Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midway (Mirisch Corporation/Universal, 1976)

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

Charles and I watched the 1976 film Midway as it was being shown as part of a Memorial Day tribute on American Movie Classics, which promised “limited commercial interruptions” but they didn’t seem so limited to me. They had former NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw announce the showing and promoted it as commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of the film — gee, next year they can show it again and promote it as commemorating the 70th anniversary of the actual battle! Midway was one of the cycle of epic movies about World War II which kicked off with the 1962 film The Longest Day and featured large-scale productions, long running times (usually 2 1/2 to three hours) and, most importantly, all-star casts, though by 1976 a lot of the “stars” in this one were decidedly moth-eaten and reflected earlier eras in Hollywood history.

The film was made by Universal and was the second film they released in a special process called “Sensurround,” which had nothing to do with the film’s visual portions but involved adding extremely low-frequency sound waves to the bass ranges of the soundtrack, which gave the impression that the theatre was shaking itself to bits (and in some cases, according to imdb.com, some theatres actually did shake themselves enough so that bits of plaster fell off their ceilings!). Not surprisingly, Universal first used this gimmick in an otherwise rather cheesy 1974 disaster movie called Earthquake, starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner; and they made Heston the star of this one, too, casting him as the (decidedly) fictional Captain Matt Garth, who’s worried about the relationship between his son, Lieutenant Tom Garth (Eddie Albert, Jr.), and a Japanese girl, Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo, whose performance is at a porn-star level of monotonal incompetence that makes me wonder why the “suits” at Universal, casting a big-budget film they intended as a major blockbuster, couldn’t find a young Asian woman who could act), whose parents are about to be hauled off to an internment camp: Garth père calls in every favor he has outstanding to spare the girlfriend of Garth fils that fate, only to find that her parents have rejected him as a suitor because they don’t want their daughter to marry a white guy.

Fortunately, this plot isn’t important and most of the movie is taken up by the real Battle of Midway — almost literally, since so much of the footage is taken from the 1942 color documentary The Battle of Midway, directed by John Ford for the U.S. Office of War Information, that Ford almost deserves a co-credit with Jack Smight for directing this film! Also a lot of it comes from other fiction films about World War II, including Tora! Tora! Tora! (also no great shakes as a movie but a good deal more watchable than Midway and to date the best film ever made about Pearl Harbor), Away All Boats and even Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo — the last used to represent the Doolittle Raid on Japan, which had just happened before the Battle of Midway and was a major morale boost to the Americans … and a major shock to the Japanese, who until then had always been able to repel any attempts by Occidentals to attack their homeland.

Unlike The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway features everybody speaking English — not only the actors playing Americans but also the ones playing Japanese, including Toshiro Mifune, cast as Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto but (since he never learned English, or at least never learned it well enough to act in it, and I guess the filmmakers rejected the Lugosian alternative of teaching him all his lines phonetically) he’s dubbed by American voice actor Paul Frees — and yes, it’s odd indeed to hear the voice of Boris Badenov in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and the villainous Maurice Percy Beaucoup in Gay Purr-Ee plotting strategy for the Japanese navy and debating what should be their appropriate follow-up to the dramatic success of their attack on Pearl Harbor. The real-life people in this story are played by an impressive list of actors, though frankly the list would have been even more impressive a quarter-century earlier: Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (a role he’d previously played in the 1965 film In Harm’s Way), Glenn Ford as Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (put in charge of the U.S. carrier fleet at Midway even though he’d never commanded a carrier before, though he knew their battle tactics), James Coburn as Captain Vinton Maddox, Hal Holbrook as Commander Joseph Rochefort and Robert Mitchum as Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (who was laid up with a childhood disease during the battle, and was naturally pissed that he couldn’t be there — Mitchum reportedly shot his whole role in just one day, and I believe it!) and Cliff Robertson as Commander Carl Jessop.

What comes through most strongly in the film — written by Donald S. Sanford and directed by Jack Smight (after John Guillermin, director of The Towering Inferno, quit the project on the eve of shooting) — is just how much the American triumph at Midway, in which they were able not only to protect the island base itself but sink Japan’s four largest and most important aircraft carriers (Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu — not only a major blow to the Japanese war effort but a form of payback for the Americans since they were the carriers that had launched the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor) while losing only one ship of their own (the Yorktown, which went into the battle badly damaged already from the previous battle at the Coral Sea and whose planes were instrumental in the successful attacks on the Japanese carriers), was a matter of sheer luck. Though the film is pretty slow going early on — war movies that are mostly about strategy and planning battle tactics rather than the actual fighting run that risk, and the battle itself seems a bit of an anticlimax when it comes (especially since virtually all of it we see is stock footage from The Battle of Midway and other actual film of the period) — one thing that does come through is how much planning strategy and tactics is a crapshoot.

Even though both the Americans and Japanese had hacked into each other’s codes and therefore were able to read at least part of each other’s messages, most of the planning was based on sheer guesswork and both Nimitz and Yamamoto are shown telling their subordinates that they’re basing their own plans for the battle on the head game of thinking, “What would I do if I were the other guy and had the ships and men he has?” Aside from that, Midway is a workmanlike but not all that exciting war movie — Universal generally didn’t do this sort of film the way the specialists in it, 20th Century-Fox, did — and I really missed the integrity of The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora! of having the actors representing people from non-English-speaking countries speaking in their actual languages instead of ineptly accented English (and it was all I could do to avoid cracking up at Admiral Yamamoto speaking in the voice that had once threatened to sell Judy Garland into white slavery in Gay Purr-Ee), while the fictional subplot was so lame in both conception and execution I thought they needn’t have bothered with it at all.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Too Late for Tears (Hunt Stromberg/United Artists, 1949, reissued 1955)

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

I picked out a film that turned out to be unexpectedly good: Too Late for Tears, a 1949 film noir from Hunt Stromberg Productions, released through United Artists but likely shot at Republic studios, since their special effects experts, brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker, were credited and the optical work was done at Consolidated Film Laboratories, Republic’s parent company. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, best known for the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds and other science-fiction credits (though he said his best movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, was sunk at the box-office by the stupid title his distributor insisted on), but it’s more a Schreiber than an auteur movie and the Schreiber is Roy Huggins, best known today as the creator of the classic TV series The Fugitive. I had downloaded this off archive.org along with another Huggins-scripted noir, I Love Trouble (1948), but this one turned out to be several cuts above its predecessor, and not only because the download was in considerably better shape — the picture quality was excellent, though the sound had an annoying crackle as if we were listening to it on 78’s, and the actors’ voices and their lip movements remained in near-perfect synch throughout.

Huggins based Too Late for Tears on a serial he published in the Saturday Evening Post, and its serial origins are revealed in the number of reversals he inserted into his story — but unlike Tony Gilroy, whose maddening penchant for barely motivated and frankly unbelievable reversals sank Duplicity, Huggins’s reversals are credible and serve the purpose of peeling back layers of the characters, like onions, and revealing who they really are underneath the veneer of civilization. The story begins on a winding road in the hills, with seemingly happily married couple Alan and Jane Palmer (Arthur Kennedy and top-billed Lizabeth Scott) having an argument — he’s driving them to a dinner party hosted by one of his bosses at work and she’s worried that they’ll look down on her and wants him to turn around and drive them back home. He does so, only as they’re stalled out on the side of the road another car passes and its driver flings a satchel out of his car. It lands inside the passenger compartment of the Palmers’ car (it’s a convertible and they had the top down) and the Palmers open it and find it contains tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of currency, in old mixed-up bills with nonconsecutive serial numbers and wrapped with bands.

They get into another argument, with Jane wanting to keep the money — it will instantly solve all the financial problems that are dogging them, and then some — while Alan pleads with her that keeping the money would be like stealing it and they need to report it and turn it in to the police. Nonetheless, he’s weak enough to yield to her blandishments that they keep the money for a week or so until someone claims it, and he stashes the satchel in a locker at Union Station. Then Jane is visited by a sinister character, Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea at his oiliest, or close to it), who lies his way into her apartment by saying he’s from the “Detective Bureau” and plays cat-and-mouse with her, claiming that not only does she have the money but that it’s rightfully his. At this point we’re not permitted to know where the money came from or what, if any, Danny’s claim to it is, but the existence of a rival claimant to the money — and one who’s threatening Jane with either grievous bodily harm or out-and-out rape if she doesn’t fork it over, at that — just heats up the already grim level of tension between her and her husband. On a date that’s supposed to be a warm, nostalgic occasion — they’re going to rent a boat and ride on the lake, duplicating what they did on their first date — he catches her with a gun, they struggle over it (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again!) and she kills him.

