Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues (PBS, 2012)

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

I did very little yesterday except watch some TV, a couple of shows on PBS including a White House blues concert and an American Masters special on Cab Calloway. The White House blues concert featured a bit of President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” (what else?) with an all-star band including B. B. King (he can’t perform standing up anymore but he still plays guitar like an S.O.B. and sings serviceably with something of the power of his glory years, and as I wrote in connection with the Martin Scorsese-executive produced PBS series The Blues King has managed to become old, famous and rich playing the blues, and not many blues musicians have been so fortunate!), Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger (whom I could have done without, quite frankly; even at their greatest the Rolling Stones were always deeply under the shadow of the Beatles, and Jagger’s pretensions towards blues godhood weren’t based on much but a rather thin voice that was fine for his rock material, acceptable in soul songs like Otis Redding’s “Can’t Turn You Loose” but simply not powerful enough for hard-core blues: here he and Jeff Beck do a decent enough job on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” but Wolf’s own record, with the astonishing Hubert Sumlin’s stabbing guitar lines, is in a whole other musical universe by comparison — Jagger also did the 1978 Rolling Stones’ disco hit “Miss You,” and while it sounded better without the disco trappings it still didn’t belong on what was advertised as a blues show), Shemekia Copeland (PBS’s Web site seems confused about how to spell her first name, but her presence was welcome: she’s a big-voiced, earthy blues mama and her father, Johnny Copeland, was also a major blues musician), Susan Tedeschi (adequate singer — apparently the white blues girl they call when they can’t get Bonnie Raitt — and wife of Derek Trucks, the Allman band veteran who was also on the show), singer/trombonist “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Buddy Guy (who’s younger than B. B. King but, even though he can still play upright, looks older) and Gary Clark, Jr., who was introduced by the overly chipper African-American M.C. Taraji P. Henson as “the future of the blues.” That I can believe: he duetted with Copeland on a song called “Beat Up Old Guitar,” one of those the-blues-will-never-die-even-if-the-blues-musicians-will things, and on his own did a version of “Catfish Blues,” a.k.a. “Rollin’ Stone” (the piece alternately credited to Muddy Waters, Robert Petway and B. B. King — the Waters version, with its famous last lines “My mamma told my papa/Just the day ’fore I was born/Gonna be a boy-child comin’/He’s gonna be a rollin’ stone,” gave the Rolling Stones their name and I perhaps naïvely assumed that’s why Clark was doing it) that was the best song on the show, a tough, no-nonsense rendition of a blues standard that threaded the needle, remaining true to the tradition while putting Clark’s own “spin” on the song.

The show opened with “Let the Good Times Roll,” led by B. B. King from his chair and with the various other guitarists on the stage trying to add their two cents’ worth to a message King and “Lucille” had already communicated (the rendition was otherwise great but it would have been nice if someone had mentioned the person who introduced that song, Louis Jordan), and closed with “Sweet Home Chicago,” chosen in honor of the city where President Obama’s political career began and with Obama — inevitably, after his controversial appearance at the Apollo Theatre doing a guest vocal on an Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together” — being coaxed into doing a guest vocal. (My verdict on Obama as a singer is pretty much Stanley Turrentine’s on Bill Clinton as a saxophonist: he’s surprisingly good but it’s just as well he’s got a day job.) “Sweet Home Chicago” was (more or less) written by Robert Johnson and, as introduced by him, was a great song but contained a whopping geographical error that’s forced everyone who’s done it since to rewrite it: Johnson sang, “Come on, baby don’t you want to go/To the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago” (he actually ripped off the line from Kokomo Arnold, who had sung “To the land of Indiana, to my sweet home Kokomo,” which is both geographically accurate and scans properly). You can’t just change the state name — “Illinois” has one less syllable than “California” and its more “open” vowel sounds don’t suit the melody — and the expedients used last night were pretty lame. After the main part of the show (which contained only about two-thirds of the actual performance: by my count, of the 15 songs listed on the PBS Web site only 10 were actually shown on the on-air version) there was a brief clip of B. B. King singing “The Thrill Is Gone,” which according to the Web site was actually placed second on the program.

Also, M.C. Henson made a whopping mistake of her own: he identified Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy as great blues musicians from New Orleans — she was right about Armstrong (and though Armstrong is better known as a jazz musician, he certainly played enough blues in his day) but wrong about Handy, two of whose three best-known songs, “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” give away his Memphis, Tennessee origins (just as B. B. King and Elvis Presley both got their starts in Memphis — I remember seeing a photo of them hanging out together in the mid-1950’s at a time when most people outside Memphis had never heard of either of them — as did Booker T. Jones, who led the backup band and did so superbly) — and though the state-occasion nature of this telecast got in the way of the music sometimes, it was still a marvelous tribute to a unique (African-)American art form. It’s interesting to note that Jimmy Carter began the In Performance at the White House series with a concert by Vladimir Horowitz (who was, as I recall, in superb late form — notably in a performance of the famous “Heroic” polonaise of Chopin that took it more slowly and subtly than usual, making it great music instead of patriotic bombast), and when Ronald Reagan became President, after he ripped the solar panels off the White House roof he invited Willie Nelson (a political polymath who’s since performed benefits for people as varied as H. Ross Perot and Dennis Kucinich) — one could probably do an interesting research piece speculating what each President’s choice in musical performers says about them as people and as leaders, but for the first (partly) African-American president a genre dominated (though no longer exclusively performed) by African-Americans seemed a logical and natural “fit.”

Cab Calloway: Sketches (PBS, 2012)

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

Afterwards PBS showed a one-hour American Masters on Cab Calloway, called “Cab Calloway: Sketches,” which was an interesting program but could have been better if the director, Gail Davis, had trusted her material more. “This film is not just another biopic in the sense of interviews and recollections, but a reinvigoration of the whole Calloway presence – a reprise of a timeless virtuoso,” Davis said in an interview on the PBS Web site, which meant in practice that the film was tied together by a sketch artist doing a life-size drawing of Calloway in action, and though there were some interesting interviews (two of his daughters and his grandson Cab Calloway Brooks, who leads a Calloway revival band and contributed a fascinating little demonstration of the Calloway sound — according to Brooks, Calloway had his bass player play just ahead of the beat, his drummer right on it and his saxes lag behind a bit) some of the talking heads were almost unbearably pretentious — notably jazz historian Gary Giddins and especially self-proclaimed “hanging judge” Stanley Crouch, a Right-wing African-American with a really pompous and supercilious manner who made the point that aside from Louis Armstrong, every Black performer who’s crossed over to the white audience has been light-skinned. (He’s not quite right — does the name Nat “King” Cole mean anything to him? Or Ella Fitzgerald? —  but he has a point; he suggested that the relatively light complexions of Duke Ellington and Calloway echoed through the ages until they ended up in Michael Jackson’s physical transformation, and tried to extrapolate from that the idea that white audiences like their Black entertainers as “white” as possible: Ellington, Calloway, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and those chorines at the Cotton Club who had to pass the so-called “brown paper bag” test: they couldn’t have skin darker than a brown paper grocery bag — though Armstrong’s last wife Lucille broke the color line at the Cotton Club and Louis was proud of her for that!) I rued all the stupid talking heads for taking time away when we could have been watching Calloway — who was filmed quite often (probably more than any of the other great Black crossover artists of his generation) because his act was so spectacularly visual: he was both a great singer and a fabulous dancer.

