Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pardon My Sarong (Mayfair/Universal, 1942)

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

I ran us the next film in sequence from the 28-movie Abbott and Costello at Universal boxed set: Pardon My Sarong, an attempt by Universal and a production company called Mayfair (there were actually several companies called Mayfair, including one that had existed briefly in the early 1930’s, but in 1942 this was probably a profit-sharing vehicle or a tax dodge — at a time when the top U.S. income tax bracket was a whopping 91 percent, many stars formed “production companies” in partnership with the studios that had them under contract so the money they were paid for their films would be considered capital gains and thereby taxed at only 25 percent) to duplicate the success of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. It didn’t really evoke the spirit of the “Road” movies (Abbott and Costello were brilliant comedians, equally adept at slapstick and dialogue humor, but they lacked the insouciance of Hope and Crosby, jointly or severally, and between them Crosby and Hope had two good singing voices to Abbott and Costello’s none) but it’s a quite funny movie anyway even though it has so many crashing genre shifts that, with Arthur Lubin out of the picture as an Abbott and Costello director, maybe Universal should have hired Preston Sturges instead of the actual director, Erle C. Kenton. Kenton was an all-arounder who proved equally adept at comedy and horror (he’d directed Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi in The Island of Lost Souls, the first and best version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, at Paramount in 1933, and at Universal he did three of the films in the Frankenstein cycle — Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula — and here he got to work with one of his frequent horror collaborators, actor Lionel Atwill).

Written by the people who’d worked on the immediately previous Abbott and Costello films — True Boardman, Nat Perrin and John Grant — Pardon My Sarong opens in the office of the Chicago Transit Authority, where they’re wondering why an inner-city bus whose total route is only a 10-block loop has suddenly got lost and they have no idea where it is. Then we see the bus passing a highway sign which reads, “Los Angeles — 144 miles,” and then we see the drivers, Algernon Shaw (Bud Abbott) and Wellington Pflug (Lou Costello). They were somehow induced by multimillionaire playboy Tommy Layton (Robert Paige) to drive him and a bevy of girls he’s been dating to L.A., where his yacht is moored and where he’s planning to enter it in a sailing race across the Pacific (in the middle of wartime? That took guts!) — only he arouses the ire of yachtswoman Joan Marshall (Virginia Bruce, playing yet another role for which she was overqualified — aside from her marvelous performance as Jane Eyre in the 1934 version for Monogram, virtually none of her films show her true talent) when he hires away her brother’s crew, and she gets them to return to her brother’s boat and leaves Layton stuck with herself, Abbott and Costello (who’ve been waylaid by a Chicago cop, played marvelously by William Demarest, who was there to arrest them and get the bus back, only thanks to his machinations the bus ends up at the bottom of Los Angeles harbor and A&C end up rescued by Layton when they cling to his anchor as he takes it up) and a couple of people who flee in a hurry once they realize they’re in for an ocean voyage if they remain.

What’s more, Joan deliberately sabotages Layton’s compass and he doesn’t know they’re off course until he looks up at the night sky and wonders why Polaris isn’t where he thought it should be. “I told you to follow that star!” he thunders at Abbott and Costello — and Costello whines back, “You didn’t tell me what to do once we caught up with it!” Needless to say, just as they’re about to starve — they’ve had their last meal of crackers and two beans apiece — they reach land, an uncharted island with a bunch of comely natives trained to dance by the great African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. They’re supposed to represent a native tribe with a huge treasure in gems on the island, and Costello ends up proclaimed as their great spirit “Moola” and given the right to marry the chief’s daughter — only she’s got a boyfriend, Whaba (Leif Erickson — whose presence puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from James Dean: Dean and Erickson acted together in Dean’s very first filmed appearance, the weird Roman Catholic TV-movie Hill No. 1, a story about the days right after Jesus’ crucifixion in which Erickson played Pontius Pilate and Dean the Apostle John), who appears to be the only indigenous male in the place and who’s naturally unhappy about losing his hot girl to an outsider, and a chunkily unattractive outsider at that.

Pardon My Sarong was the last Abbott and Costello film for which Universal felt they needed the audience boost of big musical numbers; the Ink Spots (with their original leader, tenor Bill Kenny) appear in a Los Angeles nightclub (a spectacular set with a mirrored ceiling, which must have been tough for cinematographer Milton Krasner to light) and do two of their hits, “Do I Worry?” and “Shout, Brother, Shout” (the latter also danced to by a spectacular Black tap trio called Tip, Tap and Toe) — also lists them as doing their mega-hit “Java Jive,” but they don’t — and when they get to the island native girl Nan Wynn gets to sing a ballad called “Lovely Luana” and then the troupe does an exotic number called “Vingo Jingo” by Don Raye and Gene De Paul, a piece of faux exotica similar to “Tropicana” from the Olsen and Johnson movie Crazy House. Then the tone of the movie changes again as Lionel Atwill makes his appearance and is revealed (not surprisingly) to be a bad guy, though his sinister plot (which includes rigging an extinct volcano with fireworks to create the illusion that it is erupting again!) is merely to steal all the native people’s jewels — it’s not, as I had suspected it would be, something to use the island’s South Pacific location to help the Axis in their war effort. Atwill and the baddies get their comeuppance and the film ends with a spectacular chase scene in which Costello is being towed on a board behind a boat, only a swordfish slices the board in half and instead of one board Costello is maneuvering uncertainly on two D.I.Y. water skis. Eventually it all ends happily, with the hate-at-first-sight couple of Tommy and Joan in love and paired off, though somewhat surprisingly it does not end with A&C recovering the native treasure and living on it in grand style back home (maybe the writers and producer Alex Gottlieb felt they’d already done that one in Hold That Ghost).

I first saw a lot of the Abbott and Costello movies shrunk to an hour-long time slot on a local TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area during my teen years — and apparently others saw them under similar conditions because the user review that came up when I looked up this film on was from someone who until the VHS tape of this film came out had never seen the opening and had only the dimmest idea who William Demarest was playing or why he was so important (as with Shemp Howard in some of their earlier films, Abbott and Costello played quite well with Demarest — having another comedian around seemed to bring out the best in them), and the last time I saw Pardon My Sarong was in the 1970’s, so I didn’t remember that much of it but it struck me this time around as quite a funny film: Abbott and Costello might not have had the genius for characterization of Laurel and Hardy or the interest in satire of the Marx Brothers, but they were still brilliantly funny, and they certainly knew whom to steal from (there’s a sequence in which both Abbott and Costello disguise themselves as Marco the Magician, and the presence of all three Marcos can’t help but evoke at least a few memories of the Marx Brothers’ mirror scene in Duck Soup) and how to get laughs from sometimes pretty thin material.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Wild Women of Wongo (Jaywall Productions, Wolcott Productions, 1958)

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

The film was The Wild Women of Wongo, a really peculiar 1958 indie from Florida (the production is credited to Jaywall Productions and Wolcott Productions, companies obviously named for the film’s director, James L. Wolcott) that was profiled in the last Harry and Michael Medved book on bad movies (before Michael turned into a supposedly “serious” Right-wing commentator lamenting the coarsening of the culture by “liberal” Hollywood) based on a script by Cedric Rutherford that achieves a sort of demented silliness. The film opens with a voice-over narration by a woman representing herself as Mother Nature, over some stock shots of the natural beauties of Florida, explaining that 10,000 years ago she made a mistake: she created adjacent countries called Wongo and Goona, and in Wongo she made all the women beautiful and the men homely, while in Goona she made all the men beautiful and the women homely. The story basically deals with how the Wongo women discovered and ultimately won the Goona men, all of this under the threat of the “Great Dragon” (actually a crocodile to which the Wongo women periodically sacrifice one of their number as part of their religion) as well as a group of ape-men who supposedly are going to invade from a fleet of canoes and conquer both Wongo and Goona. The Wild Women of Wongo isn’t as bad a movie as its reputation: Harry Walsh’s cinematography is genuinely beautiful (and actually benefits from the film being in Pathécolor — the fact that there are literally no interiors and therefore all of it is shot in natural light, save for an underwater sequence with one of the Wongo women successfully wrestling and killing the Great Dragon, helps a great deal) and Wolcott’s direction (assuming it is indeed his and not the illustrious guest he hosted on the set — more on that later) is competent and serviceable. The weaknesses of this movie are the silliness of the concept and the way it got expressed in Rutherford’s writing and the highly stilted delivery of the actors — yes, this is one of those movies in which (in Dwight MacDonald’s words) the term “actor” can only be used for courtesy, but it’s not clear how much of the first-day-of-drama-school monotone we hear from virtually everyone in this movie (the line readings are so bad a parrot upstages all the human actors!) is the fault of the on-screen performers and how much is because Rutherford and/or Wolcott wanted it that way.

