Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 Richard Tucker Opera Gala (PBS, 11/11/12)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran for Charles the 2012 Richard Tucker opera gala, an annual event in Tucker’s home town of New York City, sponsored by his descendants as part of their ongoing project to find and help launch the careers of new opera singers. This year the Tucker Award winner was an interesting soprano named Ailyn Pérez (though on hearing her first name announced by host Audra McDonald I assumed it was spelled the conventional way, “Eileen”) who happens to be married to the 2009 Tucker Award winner, tenor Stephen Costello — and naturally the producers of this program made a big to-do about that, giving the two lovebirds a lot of duets, including the Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s second best-known opera, L’Amico Fritz (I couldn’t help but notice the irony that the first complete recording of L’Amico Fritz, made in Italy for Cetra during World War II and conducted by Mascagni himself, also starred a tenor and soprano who were husband and wife: Ferruccio Tagliavini and Pia Tassinari) and the “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. I remember having seen at least one of the Tucker galas on PBS before and not being particularly impressed:

I … watch[ed] a video I’d recorded two or three months ago on PBS: a show called the Richard Tucker All-Italian Opera Gala (a title which proved to be a misnomer, since there was one non-Italian “ringer” in the music: the revival scene from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, sung by bass Samuel Ramey — ironic to see the singer I’m most familiar with in the title role of Boïto’s Mefistofele as a Fundamentalist minister!), followed by a New York City Opera broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. There was a long explanatory program before the opera began — ironically, Terrence McNally was one of the “authorities” (I guess his main qualification for that was being Gay and having written a play called The Lisbon Traviata, in which one member of a Gay male couple in the process of splitting up torments and eventually murders the other while they’re listening to, and arguing over who gets to keep, the Maria Callas Traviata album that gives the play its title) — which featured clips from an earlier New York City Opera Traviata, this one starring Beverly Sills (a beautiful and intelligent singer, but not really capable of the vocal and emotional depths a soprano needs to be a truly great Violetta).

The Tucker Gala was a disappointing program. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore was introduced as the winner of the 1994 Tucker Award (set up by the late tenor’s estate to foster young American singers), but in her opening number — the “Mira, o Norma” duet from Bellini’s Norma, with Larmore as Adalgisa and Carol Vaness as Norma, Larmore seemed a bit wobbly vocally and uncertain dramatically (Vaness outsang her, though admittedly not by much). The other young singers on the program weren’t that much better — tenor Kristjan Johannsson was a welcome change for the stentorian efforts of Pavarotti et al. in Calaf’s “Non piangere, Liù” from Act I of Puccini’s Turandot, but he hasn’t yet developed real authority; and Kallen Esperian, singing Liù in her aria “Signore, ascolta” just before, wobbled very badly. Some great voices from the 1960’s and 1970’s — notably Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes — made reappearances, and Caballé’s performance in “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi showed that what she has now is only a minor remnant of that incredibly spectacular voice (in particular, her penchant for pianissimo high notes has now become a necessity because she can’t sustain a high pitch at full voice!). Milnes’ voice has weathered the years a bit better; his showing in the great “O sommo Carlo” episode from Verdi’s Ernani is quite a bit weaker than his performance in the same moment with the Met in their live broadcast 12 years ago, and Vladimir Atlantov was properly stentorian in his moment — the third-act finale from Verdi’s Otello — but I’d want to hear him in more of the role before I made judgments. Ironically, the best singing on this 1 1/2-hour program came from Richard Tucker himself, in the company of Risë Stevens on an old (1953) Ed Sullivan Show kinescope of the final scene from Bizet’s Carmen; while the staging was the pits (they never quite explained why the town square in downtown Seville should have, front and center, a fully set lunch table) — the singing on that clip had a passion and commitment missing from the performances in the gala itself. — 6/2/95

Fortunately, the 2012 gala had at least some performances that rose to the dramatic, as well as the musical, demands of the pieces performed — and I give whoever put together the program credit for digging through the operatic repertoire and coming up with some real rarities instead of churning out yet another set of Opera’s Greatest Hits. Yes, there were some numbingly familiar pieces on the program — the Traviata duet (though they also performed the final scene from Act II of Traviata — the one in which Alfredo openly insults Violetta by hurling his gambling winnings at her and saying that he’s paid off the whore in full — which is hardly ever done out of context); “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (sung by a major star, mezzo Olga Borodina, with impeccable technique but almost none of the air of mystery and seduction the piece needs to work); “La calunnia” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and the Song to the Evening Star from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (one of those bits, like the familiar Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, that’s essentially Wagner for people who hate Wagner — though it’s ironic, to say the least, that a concert named for one of the most committedly Orthodox Jews in all opera should have featured anything by so notoriously anti-Semitic a composer).

But there were also quite a few real rarities: the opening piece was an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo sung (gloriously) by baritone Gerald Finley, who’s most known for his contributions to contemporary opera in general and John Adams’ works in particular; the complete Cours-la-Reine sequence from Massenet’s Manon (showing off Pérez’ vocal beauty and facility in coloratura — though she’s not going to make me forget the spectacular singing Beverly Sills did on this in her “complete”); the spectacular “Take the world, but leave me Italy!” duet from Verdi’s Attila with baritone Quinn Kelsey (who looks like a street person but sings like a demigod) and bass Ildar Abdrazakov; “O mon Fernand” from Donizetti’s La Favorite, sung by the glorious mezzo Janis Barton (who should have been the 2012 Tucker Award winner; she’s a far more exciting singer than Pérez and in the battle of the mezzos she blew the much better known Borodina off the stage — and, praise be, she sung the aria in the original French instead of the slapdash Italian translation usually used); “Ave Signor” from Boïto’s Mefistofele (my choice for the most underrated opera of all time) sung by surprisingly slight German bass Erwin Schrott, whose idea of looking like the devil was dressing in a black leather jacket and putting its collar up; “Vieni! T’affretta” from Verdi’s Macbeth (with Macbeth’s lines in between the cavatina and cabaletta supplied by African-American baritone Brandon Sidell) by a breathtakingly intense dramatic soprano named Ludmilla Menastyrska (I wouldn’t mind seeing or hearing her and Sidell in a “complete” even though Sidell was ill-used in this program — only a brief recitative in between the two halves of this aria and a brief appearance in the Traviata Act II finale); and the Septet from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Janis Barton’s voice soared above the rest — as it did in the Traviata finale as well even though that’s one piece in which the mezzo is definitely not supposed to upstage the star soprano! The Traviata “Brindisi” and the final selection, the “Va, pensiero” chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco — both the chorus and the orchestra were from the Metropolitan Opera and the conductor was Patrick Summers, who frankly was dull through most of the evening; many of the singers had to make their effects in these selections in spite of their conductor and his leaden tempi — were essentially presented as encores.

The evening was a quite spectacular one and offered hope for the future of opera — though less hope for the future of opera conducting; as dissatisfied as I was with some of James Levine’s Met performances (especially in the 1970’s before he settled in as the long-time music director), he’s emerging as a shining light on the podium compared to a lot of the conductors the Met has had since. At least part of the problem is that conducting opera is no longer seen as the stepping-stone to conducting symphonic concerts it used to be, when musicians like Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan spent long apprenticeships making the rounds of provincial opera houses before they got let anywhere near a symphony orchestra; today a hot-shot conductor like Gustavo Dudamel can get a major berth with a first-rate symphony without ever having to go near an opera house, and if he decides he wants to conduct opera he can do so with his regular orchestra in a concert performance without having to set foot in an opera house or worry about staging. And speaking of staging, some of the music on the Tucker gala actually benefited from the lack of it; the Traviata finale in particular made a much stronger emotional impression on me here than it had on the Met’s recent telecast, partly because Ailyn Pérez is much closer to my ideal voice “type” for Violetta than Natalie Dessay and partly because she and her hubby didn’t have to compete with Willy Decker’s silly production and Wolfgang Gussmann’s even sillier sets and costumes. Despite Summers’ poky conducting, the Traviata scene took off and lived emotionally — as did the Macbeth aria and just about every number involving Janis Barton, who to me is the real star-to-be from this concert!