The show also made me more curious about Cab’s sister, Blanche Calloway, who led a band of her own called “Blanche Calloway’s Joy Boys” and really did do a woman’s version of Cab’s act — though apparently it was Blanche who blazed the trail and Cab who followed: the show includes a record she made for the cheapie Melotone label called “Growlin’ Dan” that apparently contained most of the lyrics of “Minnie the Moocher,” the song that launched Calloway to mega-stardom and is, as the show pointed out, a quite dark number about mercenary sex and drugs that probably passed muster with the censors in the record and movie businesses just because the white censors were too naïve to realize what it was about. (The show includes a bit of Cab’s performance in the film The Big Broadcast, in which he did “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” one of the follow-ups he did to “Minnie” and an even more explicitly drug-oriented song — but, alas, it left out the astonishing gesture in which Cab puts the sleeve of his jacket to his nose and sniffs it, making visually clear what the lyrics are about!) Cab Calloway: Sketches is a bit of a missed opportunity — maybe this sort of documentary might be appropriate for a subject like Charlie Parker, of whom very little film exists, but for someone who was filmed as often as Calloway, and as spectacularly (in everything from Betty Boop cartoons to band shorts for Paramount and Warners and full-length features — The Big Broadcast and International House at Paramount and The Singing Kid at Warners — preserving some of his astonishing specialties at a time when he was in both his physical and musical prime — as well as some early-1940’s “Soundies” that preserve his best band, the one with Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole), the documentary should have presented as many clips as possible, at full length (a particular bête noire with me and music documentaries: instead of slicing filmed performances into little snippets and/or having people talk over them, why not show complete songs, start to finish, and give the neophytes a fair chance to appreciate just how great these people were?), with minimal interviews and commentaries to narrate the performer’s life story and put the clips in context.

The show got better later on when in fact it did just that: Levin interviewed John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers, about how Calloway came to be in that movie and to do a revival version of “Minnie the Moocher,” and his accounts (and those of the famous musicians who appeared in that movie, including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn — both white, by the way) of how Calloway’s number went down were marvelous. It seems that Landis and his musicians took great pains to obtain the original charts for Calloway’s 1931 record of “Minnie,” only when Cab came to the studio to record the song he said, “What’s this old shit?” It turned out that the year before he had recorded a disco remake of “Minnie” and he wanted to do that version in the film to promote his new record — and Landis had to talk him out of it as politely as possible and say the whole point of his appearance was to evoke the glory days of the 1930’s. Calloway relented and let the band cut “Minnie” with the old arrangement — they were using the standard modern technique of recording the backing first and adding the vocal later — and when Calloway went into the vocal booth they did about six takes and Landis said of the last one, “It’s good,” but he made it clear that “good” wasn’t good enough for what he wanted — and a pissed-off Cab went back into the booth and recorded the superb version that’s in the movie (which I recall in toto as an atrocious movie made watchable only by the superb Black guest stars: Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Night Beat (Action Pictures, 1931)

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

The film was Night Beat, a 1931 ultra-cheapie from Ralph M. Like’s Action Pictures studio (a fly-by-night Depression-era indie that folded not long after this film was made; their catalog was absorbed by Mayfair, another fly-by-night Depression indie that folded in a year or two) and a gangster movie pretty obviously inspired by the success of Little Caesar, released four months before Night Beat came out December 27, 1931. We watched it in an archive.org download that omitted the opening credits (I did a quick search on imdb.com just to find out who directed — George B. Seitz — wrote — W. Scott Darling — and starred in it) and ran only 55 minutes, but Darling and Seitz (whose background stretched back to silent serials and who would later sign with MGM and direct low-budget actioners for them) manage to crowd a lot of plot into it.

The movie actually opens during World War I, where Martin (Walter McGrail) and Johnny Malinas (Jack Mulhall, top-billed) are serving together, Martin saves Johnny’s life and Johnny swears that when it’s Martin’s turn to need a favor for him, Johnny will do anything he wants. Then the film flashes forward to today, with Italian “French cleaner” (1930’s speak for dry cleaner) Enricco Pommetti is celebrating the painting of a new sign on his front window. We just know what’s going to happen: some slimeball from the “protection” racket that has the unnamed (but quite obviously Los Angeles from the use of real locations, including the hall of justice used 30 years later in Get Outta Town) city in its grip is going to approach Pommetti for a payoff, and Pommetti — who gets a fascinating speech lamenting that he left Italy in the first place to get away from “the Mafia — the Black Hand” (Charles was startled to hear a specific reference to the Mafia in a 1931 film, though it was specifically a reference to the Mafia in Italy and didn’t attribute it to organized crime in the U.S.) only to find the same rackets going on in his new country. (He also is an ardent supporter of Benito Mussolini, whom he admires as “the greatest Italian ever” because, among other things, he got rid of the Mafia in its country of origin — which is basically accurate; unfortunately, during World War II the Allies brought it back, letting Lucky Luciano out of prison and allowing him to return to his native Sicily to organize a resistance, which ironically took the Mafia back to its original purpose: the name is an Italian abbreviation for “Anti-French Society” and the Mafia was originally a resistance movement against Napoleon’s occupation of Italy, and turned to crime after the Napoleonic wars ended and they had to figure out some way to make a living.)

He’s delivering this speech to Martin, who’s now the district attorney, and later on Martin gets the word that out-of-town gangster Johnny Malinas is arriving in town with his gang — and, of course, the fearsome gangster who’s there to take over the L.A. rackets and put their current owner, Chill Scarpetti (Harry Cording), out of business is also Martin’s old trench buddy from the Great War (which is what they called World War I before there was a World War II). Martin enlists Jack to become a police captain and run his force to take down Scarpetti’s rackets, and Johnny agrees while telling his gang members that he’s only using Martin to get rid of Scarpetti, after which he intends to double-cross Martin and take total control of the rackets. Coupled with this plot line is the inevitable romantic triangle in which Martin, who’s been dating his secretary Eleanor (Patsy Ruth Miller) when he isn’t being called away on D.A. business, which seems to be most of the time they plan to go out, asks Johnny to take her on one of the dates he’s had to break ­— and, needless to say, Johnny and Eleanor start falling in love. Though hamstrung by a strangulation-cheap budget — Charles noted the “rustic” look of both the exterior and interior sets and figured Action Pictures simply reused their standard Western sets — albeit disguised with some artful use of stock footage (the opening World War I scene almost certainly came from some bigger-budgeted major-studio film about the war), Night Beat is actually an oddly compelling film, raising issues of loyalty and friendship that got developed further in later movies like Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. 

The ending even anticipates Douglas Sirk’s marvelous A Scandal in Paris by about 14 years; after keeping Martin, his gang members and the audience in suspense as to exactly where his loyalties are going to end up, in the final scene Johnny announces that he’s been on the level the whole time and he’s wiping out the rackets rather than seeking to take them over. There’s a final shootout in a warehouse, somewhat reminiscent of the nihilistic ending of The Beast of the City — released two months later (which seems to have inspired the one-sentence synopsis on imdb.com — “A young couple finds themselves mixed up with mobsters planning to rob a warehouse” — which otherwise barely relates at all to this movie) — in which Scarpetti gets killed but Johnny is fatally wounded, and there’s a tag scene in the hospital in which Johnny tells Martin and Eleanor to get married and name their first-born son after him. Well directed (especially given the budget, or lack of same) and competently if not brilliantly acted, Night Beat is a surprisingly good movie for a 1931 indie, especially one made by the same people who did the lame Gorilla Ship one year later. Incidentally, there’s some confusion as to who was the cinematographer: imdb.com lists Edward Cronjager but the American Film Institute Catalog lists his less well known uncle, Jules Cronjager — and since both sources agree that Jules shot Gorilla Ship I’m inclined to give him, not his more famous nephew, the credit here as well.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Moneyball (Rudin/De Luca/Columbia, 2011)

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

The film was Moneyball, one of the few recent movies both Charles and I had expressed an interest in (he’d seen the Redbox machine at Albertson’s and said the only films in it he really wanted to see were The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, which we’d already seen in a theatre, and Moneyball) and one I’d ordered from Columbia House in the same batch as Midnight in Paris. Moneyball was a baseball movie based on a book by business reporter (and former Wall Street trader) Michael Lewis (whose more recent book The Big Short, about a group of financial gamesmen who worked out a way to make a killing off the impending collapse of the U.S. home-mortgage market in the late 2000’s, would itself make an interesting movie) called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The basic story is about three people who revolutionized the game of major league baseball, especially in terms of how teams selected players. One isn’t shown in the movie, except in an insert shot of a magazine featuring him; he’s Bill James, founder of a group called the Society for American Baseball Research, whose initials — SABR — gave his discipline the name “Sabermetrics.” The basic principle is that instead of scouting players the old-fashioned way — by watching their games in high school, college or minor-league competition and intuiting from their slugging, throwing or pitching how they’d fare in the majors — the new-school scouts would systematize it all, collecting statistics (baseball has always been the most statistically oriented of the major team sports) and using personal computers to crunch them. The other major innovation in Sabermetrics was the idea that instead of looking for power hitters who could drive in home runs, teams should be looking for people who know how to get on base, since the obvious prerequisite for scoring in baseball is to get on base in the first place.