She’d previously arranged for Danny to meet her there and when he shows up, she tells him to put on her husband’s coat and hat and impersonate him so no one will suspect he’s dead, while she disposes of the body in the water, presumably weighting it down so it doesn’t float to the surface (though just when she found the time to do this, and where she found the materials to do it with, remain loose ends in Huggins’ otherwise admirably well-constructed plot) — and it helps that Dan Duryea and Arthur Kennedy look enough like each other that it makes sense for one to pretend to be the other. The plot thickens with the arrival of Don Blake (Don DeFore), another man who seems to have an interest in the money, though he also seems to be a decent sort and he starts dating Alan’s sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), who lives in the same building with Jane Palmer and has been hanging around the action all movie. The film is marvelously understated and ambiguous, but ambiguous in a way that adds to the drama instead of just annoying the viewer; at first we see the money seemingly transforming Jane from a normal, decent woman into a femme fatale, but later on we learn that she was married to someone else before Alan and her first husband committed suicide — though she may have killed him, and even if she didn’t do so directly, she may have driven him to suicide. So, as with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity, we learn that she’s been unscrupulous and evil from the get-go and the guys she’s entrapped don’t know just how “bad” she really is.

There’s a marvelous cat-and-mouse game between her and Danny, who at one point is struck when she makes a big deal out of what he did with Alan’s coat — Alan inserted the claim ticket for the suitcase with the money into the lining of his coat, but when they open it and look for it, they find a blank piece of cardboard: obviously Alan, not trusting his wife, had taken it out and placed it somewhere else. But where? Nice girl Kathy (just about the only person in this movie who isn’t hiding or trying to live down a dark past!) actually finds the claim check before Jane does, in a drawer that also contains a gun Alan brought back from World War II, though it’s missing the first time Kathy checks the door and then suddenly reappears (Jane must have replaced it there after killing her husband and threatening Danny with it), and the climax reveals Jane getting the claim check, getting the satchel (she gives a man in the station $5 to fetch it for her, and later it turns out that Alan put a note on the handle, “If a woman claims this, notify the police”) and getting away to Mexico after having offed Danny with a poisoned drink, only she’s chased there by Don, who isn’t a police agent or a private detective — and the money isn’t the result of a bank heist, as we might have imagined; instead it was a blackmail payoff — and Don turns out to be the brother of Jane’s first husband, anxious to get back at her for his brother’s death.

The final confrontation — a climax in which Jane takes a header off a hotel balcony, falling to her death on the ground below — is a bit clunky, but despite that Too Late for Tears is a first-rate noir, less visually spectacular than some of the earlier ones in the cycle but full of the moral ambiguities that made the genre so delicious and appealing, and Huggins turns out to be as adept at writing an innocent-seeming woman who’s really guilty as he was about a guilty-seeming man who was really innocent in The Fugitive. The acting is also first-rate, despite a rather unstellar cast, and director Haskin manages to make Lizabeth Scott’s limitations as an actress work for her: the hesitations in her voice and gawkiness in her movements come across as legitimate guilts and uncertainties as she slips out of her guise as nice, normal housewife and the evil bitch within comes through. (Even Danny says he’s never met anyone as cold as Jane.) Haskin also deserves credit for the severity of his style — even though a lot of this movie takes place outdoors in full light and we get very few of the chiaroscuro visuals that are usually the hallmark of film noir, there’s no room for doubt about what genre it belongs to — and especially for his very sparing use of R. Dale Butts’ original music. Long sequences in the film, including some of the big suspense highlights, are kept unscored, crediting our intelligence in being able to figure out what is supposed to be going on and how we’re expected to respond to it rather than having a big, thundering orchestra sitting right in our eardrums telegraphing the key points and making it obvious how we’re supposed to feel about the characters. Too Late for Tears is a surprising discovery, a well-made movie from a time, place and producer for whom we don’t expect greatness and are therefore very gratified and amazed when he delivers it, as he does here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Limehouse Blues (Paramount, 1934)

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

I ran a film I had recently downloaded from archive.org: Limehouse Blues, a.k.a. East End Chant (and shot under the working title Limehouse Nights: the print we were watching said East End Chant but the American Film Institute Catalog lists it as Limehouse Blues), a 1934 weirdie from Paramount directed by Alexander Hall from a script by Cyril Hume and Arthur Phillips from Phillips’ original story, with Philip MacDonald and Idwal Jones given AFI Catalog credit for “contributions to treatment” and Grover Jones for “contributions to screen construction.”

It was basically a U.S. gangster movie only set in London’s Limehouse district and featuring George Raft risibly cast as Harry Young, a half-Chinese immigrant from the U.S. (his dad was American, his mom Chinese), who runs a nightclub called the Lily Gardens that’s a front for a smuggling racket he heads. He’s in a relationship with his star performer, dancer Tu Tuan (Anna May Wong, who’s a breath of fresh air in this film and not just because she’s actually Chinese) but he’s fallen hard for Toni Talbot (Jean Parker), a pickpocket who’s been inducted into a life of crime by her wretched stepfather Pug (Montagu Love). Toni flees into the Lily Gardens when she’s being chased by the police, and Harry agrees to alibi her. Pug rats out Harry to the police, but Toni tips him off and he escapes, and later Harry has Pug killed. Toni works for Harry for a while until he lets her go — but keeps paying her — to keep her from Tu Tuan’s jealous rages, and while working in Piccadilly she meets and falls in love with a white man, Eric Benton (Kent Taylor), who’s described as owning a pet shop but seems to spend more of his time outdoors training dogs.

Harry tries to break up Toni’s new romance with Eric, while Tu Tuan warns Harry that a white girl can’t give him what he really wants (and Wong plays this scene in her most sepulchral, “inscrutable” tone, a far cry from the hysteria with which white actresses usually played confrontations with guys who were about to break up with them in 1930’s movies), and ultimately it all resolves with Toni agreeing to marry Harry — Harry even gives her the traditional Chinese robe his mother wore when she married his father — only still pining for Eric. They have their engagement dinner on board a ship that’s supposed to load the latest cargo Harry’s crew are stealing (so for the second night in a row Charles and I watched a movie involving pirates!), only the police arrived, tipped off by Tu Tuan, who called them and then killed herself (by stabbing herself with a small dagger, the sort of thing one expects more from a Japanese than a Chinese character, but to the writing committee, what hey: Asian was Asian) in a rather murky black-on-black scene that was rendered even murkier by the public-domain print we were watching.

Eventually the police, headed by Inspector Sheridan (Robert Loraine), ambush Harry and his gang on the open seas, bringing guns (which, as some of the committee’s dialogue explained earlier, British police don’t ordinarily use) and staging a shoot-out that nearly kills Toni, who’s on a speedboat with Harry and Harry’s right-hand man, but ultimately Harry is wounded but lasts long enough to get back to his ship and do a long drawn-out death scene in which he officially blesses Toni’s relationship with Eric, who opportunely arrives to Take Her Away From All That. As Charles pointed out, Limehouse Blues (the famous song, with its wince-inducing reference to “Chinkies,” is sung over the opening credits and played again, instrumentally, at the end) is basically an American gangster film in Chinese/British drag — and it doesn’t help that two years earlier William Wellman had made at Warners a much better gangster movie in Chinese drag, The Hatchet Man (though Edward G. Robinson’s “Chinese” makeup in the lead was only marginally more convincing than George Raft’s here — Lon Chaney, Sr. had managed to pull off a convincing Asian in Mr. Wu, but George Raft was no Lon Chaney, and neither was his makeup person, Wally Westmore), or that the gimmick of British police being specially issued firearms in an emergency situation that required them was done a good deal better the same year by an authentically British director, Alfred Hitchcock, in the first The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Still, Limehouse Blues is notable for the sheer beauty and power of the atmospherics (Harry Fischbeck was the cinematographer, and the director was Alexander Hall, usually known for his comedies but adjusting superbly to a tale that demanded a dark, foggy, almost noir visual approach) and for Anna May Wong’s haunting performance in what was, alas, the second lead.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

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

The movie we went to last night was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth and most recent in Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean series, of which Charles and I had seen the first, The Curse of the Black Pearl, on commercial TV while we’d skipped numbers two and three, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, altogether. At World’s End had had such a convoluted plot at least two critics said it should have been called At Wit’s End, and my impression of the first Pirates film was that it “achieve[d] an exquisite level of narrative incoherence” but was redeemed by “the personability of the romantic leads and the sheer over-the-top campiness of [Johnny] Depp’s performance” in the lead role of pirate captain Jack Sparrow.

Just how a cheesy theme-park ride from the original Disneyland has become the basis for four of the most commercially successful films ever made is a mystery to me, but I was looking forward to On Stranger Tides for the sheer entertainment value, especially since we were going to see it in IMAX 3-D (the tickets for which were $18 apiece, by the way — Charles joked that he and I have gone to see stage plays in “real 3-D” for less than that!). The movie was fun but not as much fun as it could have been, and was one of those modern-day films that was just too overwhelming — not only from the 3-D projection but the sheer volume at which the sound was played, which made Hans Zimmer’s bombastic orchestral score (obviously patterned after Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s work on Errol Flynn’s pirate vehicles Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, though hardly at Korngold’s level of quality or inspiration) come off almost as heavy metal — especially since it was deployed virtually nonstop throughout the film and quickly became overbearing.

