that her not-quite-imposture is going to be revealed. There’s a byplay involving a purse misplaced by one of the other employees that turns up on Nancy’s desk, and she’s accused of stealing it but Don stands up for her and she keeps her job. Then there’s a race in which Nancy tries to get out of town before it’s revealed she’s not one of those Tiltons, and Don drives her bus off the road and spends the day with her.

Later Don calls her and tells her that under no circumstances is she to tell anyone they were together that day — for reasons apparent only to Joseph O’Donnell, because the pledge makes no sense given the hard turn the plot is about to make into crime drama. A large sum of money is embezzled from the company and Nancy is suspected and thrown in jail. Don is also suspected, but because of her “pledge” to him they can’t alibi each other. Eventually Nancy breaks down and tells the truth, whereupon the police figure out that the real culprits were Don’s brother-in-law (whom we haven’t seen) and the security guard at the office. Just then John Tilton turns up at the police station, and just when we’re thinking, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have Nancy turn out to be one of the Chicago Tiltons after all,” they have Nancy turn out to be one of the Chicago Tiltons after all — though there’s a tag scene in which Nancy tells John (who actually fathered her during a short-lived marriage before he met and married the current Mrs. Tilton) that her name is no longer Tilton, but Walton; she and Dave married that morning. (Does he then move to Bentonville, Arkansas and found Wal-Mart?)

Rich Relations is a decently made movie — though the cheesy music heard under the opening credits and the early montage and the lack of music in the rest of the film show its indie origins — and acting-wise the honors are stolen by Franklin Pangborn in a typically queeny performance as one of the insurance executives (of course he wears a flower in his lapel and does a lot of “business” with it!). It’s just a lot of old clichés we’ve seen done better in hundreds of movies before it — and I suspect the gimmick of the poor girl who turns out to be the long-lost heiress of a rich family was started by Plautus in ancient Rome or someone equally, shall we say, venerable. As for Forbes and Norton, they both acquit themselves well with what meager rations they’ve been given to work with, but this was hardly a credit that was going to get either of them the stardom they deserved.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Cry of Jazz (KHTB Productions, 1959)

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

The film was The Cry of Jazz, a 1959 production by KHTB in Chicago (the initials sound like call letters, which lead me to presume this film was made for TV — the grainy black-and-white in which it’s shot makes it look like a local TV production of the period) which is one of the legendary jazz movies because it’s the earliest film of the marvelously talented and eccentric pianist/composer/bandleader Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914 (he claimed to be related on his mother’s side to Elijah Muhammad, whose birth last name was Poole), he had been working as a professional musician since 1934 when he declared himself a conscientious objector to avoid the World War II draft (he was arrested and tried, but later freed and served out the war doing logging work in Pennsylvania). In 1946 he made his recording debut with blues singer Wynonie Harris, playing a hot piano solo on a song called “Dig This Boogie” that, like Jimi Hendrix’ solo on Jayne Mansfield’s record “Suey,” had little or nothing in common with his later style but certainly showed he knew his way around his instrument.

At some point he either genuinely became convinced that he was actually an alien from the planet Saturn or adopted that as a gimmick, and in the late 1940’s (after briefly working as an accompanist for Coleman Hawkins and jazz violinist Stuff Smith) he settled in Chicago, living and working there until 1961 and forming the first lineup of his own band, the Arkestra (he would sometimes lengthen the name with modifiers — “Myth Science Arkestra,” “Solar Arkestra,” “Astro-Infinity Arkestra,” “Intergalactic Research Arkestra” — but the “Arkestra,” with its pun on Noah’s Ark and the word “orchestra,” would remain constant), featuring many musicians who would work with him for decades: tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (who’s prominently featured in The Cry of Jazz and was a major influence on John Coltrane), alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick (Sun Ra loved the dark sound of the baritone sax so much he would sometimes use two of them) and drummer Ronnie Boykins.

He made his first album as a leader for the short-lived Transition label in 1956, originally called Jazz by Sun Ra and reissued by Delmark Records (a Chicago-based company that was mostly a blues label, though it recorded a fair amount of jazz), in the 1960’s as Sun Song. His second album for Transition, Sound of Joy, wasn’t released until 1968 — Transition went out of business before they could put it out and it only got released when Delmark got the tapes at the same time they arranged to reissue Sun Song. Sun Ra got the message loud and clear: he couldn’t trust that his music would be released by recognized companies — either the majors or the standard jazz labels like Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige — so he became the first musician to launch an ongoing D.I.Y. label, Saturn Records. (Every singer-songwriter and punk band who sells CD’s at their live shows owes a debt to Sun Ra for blazing that particular trail.)

At first Sun Ra’s music sounded pretty much like you’d expect a young African-American pianist/arranger/composer/bandleader’s music to sound in the 1950’s, with obvious influences from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, but he later developed a unique style rooted in his obsession with outer space, writing song lyrics with science-fictional themes, dressing his band members in flamboyant costumes designed to make them look extraterrestrial (at a time when most mainstream jazz musicians performed in Brooks Brothers suits and ties!) and putting on a heavy-duty show that ultimately got him rediscovered in the early 1970’s and won him a cult following among rock fans. (The fact that Sun Ra had been the first major jazz musician to play synthesizers and electric keyboards also helped his cred with the rock crowd. His Wikipedia page also credits him with being the first bandleader to use two bassists, and the first to use electric bass, but he wasn’t; Duke Ellington used two bassists through much of the 1930’s and Stan Kenton debuted an electric bassist, Howard Rumsey, in 1941.) Sun Ra died in 1993, but the Arkestra continued after his death, first under the leadership of John Gilmore, then after he died under Marshall Allen’s direction — and the Arkestra still performs and has an official Web site,

The Cry of Jazz was the brainchild of one Edward O. Bland, who had written a book called The Fruits of the Death of Jazz and based the movie “in part” on the book. He directed it and co-wrote it with Nelam Hill and Mark Kennedy ( lists a fourth writer, Eugene Titus, who isn’t credited on the film itself), and judging from the title of the book on which it was “in part” based, the film was designed to propagandize for Bland’s frankly weird ideas about jazz, its history and its likely future — or “futureless future,” to use one of his favorite phrases. It opens as a meeting of a jazz club is breaking up, and the club’s secretary, Alex Johnson (George Waller), is finishing writing the minutes. The club members are hanging out with each other and doing a bit of breeze-shooting before they go home, when one of the white women there makes a passing remark that rock ’n’ roll is jazz.

