Sunday, January 30, 2011

Three Episodes of “Captain Video” (DuMont, 1949 & 1950)

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

The show was a 1949 episode of the TV series Captain Video, which I believe was the very first science-fiction series ever aired on TV (U.S. mass-market TV, at least) — the title has become legendary but neither Charles nor I had ever actually seen an episode of it before, and this was at least in part because this was yet another show from the early days that was performed and broadcast “live,” the only preserved prints were old kinescopes and very few of them were preserved. Captain Video apparently began as a relatively “straight” space opera, but as the series progressed on the DuMont network they made it campier and aimed it more at the pre-pubescent boys that are and pretty much always have been the core audience for science fiction. This appears to be an episode called “Captain Video Prepares to Visit Regus” — Regus being the absolute ruler of a planet called Tercin that just lost a war to the Firmament (essentially what Star Trek later called the Federation) and Captain Video (Richard Coogan) and his assistant, Ranger (John Connell) have been delegated to go there and present the peace terms.

What I hadn’t realized was that Captain Video was a serial and that this was a “bridge” episode in which virtually nothing happened — the opening, a shot of a mountain crag with a building on the side of it that supposedly represents Captain Video’s headquarters, shown over a stirring version of Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman, is by far the most exciting part of the episode — though there are some interesting and decidedly mixed political messages that at some point tend towards Right-wing propaganda (the need to defend “Americanist” values against sinister enemies from abroad) and sometimes seem more progressive — not only the second “Video Ranger” talking spot, which calls for tolerance and an end to prejudice, but the debate of the Firmament officials in the opening scene of what sort of peace to offer Regus of Tercin, with the rest of the Firmament council calling for a brutal peace (the destruction of Tercin’s industry and its conversion to an agricultural planet, with all of its proceeds beyond what’s needed to feed the Tercinians shipped off to other planets in the Firmament — something along the lines of what Henry Morgenthau actually called for as how a defeated Germany should be dealt with after World War II) and Captain Video saying that such a peace would make more enemies than friends and the only way to ensure stability in the universe would be to offer the Tercinians softer terms and respect them as planetary beings. This argument rang true in terms of relevance to today’s situations!

Aside from that, Captain Video — at least as represented here — doesn’t seem like all that interesting a program, though it’s nice to have seen at least one sample of it (directed by Larry White and written by M. C. Brock — oddly, according to such major writers as James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Cyril Kornbluth, Walter Miller and even Sam Fuller contributed to this show!), and the weirdest parts of it are the two interludes that supposedly represent the activities of Captain Video’s agent on earth and are actually clips from a “B” Western about a federal marshal being confronted by a gang of baddies — the sort of surrealistic mashup one might expect from an avant-garde video work today but not from a slice of mainstream entertainment from the earliest days of commercial TV! — 1/22/11


The show Charles and I watched was the second episode of Captain Video we’d downloaded from, from 1950 and called “Code of Honor,” and though it had little actual action and it ended with a serial-like cliffhanger (the show was actually designed to work like a serial, with a plot that continued from week to week instead of resolving at the end of each episode), it was a quite good little drama, written by M. C. Brock and starring Richard Coogan in the title role. The episode was about a comet which is heading towards earth, and can be stopped only by firing atomic rays at it to break up its nucleus so it shatters harmlessly in planetary space — only for some reason Brock didn’t quite explain, this will essentially be a kamikaze mission meaning certain death for the crew of the spacecraft that does it. Captain Video is willing to end his own life to save earth from the killer comet, but two other space rangers who never intend to return to earth anyway (we get the impression they’ve been involved in previous bits of skullduggery that would prevent them from doing so without being arrested, sort of like Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca), Bascomb (Wright King) and Cromwell (David Lewis), decide to drive their ship into the comet and fire its atomic ray gun at it so they’ll spare both the earth and Captain Video.

The show is at its most engaging when it really does deal, as the title promises, with issues of honor — though in addition to the misunderstood Bascomb and Cromwell, there’s also an out-and-out baddie, renegade ensign Tubbs (Sam Weston — at least that’s how he’s billed on the show; according to, the actor’s real name was Anthony Spinelli), who left open some sort of valve on Captain Video’s spaceship so it’s doomed anyway, and at the end of this episode it looks really bad for our heroes and our planet: Bascomb and Cromwell fire at the comet, all right, but instead of getting it to shatter they merely split the nucleus in two, and one of the remaining parts is making an even more direct bee-line towards earth than the original intact one — and what’s more, Captain Video has just learned about the sabotage of his ship but it appears to be too late for him to do anything about it. According to, over 1,000 episodes of Captain Video and its various spinoffs were filmed — but just 24 are known to exist (this was a production of the DuMont TV network, which went out of business in the mid-1950’s; all of the company’s own archives, including the extant prints of its shows, were dumped in the river in New York in the 1970’s and the few that have survived seem to have been kinescopes that ended up elsewhere and still exist by pure chance), and though the loss of most of Captain Video isn’t that much of a cultural tragedy, it is incredibly frustrating to see bits and pieces of a show that was intended as a serial and not be able to follow its story arc with anything approaching coherence!

Captain Video
was clearly aimed for kids — the sponsor of this episode was Post Sugar Crisp cereal (the commercials boasted you could eat it three ways: out of a bowl with milk as a cereal, out of a bowl without milk as a snack, and out of the box as candy) and the acting had a golly-gee-whillikers attitude about it that the director (probably M. C. Brock — he’s credited as producer as well as writer and it’s not unlikely he would have been directing as well) probably wouldn’t have tolerated in a show aimed at adults — but it’s a nicely done little program and adults sitting at the TV (back when a lot of people didn’t have them at all and almost nobody owned more than one set) with their kids to watch this probably were entertained themselves. — 1/29/11


I ran Charles and I the third episode of Captain Video from the Web site — apparently of over 1,000 episodes aired (of this program as well as at least two spinoffs) only 24 actually survive, a tribute to the abysmal short-sightedness of copyright holders in the pre-video, pre-DVD age who didn’t realize they were sitting on a potential goldmine of sales to nostalgia freaks anxious to relive their youths. Captain Video was a pretty lousy program when it comes down to it, and this third episode was the weakest of the bunch, all about a bunch of villains with horrible accents (thereby just making their dialogue harder to understand given the primitive sound reproduction of early television) and a series of plots they were hatching against various planets with gibberish names (also hard to keep track of given the lousy sound quality) which Captain Video was somehow trying to dope out and stop in the proverbial nick of time. The show also contained one of those surreal inserts of “B”-Western footage through which its producers padded its length out to the requisite half an hour — supposedly this represented Captain Video’s agents on Earth interfering with yet more plots by the bad guys — and such scientific howlers as the propellers that power one of the super-villains’ planes (gee, we’ve got a high-tech show in which people are flying rockets around the galaxy, and the show cheerily ignores that by 1949 jets had replaced propeller engines in most military aircraft?).

In some ways the commercials, included in this download, were more interesting than the show itself; it was sponsored by a candy bar called PowerHouse (an interesting anticipation of the convention of computer nomenclature that programs get named with compound words spelled as one word but with a CapitalLetter IntheMiddle) and with ads telling people (kids, most likely) to save their PowerHouse Candy wrappers and enclose a 10¢ coin along with two 5¢ candy bar wrappers or one 10¢ wrapper and get a Captain Video secret ring complete with a locket on the ring that had his picture inside. (The commercial instructed the lucky recipients of this item to wear it at all times to identify themselves as official Video Rangers in Captain Video’s special force — and all I could think of was how quickly the cheap plastic those rings were typically made of would have worn out if any kids were gullible or foolhardy enough actually to follow those instructions.) — 1/30/11

Friday, January 28, 2011

Personal Indiscretions, a.k.a. Primal Doubt (RHI Entertainment/Lifetime, 2007)

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

This morning I watched a Lifetime TV-movie called Personal Indiscretions (though lists it under a more “thriller”-style title, Primal Doubt) which stars Janine Turner (middle-aged with a nice crop of red hair, unattractively cut, but still quite attractive and believable as the sort of person the script says she is) as Jean Harper, a romance novelist who’s been suffering the Mother of All Writer’s Blocks and hasn’t written more than a sentence or two on occasion for the last six years. She’s married to successful Hollywood producer Chase Harper (Costas Mandylor) and has an adult daughter living with them, Claire Harper (Amanda Fuller, who for once in a TV-movie is a full-figured woman playing a young person — it’s nice to see a movie that reflects the reality that not all girls in their late teens or early 20’s starve themselves to the appearance of a concentration-camp victim!). She’s also going through the Mother of All Mid-Life Crises — her husband is so busy he can’t seem to make so much as 15 minutes for her during the day (in one particularly chilling scene she calls him on set, his assistant answers and tells him his wife is calling, and he coldly tells her, “She can talk to my machine”), her daughter clearly doesn’t need her anymore and neither one can stand her cooking (which begs the question of why hubby doesn’t hire a cook). Chase spits out the coffee she made for him as he’s dashing out to the office, and later we see him not only spit out another cup of coffee made for him by an African-American assistant but spit it right on her (this is witnessed by a couple of police officers whom she tells that she’s willing to put up with this because if she can endure him for a year, she’ll have a credential on her résumé that will help her become a producer herself).

Our Heroine’s only refuges from the ennui gripping the rest of her life are the attentions of her former editor and still best friend, Holly (Maeve Quinlan); the work of her personal assistant, Carla (Brittany Ishibashi); her regular twice-a-week sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Marianne Thorne (Jamie Rose); and the Internet, where on a site called she’s met a man, Travis Freeman (Nick Kariazis), a successful architect whose wife Amanda (Rae Ritke) apparently killed herself five years before. After months of flirtatious e-mails they get to the point of having dinner together in a restaurant and make an appointment for her to meet him at his place the next day so he can show off the house he designed for himself — which has the same soulless, forbidding appearance of most homes movie architects design for themselves, full of angular “modern” corners, counters, staircases and whatnot and the sort of place that would give most people nightmares if they were sentenced to live there. Only when she shows up, his door is open and we see a shadowy figure moving about in the background as she walks up those ugly “modern” stairs to his room — where he’s sitting at his desk with his throat slit, covered in blood and clearly dead.