The plot is an assemblage of clichés that Rutherford doesn’t even bother to resolve; the outside threat from the ape-men, which provides the initial motivator for the plot (in hopes of building an alliance between Goona and Wongo to repel it, one of the Goonish men travels in a boat to Wongo — only once the Wongan women get a look at him, they want him rather than their own homelier men, and the jealous Wongan men react by condemning him to death — a fate he barely escapes, racing down the beach to his canoe and frantically rowing his way out of there), simply disappears in mid-movie. So does the ritual that the Goonish men have to go into the jungle for “one moon” (meaning one month) without weapons and not have any interactions with women, and when they come back they get a Goonish woman as a bride (and there’s a quite cruel group shot of the Goonish women to indicate what a dubious prize that is) — only the Wongan women just happen along to the Goonish men’s encampment and spoil the whole thing. Eventually, of course, the Goonish men pair off with the Wongan women, the Wongan men pair off with the Goonish women (we’re supposed to believe they find each other appealing!), the ape-men just disappear from the plot altogether and the film grinds to a close — and given that this movie was probably aimed at the grind-houses and the drive-ins the term “grinds to a close” for once seems appropriate. It also doesn’t help that the carefully worked out schema of the story seems to have eluded either the talents or the capabilities of the casting director: though we’re told that the Goonish men are hot and the Wongan men are hopelessly ugly, the Wongan males are distinguishable from their Goonish counterparts only by being a bit heavier-set and given horrible blue-grey hair dye (indeed, my own tastes run so much towards the “bear” type some of the men playing Wongan males did more for me than the Goonish ones did!), while the high priestess of Wonga is a rather homely-faced woman, though with a good enough bod that she acquits herself reasonably well in the dance the movie’s plot stops right in the middle long enough for us to see. And the ape-men, to the extent we see them at all, aren’t the ugly, swarthy creatures we were expecting but aren’t bad looking themselves.

The most famous aspect of The Wild Women of Wongo had to do with the presence of one of America’s most illustrious playwrights, Tennessee Williams, on the set; indeed, there was one rumor (repeated as fact by a trivia commentator on that Williams actually directed much of the movie as a favor to Wolcott and for the novelty value of doing something he’d never done before. Not true, said Harry and Michael Medved: according to their account, members of the University of Miami football team were pressed into service to play some of the male characters, and Williams was having an affair with one of these men, so he’d show up on the set of The Wild Women of Wongo and wait for his boyfriend de jour to finish filming so the two of them could go out and have fun. Indeed, according to the Medveds, Williams was so bored by the proceedings on the Wild Women of Wongo set that he kept falling asleep, and director Wolcott worried that his snoring would get on the soundtrack and ruin the film! Not that that would have mattered much; though there are far worse movies than Wild Women of Wongo (like Shriek of the Mutilated, The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman, The Creeping Terror and Manos: The Hands of Fate), and one can at least appreciate the beauty of Harry Walsh’s lovely photography of all that Florida scenery, this one is pretty dull and doesn’t even have the saving grace of being wretched enough to work as camp.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Verdi: Macbeth (Marseilles Opera, 1988)

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

Last night I screened us something, if not completely different, at least a departure from what we’d been watching lately: a download of Verdi’s opera Macbeth as performed in Marseilles on March 20, 1988. The provenance of the recording was a bit mysterious, though the mediocre visual quality said that it was a product of several generations’ worth of copying a VHS original; it was unclear whether this was actually a commercially produced video or an in-house document (though the prismatic shot of six different orchestral violinists from six different angles suggested it was made for release and not just as an historical documentation of the production). The cast was a good one, headed by Leo Nucci as Macbeth (it was a role he adopted relatively late in his career and this production was apparently his debut in it) and Ghena Dimitrova as Lady Macbeth (she was a dramatic soprano who crashed through the opera world in the 1980’s; born in Bulgaria in 1941, she made her debut in 1967 as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco but didn’t sing in the U.S. or Britain until the early 1980’s; she retired in 2001 and died in 2005), though the rest of the cast was pretty mediocre. The conductor was Michaelangelo Veltri, and while he used the Marseilles orchestra he bolstered his chorus with professional singers from Paris. The production was a thoroughly traditional one — they didn’t decide to reset the opera in Fascist Italy or gangster Chicago or samurai Japan or the moon or Mars, nor did the director throw in people on bicycles or rabbits or Cirque du Soleil-type performers or any of the other accoutrements of what’s come to be called Regietheater. Unfortunately, it was also a pretty dull production dramatically, easy enough to follow (though the print we were watching was not subtitled, I figured the story of Macbeth was familiar enough from the play and therefore it would be easy enough to tell what was going on) but all too pitched towards the egos of the singers rather than the needs of the drama.

Macbeth was Verdi’s first foray into Shakespeare as a story source, and he composed the first version for Florence in 1847 to a libretto by his most frequent collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave, though he had some parts rewritten by his friend, poet Antonio Maffei. (One particular sticking point was Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, which his librettists kept rewriting even though what Verdi wanted, and kept telling them he wanted, was merely a literal translation of Shakespeare’s scene into Italian.) Given that he’d had his first success eight years before with Nabucco, and particularly with the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus of the Jews held in captivity in Babylon (it had become an unofficial hymn of the Risorgimento and even Verdi’s name had become code for the unification of Italy because it also happened to be the initials for “Vittorio Emmuanele, Re d’Italia” — “Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy”), he wrote another big chorus, “Patria oppressa!,” for the Scottish people to sing to lament their lot under the tyranny of Macbeth’s rule. He also wrote a big aria for the tenor singing Macduff with which to lament Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s family, “Ah, la paterna mano” (he protests the indignity that his “paternal hand” wasn’t around to save them), but because that’s about the only memorable music the tenor gets all night it’s not surprising that opera houses don’t usually go out of their way to hire a major singer for the role (though Pavarotti and Domingo both recorded it in the sort of “luxury casting” record companies pursued much more often than live theatres).

Other than that the crux of the score lies in the big scenes for the Macbeths, especially her — Verdi seems to have been much more interested in Mrs. than Mr. Macbeth and the most memorable arias in the score are hers: the opening, “Vieni! T’affreta!,” “La luce langue” (added when Verdi prepared a revision for Paris in 1865, which was the version followed here) — when Lady Macbeth prompts her husband to have Banquo and his son Fleance killed (as all Shakespeare buffs know, Banquo dies but Fleance escapes and presumably starts the next line of Scottish kings) — the “Brindisi” (in which she vainly tries to comfort both her husband and the crowd after Banquo’s ghost appears at their big banquet — this was the scene for which the original director asked Verdi how you made the ghost appear and disappear on cue, and Verdi sent him a testy reply saying that he should write to London, where they’d been performing the same story as a spoken play for over 200 years) and the sleepwalking scene. I’ve always especially admired the sleepwalking scene if only because, just 12 years after Donizetti wrote the silly mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor that George Bernard Shaw dismissed as the soprano’s “test of skill with the first flute” (admittedly on the rare occasions that it’s performed with the glass armonica scoring Donizetti wanted, it makes a lot more dramatic sense), Verdi wrote a sequence that in its broken phrasing, its halting delivery and its final ascent to a D-flat (Verdi asked that the high note not be belted out but be sung with “un fil di voce” — “a thread of voice”) after an aria previously free of coloratura fireworks, is absolutely riveting and completely convincing as the ravings of a madwoman driven crazy by her conscience.

The performance, to the extent to which we could appreciate it, was good but not great; Leo Nucci was fully in command of his role until the ending, when he came out of character and encored Macbeth’s aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” (the whole piece is considerably softened from its Shakespearean origins; at the point when Shakespeare’s Macbeth is raving bitterly about how life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, Verdi’s, Piave’s and Maffei’s is singing about piety, respect and love! No wonder Tito Gobbi always cut this aria when he sang Macbeth; it wasn’t that he was afraid of its technical demands, it’s that his dramatic instinct told him it didn’t belong there, just as “Addio, fiorito asil” really doesn’t belong dramatically where it falls in Madama Butterfly) and mugged outrageously for the crowd both times. As for Dimitrova, she certainly had the right voice for Lady Macbeth, but she was in poor form that night — she missed a high D-flat at the end of the act I ensemble and, apparently fearful that it would happen again, dodged that note completely at the end of the sleepwalking scene — and once again a comparison of her to Maria Callas (who may not have sung the role until 105 years after the premiere but whose voice fully met the bizarre set of qualifications Verdi specified in a letter that’s been quoted often) shows just how much more Callas got out of the words, how much more inflection and phrasing she threw into the big arias and how, as always, she looked for depth instead of coasting along on sheer vocal power.