The central character is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the boyishly handsome (well, Brad Pitt’s playing him so he’s going to be boyishly handsome!) general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who came to that position after he turned down a college scholarship to Stanford to sign a big contract with the New York Mets — and bombed as a major-leaguer for reasons that remain pretty uncertain in the movie (we see a few shots of him in various team uniforms — this man moved around as much as the peripatetic NFL washout Ryan Leaf — staring at rival pitchers, looking scared shitless, as pitches blow by him and he strikes out). He builds a team that actually makes it to the final game (the so-called “elimination game”) of the division playoffs to the New York Yankees in 2001, only the Yankees and two other better-heeled teams pick off his three biggest stars. Faced with the need to replace them, with an owner lacking George Steinbrenner’s deep pockets and disinclined to spend money he doesn’t have, he calls a meeting of his scouts and is disgusted by what he hears — we don’t know this at the beginning of the movie but eventually we realize that the reason he’s so pissed off is that the scouts are making the same mistakes in evaluating players that the Mets’ scouts had made about him lo those many years ago — which reaches its most absurd point when one of the scouts recommends against signing a particular player because “his girlfriend is ugly.” Just when we’re asking ourselves what the hell that has to do with anything, the scout adds, “That shows lack of confidence.” Desperate to field a winning team without the money to buy one on the open market, Beane seizes on sabermetrics in general and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in particular, a Yale economics major whom Beane finds working in the front office of the Cleveland Indians and appoints his assistant.

The two of them end up putting together a team which Brand likens to the Island of Misfit Toys in the old TV Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and they face resistance not only from the scouts but also from the A’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman — the man who was so convincingly nellie as Truman Capote turns out to be versatile enough to portray an old baseball salt equally credibly — through much of the movie I actually thought Hoffman was playing Peter Brand!), who thinks first baseman Carlos Peña (Adrian Bellani) is the team’s only real star and refuses Beane’s demand that he play former catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) at first instead. Though Moneyball has its flaws — screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin keep trying to bend this story into the usual movie tropes and seize on every chance the facts offered them to do so (like the A’s poor performance in the first half of the season and the 20-game winning streak, the longest in American League history, they achieve in the second half), but the realities kept intruding (despite the success of the sabermetrically conceived team — so much so that eventually all other major-league teams started using the same techniques, so the competitive advantage disappeared — the story ends in the same place it began, with the A’s being knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional elimination game, Beane laments that no matter how well you do in the lead-up to it, all anybody remembers is that you lost the final game of the season, and there’s a where-are-they-now credit that indicates that Beane is still waiting to win his season’s final game) — it’s a quite compelling movie, and as long as you know the basics of baseball you can enjoy it without having to be a raving fan.

Where Moneyball falls short is that, though it’s attempting to use baseball as a metaphor, it’s really too much (pardon the pun) insider baseball to work as a symbol of anything else — John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, which if forced I’d say was my favorite baseball movie of all time, managed (thanks to Sayles’ radical sensibilities) to be a movie about capitalism disguised as a movie about baseball; and as much as I thought it was overrated, at least Field of Dreams was trying to be more than just another movie about baseball, whereas Moneyball is just an unusually good baseball movie (getting a lot of its drama from one of the quirkiest facts about the game: that, once you are on offense, there is theoretically no limit to the number of points you can score — unlike football, soccer or basketball, in which once you score you’re obliged to give the other team their chance at the ball). I enjoyed it and think Brad Pitt deserved his Academy Award nomination — for once he actually shows some emotion instead of just letting his blue eyes and boyishly handsome face do his acting for him — and liked Bennett Miller’s effective direction (his only previous directing credits are Capote and a documentary called The Cruise, a film about — of all people — a Gray Line tour guide in New York City), but I could see why Columbia Pictures studio head Amy Pascal nixed the original version of the film (which Steven Soderbergh was to have directed) because she thought the budget was too high to make money when the film wouldn’t play in countries where baseball is either unknown or not popular, and I can also see why the Los Angeles Times “Overrated/Underrated” column said that Moneyball’s appeal to baseball non-fans had been overrated. Still, in these times it’s nice to see a movie in which nobody has superpowers and the story is based on something other than a comic book or young-adult novel!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Brute Man (Universal/PRC, 1946)

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

The night before last Charles and I had watched a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of a movie that I’d long been curious about: The Brute Man, a 1946 oddball from Universal designed to be the third in their series starring Rondo Hatton, real-life victim of acromegaly (a glandular disorder, often triggered by environmental factors — in Hatton’s case, a poison gas attack while he was serving in the U.S. Army in World War I — that causes the face to become distorted and the extremities to swell) who had been making movies off and on since 1930, generally in minor roles, making a decent living but not achieving anything resembling stardom until 1944, when Universal decided to sign him and bill him as a horror star whose scary appearance was how he actually looked and not a Jack P. Pierce makeup job. They introduced his character, “The Creeper,” in the 1944 film Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, a loose adaptation of “The Six Napoleons” in which Hatton played the killer (described in the original story as a man with a particularly hideous face), and then they created two starring vehicles for him, House of Horrors and The Brute Man. Alas, before either of these films could be released Hatton died of the long-term effects of his disease on February 2, 1946, and while Universal went ahead with the planned release of House of Horrors on March 29, they sat on The Brute Man and ultimately dumped it on the low-budget PRC studio, which bought the rights from Universal and released it on October 1. There were several reasons for this: Universal had taken heat from critics and industry people alike for the exploitation of Hatton’s real-life deformity, his death had only made the idea of making money off him seem even sicker, and Universal was in the process of merging with the boutique company International Pictures and wanted to upgrade its image and get rid of “B” pictures altogether.

The irony is that, though House of Horrors was actually quite a good little movie for the genre and the time (Hatton played “The Creeper” — his real name, if any, we never learn — and he’s not a homicidal maniac but a retard, sort of like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who doesn’t know his own strength and who approaches women for sex, then kills them when they scream at the sight of him; he ends up taken in and manipulated by a crazy artist, played by the marvelous Martin Kosleck, who has the Creeper murder his art-critic enemies), The Brute Man was a total piece of tripe even though it reunited most of the same creative personnel from House of Horrors, including director [a boy named] Jean Yarbrough and writers Dwight V. Babcock (story) and George Bricker (script), this time with M. Coates Webster assisting on the latter. Basically it’s just Rondo Hatton wandering around Universal’s fog-drenched sets killing people, seemingly randomly at first, though eventually a dramatic design emerges: Hatton’s “Creeper” is really Hal Moffet, former college football star and romantic rival of his dorm roommate, Clifford Scott (Tom Neal), for Virginia Rogers (Jan Wiley). When Virginia goes on a date with Hal, Clifford gets his revenge by deliberately slipping Hal wrong answers on a chemistry exam — and when the professor calls Hal out on it in front of the class, he responds by hanging out in the lab, mixing up a batch of chemicals and hurling them across the room — thereby creating a toxic gas which messes up his appearance and changes him from actor Fred Coby, who played Hal pre-transformation, to Rondo Hatton.