Alex, who’s African-American — though this film was made when “Negro” was the accepted non-pejorative way to refer to Black people, which really dates it — tears into her and starts giving her and the other club members, both Black and white, a long lecture about the history of jazz and how it’s intimately entwined with the history of racism. Jazz historian John Litweiler said that The Cry of Jazz “argues that this African-American art music, having by then achieved its heights of expression, was doomed to extinction because of its basis in the debased harmonic structures that the white man had imported from Europe.” The movie is actually considerably more argumentative and racialist than that: its opening point (it’s narrated by Waller throughout, sometimes in dialogue with the other characters and sometimes in voiceover — and though the voice is clearly the same, the acoustics of the recordings are different enough that the switches between dialogue and voiceover jar) is the one that’s been made more recently by Wynton Marsalis and other racialist jazz musicians and critics: that jazz is not primarily but exclusively African-American, that no white musicians have made any unique aesthetic contributions to it at all, nor have any Black musicians been at all influenced by white ones.

Waller’s character puts it bluntly that whites who played jazz have merely been playing “follow the leader” — which makes me wonder which Black “leaders” Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and Lennie Tristano, to name just a few, were following. (Some racialist jazz commentators make Django a sort of “honorary Black” because as a Gypsy he had to deal with similar discrimination.) It also ignores the influence of white musicians on Black ones — like Frank Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey on Lester Young and Benny Carter, or Bix on Rex Stewart — certainly jazz is primarily an African-American form (in the literal meaning of that term because it is uniquely a product of the experience of African-descended people in the United States), and the paths of influence have generally run from Blacks to whites instead of the other way around, but they have gone the other way around at times. The second part of The Cry of Jazz is an odd attempt to analyze jazz in terms of a tension between freedom and restraint — between the freedom to improvise and the restraint of the chorus structure and the underlying harmonies that repeat again and again, chorus after chorus — which Bland and his co-writers analogize to the experience of Blacks under American racism, which simultaneously promised them freedom and delivered discrimination and second-class status.

The film uses the musicians’ term “changes” — meaning the changes in the underlying chord that mean the notes an improviser can play and still remain within tonality must also change — but it uses it both in the plural and in the singular (I’ve never talked to a musician, nor read an interview with one, in which he or she ever referred to a single chord as “a change”) — and as part of this discussion Bland gives us a précis of the history of jazz through New Orleans, swing, bebop and the new music of “The Sun Ra” (yes, his name is preceded by the definite article whenever it’s heard, and his closing credit lists him as “Le Sun Ra” — oddly, when he legally abandoned his birth name, Herman Poole Blount, what he actually changed it to was “Le Sony’r Ra”), though Sun Ra’s music is so idiosyncratic that the examples sound like none of those styles, but rather Ra and the Arkestra members’ unique “spins” on historical jazz forms. (In the “New Orleans” segment, the opening and closing collective counterpoints sound right but Julian Priester’s trombone style sounds like nothing either a New Orleans trombonist would have played in the early days or a Dixieland player could have got away with in 1959.)

The third segment — in which Alex Johnson shocks the members of the jazz club by saying that jazz is dead and, as he has done all movie, defending that point in a mean, hectoring style that basically says, “I’m right, and if you don’t agree with me 100 percent you’re an idiot and I don’t have to have anything to do with you” (not that different, come to think about it, from the way Right-wing talk radio hosts talk) — explains that the reason jazz is dead is that the Negro is being freed from racism and therefore the tension between freedom and restraint at the heart of jazz is no longer necessary, and Blacks will go on to create a new classical music that won’t use any of the musical language of jazz. At least I think that’s what he was saying — though Bland’s visuals (including some extreme close-ups of cockroaches running around a ratty apartment and what appear to be stock shots of buildings burning in race riots) arouse much less of a sense of hope than the script does and the ultimate message could be considerably darker.

What’s odd about The Cry of Jazz is that though the film was made in 1959 it seems (except for the use of the word “Negro”) to be an artifact from a decade later, with Alex Johnson’s character coming off as a prototype of a Black Power militant telling the do-gooder whites who are a lot less anti-racist than they like to think themselves to fuck off and leave the liberation of Black people exclusively to Black people themselves. It’s also interesting to note that the film’s prediction of “the death of jazz” did indeed come true, though hardly in the way Bland and his co-authors thought it would. For another decade jazz sustained itself as a creative music by getting rid of precisely those “restraints” — the chorus structure and the repeated harmonies — Bland was criticizing, and his featured performers, Sun Ra and the Arkestra, were among the leaders in that. They, along with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, found new ways of playing jazz that didn’t involve repeated harmonies and blurred the distinction between choruses. What eventually happened to jazz is that as rock ’n’ roll, a form The Cry of Jazz denounced as beyond the pale, developed, it took over from jazz as the music of the “hip” young; college campuses, which had once been important venues for jazz performers, hosted rock acts instead, and eventually jazz and rock came together to form “fusion music.”