Main Street Follies (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The evening began when I switched on Turner Classic Movies and encountered Main Street Follies, a 21-minute short from Warners in 1935 starring Hal Le Roy as a dancing star who has just jumped from producer Max Brock (George Anderson) — two years after a real-life producer named Lou Brock had the brilliant idea of teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the film Flying Down to Rio — and signed with a rival which is using him in a show called Main Street Follies. Freddie McGuire (Jack Usher) is a sidekick to Brock and also an old friend of the rival who lured Le Roy away from him. Brock assigns McGuire to find out what numbers the other producer is doing with Le Roy so he can copy them. McGuire is unable to get his calls to the producer returned and, with his job at stake, instead of telling him what the real Main Street Follies will consist of, he starts making up more and more fantastical numbers — including one in which Le Roy will play his own father (nine years before the film Cover Girl, in which Rita Hayworth played her own mother — the film was mostly set in modern times but contained a flashback sequence set 20 years earlier, in which Hayworth played the mother of her character in the contemporary scenes) and be shown romancing his girlfriend (who will become his wife and the modern Le Roy’s mother) on the platform of a horse-drawn streetcar. The film’s hottest moment occurred at the beginning, with Le Roy’s spectacular song-and-dance to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but the rest was quite fun, engagingly written by A. Dorian Otvos and George J. Bennett, and directed by Abraham Lincoln … well, by Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation.

Black Widow (20th Century-Fox, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” TCM showed after Main Street Follies was the 1954 Black Widow, kicking off a night-long salute to actress Gene Tierney that mostly avoided her best-known films (like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven) in favor of such oddities as this one, The Left Hand of God (a 1955 melodrama starring Humphrey Bogart as a disgraced U.S. military officer who signs on to the private army of a Chinese warlord, then runs afoul of him and tries to hide from the warlord’s hit squad by masquerading as a priest!), Where the Sidewalk Ends (reuniting Tierney, Dana Andrews and director Otto Preminger from her star-making vehicle, Laura) and other oddities. No relation to the 1987 Black Widow either plot-wise or in terms of atmosphere, the 1954 Black Widow is basically a murder mystery grafted onto the plot of All About Eve. Based on a 1952 (i.e., two years after All About Eve) novel called Fatal Woman published under the name “Patrick Quentin” (a floating pseudonym used by four separate writers working either alone or in pairs — Fatal Woman appears to have been written by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb), Black Widow revolves around the fatal attraction (the words are irresistible) between “purpose” girl Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), the Eve Harrington of this tale, and theatrical producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin). Denver meets Ordway just after his wife, a famous actress, goes out of town to tour with her latest Broadway hit; in this version Ordway is an aspiring writer rather than an aspiring actress, but she’s just as unscrupulous as Eve Harrington, essentially sleeping her way up the ladder of Broadway success until she attracts Peter at a party hosted by the star of his latest production, actress Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers, top-billed), and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner). The film begins with Heflin’s character narrating a flashback on how Nancy Ordway moved up the New York street grid, repeatedly seducing more and more influential older men until she got to him, and putting on an innocent act that fooled Denver at first.

He insists throughout the movie that he never actually had an affair with her, like the good little Production Code-era boy he is, but other people insist he did — including Ordway’s roommate Claire Amberley (Virginia Leith) and her brother John (Skip Homeier, older but still as slimy as he was as the boy Nazi in Tomorrow the World) — apparently their source was Ordway herself, who told them before she was strangled in Denver’s apartment (where he had given her space to write during the day — as Charles might joke, “Writing? Is that what they’re calling it now?”). Ordway’s death is ruled a suicide at first, but when the medical examiner autopsies her it’s revealed that she was first strangled and then hanged post-mortem, and the police, headed by detective lieutenant C. A. Bruce (George Raft), focus their investigation on Denver, his wife, Carlotta and her “kept husband” Mullen. Ordway’s body was found with a stick-figure drawing of a woman hanging, captioned with the line, “The power of love is greater than the power of death” — from Richard Strauss’s Oscar Wilde-derived opera Salomé, a piece Ordway was fond of since she played its big instrumental section, the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” constantly. Ordway had drawn a similar stick-figure drawing of herself typing with a word balloon containing her phone number, which she’d given to Peter so he could call her and initiate their affair (or non-affair, depending on what you believe about the story) — only it turns out that Mullen was really her lover, as well as the father of the unborn fetus she was carrying when she was killed. What’s more, in yet another reversal from writer-director Nunnally Johnson (like All About Eve, this is a film in which the writer and director were the same person), Ordway’s real killer turns out to be … Carlotta Marin, disgusted with her for seducing and being impregnated by the husband she’s spent a lot of money, time and energy keeping away from the work world, at which he freely admits he’s hopeless.

Essentially the 1954 Black Widow is what All About Eve would have been if Margo Channing had strangled that ungrateful bitch Eve Harrington just when she realized what the younger woman was up to, and while Johnson’s writing isn’t quite up to Joseph Mankiewicz’ for wicked wit the movie is still a lot of fun despite a rather elderly cast that was probably considered the “over-the-hill gang” even then. It’s also a professionally written and acted film; Johnson’s writing may be powered by reversals, but at least they make sense and don’t induce the kind of whiplash that’s become an all too common reaction to recent thrillers like Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity (which layered on the reversals so thickly that the plot eventually ceased to make any discernible sense at all). It isn’t cast anywhere nearly as strongly as Eve was, but Ginger Rogers’ performance as the bitch is quite treasurable; she pounces on the role as if she were determined once and for all to make us forget that nice young girl who danced so beautifully with Fred Astaire, and she plays the big reveal at the end in a surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion, with a finely honed sense of psychopathology less exciting but more subtle than the nose-flaring overacting with which Bette Davis would have acted it. I was also grateful to TCM for showing Black Widow in a letterboxed print reproducing the original CinemaScope 2.55-1 screen ratio; for years I had described the ridiculous scene in the pan-and-scan version in which Van Heflin’s glasses had a heated argument with Gene Tierney’s nose — and I was a bit startled to find that Heflin didn’t wear glasses at any time during the film, so I’m not sure what I remembered except that the absence of anything but hairline glimpses of the two leads in what was supposed to be an intensely dramatic scene between them was disconcerting, to say the least!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tarzan the Fearless (Principal, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie I’d recorded from TCM last March but had only now discovered in my back files: Tarzan the Fearless, a production of Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures from 1933 — the year before Lesser’s company made The Return of Chandu, the remarkable serial directed by Ray Taylor, written by Barry Barringer and starring Bela Lugosi. Tarzan the Fearless was the film for which Lesser created the releasing strategy he also used in The Return of Chandu: he billed it as a so-called “feature-serial” and offered it to exhibitors in three forms: as a straight-on 12-chapter serial; as a feature-length (86 minutes) movie edited from the first four chapters plus the remaining eight shown in serial form (with a special trailer shown at the end of the feature to announce that the story would be continued as a serial at the same theatre); or as just the feature without the serial appendages. He produced it under an unusual rights deal he made with James Pierce, who had been given the rights to a Tarzan story by the character’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, as a wedding present when Pierce married Burroughs’ daughter. Only Pierce’s contract with Lesser stipulated that Pierce himself play Tarzan — and Pierce was sufficiently heavy and out of shape that Lesser told him if he played Tarzan, the only way the film would work was if he made it a spoof. Fortunately, Lesser was able to buy Pierce off, giving him an additional payment in exchange for relinquishing his contractual right to star, and since MGM had just started Tarzan, the Ape Man starring 1928 Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, Lesser signed the big 1932 Olympic swimming gold medalist, Larry “Buster” Crabbe — who looks enviably hot in Tarzan’s leopard-skin loincloth (despite some shots in which director Robert F. Hill and cinematographers Harry Neumann and Joseph Bretherton got too close and showed bits of Crabbe’s modern and decidedly not jungle-made underwear under the loincloth) and quite a bit handsomer than he did in Flash Gordon three years earlier (where he was still a nice hunk of man-meat but he’d started to put on the pounds).