The police assign a team of detectives consisting of an African-American man, Ben Riggs (William Allen Young — and hearing a Black man trying to do the Jack Webb inflections from his famous cop role is one of the weirder treats this movie has to offer), and an Asian-American woman, Maggie Conrad (Freda Foh Shen), and they’re undecided whether Jean herself killed her would-be boyfriend or her husband Chase got wind of their affair (even though we know it hadn’t been consummated yet) and knocked off his wife’s paramour. For a long time we’re carefully led to believe that Chase is the killer — he’s drawn as enough of an angry asshole we’re ready to accept that he could commit murder (and Mandylor’s football-player appearance also makes it seem credible — until he’s chased in his car down a mountain road and the other driver tries to run him off the road. Later the mystery killer — wearing a black mask throughout — knocks off first Carla and then Holly, and in a dramatic final scene it’s revealed that the killer is [spoiler alert!] Dr. Thorne, who was Amanda Freeman’s therapist when Amanda had an affair with Chase five years before and who killed her then, and has now reactivated her revenge plot against Jean and everyone near and dear to her because she’s tired of hearing these spoiled rich bitches whine on and on and on about their penny-ante depressions and she wants to show them what real suffering is.

The ending is pretty preposterous — I thought the killer was going to turn out to be a relative of Amanda’s who had never forgiven Travis either for driving her to suicide or killing her himself — but the movie as a whole was well above the Lifetime average, genuinely thrilling and suspensefully directed by Yelena Lanskaya from a script by Stephen Niver that draws on familiar thriller clichés but mixes them up in an inventive and original fashion. Shown as part of a weekend during which Lifetime showed a whole bunch of movies involving the Internet, Personal Indiscretions wasn’t exactly a diamond in the rough but it was certainly entertaining and gripping.

Undercover Agent (Monogram, 1939)

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

The film was Undercover Agent, which timed out in the version at just 49 minutes (though the American Film Institute Catalog lists 56 minutes), a 1939 Monogram production that has the interesting distinction of being the third film we’ve seen about the U.S. Postal Inspectors (after the 1936 Universal musical/melodrama Postal Inspector and the 1951 Alan Ladd thriller from Paramount, Appointment with Danger — the last being by far the best of the three even though it’s hardly a great film, or even one of Ladd’s most memorable vehicles), which despite the “thrilling” title is actually a pretty standard vehicle about an impoverished young couple who don’t have the money to get married.

The man is William Trent (Russell Gleason, who seems to have been Monogram’s attempt to create their own Robert Montgomery — Gleason is taller and dorkier-looking but the voices are remarkably similar), a clerk at a post office (though we never actually see him doing that) whose ambition is to join the Postal Inspectors, and who has just taken the exam for it and placed 73rd on the list — meaning he’ll likely get an appointment as a postal inspector in a year or two. The woman is Betty Madison (Shirley Deane), who works as a hat-check girl in a bookie joint owned by Bartell (Ralfe Harolde). Bartel’s business is down because the police have been putting the heat on him — he’s getting plenty of $2 players but the serious gamblers are staying away — and he learns that part of what’s hurting his business is the sale of sweepstakes tickets. So he decides to have counterfeit sweepstakes tickets made for the “Monte Carlo lottery” and sends one of his gang members to Paris so people who buy them will get confirmation receipts from France, adding to the verisimilitude of the scam. Betty has an alcoholic father, Thomas “Pop” Madison (J. M. Kerrigan, a favorite character actor of John Ford’s), who starts selling the phony sweepstakes tickets to pay his bar tab and get back a confirmation locket he once gave to Betty and then stole to use to pay for drinks.

Within a few days he’s doing so well he’s able to get back Betty’s locket and pay back their boarding-house landlady, Mrs. Minnow (Maude Eburne), the three months in back rent he and Betty owed her. Meanwhile, Trent takes Betty to Patrick Murphy’s pawn shop to buy her an engagement ring — only just as he’s about to leave, two robbers come into the shop and he shoots them with the Post Office service revolver he’s carrying. For that he’s acclaimed a hero in the local papers — and he gets a 90-day suspension without pay from his job for carrying his gun off Post Office premises. When Trent is offered a sweepstakes ticket, he immediately assumes it’s a scam and reports it to John Graham (Selmer Jackson), the boss who suspended him, offering to go undercover and dig up information on the mob that’s behind it. Graham says that they’re already aware of the scam and the fact that they’re using the mails for part of it, which gives the Post Office jurisdiction, but he agrees to let Trent investigate and Trent follows Bartell’s collector and traces the scam to him. Trent crashes Bartell’s place by posing as a bookie bettor who’s been cheated out of his winnings, only Betty has no idea what he’s doing and thinks he’s gone off the rails and is really gambling — so she dumps him. Then Thomas tells Trent where he’s been getting all the money he’s been making, and Trent tries to talk him out of selling anymore — and instead of sitting tight and letting the Postal Inspectors go through with their raid the next day, Thomas goes around town bitching about how he’s unwittingly been enlisted in a swindle. He shows up at Bartell’s demanding to get back all the money he’s collected from friends and neighbors who bought tickets from him, and Bartell and his men decide to hold him off and flee with the loot — only one of the baddies drops his gun and Thomas picks it up, and he, Trent and Betty hold the gangsters at bay until the Postal Inspectors arrive and take them into custody.

It’s not much of a movie and is considerably less thrilling than its title would indicate, though it’s directed by Howard Bretherton with a cool efficiency from a screenplay by Martin Mooney and Milton Raison. (Mooney was a New York crime reporter who in the early 1930’s served a jail term rather than name his sources to a grand jury — and Warner Bros. signed him to write crime stories and billed one of his most successful films, Bullets or Ballots, as “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” Once his 15 minutes were up, he passed out of Warners to cheaper studios like Monogram and PRC, where he moved up from writing to producing and where he made his most famous film, as producer of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir classic Detour.) It’s an oddly ordinary movie for such a hair-raising title, and the oddest thing is that J. M. Kerrigan’s remarkable character performance so totally steals the film from the nominal stars.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mothra (Toho/Columbia, 1961)

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

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library for their “Schlockfest” series and saw the 1961 Japanese monster movie Mothra, which turned out to be a bit slow-moving (I think they were showing the complete 101-minute version, albeit with the soundtrack dubbed in English — a pity, since the DVD contains both the dubbed version and the original one in Japanese, and it would probably have been more interesting to see the Japanese version with English subtitles) but still fun even though fun in a way one doesn’t expect from something advertised as a monster movie. It begins on an island called Beiru (“Infant Island” in the Japanese version and in the subsequent three Mothra sequelae), formerly used as a site for atomic tests (as Carlos Clarens noted in his book on horror films, it was fascinating how filmmakers from Japan — the one country in history ever on the receiving end of an attack with atomic weapons — returned again and again to the Bomb as a plot device for horror movies) where a ship is wrecked.

Four sailors are rescued and survive, and when they’re asked how they lived through the high levels of radiation that would ordinarily have killed anyone, they say that the native population gave them a special juice that counteracted the usual effects of radioactivity. What native population, the authorities ask, since before they used the island for bomb tests in the first place they were supposed to make sure it was uninhabited — and it turns out that among the island’s humanoid inhabitants are a pair of twin women (Emi and Yûmi Ito), who in real life were a then-popular Japanese singing duo called “The Peanuts,” who in the movie are billed as the Shobijin (“fairies”) and put on public display by a slimy entrepreneur named Nelson (Jerry Ito). At first no one can communicate with the Shobijin — they speak neither Japanese nor the thick Japanese-accented English of the dubbed soundtrack — but eventually the film’s stars, reporter Senichiro “Sen-chan” Fukuda (an oddly homely actor named Furankî Sakai), his photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyôko Kagawa) and their friend Dr. Shin'ichi Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi), figure out how to speak to them through telepathy.

The Shobijin warn our Terrific Trio that back on their home island there’s a spirit called Mothra (“Mosura” in the original) who will come to Japan and wreak a lot of havoc until he finds them and returns them to their home island. The film intercuts between the Shobijin performing as part of Nelson’s show and a ceremonial ritual back on Beiru with a group of full-sized islanders — and the sheer outrageousness of the brown body makeup used to turn a batch of Japanese dancers into slightly convincing Polynesians is one of the bizarre camp treats of this movie — doing a dance around a sacred flame, obviously inspired by the native dance in King Kong, during which they sing a song to their great spirit — who’s represented by a giant egg resting on a niche above their dance circle — until the egg hatches and out emerges the larval form of Mothra, who’s supposed to be a giant caterpillar but looks more like a slug. From this point on the film devolves into the sort of destruction porn the audiences for an Inoshiro Honda (he directed) production from Toho expected, with the caterpillar Mothra swimming to Japan (crashing through at least one ship on the way, sinking it and killing everyone aboard) and then pushing its way through a bunch of cheap balsa-wood models of cities — and one of the disappointments of seeing one of these productions on the big screen instead of on TV is that the scale of the projected image just makes it obvious how fake the models really are and how cheesy the effects work is, especially by comparison to the digitalized imagery of today’s films in the giant-monster genre. At the same time, of course, the tackiness of the effects and model work is part of these films’ charm; a Godzilla movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining if it didn’t look like a guy in a monster suit (actually, I found out later, two guys in a monster suit — Godzilla was a mechanical contraption and it took two people inside to work it), and this one offers two incarnations of Mothra for the price of one.