The principal founder of “fusion” was Jimi Hendrix, who came out of the rhythm-and-blues guitar tradition but extended his music by drawing on jazz —indeed, I would argue that just as Earl “Fatha” Hines was so influenced by Louis Armstrong that his playing was called “trumpet-style piano,” so Jimi Hendrix was influenced by John Coltrane so much (and likewise his white drummer, Mitch Mitchell, patterned his playing on Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones) his playing could have been called “saxophone-style guitar.” But the initial creativity that drove Hendrix and the early pioneers of fusion (like the white British guitarist John McLaughlin, who in a way got catapulted to the top of the fusion world by Hendrix’s death) soon got leached away and “fusion” turned into a sterile, middle-of-the-road music aimed at the lowest, or at least next-to-lowest, common denominator. Jazz today is little different from classical music — an ossified museum piece, whose original creators and innovators are venerated while its living practitioners are seen as little more than live record players (the owner of Dizzy’s jazz nightclub in San Diego reported that one of her friends said he never came to the club because “everybody I like is dead”), reproducing styles that were fully developed by others before they were born. The ascendancy of someone like Wynton Marsalis, an excellent technician who can imitate virtually any other trumpeter in jazz history but has little or nothing to say on his own, is a sign of what’s happened to jazz and how as a creative music it’s dead even though you can hear live jazz in just about any of its major styles.

The Cry of Jazz is a weird movie, terrible by any normal aesthetic standard, and frustrating in that if Bland had just shot a 35-minute performance film of Sun Ra (whose music’s vitality and power mocks the pretentiousness of everything else in the film) he’d have ended up with a film both more important historically and more entertaining, but also endlessly fascinating in the conversations provoked by its wrong-headed but ambitious forays into dealing with jazz history, racism and the connection between the two — which is real enough (how could it not be?) but hardly at the level of one-to-one correspondence postulated in the film: when the script argued that bebop was developed out of the historical frustration that Blacks weren’t allowed to serve in World War II as anything other than mess boys (not true, by the way; there was a lot of racial discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. military but it wasn’t that bad), Charles totally lost his patience with this film and I just heard it as one more idiotic attempt to draw a direct parallel between racism and jazz — ironic, since it’s largely because of American racism that jazz exists at all.

It was the effect of the sudden imposition of racial segregation in the 1880’s and 1890’s throughout the American South that ensured that jazz would be born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was. It’s no accident that the Plessy v. Ferguson case which legitimized “separate but equal” (in theory; separate and highly unequal in practice) came from Louisiana, or that the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, was only one-sixteenth Black (he was picked as a test case by the railroads, who didn’t want the extra expense of maintaining separate cars for white and Black passengers). Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular was filled with proud mixed-race Creoles, who did not self-identify as Black, regarded their homeland as Europe rather than Africa and pursued European culture, including European music — until the segregation laws thrust them into the “Black” category. Jazz came from the clash between the European music of the Creoles and the African-derived music of the New Orleans Blacks; that’s why it took the form it did, why it combined European and African styles in the unique way it did, and why African-American popular music didn’t divide into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin versus the primitive country blues the way white American popular music divided into Broadway and Tin Pan Alley pop songs on one side, and the hillbilly and bluegrass that fused into country music on the other. — 10/22/11 and 10/23/11

Melody in May (RKO, 1936)

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

I ran the film Melody in May, a 1936 RKO short featuring singer Ruth Etting — who occasionally appeared in features like Roman Scandals and Hips, Hips, Hooray but mostly did shorts for Vitaphone in the early 1930’s and RKO later — in a wafer-thin plot that casts Etting, using her own name, as an overworked diva who, after making a record of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (she sings it decently enough but one would never call her one of the pioneers of white blues; Mae West’s explosive performance of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” with Duke Ellington’s band in Belle of the Nineties comes a lot closer to what this sort of music is about), walks out of the studio through a gantlet of autograph-seekers and star-fuckers and announces her plan to take a month’s vacation in the middle of nowhere. That turns out to be Middletown (Charles joked that they had a bitter feud going with Centerville), where Etting, incognito (though a couple of the townspeople look on as she’s driven into town in a chauffeur-driven white convertible and exchange I-know-I’ve-seen-her-somewhere-before looks), rents a room in a boardinghouse owned by Ma Bradshaw (Margaret Armstrong), who also is proprietor of an ice-cream parlor whose only other employee is her grandson Tommy (Frank Coghlan, Jr.). Tommy is your typical high-school nerd who’s got a hopeless crush on Mary Callahan (Joan Sheldon), girlfriend of B.M.O.C. Chuck (Kenneth Howell). With Chuck out of town, Mary asks Tommy to take her to the big school dance, for which they’ve brought in a band from New York — only he’s already dressed and has bought the tickets when Chuck returns unexpectedly and Mary goes to the dance with him instead.