Lesser had to deal with threatened litigation from MGM over his Tarzan project — Burroughs didn’t make the lives of studio lawyers easier by licensing and cross-licensing the character up the ying-yang until just about everyone holding a contract allegedly authorizing them to do a Tarzan movie had to deal with the uncertainty of just what they were and weren’t allowed to do with the character — and finally Lesser agreed not to start making Tarzan the Fearless until MGM finished Tarzan, the Ape Man. As things turned out the MGM Tarzan (a project studio head Irving Thalberg green-lighted just because he had a lot of location footage left over from MGM’s original jungle epic, Trader Horn, actually filmed in Africa, and he wanted to use that film for a sure-fire story that would help make up for the studio’s losses on Trader Horn) was an enormous hit and Lesser’s trailed along in its wake — while Burroughs, still seething at the treatment his famous character had got from both sets of filmmakers, greenlighted a project of his own called The New Adventures of Tarzan, also as a feature-serial, with yet another champion swimmer, Herman Brix, as his star. (Alas, all that survives of The New Adventures of Tarzan is a cut-and-paste feature edited down from the later episodes of the serial — and in a reissue print billing the star as Bruce Bennett, a name Brix adopted in 1939 because he wanted to get away from his ape-man roots and be considered for important roles in major-studio productions — which he finally got in late-1940’s films like Mildred Pierce and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.)

Burroughs was particularly upset that his Tarzan had been completely fluent in English, French and several African languages, while Weissmuller had little more to say than “Me Tarzan — you Jane,” and Crabbe got even less than that (though anyone who’s seen a Crabbe movie in which he did have dialogue to deliver probably doesn’t miss the experience that much with this one). Of course, the MGM version totally outclassed this one, both critically and at the box office; as Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper for theatre owners, commented at the time, “This is another version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan stories, and will do for juvenile trade; it might prove tiresome to adult audiences who have seen the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer version made last year.” Seen today, Tarzan the Fearless is pretty tiresome; though the opening credits make a big deal of the (dubious) claim that Burroughs wrote the story especially for the film, it’s the usual mishmash of a Tarzan tale (whether by Burroughs or others — the writing credits of this one list William Lord Wright as “script supervisor,” Walter Anthony as “dialogue editor,” and Basil Dickey and future serial specialist George H. Plympton for “continuity”): lots of native fauna to menace the whites in the jungle (lions, crocodiles, elephants et al.), lots of skullduggery and people at cross purposes — some of the villains are Arabs in full Valentino-as-the-Sheik headdresses and robes, some of them are whites and are part of the heroine’s entourage — as well as a lost city, a hidden treasure and a search for the heroine’s missing father, Dr. Brooks (E. Alyn Warren), who’s described in the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis as “a scientist studying African races and religions” — which is not made all that clear in the film itself.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t made clear in the film itself; it opens pretty much in medias res with heroine Mary Brooks (Jacqueline Wells, later Julie Bishop, and also the female lead in the marvelous 1934 Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat) deciding to go skinny-dipping in a jungle lagoon — only she’s attacked by a bunch of stock-footage crocs (director Hill’s editing is actually pretty good but the graininess of the old footage gives the game away) and Tarzan leaps into the water and rescues her. Mary is leading an expedition through the jungle of Uganda (a stray line of dialogue tells us, for once in a Tarzan movie, which part of Africa we’re supposed to be in) to find her dad, and she’s brought along a nerdy boyfriend named Bob Hall (Eddie Woods) and a guide named Jeff Herbert (Philo McCullough), whom she trusts despite the fact that the moment we see him he’s so swarthy, heavy-set and unkempt, except for his neatly trimmed “roo” moustache, we know he’s up to no good. Of course we’re right: Jeff not only steals one of the sacred emeralds from the local temple (it’s one of these stories that, like King Kong, describes a Third World community living on the ruins of a village they couldn’t have built themselves but they’ve nonetheless carefully preserved from the long-extinct tribe that did) but he’s also carrying a letter — we see a sliver of it at intervals throughout the movie but only towards the end do we get to see enough of it to explain its significance — offering him $10,000 if he can verify the rumor that Tarzan is dead. Jeff is enough of a mean no-goodnick that he’s not going to let a little thing like Tarzan not being dead stand in the way of the $10,000; if he must, he’ll kill Tarzan himself and also make lascivious demands and force himself on Mary. The letter, when we get to see all of it, mentions that Tarzan is the long-lost heir to the Greyfriar (not Greystoke!) fortune in Britain, and the people currently enjoying that money want to make sure that no rival claimant is around to take it away from them.

There are lots of scenes of Tarzan wrestling lions with a knife in his hand (which was what he was doing when most Americans first saw him — on the cover of Munsey’s All-Story in 1912, when his first adventure was published and Frank Munsey’s illustrator showed him that way), swimming through the water either for his own enjoyment or to save another of the white characters (well, the person playing him was a champion swimmer, after all!), and — about the only comic relief in the film — playing a portable phonograph that scares the life out of him at first but which he eventually gets used to (I suspect the writing committee were inspired by the famous scene of Nanook trying to eat a phonograph record in Robert Flaherty’s 1922 classic Nanook of the North), and the ending shows some of Tarzan’s animal friends dancing to the music played by the phonograph — an irritating piece of camp that no doubt alienated many 1933 viewers even though at this level the scene is quite charming. The basic problem with Tarzan the Fearless — well, there are a lot of basic problems: the film is too slow-moving to generate much excitement, the action scenes are ineptly staged, director Hill deploys the cheesiest and most hackneyed recordings from Abe Meyer’s musical library (as opposed to Return of Chandu director Taylor, who raided Meyer’s music box for its subtlest and most sophisticated cues) and the plot is not just nonsense but actively antithetical to the idea of sense, so much so that it might actually have been better watching this as a serial because at least then we would have got the chapter fore-caps explaining who was who, what side they were on (it’s pretty much Tarzan, Bob, Mary and her dad against everyone else, actually) and how the various incidents are supposed to fit together.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lemon Drop Kid (Paramount, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie, and I decided to pick one with a Christmas theme and settled on The Lemon Drop Kid, a 1951 Paramount vehicle for Bob Hope based on a Damon Runyon story that they had previously filmed in 1934 with Lee Tracy as star and the underrated Marshall “Mickey” Neilan as director. (Neilan had drunk himself out of a major-studio career but his direction of the independent race movie Chloe had produced a surprise hit and won him a chance at a comeback at the majors, though it didn’t last long and he only worked as a director for three more years, though he lived until 1958 and acted in a small part as a U.S. Senator in A Face in the Crowd a year before he died.) The Lemon Drop Kid was made at a time when Damon Runyon’s popularity was at its peak even though he had died in 1942; Hope had previously appeared in another film based on a Runyon story, Sorrowful Jones, in 1948 and it had been a blockbuster hit and a major career boost for his co-star, Lucille Ball. What’s more, Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows musical based on Runyon’s stories, had opened on Broadway in 1950 and become the most popular musical to that time, so in this film Runyon is the only person who gets above-the-title billing. The Lemon Drop Kid also is noteworthy as the film that introduced the holiday classic “Silver Bells,” first warbled in his usual tone-deaf manner by William Frawley (who also appeared in the 1934 version and in this one plays a Runyonesque lumpen character recruited by Hope to be a bell-ringing Santa Claus) and then sung on Paramount’s “New York Street” set by Hope and his leading lady, Marilyn Maxwell (the other blonde movie star named Marilyn with a second name beginning with “M”!). The arrangement of the song, punctuated by the street bells Hope and Maxwell are supposedly ringing, indicates that the “suits” at Paramount were hoping this song would become a mega-hit on the order of “White Christmas,” and while it didn’t reach that level of popularity, it did make the charts (thanks to a recording by, of all people, Bing Crosby, Hope’s lifelong friend off-screen and bitter rival on-screen) and become a seasonal standard.

