Thursday, May 31, 2012

Born to Fight (Conn Pictures, 1936)

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

The film was Born to Fight, an download of a 1936 Conn Pictures production starring Frankie Darro, Kane Richmond and Jack LaRue (all known for their roles in serials, though Darro also got parts in major-studio films — usually as a crooked jockey in horse-racing pictures) in what I assumed from the title was going to be your generic boxing movie — promising young fighter wins bout after bout in a run for the championship, blows his training chasing after booze and broads, loses the big fight but gains a certain measure of self-respect — perhaps modified by Variant A: the succession of fights that led him to his title bout was fixed (though Our Naïve Hero didn’t realize that) so crooked gamblers could make a lot of money betting against him when he finally fought an opponent who wasn’t being paid to take a dive in his favor. The crooked gamblers and fixed fights appear in this one, all right, but not in the way we’d expect: instead the film opens with Tom “Bomber” Brown (Kane Richmond) — his nickname seems a deliberate decision on the part of screenwriters Joseph O’Donnell and Sasha Baranley (billed as Stephen Norris) to reverse the famous nickname of Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” — winning his eighth fight in a row, only to be confronted in a restaurant by crooked gambler “Smoothy” Morgan (Jack LaRue), whom he punches out; Smoothy survives but is in a coma for several weeks and it’s touch-and-go whether he’s going to live.

So Brown’s manager, “Gloomy Gus” (Monty Collins), tells Brown to forget about his boxing career and hotfoot it out of New York state, not using planes, trains or buses but instead hitchhiking his way across. Brown ends up in a hobo camp, where the hoboes sing an ode to downward mobility (the presence of two songs in this movie, written by Didheart Conn, presumably a relative of producer Maurice Conn, is one of the weirdest aspects of it) and one of them throws dirt in a can of something edible Brown had just given to “Babyface” Madison (Frankie Darro), provoking Babyface to hit him — and though Babyface doesn’t know the first thing about fighting (which, as Brown explains it to us, is never to lead with your right), Brown spots him as a potential “natural” in the ring and decides to manage and train him for the championship (either the lightweight or the featherweight division: the writers are a bit confused about the difference, but then so am I), and he settles in Chicago where Brown — now calling himself “Tom Hayes” — seeks out a gym whose owner he knew in the old days. The owner is now dead and the gym has been inherited by his daughter, Nan Howard (Frances Grant), who doesn’t even like prizefighting and doesn’t want to give Brown/Hayes free time to train his fighter, but eventually Hayes talks her into it, saying he’ll get a job and earn the money — which he does, working 12-hour days at a gas station but swearing everyone involved to secrecy so Babyface won’t know that a lowbrow proletarian job is financing his training.

A corrupt gambler (another one) tries to get Hayes to throw his first fight, but Hayes refuses, Babyface makes mincemeat of his opponent and gets a string of fights that leaves him one match away from a championship bout — only if Babyface gets the championship fight it will be in New York, where Hayes can’t go for fear of being arrested for assaulting Smoothy (ya remember Smoothy?). Meanwhile, Babyface starts slacking off on his training and fires Hayes as his manager, replacing him with the corrupt gambler — and in order to bring his protégé to his senses, Hayes sneaks into the camp of the other fighter, Melford, and finds Melford is being paid to throw the bout. Hayes offers Melford double what the gambler is paying him and coaches him on how to beat Babyface — which he does. Babyface’s crooked manager fires him as a client and he can’t get a fight again until Hayes takes him back and gets him on the comeback trail until he’s once again the principal contender for the championship. Indeed, Hayes’ regimen is so strict that even when he throws a party for Babyface, the only potables he’ll allow to be served are soft drinks, and when Babyface starts training for the big fight Hayes insists on locking the press out of his training camp so nobody will notice Babyface using “Bomber” Brown’s unique three-punch combination. Along the way Fred “Snowflake” Toones, as the token African-American in Hayes’ entourage, gets to talk about fighting Joe Louis and to sing a song, “What Comes Over Me?,” to the movie’s only other Black character, a woman who thinks Snowflake is cruising her but he’s really only sweet-talking (or sweet-singing) her to get to her apple pies.

The ending is yet another intriguing spin on the old boxing-movie clichés: with the odds on the championship fight two-to-one in Babyface’s favor, Smoothy reaches Gloomy Gus and tells him that he’ll drop the charges against Hayes for assaulting him if Babyface loses. Then Smoothy takes out $100,000 in bets against Babyface, and Babyface himself, depressed that his victory will mean his mentor will go to prison for assault, is psychologically unable to fight; instead of either fighting to win or deliberately throwing the match, he simply stumbles through it, taking the champ’s punishment but not landing blows of his own — until Hayes himself comes to his corner between rounds and instructs Babyface to go for the win no matter what it means to his own future. Babyface knocks out the champ in the next round and Smoothy, who can’t afford to cover all the bets he made that Babyface would lose, gets knocked off by the gangsters he made the bets with and, with the complaining witness conveniently dead, the charges against Hayes evaporates and, as he sees Hayes and Nan Howard embracing, Babyface grabs the fight announcer’s microphone and says, “They’re going in for the clinch!,” as a “The End” title gets wiped in to close the film.

Born to Fight ostensibly began life as a short story called “To Him Who Dares” (or “To Him Who Dared” — sources differ) by Peter B. Kyne, who wrote in all the common pulp genres but today is mostly known as an author of Westerns (his most famous story is the oft-filmed “The Three Godfathers”) — though without access to the story ( offers downloads of several of Kyne’s works but not that one) it’s hard to be certain of that because the very next year Conn Pictures made another movie, Anything for a Thrill, and also claimed it was based on “To Him Who Dares,” but it was a film about newsreel cameramen and the plot was completely different. What makes it interesting (quite a bit more interesting than I thought it would be from the title!) is the way writers O’Donnell and Baraney put the usual boxing-movie clichés through a Mixmaster and scrambled them — though the story’s basic debt to The Life of Jimmy Dolan (made by Warners three years earlier with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the prizefighter on the lam from a charge of murdering a reporter, only in that one the comeback is his own and not a protégé’s; Dolan was remade in 1939 as They Made Me a Criminal with John Garfield superbly cast in the lead and excellent direction by Busby Berkeley even though it was a non-musical and miles from the sort of film he’s famous for!) is pretty obvious — and the makers of Born to Fight were able to bring the story to a “happy” resolution without compromising it.

They also had a surprisingly good director, Charles Hutchison, who shot this film with real visual imagination, including exotic camera wipes to transition from one scene to the next and patterns of eyeballs crossing the screen (much like the title credit of the 1931 Frankenstein) over the montage of down-and-outers’ faces as “Bomber” Brown is on his hitchhiking Wanderjahr across the country (though the heavy-duty depiction of the Depression sometimes makes this seem more like a film from 1933 than 1936). Born to Fight emerges as considerably better than the common run of 1930’s indies; it’s well paced (a lot of 1930’s indies just crept along and wasted potentially good plots on a lack of pace), creatively photographed and quite nicely acted — especially by Frankie Darro and Kane Richmond, both of whom probably relished the rare (for them) opportunity to play characters with some complexity and depth!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hugo (Paramount/GK Films/Infinitum Nihil, 2011)

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

Last night the “feature” Charles and I ran was Hugo, one I’d recently ordered from Columbia House DVD Club after both of us had missed it during its theatrical run. While it would have been nice to see it on the big screen and in 3-D — it’s a measure of the skill of director Martin Scorsese (I’ve missed a lot of his big movies because I was turned off by his obsession with criminal violence and the Mafia as subject matter, but I’ve liked quite a few of the films Scorsese mavens think are his less interesting ones, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator) and cinematographer Robert Richardson that even watched from a DVD on an old low-res medium-sized TV, the depth of field was stunning and the film looked like it had been shot in 3-D (which the movie we watched the night before, Underworld: Awakening — even though it was also released in 3-D in theatres — had not). Hugo began as a “young adult” novel by Brian Selznick — a relative but not a direct descendant of the legendary moviemaker David O. Selznick (according to his page he’s the grandson of a first cousin of David Selznick and his agent brother Myron) — and it became a movie thanks to producer Graham King, who’s been bankrolling most of Scorsese’s recent productions. It’s also the first film Scorsese has made in 12 years that did not star Leonardo DiCaprio, probably because the three leads are two children and an old man.