The writers — Takehiko Fukunaga (source novel, Hakkou Yousei to Mothra), Shinichirô Nakamura and Yoshie Hotta (story), Shinichi Sekizawa (script) and Robert Myerson (English version) — worked off the moth’s well-known changes from egg to larva (caterpillar) to cocoon to full flying adulthood and had Mothra spin a cocoon attached to the wreckage of an Eiffel Tower-like radio transmitter she had just wrecked, then the military fires atomic rays at her (the script is surprisingly clear that Mothra is female), which apparently only speeds up the maturation process inside the cocoon because in almost nothing flat Mothra emerges in full giant-mothhood, though just as her caterpillar state looked more like a slug (she had the multiple arms of a normal caterpillar but didn’t seem to use them for motion), the full-grown version looks less like a moth than a bee, a giant model bee made mostly from differently colored pipe cleaners. Mothra in giant-moth-in-giant-bee-drag form takes out a few more balsa-wood models of big buildings until finally the reporters and their friend (who’s called “doctor” in the cast list but there’s little indication of that in the script), aided by a singularly obnoxious and overweight little boy, kidnap the Shobijin so that Mothra can pick them up, go back home and end the wanton destruction of balsa-wood Japan so the film can also end.

It’s not a particularly frightening film but it’s fun to see all those models go down — it’s pretty clear that these movies were mostly aimed at the pre-pubescent crowd, especially since the action is carefully staged to avoid either gore or the chills of the “vaporized” people in earlier films like 1953’s The War of the Worlds — and the presence of the Shobijin gives the film a certain quirky charm, as does the mild anti-capitalist satire in the role of Nelson and his insistence on keeping his “world’s only living fairies” show going even when it’s explained to him that Mothra is going to continue destroying Japan unless he lets go the “living faires” and lets Mothra take them back from whence they came (though the Shobijin as well as Mothra herself figured in the inevitable sequelae, including movies Toho made later in the 1960’s and 1970’s that, like Universal in the 1940’s, often combined their monster characters — sometimes casting Godzilla and other fearsome menaces from the past on the side of good as they were enlisted to fight the current evil monster) — and eventually the fairies go back to Beiru but promise to return to Japan for a visit sometime (how? Will Mothra let them?) and the movie comes to an airily happy ending that ignores the human cost of all the destruction as well as the gargantuan task of fixing it all.

One quirky aspect of the U.S. version was that, despite so many cards with miscellaneous actors’ names on them (including one whose first name was “Akihito,” also the first name of Japan’s current Emperor) — which briefly gave me the impression that half the total 1961 population of Japan was in this movie — the three leads, Sakai, Kagawa and Koizuki, were left off the U.S. credits!

Bank Alarm (Condor/Grand National, 1937)

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

The film was Bank Alarm, a 1937 production from Edward L. Alperson’s Condor company, released through Grand National (and bearing the Condor logo at the beginning and the Grand National logo at the end) and posted to with an advisement that it was about a husband-and-wife team of FBI agents (it isn’t; the co-leads, Conrad Nagel as Alan O’Connor and Eleanor Hunt as Bobbie Reynolds, are both FBI agents, they work together and end up in a romantic clinch at the end, but they’re not playing a married couple) and that it featured many of the same actors as Captain Calamity (which it doesn’t; only one actor, Vince Barnett, is in both, and he’s once again playing a comic-relief character — a hapless newspaper photographer who keeps tripping over his own tripod).

Written by future Universal and PRC horror writer Griffin Jay with David S. Levy, and directed by Louis Gasnier (who’d directed the original The Perils of Pauline in 1914 and kept working into the 1930’s on films like Reefer Madness — yet more evidence that, despite all the wild tales about Reefer Madness’s provenance, it really was a Grand National production), Bank Alarm is about a gang of unscrupulous bank robbers who are being chased by both the his-and-hers FBI agents but also by Los Angeles Police Department inspector J. C. Macy (William Thorne). The gang is headed by Joe Karlotti (Wheeler Oakman), who runs it out of the back room of his fancy nightclub, Club Karlotti (and Grand National, though an independent company, had a big enough production budget that it really looks like a lavish nightclub — and a long enough schedule so that Gasnier could work out some traveling-camera shots across the nightclub floor instead of just sticking his cameras in front of the principals and keeping them rooted to the floor), and he’s just imported a thug from out of town named Jerry Turner (Frank Milan), who shows up at the Club Karlotti posing as an aspiring screenwriter and with Alan O’Connor’s sister Kay (Wilma Francis) as his date.

Naturally, she takes his false identity at face value and has no idea her new boyfriend is really a crook — the sort of preposterous coincidence that has powered all too many movie plots throughout the history of the medium — but there’s some invention as Turner and another one of Karlotti’s gangsters plot a payroll robbery of $40,000 from a Works Progress Administration camp and work out a neat way of doing it: since the money is being held in the post office, which is also the jail being used by the county sheriff of the remote location of the work camp, they disguise themselves as vagrants, get themselves arrested, pick the lock of their cell, steal the money, then let themselves back in the cell, lock it and wait for the sheriff to release them in the morning. (The sheriff nearly discovers the plot when he decides the mattresses in the cell are too lumpy and they should be changed — the crooks are hiding the money inside the mattresses — and it looks for a moment this movie might be heading towards Ocean’s Eleven territory, but the crooks distract him and get away with the dough.)

The title comes from a robbery of the Second National Bank which the crooks pull off with another audacious stunt — they send one of their own into the bank posing as a maintenance person from the company that maintains their burglar alarm, thereby turning the alarm off at the precise time the rest of the gang is going to commit the robbery — and as if that weren’t enough, they are able to crash Macy’s office and kill both the police inspector and Overman (Wilson Benge), a witness (a bank clerk) who noticed that in addition to robbing the Second National they were also using it to launder counterfeit money through Karlotti’s business account. Eventually the gang is traced to a farm on the outskirts of town — the farmer claims to be a victim of the gang but is really part of it — and Turner lures Kay away from her brother and claims to have kidnapped her, threatening to kill her unless the feds stop going after him and the other crooks, but eventually there’s a shoot-out, the good guys live, the bad guys die and Vince Barnett once again trips over his own camera and misses the scoop of Alan and Bobbie kissing. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, this was the fourth and last in a mini-series called Federal Agent with Nagel in the lead, and in some ways it has the air of what the TV series Law and Order would have been like in the 1930’s: some pretty melodramatic plotting (especially in the sweeping reach the gang is described as having) but also a tough, unsparing and unromantic vision of what police work is like — though overall it’s a good movie but also a flat and ordinary one, completely lacking the insouciance of Captain Calamity.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Captain Calamity (Grand National, 1936)

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

Our “feature” last night was a 1936 production from Grand National called Captain Calamity, which I was interested in mainly because it was shot in color — at a time when many of the major studios still feared to tread the path of color, but not Grand National, the pluckiest of indies, which may have saddled the world with dreck like Reefer Madness (it wasn’t released under their auspices but was clearly produced by them — the giveaways are the personnel and especially the reference to Any Old Love, the fictitious film made by James Cagney’s character in his Grand National musical Something to Sing About) but also grabbed Cagney for two films when a court decision (later reversed on appeal) briefly freed him from Jack Warner’s sweatshop and clearly was shooting for major-studio status. The color is credited to an in-house process called “Hirlicolor” (after Grand National’s studio chief, George Hirliman) but judging from internal evidence was probably Cinecolor (an early-1930’s process which managed to get convincing blues before Technicolor did and also did a decent job on white and Latino skin tones even though it was a bit weak on everything else).

What I hadn’t realized was that Captain Calamity would prove to be a real gem, a minor movie but nonetheless a continuous one-hour delight which showed that though the term “camp” might not have existed yet, the idea of camp — of simultaneously exploiting the clichés of a genre and making fun of them — was alive and well at Grand National in 1936, courtesy of writers Gordon Ray Young (story) and Crane Wilbur (screenplay), director John Reinhardt (who before this seems to have worked on Spanish-language movies exclusively — indeed, he shot an alternative Spanish-language version of Captain Calamity called El Capitan Tormenta) and composers Jack Stem and Harry Tobias, who came up with four songs for star George Houston to sing (one gets the impression Grand National was aiming this at least in part to Nelson Eddy’s audience), including an adaptation of the old sea shanty “What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The plot casts Houston as the title character, t/n Captain Bill Jones, who runs a schooner called the Marigold in the South Seas when he isn’t putting into ports like Tapia (which really existed) or exploring islands like Quica (which I don’t think did — the only context I’ve heard the word “cuica” is as a Brazilian percussion instrument). At one point he gives a fellow named Carr (Barry Norton, the male lead in the Spanish-language Dracula and the juvenile in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day) a ride on his boat, and Carr gives him a Spanish doubloon, which he says he was keeping as a “lucky coin” but which has proven unlucky for him.

Jones throws the coin overboard but his first mate, Mike (Juan Torena), dives for it and retrieves it, and later when they put into Tapia — otherwise broke — Jones is able to bluff his way into all the food and drink he and his crew can consume, and all the supplies they need for their trip to Quica, by pretending that’s just one coin out of an entire Spanish treasure he’s discovered and salvaged. Naturally this attracts the attentions of a lot of shady people, including trader Joblin (Louis Natheaux) and bar owner Mamie Gruen (Margaret Irving, Margaret Dumont’s social rival in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers), along with her slimy boy-toy Samson (Roy d’Arcy, the villain in John Gilbert’s films The Merry Widow and Bardelys the Magnificent), all of whom plot to steal the (nonexistent) treasure from Our Hero. Of course there’s also a Bad Girl, Annana (Movita Castaneda, the heroine of the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, billed — as she was in Bounty — only by her first name), and a Good Girl, Madge Lewis (Marian Nixon), niece of Dr. James Kelkey (Crane Wilbur, who’d got his start in films as the male lead of The Perils of Pauline before branching out into writing) — and at the end Madge ends up with Our Hero after the other guy he’s presumably been taking her to turns out to have got married to someone else already. And did I mention that veteran character actor Vince Barnett is in it as the comic relief?