The Lemon Drop Kid begins where any film based on Damon Runyon’s work ought to begin: at a horse-racing track, this one in Florida, where Sidney Milburn (Hope) — who’s been given the nickname “The Lemon Drop Kid” based on his fondness for that sort of candy — is talking to a horse. If this were a Hope-Crosby Road movie the horse would probably have answered him back in English, but instead Hope simply asks the horse who’s going to win the race it’s in and the horse answers with normal horse-noises. All this is supposed to prove to the customers at the racetrack that the Kid has inside information about the races, and he seems to be making his money by giving tips on every horse and then collecting from whichever bettor he sold on the horse which actually won. Only one of his customers turns out to be the girlfriend of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark), and he talks her out of putting $2,000 of Moran’s money on the horse that eventually wins and instead gets her to bet on the horse that finishes an embarrassing last. Moran kidnaps the Kid and tells him to pay him $10,000 — the amount his $2,000 bet would have paid off if it had been placed on the horse he wanted in the first place — by Christmas Day, or else — and he gives the Kid a look at three of his thugs working over a man who cost him money just to show what will happen to him if he doesn’t pay off. The Kid is broke, and in order to raise the money he goes to New York City (if he’s so broke, how does he get there?) and hits up his old girlfriend “Brainey” Baxter (Maxwell), who works at a nightclub owned by Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan). Charlie is in love with Brainey, but Brainey loves the Kid — only she’s getting more and more impatient with him because he won’t marry her. The Kid runs into another old friend, Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell, whom Hope insisted be billed fourth and in the same type size as his own name), who’s been waiting 20 years for her safecracker husband to be paroled, only now that he’s got a parole date she’s got no place to take him because she’s just been evicted. The Kid sees a bell-ringer Santa Claus (obviously patterned on the real ones from the Salvation Army, though the actual agency’s name is never mentioned) and decides to use the same gimmick himself, dressing in an ill-fitting Santa suit and ringing his own bell — only he gets busted by the police for not having a city license and Brainey has to bail him out. Nonetheless, this gives him an idea; he’ll take over Moose Moran’s old casino, now closed after a police raid; reopen it as the “Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls,” and organize as a quasi-legitimate charity with a city license.

Since Nellie is a sort of mascot among New York’s criminal classes, the Kid recruits the city’s lower-level gangsters to be his Santa Clauses — including Gloomy Willie (William Frawley), who’s only billed eighth but is one of the most entertaining parts of this movie, turning in a standout performance that warmed him up for his coming bout with immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. There’s an unexpectedly poignant moment when the Kid catches Willie with a bottle on his person and says, “Santy Claus don’t drink” — and Willie replies, “Then how come he’s always falling down chimneys?” The poignancy comes from Frawley’s real-life status as a recovering alcoholic, which almost cost him the Fred Mertz role; CBS didn’t want to risk that one of the series’ principals would fall off the wagon and miss work, and Desi Arnaz had to put his own prestige and money on the line to guarantee that Frawley would stay sober and able to work — which he did. Anyway, the Kid moves the “old dolls” into the casino — “played” by the big set Paramount had used in Holiday Inn and would recycle again for White Christmas — and has them sleep on the gambling tables on “mattresses” that are really wrestling mats brought from a gym (where Tor Johnson worked out as a wrestler until the Kid roped him into being one of his bell-ringing Santas — it’s nice to see that this weird screen presence from Ed Wood’s and Coleman Francis’ bad movies got to be in a major-studio production with a major star, and a quite good movie at that!). He’s bound and determined to run this scam at least until the holidays, by which he hopes to have the money to pay Moose off — only Oxford Charlie, who in the first half of the movie was portrayed as a nice guy deeply in love with “Brainey” and sorry to see her only attracted to the Kid, turns into a gangster rivaling Moose for unscrupulousness in the second half: he kidnaps Nellie and the other “old dolls” and holds them hostage in his country home in Nyack, keeping the racket going for his own enrichment. To stop him, the Kid dresses in drag and crashes Charlie’s home posing as an “old doll” in need of accommodations — only he loses the handbag he brought, which contained a gun, and ends up with someone else’s un-armed bag. There’s a comic confrontation which ends with both Moose and Charlie getting arrested and the Kid and “Brainey” agreeing to tie the knot and continue running the old dolls’ home.

The Lemon Drop Kid is a lovely movie, and like many of Hope’s best films (the Road movies, the 1939 Some Like It Hot, and the 1949 film The Great Lover) it benefits from the sprinkling of darkness in the background that sets off the Hope humor. It’s the kind of role that suited him best: not the out-and-out doofus he all too often played in his later years but the sharp con artist who’s nowhere near as sharp, or as skilled in the “con,” as he likes to think. It’s also got two great songs — “Silver Bells,” which you know about, and a nice novelty called “It Doesn’t Cost a Dime to Dream,” which you don’t know about but you should — and some unusual (for a Hope movie) slapstick sequences, including one in which Hope gets the women’s clothes he needs by stealing them, one garment at a time, off a mechanically moving mannequin in a department-store window, in full view of a laughing crowd and a perplexed cop. This must be one of the sequences shot by the uncredited co-director, Frank Tashlin — the script was written by the usual committee (Edmund Beloin, Edmund L. Hartmann, Robert O’Brien, Frank Tashlin, and “additional dialogue” by Irving Elinson) and the credited director is Sidney Lanfield, an old Fox hack who made something of a comeback in the 1960’s with The Addams Family TV show, but Lanfield’s skills at character comedy and drawing-room drama did not extend to a forceful, screamingly funny slapstick scene like this, and both this and the ending show Tashlin’s sensibilities. The Lemon Drop Kid is also unusually good as a showpiece for Hope’s voice: though it was hardly as beautiful an instrument as Bing Crosby’s, Hope’s voice was musical enough to hold his own with Bing in their duets, and on his own he phrased quite well and communicated a song effectively.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 1948 film Sorry, Wrong Number on TCM as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Barbara Stanwyck, and afterwards I downloaded the original Sorry, Wrong Number radio show from 1943 and played it for Charles and I. The comparison was fascinating on a number of levels, even though one of the things it showed was that sometimes it’s better to leave a little gem alone than try to inflate it to the size of a feature film. The original Sorry, Wrong Number was written by Lucille Fletcher (who from 1939 to 1948 was also Mrs. Bernard Herrmann) and was a neat little radio suspense piece — in fact the series it was on was called Suspense — and was so popular that it was rerun several times. This being old-time radio, they didn’t simply play a recording of the previous broadcast when they wanted to rerun it: they had to get back either the original cast or a replacement thereof and do another live performance of the original script. So Agnes Moorehead, who had starred in the original radio version, got to remake it several times on the audio-only medium, but when the film rights were acquired by Paramount they decided they wanted someone with a bigger movie “name” than Moorehead and also someone who hadn’t been so thoroughly “typed” as a character actress, and a villainess at that. (Orson Welles and Douglas Sirk cast Moorehead in sympathetic roles, but most of her films for other directors cast her as bitches — leading to her ultimate, and most famous, part as the bitch mother-in-law almost literally from hell in the TV series Bewitched.)