Along the way he meets a number of women, including a blind piano teacher, Helen Paige (Jane Adams), who befriends him since she can’t see how ugly he is … just like the old hermit befriended the Monster in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (a scene used in Universal’s second film in the cycle, The Bride of Frankenstein) and the blind girl Dea befriended the facially contorted Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs — also filmed by Universal (in 1928 as a silent with Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt — and it’s a pity they didn’t remake it with sound in the early 1930’s since it would have been a superb vehicle for the co-stars of The Mummy, Boris Karloff and Zita Johann). Hal learns that his girlfriend (whom he refuses to let touch her, lest she feel his face and sense his ugliness even though she can’t see him) needs several thousand dollars for a super-operation to enable her to see (a ripoff not only of Magnificent Obsession but Chaplin’s City Lights!), so he decides to add robbery to his crime list and get her the money that way — only, at the finish of a movie that even though it comes in at less than an hour in length still seems draggy by the time it creeps (pardon the pun) to its end, he’s shot down by the police (who until the final scene have been so clueless Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops look like Dirty Harry by comparison) after Helen entraps him, for which she’s rewarded with a pro bono operation and the restoration (at least we presume it’s a restoration, though we’re never told in so many words whether she ever could see) of her sight.

It’s a singularly pointless movie, lacking even the flashes of pathos in Hatton’s House of Horrors characterization and also lacking much romance or humor to leaven the (supposedly) scary stuff. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 people had a good time with it (including a reference to Gene Hackman, who played the blind hermit in Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein) but they had an even better time with the short they showed in front of it, a 1948 industrial film called The Chicken of Tomorrow (which itself sounds like a bad horror spoof!) produced by a New York-based studio for something called the Sales Promotion Division of the Texas Company. What was most interesting about this movie was that it was made just on the cusp of the poultry industry’s switch from free-range to mass-production methods — quite a few of the chickens in this movie wander around yards under their own power even though they’re hatched in rows of egg racks in incubators and then live most of their chickhoods inside rows of tiny industrial-style cages. Aside from that, it was as dementedly silly as only an industrial film can be to people who don’t participate in its industry.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lena Rivers (Quadrangle/Tiffany, 1932)

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

Charles and I ran a movie the night before last: Lena Rivers, a 1932 film from an outfit called Quadrangle Productions, releasing through the short-lived Tiffany studios, one of the attempts in the early 1930’s to start a long-term independent studio that foundered on the shoals of the Depression and what it did to box-office grosses. (Tiffany held out until 1933 and they made a number of interesting films, including Journey’s End, James Whale’s first film and an adaptation of a play by R. C. Sherriff he’d also directed on stage, and A Study in Scarlet, the 1933 film directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes five years before director and star collaborated at MGM on another classic, A Christmas Carol.) Lena Rivers opens with an atmospheric sequence that was by far the best thing in a movie: a young woman returns home to the farm owned by her parents (Russell Simpson — whose tall, gaunt appearance and long beard makes him look like what Abraham Lincoln would have in his dotage if he’d lived that long — and Beryl Mercer, the actress pressed into service as Lew Ayres’ mother in All Quiet on the Western Front after 1930 preview audiences saw the originally cast ZaSu Pitts and started laughing their heads off because the preview came on right after one of Pitts’ comedies) and dies giving birth to the titular heroine. The scene seems to be drenched in fog even though it’s taking place indoors, and for much of the film’s running time I misread the scene: I had thought it was Lena Rivers herself who was dying in childbirth, barely tolerated by her parents and scorned by everyone else because she’d got herself pregnant without benefit of wedlock first, and the rest of the movie would be a series of flashbacks showing how she ended up in that state.

No, it was Lena’s mother who had suffered that fate and what we were seeing was Lena being born but taking her mom off the planet even as she herself emerged into it. There’s a quite clever montage by director Phil Rosen — this was the early 1930’s, when Rosen was a quite capable and sometimes very interesting director (he made at least two great films around this time, The Phantom Broadcast and Dangerous Corner, before his career sank into the acres of “B” hackwork he was known for in the 1940’s), and the rural Gothic atmosphere is superb; the screen seems to sag under the weight of all the oppressive moral hypocrisy, vividly dramatized in visual terms. The montage shows actresses of various ages playing Lena at various ages (ending with Charlotte Henry, who plays her in the bulk of the film), all kneeling down beside the bed in which Lena was born and reciting bits of the Lord’s Prayer in sequence. Alas, after the death of Lena’s grandfather (he’s a sailor and he’s presumed lost at sea), she and grandma go to live with some well-off distant relatives, John Nichols (John St. Polis) and his bitchy wife (Betty Blythe), who can afford to be bitchy because the reason they’re affluent is because he married her money. Mrs. Nichols makes it clear that she doesn’t want Mr. Nichols’ seedy relatives in her house, but Mr. Nichols for about the only time in his married life (at least that’s the impression we get) puts his foot down and insists that Lena and her grandmother be allowed to move in with them.

Caroline (Joyce Compton in a marvelous performance that shows she should have been able to compete for the Jean Harlow roles), the Nichols’ daughter, doesn’t want Lena and grandma there either, particularly since she’s afraid Lena is going to win the affections of Caroline’s fiancé, Durrie Belmont (George Galloway), Durrie and Lena meet-cute when Durrie shoots a rabbit and Lena, sounding an awful lot like a modern-day animal-rights activist, upbraids him for it; he explains that what he shot wasn’t a nice, harmless little bunny but a “cottontail” (presumably the point is that they’re predators who would eat all the produce they’re growing on their farm if he didn’t kill some of them, but that isn’t all that clear in the film itself), and from their little D.I.Y. ecology lesson they naturally start falling in love. Caroline catches Durrie kissing Lena and, as soon as Durrie leaves, tears into Lena and slaps her, saying that her mom never married and Lena is obviously like-mother, like-daughter. Durrie is living on the next-door plantation as the “ward” (that’s what the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis calls him) of Henry R. Graham (James Kirkwood, silent-era veteran whose turn-down of the 1921 film The Sheik opened the door to Rudolph Valentino and kept Kirkwood on the “B” list, though I once met and interviewed his son, A Chorus Line co-author James Kirkwood, Jr.), who at first seems to be a lecherous old man trying to get into Lena’s pants himself but ultimately turns out to be (surprise! No, not that much of a surprise!) Lena’s biological father; he said he actually did marry Lena’s mom, using his middle name “Rivers” as a pseudonym because his own parents wouldn’t have approved of him marrying so far beneath him class-wise.

There’s also a subplot involving a race horse called “Brimstone” whom only Lena can tame, and who Graham enters in a big race on her behalf (though the set is so small the “big race” seems to be taking place in somebody’s backyard and the only additional horses for Brimstone to run against are in a stock clip of a real race); Brimstone wins, but Graham actually fixed the race by bribing the jockey of the principal rival to pull back at the last minute. For some reason — perhaps he thinks Graham and Lena are getting it on — Durrie’s response to all these events is to propose to Caroline, though when they’re about to elope he shows up in his convertible several sheets to the wind, drives recklessly, resists Caroline’s attempts to take the wheel from him (the sequence is staged quite effectively and Durrie’s vertiginous wild ride is genuinely suspenseful even though we know what’s going to happen), and eventually Durrie crashes the car and both of them end up in hospital, Caroline with minor injuries but Durrie so badly hurt it’s touch and go whether he’s going to live. Caroline starts a flirtation with one of the doctors taking care of her, Durrie finds out that Graham is Lena’s father (something Lena herself just learned a few minutes’ worth of screen time earlier!) and, with a weird headdress-like bandage on his head, he flees the hospital in search of her, Lena is already in the car he gets into at the hospital entrance, and the two kiss and are obviously headed for a happy ending that sits oddly with much of what has transpired before.