Aside from offering lots of luscious shots of the male cast members with their shirts off — this may have one of the highest beefcake quotients of any 1930’s movie — Captain Calamity is a delight from start to finish, a romp through the South Seas movie clichés by a group of filmmakers who didn’t take them seriously and didn’t expect the audience to, either. It’s got three reviews on, one from someone who saw the same things in it Charles and I did and two from people who roasted it as just another bad movie — don’t these people have any sense of humor?

The Buccaneers (Incorporated Television Company [ITC]/Sapphire Films, 1956)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched another quirky item we downloaded from an episode of The Buccaneers, a 1956 British TV series noteworthy for casting the young Robert Shaw as Captain Dan Tempest, a pirate who goes out on a hunt for treasure from Spanish ships and arrives back at the colony of New Providence (presumably in the West Indies) to find that he’s missed — by two weeks — the pardon the British king of the time had offered to pirates who agreed to renounce that lifestyle, settle down and become farmers. The colony’s governor, Woodes Rogers (Alec Clunes, who bears a striking resemblance to Errol Flynn and, for me at least, outshines Shaw in the charisma department), gets Tempest to start a plantation and grow dyewood — which, as its name suggests, has an inner core that can be turned into dye — and later he sends Tempest out on a ship to get the colony’s goods to the Carolinas (yes, the ones in what later became the U.S.) on the ground that an ex-pirate is likely to be able to frustrate the attempts of current pirates, most notably the notorious Blackbeard (George Margo), to steal either the cargo he’s taking to the Carolinas or the supplies he’s supposed to pick up there and bring back to New Providence.

Like Captain Calamity, this was a charming episode in which the big issue was whether Tempest was going to be a good little boy or revert to his trade of piracy — as the crew of his ship, who had sailed with him when he was still a pirate, clearly wanted him to — leading up to a trick ending in which Tempest appears to be ready to dump his obligations to the Crown and join forces with Blackbeard, only instead he imprisons his crew in the ship’s hold and joins with Beamish (Peter Hammond), Rogers’ agent on board and the “enforcer” the governor has sent to make sure Tempest behaves, to fire two chained-together cannonballs at Blackbeard’s ship, thereby bringing down its mast and pinning Blackbeard (who’s played as a comic-relief character) under it. While not at the level of Captain Calamity, this show was also good clean fun that at once embraced and ridiculed the pirate-movie clichés — and apparently the show lasted 37 episodes over two years (1956-57), so somebody out there must have liked it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For Once in My Life (Big Blue Box Productions/PBS, 2010)

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

The film was For Once in My Life, a 2010 documentary being presented as a preview for PBS’s “Independent Lens” series (though just how the mavens at PBS decide whether a particular film is an “Independent Lens” or a “P.O.V.” I’ve never been able to figure out), about the Goodwill Industries operation in Miami, Florida, which in something of an eye-opener for those who think of Goodwill as just a thrift store is shown not only using people with disabilities for their main work — making uniforms for various institutional customers, including the U.S. military — but also training some of their clients to play in the “Spirit of Goodwill Band.” The film is about the band during a frantic rehearsal period for a public performance at a conference of politicians being held in Miami and the efforts of their musical director, the presumably non-disabled Javier Peña, to get them in shape technically and musically for their show. (One of the most remarkable aspects of this movie is that he isn’t at all easy on them; Peña is as tough a taskmaster in rehearsals as he would be with a group of fully able-bodied and able-minded players.)

The rehearsal footage is interspersed with profiles of some of the individual musicians and how they ended up there — including Terry Wigfall, a blind African-American saxophonist (who seems to be the band’s most talented member, though maybe that’s just because he’s the only one shown improvising), who was dropped at age 14 months and never recovered physically; keyboard player Christian Acosta, who’s autistic and blind; a young drummer in a wheelchair with Down syndrome who calls himself “Sam Percussion” (his real name is Sam Collins); and perhaps the saddest one of all, singer Nancy Spagnolo, who grew up with a slow-learning brother and older sister and, though she began with average intelligence, she slipped behind as a result of being around her siblings and not getting the intellectual stimulation she needed (so much for the idea that intelligence is exclusively genetically determined and environment has nothing to do with it!). I didn’t find this one anywhere nearly as moving as The Eyes of Me, a similar “Independent Lens” production from last year which I also saw at the library, and which was utterly gripping in its tale of four students at a special high school in Texas for blind students and their attempts to get about in the world — most of the film stayed in the rehearsal room, and when it ventured out we got the backstories of the principals as people, but I’d have liked more of an insight into what led them to become musicians and what difficulties they faced in getting as good as they were.

Among the things I liked about the movie were the ease with which band members of different races mixed — the group we see on screen is about one-third Latino/a, one-third Black and one-third white — and the sheer infectiousness and joy they projected when they played. Their rendition of the title song (which I keep forgetting was a hit for Tony Bennett well before it became associated with blind musical superstar Stevie Wonder) is heard over the opening credits but not shown, but the two songs they do play on screen, Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s “Conga” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” are infectious pieces to which the Spirit of Goodwill Band members do full justice. According to the page on the film, it was released theatrically at 95 minutes — about 20 minutes longer than the version shown at the public library, which will probably also be the cut PBS airs — and it would be nice to see the longer version sometime.

Assault on a Queen (Paramount/Seven Arts/Sinatra Enterprises, 1965)

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

The film was Assault on a Queen, a 1965 co-production of Paramount, Seven Arts and Sinatra Enterprises, Inc. and an obvious attempt by star Frank Sinatra to duplicate his success with Ocean’s Eleven five years earlier by casting himself as another burned-out ex-servicemember (ex-Navy this time) plotting a big heist — only this time, instead of five Las Vegas casinos, his target is the ocean liner Queen Mary (then in its last years of active service as a cruise ship before it was sold to Long Island as a combination hotel and theme park). The film opens with adventurer Vic Rossiter (Anthony Franciosa) and his girlfriend Rosa Lucchesi (Virna Lisi) diving off the coast of the Bahamas looking for sunken treasure left behind by the Spanish in the age of the conquistadores. The diver they hired to do the actual underwater work suddenly drowns because of a defect in the suit they rented for him from Trench (Val Avery), and they need another diver, pronto.

Meanwhile, Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) — whose last name is pronounced as if it were the French “Bretagne” — is a burned-out ex-Navy captain who is running a fishing boat and is in hock for about $600 to Trench, who in addition to renting out bad diving equipment also runs the marina where Mark keeps his boat and sells him his gas. Because he needs the money immediately, Mark hires out as the diver for Vic, Rosa and their third crew member, Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kjellin) — who, like Mark, also served on a Navy submarine in World War II, only on the German side. They don’t find any Spanish treasure (earlier Mark had given a great debunking speech saying that the legendary sites of Spanish wrecks had been picked over so thoroughly they’d be better off trying their luck in Las Vegas — advice Sinatra and the filmmakers would have done well to heed, since when Sinatra did this sort of movie in Las Vegas as Ocean’s Eleven they had much better results both artistically and commercially!) but they do find a sunken but miraculously intact German submarine, which they clean up (mostly a matter of scraping the seaweed and barnacles off her) and hire yet another person, engineer Tony Moreno (Richard Conte), to get into running order. Their idea is to become undersea pirates and hijack the Queen Mary, stealing the cash from the ship’s onboard bank as well as the bullion it carries, netting themselves $1 million and setting themselves up for life. Only of course things go wrong and in the end Mark and Rosa, the only members of the gang who survive, are together in a raft but without the money or the rest of their crew.

Assault on a Queen has a credit list that practically defines the word “overqualified” — the source novel was by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the script by Rod Serling (though it’s a straightforward crime story with no supernatural or science-fictional elements and no social commentary, either, thereby avoiding the three sorts of writing Serling was best at), the cinematography by veteran William Daniels (who also got an “associate producer” credit), Virna Lisi’s costumes by Edith Head (though pretty much the extent of her wardrobe here is a white blouse and tight black pants, which I doubt presented Head much of a design challenge), and the music by Duke Ellington — though with Nathan Van Cleave getting a credit as orchestrator (he probably wrote the string parts for the main theme, heard at both the beginning and the end) and the Duke contributing a perfectly serviceable score, much like the kind Oliver Nelson was adorning several Universal movies at the time, but hardly on the level of his (and Billy Strayhorn’s) genuinely exciting and creative work on Anatomy of a Murder.

What all these heavyweight talents came up with was a movie that was moderately entertaining but all too predictable, albeit with some nice touches (like the huge diamond being worn by a dowager passenger on the Queen Mary, which Vic attempts to steal — thereby dropping the two huge ingots of gold he was supposed to be carrying out and delaying the heist long enough to get himself shot and keep the rest of the robbers from getting their loot; and the final confrontation between Mark and Eric, in which Eric, used to seeing the U.S. military as his enemy, wants to shoot at the crew of the Coast Guard cutter that’s chasing them while Mark, though crooked, is still enough of a U.S. patriot that he doesn't want to commit an act of war against a U.S. vessel) and a far cry from Ocean’s Eleven, which compared to this benefited from a much more fun supporting cast (including all five of the “Rat Pack), a better director (Lewis Milestone instead of hack Jack Donohue) and an insouciant air of comedy that made for a much more entertaining film because it’s easier to like a bunch of lovably roguish crooks than the pettily mean ones of Assault on a Queen.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Captain Scarface (Lincoln Productions, 1953)

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

The film was Captain Scarface, a 1953 independent movie from an outfit called Lincoln Productions which I had thought, more because of the second word in the title than anything else, would turn out to be a gangster movie evoking the spirit of the 1920’s. Wrong! It turned out to be a maritime melodrama with a ridiculously convoluted script that made almost no sense — and most of the actors affected dreadful accents which made the already unfathomable movie totally unintelligible as well. The film begins with a sudden attack on a freight ship called the S.S. Banos (one gets the impression that whoever named the ship “Bathrooms” ensured it deserved all the bad luck it got!), which is blown to smithereens, following which we see a crew being assembled for a ship called — you guessed it — S.S. Banos. According to the commentary on, we were supposed to believe that sinister forces had destroyed the first Banos and were passing this new ship off as the original Banos for some sinister purpose, but I didn’t get that — I naïvely assumed, based on the common run of movie clichés, that the film was going to end with the Banos blowing up, that the opening was a “teaser” shot and the subsequent shot of an intact Banos heralded a flashback.