The radio version of Sorry, Wrong Number is almost a monologue for its female star — all we hear of the outside world are various operators and receptionists we hear on the telephone as she makes an increasingly frantic and desperate series of calls, and the two male voices we hear on the wires early on as the wires at the phone company get crossed and the heroine, disabled woman Leona Stevenson, hears them plotting a murder of a woman who will be alone at a home by a bridge. She hears these voices by mistake as she calls her husband, who is (supposedly) working late and whose line is busy. Gradually Leona realizes that the woman the two men have been hired to kill is herself, and she calls first to the operator who got her wires crossed in the first place (and gets a bureaucratic runaround that may have been the inspiration for the Shelley Berman and Nichols and May telephone routines from the early 1960’s), then to the police (who can’t trace the killers from the sketchy information she gives them), then to just about everyone she can think of who might be able to help, until finally the two men get into her house (they’ve been instructed by the mysterious person who hired them how they can get in) and duly knock her off, and after she exits with a scream one of them answers the phone — someone (we don’t know who) is returning one of Leona’s messages — and barks out the famously ironic line, “Sorry, wrong number.” Paramount hired Lucille Fletcher to adapt her radio play for the screen and gave her the task of “opening up” a marvelously constructed suspense exercise so it would stretch to the length of a 90-minute movie, and though she did as well as could be expected it might have been better, if they had to film it at all, to keep it a half-hour short. The main thing Fletcher did to expand her story was to supply a series of flashbacks — narrated either by Leona herself or various people she’s talking to on the phone — giving us the backstory. She also changed the name of Leona’s husband from Elbert to Henry (he’s played by Burt Lancaster as the typically brainless, athletic lout Lancaster usually played in his career — like Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut as the weakling D.A. Stanwyck dominated in the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which TCM showed just before Sorry, Wrong Number, Lancaster was quite good at playing villains but didn’t have much of a chance to because he became a big star so quickly and got repeatedly cast as heroes) and made her an heiress to a pharmaceutical company fortune, who decides she wants to marry Henry even though he’s nothing but a clerk in a small-town drugstore.

Leona got Henry a job in her father’s company — dad, James Cotterell, is played by Ed Begley in a pretty smarmy performance (one aspect of the film Sorry, Wrong Number that makes it seem modern is that all the principals are actively unpleasant; where in the radio version our sympathies remain with the heroine throughout, in the film she reveals an unscrupulous side that makes us at least partially believe she deserves to be tortured psychologically, if not killed outright). Henry is made a vice-president of Cotterell Drugs but he’s not given anything to do, and when he interviews with another company and tries to get a job Cotterell uses his influence to make sure he’s not hired and he can’t get any other sort of job in Chicago, where the Stevensons live (in Cotterell père’s apartment, since Leona has told her husband she has no intention of spending “unnecessary” money on their own place!). So he makes his own opportunity by getting Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea, in a dotty Cecil Kellaway-ish performance), the company’s British-born research director, to steal drugs from the inventory which Henry then sells on the black market to gangster Morano (a young and surprisingly non-obese William Conrad). When the company transfers Evans to the firm’s New Jersey location, Henry Stevenson uses this as a way to cut Morano out of the loop and sell the stolen drugs directly — only he’s caught, not by the police (they’re drawn as even more totally clueless than usual in a film noir) but by Morano and his men, and Morano tells Stevenson and Evans they need to give him $200,000 to repay him for the ill-gotten gains he thinks they’ve cheated him out of … or else. Thereby Stevenson decides to hire two hit men to murder his wife and collect both her inheritance and her life insurance, with which he’ll be able to pay off Morano — only he has second thoughts just before 11:15 (the appointed hour for the hit) and tries to call Leona and warn her. But, much to my surprise, she blows off the warnings and gets killed as in the radio show — I had expected either Henry or the police to arrive in the nick of time to save her, this being the movies and the Production Code still being in force.

 Sorry, Wrong Number the movie is nowhere near as good as Sorry, Wrong Number the radio show; much of the added material (including the rather odd character of Sally Lord Dodge, played by Ann Richards — a woman who dated Henry before he married Leona, and then herself got married to a man who works in the district attorney’s office, and whom Leona pumps for information about her husband’s activities) is pretty mediocre and only detracts from the power of the central device of a woman at home, confined to her bed (she has a wheelchair but she has parked it all the way on the other side of her bedroom and can’t use it; also her room is on the third floor of a huge house and even when someone does come to the door, the door is on the first floor and there’s no way she can get to it and let the person in), realizing she’s in mortal danger and her only possible way out is to make phone calls and try to convince someone to come to her rescue. Barbara Stanwyck remains my all-time favorite movie actress — I’ve noted over the years that a lot of movies she wasn’t in would have been better if she had been (including the 1941 Maltese Falcon, which has deservedly obtained classic status but would be even more of a masterpiece if Stanwyck had played the female lead instead of Mary Astor, who was good but awfully long in the tooth to be convincing as a femme fatale) — but I’m not all that sure that this film wouldn’t have been better with Moorehead in the role: Stanwyck looks too gloriously glamorous for anyone to believe that the guy lucky enough to be married to her (even with her disability, which in this version we’re told is psychosomatic) would want to knock her off, and as versatile an actress as she was she’s unable to convince anyone that she’s genuinely disabled. (Ironically, Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award for this role but lost out to another actress playing a disabled person: Jane Wyman as the deaf-mute heroine of Johnny Belinda).

Director Anatole Litvak doesn’t help her cause much by holding the camera on her walking and standing for awfully long periods of time, though for the most part he stages the action quite well: if you have to have something to look at while you’re watching this story, he gives you a quite remarkable set of a huge house whose very size and isolation adds visibly to the central character’s peril — and being a good European he never holds the camera still when he can figure out an excuse to move it, and never keeps it on one level when he can throw in a vertiginous crane shot that will dramatize the heroine’s helplessness by swooping us up and down those long and winding staircases that separate the crippled Leona from any hope of escape. But what would really have benefited this film is a different male lead — and I thought of who it should have been almost immediately: John Garfield. Lancaster is wrong in two ways: he’s too robust physically to be believable as the helpless weakling he’s portraying, and he’s too limited an actor to suggest his own anguish as his ambitions for money and status on his own have left him on the hot spot to a vicious gangster who intends to kill him if he can’t turn his wife into ready cash by having her killed. A subtler, more nuanced performer like Garfield would have enabled us to believe in all three aspects of Henry Stevenson: the uncomplicated striver he was when he married Leona, the unscrupulous crook he turned into when he found out his wife and father-in-law wouldn’t allow him to make it on his own legitimately, and the final, desperate figure when he tries — too late — to upend his own plot and save his wife’s life. Sorry, Wrong Number is actually a quite good thriller, but it’s also a frustrating example of a movie that’s pretty good as it stands but with a bit more care in casting and scripting could have been a nail-biting masterpiece like the radio play that was its source.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros., Legendary, Syncopy, DC, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Dark Night Rises, third and last in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and to my mind by far the best of the three, rivaling the 1943 Columbia serial and the first Tim Burton Batman from 1989 as the best Batman films ever made. I’m not sure why I liked this one so much better than its two predecessors — like them, it’s grim and almost unrelievedly dark, both physically (most of it is played in shadows and half-light, appropriate for a film whose central character is a man who took the bat as his alter ego) and thematically. It’s grimly ironic that the movie’s history was permanently impacted — and its commercial success probably damaged; it was a huge hit but not the enormous blockbuster Warner Bros. was clearly hoping for — by the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting that took place during a first-day-of-release midnight screening (and was allegedly committed by a man who identified himself with the Joker, villain of three previous Batman films, so much that he dyed his hair red to match the appearance of the Joker in the Batman comics — so the Batman mythos was evidently part of his homicidal madness, as the Beatles had been of Manson’s; he didn’t pick The Dark Night Rises just because it was obviously going to be the top-grossing film of the year and thereby supply him with an abundance of targets in the audience), which made it almost unbearably ironic that Charles and I were watching it in the aftermath of another mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In a way it’s appropriate because The Dark Night Rises is not only one of the darkest films ever made but one of the most openly radical — probably the second most Left-leaning mass-audience blockbuster the capitalist movie industry made in 2012 (next to The Hunger Games), even though the ultimate message is a reassertion of representative democracy and the authority of the police (just as in the two sequelae to The Hunger Games — the Suzanne Collins novels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which haven’t been filmed yet — the original book’s socialist message is transformed into an anarchist one; the hopes raised by the revolution are dashed as the new bosses turn out, in Pete Townshend’s immortal line, to be the same as the old ones, leading to a Voltairean ending in which the heroine literally tends her garden). Rush Limbaugh was rightly ridiculed when he said that the movie was an obvious attack on Mitt Romney because the principal villain is named Bane and Romney’s company was called Bain Capital (he either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the difference in the spelling), but if he actually watched the movie he’d have found quite a lot to hate about it.