Still, Dimitrova is definitely an above-average Lady Macbeth in one of the most challenging soprano roles of all time, and the whole production was worth watching even though there’s a lot more dramatic truth and power to be mined from this opera even with its weaknesses — I don’t find the witches’ music as silly as some commentators do, but one would think a different sort of composer could have managed a more credible evocation of the sinister supernatural (indeed, as German composers like Mozart, Weber and Wagner already had!). Charles noted that the softening process reached almost absurd heights at the end, in which Shakespeare’s Macbeth gets shocked when the witches’ prophecies turn out quite differently from what they’d led him to believe (particularly when Birnam Wood literally advances on Dunsinane castle and he learns Macduff was “not from woman born, but from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d”) while Verdi’s just gets stabbed in a swordfight so Macduff, newly crowned King Malcolm and the other winners can sing a final ensemble over Macbeth’s dead body. I’ve long wanted to see a production of Verdi’s Macbeth that modeled itself on Orson Welles’ film of the play — that would seem to provide the right blend of reality and stylization — and maybe even cast a countertenor as one of the witches in line with Welles’ belief that at least some of the supernatural characters should be male! In this production, the closest we got was the inclusion of the ballet (added, like “La luce langue!,” for the French premiere) and some nice hot shots of both women and men clad in very revealing tights — that was fun, for decidedly unmusical and undramatic reasons!

Ride ’Em, Cowboy (Universal, 1942)

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

The film was Ride ’Em, Cowboy, sixth in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set at Universal and a movie of which I have extra-special childhood memories because my grandfather gave my mom and stepfather a couple of reels spliced together from home-movie versions of several Universal features put out by Castle Films and Official Films. Some of these were self-contained cartoons and some were artfully re-edited sequences from classic live-action features, including one called No Indians, Please! re-edited from three sequences in Ride ’Em, Cowboy: the one that introduces the Indian characters (Lou Costello, playing around at a trading post, picks up a bow and arrow, shoots it into a heart adorning a tepee, is told that this means he has to marry the woman who lives there, a hot-looking Indian babe named Sunbeam [Linda Brent] emerges and Lou likes the idea — until she explains that the tepee’s owner is her sister Moonbeam [Jody Gilbert], who looks like Oliver Hardy in drag and quite possibly was actually played by a man on screen), a chase scene in which Abbott and Costello try to escape the tribe and a final scene (that actually occurs earlier in the full feature than the chase) in which Costello ends up in “Dr. Ha-Ha’s Sanitarium” and the head of the place turns out to be an Indian. (In the full-length feature he’s really Bud Abbott in “Indian” drag.)

I’d got quite familiar with this digest version well before I saw the film “complete,” and when I did it turned out to have some other delights: it was Ella Fitzgerald’s film debut (she sings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on the back of the bus taking the principals to the Lazy S dude ranch on which most of the film takes place, and she also adds a few choice interjections to a song called “Rockin’ and Reelin’” that purports to be a swing version of a square dance) and also the film that first introduced the song “I’ll Remember April” (though an LP collection called Music from the Late Show released in the 1950’s attributed “I’ll Remember April” to the movie Phantom Lady, which actually came out two years later). Ride ’Em, Cowboy was also the fifth and last Abbott and Costello movie directed by Arthur Lubin, who’d started in films as an actor and had begun directing in 1934 — he would continue well into the 1960’s, mostly on TV, and as a director he had a flair for Gothic stylistics but rarely got scripts that would take advantage of it. (One time he did was the 1940 Universal horror/sci-fi movie Black Friday; he also threw some surprisingly noir-ish scenes in the 1947 jazz musical New Orleans, a treasurable film because Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Woody Herman are in it, though they’re not all that well used.) Plot-wise, Ride ’Em, Cowboy is the old chestnut about the hot-selling Western writer “Bronco Bob” Mitchell (Dick Foran) whose exploits are being passed off by his publicist as autobiographical when he’s not only not a real cowboy but he barely knows which end of a horse is which ­— which doesn’t stop him from making an entrance in an opening scene at a rodeo riding — or at least moving on top of — a horse and belting out a nicely stentorian “Western” ballad by Don Raye and Gene De Paul called “Give Me My Saddle.”

Abbott and Costello play peanut and hot-dog (respectively) vendors who get themselves fired and chased off the lot; they hide out in one of the chutes out of which a bull is supposed to come out for a roping contest, and the bull rides by Bronco Bob, who panicks at the sight of it and thereby it’s able to gore Anne Shaw (Anne Gwynne) just before she was supposed to enter a trick-riding contest which would have won her $10,000 that her dad Sam Shaw (Samuel S. Hinds) needs to save his Lazy S dude ranch. Bronco Bob offers her a $10,000 check made out to cash, she throws it back in his face, he tosses it to the ground — “Did he just throw away a $10,000 check made out to cash?” an incredulous Charles asked at this point — and Lou Costello picks up the check and tears it up, explaining to Bud Abbott, “It wasn’t even made out to me.” “Who was it made out to?” says Abbott. “Some guy named Cash,” Costello replies. The two hide out in a van with more cows and end up on a train bound for the Lazy S, where Bronco Bob intends to train to learn to do the things for real he’s been making up in his books — and of course he wants Anne to train him, and proximity turns her hate into love. There’s also a real cowhand named “Alabam” Brewster (played by real-life Western star Johnny Mack Brown, who in the late 1920’s had been under contract to MGM and had co-starred with such illustrious names as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo — only in 1931 MGM production chief Irving Thalberg reviewed the rough cut of a new Crawford/Brown movie called Laughing Sinners, decided Brown wasn’t holding his weight in his scenes, and ordered everything of his reshot with another actor, Clark Gable — so Gable went on to be a superstar and Mack Brown got dropped by MGM and picked up by Universal for a “B” Western series) who’s sort of a rival for Anne’s affections, though writers Edmund L. Hartmann (“original” story), Harold Shumate (“adaptation”), True Boardman and John Grant (script) mercifully don’t push that trope too hard.

Between all the Seven Chances-ish stuff of Lou Costello being pursued by a jumbo-sized Indian drag queen and her/his whole tribe determined to make an honest man of him, there are some spectacular chase scenes and a subplot of a band of gangsters trying to fix the final rodeo so the Lazy S loses, and Mitchell agrees to take the bet against the Lazy S — only he means to win and the $10,000 is his way of paying off the debt to Anne which he feels he owes but she was too good to take from him directly. Ride ’Em, Cowboy is one of Abbott and Costello’s best films, with a good mix of slapstick and dialogue humor (and the slapstick is aided immeasurably by Universal’s excellent process work — similar sequences in the later Laurel and Hardy comedies for Hal Roach sometimes fall relatively flat because the process work is so bad it’s all too clear Stan and Ollie aren’t in any real danger in that supposedly “runaway” car) and great singing by Ella Fitzgerald, who essentially is to this film what the Andrews Sisters were to Buck Privates, In the Navy and Hold That Ghost and Martha Raye was to Keep ’Em Flying. Billed in the original trailer as a “sepia songstress” (the horribly cutesy-poo way they had of letting the audience know she was Black), Ella does her star-making hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (which had hit for her with Chick Webb’s band in 1938, four years before this movie was made) and also interjects into “Rockin’ and Reelin’,” with a white vocal group (three men, one women) called the Merry Macs who turned up on some of Judy Garland’s Decca records at the time and get some pleasant songs here, including “Beside the Rio Tonto Shore,” used as backdrop for a romantic ride at twilight through the Iverson Ranch, the fabled Western location where many of the landscape sequences were shot. Ironically, Ella’s appearance and (ill) use in this movie is uncomfortably premonitory of the way the same director, Arthur Lubin, used Billie Holiday in New Orleans five years later. He cast both Ella and Billie as the white heroine’s maids — and both women seem horribly uncomfortable trying to get the servile maid's dialogue out of their mouths but visibly loosen up when they get to sing.