The film was “suggested” by a 1987 pirate fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides, which judging from the Wikipedia page on it probably would have made a much better movie if Disney or someone else had filmed it as a stand-alone work instead of trying to shoehorn the characters of Jack Sparrow and British privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) into it and remodel Powers’ basic plot to fit the already established premises of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. This was the first series entry to dispense with the characters played by Keira Knightley (who in the first film really did seem to be channeling Olivia de Havilland’s character in Captain Blood) and Orlando Bloom, and the female lead in this one is Penélope Cruz, back in the lucrative but artistically unsatisfying salt mines of American blockbusters after her incandescent performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (which had me shaking my head and saying to myself, “Wow, in an art movie and in her native language she can actually act!”). She either is or is posing as the daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane in a marvelously campy performance that’s one of the film’s highlights), and the two are searching for the Fountain of Youth to forestall the prediction that Blackbeard will be killed by a one-legged man (Barbossa is one-legged).

To make the Fountain work they need a mermaid’s tear and two magic chalices that were among the main artifacts of the treasure of Ponce de Leon — whose ship Sparrow and Blackbeard discover and fight over the chalices while it’s perched on a precipice (an obvious ripoff of the precariously balanced cabin in Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush); you take the water from the fountain and pour it into the chalices, put the mermaid’s tear in one of them, then two people drink from the chalices and the one who drinks the one with the mermaid’s tear in it gets all the life energy of the other — which means one of the participants gets revivified and the other ends up dead. Needless to say, the plot is merely the pretext for a series of action scenes, staged with all the dazzling imagery modern computerized filmmaking lends itself to, but which quickly become mind-numbing after a while. There are a couple of scenes done with an imagination that only shows up the rest of the film, notably the scene in which the principals actually encounter the mermaids — who in this version are Siren-like predators with fang-like teeth, ready to lure smitten sailors to the depths and drown them.

The imagery here is generally terrifying — especially the final shots in the sequence, in which the mermaids seize on the principals’ ship and literally devour it like locusts attacking a wheatfield — and the mermaids themselves are utterly convincing CGI, though the mermaid they finally capture, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), is able to shed her fins and grow ordinary human-style legs when she has to walk across land. She also falls in love with Philip (Sam Claflin), a religious freak aboard Blackbeard’s ship, and their scenes together provide the only real notes of emotion and genuine pathos in this film. The rest of the film is the sort of modern-day blockbuster a Los Angeles Times critic (whose name I have tragically forgotten) said about a decade or so ago didn’t entertain the audience so much as bludgeon it into submission — and the 3-D effects were mostly good but sometimes created that weird View-Master effect in which the principals in the foreground assume the form and dimensionality of cardboard cut-outs posed in front of a diorama behind them.

What’s more, one downside of 3-D is that even presented here — in state-of-the-art form with polarized rather than colored glasses — 3-D lowers the intensity and vibrancy of the colors, and given how much of this film is set in dingy places (a heritage of its theme-park ride origins, I suspect) the already muted color schemes become almost oppressively unwatchable at times due to the “dimming” effect of 3-D. As for Johnny Depp, who blew hot and cold on the project — various items on the imdb.com “Trivia” page for the film describe him as signing to do it before he read the script, and blowing cold on the project once Disney fired Dick Cook, who’d greenlighted the first three Pirates movies, because he wasn’t sure the new studio management would be as sympathetic to the series as Cook had been. He needn’t have worried — Pirates of the Caribbean is enough of a cash cow for the Disney company that they weren’t going to skimp on the new installment — but at the same time Depp seemed bored with the role throughout. The committee-written (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert) script didn’t help by making Jack Sparrow a prisoner of either Barbossa, Blackbeard or both (or, in one sequence, a group of Spanish colonists) through most of the story, giving him no chance to command a pirate ship on screen and little opportunity to do the campy bits which made his performance in the first series film so appealing.

On Stranger Tides is an acceptable commercial blockbuster that could have been a genuinely good movie had it been done with more care and sensitivity — but the attention to dramatic details and the codes of honor at stake in 1940’s pirate movies like The Sea Hawk and Captain Kidd eluded the makers of this one and reminded us that just because a new movie uses state-of-the-art digital effects and is filmed in 3-D does not mean it’s going to be as good as Avatar. And it’s revealing that in a Los Angeles Times interview about the film, director Rob Marshall — whose most famous previous credit is the Academy Award-winning musical Chicago — actually described the action scenes as “numbers,” suggesting that he really viewed this as a musical, arbitrarily plotted merely to provide opportunities for action sequences instead of songs.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Murder on a Bridle Path (RKO, 1936)

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

I picked out the fourth film in RKO’s Hildegard Withers mystery series from the 1930’s, Murder on a Bridle Path, based on a novel called The Puzzle of the Red Stallion by Withers’ creator, Stuart Palmer. Charles and I had previously screened the first three films in this series, The Penguin Pool Murder, Murder on the Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon, when Turner Classic Movies showed them as part of a tribute to Edna May Oliver. They didn’t include this one because Oliver was replaced by Helen Broderick, who as far as age and overall “type” was concerned was a good choice for the role but somehow lacked the acid wit Oliver had brought to the role. The plot was a typically convoluted and surprisingly unexciting (maybe not so surprisingly considering how dull most 1930’s crime movies were if they didn’t involve gangsters) murder mystery in which the victim, Violet Feverel (Sheila Terry), is shown in the pre-mortem prologue being such a mean little piss-ant she’s creating all sorts of people with motive to kill her (one of the hoariest gimmicks in mystery fiction — last night’s episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent used the same concept).

She goes for a late-night horse ride in Central Park, is thrown by the horse and then confronted and killed as she tries to walk home. This happens after we meet a succession of people who didn’t like her, including her ex-boyfriend, Eddie Fry (Owen Davis, Jr.); her own sister Barbara Foley (Louise Latimer), whom Eddie took up with after dumping Violet; and Latigo Wells (John Carroll), the prissy stable manager Violet took up with after Eddie dumped her. Also on the suspect list are Don Gregg (Leslie Fenton), Violet’s ex-husband, whom she had put in jail for being late on her alimony; and Don’s father Patrick (John Miltern, who in accordance with Hollywood’s usual warped idea of the generations looks old enough to be Don’s grandfather), who’s either bedridden or faking same. Eventually Patrick turns up dead as well, and the killer turns out to be the Gregg family butler, Chris Thomas (Christian Rub, an actor so sinister-looking it’s hard not to guess he’s the killer!), who blamed Violet for the injury that crippled his son Joey and made a club with a horseshoe on it so he cold bludgeon people to death with this weapon and it would look like a horse kicked them. (Yes, that’s right: this is one mystery in which the butler really did do it!)

Charles alluded to a comment I’d once made about “reliable entertainment” — how in the 1930’s the major studios (and the minor ones as well) made tons of movies like this that didn’t try for excellence or artistic creativity, but managed to tell a story acceptably well and get it on and off the screen in a sufficiently short time to avoid boring the audience. James Gleason continued as Withers’ sometime lover, sometime nemesis, police inspector Oscar Piper — he would play the part throughout the six-film series despite co-starring with three different actresses as Withers (Oliver, Broderick and ZaSu Pitts — the last in two subsequent entries, The Plot Thickens and Forty Naughty Girls, the last a film so cheap it supposedly deals with a murder occurring backstage during the performance of a Broadway show, but unlike in bigger-budgeted films on this premise like On With the Show or Murder at the Vanities, we never get to see any of the show!) — and his irascible good-bad humor helps liven up the movie, which frankly needs all the help it can get.

It had five writers — Dorothy Yost, Thomas Lennon (probably no relation to John), Edmund North, James Gow and an uncredited “contributor to dialogue,” Frank Logan — and two directors, Edward Killy (usually known at RKO as a production manager) and William Hamilton, and though the opening sequence is quite artfully done visually (Nick Musuraca was the cinematographer) the rest of the film is pretty dull-looking and only one scene actually takes place outdoors on a bridle path. Willie Best is in it as (what else?) a stableboy, and though he’s doing nothing more (or less) than the typical stupid Black servant schtick, he too livens it up a bit — while Broderick is perfectly O.K. in a role Edna May Oliver played to the nines. Still, there’s nothing really wrong with Murder on a Bridle Path: it was made to provide simple, unpretentious entertainment, and it does that …

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Easy to Love (MGM, 1953)

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

The film I picked out was an Esther Williams musical from the current TCM “Star of the Month” salute to her: Easy to Love, made in 1953 by MGM and shot largely on location in the Cypress Gardens theme park, Winterhaven, Florida. (Williams would return there seven years later for a TV special that would land her on the cover of TV Guide.) The title, from Cole Porter’s classic song (introduced by the golden throat of James Stewart in Porter’s first original film score, Born to Dance, after it had been dropped from the stage show Anything Goes because its lead, William Gaxton, found it too difficult to sing), evokes comparison to Easy to Wed, made seven years earlier and also co-starring Williams and Van Johnson (it was a remake of the marvelous 1936 comedy Libeled Lady with Williams in Myrna Loy’s role, Lucille Ball’s in Jean Harlow’s, Johnson in William Powell’s and Keenan Wynn in Spencer Tracy’s), but the two films have nothing in common besides two stars and similar titles.