Set in Paris in 1931 (at least that’s what the synopsis said, though my guess was 1925 because a movie theatre in Paris is showing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and in a film whose plot largely revolves around movies, moviemaking and moviegoing, there’s no mention of the talkies), Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the son of a museum staff member who’s developed a knack for building and fixing clocks. Dad brings home a mechanical man — an “automaton,” as they were called in France in the 19th century (when there was a major vogue for such things) — that was donated to the museum but is just gathering dust because it doesn’t work and nobody knows how to fix it. Hugo eventually figures out how to get the thing working again, but in the meantime he’s been caught stealing from the Gare du Montparnasse train station by Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs a small toy concession there. Georges threatens to call the station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) — a delightfully inept cop whom I joked was the grandfather of Inspector Clouseau (and indeed Cohen was made up to look quite similar to Peter Sellers as Clouseau) but at least some of his ineptitudes are explained by his having lost a leg in combat in World War I and his having to make do with a barely functional artificial leg — and steals the mysterious notebook Hugo was carrying that includes a series of flip drawings by which a face (a similar face to that of the automaton) appears to move. Georges says to Hugo that he can work off the cost of the items he stole and an edgy relationship develops between the crabby old man and the boy. The boy also meets Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and a relationship develops between them after Hugo’s father is burned to death in a fire at the museum. Hugo is sent to live inside the Montparnasse station with his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a chronic alcoholic on his last legs, whose job it is to keep the elaborate network of clocks in the station wound and in good repair. Only several months later Claude is found drowned in the frozen-over Seine and everyone at the station is baffled by that because they have no idea Hugo has been filling in for him, winding and fixing the clocks and thereby doing his uncle’s job.

The film is basically two parallel plot lines, one centered around Hugo’s situation, his success in repairing the automaton and getting its attached pen to work (though it’s a fountain pen and the automaton seems to have an endless supply of ink — it doesn’t have to keep dipping its pen into an inkwell the way a human writer would), his growing interest in Isabelle and his confession to her that when his dad was alive they used to go to movies together every time they could (they sneak into the theatre that’s showing Safety Last but they’re caught, and Isabelle says it’s the first time she’s been to a movie because “Papa” Georges won’t let her go and can’t stand them himself). The other story is about Georges himself, who’s taken great pains to conceal his past, to the point of destroying virtually every relic of it he can find, and who turns out to be [spoiler alert!] the great pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, who in the first decade of the 20th century was one of the world’s leading actor/writer/directors. He began as a stage magician and got into filmmaking seriously when he was playing with a movie camera and it jammed; when he developed the film he found that, though the camera hadn’t moved, a carriage had mysteriously turned into a bus. Méliès was the first filmmaker to build his entire style around special effects — the “effects movie,” for good and ill, was truly born in his Star Film studio — and he was also a fanatic about intellectual property rights, going so far as to incorporate the Star Film logo into his sets so his films couldn’t be pirated (the beginning of the modern practice of TV stations and DVD companies to insert their logos into a corner of the screen). He also built a studio whose walls were made out of glass — mainly because in the early days the only really useful source of lighting for films was the sun, and the glass was designed to let the sunlight in (though Méliès must have had diffusers, shutters or some other contraption to vary the intensity of the sunlight coming in, because without such devices film shot in broad daylight would have been hopelessly overexposed).

Hugo and Isabelle do a lot of hanging out in a combination bookstore and lending library owned by Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), and through him they get in touch with one of the pioneers of film preservation, movie librarian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who gives them a book to read about the early days of movies that contains a chapter on Méliès. Rene actually visited Méliès’ studio in the glory days — his older brother worked as a carpenter there — and eventually, particularly after Hugo and Isabelle find a cache of drawings for Méliès’ films in a hidden drawer in an armoire in Georges’ apartment, they realize that Georges is Méliès and his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory) was his assistant in his magic act and then appeared frequently in his films. The story of Hugo is almost entirely atmosphere and character vignettes — and the threat of being taken away from his tenuous attempts to retain a family and essentially jailed in an orphanage is such a running theme in the plot one is reminded of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo (in fact I wondered if naming the central character “Hugo” was deliberately intended as a Victor Hugo tribute) ­— and it’s the sort of movie that more or less ambles to a conclusion rather than ending with a bang (though it almost ends with a bang when Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, drops the precious automaton over some train tracks and, when he tries to save it, is nearly killed himself by an oncoming train — an event he’d had a premonition of in a dream that paralleled the early film by the Lumière brothers in which they shot a train coming in a station and audiences who watched the film screamed and fled in horror from the theatre for fear an actual train was bearing down on them), though the final scene shows Méliès (whose drop in popularity is attributed, in the script by John Logan from Selznick’s novel, to the real-life horrors of World War I rendering his charming fantasies obsolete and no longer of interest to audiences) introducing a revival showing of his films that Rene has curated.

 Hugo is a rich movie, full of fascinating depths, and an interesting bookend to the film that beat it out of the major Academy Awards, The Artist, in that both are tributes to the silent-film era — and though Hugo doesn’t go as far as The Artist did in eschewing dialogue altogether, it’s a marvelously balanced movie that tells as much of its story in pictures and pantomime and uses dialogue only when it has to (the sort of movie a lot of intellectuals in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s thought would become commonplace once the novelty of “100 percent all-talking” wore off and the screen, having learned to speak, would re-learn when it was best off shutting up). It’s also a highly personal film for Martin Scorsese: a director who’s been a leader in film preservation (a cause he got into when he realized the films he made in the 1970’s were starting to fade within a few years — he had the bad luck to start his major directorial career when Eastmancolor had introduced a new, cheaper film stock that faded faster than the ones they’d had before) making a movie in which film preservation is an integral part of the plot — and it’s a bitter story that reminds us that Méliès was one of the first people in the film world who fell as far as he rose. The plot line involving him is all too vivid in its depiction of the cruelty with which the film business treats its elders, writing them off as has-beens and letting them live in penury while consigning their films themselves to a scrap heap (there’s a grimly amusing scene in which Méliès recalls being so broke he had to sell the physical prints of his films to a chemical company, which ended up using them to make high heels for women’s shoes — and Scorsese cuts to some shots of women’s heels, presumably in the shoes made from Méliès’ magical movies) — something Brian Selznick would have known about all too well from his own family’s history. Hugo is a film of real charm, maybe not quite a masterpiece but certainly an underrated little gem and proof once again (in case any were still needed) that there are other things Scorsese can do besides violence and crime.