Barton MacLane is top-billed (which will give you an impression of just how cheap this movie is!), playing the titular “Captain Scarface” (though his face doesn’t look particularly scarred and his real name, if any, we never learn). He’s awaiting a sailor named Clegg (Paul Brinegar) who’s supposed to be delivering a sinister package on board (according to the synopsis it’s an atomic bomb, but if that was made apparent in the film itself, I must have nodded off while that was being explained), but unbeknownst to Scarface, Clegg has been murdered by another sailor, Sam (Leif Erickson), who takes his place and knows nothing about the Great Whatzit he’s supposed to be sneaking on board. There’s also a scientist named Yeager (a particularly repulsive presence named Rudolph Anders) and his daughter Elsa (Virginia Grey), who gets on board more to give Leif Erickson a love interest than anything else. These people spend 65 minutes or so chasing each other around the decks of the fake Banos, nothing much happens and, as I once read a critic say about another film, it doesn’t end — it just stops. What a bore!

Here’s hoping some of the other “Captain” movies I recently downloaded from — including one called Captain Calamity which is a color movie from Grand National in 1936 (the pluckiest indie of the 1930’s not only bagged James Cagney for two films when he’d won a lawsuit freeing him from Warners — only Warners won him back on appeal — but shot a full-length color movie at a time when most of the majors still feared to tread the path of color and Technicolor chair John Hay Whitney had to bankroll his own studio to get some movies made in the three-strip process) — are better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Craigslist Killer (Silver Screen Entertainment/Lifetime, 2011)

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

I watched two Lifetime shows relating to the so-called “Craigslist Killer” case in Boston and Rhode Island in 2009, a dramatization called The Craigslist Killer and a sleazy hour-long documentary called Behind the Headlines: Catching the Craigslist Killer. The “Craigslist Killer” was 23-year-old medical student Philip Markoff (Jake McDorman), a brilliant young man with a stunning future seemingly ahead of him, including a totally devoted fiancée, Megan McAllister (Agnes Bruckner), with whom he was living and who was also a medical student, suddenly went on a crime spree when she was out of town for a week. It began when he logged onto the “Erotic Services” section of Craigslist and answered the standing ad for Las Vegas-based call girl Tricia Leffler (Trieste Dunn), who met him at a Boston hotel where she had a room and, despite taking basic precautions (like letting him know what hotel floor she was on but not her actual room number), was overpowered when he pulled a gun on her and started tying her up with plastic zip ties, stole her money and credit cards, deleted his number from her cell phone so the police wouldn’t have a way of tracing him back through his phone number and text messages, and left her fearful for her life but also determined that, even though she was there to do something illegal (prostitution), she was going to report him to the police.

She did so, but because he had no criminal record there was nothing to match the fingerprints he’d left on the scene — until two days later, when he did the same sort of crime, only in this case, instead of complying with his demands, victim Julissa Brisman (Leela Savasta) tried to fight back, and he shot and killed her. The police decided to trace him through the e-mails he’d sent her; they wrote to his e-mail provider, Comcast, for the IP address from which the mails had been sent but during the two or three days they had to wait for this information, Markoff struck again with the same M.O., this time in Rhode Island. His victim this time was a stripper who was willing to do private parties but with a twist: her husband would wait for her in the hotel lobby or another location nearby, she would call him as soon as she registered and gives him a heads-up that the trick was going O.K., and if she didn’t contact him that would be a sign that she was heading for trouble and he should intervene — which he did, nearly overpowering the killer before he knocked them both out and fled successfully. The police get the IP information and find the e-mails luring the victims were sent from Markoff’s Internet connection, but because he was living in an apartment building and had a wireless connection, they have to consider the possibility that someone — either in the building or just outside — was bootlegging access through his Net connection and thereby framing him.

Eventually they get a positive ID when a surveillance photo taken at the scene of the Brisman killing by a hotel security camera is identified by Megan McAllister as her boyfriend — and they stake out Markoff’s apartment, then arrest him when he and Megan are in her car driving up Highway 95, seemingly about to leave Massachusetts’ jurisdiction, and the cops decide that even without all their evidentiary ducks lined up they’d better take him now before he leaves the state. It was probably a mistake to watch the dramatization after the documentary, because it exposed all the deviations from fact in the fiction film; Tricia Leffler, in real life a zaftig blonde with a striking resemblance to Anna Nicole Smith (indeed, one suspects that her clientele as a call girl was men who thought Anna Nicole was really hot and had always wanted to do her, and were willing to settle for someone who looked a lot like her), was cast as a slender, nubile brunette, while the genuinely dark-haired Megan was turned into a blonde, and a rather ditzy one at that. Odder still, the script by Donald Martin and Stephen Tolkin (both scribes with long records of writing Lifetime-style movies) changed the story so that Megan was not out of town when the murders occurred — fact, schmact: I guess they just couldn’t resist the irony of a criminal coming home to his girlfriend and saying “Hi, honey, I’m home” or the modern-day equivalent of that old cliché after he’d been out on a hard day’s night of armed robbery and murder. (Even more ironically, the photos of the real Philip Markoff shown on the documentary showed that in addition to having brains and charm, he was also movie-star gorgeous and actually looked hotter than Jake McDorman — though McDorman was nice-looking enough for the role and it was nice for a change to see a Lifetime movie in which the male lead, even if he was playing a despicable character, was a hot, attractive young man instead of a sandy-haired, lanky middle-aged one in bad clothes or a twerpy-looking teenage twink.)

The Craigslist Killer was an O.K. movie about a subject that could have been handled a lot better; director Stephen Kay has little flair for suspense and shoots the actual crimes in a rather detached, matter-of-fact manner that shows us very little of the terror that must have gripped the victims, and neither the documentary nor the Martin-Tolkin script offered us much insight into What Made Philip Run — he was never tried for the crimes because before that could happen, he made himself a D.I.Y. scalpel and killed himself in his cell, and both movies argued that this denied justice for the victims because it ensured Markoff couldn’t be tried and convicted of the crime. There are a few marvelous scenes here that show what a much better movie this could have been, notably one ironic sequence that cuts back and forth between a police profiler predicting that the killer would be a loner with no close friends, no normal relationships with women and an inability to handle social settings, and Markoff’s actual life, full of friends as well as a fiancée and with every ability to charm people around him and make them feel good.

The closest either film comes to an explanation is one in the dramatization in which Markoff, at the other end of a prison telephone from Megan, tells her about a hypothetical criminal who may have committed crimes similar to those he’s accused of because he was convinced he didn’t deserve everything he had — plus a few bits trotted out saying that Markoff, when he wasn’t studying or interning, was visiting Web sites on his computer about bondage, S/M and Transgender people. I’m not an S/M practitioner myself but I know enough of them to resent this bland equation of S/M with an interest in sexual violence and crime; most S/M occurs between people who have negotiated their roles in the scene and are taking precautions to make sure they minimize the risks — and they would be just as horrified at the thought of a sexual crime as anyone else would, perhaps more horrified than the rest of us if it happened to be a crime in which the perpetrator had forced someone to go through a scene that physically resembled something he or she might want to do safely with a willing partner.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Phantom Express (Majestic, 1932)

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

The film was a 1932 low-budget independent thriller called The Phantom Express, made by Majestic (one of the better indie studios of the time) and opening with some quite spectacular footage of a train hurtling down the track on a dark night. The train’s engineer, D. J. “Smokey” Nolan (J. Farrell MacDonald), and his Swedish-accented comic-relief fireman Axel (Axel Axelson), get spooked when they see the headlight of a train going the opposite direction on the same track bearing down on them. Anxious to avoid a collision, Nolan pulls the brake to try to stop the train, but it derails as it stops and there’s a horrendous accident from which Nolan and Axel walk away but some of the passengers die. The railroad’s owner, Mr. Harrington (Hobart Bosworth), convenes a board of inquiry and learns that none of the personnel at any of the stations that train would have had to pass saw it coming (or going) and therefore it doesn’t seem as if the train existed at all — only Nolan swears he not only saw but heard it, and so do some of the neighbors living along the track. Nonetheless, Harrington fires Nolan.

Meanwhile, Harrington’s scapegrace son Bruce (William Collier, Jr.) and his friend Dick Walsh (Eddie Phillips) go undercover to see if they can find the secret behind the wrecks — there’ve been at least two others before that, all with the engineers similarly reporting a “phantom express” bearing down on them which they stopped and derailed in an attempt to avoid colliding into — and see if they can confirm Harrington, Sr.’s suspicion that the wrecks are being staged by agents of a rival railroad that are trying to acquire Harrington’s line and drive the price down by making his line appear unsafe. At the start of the movie Bruce Harrington is a ne’er-do-well young man whose only interests are yachting and girls — though his latest girlfriend de jour walks out on him when she catches Bruce flirting with Carolyn Nolan (Sally Blane, Loretta Young’s real-life sister), daughter of “Smokey” Nolan, who works in the railroad office as a secretary.