Ruth Etting watches all this from the window of her room in the boardinghouse, she takes pity on Tommy and asks if he’ll take her to the dance, and he does so — to the accompaniment of a lot of nasty cracks to the effect that Tommy’s date, whoever she is, is really robbing the cradle and it’s a measure of how worthless Tommy is that he has to bring a girl old enough to be his mother. Of course, all the various worms turn when the New York bandleader recognizes Ruth Etting, she gets up to sing a song (the lovely “It Had to Be You” by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, to which her voice is far more suited than it was to “St. Louis Blues”), and everyone’s attitude towards Tommy does a 180° now that they know he knows a celebrity. It’s a measure of how little the cliquish nature of high school has changed over the years that this plot doesn’t seem dated at all, and Melody in May is an appealing film even though it’s little more than an extended music video with a plot (story by Stanley Rauh and direction by Ben Holmes); at least Tommy and Mary are personable enough we want to see them get together at the end, and Chuck is a nasty enough villain (at one point Tommy offers him his dance tickets, and Chuck says, “I can buy my own tickets,” and tears them up) we rejoice at his comeuppance.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bureau of Missing Persons (Warners as "First National," 1933)

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

Two nights ago I ran the movie Bureau of Missing Persons, a 1933 Warners programmer (in “First National” drag) directed by Roy Del Ruth (who did most of the best work of his career in the Warners salt mines in the early 1930’s, though this was the only film of his from that period actually shown as part of TCM’s recent birthday tribute to him) starring Bette Davis — at least she’s first billed, though she doesn’t actually appear until the 32nd minute of this 73-minute film — along with Lewis Stone and Pat O’Brien, Glenda Farrell (wasted in what amounts to a comedy role as O’Brien’s ditzy estranged wife), Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly and Hugh Herbert from the Warners stock company. At least nominally based on the book Missing Men by Captain John H. Ayers and Carol Bird (though at least half of the missing persons the police trace in this film are women), Bureau of Missing Persons is a good Warners ensemble-cast movie, though they made better ones (like the marvelous Life Begins) around the same time, and features one of the most preposterous orders a police captain ever gives a subordinate in a movie: in order to trace one missing person, the officer is instructed to tie a message to the leg of a homing pigeon and follow it to its destination in an airplane. (Yeah, right.) The main antagonism is between Captain Webb (Lewis Stone), head of the Missing Persons Bureau, and the new detective he’s just been assigned from the robbery unit, Bill Saunders (Pat O’Brien), whose doctrine of beat up the suspect first and ask questions later, if at all, makes Dirty Harry seem like an ACLU charter member by comparison and of course is exactly what officers in the delicate business of tracing people who may or may not want to be found should not be doing. At times, Stone seems so exasperated by O’Brien’s antics he seems about to give him the sort of heart-to-heart talk he later doled out to Mickey Rooney in one Andy Hardy movie after another.

One of the most interesting plotlines involves 12-year-old violin virtuoso Caesar Paul (Tad Alexander), who disappears 10 days before his scheduled recital at Carnegie Hall and turns up living a Dead End Kid-style existence in a rooftop redoubt, doing petty pilfering and playing stickball and other kid-style amusements instead of practicing for his concert, which bores him silly. (Maybe he should follow the example of a similarly disgusted child-prodigy violinist in the later film Non-Stop New York and take up jazz saxophone instead.) Saunders traces him and brings him back to his parents, who judging from the way they treat him in the police station have learned absolutely nothing from his pre-adolescent rebellion. The main intrigue doesn’t turn up until Davis does, nearly halfway through the movie, when she appears in town (it’s pretty obviously supposed to be New York City) using the name Norma Phillips. She’s supposed to be looking for a missing husband, and though they’re both at least technically married she and Saunders start dating — only it turns out her real name is Norma Roberts and she’s wanted back in Chicago, from whence she fled, for murdering Therme Roberts, her banker husband. Saunders traces her to a cheap hotel room and agrees not to tell the other cops where she is if she’ll remain behind and explain things to him, but she bolts and leaves her handbag and some of her clothes on a waterfront dock to make it look like she’s committed suicide.

Saunders stages a fake funeral for her, using an unidentified corpse from the morgue, thinking that will flush her out of hiding. Instead it flushes out Therme Roberts himself (Alan Dinehart, oily as ever), the man she was supposed to have killed, who in order to avoid embezzlement charges killed his own brother, made up the corpse to look like him and framed his wife for his “murder.” Bureau of Missing Persons is a bit slower-paced than the Warners norm, but the cinematography by Barney McGill is dark, atmospheric and surprisingly proto-noir and the multiple plot lines (including one great scene in which an actress and her P.R. person turn out to have faked her disappearance as a publicity stunt to promote her new play provokes a vividly angry reaction from Captain Webb, who chews them out for wasting his department’s time and staff power on B.S.) actually do work even though Bette Davis sometimes seems like a virtual extra in a movie in which she’s supposedly the star!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Perfect Roommate (Capital Productions, Thrill Films, Lifetime, 2011)

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

I watched a Lifetime movie from my backfiles, The Perfect Roommate, a 2011 production (not to be confused with another film called The Perfect Roommate from this year, a theatrical film written and directed by one Kash Sen, with a quite different plot, summarized on thusly: “Fed up with her selfish, materialistic, shallow boyfriend V. J., Anita decides to kick him out. But she needs to find a roommate fast to help her pay her mortgage. So, with the help of her best friend Ratana, she sets out to find that person. Will she find the perfect roommate? Or is she going to end up with more than she bargained for?”) that’s the latest in the series of “Perfect … ” scripts written by Christine Conradt in which the heroine seems to have found the perfect husband, nanny, teacher, roommate, whatever, only to discover that “perfect” actually means “psycho.” In this one the patsy is Ashley Dunnfield (Ashley Leggat), who’s working as a waitress at a mid-scale restaurant where her boyfriend Matt Wilson (Jon McLaren) is a bartender.