I also found myself wondering if Ben Kingsley had ever played any real-life characters besides Méliès and his star-making turn as Mahatma Gandhi — and according to his filmography on, he’s done quite a few: Dr. John Elliotson in a 1976 British TV miniseries about Charles Dickens; Vladimir Lenin and Dimitri Shostakovich in 1988 productions (different movies made the same year); Simon Wiesenthal in a made-for-TV biopic in 1989; Pericles in a 1991 TV-movie called The War That Never Ends; Meyer Lansky in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (with Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel); the Jewish accountant and concentration-camp inmate in what’s probably Kingsley’s second-best-known credit, Schindler’s List (1994); and Anne Frank’s father Otto in yet another Holocaust-themed story, a 2001 TV mini-series called Anne Frank: The Whole Story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Underworld: Awakening (Screen Gems/Lakeshore/Saturn, 2012)

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

Last night’s “feature” was Underworld: Awakening, fourth and most recent in the cycle of modern-dress horror films featuring ongoing battles between vampires and werewolves (or “Lycans,” as they’re called here) that in the first two episodes, Underworld and Underworld: Evolution (there doesn’t seem to be any particular point in the two adjectives), managed to take place — inexplicably — under the radar of ordinary humanity despite the carnage wreaked on both sides. The film was directed by a Swedish duo named Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and the writing credits are an indication of just how jumbled the process of creating a series like this becomes when it gets to episode four: Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride get credit for creating the original characters, Wiseman and John Hlavin for writing the story and Wiseman, Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski and Allison Burnett for the actual script. Wiseman also directed the first two episodes, Underworld (2003 — they’ve all come out at three-year intervals from each other) and Underworld: Evolution, and the two subsequent films have suffered from his withdrawal from the director’s chair even though as a premise (not so much as an actual film) Underworld: Awakening is, or at least had the potential to be, the best film in the series since the first one.

The premise this time is that ordinary humans, including the ordinary humans in political power, have become aware of the existence of a conflict between vampires and werewolves — excuse me, Lycans — and the authorities have mounted a campaign to wipe them out. The writing committee draws veiled but nonetheless unmistakable parallels between this and the Holocaust — particularly in the use of the pronoun “it” to describe a vampire or Lycan and the reference to vampirism and lycanthropy as “infections” that are incurable, and whose victims must therefore be wiped out for the good of the rest of humankind. In the opening sequence, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), soldier in the so-called “Death-Dealer” force of vampires (and who in the previous installments in the series has slaughtered virtually all the elders of the vampire clan after discovering they’ve tried to get rid of her), gets captured by what appears to be a group of human scientists working for a company called Antigen that’s ostensibly seeking to devise a vaccine against the vampire and Lycan infections. Selene’s lover from the first two episodes, Michael Corvin (played in the first two Underworld films by Scott Speedman but only a spectral presence here), a so-called “hybrid” containing both vampire and Lycan genes and also the father of Selene’s daughter Eve (India Eisley) — though that’s getting ahead of the story — is also captured and the two are kept in suspended animation in frozen sarcophagi for 12 years until an assistant at the lab sets her free.

She’s called “Subject No. 1” and there’s a “Subject No. 2” also being held in captivity in the lab, which is run by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea from The Crying Game and V for Vendetta), who turns out — we realize it almost as soon as we see her, but it takes Selene about halfway through the movie before she catches on — is her daughter Eve, who was taken away from her at birth by the human baddies. During the main part of the film, the human authorities are aware that vampire covens still exist but are convinced they’ve at least made the earth Lycanrein — only the Lycans are also still around, living in underground tunnels, and as we eventually discover the lab that we originally thought was being run by humans is actually a Lycan project (Jacob Lane is actually a Lycan in human guise) and what they’re really working on is a vaccine that will render Lycans invulnerable to silver, the only substance that can kill them (which is why Selene’s guns, blazing away with far more rounds than small arms could actually contain in the real world, are loaded with silver bullets). Once they do this, the Lycans will be able to take over the world and exterminate the remaining vampires and all humans as well. Alas, the potentials for both pathos and social comment in this plot are pretty much neglected in favor of what can only be called action porn; the exposition, what there is of it (most of it coming from Kate Beckinsale’s mouth as she explains to us what’s going on and why), is really just to keep the plot in motion so we can watch Beckinsale in that incredibly hot leather outfit, high-tech pistols in both hands blazing away, and when she’s not firing she’s performing acrobatic feats far in excess of what any human could pull without the aid of CGI.

 Underworld: Awakening is a genuinely entertaining movie, but it’s one modern film that could actually have benefited by being longer: its official running time is 88 minutes but if you subtract the 10-minute closing credit roll, it’s only 78 minutes long — not that much longer than your average 1930’s or 1940’s “B,” and a longer running time might have allowed the writing committee to get more drama and genuine pathos from their story line instead of cutting everything else short to concentrate on action, action, action. Given the underwhelming box-office reception of the third film in the sequence, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (actually a prequel rather than a sequel), I’d been surprised when an Underworld IV (incidentally the makers deserve points for not sticking numbers on the ends of these things and instead giving them at least somewhat separable titles!) materialized and was even more surprised watching this one to find an open-ended ending (Michael Corvin has been released from his ice prison, though we still haven’t seen him) that’s clearly designed to set up an Underworld V. I’ve liked the series so far — the “look” of these movies, and in particular their genuinely creative use of color (they’ve shown that one can do convincing Gothic in color without making everything either blood-red or dirty-brown), has been quite appealing and one of their most surprising features — but somehow they don’t seem as interesting compared to the Twilight movies and all the films and TV shows about “sensitive” adolescent vampires the success of Stephenie Meyer’s cycle has inspired.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hit the Ice (Universal, 1943)

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

After we screened the Carnegie Hall 120th anniversary concert (see below) Charles and I cracked open the Abbott and Costello at Universal boxed set and watched the next film in sequence: Hit the Ice (1943, and the last Abbott and Costello film for several months because right after it was finished Lou Costello had a long bout with rheumatic fever — ironic because doctors and sickness, real and feigned, are an important part of this film’s plot!), which was quite obviously planned by Universal to horn in on the success of the 20th Century-Fox musical Sun Valley Serenade the year before: both take place largely in the Sun Valley, Idaho ski resort and both feature big bands — though Universal’s bandleader, Johnny Long, was a far less prestigious name than Fox’s, Glenn Miller. Hit the Ice actually starts at the Fulton Hospital in New York City, where gangster Harry “Silky” Fellowsby (Sheldon Leonard) is pretending to be sick while secretly casing the City National Bank across the street, preparing to rob it with the help of two henchmen staying in the hospital room with him, Buster (Joe Sawyer) and Phil (Marc Lawrence), plus two hired guns he’s bringing in from Detroit. Abbott and Costello play street photographers Flash Fulton and Weejie “Tubby” McCoy (the surprise is that the famous real-life New York street photographer Weegee, born Ascher Fellig but using “Arthur” as an Anglicized version of his real first name when he emigrated from his native Ukraine to the U.S., was well-known enough that his alias was used as the name of a Lou Costello character, though Costello is addressed as “Tubby” through most of the film), who are hanging around the hospital and of course are mistaken by Fellowsby for his Detroit hit men after Costello says the password, “Is the doctor in?” (not something it would be surprising to hear in a hospital!).

The doctor who’s in is William Burns (Patric Knowles, though as notes his character is called “Bill Elliot” in the credits), who’s faithfully tending to Fellowsby’s imaginary illnesses (Fellowsby is maintaining the imposture thanks to a drug he’s taking that gives him a raised temperature) while his nurse, Peggy Osborne (Elyse Knox), is getting suspicious enough that Fellowsby and his thugs hatch a plot to lure her away to their cabin in Sun Valley and kill her. Fellowsby hires Flash and Tubby to stand guard outside the bank while his gang is robbing it — only the two think they’re there to take the thugs’ photo and they do just that, thereby putting themselves on Fellowsby’s rapidly growing hit list. Eventually all the characters end up on a train to Sun Valley, where Johnny Long (playing himself) and his orchestra have been hired to entertain. Flash remembers both Dr. Burns and Johnny Long as old friends of his from the neighborhood where they all grew up, and talks Long into getting him and Tubby jobs as hotel waiters — only Tubby spends most of his time cruising Long’s band singer, Marcia Manning (Ginny Simms in her first film after leaving Kay Kyser’s band to try for a solo career — her voice is nice and sultry but not really a jazz voice, though fortunately for her the film’s songs by composer Harry Revel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster really don’t require one). We’re supposed to believe that Marcia is totally innocent but is nonetheless so grateful to Fellowsby for giving her her first nightclub job that she’ll do anything for him, including playing femme fatale and luring Lou Costello so the gangsters can kill him.