Lena Rivers started life as a popular novel by one Mary J. Holmes and got filmed in the silent era no fewer than four times — a short from Thanhouser in 1910, two early-feature versions in 1914 (one of which starred Beulah Poynter as Lena; she was also credited with having written a play based on Holmes’ novel, though that may just mean she wrote the script for the film) and one in 1925 — but this appears to be the only talkie, and it’s clear that by 1932 this story was already considered rather creaky. Lena Rivers is not a great film but it’s a quite haunting one, and though some of the acting is as old-fashioned as the plot, the two young women in the female leads are first-rate. It’s a real treat to see Charlotte Henry playing an adult — her two best-known roles, as Alice in the 1933 Paramount film Alice in Wonderland and Bo-Peep in the 1934 Babes in Toyland, produced by Hal Roach as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy, both had her playing kids (did the “suits” at Paramount and Roach think they were going to make her the Mary Pickford of the sound era?) — and she turns in a finely honed performance in which she conveys both her shame over her background and her fierce determination to rise above it. And she’s matched by Compton, who usually got cast as dumb-blondes but got a major role that enabled her to rise over her stereotyping and portray a not altogether unsympathetic characterization who remains somewhat likeable, or at least understandable, despite the annoying sense of entitlement that’s her character’s least endearing trait — though she doesn’t say so in so many words, her tone of voice, manner and posture all screams, “How can he fall for that piece of lowlife trash when I’m available?”

Lena Rivers also has quite a few African-American characters, and while one of them is Clarence Muse doing his usual dumb-darkie act (one would never guess from most of his movies that the man actually had a Ph.D. in history!), there are also some quite vibrant scenes featuring the Black colony near the plantations, which supply most if not all of the farm labor (and, intriguingly, the jockeys who ride the horses in the “big race” are all Black, too!) and are played by the Kentucky Jubilee Singers, who offer us some quite lovely traditional spirituals. In most movies of this era, the cinematography of the affluent characters’ environments is considerably more lavish and visually interesting than that of the poor ones — but not this time; director Rosen and cinematographer Ira Morgan seem much more interested in the lives of the story’s poorer characters, both white and Black: the opening Southern Gothic of the scene showing Lena’s birth and the rich chiaroscuro visuals of the Kentucky Jubilee Singers holding their revivals (Charles said the fact that they sing spirituals instead of gospel itself dates this movie, though the line between the two is as vague as a lot of the definitions of musical genres: some of Mahalia Jackson’s best records are of spirituals in rocked-up gospel arrangements) are far more interesting visually than the relatively dull photography the rich people get. I wouldn’t call Lena Rivers a forgotten gem, and it’s easy enough to see why no one has gone near this story since, but it’s a nice little rediscovery and a welcome reminder that Phil Rosen at his best was a lot more talented than one would think from the crap that he made at Monogram in the mid-1940’s!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In the Navy (Universal, 1941)

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

The film was In the Navy, Abbott and Costello’s third film for Universal (third film, period) and the immediate follow-up to Buck Privates (years later Martin and Lewis would follow the same pattern, doing At War with the Army and then following it up almost immediately with Sailor Beware), though given the huge success of Buck Privates Universal upped the budget on this one and gave cinematographer Joseph Valentine a chance to create some lovely atmospherics on a studio-set “exterior” representing a tropical environment (a set Universal used again and again and again, including a later Abbott and Costello vehicle, Pardon My Sarong). They also hired a more prestigious romantic lead than the one from Buck Privates (Lee Bowman, who more commonly played villains): Dick Powell, cast as “Russ Raymond, Radio’s Singing Heart Throb,” who’s tired of celebrity life in general and being mobbed by his fans in particular. So he decides to enlist in the Navy under his real name, Tommy Halstead, and spend the next six years of his life (the length of his pre-war hitch) as just another sailor. Only reporter Dorothy Roberts (Claire Dodd, usually cast as a home-wrecking villainess but getting a chance to play a spunky comic role here) is bound and determined to get photos of Russ Raymond, sailor, so she follows him through the entire film, posing as a chambermaid at the “Conquistador Hotel” in San Diego where he stays before he reports for training (the scenes were shot at the Naval Training Center in San Diego and, though you only get a brief glimpse of its exterior, the “Conquistador Hotel” is pretty obviously the U.S. Grant) and going so far as to dress herself in (male) sailor drag and stow away on the battleship U.S.S. Alabama when he ships out to Hawai’i.

Abbott and Costello play Smokey Adams and Pomeroy Watson, Navy cooks (Pomeroy has survived a typically Costellan series of comic screw-ups because a high-ranking admiral especially likes his cream puffs) who end up on the Alabama with the rest of the principals (including the Andrews Sisters, once again playing themselves and serving as a kind of all-around portable morale booster — though Patty Andrews is also cast as Lou Costello’s unrequited love interest: he’s written her that he’s tall, handsome and an admiral, and when she finds out the truth she dumps him). It’s not as highly regarded as Buck Privates, and the songs by Don Raye and Gene DePaul aren’t as good as the ones from the earlier film (there’s a hot number called “Gimme Some Skin” that the Andrews Sisters perform — given that it’s a song about Harlem they could have done it in blackface, but they didn’t, more’s the pity — but no swing or boogie songs comparable to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “Bounce Me, Brother, with a Solid Four”), but otherwise this is a definite improvement. The director was Arthur Lubin (again) and the writing credits go to Arthur T. Horman for the basic story and “book” portions and John Grant for the hilarious Abbott and Costello special material (including an exercise in New Math in which Costello “proves” that seven times 13 is 28) — and later in 1941 life imitated art when superstar bandleader Artie Shaw suddenly walked out on his career and joined the Navy. (The real-life Navy pressed Shaw into service as a bandleader, essentially making him what Glenn Miller was with the Army Air Force — but while Miller’s service band played mostly at bases in Allied countries and got to make Armed Forces Radio broadcasts and V-Disc records, Shaw’s actually played in combat zones and is frustratingly undocumented on record.)

Ironically, before In the Navy Abbott and Costello had actually filmed a horror-comedy called Hold That Ghost, but Universal production head Cliff Work decided to put that production on hold and rush a second service comedy out to capitalize on the success of Buck Privates — and after In the Navy was finished Hold That Ghost was revamped to include a romantic subplot and songs by the Andrews Sisters (making that their third Abbott and Costello movie in a row) and Ted Lewis’s band. Universal made In the Navy so quickly that it was already scheduled to be released on May 30, 1941 even before Lubin started shooting it on April 7 — a relentless schedule that got complicated by the fact that the Navy had been given approval rights on the film and it couldn’t be released without the O.K. of one Commander Bolton (Thomas Schatz’ book The Genius of the System tells this story but doesn’t give Bolton’s first name), who didn’t like the first draft of the script and sent Universal a note that the film must be “kept in the spirit of good, clean fun … it is a lampoon from start to finish and must be kept in that spirit.” He specifically targeted the elaborate brawl at a dance hall and asked that it be either shortened or removed (it was kept in, heavily edited, but the original trailer included some of the outtakes).

The biggest problem with the Navy was the final scene, in which Costello’s character accidentally gives the Alabama’s captain a sleep-inducing drug, impersonates the captain (in a ridiculous uniform that makes him look like Napoleon) and leads the ship on an hilariously bungled set of maneuvers. This required a complicated mix of live footage, stock shots and model work, all lined up by Universal effects whiz John P. Fulton (the man who’d figured out how to make Claude Rains, Vincent Price and Jon Hall invisible) and requiring extensive post-production work on optical effects, which meant more time than usual between the completion of shooting and the assembly of the shots into a releasable sequence. The shoot was delayed by weather and then further delayed by Commander Bolton, who saw the final sequence, went ballistic and said that if the scene remained in the film he couldn’t approve it for release. So the producer, Alex Gottlieb, called Horman and Grant back together and they decided to rework the setup for the scene so that, instead of impersonating the drugged captain, Costello took the drug himself and dreamed the sequence. (This actually brought In the Navy even more in line with its model, Buck Privates, in which Costello had dreamed himself to be a captain in a similar, though much less elaborate, scene.) The script was rewritten on May 17, 1941, the retakes were shot on May 18, the re-editing was done May 19 and a print was flown across the country to Washington, D.C. on May 20 for screening to Bolton and other Navy officials. On May 21 director Lubin received a wire from the Navy Department which read, “Your picture passed 100 percent. Have accomplished three weeks’ work in one day. Congratulations.” Later Bolton wrote Work that he found the finished film “delightful,” and added, “The ingenious twist of having Costello drink the sleeping potion eliminated the only possibly objectionable material.”