There’s a prologue whose relevance to the rest of the movie only becomes apparent much later: Marty Remington (Peter Dillon) is arrested in the middle of the night by two shaved-headed policeman who accuse him of murdering a woman — a prostitute with whom he’d been a regular client ­— while lurking sinisterly in the background is his wife Carrie (Boti Bliss, who got to play the good girl to Megan Park’s bad girl in a previous Conradt production, The Perfect Teacher, and now gets a shot at the bad girl herself — I still think her name sounds more like a Buddhist blessing than a human being, but she does Psycho 101 quite well even though Barbara Stanwyck was playing roles like this, and playing them far better, before Ms. Bliss’s mother was born). Then, after a title reading “Eleven Months Later” (a bit of a surprise because usually Lifetime movies begin with a “grabber” prologue and then a flashback rather than a flash-forward), the scene cuts to the restaurant where Carrie has hired on as a waitress, and she, Ashley and Matt are at a table doing a can-you-top-this? game in which Ashley whines about her super-rich but relentlessly overprotective and nagging father Richard (William R. Moses), Matt mentions how he has to take care of his disabled brother Ethan (I can’t be sure who played him because mistakenly credited the performance to a woman, actress Christie Watson, unless we’re supposed to believe that’s some really fantastic FTM drag — a pity because whoever he is, he’s the hottest guy in the film!), and Carrie tops them both by saying she’d been living with a man named Frank after going through a bitter divorce but he was just killed in a car accident, leaving her broke and about to be homeless.

Ashley, who’s renting her own place so she doesn’t have to live (and put up) with her dad — he’s described as having an ex-girlfriend, Paula Wickless (Teresa Donovan), who’s recently moved back to Anywhere, U.S.A. (played, typically for Lifetime, by Anywhere, Canada) from Atlanta and who seems interested in not being quite so “ex,” but we’re never told what happened to Ashley’s mom — invites Carrie to move in with her. Only later do we find out that the whole plot is a scheme hatched by Carrie and her childhood friend Anna Prieto (Cinthia Burke) to get their hands on a rich man’s fortune. Their first attempt came when they married Carrie off to Marty Remington, then killed his prostitute girlfriend and framed him for the crime, only to discover after he was sentenced to life for the killing that he’d run through his entire fortune and they were unable to take over his business, as they had planned, because he was so deeply in debt the banks seized it. So Carrie divorced Marty and they started looking for a new pigeon, and as soon as Ashley innocently told her co-worker about her rich dad the decision was made.

Carrie gets herself invited into Richard’s life — and, ultimately, his bed — after they meet in the hospital where Ashley has been taken; it seems that Ashley is deathly allergic to all seafood, and Carrie found this out by rummaging through Ashley’s papers, spiked her Mexican takeout with Asian fish sauce, tossed out her antidote medicine and replaced it with water, waited for her to go into convulsions and then called 911, claiming to have saved her life instead of nearly destroying it. Paula’s ongoing interest in Richard is taken care of by Anna, who works as a cabdriver and arranges to take Paula to the airport — she was planning to fly back to Atlanta, close her house there and move back to Wherever this takes place — only she really takes her to a deserted road under an overpass and shoots her, and the body isn’t discovered until a homeless person (sort of like the guest body finders on Law and Order) finds it several commercial breaks later. By this time Richard and Carrie are in the middle of a full-blown affair that looks altar-bound, while Ashley is putting together the evidence of Carrie’s actual past — she talks to Carrie’s former brother-in-law Roland (Tim Finnigan) and then tries to reach her dad with the information while he’s having a nice romantic weekend with Carrie at a fancy hotel near the beachfront development he’s building there.

Only Carrie intercepts all Ashley’s messages — just why Ashley didn’t call her boyfriend, or her boyfriend’s ex-cop brother, or the police themselves, instead of trying to reach her dad directly, and why she never thought that Carrie might be able to prevent her dad from getting Ashley’s messages, are bits of typical female-in-peril stupidity without which virtually all Lifetime movies could never get stretched out to feature length — and when Ashley, driving up to see her dad in person, gets stranded at a gas station after her radiator blows, it’s Carrie who comes out to meet her and attempts to kill her with a broken beer bottle, only she’s caught by the genuine police (how did they find out? I guess we’re meant to think Matt tipped them off — earlier Ashley had told him where she was going and Matt had pleaded with her to wait until his shift was over and they could go together, but of course she was too stupid to do that either!), arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, while Marty Remington’s conviction is set aside, Ashley and her dad are reunited, aspiring painter Matt gets a commission to supply original art for 17 of Richard’s hotels (so the son-in-law to be also rises!) and the scene then cuts to Carrie in her cell, scanning a magazine profile of yet another rich man she intends to hunt after she gets out.

Despite the plot holes and occasional silliness, The Perfect Roommate is actually a quite entertaining, engaging neo-noir and Boti Bliss, despite the absurdity of her name and her gamine-like quality (she’s cute and perky rather than drop-dead gorgeous, though somehow that just makes the plot that much more interesting), is quite good in the role even though most of the reviewers ripped her. The director is Curtis Crawford, who blessedly restrains himself and doesn’t add flanges, music-video cuts or other unwelcome bits of stylization that would have just highlighted the melodramatic excesses of Conradt’s script, and the acting is quite good all around, though Cinthia Burke and Teresa Donovan look enough like each other the only reliable way you can tell them apart (until one kills the other) is through the marvelous hard-set expression Burke gets to tell us that she’s evil.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Frozen Limits (Gainsborough/Gaumont-British/General Film, 1939)

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

The film was The Frozen Limits, which Charles had downloaded from and which for some reason I had assumed was a serious “Northern” set in the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Instead — as became apparent from the fact that the six male leads were billed collectively as “The Crazy Gang” (they consisted of three two-man comedy teams who performed both separately and together in the British music halls — Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox; Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen; Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold — and they, plus one elderly comic actor, Moore Marriott, were billed together on the opening title card even before the name of the movie appeared), it was a comedy set the year it was made, 1939.