Hit the Ice began with the same director and writer — Erle C. Kenton and Allan Boretz, respectively — who made the immediately previous Abbott and Costello film, It Ain’t Hay, so much better than the common run of their films — but Abbott and Costello (especially Costello, apparently) didn’t get along with Kenton and they demanded he be replaced by Charles Lamont, who along with Charles Barton directed most of the rest of the Abbott and Costello Universals. Boretz also got fired from the writing staff and more veteran A&C collaborators replaced him — True Boardman is credited with the “original” story and Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant with the script (and Grant’s talent for dazzling wordplay is shown when Costello misunderstands the word “teller” in connection with a bank employee and says, “Tell her? Tell her what?”) — though there are still some of the weird little gender-bending gags with which Boretz peppered his script for It Ain’t Hay. The most notable one is when Costello is brought into the hospital on a stretcher, and his stretcher bumps into another one just in front of it and the nurses, mistaking him for the patient in the stretcher in front of his, says, “Congratulations! You just had a baby!” “A boy or a girl?” Costello says in his most mincing voice. “A boy,” he’s told — and when he finally gets up from the stretcher and the nurses realize that whoever this person is, he couldn’t possibly have given birth, one of the nurses yells out in horror, “A man!

Hit the Ice is hardly as good a movie as Sun Valley Serenade (which benefited from Sonja Henie’s spectacular ice skating as well as Glenn Miller’s music) but it’s still a cheery little film — even the gangster menace (a pretty obvious recycling from the earlier Abbott and Costello movie Hold That Ghost, where the crooks were quite a bit more menacing than they are here) is played more for comedy than anything else — and it benefits from the musical interludes even though none of the songs are all that memorable (the best one is the opening number, “Happiness Ahead,” sung while the principals are on their way to Sun Valley). It could have benefited a lot more from Mantan Moreland’s presence, but he gets only one line out —one would have wished for more from the teaming of this great Black comedian with Abbott and Costello — but still it’s a fun movie even though it doesn’t have the flash and élan of It Ain’t Hay.

Carnegie Hall 120th Anniversary Concert (PBS, May 5, 2011)

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

One interesting item Charles and I ran last night was a download of a TVP Kultura rebroadcast of a U.S. telecast of the 120th anniversary concert of Carnegie Hall, featuring the New York Philharmonic with its regular conductor, Alan Gilbert, in a program of works opening with Dvorák’s Carnival Overture (a nice, sprightly potboiler); a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with soloists Emanuel Ax, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; and Yo-Yo Ma, cello; and afterwards, as a concession to Americana, three songs by Duke Ellington — “Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” — sung by Audra McDonald in arrangements by Larry Hochman — and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which had its world premiere in Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony (not the New York Philharmonic, as the Wikipedia page for the work has it; there were actually two classical orchestras in New York for the first three decades of the 20th century before Depression-related financial pressures caused them to merge, playing first under the unwieldy name “Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York” before reverting to the “New York Philharmonic” name). One thing I learned from this show was that the first (more or less) jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was not the repetition of Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in May 1924 (the original “Experiment in Modern Music,” at which George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered, had been given at another New York venue, Aeolian Hall, but the same program was repeated at Carnegie three weeks later) but a 1912 “Concert of Negro Music” under the auspices of “The Music School Settlement for Colored People, Inc.” with the Clef Club Orchestra under conductor James Reese Europe and assistant conductor William Tyers (I’ve seen several spellings of his last name, including “Tyres” and “Thiers,” but under whatever name he wrote several songs that became important in the early jazz songbook, including “Panama” and “Maori”) and the Clef Club Chorus directed by Will Marion Cook (Duke Ellington’s composition teacher).

The hard-core classical part of the concert in the first half was played quite respectably even though neither piece represents its composer at his best (maybe they should have flipped it and played Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” Overture and Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony instead), but when I heard the string section play a glutinous arrangement of the main melody of “Solitude” and heard Audra McDonald’s vocal — absolutely lovely as sound but rather dully and uncreatively phrased — I feared for the worst that usually happens when classical orchestras take on jazz material. Throughout “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” I kept flashing back to Ellington’s own recordings of these songs (especially the “Solitude” as sung, incomparably, by his first vocalist, Ivie Anderson) and missing the wonderful orchestral effects the Duke had got out of his band that seemed lost on the symphony or on Larry Hochman. Then they got to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and all was well again: the trombonists were using plunger mutes, the reed section was playing saxophones, the drummer (who’d chattered away annoyingly in the background in the two previous tunes) actually seemed to get into the spirit and the arrangement featured a great solo for jazz bass (the jazz double bass may be the same instrument, in terms of its physical characteristics, as the double bass in a symphony string section, but it’s used so totally differently it might as well be considered a different instrument) that got the orchestra and McDonald into the right groove. The song meant a lot because it did have that swing!

And the spirit got carried over into the performance of “An American in Paris,” which if anything was even louder, more raucous and more rambunctious than Nathaniel Shilkret’s landmark 1929 recording for RCA Victor (which remains my benchmark for the work: impeccably conducted and beautifully recorded for the period, though the RCA CD transfer doesn’t do justice to the luminous original and the 1976 Victrola LP actually sounds better), a beautiful rendition of a work all too many classical conductors and players try to shoehorn into something more sedate, less lively, more “classical.” The download cut off rather abruptly after the music finished, and neither Charles nor I could quite figure out what country it was from (at first the voiceover drowning out Audra McDonald’s original English narration sounded Russian, but as Charles pointed out if it were Russian the lettering on the rebroadcasting station’s logo would have been in Cyrillic instead of Roman — we both guessed Polish as the most likely language, something that sounded Slavic but was written in Roman letters), but the concert itself was a lot of fun and a nice tribute to one of the world’s most prestigious music venues.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

It Ain't Hay (Universal, 1943)

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

The film was It Ain’t Hay, ninth in the sequence of Abbott and Costello’s 28 films for Universal and to my mind the best of the ones we’ve watched so far in our chronological perusal of the complete A&C on Universal boxed set. What makes this one better than the common run of Abbott and Costello vehicles? First, the writing: it’s based on a story source by Damon Runyon, a tale called “Princess O’Hara” that Universal had already filmed under Runyon’s title in 1935, and the screenplay is by Allan Boretz, who had co-written the play Room Service that was filmed with the Marx Brothers in 1938. Second, the direction by Erle C. Kenton, which is pretty straightforward through much of the film but turns unexpectedly dark and Gothic (much like the Universal horror movies, some of which Kenton directed) in the scene in which Grover Mockridge (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Hoolihan (Lou Costello) sneak onto a racing stable after dark to steal a horse to replace the one New York cabbie King O’Hara (Cecil Kellaway) just lost after Wilbur fed him a piece of a candy cane and the horse died from it.

It’s hard to say just what makes It Ain’t Hay better than your average early-1940’s A&C vehicle, but part of it is the familiar Damon Runyon characters (when Shemp Howard, playing one of a trio of disreputable gamblers, is asked why he always carries an umbrella with him, rain or shine, he says, “How should I know? I’m a Damon Runyon character!”) and the aura of raffishness they convey, part of it is Princess O’Hara (King O’Hara’s daughter) herself — a 13-year-old girl played by Patsy O’Connor, Universal’s latest attempt at finding the second Deanna Durbin now that the original had aged herself out of the kinds of roles that had made her a star and saved the “New Universal” from bankruptcy in the late 1930’s (and she’s unusually good, too, playing her part with the minimum of sentimentality and offering a good, if not quite Durbin-level, voice), and part of it is an unusually literate script that offers Lou Costello real moments of pathos (especially in the remarkable scene in which his entire neighborhood shuns him for killing — however inadvertently — King O’Hara’s horse) as well as some neat frame-breaking probably inspired by the Hope-Crosby Road movies: towards the end, when Abbott informs Costello that “Mr. Warner” (one of the villains, a maniacal “efficiency expert” played by Eugene Pallette) is looking for them, Costello fires back, “It won’t do him no good — we work for Universal!”