In the Navy is a fully professional film whose smooth production finish belies the helter-skelter way in which it was made, with Universal getting weird notes not only from the Production Code Administration (which they were used to) but the Navy (which they weren’t), opening with an odd scene in which Russ Raymond, America’s Singing Heart Throb, is broadcasting with a “roo” moustache (which Dick Powell loses early on as part of his just-another-sailor disguise) and an oddly visible growth of beard that makes him look more like the Dick Powell who played Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet three years later than the one who’d been Ruby Keeler’s nice young singing boyfriend in all those Warners musicals in the 1930’s (including a previous Navy-themed film, Shipmates Forever) — Powell was the “on his way down” casting in this film to balance Abbott and Costello, who were clearly on their way up; no one in Hollywood could have guessed that Powell would be able to mount a comeback, or that he’d do so in a genre so different from musicals as film noir! As it stands, it’s a good mix of romance, music and hilarious comedy, both physical and dialogue (later Abbott and Costello would rely less on the great word-play routines John Grant cooked up for them and more on slapstick, at which they weren’t as good) and in some ways a more winning film than Buck Privates, thanks largely to Powell’s presence and also to the finely honed performance by Claire Dodd, who was no doubt relieved to be playing something than the “other woman” for a change!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exiled to Shanghai (Republic, 1937)

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

I ran the movie Exiled to Shanghai, a 1937 Republic “B” shown in a cut-down TV version from the 1950’s (53 minutes’ running time instead of the original 65) and with a reshot opening title for TV — ironic since the plot of the film is about TV, more or less. Ted Young (Wallace Ford) is a correspondent for the Worldwide Newsreel company, which is feeling the pressure of competition from wire photos as well as radio — both of which can cover the news faster than the newsreels can — when he’s assigned by his former cameraman Charlie Sears (Dean Jagger), who’s now his editor, to cover a million-dollar sweepstakes winner who’s taking a train to New York City. Only he shoots the wrong girl, Nancy Jones (the personable June Travis), who was on her way to New York after winning a contest, but a considerably less lucrative one sponsored by the Supreme Television Company, which picked her slogan, “Television: The Eyes and Ears of the World.” Fired from the newsreel company for his mistake, Ted decides to promote a TV newsreel and gets Supreme to back it (after a montage of the heads of all the other TV startups in New York shaking their heads at him), only unbeknownst to him the head of Supreme, Grant Powell (William Harrigan, who played Kemp in The Invisible Man), is a crook whose only interest in “TV newsreel” is to get buzz so he can raise his company’s stock price, then dump his own shares at the peak of the market and flee the country with his ill-gotten gains before the share price collapses again.

Ted catches on to the scheme when he’s assigned to cover the landing of a dirigible as his first TV newsreel story, and the shots they air show the dirigible landing perfectly while in fact it crashed and burned (needless to say, stock shots of the real crash and burn of the dirigible Hindenburg are used here — oh, the humanity! — making this a movie of Hindenburg ex machina); what was being shown on the “TV newsreel” was in fact a stock shot of a dirigible landing successfully from the previous year. Ted had previously interested his old company, Worldwide Newsreel, to provide footage for the TV newsreel, and had improvised an explanation for a reporter of how the TV waves could get across the Rocky Mountains, and now he finds himself blamed for the scam, arrested (he cornered Powell and started a fight to recover the money Powell was about to abscond with, but the police assumed they were both in on the scam and arrested both of them!), and though he’s ultimately exonerated he has to beg for his old Worldwide job back, while Charlie gets an assignment to cover the civil war in China. Ted gets Charlie drunk and has him arrested for dropping a bottle out of a tall building, then takes the plane to Shanghai (the film finally mentions the titular city with just about 10 minutes left to go!), only to bail out of it again when he sees Nancy’s train below, so they’re reunited.

Directed by Nick Grinde (who’d formerly worked at the major studios with the accent on his last name, “Grindé,” still attached, but was now pretty much a creature of the “B”’s for Republic and later Columbia, where he made three of the Boris Karloff mad-scientist films) and produced by Armand Schaefer from an “original” screenplay by Wellyn Totman that seems sometimes to sink under the weight of how many clichés Totman tried to cram into it, Exiled to Shanghai (shot under the working titles Crashing the Front Page and News in the Air, either of which would have given a far better idea of what the film was about) at first seems like it’s going to set up one of those best/worst comparisons I like to make (“Let’s see, at the top of films about the newsreel business there’s Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman … and at the bottom there’s Exiled to Shanghai”), but this film gets better as it progresses even though Wallace Ford is clearly modeling his performance on Lee Tracy’s in similar roles and he gets just as annoying as the actor he’s copying.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Casablanca (Warner Bros., 1942)

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

It’s 9:10 a.m. and this morning I’ve been watching yet another videotape: the 50th anniversary edition of Casablanca, a well-done production from Turner Entertainment that features the film Casablanca itself, an original theatrical trailer and a half-hour documentary narrated by Lauren Bacall and featuring Pia Lindstrom (what do you do when you want to make a documentary about a famous film and both of the stars are dead? You get his widow and her daughter … ) which was entertaining and didn’t tell me much about the film I didn’t already know. Casablanca was a film I discovered in the late 1960’s — I vividly remember a column Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about that time, concerning Casablanca and why it had held up as well as it had; his conclusion was that audiences responded both to the black-and-white nature of the story (you know who the heroes are and you know who the villains are — and you know, well before Bogart’s character does himself, which one he’ll turn out to be) and to the whole notion of sacrifice, of giving one’s life (or, at least, one’s safety and security) to a larger cause.

I think that’s still a large part of the appeal of this movie. Casablanca is a beautiful film precisely because it achieves a near-perfect balance between (if you’ll pardon the paraphrase of the famous feminist slogan) the personal and the political aspects of its story; the balance may have come from the use of Hollywood’s infamous platoon system of getting screenplays written (Julius and Philip Epstein apparently contributed the atmosphere and the celebrated wisecracks, Casey Robinson — uncredited — wrote the famous flashback sequence and got the Bogart-Bergman romance into shape, and Howard Koch concentrated on the political material), and director Mike Curtiz was more interested in atmosphere than in story values (fortunately, he had a cast of actors — Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Sakall — that could almost direct themselves), but the film comes together because of a passion in its making that obviously stemmed from the wartime situation, and at the same time transcended it, to the point where this film has become a living metaphor for sacrifice and heroism.