One wishes that Ella could have introduced “I’ll Remember April” — it’s the sort of lightly jazz-flavored standard she sang so well later on (in the 1950’s, when the slightly congested quality of her voice in the early years had cleared up and her voice had become even more beautiful than it was here) — but instead Dick Foran (who actually had quite a nice voice if you can handle his stentorian tones and unwillingness to phrase) introduces it by singing it to Anne Gwynne during one of those long hayrides. Between the long and inventive slapstick scenes, the nice dialogue bits (though the poker game in which Costello gets involved is a case of having gone to the well once too often and doesn’t have the snap of the craps sequence in Buck Privates), the generally good Raye-De Paul songs and an uninventive but at least serviceable plot (is it only a coincidence that the plot line involving “Bronco Bob” being the creation of a publicity agent promoting his books resembles the real-life career of “Buffalo Bill” Cody?), Ride ’Em, Cowboy is a quite entertaining and very funny film, a worthy one for their last film with their star-making director, Arthur Lubin (and why he never worked with them again after making five of their best films is a mystery) and one well balanced between slapstick and dialogue comedy — and Ella Fitzgerald is just frosting on the cake!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Idle Rich (MGM, 1929)

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

Charles and I ended the evening watching a really bizarre movie I’d just ordered from the Turner Classic Movies Web site: The Idle Rich, a 1929 weirdie from MGM directed by William C. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille’s older brother — Cecil had got involved in the movie business because he wanted to do something that would match brother William’s success as a Broadway stage director; once Cecil became a hugely successful film director, William came out to Hollywood and managed to win a reputation and some success, mostly for drawing-room comedies rather than the audacious sex movies and period spectacles with which Cecil was identified) from a script which began life as a story by E. F. Stearns that was adapted into a 1925 play by Edith Ellis called White Collars, one of the first literary works to use that term as a metaphor for what’s called in the film’s dialogue the “Great Middle Class,” people who functioned in offices and assisted the managers of the economy instead of actually being on construction sites or shop floors making things. The film begins in the office of multimillionaire William Van Luyn (Conrad Nagel, top-billed — this was during that era in which Nagel was getting so many roles on the strength of having established that he had a recordable voice that he complained he and his wife could no longer go to the movies for their own entertainment since they couldn’t find a movie to see that he wasn’t in), who makes a rather crude grab for his secretary, Joan Thayer (Leila Hyams) — she’s on the floor looking for something and he grips her arm, then pulls her up and passionately kisses her. In a movie made today, a scene like that would be the start of a huge lawsuit against him for sexual harassment, but in 1929 what that led to was mutual passion and ultimately a marriage proposal.

What makes this film — scripted by Clara Beranger, whose most famous credit was the 1920 Paramount adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore — interesting is that instead of following the clichéd path of having Van Luyn’s snooty upper-class relatives look down their noses at his white-collar bride (indeed, we get the impression from this film that William is the only Van Luyn left!), it follows the not-quite-so-clichéd path of having the other Thayers look down their noses at the snot-nosed rich kid who’s just married into their clan. William moves into their apartment (a fascinating set whose furnishings and accessories indicate what people who weren’t rich themselves but had just as bad taste as the rich of their day did for décor: they bought hideous couches, chairs, dishes and the like and tried to be as “stylish” as their budgets could afford), refuses to sleep in his wife’s bed and curls up on one of those hideously ugly (as well as way too small for him) couches, and when he’s not at the office lets himself get lectured by the other Thayers: the parents (James Neill and Edythe Chapman), Joan’s sister Helen (Bessie Love, who out-acts the two leads), their brother Frank (Kenneth Gibson) and their nephew Henry (Robert Ober), who makes vaguely radical political pronouncements and seems to be the only one of the Thayers without a job. (The script is sloppy enough that it’s only about two-thirds into the film that we realize Henry is a nephew and not another Thayer sibling.)

The movie rather drones on from there, perched uneasily between comedy and drama and not working all that well as either, and one misses either the sort of all-out comedic approach Chaplin or Keaton would have brought to a story like this or the genuine sentiment Frank Capra could have supplied if he’d been directing this. Then the third act begins — the film is divided by intertitles and it’s clear they fall where the original intermission curtains of the play did — and Van Luyn announces that Henry has talked him into giving away his entire fortune and living the rest of his life as a member of the Great Middle Class himself. Just then Thayer père announces that he’s been fired because his employer wants to bring in a younger man. Along the way Van Luyn is accosted by Helen’s boyfriend, truckdriver Tom Gibney (Paul Kruger, a tall, lanky actor who looks like an unformed beta version of Clark Gable but hardly has anything resembling Gable’s charisma or talent), who challenges him to a fight — which Van Luyn wins easily, presumably through boxing moves he learned in prep school. Van Luyn eventually reveals that he had no intention of giving all his money away — he just said that in order to get the Thayers to allow him to move them into a new house he’s going to build for his new extended clan

 The Idle Rich is an odd movie not only because it’s uncertainly perched between Left and Right message-wise — the moral, to the extent there is one, is that once you latch onto a rich guy make sure he stays rich so he can lavish the benefits of a fortune on your and your family, and above all don’t him get any damned-fool notions about philanthropy — but for a 1929 talkie it’s technically crude in some ways and highly sophisticated in others. There is no background music, other than a phonograph supposedly belonging to one of the Thayers’ neighbors that plays a really old and scratchy pop record about true love (the first time we hear it it’s clearly supposed to be an ironic contrast with what we’ve just seen before it, which is Joan Thayer seeing William Van Luyn into his voluntary exile from her bedroom), not even under the opening credits, and there are several parts of the movie in which the sound stops altogether and other parts in which the actors make audible slips in their lines and Big Brother DeMille didn’t stop to retake. But for a 1929 talkie the staging of the dialogue scenes is surprisingly naturalistic and modern: there are none of the long … dreary … pauses between lines that make a lot of early talkies virtually unwatchable today; the actors speak in normal tones of voice, phrase their conversations as they would in real life, and even interrupt each other and talk at once when they’re playing people having an argument. (Watching a movie like Behind That Curtain, a virtual compendium of everything that could go wrong in an early talkie, one can readily see why some critics of the time actually thought sound films were less, not more, realistic than silent ones.)

My big problem with The Idle Rich is that I have a hard time with movies whose makers couldn’t decide whether they were comedy or drama, so they tried to make them both and succeed only in making them neither; for much of the first two acts I was wishing MGM had gone all-out for comedy and cast Buster Keaton in Nagel’s role, not only because Beranger’s script obliges Nagel to do some rather wimpy-looking pratfalls and a slapstick master like Keaton could have made these scenes uproarious, but because with Keaton in the lead this film would have been a worthy successor to The Navigator, Battling Butler and the other Keaton silents in which (in what I’ve long thought was a deliberate attempt to differentiate himself from Chaplin’s “Tramp” by setting himself up clear at the other end of the socioeconomic scale) he played upper-class twits brought down to earth by the love of a good but much less affluent woman. But Keaton would have had a much harder time playing Act III — and Nagel, as overly made up, pasty-faced and whiny as he is (in the 1931 film The Right of Way he was clearly miscast in a potentially powerful role that cried out for John Barrymore), actually works for this part: a stuck-up man who’s trying to get himself un-stuck but isn’t always getting the best advice from the people he’s around.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Plot Thickens (Jack Guedel Productions/Screen Gems, 1963)

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

Last night’s “feature” was just half an hour long, an download of a really peculiar unsold pilot for a TV show that probably sounded like a good idea in theory but went sadly awry in the execution — an entertaining jumble, but still a jumble. It was called The Plot Thickens and it was made in 1963 as a co-production of sci-fi/horror schlockmeister William Castle and John Guedel, who had achieved success as the producer of Groucho Marx’s hit (three years on radio and then nine years on TV) quiz show You Bet Your Life. The gimmick on this one was that a group of panelists, which would always include Groucho (this time he was a perpetual contestant rather than the series host), would sit down and watch a short movie about a murder and then they — Groucho, a fellow celebrity, a rank-and-file audience member and Richard Halley, an actual private detective based in Hollywood — would try to solve the crime. (Just how they determined who “really” done it is something of a mystery, since it would seem easy enough for the producers to adjust the script of the film-within-the-show to reflect the outcome they wanted rather than the one the original writer might have had in mind.) In this sample episode — the only one filmed, since no network or syndicator picked the show up and ordered more — the amateurs, besides Groucho, were Stan Ross, an ad executive from Coney Island; and Jan Sterling, the marvelous actress from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (had that film been a success Sterling would have headed to stardom on a rocket — her performance as the amoral opportunist who’s married to the pathetic cave-in victim and is grabbing the main chance while virtually burning up the screen with pent-up sexuality is one of the greatest things about that film, along with Kirk Douglas’s finest and, alas, final villain role: after 1951 he’d got to be too big a star to be cast as a heavy), the 1956 version of 1984 and several other quirky movies.