Though Allan Boretz had nothing to do with the movie the Marx Brothers made from his hit play, it’s obvious in writing this script he had the Marxes on his mind — not only the racetrack climax and its obvious inspiration from A Day at the Races but an audacious ripoff of the great scene in Duck Soup in which Harpo shuns the girl he’s been chasing all movie and takes his horse to bed instead (in It Ain’t Hay it’s Abbott, Costello and the horse in bed together!) — and his script (he’s actually co-credited with John Grant, A&C’s radio writer and the author of “Who’s On First?,” who comes through here in a routine in which Abbott tries to explain to Costello that a horse eats its fodder, and Costello says, “A horse eats his fodder? What is he, a cannibal?”) even allows the two stars to play some of the gender-bending games that were a mainstay of Laurel and Hardy’s movies. In one scene Abbott asks Costello about his figure (referring to how much money they have in cash at the moment), and Costello think it means his body and he starts mincing around and saying things like, “I didn’t know you cared!” It Ain’t Hay was out of circulation for many years — apparently due to some legal conflict between Universal and the Damon Runyon estate — and previous A&C boxes didn’t include it, but this one does and it’s much the richer for it: even the musical guest stars add to the appeal of the film without trying to take it over the way the Andrews Sisters seemed to in some of the earlier A&C’s. Just about all the Abbott and Costello films are funny, but It Ain’t Hay is not only funny but emotionally richer than the team’s norm — and hence even funnier than they usually were.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hop (Relativity/Illumination/Universal, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a surprisingly entertaining movie, Hop – billed as “by the creators of Despicable Me” (the director was Tim Hill and the writers were Cinco Paul – I inevitably joked about whether the movie would have been any different if his brother Quatro Paul had worked on it, and Charles said, “How about their father, Tertius Secunda – or their uncle we never talk about, Octavian Primus?” – Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch) and what turned out to be a charming little fantasy, partially live action and partially computer-animated, in which virtually all the armamentarium of the Santa Claus mythos was thrown at a quite different holiday: Easter, not Christmas. It begins with a prologue set 20 years before the main action, in which a young suburban boy named Fred O'Hare (Coleton Ray) sees the Easter Bunny arrive on his parents' front lawn in a space-age craft that looks like a cross between Santa's sleigh and a moon rocket and drop candy all over the lawn before he departs again. Then the film moves to the present, where the Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie) is getting old for the gig of depositing candy on the lawns of all the boys and girls in the world (unlike Santa, there's no particular hint about this supernatural visitor making lists and checking them twice of who's been naughty and who's been nice) and he wants to turn the reins over to his son, E.B. (Russell Brand, who in addition to voicing the character also appears on screen as a backstage minion for a talent contest saying, “Is there somebody here named Eb?”).

Only E.B. doesn't want to become the Easter Bunny. What he does want is to escape from Easter Island (where the Easter Bunny has his candy factory and the entrance is concealed inside one of the famous Easter Island statues) and head out to Hollywood to make his fortune as a rock 'n' roll drummer. He makes his escape, all right, via a network of subterranean rabbit holes that undergirds the entire planet, but he soon finds out that there's no such thing as overnight fame. He also runs into Fred O'Hare (James Marsden), now a late-teen slacker who's just been thrown out of his parents' house (it's staged deliberately like a substance-abuse intervention in one of the most grimly funny parts of the film!) and would be reduced to sleeping in his car were it not for the secret help of his sister Samantha (Kaley Cuoco), who's given him a line on a place he can stay: a huge mansion she's supposed to be house-sitting, only she can't stand the dogs that come with the place (and whom Fred is instructed to put on a padded suit before feeding – a precaution well worth taking, as we soon learn). She warns Fred that he's not supposed to venture into the upstairs part of the house (what's up there, we wonder – the owner's S/M dungeon where he's keeping underage sex slaves?), but on his way there Fred runs into E.B. – literally, with his car – and naturally E.B. won't leave. E.B. blows Fred's job interview for a mail-room position at a video game company, and when Fred tries to abandon him E.B. puts on the sob-sister act and gets Fred to relent.

Later E.B. himself heads out on his way and discovers the audition for the show Hoff's Got Talent!, a reality series hosted by David Hasselhoff (playing himself), and after a long sequence of auditioners who are even weirder than a talking rabbit – there's a nice bit in which E.B. asks “Hoff” if he's cool with a talking rabbit, and Hoff responds, “Why not? My best friend is a talking car” – he scores a shot at the show. Only in the meantime Fred has been kidnapped by the Pink Berets, the security detail of the Easter Bunny's operation, and underground in the Easter Island location Fred and the Easter Bunny are both being held hostage by Carlos (Hank Azaria), the long-suffering second-in-command Easter chicken (the chicks who are basically the Easter Island proletariat are made to look like Peeps candies) who's decided it's time for the poultry to take over and dethrone the rabbits from control of Easter. It all ends well, of course: E.B. starts drumming and gets Carlos's assistant Phil (also Hank Azaria) to dance, thereby distracting the chickens, while Fred realizes that the ropes with which he and the Easter Bunny, Sr. are bound are black licorice (“We can eat right through them!” Fred explains – to which E.B., Sr. replies, “You can eat through them. I can't stand the taste of them!” As someone who's never liked licorice, I could relate to that – I hated it as a child, and when I read years later that Charlie Chaplin had the prop shoe he ate in The Gold Rush made of licorice because he couldn't stand the taste of it and therefore he'd have no trouble looking like he was eating something repulsive, I felt a kinship to his spirit). Fred eats through his own ropes, he unties E.B., Sr., and he and E.B., Jr. are eventually appointed co-Easter Bunnies and they do the candy run together. (This outcome was actually telegraphed in the early parts of the movie, and frankly I thought it would have been better if it hadn't been and it had come as a surprise.)

 Hop is the sort of movie that not only is largely derived from older movies but wears its derivations with almost perverse pride – its debt to Santa Claus movies in general and The Santa Clause in particular is obvious, the Easter candy factory is right out of both versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (so much so I half expected a line of dialogue indicating that Fred had won admission to it by finding a Golden Ticket inside a candy bar!) and there are the almost inevitable borrowings from The Wizard of Oz as well as a far less inevitable borrowing from another project involving Judy Garland: the Pink Berets couldn't help but remind me of the villain's minions, the Money-Cats, from Gay Purr-ee (though the Pink Berets are mute – even the Money-Cats got to sing a cool Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg song!). Also, Hop suffers from an inverse concession to the Ratings Board: in an era in which the G rating is a commercial kiss of death (today's children regard G-rated movies as terminally boring even before they see them), the filmmakers stretched to include enough “mild rude humor” to score a PG (including the most obnoxious gag in the film, in which E.B. shits out great-tasting candy drops). Still, Hop is a lot of fun – and any movie that features the Blind Boys of Alabama doing their great cover of Stevie Wonder's “Higher Ground” (with E.B. sitting in on drums) can't be all bad ...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Police Court, a.k.a. Fame Street (Monogram, 1932)

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

The film was Police Court, an download which began with a 1951 title identifying it as an Edward Finney production, though the rest of the credits indicated its true origins as a 1932 Monogram production (with long-time Monogram production chief Trem Carr prominent in the credits as studio head, and I. E. Chadwick as the actual producer). According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the film was reviewed in 1932 by Variety and the New York Times under the title Fame Street, which conveys a lot more than Police Court of what the movie is actually about. It starts in a police court, all right, with the usual assortment of flotsam and jetsam being hauled in for vagrancy and public drunkenness — including a surprisingly pathetic (in the good sense of the word) mini-sequence in which a blonde woman pleads guilty to “walking the streets” and gets a 15-day suspended sentence after the judge says it’s terrible that she’s been forced to walk the streets (a “pre-Code” euphemism for prostitution) or starve — and we finally meet the central character, Nathaniel Barry (Henry B. Walthall). We soon find out that he’s a former stage and screen star — with the last name screenwriter Stuart Anthony gave him you don’t need two guesses for the real-life alcoholic stage and screen star who was the clear model for the character! — who has not only fallen from fame but has been reduced to regularly getting drunk, though as we soon learn he’s been able to hang on to a small house and keep custody of his son, Nathaniel Barry, Jr. (Leon Janney). Junior manages to convince the judge to suspend the six-month sentence he was going to hand down because “Uncle” Albert Furman (Lionel Belmore), the head of Master Pictures, Nat’s old studio, has promised him work.