A few random thoughts on this movie. One thing that disappointed me about the included documentary was that cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s name wasn’t mentioned even once — yet he is responsible for much of the appeal of this film (and the video transfer is especially kind to his work, both the hard-edged lighting of the daytime scenes and the softer, more rounded lighting of the romantic night shots) — you can even see the sparkle in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes, and do a double-take before you realize it’s a key light. His noir-ish photography adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and gives the film a “German” quality that fits the subject matter well — and also ties in to the presence of Conrad Veidt in the cast (it was his last film, and as someone who was present at the birth of German Expressionism in film, on the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it seems appropriate to have him play this character). Claude Rains, as usual, comes close to stealing the film right out from under the principals — as he did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which his corrupt Senator was by far the most interesting character in the story — and Bogart’s performance is extraordinarily nuanced; he actually looks like a different person in the Paris flashback sequence (when Bergman talks about him as if he were two different people, we can see what she was talking about), and he was the right age for the role (43) — he was able to suggest the hard-bitten cynicism his character had adopted as a defense mechanism without the deeper world-weariness that came through in his later films. — 2/16/93


I went over to my partner Bob’s place and brought the videotape of Casablanca (not the new one, which is VHS, but my old off-the-air recording, which still held up pretty well), since I’d given him my journal entry about it and I wanted to share the film with him since he’d just (presumably) been reading my comments on it. He had a hard time with it at first; he doesn’t like movies that are that dependent on dialogue (thereby forcing him to listen harder than his ears can sometimes stand), and he had a hard time figuring out who was who and which side they were all on, but as the film progressed — and the main plot line emerged from a rich (but, I could understand, possibly confusing) tapestry of subplots, he finally broke down and said, “Mark, I can see why this movie is considered a classic.” Bob thus becomes my second lover in a row, after John Gabrish, who had never seen either Citizen Kane or Casablanca until I showed them to him.  — 2/21/93


We ran a videotape of the film Casablanca. I had told John Gallagher it was the Schindler’s List of its day, and when John G. asked if Casablanca was as depressing as Schindler’s List, I said, “No, it’s a Forties movie, it’s more romantic.” Certainly, though, two of the main characters in Casablanca have their counterparts in Schindler’s List — Oskar Schindler’s turnaround from callous, though not evil, Nazi sympathizer to heroic Jew-rescuer evokes memories of Rick Blaine’s similar changeover from embittered cynic to hero in Casablanca, and Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List is so evocative of the Nazi Conrad Veidt played in Casablanca I suspect Fiennes used the Forties classic as a starting point for his own portrayal. Casablanca itself holds up beautifully as a classic, one of the few artistic triumphs of the Hollywood committee system: four writers (one, Casey Robinson, was uncredited at his own request), a director (Michael Curtiz) for whom no one would claim auteur status — and a vividly balanced portrayal in which the romance, the political intrigue and the wisecracks interlocked into a film of rare emotional power and force, instead of going off in their separate directions as they have in virtually all the attempts to duplicate Casablanca since. John G. liked it — though after seeing M he’s such a Peter Lorre fan I think he was disappointed that Lorre’s character gets killed off after only 20 minutes — he was very impressed by the film, though it didn’t jolt him emotionally as much as some of the others I’ve shown him have. — 2/11/94


After Undercurrent was over I walked over to Charles’ place with the video of Casablanca (“You’re actually going to show me a good movie?” Charles said, in mock astonishment), the 50th anniversary edition from Turner Video with a 30-minute “Making Of … ” documentary at the end and a beautiful restoration job that does true justice to Arthur Edeson’s superb photography. (When I read in Charles Higham’s biography of Bette Davis that she refused to work with Edeson because she didn’t think he was a good glamor photographer for female stars, I couldn’t help but think of the superb job of glamor photography he gives Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca without sacrificing the dark, almost noir atmospherics required by the other aspects of the story.) This film is a living contradiction of the auteur theory and an example of how good the studio system could be at its best. With three different writing units working on various aspects of the story — Julius and Philip Epstein on Bogart’s character, the intrigue and the wisecracks; Howard Koch on the politics and Casey Robinson on the love story — the multiple resonances of the tale actually came together in a surprisingly strong and well-constructed script, even though it was written “on the fly” while the film was actually shooting.

I remember reading Koch’s book on the making of Casablanca, which mentioned that the reason Robinson didn’t get screen credit was he refused to take it except for scripts he had written entirely by himself — which, in this case, meant he did himself out of an Academy Award — and also that there were two drafts of the final scene, one in which Bergman ended up with Bogart and one in which she ended up with Henried. The idea was they were going to shoot both versions, preview both and see which one audiences liked best. As things turned out, so Koch’s story goes, once they shot the Henried ending — the one that is in the film now — they realized that that was the only way the film could end, and abandoned the other draft without bothering to shoot it. (Charles and I had fun after we watched the film concocting still other possible endings — I suggested one in which Bergman turns traitor, gives the names of the Resistance leaders throughout Europe to Conrad Veidt and leaves Casablanca with him, and Charles came up with an even sillier one: Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre use the letters of transit to go, not to Lisbon, but to Turkey … to continue their search for the Maltese Falcon.)

What’s striking about Casablanca — especially now since it’s been almost as long since I first saw it (in the early 1970’s) as the film was old when I first saw it — is how meticulously it’s constructed. Though the film runs almost two hours — an unusual length for the time, when even “A” features rarely ran over 100 minutes — there isn’t a single wasted scene. Every scene in the film advances the plot and tells us something we need to know. One also notes with pride the marvelously subtle use of parallel actions to add depth and weight to the story, a kind of symbolism that works on an almost subliminal level (when people say of a film like this, as one of the people did in the documentary, that it can be watched again and again and acquires more depth each time you see it, this is frequently what they mean) — particularly the marvelous matching shots towards the end of the flashback, one in which Bergman, drinking with Bogart at La Belle Aurore on the day they are scheduled to flee Paris, knocks over her champagne glass and spills her drink on the table; the other, as we come out of the flashback to the present action, when Bogart, having reminisced the events we’ve just seen while drinking in his office at Rick’s, knocks over his glass and spills his drink on his desk.

It’s a marvelous film, too, in that it’s proven surprisingly timeless even though it was also clearly topical — one can readily ascertain which patriotic bits in the plot impressed and moved audiences in the early 1940’s — and it would be interesting to note what young people think of this film now, in an era in which the whole idea of sacrificing one’s personal happiness for some cause greater than yourself is decidedly unfashionable. (In the early 1970’s, while we were still living the remnants of 1960’s idealism, this was actually one of the film’s most impressive aspects: the idea that commitment to a cause was not a new phenomenon but one with quite a long and honorable tradition behind it.) Casablanca has achieved iconic status in the culture, generating such memorable catch-phrases as “You must remember this,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris” and even a famous line that actually never appears in the film (though it could have): “Play it again, Sam.” And another marvelous thing about it is how it manages to suggest the fear and terror of Nazi occupation even though there is surprisingly little violence — just the arrest of Ugarte (Peter Lorre) at the beginning and the shooting of Strasser (Conrad Veidt) at the end. It’s a measure of the restraint that was one of the good outcomes of the Production Code — that, barred from the most direct and obvious methods of putting dramatic points across, filmmakers of the 1930’s and 1940’s frequently came up with scenes that live today because they’re far more imaginative than the all-too-obvious ones in modern movies! — 11/22/97


Later we spent the next four hours trolling around the recently issued DVD of the film Casablanca, which Charles was surprised to see I’d actually bought (especially since I’d bought the VHS pre-record issued in 1992 for the film’s 50th anniversary, which included the making-of documentary You Must Remember This which is also included on this two-DVD set). We ran a whole string of the “extras” for which I’d bought the set and then ran the movie itself — which at least this time around seemed to have burned itself out in my brain; it’s still one of the great films of Hollywood’s classic era, and especially after sitting through the first two Matrices I could appreciate the meticulousness of the plot construction, the precision with which the script is put together and every action in the film logically leads to the next[1]. Charles was struck by how long the film kept us waiting before each of the principals were introduced — indeed there’s that marvelous tracking shot in which we see a right arm initialing a receipt, “O.K., Rick,” and it’s only when the camera keeps moving up towards this person’s face that we meet the star of our film, Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine. But maybe this revisit to Rick’s Café Americain would have been more moving if we’d run the film first and then the extras.