Easy to Wed barely got Williams into the water; Easy to Love is built around two huge numbers created for Williams by Busby Berkeley: one towards the beginning of the film, with Julie Hallerton (Williams) and her swimming partner Hank (John Bromfield, who’s actually pretty hot — he’s muscular without achieving Schwarzeneggerian ridiculousness about it, and it’s only in the final reel that he’s shown wearing anything more than a pair of black swim trunks) supposedly doing a water dance for a promotional film resort owner Ray Lloyd (Johnson) is having shot at 8 p.m. (the finale of this one shows Williams and Bromfield each floating in the middle of a circle of white flowers on top of the water; I joked, “If you can see them, that means you’re not color-blind”); and the scene everybody who’s seen this film (or seen the sequence excerpted in That’s Entertainment, Part 2) remembers: the huge water-ski ballet with platoons of skiers of both genders surrounding Williams in V-shaped formations as an unseen helicopter pulls her up so she can let go and do a ski jump that starts in mid-air.

Williams recalled that Berkeley called her at 2:30 a.m. and asked if she thought she could do that — Berkeley was calling from his bathtub, sloshed to the gills on martinis (she could hear the telltale slurring in his voice), saying that both the water and the alcohol were necessary sources of inspiration as he designed her numbers. She asked him if anybody had done that before, and he said, “I’m not asking you to do things other people have done before. If you’re going to be the star of my movies, you have to do things no one has done before!” She decided to give it a go, and the result is a spectacular sequence, complete with phallic geysers of water that come from the bottom of the pool and turn Williams’ routine into a water-skiing version of slalom (though as Charles pointed out, at least terrestrial skiers doing slalom runs don’t have to contend with the gates coming at them suddenly from below with volcano-like force!).

In between these highlights (and a few decent songs — Martin gets to sing the title song, Guy Lombardo’s “Coquette” and a couple of ballads by Vic Mizzy, a composer best known for the Addams Family TV show theme) the plot is a rather nasty romantic quadrilateral with Williams the object of a romantic rivalry between three men: Ray, who works her like a dog (we’re told she’s not only the swimming star of the resort but is also his secretary, though we don’t see her functioning as the latter: a scene in which she came into his office in a bathing suit and towel, the latter to dry herself after a water show, and started typing or taking dictation would have added to the film’s amusement level) and is determined not to marry anybody while she’s in decidedly unrequited love with him; Hank, whom she impulsively announces to Ray that she’s going to marry in hopes he’ll get jealous and demand to marry her himself; and star singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin), whom she meets when Ray takes her to New York for what she thinks is going to be a vacation but is really just another grueling round of model work. He comes upon Julie and a photographer (using an old-fashioned view camera that took pictures on large plates) shooting a lipstick ad and takes the place of the male model in it, kissing her with an intensity and duration decidedly above and beyond the call of duty.

There are some nice moments in the movie — including a sequence in Florida in which Barry sings a romantic ballad to a room full of senior women who ooh and aah over him the way their younger consoeurs did over Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles — but unfortunately the story (by László Vadnay, adapted into a script by him and William Roberts) is probably the nastiest musical plot since Holiday Inn, with the men involved (Ray especially) resorting to really dirty tricks to ace out their rivals for Julie’s hand. (The low point is when Ray takes both Julie and Barry on his motorboat, and deliberately drives it so fast Barry will get sprayed by the backwash of water in his face.) Old reliable Charles Walters gets overall credit for the direction, and he’s good enough but no one then or now bothered to watch this movie for the scenes he directed!

There were other Esther Williams movies that had more plot than this, as well as some (including Dangerous When Wet, in which she swims the English Channel and there’s legitimate suspense as to whether she’s going to make it) that were actually good entertainment even between the numbers, but Easy to Love just sort of lumbers to a close enlivened only by the Big Number and a charming little bit at the end in which, after being jilted by Julie for Ray, Barry sees another model sporting impressive lipstick, makes a pass at her … and it turns out to be Cyd Charisse, real-life wife of Tony Martin. Another oddity is that John Bromfield’s other best-known movie credit is in Revenge of the Creature, the first sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon and also a movie shot largely at a real-life theme park (Marineland) in Florida.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Puccini: La Fanciulla del West (Metropolitan Opera, 1/8/11)

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

The night before last Charles and I watched a recent KPBS telecast of the Metropolitan Opera performing Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West — a product of the 100th anniversary production the Met put on in its 2010-2011 season. The opera, based on David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, was actually commissioned by the Met, and in 1910 they shot the works: three superstar singers of the day — soprano Emmy Destinn as Minnie, owner of the Polka Saloon in the California gold-rush town where the action takes place; tenor Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson, a.k.a. Ramirez, a bandit who comes to rob the miners’ gold (which they keep at the Polka under Minnie’s supervision) but gives up the plan when he sees Minnie, whom he’s already met and fallen in love with, is the proprietor; and baritone Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance, the town sheriff and gambler, who is determined to bust Johnson a.k.a. Ramirez and is also after Minnie himself (as, indeed, are virtually all the miners) — and Arturo Toscanini conducting his second Puccini world premiere (after La Bohème).

Alas, in casting the 100th anniversary production the modern-day Met landed only one superstar — Deborah Voigt as Minnie — though Marcello Giordani, the tenor, at least looked a bit like Caruso and Lucio Gallo as Rance held the stage acceptably (it helped that he’s virtually the only character who gets to dress sharply). The production was directed by Giancarlo Del Monaco — whose father, tenor Mario Del Monaco, was ordinarily a loud, insensitive singer but who turned in one of his finest performances when he recorded Fanciulla in 1958 with Renata Tebaldi as Minnie (and the original LP issue of that record is worth having if only because of the cover featuring Tebaldi in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans!) — and conducted by Nicola Luisotti. Fanciulla is one of Puccini’s lesser-known but most remarkable operas; musically it’s the most sophisticated thing he’d done to that time, filled with impressionistic harmonies, surprisingly dissonant instrumental writing and leitmotifs — indeed, it’s Puccini’s most adventurous opera besides Turandot, and Fanciulla has one major advantage over Turandot in that Puccini did live to finish it.

Done right, Fanciulla comes off as both a wild, rambunctious picture of the American West in the 19th century and a lush, romantic opera in the Puccini tradition (the gushing motif that signifies Minnie’s and Dick’s growing love for each other was ripped off by Andrew Lloyd Webber for “Music of the Night” in The Phantom of the Opera, just as previous songwriters had ripped off Puccini for “Avalon,” based on “È lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and “Dearly Beloved,” from the love duet from Butterfly). Unfortunately, conductor Luisotti crawled through it on his hands and knees, choosing slow tempi that gave us plenty of time to appreciate the delicacy and creativity of Puccini’s orchestration but didn’t convey the energy this score should also have. I thought for a while who the Met should have got — what modern-day conductor would have ripped through this score the way Toscanini probably did (at least based on the evidence of his Bohème recording) — and the name that kept coming to mind was Gustavo Dudamel.

Deborah Voigt was a first-rate stage presence as Minnie — though she was hampered by the costume designer’s decision to have her wear dresses in all three acts (frankly I would have wanted her to enter like Doris Day in Calamity Jane!) and her voice got a little wobbly above the staff (but then whose doesn’t these days? As much as I love Maria Callas, her example has been a bad one for a lot of subsequent singers: “I can get away with wobbly high notes if I can get the audience to think of me as a vocal actress!”), and Giordani and Gallo were quite competent in their roles but I missed the thrill Del Monaco and Plácido Domingo brought to Johnson in their Fanciulla recordings (and the 1970’s Fanciulla with Domingo and Carol Neblett was conducted by Zubin Mehta, who was certainly alive to both the rambunctious and the romantic parts of the score).

Charles had the same criticism of Fanciulla that a number of the original reviewers in 1910 did: where were the big arias? Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in the last act (he’s about to be hanged by a lynch mob and his last request is to let Minnie think he is free and got away) has a toehold in the separate repertory, but though there are some quite lovely and dramatically appropriate solos for all three principals (Rance’s “Minnie, dalla mia casa,” Johnson’s “Or son sei mesi,” Minnie’s “Laggiù nel Soledad”) there are not any big hit tunes: no “Che gelida manina,” “Mi chiamano Mimì,” “Vissi d’arte,” “È lucevan le stelle,” “Un bel dì” or “Addio, fiorito asil.” (Puccini learned his lesson; though Turandot pushed the envelope of his style even farther than Fanciulla had, at least he studded it with potential hit arias, including “Nessun dorma.”)

Sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively, called “Puccini’s spaghetti Western,” Fanciulla is one of his most remarkable operas, and I hope this Met telecast builds the audience for it — certainly Belasco’s play has had “legs” apart from the opera stage (it was filmed by MGM in 1938 as a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical, though instead of using Puccini’s score — negotiating the rights would probably have been a nightmare — they cobbled together some songs from old operettas and came up with what is generally considered the weakest of the MacDonald/Eddy films; and two years later Universal parodied it as My Little Chickadee, with Mae West and W. C. Fields) — even though this production, though serviceable and giving a good account of the opera, could have been much, much better.