Appalled by the injustice of Nolan’s firing — which he learns about at a birthday party for him at the little house he and his proletarian family live in — Bruce ultimately discovers that the wrecks were indeed being staged by agents of the rival railroad, and he learns how: they rigged up an airplane with a giant light in the front to make it resemble the headlight of a train, and also outfitted it with an amplifier and large speakers so they could play a record of train sounds at a volume similar to that of the real thing, so they could make it appear both to the hapless engineers and the neighbors living alongside the tracks that the “phantom express” was real, while the station personnel swore that no train had passed them because none had. In a good action climax, Doyle has to get himself and Bruce to the railroad office before midnight, when Harrington, Sr. is about to sign the papers selling the line, and deliver the news in person since there’s been a major storm that has blown both the telegraph and telephone lines — and Doyle barrels the train down the track under the worst possible conditions and somehow gets himself, the boss’s son and the train to the city despite various obstacles, including a weak bridge who (stop me if you’ve heard this before) collapses just after Doyle gets the train over it safely.

The director was Emory Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with Laird Doyle (who would later jump to the major studios and write some of Bette Davis’s early vehicles at Warners) and the production designer was Albert D’Agostino, who would take over the art department at RKO in the early 1940’s after Van Nest Polglase drank himself out of the job. The Phantom Express is a nicely done thriller that would have been even better at a major studio — imagine it at Warners with James Cagney in the lead! — where the trains hurtling through the night wouldn’t have been so obviously models and a musical score would have added to the tension, but even as it stands The Phantom Express is a well-turned movie, exciting and relatively inventive in its plot resolution (even though one would have to think a band of unscrupulous financial manipulators seeking to wreck a rival railroad to pick it up at a fire-sale price would have been able to come up with a less elaborate way of doing it!) and with enough hell-bent-for-leather action and at the same time some genuine pathos: the scene in which Smokey Doyle learns he’s been fired is very carefully staged for maximum emotional impact without sliding over into soap-opera bathos.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lady in the Death House (PRC, 1944)

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

The film was Lady in the Death House, made at PRC in 1944 and long a particular favorite of mine for the excellence of the execution and the sheer audacity of the concept: a woman is tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a murder she didn’t commit, and the man who’s supposed to pull the switch on the electric chair in his capacity as the state executioner is her boyfriend — or, to be more exact, her ex-boyfriend, since though he was still in love with her, she refused to continue their relationship because of her horror at the way he made his living. Lady in the Death House was directed by Steve Sekely (a Hungarian-born director who originally spelled his last name “Szekely” but got rid of the “z” when he came to the U.S.), who’d shown his excellent camera eye in Monogram’s Revenge of the Zombies the year before but whose efforts had been sabotaged by a silly script.

This time around he got a script worthy of him — written by Harry O. Hoyt (director of the 1925 blockbuster The Lost World, the first feature-length dinosaur movie, but his career never recovered from the cancellation of his follow-up, the unfinished 1930 film Creation) from a story called “Meet the Executioner” by Frederick C. Davis, a pulp mystery writer whose work would seem to merit re-examination based on this film. He also got an interesting cast; the heroine, Jean Parker, was already on her way down (though she gave the performance of her career in this film), but some of his supporting players, including Douglas Fowley (generally typecast as a gangster, though his most famous credit is as the director in Singin’ in the Rain) as her executioner boyfriend and Lionel Atwill (billed second) in one of his rare good-guy roles as a psychologist/criminologist who unravels the mystery and proves the Parker character innocent barely in time to save her from execution.

The film begins with a couple of stock shots of a prison — an exterior and an interior — and then Jean Parker as heroine Mary Kirk, walking the last mile as her voice is heard on the soundtrack speaking what we later learn are the words of a letter she, with remarkable calm and courage in the face of an unjust death, had completed just before she was scheduled to be taken to the electric chair. The scene then dissolves to Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill) as he reads Mary’s letter to a handful of journalists and gives his psychological insights into her story as he recalls it — and as we see it in flashbacks. The next sequence takes place in The Grotto, the combination restaurant/bar where much of the film’s action takes place (it seems to be the only place in town any of the characters ever go out to), in which Mary is sitting at a table with a drunken companion, when a waiter brings over a fondue pot and the drunk guy tips it over and sets fire to Mary’s dress. Finch and Dr. Dwight “Brad” Bradford (Douglas Fowley) are at another table and, when they note the commotion, they become what Finch calls “a two-man fire brigade” and put out the fire on Mary’s dress before it reaches her body and starts burning her — Finch with an overcoat he uses to smother the flames and Brad with a seltzer bottle with which he sprays her.

This odd version of a Hollywood meet-cute precipitates a relationship between Brad and Mary, though there are several clouds hanging over it: not only Brad’s job (which he’s holding to finance his researches in ways to revivify the dead) but also Mary’s past as the daughter of convicted pinball operator Tom Logan; her worry about Mr. Gregory (George Irving), her boss at the bank where she works, finding out who she is (she was raised by a relative of her mother and therefore is using a different last name), since not only did he take a Secret Six-type role in getting Logan convicted but he’s one of those idiots who believe that criminal tendencies are heritable and therefore wouldn’t want someone with Logan’s “bad blood” working for him; and also her twitchy sister Suzy (Marcia Mae Jones), who’s dating a lot of different guys, some of them with sordid pasts of their own. Mary is being blackmailed by Willis Millen (Dick Curtis), a former lieutenant in Logan’s pinball operation (which Gregory makes sound as if it were the principal enterprise of the Mafia and Finch, when he talks about it later, describes as a minor annoyance that wasn’t even illegal until the state changed the law), who’s threatened to tell Gregory of her ancestry if she doesn’t keep paying him.

One night Millen shows up at Mary’s apartment and demands $500 immediately; she decides she’s had enough of him and runs to her room and hides out; and the next thing we see is an unseen hand clubbing him with a singularly ugly statuette and leaving him mortally wounded. Two witnesses — one of them played by the amazing slimeball Byron Foulger — see the whole thing, but only from street level and only in silhouette; they come up to the apartment and hear Millen say, “Mary, why did you do this?” just before he expires. With two eyewitnesses and a dying declaration from the victim, Mary’s conviction is an open-and-shut case — even her sister Suzy is convinced she’s guilty — and the only person who seriously questions it is Finch, who picked up a mysterious key on the floor the night of the murder, which the police had overlooked in their search. (This is one plot point that doesn’t ring true since a real criminologist would turn this evidence to the police instead of withholding it.) Finch decides that Suzy is the key to the whole crime, and he confronts her at The Grotto one night and shows her the key — which she immediately identifies as a car key belonging to one of her boyfriends, only she can’t (or won’t) remember his name.

A neon sign over the bar at the Grotto, “Richardson Ale,” jogs Finch’s memory and he recalls hearing Suzy refer to the man as Richard, and he has her direct him to where the man lived — and it turns out he is Richard Snell (John Maxwell), a teller at Gregory’s bank who had embezzled and sneaked into Mary’s apartment in hopes of getting money either from her or from Millen, who was flashing the roll he’d collected from other blackmail victims; Snell killed Millen for the bankroll but didn’t get it because the witnesses from the street entered the apartment before he could pick it up and flee. The last several minutes are a race against time as Finch tries to reach the governor to tell him Mary is innocent and he should call off the execution — only the governor just gave a broadcast speech and is now with his chauffeur at a diner having “Denver sandwiches smothered in onions,” and it’s only when Suzy hits on the idea of getting the information on the radio that the governor hears it over the radio inside the diner and calls the prison — only meantime it’s already past 11, the hour scheduled for Mary’s execution, and after saying all along that he was capable of doing it, Brad locks himself in the chamber with the switches for controlling the electric chair, forcing the prison guards to break the window on the chamber door and fire tear gas in — but delaying his girlfriend’s execution long enough for the governor’s phone call to come in and call it off completely.

Lady in the Death House ranks at the very top of PRC’s output, well acted from top to bottom (though I found Marcia Mae Jones’ character, pitched in between noir second-lead and comic relief, a bit hard to take and I couldn’t help but wish PRC could have got the superb Martha Vickers, who played a similar role in a big-budget “A”-list film, The Big Sleep, two years later), well constructed and well directed, ranking at the top of this little studio’s output along with Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard, Strange Illusion and Detour and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp. (Hmmm, probably the five best movies PRC ever made and all were shot by foreign-born directors.) One reviewer said he couldn’t believe a state governor would be out of reach of a phone on the night of an execution — but I didn’t have a problem with that because it’s believable that he thought the case against Mary Kirk so cut-and-dried there was no way he was going to grant last-minute clemency.

Lady in the Death House is also at least something of a “message” movie against capital punishment — though the message is expressed subtly instead of pounded in — but then the whole notion of capital punishment (which the late comedian Lenny Bruce once defined as “killing people who killed people to prove that killing people is wrong”) is so barbaric and morally offensive that any honest depiction of it, like any honest depiction of war, can’t help but make a political statement against it. And it’s clear from PRC’s tagline advertising the film — “Even now I can hear preparations for my own execution,” taken from the opening of Mary’s letter (which, now exonerated, she tears up at The Grotto in the final scene as we learn Finch has arranged for Brad to get a research job in another city and he and Mary will be married after all) — that they knew what they had in it and sold it effectively instead of dumping it on the market with all their other sludge.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Supernova (Hallmark Entertainment, 2005)

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

The film was Supernova, a Hallmark Entertainment production from 2005, produced by Larry Levinson and Robert Halmi, Jr. that turned out to be pretty much what I was looking for last night — a nice, undemanding, entertaining piece of eye candy that had some bizarre mistakes and a few too many plot lines (there’s something to be said for the idea that this was a good two-hour movie that got stretched to three) as well as an annoying cop-out of a resolution, but for the most part it was fun even though it only scratched the surface of what might have been a compelling story. The plot deals with Dr. Austin Shepard (Peter Fonda, third-billed and looking oddly like another son of a Hollywood legend who went into the family business, Michael Douglas), the world’s leading expert on the sun, who works at a solar research facility in Australia (the film was largely set in Australia but was actually shot in South Africa) and makes a top-secret prediction based on the researches of two other scientists in the institute, Dr. Chris Richardson (Luke Perry, top-billed) and Ginny McKillip (Clemency Burton-Hill — when Charles saw her name in the credits he screamed, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style, “No, it’s Amnesty Burton-Hill!”), and the mathematical calculations they’ve made for him based on the actions of an asteroid.