The extras included some deleted scenes (alas, without sound — they were shown silent with subtitles indicating what the dialogue was based on the surviving scripts; one of them was a scene in which Bogart visits Paul Henreid in jail after he’s arrested at the Resistance meeting, and it’s easy to see why that wasn’t used in the final cut since it would have just slowed things up on the way to the climax), some bits and pieces of scoring stage sessions (two long excerpts from Max Steiner’s score, and versions of Dooley Wilson’s songs “Knock on Wood,” “As Time Goes By” — which was recorded in two pieces because his performance of it in the film is interrupted by Bogart’s “I thought I told you never to play that!” outburst — and a novelty number unused in the final film called “What Done Noah Done?” and a few more extended pieces. One was a cartoon parody called Carrotblanca, though when this was made was unclear; the credits were in a modern Warners style and it seemed a recent (or at least 1990’s) attempt at a pastiche parody of the film, with favorite Warners cartoon characters: Bugs Bunny as Bogart, Sylvester the Cat as Paul Henried, Tweety the bird as Peter Lorre, Daffy Duck as Dooley Wilson and Yosemite Sam as the Nazi officer played by Conrad Veidt in the actual film. Oddly this was at its most amusing when it had least to do with the original — though calling Rick’s café the “Café au Lait Americain” was cute and the scene in which Bugs gets Yosemite Sam to confess to all manner of crimes and lock himself up was by far the best (and funniest) scene in the film.

Also included were an April 1943 radio dramatization of Casablanca on the Screen Guild Theatre, a CBS show sponsored by a blessedly defunct company called “Lady Esther,” which made face powder and cream (and whose spot announcements, read ostensibly by “Lady Esther” herself but actually delivered in a sepulchral voice that suggested Joan Crawford trying to play Lady Macbeth, tried to convince us that the company’s products were actually mixed by hurricanes, or at least by wind-making machines of hurricane velocity!). The show reunited Bogart, Bergman and Henried from the original cast (though, alas, the actor they got to play the police inspector was hardly in the same league as Claude Rains!) and actually managed to do a good job of condensing the original film into a half-hour time slot without some of the really silly devices used in the similarly abbreviated radio version of The Maltese Falcon I’ve heard (with Bogart but none of the other original film actors). The final “extra” (at least among the ones we sampled; the disc also contained the 1980’s PBS documentary Bacall on Bogart, still the best single show I’ve seen on him and his career) was the one I was most interested in going in: a 1955 excerpt from Warners’ TV show which alternated between series based on three Warners’ films (Casablanca, Kings’ Row and Cheyenne — the last a nondescript 1947 Western with Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman that made an odd pairing with blockbuster hits like the other two films!) and also included promotional segments on then-current Warners releases and Gig Young as host tying it all together. (The VHS releases of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant contain clips from these shows featuring James Dean promoting these films — and the one for Giant is the source of the infamous clip in which Gig Young and Dean talk about traffic safety and Dean says, “Drive carefully — the life you save might be mine,” which was pulled from the show after he did die in a car accident caused by the carelessness of the other driver involved, and replaced with a segment on Giant’s composer, Dimitri Tiomkin.)

The excerpt included here was about 20 minutes long and featured a General Electric commercial (for their steam-and-dry iron) as well as a story called “Who Holds Tomorrow?,” which updated the setting of Casablanca to 1955 and featured a blonde who turns various heads in Rick’s Café (which, somewhat to my surprise, was a freshly created set and not the one used in the original film) and is ultimately found to be in possession of certain unspecified secrets which various hostile governments want to get hold of. Eventually Rick (Charles McGraw, a “tougher” actor than Bogart had become by 1942 but hardly as subtle or nuanced a performer — my hopes that this show would provide an interesting alternative reading of the Rick Blaine character were dashed pretty early on) romances her long enough to get her to go to the U.S. with the American ambassador (unidentified — there were no acting credits in the excerpt presented here — but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Leon Ames and I suspect it was he) instead of staying in Casablanca and being vulnerable to being kidnapped, tortured and/or killed by the Russian (his nationality was unspecified but the name sounded Russian and in 1955 what other country would they have used as the symbol of absolute evil?) who was also after her. They were obviously aiming at the same kind of bittersweet ending that the film was already famous for, as well as a mood of overall intrigue similar to that cultivated by the early-TV show Dangerous Adventure (which Charles and I had recently watched an episode of on a VHS compilation of early TV) — and Casablanca the TV show at least benefited from the infrastructure of a major film studio and a director who duplicated some of Michael Curtiz’s famous tracking shots around the interior of Rick’s (including the “discovery” shot introducing him, described above), but overall the show was well below the intensity level of Dangerous Adventure and was a pretty depressing recycling job of one of Warners’ strongest properties, interesting as a curio but not much more. — 11/24/03


I ended up watching TCM’s showing of the 1942 classic Casablanca. There’s hardly anything that still needs to be said about this movie, except that it holds up beautifully and is one of the rare examples of a committee-written script (Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and an uncredited Casey Robinson — who wrote the love scenes and was entitled to credit but turned it down because at the time he was only taking credit for scripts he wrote entirely himself — he thereby did himself out of an Academy Award) that was actually being written “on the fly” turning into a superbly integrated film that expertly combined international intrigue, Allied war propaganda, romance and idealism. Ingrid Bergman complained throughout the shooting that she couldn’t act her part unless she knew which of the male leads, Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid, she’d end up with at the fadeout. The writers wouldn’t tell her because they hadn’t decided yet; indeed, Howard Koch claimed in his autobiography that they actually wrote two versions of the final scene, intending to shoot both and decide based on previews which one would end up in the released version — only when they shot the ending that’s in the film now, the magnificent, tearful send-off in which anti-Nazi activist Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) fly to America with the letters of transit and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) sacrifices the love of his life for the Allied cause, they finally knew that that was how the film had to end, so they didn’t bother to shoot the alternate ending. (It probably helped that keeping Bergman’s character with her husband was a good deal easier to get past the Production Code Administration than it would have been to pair her with Bogart — the only way the Code would have allowed Bogart and Bergman to leave Casablanca together would have been if Laszlo had been killed by the Nazis and, with his dying breath, had told Rick to leave for America and continue his work. As it was, the Code Administration raised questions about the Paris love affair between Rick and Ilsa, but eventually producer Hal Wallis talked them into passing it on the ground that she was only an inadvertent adulteress because at the time of the affair she had thought her husband was dead.)

Charles and I noticed a few things that had eluded us before, including a surprising Gay reference (when the lecherous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, brings the Bulgarian couple to Rick’s with the idea of getting her to have sex with him in exchange for exit visas for both, Rick is told that Renault is there with a man and a woman and replies, “A man and a woman. Captain Renault is getting more broad-minded”) and also a quite interesting line in which Rick establishes the time of the story as early December, 1941 … just before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into World War II. The imdb.com page has quite a lot of trivia about this film, including a few things I didn’t know — like that Humphrey Bogart was an avid chess player and the position of the pieces on the chessboard shown in his introduction shot was from an actual correspondence game he was playing with a friend — and seeing it again was a fun experience and made me admire all over again how much star charisma Bogart had even though he wasn’t exactly Mr. Attractive: in his best films he had all his clashing images — the juveniles he’d played on stage in the 1920’s, the gangsters he’d played in films in the 1930’s and the world-weary burned-out cases who regain their idealism he played in most of his star vehicles from The Maltese Falcon on — absolutely in synch and was able to combine them all into a devastating combination. When the casting for the film was being discussed and Hal Wallis told Jack Warner — with Ingrid Bergman, already set for the female lead, in his office — that he wanted Bogart for the male lead, Jack Warner said, “Who the hell would want to kiss Bogart?” Bergman said, “I would.” — 2/16/12

[1] — And this despite the well-known fact that the film was pieced together during shooting by at least four major writers — Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and (uncredited) Casey Robinson — and not until the last day of shooting did the writers definitively decide how the film was going to end, much to the irritation of Ingrid Bergman, who during the last week or so kept insisting that she had to know which man she’d end up with in order to play the scenes properly. Howard Koch said they actually wrote it both ways, intending to shoot two endings, preview both versions and see which one audiences liked best — but when they shot the first ending, the one we all know, they decided that was the way it had to end and they needn’t bother shooting the alternate ending in which Bergman would have ended up with Bogart after all.