Suddenly, Last Summer (Horizon/Columbia, 1959)

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

Suddenly, Last Summer — the title is sometimes reproduced without the comma, but the comma is in the original credit — began life as a one-act stage play by Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams. He was undergoing psychoanalysis by a therapist who, according to the conventional psychiatric wisdom of the day, regarded Williams’ homosexuality as a mental illness and sought to “cure” him by turning him straight. As part of the “cure,” he pointed out that Williams’ previous plays had featured cruel, destructive heterosexuals and he should write one about a cruel, destructive homosexual. The 45-minute play was expanded by Williams and fellow screenwriter Gore Vidal (who was also Queer, though Vidal was actively Bisexual and insisted that there was no biological or psychological basis for terms like “straight,” “Gay” or “Bi” — in that regard Vidal can be considered a founding father of the modern-day “Genderqueer” movement of young people who are open to either same-sex or opposite-sex relationship partners and refuse to regard their sexual and emotional choices as part of their personal identity) into a script for a full-length film, but the padding shows in this relatively simple story.

Rising young neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) has been recruited to the Lion’s View state mental hospital in New Orleans in 1937 to practice lobotomies — then a new and highly touted procedure. In the film’s opening scene, we see him in an operating theatre that’s a converted warehouse, attempting to lobotomize a patient even though the lamp he’s working by shorts out and he has to finish the surgery with just the normal room light. He complains to the hospital’s head, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker), about the rotten conditions in which he has to work, and Dr. Hockstader replies that he has the answer: wealthy society matron Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is willing to donate $1 million to build a state-of-the-art brain surgery facility if Dr. Cukrowicz agrees to lobotomize her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), who’s been in a Catholic mental hospital since she returned home six months previously from Europe. She had gone there with Violet’s son Sebastian — only Sebastian had died under mysterious circumstances in a Spanish beach town called Cabeza de Lobos (“head of wolves”?) and Catherine has freaked out ever since. We soon learn that every year Sebastian had spent the summer traveling through Europe with his mother Violet, only this year he had decided to go with Catherine instead.

Catherine is admitted as a patient at Lion’s View and is given accommodation in the nurses’ wing instead of with the rest of the patients — whose overall demeanors are so frightening this place makes the asyla in Bedlam and The Snake Pit look like health resorts by comparison — and Dr. Cukrowicz gradually becomes convinced that she doesn’t need a lobotomy: what she needs is a chance to break down her defenses and tell the terrible secret of what happened to her and Sebastian suddenly, last summer. Eventually Cukrowicz brings Catherine to Violet’s garden — full of Venus fly-traps which she raises and actually has flies shipped in so she can feed them herself — and she has a wing-ding of a breakdown in which she narrates the tale while a series of stylized flashbacks shows us Sebastian (always shown from behind, like Jesus Christ in both versions of Ben-Hur, though not out of reverence but as a result of a deal producer Sam Spiegel and the releasing studio, Columbia, cut with the Production Code Administration to get around their flat prohibition against the depiction of homosexuality or any other “sex perversion” on screen) as he really was: not the ethereal, celibate aesthete of Violet’s imaginings but a relentlessly predatory homosexual who used his mom to lure young men into his orbit so he could then have his way with them — and who took Catherine along on his last trip because mom was getting too old to lure anybody and he needed a younger, fresher woman as his bait.

He didn’t die of a heart attack, as Violet insisted; instead a gang of boys (presumably the ones he’d been preying on) formed an improvised band (in both senses of the word, since the script makes a big deal of them playing homemade musical instruments as they hunt Sebastian down) and stalked Sebastian, surrounded him, overpowered him and started eating him alive, throwing him off a beachfront cliff when they were through with him and he was really most sincerely dead. Violet had clung to her idealized memory of Sebastian and wanted to get Catherine an unnecessary lobotomy so there would be no one — at least no one believable to an American audience — to tell the truth about Sebastian and his fate, and she’d gone so far as to bribe Catherine’s mother (Mercedes McCambridge) and brother (George Raymond) with a $100,000 inheritance to go along with her sordid plan and sign the authorization papers. Only now that Catherine has blurted out the truth with all the other principals present, Violet loses it completely — we got it about five minutes into the movie that she, not Catherine, was the crazy one — and starts addressing Dr. Cukrowicz as Sebastian.

Suddenly, Last Summer
is a weird movie — just about everyone in it is an abstraction of Tennessee Williams’ mind, and both his real-life Queerness and his self-hatred come through in just about every frame — and it’s been denounced by all sorts of people both when it was new and since. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ film critic, wrote a review saying it was the work of degenerates obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality and cannibalism — and Gore Vidal said later that Crowther’s screed actually ensured the film’s box-office success. Vito Russo, in The Celluloid Closet, raked the ending over the coals, saying that American Queers were at far more risk of U.S. Gay-bashers than Spanish cannibals, and when the film was new Dwight MacDonald said that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (a rare credit for him since he usually wrote as well as directed his films) “can count one directorial triumph: he has somehow got Elizabeth Taylor to give a mediocre performance, which is a definite step up in her dramatic career.”

Actually Taylor is the best of the three leads, by a considerable margin: she’s the one person in the movie who’s actually well suited to her part, and she delivers her final narration with an incredible fervor that makes its ridiculous content at least barely believable (she was supposedly coached by Clift to draw on a real-life situation — her grief when her third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash — to do the scene). Clift is simply too weak a screen presence as the tough, idealistic doctor, and maybe in the alternative universe in which Richard Burton played Jett Rink in Giant and therefore met Taylor six years before he actually did, he might have been cast in this role and given it an authority and power that eluded the almost neurasthenic Clift. By then years of drinking, prescription drug abuse and overall detachment from the rest of the world’s reality had made the already vulnerable Clift almost totally pathetic as a specimen of humanity, and while Taylor fought to get him the role (even persuading producer Sam Spiegel to keep him on the film despite the refusal of the production’s insurance company to cover him), he’s simply wrong as an idealistic man of science willing to defy a rich woman and insist on not giving Catherine a treatment he knows full well is wrong.

As for Katharine Hepburn, she does her best to bring Violet Venable to life — and the character is at least faintly credible as a Hepburn role (a strong-willed, indomitable woman), but it’s essentially an unsympathetic role — the way she drones on and on and on indicates to us in the first few minutes that she, not Catherine, is the crazy one — and Hepburn’s films generally succeed or fail based on how close the character is playing is to her own off-screen personality. Violet Venable is miles away from it (supposedly she proclaimed ignorance of the whole idea of homosexuality and kept asking Spencer Tracy, who was keeping her company on the set, to explain it to her — but I don’t believe that; if she did ask Tracy for advice on being Queer it was probably just to needle him; I can’t believe a woman whose most frequent director, and one of her closest friends, was George Cukor being that naïve about it!), though Hepburn deserves technical praise for getting through long stretches of Williams’ and Vidal’s dialogue without seeming to pause for breath, adding to our impression of Violet as the really crazy one in her family. Suddenly, Last Summer is a bad movie by any normal standard, but it’s also haunting as an index of Tennessee Williams’ own psychopathology — and Columbia’s marketing department seemed aware that that’s what its appeal would be, since they sold it under the tagline, “Tennessee Williams Shocks You Again as He Transports You to a Strange, New, Bold World!”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stage Review: “Dooley” (Diversionary Theatre, 2011)

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

I first heard of Dr. Thomas A. Dooley in Robert Scheer’s powerful 1965 pamphlet, How the United States Got Involved in Viet Nam, in which he was treated as a figure of derision. Until then I’d only vaguely been aware of the name — not surprisingly because, though he’d had a shooting-star sort of fame in the 1950’s (indeed, a lot of people — including at least one playgoer at Diversionary Theatre May 16 — had thought the Kingston Trio’s hit song “Tom Dooley” was about him, which it wasn’t; it was actually an adaptation of a Black folk song from the 1890’s, “Tom Dula,” about a lynching victim, but the song’s popularity and the real-life Dooley’s celebrity no doubt had a synergistic effect on each other), he died on January 18, 1961. Scheer had described him as a member of the so-called “Viet Nam Lobby,” along with Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale of the CIA and International Rescue Committee (IRC) founder Dr. Leo Cherne and behind-the-scenes participation by powerful officials in the U.S. Catholic Church, notably Cardinal Francis Spellman, who in the mid-1950’s promoted U.S. aid to South Viet Nam and hailed its Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as a model reformer and an exemplar of the so-called “Third Way” for the Third World, neither imperialist nor Communist. (Diem turned out to be a typically corrupt Third World caudillo dictator, famous for installing his family members in power, plundering the national treasury, and also giving economic and social preferences to Catholics in a 90 percent Buddhist country.)

As the Viet Nam war receded in my consciousness, so did Dooley — until I read Randy Shilts’ final (and posthumously published) book Conduct Unbecoming, about the history of the ban on Queer people serving in the U.S. military. Relying on the research of journalist Barbara Shaw, Shilts painted a picture of Dooley as a Gay man done in by the U.S. military and its prejudices, thrown out of his position as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1956 just as his first book, Deliver Us from Evil, was hitting the best-seller lists and catapulting him to nationwide fame, and given a less-than-honorable discharge which he was literally using the last few weeks of his life (he was diagnosed with cancer in 1959 and died from it less than two years later) to get upgraded to honorable. (The upgrade finally came through just days before he died.) Between those two sources, it occurred to me that Tom Dooley’s life was the stuff of which great drama could be made, if only because it was so full of contradictions: the good little Roman Catholic boy from St. Louis, Missouri; the high-living playboy who nearly washed out of medical school because of his love of upper-class parties; the Navy doctor who threw himself into helping refugees from (North) Viet Nam and who later aspired to do in Laos what Albert Schweitzer had done in Africa; and the great man stricken in his prime by an insidious and tragic disease.