From this information Dr. Shepard has deduced that the sun is about to go supernova and humankind has about one week to live. He disappears in order to keep this information a secret and to live the final week of his (and all other humans’) life in a resort on the Maldive Islands (the film depicted the Maldives as a tropical rain-forest paradise ringed with hills even though the islands are actually flat, featureless coral atolls and they’re far more in danger from global warming, which is raising the ocean level and thereby threatening to flood them completely, than from the sun going supernova), and in his absence the directors of the institute draft Dr. Richardson to go to a world conference on the sun and present Dr. Shepard’s results. There’s a certain amount of kerfuffle over this because it means that Dr. Richardson is going to have to skip out on his wife Brooke (Jessica Brooks) and their daughter Haley (Eliza Bennett) on the eve of Haley’s school piano recital (which we hear her practicing for by playing the Beethoven bon-bon “Für Elise” — but in the end Dr. Richardson goes to the conference, only he and the world’s other leading solar experts are captured by Australian national intelligence agent Lisa Delgado (Tia Carrere) and taken to a series of secret locations so they won’t reveal the imminent end of the world to anybody.

It seems that there’s a mad colonel named Harlan Williams (Lance Henriksen), who seems to combine the worst features of the characters Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott played in Dr. Strangelove and Stephen Lang played in Avatar and whose solution to the impending end of the world is something called the “Phoenix Project,” which seems so similar to the ending of Dr. Strangelove I couldn’t help but ask, “Where’s the funny-looking one-armed German guy in a wheelchair?” It’s something that had actually been planned decades before in the Pentagon (several times during the movie Charles noted the location credit “Washington, D.C.” over a shot of the Pentagon — which, as he pointed out, is actually outside the city limits in Virginia), though in response to an all-out nuclear war rather than an astronomical emergency, and it consisted of underground bunkers, complete with DNA libraries of plant and animal species that couldn’t be sustained there, in which about 10,000 carefully selected humans representing virtually all professional job classifications (“everyone except lawyers,” the colonel joked) would ride out the emergency and use the DNA banks to repopulate the earth and reproduce, as much as possible, its original biosphere once the emergency was over and the earth’s surface was habitable again.

As if all that weren’t enough plot, director John Harrison and writer Steven H. Berman ( credits one Don Keith Opper as a co-writer but he isn’t listed on the actual credits) include Laurie Stephenson (Emma Samms), an investigative reporter who, as the world’s communications infrastructure crumbles due to interference from the solar flares that herald the sun’s imminent supernova-dom and as pressure from the authorities keeps her from being able to get her reports on the TV station she works for, uses the Internet (or what’s left of it) to do essentially video blogs on the coming solar emergency, with McKillip as her principal source. There’s also yet another plot strand; it seems that years before Brooke Richardson was held hostage by a serial killer, Grant Cole (Philip Lenkowski, wearing an oddly snaggled-looking set of caps on his front teeth — unless that’s what his real teeth look like — that make him look like a vampire who not only killed women but sucked their blood as well), and she was the only one of his targets who actually survived his assault. Her testimony helped get him convicted and sentenced to death (a glitch in Berman’s script since Australia doesn’t have the death penalty), but before he was led out of the courtroom and taken to Death Row he swore to escape and wreak his vengeance not only on Brooke but on Haley — and when the solar flares screw up the electrical system of the car taking him to his execution, he makes good his threat to escape and heads for the home of the Richardsons, missing them but killing their Aboriginal maid (the only Aborigines we see are servants — the Richardsons’ maids, one at their home and one at the redoubt Brooke and Haley flee to once they realize Cole is on the loose again; and Laurie’s cameraperson) and following the good doctor to the house where his wife and daughter are hiding out. There’s yet another subplot; McKillip’s boyfriend is an emergency-room doctor whom she miraculously locates in the middle of a wrecked city even though he’s being kept frantically busy by the sheer scope of the casualty rates.

Supernova is a lot of fun in a dorky way — after an opening sequence showing stars consuming planets and the credit “several million years ago,” Steven Berman’s writing credit came on and I joked, “Do they mean ‘written’ by Steven Berman, or merely ‘compiled’ by him from movie clichés themselves several million years old?” — the effects work, though not up to modern-day major-studio standards, is certainly credible (especially seen on the normal-sized TV screen for which it was designed), with the spectacular light shows the sun puts on in the vastness of space and the fireballs it launches towards earth (one of which takes out the city of St. Louis, where agent Delgado tells Richardson and us her mom and sister lived, while another takes out Austin Shepard — ya remember Austin Shepard? — and his Maldive-resort bartender girlfriend just as they’re relaxing post-coitally on the porch of her bar; oddly, Berman left us with the distinct impression that before this quirky end-of-world relationship Dr. Shepard was a virgin), and the action, particularly the virtual breakdown of law and order as the general population (especially in the urban centers of advanced countries) becomes aware that the world is at an end and therefore it doesn’t make sense to cling to traditional morality anymore, is vivid even though quite a lot more could have been done about how people would feel about the imminent end of the world. (I found myself suspecting that most of Supernova was set in Australia as a back-handed in-joke tribute to On the Beach, which dealt with little else but how its characters reacted psychologically to the nuclear suicide of the human race.)

The ending did seem like a cop-out, though — working on clues left behind in the journal of a scientist who fell to his death trying to escape from the intelligence agents enforcing the Phoenix Project, Richardson realizes he made a basic math mistake in his calculations, and on the basis of his error Dr. Shepard made a mistaken prediction that the unusually heavy solar action was an impending sign of the sun going supernova instead of just unusually heavy solar action, and therefore within a few days the sun would return to normal and so would the earth. What’s more, this revelation happens with half an hour or so of the movie left to go, and the remainder is Dr. Richardson trying to make it to his wife and child before serial-killer Cole (remember serial-killer Cole?) figures out where they are and exacts his terrible revenge on them, and at that point, despite the effectiveness of Harrison’s suspense direction, the whole serial-killer schtick seems both beside the point and rather arbitrarily spliced on from the end of a Lifetime movie.

Nonetheless, despite the glitches (when the scientist characters wrote out equations for each other, I joked that the people in the audience who didn’t know advanced math would be clueless and the people who did would probably be laughing their heads off at how wrong the equations were), Supernova was quite good entertainment, well staged and transcending the obvious budget limitations instead of being run by them — and managing, despite a few wrenching cuts from one story line to another, to hold audience interest and remain exciting throughout.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Glorifying the American Girl (Paramount, 1929)

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

I ran the 1929 movie Glorifying the American Girl, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and starring Mary Eaton (also the female lead in the Marx Brothers’ Cocoanuts, shot the same year — 1929 — at the Astoria Studios in Long Island for the same company, Paramount) in a quirky story about a young song-demonstrator who works in a department store with her boyfriend, a wanna-be composer (Eddie Crandall), and a girl named Barbara who spends almost the whole movie looking at them jealously. The young song-demonstrator gets a chance to do a dance number at a beach party (shot on an actual Long Island beach) and attracts the attention of a professional vaudevillian who makes her his partner in his dance act, which is scouted by a Ziegfeld assistant who wants her but not him — though, cannily, he puts her under contract so Ziegfeld has to take both of them and pay him half her salary whether he does anything or not. He also makes a pass at her, which she rejects (interesting and curious to see sexual harassment as a major plot element in a 1929 movie!).

Eventually she returns to New York and gets greeted at the train station by her boyfriend and Barbara (as Anna Russell might say, “Ya remember Barbara?”); as she and the boyfriend speed off in a taxi to her first Ziegfeld rehearsal, Barbara gets run down by a car and taken to the emergency room (the shots of the ambulance rushing her to the hospital — filmed in actual New York streets instead of a back lot — are the most exciting scenes in this movie), and we don’t hear from her again until she accompanies Eddie Crandall to Our Heroine’s Ziegfeld debut — and they turn out to have got married after all, leaving Our Heroine a lovelorn star at the fade-out. (Nothing like getting yourself almost killed in a car crash to get a guy to fall in love with you.)

It’s surprising in retrospect how many of the early musicals had such blatantly manipulative tear-jerking scenes — apparently the lachrymose plot of The Jazz Singer had as much of an influence on early screenwriters for the talkies as its singing and synchronized sound — and Glorifying the American Girl also suffers from the character of Eaton’s stuffy and relentlessly opportunistic mother, and direction by co-scenarist Millard Webb that’s as leaden as his script. Nor are the musical numbers that great — they might be if they still survived in the original two-strip Technicolor, but as is they exist only in murky black-and-white. Ziegfeld’s famous tableaux, with the “glorified” girls wearing elaborate feathered headdresses and being lifted about the stage on swings that seemed to double their apparent size, may have been impressive on stage but just look dull and interminable on screen (the movie The Great Ziegfeld duplicated these elephantine production numbers all too accurately!).