The film opens with the six main members appearing at a carnival as “The Six Wonder Boys” — and bombing, especially since they’re on one side of the midway and a hootchi-kootchi dancer is on the other. Once they finally do start to attract some paying customers, they’re driven out first by their landlady and then by the owner of the carnival, who demands that they pay the back rent on their space immediately, or else. They find a newspaper that announces that there’s been a major gold strike in the Klondike in Alaska, and they immediately steal enough money from the carnival treasury (reasoning that they’re owed it because by throwing them out, the carnival owner cost them scads of money) to go there. Only when they arrive they find that the newspaper was 40 years old and the “Prime Minister Chamberlain” who was announcing that Britain was at last ready for war (“It’s about time he started talking like that,” said one of the six) wasn’t Neville but Joe, and the war he was talking about wasn’t World War II but the Boer War. They meet up with Moore Marriott, playing crazy old coot Tom Tiddler, who’s obsessed with the idea that he owns a gold mine but has totally forgotten its location.

He’s living with his granddaughter Jill (Eileen Bell, a personable young ingénue who’s a good deal better than the sort of starlet who usually got parts like this in the U.S.) in an abandoned theatre in which the Wonder Boys decide to put on a play, with Teddy Knox in drag as the leading lady. They run up a bar tab at the local saloon that they can’t afford to pay and thus get in trouble with the owner, Bill McGrew (Bernard Lee, the principal villain and almost unrecognizable as the same actor who was the first “M” in the James Bond series a quarter-century later), and they stave off the worst by pulling out a lump of gold ore (“gold or what?” says Flanagan, kicking off a marvelous verbal routine that answers the question, not that you ever asked it, what would Abbott and Costello have been like if they’d been British)  which Tom Tiddler found while he was sleepwalking but, once again, can’t remember where. McGrew gives them 12 hours to come up with the location of the mine from which they got the ore, or else he’s going to get the townspeople to lynch them — he and the townspeople also accuse the Six of faking (“salting”) the gold discovery to be able to sell the old man’s land at a fraudulently high price — and as if that weren’t intrigue enough, McGrew also insists that Jill Tiddler marry him as his price for not letting the Wonder Boys be lynched.

Needless to say, she doesn’t like the idea, especially since she’s got a nice, hunky rival for her affections — Tex O’Brien (a surprisingly attractive Anthony Hulme) — whom she’d much rather marry, but when Bill promises he won’t let the townspeople lynch the Six Wonder Boys, Jill agrees to marry him and feels honor bound to go through with it no matter what. Of course, he double-crosses her and tells the townspeople to lynch them anyway — and the Wonder Boys double-cross him so he ends up marrying the heavily veiled Teddy Knox instead. As a six-man British comedy team, the Crazy Gang are amusing but hardly at the level of Monty Python, and any comedy made about the Klondike Gold Rush has the long shadow of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush hanging heavily over it, but The Frozen Limits is a nice, amusing movie that turns truly inspired in the final reel, in which Tex O’Brien sneaks out of town and reports the goings-on to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who send out a company whose captain sings a stentorian song called “We Always Get Our Man” that sounds like a Nelson Eddy outtake and leads Tex to be concerned; he asks the captain, “Can you stop singing so we can get there a little faster?”

There are also quite a few metafictional references to other movies — the Six Wonder Boys compare themselves to the Seven Dwarfs and Jill Tiddler to Snow White, and at one point they even do a dance number to the song “Whistle While You Work” — which, given how fiercely protective Disney was of the rights to everything his studio handled, one wonders how they got away with that! — and there are also some gags about Britain’s war situation and some surprisingly racy bits they couldn’t have got away with if they’d been making this in the U.S. (like now, the British Board of Film Censors was quite a lot harder on violence and gore than the U.S. censors but more easygoing about sex!). The Frozen Limits is an unexpected little charmer from the production staff that had worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes; it might not be laugh-out-loud funny but it’s got more than its share of gently amusing bits.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

X2: X-Men United (Marvel Entertainment/20th Century-Fox, 2003)

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

The film was X2: X-Men United, the 2003 (post-9/11) sequel to the original X-Men movie from 2000 we had watched a few nights before. Though longer than the first one (133 minutes rather than 108 — though bear in mind that these timings include 10 minute-plus closing credit rolls so interminable even I wouldn’t sit through them) and nowhere nearly as well constructed as a plot (the first X-Men had three credited writers — Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, story; David Hayter, screenplay — while this one had six: Zak Penn, David Hayter and Bryan Singer, story; Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter, script — apropos of my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers), X2 has quite a lot of the power of the original. The commonality is mainly from Bryan Singer’s direction: dark, subtle, riveting and managing to sustain interest throughout the film instead of just leaving us twiddling our thumbs impatiently waiting for the next big action sequence. I’d never read an X-Men comic or seen any of the movies until Charles and I recently watched the most recent in the series, the origin story X-Men: First Class (which Singer was scheduled to direct until the shooting schedule interfered with his pre-production on Jack the Giant Killer), but it seems as if X-Men — whose story premise is that the increase in the world’s background level of atomic radiation from weapons tests and nuclear power plants has created a new race of mutants, whose members and supporters regard them as the next step in human evolution and whose opponents see them as an incipient menace to the human race that needs to be wiped out by any means necessary.