It takes place eight years after The Dark Knight, during which the late Harvey Dent — killed at the end of The Dark Knight after his previously upright character was turned into the villain Two-Face — has been held up as a symbol of law and order, and the city government of Gotham has passed something called the Dent Act, which appears to be a law for the preventive detention of people with criminal tendencies whether or not they’ve actually done anything. Police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) defends the Dent Act against the efforts of civil libertarians to repeal it on the ground that it’s worked — Gotham’s crime rate has nosedived since the utter corruption and climate of fear vividly depicted in the previous movie — and there’s still a criminal element that needs to be kept under tight control. The rhetoric behind the Dent Act can’t help but remind one of the USA PATRIOT Act and the similar proclamations by the Bush administration and its defenders that it was aimed at “terrorists” and that they were a new breed of enemy against whom we couldn’t afford such niceties as due process of the law. The film gets even more radical as we see the jockeying for power among members of the 1 percent; while Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, holing up in one wing of Wayne Manor, and the stories circulating about him make him sound like a cross between Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, other ultra-rich people are circulating around his company like vultures, and one of them, Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), hires master criminal Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway — making this the second Batman film in a row to feature a member of the Brokeback Mountain cast), a.k.a. Catwoman, to steal Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints so he can make fake trades on the stock market in Wayne’s name that will impoverish him and leave his company ripe for the picking. (This does rather sound like Bain Capital’s investment strategy.) He’s also hired Bane (Tom Hardy), whose name and appearance seem to have come from the infamous case in San Francisco in which a particularly vicious dog, named Bane and part of a breed called Presa Canario, bred for fighting, clawed a woman in a San Francisco apartment where the dog was being kept by the attorney girlfriend of a white supremacist criminal who was running a market for such dogs from behind bars.

Bane wears a doglike mask and speaks in a barely discernible growl (as, for some reason, does Batman whenever he appears — which is surprisingly little in a film about him; Christian Bale, becoming the first actor to play Batman in three theatrical films, has far more screen time in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity than he gets in the Batsuit), and he’s the sort of thug hired by the 1 percent (or the 0.001 percent in this film) because they think they can control him — only to find that his sheer physical strength and the dedication of the men in his fighting force mean he can overturn the established order and make himself dictator any time he wants. Selina Kyle crashes a super-rich party and starts spouting dialogue that makes her sound like an organizer for Occupy Gotham. Bane targets the Gotham Stock Exchange for one of his terrorist attacks. The film has been criticized on the Left for making the Occupy movement look ridiculously easily manipulated by Bane, who manages to organize mobs into a revolutionary fervor (I suspect director Nolan — who also co-wrote the film’s story with David S. Goyer and its script with his brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the original story for Christopher’s breakthrough movie Memento — studied Eisenstein’s Russian Revolution film October when working out how to stage these scenes), but the critics missed an important cue: when Bane’s forces are approaching Gotham to start their reign of terror, he announces, “We come as liberators, not conquerors” — the famous line the Bush administration told the Iraqis just before they attacked in 2003. I would read Bane’s movement as far closer to the Tea Party than Occupy — a fascistic cult leader of strength and power manipulates people into thinking the fascist leaders are genuine populists and acting in a way that only destroys their own interests — and (perhaps because the Nolans are British by birth and therefore the sport doesn’t have the emotional tie to them it does to Americans) they even do a marvelous plot twist ridiculing Americans’ cult of football: the climax of Bane’s first attack on Gotham (the setting off of explosives concealed in concrete Bane’s construction company has laid underground under the guise of rebuilding Gotham’s subway system) occurs during a big football game and leaves the audience unscathed but opens a big crater where the playing field was previously.

There’s a grimly ironic shot in which one of the players, having grabbed the ball on the opening kickoff, has to run for the end zone not to score a touchdown but literally for his life as the field disappears into the earth just behind him (reminiscent of the scenes in the movie 2012 where characters similarly had to flee just ahead of the collapsing earth), and the Nolans and Guyer thrown in one more radical twist: during the final attack, as police captain John Robin Blake (James Gordon-Levitt, who virtually steals the film from the principals) organizes an evacuation as a nuclear super-bomb Bane has stolen from Wayne Enterprises is about to explode and destroy the city (though there’s a hint in the dialogue that it’s actually a neutron bomb, designed to kill Gotham’s population but leave its buildings and property intact) — and a police squad in the neighboring state threatens to shoot Blake and his evacuees, and dynamites the bridge to keep them on Gotham’s side — an obvious reference to the city government of white-majority Algiers, Louisiana, who deployed their police force on the bridge across the Mississippi from New Orleans to Algiers to keep Black New Orleanians from evacuating during Katrina. The Dark Knight Rises has its flaws, including the horrible-sounding voices of both Batman and Bane (it’s supposed to make them ferocious but only makes them sound like they’re trying to talk and gargle at the same time), some pretty transparent plot twists (including a major reversal at the end involving Bruce Wayne’s seeming love interest, fellow 1-percenter Miranda Fox, played by Marion Cotillard — Nolan had to reschedule the film to shoot all her scenes last, because she was pregnant when she signed for the role and he had to wait until she had her baby) and a weird ending in which Batman seems to sacrifice his life to fly the super-bomb out of Gotham in his weird half-car, half-plane “The Bat” but then turns up at an outdoor café leading the life of an aimless expat, while Captain Blake embraces his middle name (the first time we’ve heard it in the film) and seems to be setting up a non-Nolan sequel. (The reason Robin didn’t appear as a character in the Nolan Batman cycle was that Christian Bale refused to play the Caped Crusader if he did.)

I’d still like to see the makers of these films do one lighter in tone, if not all the way over to the campy extremes of the 1960’s TV shows and the one film based on them at least with some sense that a superhero adventure is supposed to be fun (I’d love to see a scene with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in Wayne Manor reading an article denouncing them as “a wish-fulfillment fantasy of two homosexuals living together” and getting livid about it — the line comes from an actual book, Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, in which psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham actually said that about the Batman and Robin relationship), but The Dark Knight Rises is a quite impressive film (and the end sequence of Michael Caine as the Wayne butler Alfred Pennypacker mourning Bruce’s supposed death and reflecting that he outlasted both Wayne and his parents is unexpectedly moving and tragic), helped by the fact that no one in it is as horrendously miscast as Heath Ledger was as the Joker in The Dark Knight. (Yes, he won an Academy Award for it, but that was partly because he’d died and therefore the Academy voters knew they’d never have another chance to give him one, and partly a “consolation Oscar” because he hadn’t won for Brokeback Mountain.) I had mixed reactions to the first two Nolan Batman movies and utterly loathed Inception (mainly because he used its plot about manufactured dreams as an excuse to take his movie anywhere and do anything whether it made sense or not — though in retrospect Inception reveals the same cynicism towards the 1 percent and their unscrupulous treatment not only of the 99 percent but of each other as well that’s at the heart of The Dark Knight Rises), but The Dark Knight Rises is a surprisingly effective movie and a well-crafted and thoroughly moving take on the Batman mythos. And to think that when I wrote about The Dark Knight I said I had no idea how they’d be able to make a credible sequel to it!