The job is a minor role as a minister marrying the two leads in a romantic film, but Nat flubs his lines, goes off set, cries and ultimately bolts the studio. Junior traces him to their home and finds him sitting in front of a bottle and shot glass but fortunately not actually drinking. Junior pleads with Furman to give Nat yet another chance to work, and he tears into Furman so angrily that Furman decides that Junior is “a chip off the old block” and potentially a great actor himself. He casts Junior as the lead in a film called Father and Son, and Junior accepts on condition that his real father Nat, Sr. play his father in the film. Alas, that doesn’t happen — at least at first — because in the meantime Nat, Sr. has fallen off the wagon, and what’s more he’s had the misfortune to do that in a bar in which two of the other customers pick a fight with each other that results in a classic barroom brawl and gets all the patrons arrested. The judge (Edmund Breese) orders Nat incarcerated for six months, and the strain of having his father in jail affects the quality of Junior’s work. With his dad in jail, he’s living with dad’s former co-star Diana McCormick (Aileen Pringle) whom, it’s hinted, Nat, Sr. was involved with off-screen as well — though just how deeply involved they were remains a mystery and it’s pretty clear that Diana is not Junior’s actual mother (and just who the other partner in conceiving Junior was and what happened to her are also not explained in the movie) — and Diana and the film’s director, Harry Field (King Baggott), persuade Furman to use his connections to get Nat, Sr. paroled into their custody so he can play the part of Junior’s father in the movie as originally planned.

Meanwhile, Nat, Sr. has been transferred from the main part of the county jail to the hospital ward because years of alcohol abuse have weakened him — while in the ward he gets to room with Fred “Snowflake” Toones, one of those stupid-shuffling-servant-stereotype Black comedians whom we met in the opening scenes and who speaks in a whiny high drawl but sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in a ragged but surprisingly deep voice (the contrast between how genuinely moving he is when he is singing and how offensively unwatchable he is when he’s talking is bizarre) — and when he’s finally released the ward doctor says it’s insane for him to go back to work immediately and he needs a long period of rest instead. Once we hear that, we know how this is going to turn out, and indeed it does — we cut to the studio, where Field is shooting the final scene of Father and Son, which calls for Sr. to play an unjustly convicted prisoner about to be executed saying goodbye to his son for the last time — and cheating the hangman by dying of a heart attack just as Jr. leaves. Field decides Sr.’s first take is too weak, and he asks for another, in which Sr. gives a heart-rending performance and then, you guessed it, dies for real right on cue. The film ends at what’s ballyhooed as the “Premiere of Premieres!” for Father and Son — Charles joked, “You mean there were no other premieres before this?,” and I joked right back, “That’s right. This is the first time anything was ever shown for the first time” — and Junior is there, wishing his father were present as well, and Furman, Field and Diana all assure him that his dad is there in spirit ­— and this film’s real director, Louis King (Henry King’s brother who, like Leo McCarey’s brother Raymond and John Ford’s nephew Phil, had some of the family talent even though they never got out of the shadow), cuts to the marquee with the names “Junior Barry & Nat Barry” in lights as the stars of the film. The End.

What was most amazing about this movie was how closely it tracked the end of the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star Is Born even though in this case it’s the alcoholic actor’s son, not his wife, who tries (futilely) to rescue his career and who has to suffer his downward spiral and pick him out of drunk tanks and try to convince understandably skeptical judges that the once-famous man can be rehabilitated. This film was made the same year as What Price Hollywood?, with George Cukor directing and Constance Bennett playing the young hopeful who’s built into a major star by alcoholic director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman, who not only plays the role very much like John Barrymore — there, I’ve said The Name — but is even made up to look like him), which was sort of the beta version of A Star Is Born, and the gimmick of having the barely-recovering alcoholic lead die of a heart attack just when he’s redeeming himself seems to have been copied from the 1931 MGM film A Free Soul (based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John, who also wrote the original story for What Price Hollywood?), in which Lionel Barrymore (That Name — or at least that last name — again!) plays a drunken attorney who dries out just long enough to win an acquittal for his daughter’s (Norma Shearer) good suitor (Leslie Howard) after he killed her bad suitor (Clark Gable — I’ve sometimes referred to A Free Soul as the beta version of Gone With the Wind, if only because it’s a two-man, one-woman triangle in which Howard and Gable play the two men). About the only way the Powers That Were at Monogram in 1932 could have made this film seem closer to John Barrymore’s real-life story would be if they could have cast Barrymore himself in the lead — as was done at MGM with Dinner at Eight a year later. The ending of Police Court a.k.a. Fame Street a.k.a. Son of Mine (the British title) tracks so closely to the ending of A Star Is Born (which William Wellman, who not only directed the 1937 version but won credit — and an Academy Award — for the original story, insisted was based on John Barrymore even though other candidates, notably John Gilbert, have been named) that one half expects to see Leon Janney at the premiere standing in front of a radio mike and, in a halting, tear-soaked voice, saying, “This is … Nathaniel … Barry … Junior!”

Though it’s not at the level of the very best films first-iteration Monogram was making in the early 1930’s (like The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and the Virginia Bruce-Colin Clive Jane Eyre), Police Court is a quite good movie (unexpectedly so, especially given the tacky reissue title that gives the impression it’s going to be a cheap thriller instead of what the credits actually proclaim, “A Monogram Melodrama”), sensitively written by Anthony and directed by King, who had something of his brother’s knack for getting understated performances from his actors (aside from Janney, who does such a fierce attack on the scenery with his teeth he comes off as the beta version of Mickey Rooney!). We’ve seen other performances from Walthall (especially in his early talkies, without D. W. Griffith around to discipline him) in which he hams it up all over the place, but in this film he’s powerfully understated, convincingly portraying a weak man who doesn’t quite understand himself what’s happened to him or why he has fallen so low. Monogram’s second iteration produced so many dreary series films (the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys/whatever they were called, the cheapies Sam Katzman dragged Bela Lugosi through, and the last Charlie Chan movies) it’s often hard to remember just how good Monogram’s first iteration (which ended in 1935 when the company’s owner, W. Ray Johnston, took it into the merger that formed Republic; the second iteration began in 1937, when Johnston left Republic and reorganized Monogram) often was!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Secret Evidence (PRC, 1941)