X-Men the comic began in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, and it took on some of the rhetoric of the African-American civil rights movement — though, as I’ve noted in my comments on the first X-Men movie as well as X-Men: First Class, there’s an even closer parallel between mutants and Queers than there is between mutants and Blacks. Not only do the mutations first manifest as the mutants enter puberty — i.e., have their sexual awakenings — but mutants, unlike Blacks but like Queers, can conceal themselves and appear as “normal” humans. Indeed, much of the X-Men mythos centers around that very question: whether to remain closeted in “normal” guise or “come out” and express “mutant pride.” There’s a subtle but unmistakable change in the Zeitgeist between the first two X-Men films that’s quite likely because the first was made before 9/11 and the second was made afterwards — though the villain of the piece this time around is not a mutant (the first film revolved around the rivalry between the leader of the “good” mutants, the assimilationist Prof. Charles Xavier [Patrick Stewart], and the leader of the “bad” ones, Magneto [played by openly Gay actor Ian McKellen], who’s the advocate of mutant pride and is convinced that the humans mean to fight a war to exterminate the mutants and the mutants had better be ready to fight the war and win it) but a human, William Stryker (Brian Cox), a U.S. general who plots to kidnap Prof. Xavier and build a replica of Cerebro, Xavier’s combination super-computer and thought-projection device that allows him to monitor literally everyone, both human and mutant, on earth. The idea is to trick Xavier into using his own machine, and the thought energies he can transmit through it, to will the death of every mutant on earth.

Stryker kicks off his plot by recruiting a disaffected German mutant named Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming, who reportedly got the part over Neil Patrick Harris — of all people! — because Cumming could speak German and Harris couldn’t, an interesting parallel to the story that Marlene Dietrich got her star-making role in The Blue Angel because UFA planned to make both German and English versions of the film, and of all the actresses tested Dietrich was the only one who could speak English), to stage an attack on the President of the United States that actually involves him invading the Oval Office and confounding the Secret Service with his ability to change his location instantly. The X-Men stories get confusing sometimes, not only because there are so many mutants but because they often change sides; though introduced as a free-lance assassin and later revealed as a pawn in Stryker’s plot, Nightcrawler ultimately ends up an agent of good on Xavier’s team, while Xavier himself spends a lot of this film on the side of the bad guys, since his will has been taken over by Stryker’s son Jason (Michael Reid MacKay), who sometimes appears in his natural form — a drooling, catatonic, wheelchair-bound man but one whose body secretions have the power to take over anyone’s mind — and sometimes as a six-year-old girl who, in the film’s most chilling sequence, calmly and in an innocent-sounding voice order Xavier to use his projected mental energies via Cerebro to kill all the world’s mutants.

The subtitle X-Men United come from the way Xavier’s usual team — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who tends to get lost in the shuffle because her character has rather amorphous powers and doesn’t get a cool mutant alias), Storm (Halle Berry) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), plus a few new recruits, including Bobby Drake a.k.a. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John Allerdyce a.k.a. Pyro (Aaron Stanford, the extraordinary young actor who played the lead in Tadpole and whom the industry hasn’t quite known what to do with since) along with Yuriko Oyama a.k.a. Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) — has to hook up with Magneto and his allies, including Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), to defeat Stryker’s plot — only once they’ve incapacitated Stryker, instead of unhooking Xavier from Stryker’s diabolical contraption, Magneto simply reverses the message so instead of killing all the world’s mutants, he’ll kill all the non-mutated humans instead.

We also get Wolverine’s backstory — unlike the other mutants, who are that way for the same reasons natural mutations exist, he’s a laboratory creation, the result of a research project Stryker ran 20 years ago that involved creating a new metal, “adamantium,” out of which Wolverine’s claws are made — and some romantic rivalries, including one between Wolverine and one of the other “good” mutants for Jane Grey’s affections, as well as one similar to the plot of Walter Miller’s story “Dark Benediction” in which Bobby falls for Rogue but can’t have sex with her since anything longer than the barest touch from her renders the person she touches either comatose or dead. (Charles and I have both noticed how much the plot of Steven Eliot Altman’s sci-fi novel Deprivers, in which certain people have the ability, by touching others, to deprive them either temporarily or permanently, of one of their senses, owes to X-Men — and when I interviewed Altman for Zenger’s Newsmagazine I mentioned “Dark Benediction,” in which a microbe from an alien planet lands on earth and, spread by touch, changes everyone infected by it into a gray, scaly monster with hyperacute senses, as a prototype; he said he’d never heard of it but it seems likely the X-Men creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, had. I still hope someone with the right imagination and taste will make “Dark Benediction” into a film.)

In the end Jean Gray gives her life to save Xavier from mind control and the world’s mutants and humans from extermination at the hands of Cerebro and the various people and mutants trying to control it and Xavier — though, like the writers of the Alien series (who gave Sigourney Weaver a moving scene at the end of the first film to the effect that she was sacrificing her life to keep the aliens from getting to earth, only they revived her character for three sequels with various degrees of preposterousness, until in Alien IV we were supposed to believe Weaver’s character was a clone of the original!), these writers apparently intended to use a gimmick of the comics by which Jean was revived as the mutant Phoenix (rose from the ashes, get it?).

Also X2 was based on a graphic novel in which Stryker was not a rogue military officer but a Fundamentalist minister anxious to wipe out the mutants because he considered their existence an affront to God — which would have brought this movie even closer to the mutant/Queer parallels of the first film. Instead this element is played down in X2 except for a quite remarkable scene in which Bobby brings Wolverine and Pyro home to his parents and comes out to them as a mutant — and (reportedly due to Hugh Jackman insisting that the writers do this) the scene is written very much like a coming-out scene, down to Bobby’s mother wondering if it’s her fault and asking, “Have you ever tried … not being a mutant?”