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Unholy Three (MGM, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the “Sunday Silent Showcase” on TCM: The Unholy Three, the 1925 vehicle for director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney (Sr.) that marked their reunion at MGM after having originally worked together at Chaney’s previous studio, Universal. It’s a typically wild Browning script (based on a story by Tod Robbins, whose “Spurs” later provided the plot basis for Browning’s most infamous film, Freaks) in which Chaney plays Echo, a ventriloquist in a carnival sideshow. Actually the film might more accurately have been called The Unholy Four, since Echo’s entourage includes little-person performer Tweedledee (Harry Earles), strong man Hercules (Victor McLaglen, one actor who got more hammy — not less — with the advent of sound) and pickpocket “Sweet” Rosie O’Grady (Mae Marsh, who usually was the “other woman” both on screen and in real life — her brief affair with producer Mack Sennett broke him and Mabel Normand up — but here is quite personable and good in the female lead). Browning’s background in carnivals led him to the “carny” world for a subject again and again, and here the opening reel showing Rosie working the crowd and sharing her ill-gotten gains with Echo and Hercules being ballyhooed as an example of how strong you can get if you don’t smoke — just before he turns away from the crowd, goes behind his backdrop and lights up — are not only entertaining but are quite amusing for a film that has the reputation of a thriller.

After a fight with the management the Unholy Four bolt the carnival and put into action a plan that Echo thinks will make them millions: he will pose in drag as O’Grady’s aunt and open a pet store, where he will sell “talking” parrots to rich customers. Since the parrots only appear to talk because Echo is using his skills as a ventriloquist, the customers will complain — and Aunt O’Grady will offer to come to their homes, with his “niece” and her baby (Tweedledee disguised as a baby and being pushed around in a baby carriage), to see what’s wrong with the parrot. Actually, of course, they’re there to case the place, and later on Echo (in male dress), Hercules and Tweedledee will break in and steal the owner’s jewels. Only things start to go wrong when Hector MacDonald (Matt Moore, who goes through the entire movie with a look that makes him seem slightly nauseous and is one of the least attractive silent-film leads even though in general silent movies didn’t value physical attractiveness quite as much as sound films did) and Rosie fall in love — and they go further wrong when, after casing the home of John Arlington (Charles Wellesley), Echo decides he’d rather stay in with Rosie than go out on the robbery (he’s hoping his physical presence will keep her from transferring her affections to Hector), and so Tweedledee and Hercules do the crime alone, surprise Arlington at home and kill him — and in a very Browning-esque touch they return to the pet store and mock Arlington’s pleadings for his life. Echo, needless to say, is furious; he’d planned his crimes meticulously so the Unholies would never risk facing a murder rap, even forbidding them from carrying guns on the job.

The Unholies hatch a new plot to frame Hector for both the robbery and the murder, and in order to keep Rosie from coming to court and backing up his alibi (which is that he was working late at night in the pet store with her and her “aunt”) Hercules and Tweedledee kidnap her and hold her in a mountain cabin. Echo is in on the kidnap plot but he offers Rosie a choice — he’ll return to the city and alibi Hector if she’ll agree to leave Hector and stay with him instead — and in the courtroom, in the middle of the prosecutor’s closing argument, he tells Hector’s attorney to ask the judge for permission to put Hector on the stand and tells Hector that when he testifies he should say nothing — just mouth the Lord’s Prayer on the witness stand — while Echo, using his ventriloquist skills, will literally put words in his mouth, admitting the existence of the Unholy Three and how they actually committed the robberies. Eventually Rosie escapes her kidnappers with the help of Echo and his pet ape (actually played by a three-foot chimpanzee instead of the usual actor in an ape suit — you can tell because the chimp opens its mouth and bears its teeth, whereas ape suits have always been problematic because there’s no way to get the mouth to open realistically — and according to an “Trivia” poster, in order that the ape and Echo would appear to be the same size Browning had Harry Earles double for Chaney in the scenes with the ape and Echo together), and Echo makes a personal confession that apparently lets both him and Rosie off the hook legally — since the final scene shows him gallantly giving up Rosie and sending her back to Hector (though the exposure of the Unholy Three has led to the closure of the pet store they were using as a front and one wonders how Hector and Rosie will get by financially now that they’re both out of work), while he returns to the carnival and hands out the same spiel he’d been doing at the start about how life is sometimes a laugh and sometimes a tear (a line Robbins and screenwriter Waldemar Young obviously ripped off from Chaplin’s The Kid — and indeed Chaney’s performance in the final scene is surprisingly Chaplinesque given his reputation as an actor who explored the grotesque) just before he offers to sell his audience members a joke book.

The Unholy Three had at least one direct remake and quite a few films drew on it; two years later Harry Earles once again played a little-person thief who masqueraded as a baby in the early Laurel and Hardy film Sailor Beware (the high point of his performance is his big gag scene with Laurel, in which Earles is a grown little person impersonating a baby while Laurel is a baby in a full-sized adult male’s body; when Earles gets what he wanted from Laurel and abruptly breaks up their game, Laurel turns to the camera and whines, “But I thought it was all in fun!”). In 1930 MGM did a talkie remake of The Unholy Three (directed not by Browning but by Jack Conway) which turned out to be Lon Chaney, Sr.’s only sound film (he died of throat cancer shortly after it was finished — ironically, he lost his voice in his last days and could only communicate with the sign language he had learned from his deaf-mute parents) and which altered the ending considerably: in the sound version Chaney shows up to testify at the trial in drag but is exposed when he inadvertently slips out of his falsetto into his normal masculine voice (whose striking resemblance to James Cagney’s may have led to Cagney’s casting as Chaney in the 1957 biopic Man of a Thousand Faces), and at the end he’s actually taken into police custody for the robberies but he makes it seem to Rosie as if he is leaving to rejoin the carnival, when he’s actually going to prison. (That’s the difference between the so-called “pre-Code” era of 1930-34 — the Production Code was actually written in 1930 but it wasn’t until the Roman Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” campaign against sex, violence and horror in movies that it was strictly enforced and the head of the Code Administration, Joseph Breen, was given the power to censor films both in script form and once they were in otherwise final cut — and the real pre-Code silent period in which Browning, Robbins and Young could actually have both Echo and Rosie escape any legal punishment for their crimes.)

The Unholy Three also got semi-remade as The Devil Doll in 1936 — there the story source was supposedly Burn, Witch, Burn, a novel by A. A. Merritt, but Browning, once again in the director’s chair, and his writers (Garrett Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim and Richard Schayer) remodeled it to resemble The Unholy Three, with Lionel Barrymore as a mad scientist who discovers a way to shrink people to doll-size and uses his doll-people, rather than a normal little person, to sneak into houses and help him rob them: Barrymore’s character also sets up a shop as a front for his crimes and runs it in disguise as a woman. (It was the second time Lionel Barrymore remade a Chaney role for Browning: the first time was The Mark of the Vampire, a remake of London After Midnight.) The Unholy Three holds up quite well (though I find the more bitter ending of the sound remake works better), not really a horror film but a quite good criminal melodrama with endearingly quirky characters, the sort of oddball story Tod Browning did well. Both Browning and Chaney were more comfortable with films that stayed within the realm of normal physical possibility than with out-and-out supernatural horror or science fiction — which may be why Dracula (which Browning directed at Universal with Bela Lugosi after Chaney’s death necessitated an emergency recasting) is relatively dull and it’s probably just as well the projected Chaney Frankenstein never came off.