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

The film was Secret Evidence, a workmanlike 1941 “B” from PRC (though, interestingly, made with a number of people more usually associated with another cheap studio, Monogram: director William Nigh, star Marjorie Reynolds and musical director Edward Kay) pretty closely modeled on the 1934 MGM film Evelyn Prentice and all the reworkings that had been done on the central premise since, including MGM’s own The Unguarded Hour (1936) and Stronger than Desire (1939). As the film begins, attorney David Harrison (Charles Quigley) is preparing to leave a large law firm to become an assistant district attorney (doesn’t it usually work the other way around?) so he can start his planned political rise to be elected district attorney and then governor. He’s made it clear to his loyal secretary, Linda Wilson (Marjorie Reynolds, one year away from her breakthrough role as Mary Martin’s last-minute replacement in Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; a break like that should have sent her career into superstar orbit, but though she got to do a number of big films after that, including a reunion with Crosby in Dixie and Fritz Lang’s marvelous thriller Ministry of Fear, by the 1950’s she was mostly working in television), that he’s not taking her with him in his new job. She’s a bit put out by that — until he presents her an engagement ring and makes it clear he has in mind that she’ll play a quite different role in his life from now on. She blows her savings on clothes for her family — dad Frank (Charles R. Phipps), mom (Dorothy Vaughan) and younger brother Jerry (Howard Masters) — and everything looks like it’s breaking right for her until her ex-boyfriend, gangster Tony Baxter (Ward McTaggart, delivering a movie-stealing performance that should have marked him for biggers and betters in James Cagney-style roles), returns, out on parole after four years in prison. Tony insists that she meet him that night at the Arcadia, a sleazy motel on the outskirts of town, even though she’s going to have to break a dinner date with David to do so. He’s got a hold over her: the crime he was convicted of in the first place was a robbery of a jewelry store, and Jerry Wilson was involved as the receiver of the stolen goods — though at Linda’s insistence, instead of keeping them and stashing them as a nest egg for when Tony got out of prison, Jerry returned the jewels to the police and was somehow able to get them back to their rightful owner without Jerry’s own involvement in the crime coming to light.

On his way to the Arcadia Tony angrily brushes off another old confederate of his, Sniffy (Bob White) — who was also after his share of the (nonexistent) proceeds from Tony’s last pre-prison robbery — and Sniffy is shown ominously fingering a gun. So when Sniffy turns up at the Arcadia — and so does Jerry with a gun of his own (he bothered it from his dad, a jewelry store owner, who had a legitimate permit to carry it), and Linda catches Jerry with the gun in his hand, they struggle over it and it goes off, we’re sure we know what’s going to happen: Tony is going to turn out to be dead, Linda will be arrested for the crime and David is going to be saddled with the task of prosecuting his fiancée for murder. Only writers Edward Bennett (story) and Brenda Cline (script) don’t take it that way: instead Sniffy’s shot only wounds Tony and it’s Jerry who’s implicated and whom David has to prosecute. Though David receives a report from his forensics people (not that they were called that then!) that they have recovered the bullet that wounded Tony and it doesn’t match the gun Jerry had, he takes the case against Jerry to trial anyway (though he hedges his bets by recruiting an attorney from his old law firm to represent Jerry), hoping to get Tony to do the right thing and exonerate Jerry … only when Linda appeals to Tony to do that, Tony tells her his price for cooperating with Jerry’s defense is Linda dumping David and marrying him. Eventually David calls Tony as a witness in Jerry’s trial, Tony identifies Sniffy as his assailant — and just then Sniffy, who’s been able to bring a gun into the courtroom in those pre-security, pre-metal detector days (though metal detectors did exist then — Fritz Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once features one — they weren’t routinely used in government buildings and courtrooms the way they are now), brings it out and is about to shoot Tony again when the court marshals are able to subdue him, get his gun away from him and take him into custody.

 Secret Evidence is the sort of movie you think  you’ve seen before even if you haven’t, and the stock music cues Edward Kay was able to dig up are pretty cheesy (notably the themes used in the opening and closing credits, treacly string instrumentals vaguely reminiscent of “Home, Sweet Home” and totally out of place for something that’s supposed to be a crime thriller), but William Nigh’s direction has far more energy than we usually get from him (not that that’s much of a compliment) and he and cinematographer Arthur Martinelli actually get a few shots of visual interest (including one in which the shadow of Venetian blinds falls over the back of one of the attorneys in the trial scene — Venetian blinds were the one atmospheric visual effect Nigh loved, judging from how often they and the shadows they cast appear in his films). Nigh was notoriously indifferent to the sorts of performances his actors gave as long as they said their lines and hit their marks, but fortunately he had a solidly professional cast this time and there’s none of the atrocious overacting that mars so many of Nigh’s films — and McTaggart (who also used the first names “Malcolm” and “Bud”) is quite impressive, making Tony obnoxious and believable as a crook but also not entirely unsympathetic: one gets the impression that life with him would be edgier but also a lot more exciting than life with the comparatively dull “good” guy Linda’s dating. (Alas, McTaggart didn’t get the big roles he was clearly cut out for; for the next eight years he got the usual “C”-lister’s combination of big roles in little movies and little roles in big ones, and he died May 29, 1949 at the age of only 39.) And it’s curious, looking over Marjorie Reynolds’ filmography on, that she seemed to get stuck with the same character names over and over again: she’s “Linda Wilson” here, “Linda Mason” in Holiday Inn, and a character named “Mason” in at least two of her other roles, “Anne Mason” in Up in the Air (1940) — a good comedy/mystery about radio from Monogram — and “Jean Mason” in Dixie.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sony/Columbia/MGM, 2011)

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

The film was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a 2011 production of a story that began as a Swedish-set and Swedish-language mystery novel by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish author and radical socialist who put his life at risk fighting the Swedish Right and edited a socialist magazine called Expo. When he died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 50 three completed mystery novels were discovered among his effects, all of them dealing with a magazine called Millennium and a private-eye character called Lisbeth Salander, a young punk woman in her early 20’s who had been judged criminally insane at age 12 for trying to burn her father to death (“I got 80 percent of him,” she says in the movie, though he’s actually shown as a live character towards the end) and who is allowed to live on the outside and work, but who isn’t allowed access to her own money without the approval of her guardian. When she isn’t hanging out at Lesbian bars and picking up girlfriends de jour she’s employed by a private detective agency on a clandestine basis because the work she does for them — essentially hacking into their targets’ computer systems and extracting all their personal information. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first of the three novels to be published, a year after Larsson’s death in 2005 — the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women but the English-language version was given a name with more “mysteryicity” and more of an emphasis on the character of Lisbeth, who’s one of the most original and idiosyncratic “sleuth” characters ever invented. The original book was filmed in Sweden in 2009 and the two subsequent entries in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, were also filmed in Sweden, all with an actress named Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth.

When Sony and its movie subsidiaries, Columbia and MGM, bought the rights to do an English-language remake, the studio was heavily lobbied to allow Rapace to repeat the role in the English version (sort of like Ingrid Bergman introducing herself to U.S. audiences in the English-language Intermezzo, playing a part she’d previously portrayed in a Swedish film), but Rapace herself begged off the assignment because she’d already made three films as Lisbeth and she was understandably tired of playing her. The actress they finally got — after considering a lot of hot young “names” including Carey Mulligan, Ellen Page, Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman, Mia Wasikowska, Keira Knightley, Anne Hathaway, Olivia Thirlby, Emily Browning, Eva Green, Scarlett Johansson, Sophie Lowe, Sarah Snook, Léa Seydoux, Emma Watson, Evan Rachel Wood, and Katie Jarvis — was Rooney Mara, who’d mostly done TV work (including an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit called “Fat” from 2006 that I shall want to dig out of the boxed sets and watch again) and had been in such underwhelming assignments as the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friends (With Benefits). It probably helped that she had worked with the director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher, before — she was in The Social Network as Erica Albright, the girl who dumps Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and gets him in such a pissy mood against all women that he starts the chain of events that leads him to create Facebook — but she’s absolutely right for the role (though I’m somewhat handicapped in assessing that because I’ve never read Larsson’s book nor seen the Swedish film): short, compact, androgynous, athletic, energetic and with just the right sort of chip on her shoulder to be believable in this very interesting character (and she even pronounces the “t” in “often”!).