Overall, X2 isn’t as good as its predecessor — its plot, though at least coherent, moves in fits and starts and there are some confusing match cuts between the various storylines (all too often the leonine head of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine suddenly appears in the middle of a scene not involving him and we wonder, “What the hell is he doing here?,” before we realize Singer has cut to a plot strand featuring him) — and it probably would have benefited from being cut to the same 108-minute length as the first film, but it’s still a strong, riveting piece of drama, legitimately sophisticated and deeper than your average superhero movie but without the dull pretentiousness of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

X-Men (Marvel Entertainment/20th Century-Fox, 2000)

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

The night before last Charles and I watched the movie X-Men, the 2000 film directed by Bryan Singer from a script officially credited to David Hayter based on a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, that launched the cycle based on the Marvel comic books whose most recent incarnation, X-Men: First Class (the title being a reference to the school for mutants set up by Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the “good” mutants, played in First Class by James McAvoy and in the original film by Patrick Stewart), we had recently watched even though neither Charles nor I had ever read an X-Men comic nor watched any of the previous films. X-Men turned out to be a surprisingly good movie, even though it was a quite dark film (probably the darkest superhero movie ever made until Christopher Nolan got his hands on the Batman franchise) and hardly the sort of fun, action-filled romp I want and expect from a superhero film. It helps that the darkness is built into the material; when Stan Lee and John Kirby launched the comic in 1963 (I had thought it was later than that!), the civil rights movement was at its peak and the relationship between the mutant characters — some good, some evil — and the rest of humanity was clearly built as a metaphor for prejudice in general. As the characters and situations evolved over time — and as the Queer rights movement became a mass phenomenon after the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in 1969 (commonly, but quite erroneously, hailed as the birthplace of Queer activism in the U.S.), the X-Men franchise started seeming more and more like a metaphor for the Queer struggle, as well as the Manicheanism of the Cold War and the idea that insidious enemies who could “pass” for the rest of us — Communists, Queers, “terrorists” — were infiltrating all the institutions of American (and human) society for their own sinister purposes and were just waiting for a signal to strike and take us over.

X-Men benefits from an excellent cast — Stewart as the head of the “good” mutants (whose school to train them and harness their powers for benign purposes couldn’t help but remind me of the special high schools being proposed, and in some cases actually run, as supposedly safe havens for Queer students who’d likely be bullied and driven to suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse or “survival sex” in regular schools); Ian McKellen as Magneto, head of the “bad” mutants (and casting an openly Gay actor in this role just heightens the mutants = Queers metaphor!); Hugh Jackman as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, the antisocial mutant who’s drawn as someone who could go in either moral direction and he (and we) just luck out that Xavier gets to him before Magneto does; Halle Berry as Storm, one of the good mutants; and Anna Paquin as Raven, a mutant whose touch is literally life-threatening (she’s depicted as an ordinary teenage girl — one premise of the story is that the mutants live their childhoods as normal human beings and the mutations only take hold during puberty, yet another parallel between mutants and Queers — who attempts to make out with her boyfriend, giving him shakes and facial contortions; she lets go of him but even so, he’s plunged into a coma that lasts for three weeks) and who is literally the balance of power in this story. X-Men also benefits from a far better constructed story than the norm for a superhero film — I had figured that my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to its number of writers was holding true here, but a trivia item about the movie on mentioned that the material had in fact gone through far more scripters than the ones credited, including Michael Chabon, Ed Solomon, Christopher McQuarrie, Joss Whedon, James Schamus & John Logan.

Still, the film benefits from a well-constructed storyline that focuses on one intrigue: with the existence of the mutants provoking controversy, and a bill pending in the U.S. Congress sponsored by Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) that would require mutants to register with the government (though this film was made in 1999 and released in 2000 — and the appearance of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Professor Xavier’s high-tech model of New York City give it away as pre-9/11 — Kelly’s arguments for the bill have a strongly premonitory ring to them in the post-9/11 era of “special registration” requirements on legal immigrants from Muslim countries and the carefully cultivated fear, less from the government itself than from talk radio, the radical-Right churches and other propaganda centers, that Muslim = “terrorist”), Magneto, whose credo that mutants should seek justice and equal rights “by any means necessary” (a deliberate quote from the militant “Black Power” rhetoric of African-Americans in the late 1960’s), hatches a plot based on a process he thinks will be able to turn any normal human into a mutant. He kidnaps Senator Kelly and runs him through the process, and Kelly in his mutant form ends up in Xavier’s super-secret lab, where in the film’s most frightening scene (X-Men in general has enough scary moments it practically qualifies as a horror film as well as a comic-book adventure) the process goes wrong and he literally turns into water on Xavier’s examining table. It turns out that Magneto’s process doesn’t work because the human immune system cross-reacts with the mutant genes and the result is fatal, but Magneto, not knowing that, goes ahead with his plan to infect all the world’s leaders with mutant genes during a worldwide summit meeting on Ellis Island, and the “good” mutants have to figure out how to stop him.

X-Men does suffer from a common failing in the superhero genre — the villains tend to be more compelling than the heroes, and in this case the bad guys are the ones with the coolest powers: Magneto can bend anything made of metal into any shape he wants, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) has an assortment of strengths, Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) is a total shape-shifter, and the bad guys also have the coolest of all the mutants, Toad (Ray Park), whose prehensile tongue serves him much the way their tails serve monkeys or vines served Tarzan (the person, not the dog). Of the “good” mutants, only Wolverine, with his retractable metal claws (he confesses that it hurts him every time his claws come out, not at the ends of his fingers but from the spaces between the fingers on his hands), comes at all near Mystique or Toad on the coolness spectrum.

X-Men is a quite good movie in the superhero genre, and the metaphoric references to prejudice and “outsider” status give it depth and emotional weight even though the characterizations themselves aren’t especially multidimensional. (The irony of a Holocaust survivor like Magneto becoming a figure of evil really isn’t addressed either in this film or the most recent First Class, though the creators of this story deserve points for doing something so obviously politically incorrect!)