The mystery film is surprisingly well done, though not surprisingly it’s little more than a chip off the cliché log; it was written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho (and also a close friend of H. P. Lovecraft — to the extent that the famously reclusive Lovecraft had any close friends — and if you read the novel Psycho, with its depiction of a middle-aged Norman Bates not only living in his ancestral home but obsessively clinging to his mother’s possessions, it’s clear that Bloch’s conception of Norman Bates was based on Lovecraft even though most of the similarities were eliminated by Alfred Hitchcock and his writer, Joseph Stefano, when they made the film) and directed by William D. Russell. It’s the old chestnut about the phony “psychic” who rips off gullible suckers with the usual gimcrackery, projected images supposedly representing the shades of the marks’ deceased loved ones and a trumpet-like horn hanging from the ceiling on wires through which the voices of the dear departed are supposedly regaling the living in a séance. The most interesting part of the story-within-a-story is that the phony mystic, Kazam (Arthur Batanides), is killed in the middle of a séance, while everyone is holding their neighbors’ hands — an interesting variation on the locked-room concept and one that gets resolved in much the same sort of trick way most locked-room mysteries do [spoiler alert!]: the victim’s wife Lois (Linda Bennett) actually killed him before the séance began, then propped him up at the table so it would appear to the other participants that he was simply in a trance, not actually dead. She worked this deception out with her lover, Kazam’s assistant Arnold Martin (James Callahan), who agreed to cover for her in hopes of getting to flee the country with Kazam’s ill-gotten gains, and the purpose of the whole thing was to fleece some of the suckers one last time instead of fleeing town as Kazam, worried that the jig was up, had insisted on doing.

Among the suckers were Carleton Lowe (Jay Adler), who brought a large amount of cash to the séance in exchange for the materialization of his teenage daughter, and also brought along a gun, intending to shoot Kazam if he turned out to be a fake; and Martha Collins (Kathryn Givney), who wasn’t a sucker herself but was pissed off that she’d become disabled in an accident and her brother Sid (Frederic Downs) was throwing away all her insurance money on worthless stocks Kazam had touted to him. Of course, it turns out at the séance that Martha isn’t disabled at all — she had been but had laboriously, and without Sid or anyone else noticing, retrained her legs and regained her ability to walk (yeah, right) — and she too brought along a gun and shot Kazam, but didn’t kill him because he was already dead. There are several other characters but the MC, Jack Linkletter (Art Linkletter’s son, the oldest of Art’s five children; ironically, though he lived to be 70 both his parents survived him!), announces that a (fictional) private detective on the scene, Penfield (Joe Maross), had already cleared them, so the four suspects get hauled in front of the panel, who get to ask them questions to try to figure out whodunit. The prize is $500 to any panelist who correctly guesses the murderer, which is upped to $1,000 in case they’re right and the professional private eye on the panel, Richard Halley (ya remember Richard Halley?), is wrong — and [spoiler alert again!] Groucho Marx guesses right, Richard Halley guesses wrong and Groucho gets to take home the $1,000.

It’s a peculiar show in that the genre clashes between hard-edged mystery and game show really don’t come off, and Groucho’s attempts at humor are chuckle-inducing instead of laugh-out-loud funny: one suspects the limitations of the format as well as the absence of anyone he can play off against (as he did with his brothers in his movies and with the contestants as the host of You Bet Your Life) held him back. His fellow panelists are not only unmoved by his witticisms but seem positively annoyed with his joke-cracking, as if no one bothered to tell them that this was simply a game show about a fictional murder instead of an investigation into a real one! There are two other characters, a “bailiff” named Warrene Ott — that’s a woman, in case you couldn’t guess from the final “e” — clad in black velvet tights and equipped with a tail to make her look like a cat (they might well have borrowed the look from the Catwoman in the Batman comics) — and a real cat, also a female (or so we’re told) called Lucifer, whose face is the opening close-up of the show as the stentorian narrator announces its title and central premise. The Plot Thickens is an interesting curio but it’s not surprising no one picked this show up for an ongoing run; it’s hard to imagine how far they could have gone with such a bizarre concept or how long they could have kept it on the air, and as it stands it’s probably more an oddment for Marx Brothers completists than truly compelling entertainment — but the sheer weirdness of the gimmick gives it some sort of enduring appeal.

Vaudeville (Warner Bros., Vitaphone, 1934)

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

Turner Classic Movies was showing a truly weird Vitaphone short from 1934 (it bore Production Code certificate #68) called simply Vaudeville, that purported to depict a vaudeville bill featuring a dog act called Carl Emmy and His Mad Wags; a dance group called the Three Queens (an ironic title today because it was actually three women dressed as men — white shirts, black pants, black neckties and short, slicked-down hair — doing an act that today would be referred to as “drag king”!); Jack Pepper and His Society Pets (a singer whose act was disrupted by a comedy band, sort of like the act Spike Jones did a decade later); and the headliners, little-person dance couple George and Olive Brasno and normal-sized Buster Shaver, who was their piano accompanist for part of the act and took George’s place as Olive’s dance partner for part of it. The Three Queens were by far the best part of this short — it helped that one of the songs they danced to was Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” a surprising choice for a 1934 movie (but then since Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” was in another 1934 Warners musical short, it’s possible Irving Mills, who then managed Ellington and published his music, had an “in” with someone at Warners to place Ellington’s songs in these films), though the shots of Buster Shaver twirling diminutive Olive Brasno around himself and playing with her like a kid with a Barbie doll were pretty weird!

Soda Squirt (Celebrity Productions, Pat Powers, Ub Iwerks, 1933)

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

Earlier in the day Charles and I had run an download that was even weirder: Soda Squirt, apparently the last of the Flip the Frog cartoons Ub Iwerks turned out during the early 1930’s. To recap: Iwerks had been an associate of Walt Disney in his early days in Kansas City and had been a much better artist; he’d come out to Hollywood to join Disney at his first company, Laugh-O-Gram, to work on the Alice’s Adventures in Cartoonland films (Disney’s early one-reelers in which a live-action girl played Alice fooled around with animated characters; the process work was no problem since Alice cavorted in front of a white screen, so it was easy enough to double-print her into animation that was also done on a white background) and then the more complicated Oswald the Rabbit movies. When Disney lost the rights to the Oswald character in a fight with his distributor and he had to come up with a replacement, pronto, it was Iwerks who actually designed the replacement, Mickey Mouse. Disney cut a deal with one of early Hollywood’s shadiest entrepreneurs, Pat Powers, for distribution and the use of his sound system to make Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon and the film that put Disney on the map. Then Disney and Powers had a fight over royalties, and Powers, deciding that Iwerks was the more talented of the two, offered to back Iwerks in a cartoon series of his own if he quit Disney, and Iwerks accepted and started a new series with a character called Flip the Frog. (It’s an indication of Iwerks’ design priorities that Oswald the Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and Flip the Frog look so similar despite the real-life differences in appearance between rabbits, mice and frogs.)

Iwerks’ career as an independent lasted four years and ended with Soda Squirt, credited here to “Celebrity Productions, Inc.” but apparently actually distributed through MGM (!), following which his studio closed down and he returned to Disney, where Disney never forgave him for his prior disloyalty and kept him deep in the background, allowing him to work on technical innovations (like the famous Multiplane camera which created the illusion of three-dimensionality in animation and allowed the use of tracking shots in cartoons for the first time) and occasionally loaning him out (he was the main special-effects person on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) but never really trusting him again. Soda Squirt is an astonishing movie in which the opening of Flip’s soda parlor manages to attract a wide variety of (well-caricatured) movie stars of the period, including Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton, the Four Marx Brothers (who whip out four straws so they can simultaneously drink out of the same soda glass), Mae West (who quite naturally attracts the libidinous attentions of both Harpo and Flip!) and a rather queeny blond man who’s the recipient of one of Flip’s wildest concoctions which turns him into Mr. Hyde as Fredric March played him in Paramount’s 1932 film — only a can of something labeled “Pansy Spray” turns him back into the effeminate creature he was at the beginning (looking nothing like Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll). I hadn’t realized there were any such things as “‘Pre-Code’ cartoons,” but here was one!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

We Have Your Husband (Johnson Production Group, Silver Screen Partners, Lifetime, 2011)

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

This morning I watched a recording of a Lifetime movie from last November, We Have Your Husband, supposedly based on a true story about a kidnapping in Mexico in 2007 — though the trailers shown for it then had not made it clear that it was set in Mexico and the only real difference between it and quite a number of other Lifetime movies in which the heroine’s bucolic existence is disrupted by some horrible peril for herself and/or her family is that the scenes of the bucolic existence in the exposition are accompanied by mariachi music, strummed guitars and other cheesy music cues to establish “Mexicanicity.” The woman in peril is Jayne Valseca (Teri Polo), a U.S.-born blonde who 15 years previously married a Mexican, Eduardo Valseca (Esai Morales, about the only person in this cast I’d heard of before), and settled with him on his ranch outside the Mexican town of Santa Natale (“birthplace of the saints”?) in the state of Guanajuato. All is going well for them — though he’s the son of a Mexican media baron (“the William Randolph Hearst of Mexico,” we’re obligingly told in the dialogue) he only has a small income plus a $500,000 bank account that is solely in his name, but he’s got a Texas investor, Col. Wimberly (William R. Moses), interested in buying part of the ranch to build a golf course for $8 million — until one day, when Jayne and Eduardo are returning home after dropping their kids off at school and their SUV is surrounded on the road by four other cars.