Nor do the Ziegfeld stars add much. Rudy Vallee warbles a little bit of his song “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover” (irritatingly, the camera cuts away from him just when he’s finished his first vocal chorus and is reaching for his C-melody sax). Helen Morgan sings “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” convincingly, but the song is a blatant and inferior ripoff of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” (her big number from the Ziegfeld production Show Boat) and songwriter Jay Gorney (the lyricist was E. Y. Harburg, who went on to better things with Harold Arlen) proves he’s no Jerome Kern. Eddie Cantor gets to do a tailor sketch he’d done in vaudeville, and he’s funny, but not as funny as he’d later be in his own vehicles (Whoopee — another Ziegfeld stage hit — in particular).

As Nick Clooney (Rosemary’s brother and George’s father) noted in his introduction, Glorifying the American Girl is a major piece of American social history — not only because it was the only film Ziegfeld actually produced himself (more or less) but also because it’s a marvelous fragment of the 1920’s spirit, finished just before the stock market crash and thereby reproducing the devil-may-care Zeitgeist of the pre-Depression era. A newspaper clipping informs us that the price of a ticket to the Ziegfeld show that gives the film its name is $25 — in 1929 dollars! Apparently Broadway tickets aren’t really any more expensive now, when you adjust for inflation, than they were then. — 8/21/96


The film I picked out last night was Glorifying the American Girl, the 1929 Paramount musical produced in association with Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and one I thought would make an interesting parallel to The Great Ziegfeld, made seven years later at MGM (and four years after Ziegfeld’s death) and purporting to be a biopic of him.

It’s actually an oddly schizoid movie, an 85-minute film (at least in the version we had downloaded from; apparently a 95-minute version exists containing the original two-strip Technicolor sequences, which were shown here only in black-and-white, but the only copy is at the UCLA film archive, where it sits cheek-by-jowl with the other treasures the Fafners at UCLA have restored but which haven’t been made generally available either for theatrical revival or DVD release, including the 1933 film The Power and the Glory — Preston Sturges’ little-known precursor to Citizen Kane — and Jeanette MacDonald’s second film, the all-color 1930 The Vagabond King) whose first hour is a proletarian musical largely along the lines Warner Bros. would be known for later in the 1930’s, while the final 25 minutes are essentially a potted version of a Ziegfeld revue, with highly static tableaux of chorus girls “glorified” by being clothed in feathers and lamé, standing around in the middles of huge sets and doing little or nothing while turntables revolve them and essentially do their dancing for them and three “revue artists” making guest appearances — Rudy Vallée singing “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover” with his band (he carries his C-melody sax under his arm but doesn’t actually play it), Helen Morgan doing a song called “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” (written by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg, who three years and a very different Zeitgeist later would bring us “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” but this time were obviously channeling Morgan’s earlier hit, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” from the Ziegfeld-produced Show Boat) and Eddie Cantor doing a comedy routine in which he’s the assistant to an overbearing Jewish tailor (Louis Sorin) trying to take the measure, in more ways than one, of a nerdy but still stubborn customer.

Glorifying the American Girl took its title from Ziegfeld’s famous slogan — reflecting a self-consciously “classy” approach he took even after the primacy of his Follies was challenged by rival producers Earl Carroll (Vanities) and George White (Scandals), who featured their chorines with considerably less costuming and sexier dance moves (so sexy, in fact, that New York authorities closed White’s shows at least twice — and no doubt he muttered under his breath how great that was going to be for his business once they reopened) — and even for 1929 it’s a pretty static musical, with the production numbers directed (by Millard Webb, who also wrote the film’s story and co-wrote its script with J. P. McAvoy) as if from a good seat in the orchestra (which cost $27.50, by the way — there’s an insert shot of a pair of tickets with that amount printed on them, which caused Charles to gasp at how much that was, especially in 1929 dollars).

The first hour of the film seems hardly to belong to the same world; after a dazzling montage opening showing a giant map of the U.S. with would-be Ziegfeld girls walking across it in the general direction of New York City, while the scene also features double-exposed city scenes reflecting the changes in New York between 1911, when the Ziegfeld Follies began, and 1927, when this film takes place, it cuts to the sheet-music counter at Hertig’s Department Store. The basic plot a romantic triangle featuring three people who work there: Gloria Hughes (Mary Eaton, whom Ziegfeld was trying to build into a replacement for Marilyn Miller, who had just left his employ to make films at Warners), a singer who demonstrates the songs for potential customers; Buddy (Edward Crandall), who plays piano while Gloria sings; and Barbara (Olive Shea), who runs the cash register on the rare occasions one of the demonstratees actually buys a song. Barbara has an unrequited crush on Buddy, but of course he’s only interested in Gloria, and when he isn’t demonstrating other people’s songs he’s using the store piano to try to write some of his own.

Years earlier Gloria had ambitions to crash the Follies, but her two auditions were miserable failures and so she’s slunk behind the counter, her dreams of stardom things of the past — until the store owner throws a picnic that features an amateur talent show by the store’s employees, and Gloria’s dancing impresses vaudevillian Miller (Dan Healy) so much that he offers her a job as “Mooney” in his dance duo “Miller and Mooney,” assuring her that he’s only interested in her professionally, not personally, and telling her he’s got an offer for 20 weeks on the vaudeville circuit in the West. Gloria goes, and on her return to New York she’s scouted by one of Ziegfeld’s assistants, who signs her for a featured spot in the next Ziegfeld show, Glorifying the American Girl — but not before some dodgy negotiations with Miller, who has a contract on Gloria giving him half her earnings and thinks he can use that to get into Ziegfeld’s show himself. In the 1930’s the way the writers and directors of that period would have resolved this particular set of clichés would have been to have someone find a loophole in Miller’s contract and ace him out of Gloria’s career, Ziegfeld would have decided Buddy was a great songwriter and hired him to write his new show, and Gloria and Buddy would have paired off personally and professionally — but the way it worked out in 1929 is that Barbara (ya remember Barbara?) was run over by a car, Buddy helped nurse her back to health, and by the time Gloria had done her 20 weeks in vaudeville and was ready to open for Ziegfeld, Buddy had fallen in love with Barbara instead, the two of them had got married, and they tell Gloria that just before the finale of the show, which means she has to do her big last number smiling through her tears. (The same ending, with the genders reversed, was used the next year for Buster Keaton’s first talkie, Free and Easy — though Keaton was able to make the scene work with wrenching pathos rivaling Chaplin’s and acting skills totally beyond Mary Eaton’s.)

As in 42nd Street and many of the other Busby Berkeley musicals, we don’t get to see any big production numbers until the end of the film — until then all we see are lower-level performances and rehearsals — and it’s a bit of a wrench to go from a surprisingly somber backstage story to the glamour of a Ziegfeld show, at least as represented here. The following year Ziegfeld would be involved in the production of another movie — the adaptation of his stage hit, the Eddie Cantor vehicle Whoopee — but for that one, not only did producer Sam Goldwyn (who matched Ziegfeld’s passion for respectability and an image of “class” but was a lot more prudent financially) shoot the whole film in two-strip Technicolor, he and Cantor brought in Busby Berkeley to direct the numbers (his film debut) and Berkeley delivered a series of dazzling ensembles, many of them with the overhead kaleidoscope shots that would be his trademark throughout his career; for Glorifying the American Girl director Webb and his choreographer, Ted Shawn (husband of modern dancer Ruth St. Denis and dance teacher of Myrna Loy!), keep their cameras at a discreet distance from the action and don’t move them during the number. The only time the camera goes overhead is when we least want it to — during Mary Eaton’s big solo, when we want the camera front-and-center, Astaire-Rogers style, so we can see how good she is.

The best parts of the movie are the Cantor routine and Morgan’s song — which she sings sitting on a piano (her trademark) mounted on a black pedestal against a black velvet backdrop, so it seems to be floating in mid-air, and Webb’s camera dollies towards it so the image of Morgan, her piano and her accompanist (and blessedly we don’t get the “hidden orchestra” — Morgan and the pianist are the only people we hear) seems to float towards us and get bigger, with a corresponding pull-back that makes her and the piano look smaller and seem to be moving away as her song ends. One odd thing about Morgan’s film career is that she was most flatteringly photographed in her last film — the 1936 Show Boat at Universal — where she looks younger than she did here or in any of her earlier films. Glorifying the American Girl is a movie of undoubted historical importance — for one thing, it’s as close as anyone now living will ever get to seeing a Ziegfeld show (though the 1929 RKO film of Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita — whose color sequences blessedly do survive and are in the commonly circulating print — also comes close) — and it’s a not-bad piece of entertainment, though it suffers from the slow pacing of dialogue early sound engineers insisted on and Mary Eaton’s acting, especially in the picnic scene, seems mind-numbingly incompetent (she’d made only one previous movie, The Cocoanuts, and in that nobody really noticed her — except for her good song-and-dance on “The Monkey-Doodle-Do” — because they were too busy laughing at the film’s stars, the Marx Brothers), though she’s a good enough singer and dancer that her acting skills (or lack thereof) really don’t matter until that final scene, where she’s supposed to be conveying heartbreak and she just can’t do it.

Still, it’s fun — and it’s also noteworthy for a scene outside the premiere of the show-within-the-show in which we get to see the real Ziegfeld (short, stocky, dumpy-looking and not at all resembling William Powell) with his wife, Billie Burke (who’s even shorter than he is — it must have been camera trickery and appearing with 200 little people that made her look towering as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz), as well as a number of other celebrities of the day, including Paramount president Adolph Zukor, New York mayor Jimmy Walker, Irving Berlin, Charles Dillingham (one of Ziegfeld’s rivals), Irving Berlin, Otto Kahn (New York banker and president of the Metropolitan Opera), nightclub hostess Texas Guinan (who looks about as much like Betty Hutton, who played her in a 1945 biopic called Incendiary Blonde, as Ziegfeld looked like William Powell!), author Ring Lardner, Sr. and actor Noah Beery. (Another star of the future, Johnny Weissmuller, appears as Adonis in one of the revue numbers.) — 1/15/11