“Naval officer, CIA operative, celebrity, humanitarian, son, playboy, a hero for his time,” the Diversionary Theatre program for the world premiere of William de Canzio’s play Dooley describes him — and President John F. Kennedy (a close personal friend and fellow member of the Viet Nam Lobby) cited Dooley as his inspiration for founding the Peace Corps. There is a great play — and, potentially, an even greater movie — in Dooley’s life, and de Canzio has come up with a sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating script that misses as often as it hits. It begins with a sequence showing an actor (Shaun Tuazon) in traditional Southeast Asian theatrical garb — headdress, skirt, heavy bracelets and other jewelry, and little or nothing above the waist — introducing himself as Thanatos, the ancient Greek spirit of death, and brings on two other similarly clad characters described in the program as “Dancing Gods” (Nicholas Strassburg and Jacinto Delgado) before Dooley himself (Robert Borzych) makes his entrance. What’s most frustrating about the play is that it doesn’t need Thanatos or the “Dancing Gods,” who are fun to watch when they do their acrobatics but just take the focus away from where it should be — on Dooley and the contradictions in his life. He’s shown with an overbearing mother, Agnes (Terrill Miller) — who periodically appears to comment on the action (since the real Dooley was usually as far away from St. Louis as he could get, he and his mother are almost never shown together in real time; when both Borzych and Miller are on stage at once, they’re communicating only by letter or phone) — and a Navy command structure he’s too much of a free spirit to fit in comfortably.

As punishment for one too many drinking and screwing bouts in Tokyo, he’s assigned to the U.S.S. Montague for what’s supposed to be a rescue mission in the relatively politically stable Philippines — only just about this time the battle of Dien Bien Phu happens, the French lose the (first) Viet Nam war, the Geneva Accords are signed (the U.S. refuses to sign the final document, more or less agrees to abide by its terms, then organizes a rump “alliance,” the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, to ensure that no other Southeast Asian country is allowed to be taken over, or half-taken over, by a Communist regime) and the Montague is diverted to the North Viet Namese city of Haiphong to process and transport the refugees who want to flee the Communist government and resettle in South Viet Nam. (In the U.S. media at the time this was hailed as the “Flight to Freedom,” and much was made of the fact that one million Viet Namese choose to cross from North to South, while only 100,000 went from South to North. Scheer’s book argued that the North Viet Namese actually wanted their supporters to remain in the south to organize for the elections that were scheduled for 1956 to determine which side would get to govern a reunified Viet Nam — elections almost everyone agreed the North would have won — and which were repeatedly postponed and, in 1959, cancelled altogether; while the people who fled the North for the South were mostly either ones who had worked for the French when they ran Viet Nam as a colony or Roman Catholics fearful of religious persecution under the Communists and attracted to the presence of a Catholic leader in the South.)

Dooley threw himself into the humanitarian work of helping the refugees and Col. Lansdale (the model for the title characters of the novels The Ugly American and The Quiet American) adopted him as a symbol of anti-Communist heroism and international cooperation between the U.S. and a non-Communist “Third Way” government. Through Lansdale’s connections, Dooley’s book Deliver Us from Evil was published and he became a national hero — which de Canzio depicts mostly through the character of Iris (Allison Riley), a rather too broadly characterized grande dame of the New York literary and media scene who worries frantically that he good friend “Clare” (Boothe Luce, whom we never see as an onstage character) will grab her new media star for Time magazine — even while the Navy was mounting an intense investigation of him, including talking an admiral’s son, Jamie (Noah Longton), whom Dooley had a previous affair with, into seducing him again with tape recorders going to capture irrefutable evidence against him.

Historical sources agree that Dooley was Gay but disagree about how aggressive he was about it — he’s been described as everything from a self-hating closet case repressed by his Roman Catholic upbringing and only having furtive, clandestine sexual encounters to a full-flown party boy who regularly sought out underground Gay scenes in Asia, Washington, D.C. and Hollywood. De Canzio gives Dooley a semi-serious Asian boyfriend, Khai (played by Shaun Tuazon, who also appears as “Thanatos”), and portrays both Jamie’s seduction and betrayal of Dooley with real pathos — even though Dooley’s biographers disagree on whether he actually had an affair with an admiral’s son and the assumption in de Canzio’s script that he did turns Dooley a little too closely parallel to the story of Oscar Wilde (and to that of Tchaikovsky, come to think of it) for my taste.

Modern-day Queer playwrights tend to avoid self-hating characters even when dealing with the history of real-life Queers who hated themselves — Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla turned the self-hating Roman Catholic King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who, according to his diaries, financed Wagner because he was convinced the aggressively heterosexual Wagner’s music would turn him straight) into a flaming party boy openly oohing and aahing over the soldiers in the military parades he reviewed as king — and de Canzio is no exception; he gives Dooley some choice lines about why he’s being bounced out of the Navy for sex acts while the person he had sex with gets a promotion for ratting him out (an interesting permutation of the U.S. military’s penchant for identifying one party to a Gay encounter as the seducer and the other party as the victim, which occurs over and over again in proceedings aimed at discharging Gay or supposedly Gay servicepeople), and he gives Lansdale a speech about how stupid the Navy is, especially by comparison to the CIA, which tolerated Gay members as long as they got the job done. (Actually, they didn’t; since one of the theories why Queers were supposedly unsuitable for military service was their vulnerability to blackmail by the nation’s enemies, the CIA would have been about the last place in government to tolerate Queers in the ranks.)

A more tortured, self-conflicted Dooley would have been an even more interesting character than the one de Canzio has given us — and though he hints at it, de Canzio could have made more of Dooley’s gradual turning away from the Cold War certainties of Deliver Us from Evil (there are some wickedly funny lines about the supposed indivisibility of democracy and capitalism, and the U.S.’s obligation not only to wipe out Communism but impose a pax Americana on the world) to a more progressive politics that stressed the need for other countries to find their own paths to good governance that might or might not look like our system. Also, it seems odd that de Canzio has Dooley tell us he was held prisoner for 10 months by the Viet Minh (the Communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh) but doesn’t include a scene actually showing this.

Dooley has the strong production “finish” one expects from Diversionary — Matt Scott’s set is a simple series of slatted panels and doorways that open and close with the unnatural speed of the automatic doors on Star Trek (which were also worked by unseen stagehands); Michelle Caron’s lighting design is surprisingly muted (a sign in the lobby warned that the play used strobe lights, but if so they were used so subtly they were virtually unnoticeable and there was no attempt to use them to suggest being under fire); Blair Robert Nelson, credited with original score and sound design, has come up with an interesting, eclectic and sometimes apropos collection of songs from Dooley’s era (though the use of something as light as Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” as outro music is a mistake); director Cynthia Stokes does the best she can with the jarring dancing-gods scenes (which seem to exist only because de Canzio wanted to establish a sense of “Asianicity”) and stages the rest simply and eloquently; and the cast is stunning.

Robert Borzych actually looks like the real Dooley (at least judging by the photo on the Wikipedia page for Dooley) and he acts the part de Canzio created with power and authority — he could have been even better in a deeper, richer, more eloquent version of Dooley’s life — and the other standouts in the cast are Tuazon as Khai and Reed Willard in a dual role as one of Dooley’s Navy drinking buddies and one of his inquisitors. Dooley is a frustrating play because it’s good as it stands but one keeps asking oneself, “What if … ” — specifically, what if de Canzio had put greater trust in the reality of Dooley’s story instead of throwing in the superfluous Vietnamoiserie scenes and giving him too much of the sensibility of a modern-day crusader against military homophobia instead of the tortured, conflicted man he really was.

Dooley is playing through Sunday, May 29 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and other information, please call (619) 220-0097 or visit http://www.diversionary.org/

Monday, May 16, 2011

This Is the Night (Paramount, 1932)

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

The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was This Is the Night, a quite remarkable 1932 Paramount farce best known as the feature-film debut of Cary Grant. (Earlier he’d appeared in the short Singapore Sue, starring Chinese vaudevillian Anna Chang, in which Grant and Millard Mitchell are two Anglo sailors who try to pick up Chang, but she gives them the cold shoulder and sticks with her Chinese boyfriend, Joe Wong — whose own number is quite the best part of the little film and proves that you didn’t have to be Irish to be an Irish tenor.) I remember seeing this in the 1980’s on American Movie Classics, back when they actually did show American movie classics instead of becoming the all-John Wayne or James Bond all the time channel and later developing highly regarded original series like Mad Men. Back then it was entirely in black-and-white; this time around every scene taking place outdoors at night (including almost the whole first reel of the film) was tinted deep blue, a common effect in the silent era but virtually unknown in the talkies.