Both of them are kidnapped by four men wearing ski masks, and eventually she escapes — she’s left in the back of a van with a hammer, symbol of a Mexican revolutionary political group called the EPR, which tells the AFI agent (apparently those are the real initials of the name of the Mexican national police, usually colloquially known as the Federales) Raul (Nicholas Gonzalez, a hot, sexy and very intense performer who out-acts the principals) that it’s a political kidnapping and they are unlikely to kill the kidnap victim but that the ransom demand is likely to be high. (Over)directed by Eric Bross from a teleplay by J. B. White, We Have Your Husband (a bit of a misnomer because by taking both members of the couple, then releasing her, the kidnappers let it be known that they have her husband without having to tell her so in so many words) is nonetheless a pretty exciting movie even though I watched through most of it expecting a reversal that either the local police or someone the couple knew well (like Eduardo’s friend Gustavo Otero, played by Danny Mora) was in on the crime and faked it to look like a political kidnapping — the kidnappers, whoever they were, had clearly done a lot of research about the family, knowing (among other things) about the $8 million deal for the golf course (which predictably falls through during the course of the story — a kidnapping isn’t the greatest encouragement for U.S. investors to sink a lot of money in a tourist-oriented project in a Mexican town) and even where in the U.S. Eduardo and Jayne met 15 years earlier.

But no such plot twist came, though there was an ironic situation in which director Bross intercut between scenes of Eduardo being tortured (supposedly the kidnappers cut off one of his ears — though when he’s finally released and comes home to his family Esai Morales’s head looks normal, with the full complement of ears nature and the gene pool gave him — and also shot him with a gun at point-blank range in a way that wouldn’t hurt him but would scare the shit out of his wife when she saw the video they e-mailed her) with shots of a police raid on an EPR encampment where they were holding a kidnap victim — a different one, it turns out. There are some of the usual problems with this movie — among them the predictable one that it takes place in a dream vision of “Mexico” in which everyone speaks accented but linguistically impeccable English — but in the end it’s one of those films in which the basic story is so exciting it triumphs over ineptitudes in the execution (and I’d also like to note for future reference the name of Christopher Saavedra, who plays the Valsecas’ appealingly long-haired son Diego) and though the final scene is pretty cornball — Eduardo, disheveled, with a grey beard and wearing pants too big for him (I guess we’re supposed to believe he lost that much weight in captivity), shows up back at the ranch the night of Diego’s birthday party — the note just before the closing credits, which says that the kidnappers have never been caught and the Valsecas have never returned to the ranch they once loved so much, has the uncertainty of real life about it rather than the neat loose-ends tying-up of a fiction story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Keep ’Em Flying (Universal, 1941)

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

Last night’s “feature” was the next in sequence from the Abbott and Costello boxed set featuring all 28 of their films for Universal: Keep ’Em Flying, third and last of the A&C “service comedies.” Having already done the Army (Buck Privates) and the Navy (In the Navy), this time they did the Army Air Corps (it was only after World War II that the U.S. Air Force separated from the army and became a separate service of its own) — and though this film suffered from the absence of the Andrews Sisters (although we did get Martha Raye in a dual role to compensate!) it seems to me the most entertaining of the three. After having read about the tortures of the damned Universal went through trying to get In the Navy approved by the Navy brass (they had to change an hilariously bungled set of ship’s maneuvers into a dream of Lou Costello’s character), it’s surprising how many elaborate A&C slapstick routines there are in this movie, including one in which he’s riding a torpedo that goes out of control on the Army Air Corps training base (played by the Cal-Aero flight school in Ontario, California, which was being used by the real Army Air Corps for training) and another in which A&C get caught in an airplane they don’t know how to fly and have to crash-land it after some quite amusing complications. (Kudos also to John P. Fulton for his absolutely convincing special effects and process work — and to Ralph Cedar, who took over the direction of the torpedo scene even though Arthur Lubin was credited for the rest of the movie.)

The plot isn’t much — “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story writer Edmund L. Hartmann and screenwriters True Boardman (I joked, “This is a True story”), Nat Perrin and John Grant combined two of the oldest clichés of military aviation movies, the hotshot barnstorming pilot (“Jinx Roberts,” played by Dick Foran) who shows up at the training camp arrogantly maintaining that no one needs to teach him to fly, who eventually learns that flying in the Air Corps requires discipline and teamwork; and the scared pilot “Jimmy” Joyce (Charles Lang) who can’t solo because he watched his dad, also a flyer, crack up and get killed — but the movie is a lot of fun: Foran is personable and his love interest, Carol Bruce as Jimmy’s sister Linda Joyce (a band singer who joins the USO and just happens to get assigned to a USO camp near the Cal-Aero school), is personable and has a nice voice that does justice to the old George Bassman song “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and the new songs by Don Raye and Gene DePaul, notably “The Boy with the Wistful Eyes.

The writers also created some great gags for the twin Martha Rayes, who through her dual casting gets to play romantic scenes opposite both Abbott and Costello: the Raye who’s attracted to Costello is raucous Gloria Phelps and the one who’s drawn to Abbott is the more sedate sister Barbara. “The Boy with the Wistful Eyes,” a quite lovely song that deserves to be better known, is staged in a tunnel of love in which Foran and Bruce, Abbott and Raye number one, and Costello and Raye number two, are all taking a ride — and, amazingly, instead of singing her two choruses the same way Martha Raye phrases the song differently depending on which character she’s playing. As Gloria she’s her usual raucous self — the one who’d become known from her movies at Paramount before she went to Universal for the 1941 Olsen and Johnson film Hellzapoppin’ — while as Barbara she phrases surprisingly like Billie Holiday, especially copying Billie’s famous “dying falls” (the downward glissandi with which Billie frequently ended a line). Raye also gets to sing a boogie-woogie number called “Pig Foot Pete,” which was nominated for an Academy Award (though for some reason Universal attributed it to Hellzapoppin’! — remember that at this time the Best Song nominees were picked by the studios, not Academy voters), with Freddie Slack at the piano. (Slack also recorded the song for Decca, but with Don Raye — no relation ­— singing the vocal.)

 Keep ’Em Flying is a superb movie, well balanced between comedy, romantic and musical scenes, and it’s only a pity that this was A&C’s last service film — well, they’d run out of units of the armed forces (they weren’t about to do one about the Coast Guard or the merchant marine!) — and Arthur Lubin’s direction is surprisingly Gothic in some sequences (especially the one in which Costello gets lost in a house-of-horrors attraction at a carnival and Lubin and production designer Jack Otterson get to recycle some of the old props left over from Universal’s horror films); though his five films with Abbott and Costello were the biggest hits of his career, he seems to have been more interested in Gothic and noir atmospherics than in comedy, and there are some odd angles showing the Air Corps cadets getting up — the camera is tilted and the Venetian blinds of their rooms cast artistic and noir-ish shadows over their faces.