According to an trivia entry, she even had herself pierced for real in all the various places (including multiple ear, eyebrow, and nipple piercings) the character has had done instead of just wearing simulated jewelry — though, as Charles pointed out, she almost certainly stopped short of actually having herself tattooed and the titular dragon that extends from her left shoulder halfway down her back is likely makeup. (Another contributor says Noomi Rapace also had herself genuinely pierced; piercings close up again if you don’t keep them open with the jewelry, while tattoos are almost always irreversible.) The film contains two central characters: Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig, who according to put on weight for this role so he wouldn’t be seen as James Bond with a different name), who co-owns an independent magazine called Millennium with his co-editor and girlfriend Erika Berger (Robin Wright) — a laconic entry in Lisbeth’s dossier on him says that “he practices cunnilingus, not often enough in my opinion,” and that both he and Erika were married to other people when they started dating and his marriage broke up as a result but hers didn’t (which suggests interesting and kinky possibilities for a spin-off right there!). When the film begins they’ve just lost a major libel suit filed by international banker Hans-Eric Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) and Mikael has been socked with a judgment of 600,000 kroner (Charles informed me that a kroner is worth about 60 cents, so this would be $360,000, not much by international-banker standards but enough to wipe out Mikael’s life savings), and now that the judgment has broken him (at least financially) he’s amenable to being hired by a mysterious tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl relative of his who was last seen in the audience at a parade in 1966.

For the first half of this long (158-minute) movie the plotline involving Mikael (who, being Swedish, at least has a legitimate excuse for spelling his name that way) intercuts with that of Lisbeth, who when she’s not busy hacking into other people’s computers for her bosses with cheery disregard for the law is having to deal with the slimy new guardian she’s been assigned, Nils Bjurman (Yorick von Wageningen — so “Yorick” is a real Scandinavian name! I always thought Shakespeare made it up!), who first asks her a lot of intrusive and seemingly irrelevant questions about her sexuality, like how many lovers she’s had, how many have been male, whether she’s been treated for an STD and whether she’s been tested for HIV. We soon learn that he has a personal reason for wanting this information; he’s decided that he’s going to extract sexual services from her every time she wants money for any reason at all. First he makes her blow him in his office so she can get a new state-of-the-art laptop; then he makes her come to his home, overpowers her, puts handcuffs on her, ties her to his bed and anally rapes her. Then she gets her revenge, overpowering him and leaving him in a room where she ties him up, strips him, sticks a fearsome-looking metal butt plug up his ass (without lube, of course!) and shows him a secret video of him raping her which she shot with a hidden camera in her backpack, with one of the buttons on the front serving to conceal the lens. She says that unless she gets a formal declaration from him and regular monthly reports stating she’s sane and able to handle her own money, she’ll publicize his crime by posting the video on the Internet — and for good measure she tattoos his chest with the word “Rapist” and says the video of him raping her will automatically post itself if her computer catches him visiting a Web site offering tattoo removal. (According to the Wikipedia page on Stieg Larsson, he was inspired to create the Lisbeth character in the first place over his guilt that, as a young man, he had witnessed a girl named Lisbeth being gang-raped and had done nothing to stop it.)

Lisbeth and Mikael don’t actually meet until almost exactly the halfway point of this film — it’s explained that the private detective agency he hires was the one the banker used against him, and it was Lisbeth who hacked into Mikael’s computer and got the derogatory information that helped the banker win the case — but once they do, the film develops chilling force as it spirals through a number of relatively conventional mystery conventions given a decidedly unconventional “spin,” including a private island where most of the Vanger family lives; a bizarre assortment of relatives, including serial killers and neo-Nazis, that make the dysfunctional families of Law and Order look like Norman Rockwell could have painted them by comparison (so many of the Vanger men molest their young female relatives that undergoing child sexual abuse seems almost a rite of passage in this family!); the sudden reappearance of a character we’d been led to believe was dead; and a father-and-son team of serial killers of women: father killed women and used his murders to dramatize various condemnations in the Book of Leviticus — this took director Fincher back to familiar territory: his thoroughly repulsive film Se7en, about a serial killer who made his murders dramatizations of the Seven Deadly Sins, though at least in this one the murders happened so long before the main part of the story that they were kept mostly invisible to us and we were spared the sickening details that made Se7en, at least to me, not only a bad movie but positively repulsive to watch (and I must confess to heaving a sigh of relief that Larsson and screenwriter Steven Zaillian spared us having him kill a Gay man to dramatize Leviticus’s most famous prohibition: 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman,, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” [King James translation, emphasis in original] — which makes me wonder how any self-respecting Queer person can believe in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but I digress); after daddy died his son went into the family business but in a considerably more realistic and less showy way, building himself a torture dungeon in his basement and disposing of the bodies afterwards rather than leaving them out to be found. (In one of the climactic scenes this character captures Mikael, ties him up — this film has more bondage scenes than any I can think of other than an S/M porn movie — and puts a plastic bag over his head to suffocate him, which fortunately for him takes quite a bit longer than I’d always assumed it did and gives time for Lisbeth to come on the scene and rescue him — and both Charles and I noted the irony of James Bond, or at least the most recent actor to play him, needing someone else to save him from the super-villain’s baroque trap!)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie that highlights the absurdity of the motion picture ratings system and the “R” rating in particular — a film can get an “R” if it has just two dirty words (this was the problem with the currently playing documentary Bully) or if it has as much brutality, violence and kinky sex as this one — and it’s also a quite exciting thriller, a bit too long (especially with one false climax after another to stretch the ending past the two-hour running time that would have been right for this material) but a quite credible evocation of the film noir spirit (cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth manages the feat of getting the chiaroscuro look of black-and-white noir in a color film) and with an original music score by Trent Reznor (as an in-joke, one of the characters wears a T-shirt advertising Reznor’s “band,” Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross that’s used sparingly and with the reticence more common in modern movies than in the classic age, when even in otherwise great movies like the 1941 Maltese Falcon you want to tell the composer to shut up already. The chemistry between Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara is excellent — I particularly liked the sex scenes between them, kicked off by a peremptory order from her that might have come from an Ayn Rand woman or the Whitney Houston character in The Bodyguard, especially the second one, in which he wants to get back to business and she keeps it going until she has her orgasm, whether or not he ever does (a nice reversal of the way heterosexuality all too often gets portrayed in the movies — or happens in real life, for that matter!) — but the true sense of life in this film comes from her (come to think of it, there’s a bit of Conan Doyle in their relationship, with he as Watson and she as Holmes): the character is so unforgettable that one can readily see why Larsson’s books became a worldwide cult phenomenon and have made it to the big screen when quite a lot of less edgy detective fiction around these days hasn’t.

Incidentally, I read a New Yorker profile on the Larsson phenomenon which centered mainly around an interview with his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who because Larsson never either married her nor registered them as a domestic partnership (according to Wikipedia, that was because under Swedish law they would have had to make their addresses public record, and he didn’t want to do that because he didn’t want their Right-wing enemies to know where they lived) got screwed out of any royalties from his books. Instead the money went to his father and brother — and Gabrielsson said that she owned his laptop, which contained three-fourths of a fourth Lisbeth Salander novel as well as drafts and notes for up to six additional ones. She offered to release the book and complete it herself if she could get a share of the estate, but Larsson’s blood relatives refused: an intrigue that could itself make for an interesting mystery thriller! The film downplays Larsson’s socialist politics — not surprisingly for an American corporate product — but given that the story’s villains include an international banker and two neo-Nazis, there are certainly hints of where this story’s creator was coming from. It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to read the book — not only because books are usually intellectually richer but also because some of the plot ambiguities might be clarified in print, much the way Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep became a best-seller again after the 1946 film was revived during the height of the Bogart cult in the early 1970’s and a lot of people (including yours truly) bought the damned thing simply to see if it made sense of all the loose ends left in the movie — which it did to some extent, though not entirely!