This Is the Night had a complicated story evolution reflecting Paramount’s willingness — more than any other studio — to take stories from European plays, and what’s more to leave them in their original European settings rather than rewrite them to take place in the U.S. The play this was based on was something called Pouche, written by René Peter and Henri Falk and premiered in Paris in 1923. Two years later, Avery Hopwood — best known as the writer of the play The Gold Diggers, which launched the cycle of Warners musicals with the world “Gold Diggers” in the title — did an English adaptation called Naughty Cinderella, and a year after that Paramount bought the movie rights and filmed it as Good and Naughty with Mal St. Clair directing and Pola Negri, Tom Moore, Ford Sterling, “Miss DuPont” (the pseudonymous actress who played the female lead in Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives) and Stuart Holmes.

In 1932 Paramount decided to remake this story with sound and cast Roland Young in the male lead as attorney Gerald Gray, who’s having a torrid affair with Claire Mathewson (Thelma Todd) even though she’s married to Olympic javelin thrower Steve Mathewson (Cary Grant). Steve is introduced strolling through the corridors of the apartment building where all the principals seem to live, having arrived home unexpectedly soon from the 1932 L.A. Olympics, and he inadvertently receives from Gerald’s friend and comic-relief sidekick Bunny West (Charlie Ruggles) a pair of tickets from Paris (where the film opens) to Venice (where it quickly relocates) on the Orient Express. Realizing that he is caught, Gerald decides to lie his way out of it and say that Claire’s ticket was supposed to be a single and his two tickets were supposed to be for himself and his wife. Steve decides that in that case he’ll buy a ticket of his own and they can make it a foursome, and since Gerald doesn’t actually have a wife, that means he’ll have to hire somebody to pose as her for the duration of the trip. The somebody he has in mind is actress Chou-Chou (Claire Dodd), but she’s not interested — though Germaine (Lily Damita, the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, top-billed here), grabs at the chance for a trip to Venice, especially when she realizes she can get a huge wardrobe out of the bargain and Gerald will pay for it all.

The result is an occasionally sloppily paced but mostly quite entertaining film that pushed the limits even for the so-called “pre-Code” era of lax Production Code enforcement — not only was the basic situation built around an adulterous relationship and the efforts of its participants to conceal it, but the jokes really pushed the raciness, especially the scene in which Gerald and Bunny, thoroughly “in their cups” at a sidewalk table in Venice, declare their love … for each other. Eventually, and predictably, Gerald falls in love with his pretend “wife” Germaine — the film ends with him proposing marriage to her for real — while Steve and Claire more or less reconcile and Charlie Ruggles is left odd man out — but with a film like This Is the Night it’s the style, not the substance, that makes it worth watching. Unlike a lot of other movie legends making their screen debuts (one thinks of all the roughneck slapstick Mack Sennett put Charlie Chaplin through in his early days before Chaplin slowed down his films and achieved the sympathetic grace of the “little tramp”), Cary Grant already seems fully formed, playing a light-comic role and playing it to perfection — after re-seeing This Is the Night I’m as confused as I was when I saw it the first time about the conventional wisdom on Grant’s career that it took his performance in George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, made four years later, to prove to Hollywood in general and casting directors in particular that he could play light comedy.

The script is by Benjamin Glazer and George Marion, Jr. — the latter also wrote the lyrics for Ralph Rainger’s song, “The Lady’s Lost Her Dress,” in which a cabdriver closes his door on Thelma Todd’s dress, ripping it off (a gag Laurel and Hardy had done with Jean Harlow in Double Whoopee three years earlier) and spinning off an elaborate sequence similar to the marvelous city-awakening scene (also set in Paris!) with which Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, also a Paramount film from 1932, opened. Cary Grant makes his entrance singing a song called “Eloise,” probably by Rainger and lyricist Sam Coslow, and showing off a quite good, strong voice (in 1931, just before he signed with Paramount, he was featured on Broadway in a musical called Nikki, billed under his real name — Archie Leach — and playing a character called Cary Lockwood; the same story, a novel by John Monk Saunders, was filmed at Warners in 1931 as The Last Flight with Richard Barthelmess in the role; and when Grant went to Hollywood he wanted to use “Cary Lockwood” as his screen name, but the name “Lockwood” was already taken by someone else, so one of the “suits” at Paramount suggested “Grant” as a last name instead).

The director is Frank Tuttle, who’s obviously imitating Ernst Lubitsch (and I suspect the Venice sets were left over from Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece Trouble in Paradise), but at least this is good imitation Lubitsch, complete with some of the famous “touches” (like the animated radio waves that broadcast the information that Thelma Todd has lost her dress from Paris to London) and also some quite snappy dialogue, including Roland Young telling Charlie Ruggles, “They’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing” — a line that got recycled as a Groucho Marx putdown of Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup a year later!

This Is the Night is a joyous, sophisticated film of a kind the studios pretty much stopped making after the Legion of Decency marched on Hollywood in 1934 and demanded strict enforcement of the Code — and after Depression-era U.S. audiences got tired of modern-dress comedies set in the luxury hotels and resorts of Europe and started wanting more American stories. It’s a movie that deserves to be much better known instead of being a footnote in film history as the debut feature of a legendary star — and this despite the ludicrous plot device that we’re supposed to believe Thelma Todd is cheating on Cary Grant with Roland Young, of all people, a gimmick film historian Richard Barrios said was probably as unbelievable to audiences in 1932 as it is today.

The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin: “Top Gun” (Screen Gems TV, 1958)

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

The shorter piece we watched last night was an episode of the 1950’s TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin — which I hadn’t realized was a Western, set in the late 19th century and featuring the famous superdog with Rusty (Lee Akers), a child orphaned in an Indian raid in Arizona and taken in by the troops at Fort Apache, where he and Rinty (as R.T.T. was generally referred to in the dialogue) attempt to bring law and order to the nearby city of Mesa Grande. The episode we watched came from January 24, 1958 and was called “Top Gun” — archive.org claimed that the Dead End Kids, or what was left of them by then, were in it, but they weren’t.

It turned out to be a well-made half-hour Western short even though the archive.org download cut off the ending and it was a blatant ripoff of the 1950 film The Gunfighter, directed by Henry King and starring Gregory Peck as Johnny Ringo, aging gunfighter who just wants to be left alone to mind his own business but can’t because every time he settles in a town, not only does his reputation precede him but some young punk shows up, challenges him to a gunfight and tries to knock him off to build instant gunfighter cred as “the man who shot Johnny Ringo.” (Among the many people particularly impressed by this movie was a young, rather sickly boy in Liverpool named Richard Starkey; when he took up drums professionally, first with a little-known band called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and then with a quite famous band called the Beatles, he drew his stage name, “Ringo Starr,” from Johnny Ringo.) The imdb.com synopsis for this episode reads:

"Rusty and Rinty accompany a detail on a trip into town. Rip discovers Abel; the former town sheriff is concerned when his gunslinging son Toby arrives. Rusty bumps into Toby at the stables and is immediately impressed with his guns. Toby mounts up but Rinty attracts his attention to a broken saddle strap. While waiting for the saddle to be repaired Toby goes to a local saloon and immediately attracts a large crowd. Rip, an old friend, chats with Toby, who confesses to the loneliness of being a gunslinger. A young gun, Bart Desay, arrives in town expressly to kill Toby. Rusty is sent to bring Abel to the saloon, but he refuses. He does agree Toby can visit him if he leaves his guns behind. Desay finds Toby at the saloon and calls him out. Initially Toby won’t be baited, but eventually gives in. They draw, but Toby fires first, only wounding Desay in the hand before sending him on his way. Toby’s had enough and gives Rusty his guns, swearing he will never be a gunslinger again. He then visits his father but is ambushed by Deasy, angered at his defeat. Deasy’s attack fails when he is attacked by Rinty. Abel, now seeing his son has reformed, offers Toby the vacant sheriff’s job in the town.”

The archive.org print we were watching was missing the canis ex machina happy ending — it cut directly from the abortive gunfight to the closing credits — but otherwise it was pretty good, decently reflecting its roots in one of the finest Western films ever made and, at least at the beginning, in surprisingly decent print quality (it did get a bit foggier towards the abrupt ending).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Texas Carnival (MGM, 1951)

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

The film Charles and I watched last night was Texas Carnival, a rather shabby but still somewhat entertaining 1951 MGM musical produced by Jack Cummings (the least of MGM’s three major musical producers at the time), directed by Charles Walters (one of the many Queer folk in Judy Garland’s circle and someone she frequently used as a platonic date when she didn’t have an actual husband or boyfriend) and starring what almost qualifies as an all-star cast: Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Ann Miller and Howard Keel. (Thus the film reunites Williams and Skelton from Neptune’s Daughter and Williams and Keel from an even more atrocious movie, Pagan Love Song.) The plot of Texas Carnival features Skelton as a carnival concessionaire, “Cornie” Quinell, who runs a dunk tank with Williams as Debbie Telford, the prospective dunkee (he bills her as his daughter and says she’s “half girl, half fish,” but it’s just a simple dunk tank and she really doesn’t get much of a chance to swim her stuff underwater), only they’re doing so badly he can barely afford a hamburger.