The Buster Keaton Show: Buster in Training (Consolidated Television Productions, 1950)

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

The download was a 1950 half-hour TV episode of something called The Buster Keaton Show, a live telecast from L.A. (supposedly the only episode from this series known to exist!) sponsored by the Studebaker Dealers of Los Angeles (and since my stepfather had a 1950 Studebaker there was a personal bit of nostalgia for me in looking at that car, with its spacecraft-style front end designed by the legendary Raymond Loewy, again!), in which Keaton (in his 50’s and definitely looking the worse for wear — the years of alcoholism had taken their toll on him, though he was still surprisingly spry physically and it was amazing how well he was able to do slapstick live!) plays a man who goes in for physical training and ends up practicing in the ring with a fighter who’s legendary for beating the crap out of anyone who looks on his wife with lust. The script, not surprisingly (especially given that Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s key collaborators from his glory years in the 1920’s, is one of the credited writers), rips off a lot of the Keaton silents, including Battling Butler and Spite Marriage, and the tackiness of the production has to be seen to be believed (not only the cheesy sets common to live TV shows but the audible mistakes made by the actors), but Keaton manages to maintain his dignity and be quite amusing if not as laugh-out-loud funny as he was in the 1920’s. Ironically, within five years Clyde Bruckman, broke (largely because he’d been sued for plagiarism by Harold Lloyd — for reusing gags Bruckman had originally creted for Lloyd!) and out of work, shot himself in a Beverly Hills restaurant with a gun Keaton had loaned him — a real pity for the co-director of Keaton’s greatest films, Sherlock, Jr. and The General, as well as two of W. C. Fields’ best, the short The Fatal Glass of Beer and the feature The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Beginners (Olympus Pictures, Parts and Labor, Northwood Productions, Focus Features, Universal, 2010)

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

The good movie we watched as part of our double feature last night (after the bad one, Bowanga Bowanga — see below) was Beginners, the quite charming if flawed 2010 romantic comedy that for some quirky reason relating to the Academy’s eligibility criteria competed for the Academy Awards this year with the films of 2011, and won the award for Christopher Plummer as Best Supporting Actor. It was written and directed by Mike Mills, who has 10 previous directorial credits on but most of them for shorts, documentaries or TV shows; his only previous theatrical feature was Thumbsucker from 2005, which as the title suggests is about Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), who’s continued to suck his thumb even though he’s now a teenager already. That’s a pretty good indication of the kind of quirky humor you’ll get in Beginners, which is about Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), an alienated 38-year-old man with a bad relationship history and a potentially creative but actually frustrating job as a commercial illustrator (it’s somewhat surprising that there’s still enough demand for commercial illustrators that someone can make a living at it — especially since Oliver draws freehand instead of creating his art on a computer), who in the space of four years suffered a triple whammy in connection with his parents: first his mother died after a long struggle with cancer, then his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out to him as Gay, and then his father got cancer and died after a long struggle …

Through all of this Oliver is also exploring his own sexual and emotional territory with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he meets in one of the most bizarre meet-cutes in cinema history: he’s at a costume party he’s been brought to by his co-workers, and he’s come dressed as Siegmund Freud and is so into the role he not only looks the part, he’s steering the other guests onto a couch and doing amateur psychoanalysis on them. She’s also dressed as a man, complete with short bobbed-hair wig and a suit and tie, and when they meet she has lost her voice due to laryngitis and can only communicate with him by writing in a notepad, like Beethoven. The film plays fast and loose with the time sequence — too fast and loose for my taste: I don’t mind non-linear storytelling but I like the director to play fair and at least make it clear when as well as where we are, and sometimes the only way we have of telling when in Oliver’s life a particular scene takes place is whether or not Christopher Plummer is in it. (The film begins with Oliver cleaning up his late father’s house and throwing away his unused chemotherapy pills — I couldn’t help but wonder what his flushing all those toxic chemicals down his toilet is going to do to the aquatic creatures who encounter them later — and so the only scenes in which we see Christopher Plummer are flashbacks).

One problem with Beginners is it’s really two movies in one, and the movie about the septuagenarian suddenly stepping into the Queer world is considerably more interesting than the hetero story between Oliver and Anna. Maybe it’s because Mike Mills’ own father came out as Gay late in his life, or maybe Mills is simply better at writing characters of his own gender than the other — whatever it is, though, Anna comes off as pretty much a cipher, a rag-bag of neuroses and indicia of movie alienation thrown together in a characterization that never quite attains believability as a human being, despite Laurent’s best efforts in a role whose essence pretty much eludes her (and the audience, this member of it anyway). Had the film stayed focused on Oliver and his birth parents (we see mom in flashbacks and discover that, among other things, the only kind of music she listened to was jazz and pop from the 1920’s, mostly by African-American artists, a taste Oliver inherited from her and which Mills makes great use of on his soundtrack, filling it with excerpts from Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings and discs by Gene Austin, Mamie Smith and Josephine Baker) and the traumas he went through adjusting to his mom’s death, his dad’s sexuality and his dad’s death, in that order, the film would have been much stronger and we might have had a sense that Oliver was learning from all of this and becoming someone who might have a better chance at a relationship of his own in the future. As things work out, though, there’s a “cute” reconciliation between Oliver and Anna after a whole movie in which their scenes together, even the ones in bed, show just how far apart they are and how much work they’d have to put into their relationship to bridge the gaps between them and stay together.

Oddly, there are two characters in the film who impressed me more than the much-ballyhooed leads: one was Arthur, the dog Oliver inherits from Hal (and which actually gets dialogue — sort of; we see subtitles interpreting his thoughts for us and presumably translating them from Dog to English), played by a Jack Russell breed dog named Cosmo who if the Academy gave awards for Best Performance by a Dog would have given the charming mutt in The Artist a run for his money. The other was Goran Visnjic as Andy, Hal’s late-in-life lover, and though Mills introduces his character with a wince-inducing cliché (he explains to Oliver that he was thrown out by his own father when he came out as Gay, and as a result “I’ve always been attracted to older men” — which made me lean back and think, “Oh, no, not that old stereotype again!”) he’s charismatic, charming and fully believable even though he’s put on the pounds and is no longer the tough, wiry fellow I remember from The Deep End (another Gay-themed movie!), and if anyone from this movie deserved an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor it was Visnjic, not Plummer (who probably got the award more because he’s 82 years old and he’d never received one before despite a long track record of excellent performances in roles that showcased him better than this one did — it’s not anywhere nearly as bad as Al Pacino winning for an awful performance in an awful film, Scent of a Woman, after having been passed over for all his great movies, but it’s still more a consolation Oscar than a truly deserved one, especially since Mills only gives us this character in dribs and drabs and Visnjic actually probably has more screen time than Plummer).

What saves Beginners is the very real charm of its vignettes — Hal, trying to cope with the Queer lifestyle as it is in the 2000’s (as opposed to what it was in the 1950’s when he did his dive into the closet for “respectability” after his therapist told him homosexuality was a mental illness and his wife-to-be said, “I know what you are, but I can fix that” — lines that will be wincingly familiar to any Queer who lived through the 1950’s or has read the literature from and about the period), calls Oliver from a Gay club and asks what the music they’re playing is called; Hal joins the Prime Timers group for Gay seniors and they have a movie night at which they show The Times of Harvey Milk; Andy’s worry that he won’t be allowed in the hospital room as Hal dies because he isn’t “family” (I’ve heard enough horror stories about this that I’m sure it’s real, but when John Gabrish was dying in 1989 I was allowed in the hospital virtually anywhere I wanted to go, including the intensive care unit, and more recently when I’ve had hernia surgeries no one has looked twice at the family member who was there to support me through the process and drive me home after the operation was Charles); Oliver’s professional flame-out when he’s asked to do a CD cover for a rock band called “The Sads” and instead of doing a simple illustration of the group’s members from their photos, he does an elaborate comic book on the history of sadness (which they, of course, reject); and the final reconciliation between Oliver and Anna, which takes place when she’s announced she’s returning to her place in New York (she travels around so much she hasn’t had a fixed abode in L.A., where most of this film takes place, and spends much of her life living in hotel rooms), he flies cross-country to meet her there, and when he calls her to ask her to let him in it turns out she’s still in L.A. — she never left! Beginners is a quiet, gentle comedy that will touch you without really wrenching your heartstrings; it’s also that frustrating sort of film that’s good as it stands but could easily have been even better.

Bowanga Bowanga (Norman Dawn/Continental, 1951)

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

The bad movie was Bowanga Bowanga: White Sirens of Africa, which I’d just got in an order from TCM Home Video on a DVD from the “Something Weird” label — with two other films on the same disc, Wild Women of Wongo and Virgin Sacrifice. The film was preceded by a promo for Something Weird showing some of the other items in their catalog, including some of the early Russ Meyer nudies and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast and Wizard of Gore, two films you’d have to pay me to see. Apparently shot under the working title Wild Women, Bowanga Bowanga is a 1951 production from something called Continental Pictures, produced, written and directed by Norman Dawn, and which opens over stock footage of Africa’s jungle regions with an unctuous narrator explaining that some of the stories about Africa are from people’s imaginations and some are true, and hinting that the plot of this film is the latter when it’s actually quite obviously from a very impoverished human imagination. Indeed, there’s so much stock footage in this movie that it approaches — far more than any of Ed Wood’s own movies did — the aspiration Wood once had (or at least was claimed for him by the writers of the Ed Wood biopic, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp) to make a movie entirely out of stock footage without any original shooting at all. Between the stock clips — some of them awesomely beautiful, some of them just tacky — and the wall-to-wall musical score (at times during this film you’ll wonder what’s older, the stock footage or the stock music), this film isn’t “weird” or even campily bad so much as just annoying.