Gang Busters (General Teleradio, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a quite different sort of movie: Gang Busters, a 1955 release from General Teleradio (a branch of General Tire that got into producing TV shows and later that year bought the RKO studio from Howard Hughes, only to sell it three years later to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball for their Desilu company) based on a popular radio show by Phillips H. Lord that General Teleradio had already transferred to TV. (A search for Gang Busters on revealed none of the radio episodes but 10 of the TV shows and a 13-episode Universal serial from 1942.) According to an “Trivia” poster, this film was actually edited together from three of the TV episodes from 1952, but the plot, though a bit episodic, holds together well. It’s a nervy gangster story centered around criminal John Omar Pinson (Myron Healey), who works in Oregon and repeatedly gets caught and sentence to Oregon State Penitentiary, only he manages to escape just about every time he’s sent there. While he’s in prison he assembles a gang including Slug Bennett (Frank Richards), Mike Denike (Rusty Wescoatt), Louie Feth (William Justine) and Larry Ogilvie (Allan Ray). He also attracts the seemingly homoerotic attentions of Wayne Long (Sam Edwards), a milquetoast robber who wants Pinson to show him the ropes so that when he is released he’ll be a better criminal. The nervy relationship between Pinson and Long is one of the weirdest Gay-themed plots in the Production Code era (rivaling the similarly quirky tie between Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook, Jr. in the otherwise useless Born to Kill); while they’re in prison together Long is constantly cruising Pinson (there’s no other word for it, really) and Pinson couldn’t be less interested in him, criminally or sexually.

Once they’re out Long blows one of Pinson’s attempts to flee the cops and Pinson is finally caught — we’re supposed to assume for good even though we’ve seen him escape so much one expects him to boast, “No prison can hold me!” Long even made one of his previous escapes possible by slipping him a hacksaw blade through which to saw through the bars of the cell in which he’s been put in solitary. The film was written and directed by Bill Karn, who used two narrators — Phillips H. Lord in his accustomed third-person role and Don C. Harvey playing the lead police detective out to capture Pinson — which occasionally got stentorian and almost insulting to the intelligence (one expects a movie to show us things rather than hearing an unseen — or, in the first reel at least, seen — voice telling us what’s supposed to be going on), but the film itself is fast-moving, exciting and full of intriguing devices (like Pinson’s way of tying a gun into his palm so he can go about without anyone suspecting he’s armed). Its debt to the 1949 James Cagney vehicle White Heat is pretty obvious — the unscrupulous and crafty super-criminal, the attempt to infiltrate an undercover cop in his cell, even a detail like the shoebox-sized mobile phone with which the police try to stay in touch with each other as they track him down — but the 1955 Gang Busters emerges as a surprisingly good movie, effective and entertaining, powered by a marvelously matter-of-fact performance by Myron Healey. Whereas Cagney in White Heat turned out the bravura gangster performance to end all bravura gangster performances, Healey in a similar role here is coolly understated, a man who became a criminal not because of some weird family dynamic or out of desperation to feed his family but simply because he wanted to, as if he did an assessment of his employable skills and decided crime was the career for which he was most suited.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dance, Charlie, Dance (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was a 1937 Warner Bros. “B” called Dance, Charlie, Dance (though the title is spelled and punctuated several different ways in the movie: it’s also the title of a show-within-a-show and in the film’s opening credits there are no commas between the words, in a poster for the show-within-the-show it’s Dance, Charlie Dance — just one comma — and at one point we see a version that reads Dance, Charley Dance) which was just one of many movies Warners based on the 1925 play The Butter and Egg Man by George S. Kaufman. It first got filmed in 1928 with Jack Mulhall under Kaufman’s title; then was remade as The Tenderfoot in 1932 with Joe E. Brown; then the plot got recycled for a British “quota quickie” at Warners’ Teddington studio in 1935, Hello, Sweetheart; then this version, Dance, Charlie, Dance; then in 1940 it became Angel from Texas with Eddie Albert, Rosemary Lane and Ronald Reagan (!); and finally it became Three Sailors and a Girl with Gordon MacRae and Jane Powell (maybe Doris Day was busy making something better, like Calamity Jane, that week) in 1953. This version suffers from the budgetary constraints of trying to do a backstage musical without a budget for big production numbers — only one song, a title song by M. K. Jerome and Jack Scholl, is done anything close to justice by the cheap-jack production — but the movie is rather amusing even though Stuart Erwin, whiny as ever, plays the key role of Andy Tucker, the “hick from the sticks” who comes to New York from Athens, Illinois but the twang in his voice (he was actually born in Squaw Valley, California but he always sounded vaguely Southern) would have made Athens, Georgia more credible. The show opens with unscrupulous producers Alf Morgan (Allen Jenkins) and MacArthur (Charles Foy, one of the seven little you-know-whats; his brother Bryan Foy was associate producer and pretty much ran Warners’ “B” unit at the time) — if he has a first name, we never learn what it is — head “Morgomac Productions” (one of those synthetic corporate names that are a lot more common now than then) and are in the middle of rehearsals for Dance, Charlie, Dance, an atrocious attempt to combine a musical with a drama, afflicted with Jane Arden (Olive Olson), a star way too old for the part of a 17-year-old dancing among the cherry trees in the opening of the play; an inept chorus girl (she turns one way in a rehearsal while the rest of the chorus correctly goes the other way, an intriguing switch of one of the common gags from military comedies into a civilian context) and her sugar daddy, Richard Milton (Harvey Clark), who’s their backer — until arrogant dance director Ted Parks (Frank Faylen) chews the bimbo out and Milton responds by pulling his financing.

Needing a backer, pronto, Morgan first tries to hit up his ex-wife Fanny (Glenda Farrell) — who managed to raise a nest egg and retire from vaudeville in relative comfort just before it collapsed — and when she refuses (she’s well aware that the show is terrible and she’d just be throwing her money away), his next pigeon is Andy Tucker, who eagerly puts his $20,000 nest egg into the show. He has an offer to buy the hotel where he works for $50,000 and is hoping to make that amount with his theatrical investment. Dance, Charlie, Dance, the show-within-the-show, premieres to a quarter-filled theatre in an out-of-town tryout and bombs, but when it actually opens on Broadway it’s a spectacular hit, mainly because it’s so hilariously inept that, like Springtime for Hitler, audiences laugh at it because they think it was meant to be funny. Then attorney Gordon Fox (Addison Richards) shows up and says his client wrote a short story in 1927 with 146 points of similarity to the plot of Dance, Charlie, Dance and threatens to sue for plagiarism unless he and his client get two-thirds of the show — so, with Fanny’s guidance, Andy and his girlfriend, Morgomac secretary Mary Mathews (Jean Muir, who seems much less comfortable playing a nice girl than she did in her other films as a vamp) sell the show back to Morgan and MacArthur for $100,000, enough to pay off their second investor Alvin Gussett (Chester Clute) and still have enough money to buy that hotel back in Athens. It’s the sort of move where even if we haven’t seen it (or any of the other versions) before we know where the plot is going, but it’s still funny enough to see it get there, and though Erwin is infuriating as usual the rest of the cast is reliably good (even if one could wish Glenda Farrell would have had more of a part — since she was playing an ex-vaudevillian I was half-expecting a plot twist in which Andy would fire Jane Arden, Fanny would take over the star part and she would turn it from a bad musical drama into a great musical comedy).