Things change for him when he’s accosted by a drunken Texas multimillionaire (in cattle and oil), Dan Sabinas (Keenan Wynn), who instantly befriends him and tells Cornie to get him a cab, have himself driven to a fancy hotel where he’s expected, and then follow him there in Dan’s own car — only the inebriated Dan tells the cabbie to take him to Mexico instead, and when Cornie and Debbie arrive at the hotel in Dan’s car they are immediately assumed to be Dan and his sister Marilla (Paula Raymond). In what’s essentially a reworking of The Bride Wore Red, Cornie and Debbie run up a five-figure tab in room charges, meals and, in Cornie’s case, a $17,000 gambling debt — he got roped into a poker game and, not knowing the jelly beans at the table were being used as chips, he ate $5,000 worth of them. Debbie is understandably worried about what’s going to find out when the real Dan Sabinas shows up and/or someone at the hotel figures out they’re impostors, but Cornie assures her that he and Dan are bosom buddies and the real Dan will sort everything out when he arrives.

In a plot twist the writers, Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells, pretty obviously stole from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (which had originally been released in 1931 but had been reissued in 1950, one year before Texas Carnival was made), once Dan actually shows up — sober — he has no idea who Cornie is, though the writers and Skelton do a neat reversal on Chaplin’s gag: Cornie decides to get Dan drunk so Dan will recognize him, only Cornie has more to drink than Dan does and by the time he comes to after having drunk himself into unconsciousness, Cornie has no idea who Dan is. (Skelton was well known for his drunk scenes — including the “Guzzler’s Gin” routine he’d originated in vaudeville and preserved in the film Ziegfeld Follies, which Lucille Ball — who was also in Ziegfeld Follies — ripped off for the great “Vitameatavegamin” episode of I Love Lucy.) Meanwhile Debbie falls for Dan’s ranch foreman, Slim Shelby (Howard Keel), while Cornie attracts a comic partner of his own in Sunshine Jackson (Ann Miller), daughter of the local sheriff (Tom Tully) and an aspiring dancer who gets to rehearse a couple of songs, including one called “It’s Dynamite” in which she’s backed by the Red Norvo Trio.

It’s surprising that the Norvo trio was well known enough they were put into a movie like this playing themselves — albeit backing Ann Miller in a raucous high-energy tap number (with piano and drums added to their basic vibes-guitar-bass instrumentation) was hardly the sort of quiet, intimate jazz they were known for in person and on records from Savoy, Fantasy and Decca. What’s less surprising — depressingly familiar, in fact — is that the great African-American bassist Charles Mingus was in Norvo’s trio at the time, and he was allowed to record the soundtrack for their number — but when it came time to film it, the “suits” at MGM insisted that Mingus not appear on camera and a white bassist synch to the pre-recording instead. (This was 14 years after Benny Goodman had become the first leader of a racially integrated band in the film; he insisted that the two Black musicians in his famous Quartet, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, appear right alongside the two white ones, himself and drummer Gene Krupa, in the Warners musical Hollywood Hotel — but obviously Norvo in 1951 didn’t have the kind of commercial clout Goodman, also a former Norvo employer, had had in 1937.) The plot finally resolves in a chuck-wagon race — an absurd sport in which the wagons are supposed to race in one direction, then one of the occupants is supposed to cook a breakfast and serve it to the judges, and then they’re supposed to head back along an obstacle course — which Cornie needs to win to bail himself out of his gambling debt, and which he does win when the rest of the wagon disintegrates under him and the metal frame holding together him, the front wheels, the driver’s seat and the horses pulling it essentially becomes a virtual chariot, while none of the other drivers finish at all.

Texas Carnival isn’t much as a musical — it’s a waste of major talent both in front of and behind the cameras (the songs are by Harry Warren and Dorothy Fields, but neither of them were having a good day) — but its plot is stupid enough it reaches an entertaining level of total absurdity, and there’s at least some glowing Technicolor cinematography to compensate (the beautiful rust-orange of the sunsets is especially nice even though the “skies” are obviously painted backdrops against a studio wall). What there isn’t is a spectacular Esther Williams water ballet; the only time we get to see her doing anything that even resembles swimming is one in which she appears floating in space in a white chiffon gown (the sequence, or at least her image, was clearly filmed underwater — the air bubbles coming out of her nose and mouth give it away) in the middle of Howard Keel’s hotel room in what’s supposed to be a dream sequence but looks pretty nightmarish to me (“Help! I dreamed my entire hotel room was full of water and Esther Williams was swimming and dancing in it!”). One imdb.com commentator joked that maybe they were cleaning Esther Williams’ pool that week — either that or changing the chlorine — and the imdb.com page said that the original ads for this film read, “For the millions who loved The Great Caruso and [the 1951] Show Boat” — both of which, though flawed, were far better films than this!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (Original Films/Columbia, 2011)

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

I’d just picked up a bare-bones DVD of The Green Hornet, released earlier this year with Seth Rogen, usually known as a comedian (and a, shall we say, heavy-set one at that; he lost 30 pounds to fit the role, more or less) but clearly one of the auteurs of this film because he also co-produced and co-wrote it as well as starring as Daily Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, who suddenly assumes that job after the death of his father James (Tom Wilkinson). The Green Hornet began in 1938 as a radio program, produced by George W. Trendle and written by Fran Striker, the same team behind The Lone Ranger (and rather churlishly, Trendle is credited in the new film but Striker is not, even though when Universal filmed a Green Hornet serial — two of them, actually — in 1940 she not only got credit but her name was on a separate card!), and was quite consciously an attempt to do a Lone Ranger-type character in a contemporary setting.

The Lone Ranger had a Native American sidekick named Tonto; the Green Hornet had an Asian sidekick named Kato. (The show was a bit undecided as to what Asian country Kato came from; originally he was Japanese, then Filipino after Japanese became decidedly un-P.C. after December 7, 1941, though Universal’s serials — there were two — had already made him Korean, but the makers of the new film made Kato Chinese, perhaps because the two previous actors who had played him on film, Keye Luke in the Universal serials and Bruce Lee in the 1966 TV series, were Chinese.) The Lone Ranger rode a silver horse named Silver; the Green Hornet drove a black car named Black Beauty (a Mercury coupé in the Universal serial, a Lincoln Continental in the TV show and a Chrysler Imperial here — since the Imperial hasn’t been made in decades the filmmakers purchased 23 of them, of which only three actually were drivable). The Lone Ranger’s theme song was derived from a classical piece, the William Tell Overture by Rossini, so the Green Hornet (at least on the air and in his previous film incarnations) used a classical theme, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (though it’s not heard in this film at all except for a brief snippet of a 1950’s jazz version by Billy May just before the closing credits; instead the classical theme we do hear is, of all things, the opening of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony!) — and according to the guidebooks published for the show’s writers, the Green Hornet was supposed to be the Lone Ranger’s grandnephew, though I don’t recall that being made clear on the show itself.

The Green Hornet is a decent though not truly great modern-day superhero movie, an odd combination of the Tim Burton Batman and Arthur — Britt Reid is characterized as a useless playboy (the script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg even copied the famous gag from Arthur of Britt waking up with an anonymous girl in his bed; he can’t remember her name and he doesn’t get a chance to make morning-after small talk before his manservant has hustled her out) who’d be helpless without faithful Kato (Jay Chou, an Asian singing star; he’s personable and considerably cuter than his co-star but he’s obviously being doubled or faked in the action scenes and no one would ever mistake him for Bruce Lee!). Interestingly, despite the age of the character this Green Hornet film is the first purpose-made feature film with him — the previous Green Hornet movies included two edited down from the Universal serials and two edited down from the TV show (one of which was released in 1974 to take advantage of Bruce Lee’s enduring fame) — and the story features urban corruption in Los Angeles and the complicity (though we don’t find that out until the end) of the city’s district attorney, Frank Scanlon (David Harbour), who makes it look like crime is going down in the city simply by refusing to take reports of the activities of Russian émigré gangster Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, the marvelous villain from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds but here a good deal less effective in a sillier and less colorful role), who midway through the film dons a red suit and starts to call himself “Bloodnofsky” to gain some of the costumed street-cred of the Green Hornet.

The Green Hornet is directed by Michel Gondry, who lucked out in his reputation because he got his name on one truly great film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but that was really a Schreiber film whose quality owed far more to the marvelous script by Charles Kaufman than anything Gondry brought to it (as Gondry proved when he tried for the same nervous imbalance between reality and dream in a film without Kaufman, The Science of Sleep, which sucked) — and like Bill Evans, who got an unearned reputation by appearing on the Kind of Blue album with two authentic jazz geniuses, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Gondry has got an unearned reputation as a major director thoroughly belied by the combination of attention-getting but not attention-grabbing action sequences and unfunny “comic relief” bits that constitute The Green Hornet. I’m not saying this is a bad film, exactly — though Seth Rogen is horrendously miscast (among the other actors were considered were George Clooney — who would probably have been good, though he’d got the worst reviews of his major career playing Batman and may therefore have decided against taking on another superhero — Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Wahlberg and Vince Vaughn) — it’s just another modern-day mediocre actioner whose makers made one of the most annoying possible mistakes in filmmaking: they never decided whether they wanted it to be serious or comic, so they tried to do both and ended up falling short in both thrills and laughs.