The star is Lewis Wilson, who eight years earlier had become the first actor to play Batman on screen — and in some ways the best; certainly he was more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than anyone in the role since, and he was in good shape but still looked visibly weary after every action scene, reminding us that Batman wasn’t a super-powered person but an ordinary human who had willed himself to be a superhero and had trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job. Alas, by the time he made this Wilson was eight years older, considerably less athletic and far less challenged by this role than he’d been by the Caped Crusader. He plays Trent, who goes off into the African jungle for a hunt with his buddy Kirby (Mort Thompson) and while there meets another white guy, a comic-relief character named Count Sparafucile (Don Orlando). Any opera buff will recognize the name instantly as the hit-man in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto whom the title character, jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, hires to kill the Duke for despoiling Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda — only Gilda, who’s genuinely fallen for the Duke, gets killed in the Duke’s place. The Rigoletto reference in the character’s name is obviously deliberate on Norman Dawn’s part because throughout the movie Sparafucile sings the aria “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, which is sung in the opera by Gilda as she’s dreaming of the hot young guy who’s been cruising her from outside her window and has disguised himself as the student “Gualtier Maldé” when he’s really the lecherous Duke. Anyway, after a lot of stock footage of various spectacular animal fauna (including an elk, which is not native to Africa) Trent sees a vision of a woman standing on the edge of a cliff, silhouetted against the sun, singing in a haunting “vapor voice” and creating the one genuinely impressive image in any of the footage Dawn shot for this movie (as opposed to the enormous accumulation of stock in the rest of the film). Eventually the three intrepid hunters meet the white sirens of Africa — a group of women who look like calendar models of the period (and probably were!) and who either babble to each other in a made-up gibberish tongue that’s supposed to represent their native language, or mangle English in a way that’s not discernible as anywhere close to a real accent of anyone in the actual world who’s learned English as a second language.

Eventually the queen of the sirens orders Trent to fight the best warrior in her tribe to figure out if he’s strong enough to be worthy of her; if he wins, he’ll be married to the queen and provide the necessary male input to propagate their race, and if he loses he’ll be thrown into a pit of fire supposedly representing a sacrifice to the tribe’s “Fire God” (though we never actually see the pit — Norman Dawn’s budget obviously didn’t extend to that). At first he’s visibly reluctant to fight a girl — even one who’s obviously in better shape than he is — but eventually he wins, and meanwhile the other women in the tribe are fomenting a revolution because they don’t see any particular need to off the other two guys just so the queen can be the only one who gets a man for herself. Finally the white guys get away and run through the fields of jungle, or whatever, and they’re accompanied by the cutest and most domesticated of the sirens, who becomes Trent’s girlfriend. Bowanga Bowanga is the sort of frustrating movie that isn’t quite bad enough to become camp and isn’t good enough to work as anything else — and though the setting is Africa instead of outer space, it’s really the same sort of plot as Fire Maidens from Outer Space, Queen of Outer Space, Cat Women on the Moon and all those other weird male-fantasy movies of the 1950’s in which an intrepid group of males end up in an all-female community and put out enough pheromones to let the girls (not women, girls) know what they’ve been missing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Internationaler Musikwettbewerb der ARD Preisträger 2009 (Bavarian Radio, 2009)

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

I began last night’s movie watching with an interesting download of a 2009 concert from Munich, called the “International Musikwettbewerb” — I don’t know what the word “Musikwettbewerb” means (I took a semester of German in college but I’ve forgotten most of it and just about the only German words that have stuck are the ones that recur in Wagner’s libretti!) but the show itself was a showcase for first-prize winners in some sort of musical contest. I can’t help but wonder if this is a sort of German Idol with better (or at least more “serious”) music than the U.K. and U.S. versions (indeed, I’m dreading that some day someone will do a modern-dress production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser with the title character as a drug addict going through cycles of recovery and relapse, and the second-act song contest staged under a huge neon sign reading “German Idol”!).

The orchestra was the Bavarian Radio Symphony (though so few musicians were visible on screen I suspect the show was done with reduced forces), the conductor was Lawrence Renes (who looked on-screen like an efficient bureaucrat, the sort of person you meet at the bank who tells you your stack of document is about 10 to 15 papers short of what you need to apply for relief from foreclosure) and the prize-winning soloists were bassist Gunars Upatnieks, soprano Anita Watson (she’s from an English-speaking country but not the one you’d think: Australia), harpist Emmanuel Ceysson (he was introduced as a French contestant but he was interviewed in English, , and it was frustrating to hear a voice-over person drowning out his English to give the original TV audience the German translation), and Korean-born violinist Hyeyoon Park (a woman, but a rather hefty one — not really stout but hardly the little slip of a thing, dressed in Chinese-doll costume, that’s the stereotype of a young Asian female classical musician). Physically, Gunars Upatnieks was hot; though he’s suffering from premature male-pattern baldness, otherwise he looks like the image of a blond Aryan Nazi superman — and Emmanuel Ceysson came across as such a nellie twink one could easily imagine him and Upatnieks heading home for a hot night of fun after the show was over.

Watson was a bit on the zaftig side, clearly taking after a previous Australian diva, Joan Sutherland, both musically and physically — she sang two arias, one from Handel’s Julius Caesar and one (Micaëla’s aria rather than either of Carmen’s big solos) from Bizet’s Carmen — which were, ironically, the only pieces on the program not composed during the 20th century. Ceysson played Glière’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (there’ve been surprisingly few harp concerti — the most famous harp-and-orchestra works with at least a toehold in the repertory are brief pieces, Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro) and the other two pieces featured were both by composers best known for their film scores. Park’s feature was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto (or at least the last two of its three movements), which not only is from a composer best known for his film scores but is actually based directly on themes Korngold wrote for films: Another Dawn (an almost forgotten 1937 tear-jerker with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn) and Juárez in the first movement, Anthony Adverse (the powerful early theme that dramatized the title character’s childhood as an orphan) in the second and The Prince and the Pauper in the third. (Korngold let his Warner Bros. contract expire in 1947 because he was concerned that working for films had damaged his credibility as a “serious” classical musician; the violin concerto was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz and was his first work after he left Warners.)

Renes’ feature was a bass concerto in three short movements by Nino Rota, best known for Fellini’s films and The Godfather — and in the fast movements there’s a bit of the raffishness of the music Rota wrote for Fellini (I once heard an LP of Rota’s music for Fellini’s films and it was almost unlistenable out of context, proof once again that film music doesn’t necessarily have to be “good” in itself to work as part of its film!), while the slow movement begins with a pizzicato jazz-style “walking bass” line (but then the slow movement of one of Beethoven’s “Rasoumovsky” Quartets begins with the cello playing what sounds a lot like a walking-bass line nearly 100 years before jazz came into existence!). The Rota piece was fun — obviously nobody, including Rota himself, was expecting any of us to take it seriously — and so was the Glière (it’s good enough to make one wonder why there aren’t more harp concerti; the instrument is expansive enough in range and power that it works as well as a foil to the orchestra as the piano or violin do), but the Korngold was the best piece of the night by a pretty wide margin and it also got the best performance: Hyeyoon Park, dressed in a red gown that projected a no-nonsense image, played the hell out of a rather dowdy-looking violin and brought power and drama to the music (and given that anyone who plays the Korngold concerto is under the long shadow of Heifetz, who premiered it in 1947 and made an incandescent recording of it for RCA Victor six years later, her performance is all the more striking: far more experienced and famous players have made less out of this music than she did!), and for once conductor Renes responded to his soloist and himself brought more sensitivity and eloquence to his phrasing than he had in his relatively perfunctory work earlier in the evening.

The existence of this program is a testament to the relative cultural riches on offer to European TV and radio consumers compared to the pittances we get here — as with so much about American vs. European capitalism, it’s largely a hangover of the noblesse oblige of the feudal tradition which has given Europeans the idea that the masses ought to have access to musical and theatrical culture that will elevate them instead of broadcast companies and private sponsors relentlessly pandering to the lowest common denominator — and since a lot of the fun in programs like this is wondering what will happen to the young participants as they age and their careers develop (or don’t), as physically attractive as I found both Upatnieks and Ceysson, it’s Park who clearly (at least to me) has the best shot at the brass ring. It used to be fashionable to patronize women musicians by saying things like, “She plays well … for a girl,” but Park plays well … period, and unlike a lot of musicians today she’s not only well-trained she clearly has an attitude towards the music that should take her far, a willingness to show us not only that she knows her way around her instrument but that she knows how to use the music to bare her soul. (Admittedly, she was playing a hyper-Romantic piece that invites soul-baring and it’ll be interesting to see how she copes with more restrained composers like Bach.)