Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ninth Guest (Columbia, 1934)

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

Charles and I eventually watched a movie last night, and it turned out to be unexpectedly good: The Ninth Guest, a mystery-thriller from Columbia Pictures (not Monogram, as I’d got the impression from the archive.org site from which we downloaded it) in 1934 starring Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin (in a rare sympathetic role), Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vince Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel S. Hinds, Nella Walker and the ubiquitous Sidney Bracey as (you guessed it!) a butler. These weren’t exactly A-list names then but they were all highly competent actors, and the story — adapted from a 1930 novel alternately called The Ninth Guest and The Invisible Host by the husband-and-wife team of Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow (one would never guess from this macabre story that when Manning himself went to Hollywood, it was primarily as a screenwriter for Deanna Durbin!) and a play version from later that year by Owen Davis (best known today for having written the 1926 Broadway adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). The central gimmick is that a group of people, all with various skeletons in their closets, are invited to a mysterious party by an unknown host who promises them a particularly exciting experience — only when they get there they find that they’re unable to leave and their unseen mystery host is broadcasting messages to them via a radio rewired to serve as a P.A. system and he doesn’t intend any of them to leave alive. If you’re thinking this is a ripoff of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (her similarly plotted mystery, originally titled Ten Little Niggers — a title changed for the U.S. edition — and also called Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers), think again: Christie’s book wasn’t published until 1939, five years after this film was made and almost a decade after Manning and Bristow put out their novel. (Charles recognized the plot gimmick from the 1976 spoof Murder by Death, in which the guests entrapped in the sinister party by the mystery host were parodies of famous fictional detectives, but that film, written and produced by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, a director Simon frequently worked with on stage, was clearly based on the Christie story and it’s unlikely Neil Simon had even heard of The Ninth Guest.) What’s more, Manning, Bristow, Davis and the screenwriter, Garnett Weston, made the characterizations considerably deeper than Christie did (though, let’s face it, character development was always Christie’s weak suit as an author: there are cookie sheets with more depth than an Agatha Christie character!) and set up the story so the various people who are going to end up at the party have legitimate reasons to be antagonistic to each other.

The story begins with a scene at a college where radical professor Henry Abbott (Hardie Albright) has just been fired by the school’s president, Dr. Murray Reid (Samuel S. Hinds), at the insistence of the college’s principal donor, utilities magnate Jason Osgood (Edwin Maxwell, who bears a striking resemblance both physically and vocally to Edward Arnold and is cast here much the way Frank Capra later cast Arnold: as a symbolic representation of all that was wrong with capitalism). Osgood is embarrassed because in addition to running the college he also masterminded a “good-government” reform movement to get the city’s government out of the hands of the candidates controlled by rival political boss Timothy Cronin (Edward Ellis) and into his hands — only Cronin’s girlfriend, attorney Sylvia Ingelsby (Helen Flint), uncovered a 30-year-old criminal conviction in the past of Osgood’s “reform” candidate Burke (Charles C. Wilson) and publicized it on the eve of the election, just in time to ruin him politically and make sure that the city stayed in the hands of Cronin’s corrupt creatures instead of switching to Osgood’s. (The business of rival “reform” factions, both equally corrupt, fighting over a city government was used in quite a lot of fiction over this period, most famously in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit.) All these people end up at the sinister party, along with society matron Margaret Chisholm (Nella Walker) — who savors the novelty that for once she’ll just be a guest at a fabulous party instead of hosting one — and the two ingénue leads, reporter James Daley (Donald Cook) and Jean Trent (Genevieve Tobin), who’s been more or less dating Henry Abbott but quickly finds herself far more attracted to the reporter than the professor. The party is being held in the penthouse of a large office building and the people there — including the butlers (Sidney Bracey and Vince Barnett), who’ve been engaged for the night through an agency and have no idea who they’re working for — quickly notice that the penthouse is as immaculate as a stage set: it’s obviously a space that has been rented for the occasion and one where no one actually lives.

Needless to say, the people at the party do indeed meet the fate their mystery host intends for them — a dead body (later revealed as the electrician who wired the apartment so a high-voltage charge ran through the metal gate that was the only way to leave) turns up in a secret closet behind the refrigerator, Osgood cuts his finger and exposes himself to a vial of poison with which he was hoping to get out of the party by murdering the others, Jean reveals that Margaret is a bigamist (she committed her first husband to a mental institution — meaning, at least under the laws as they were then, that she couldn’t divorce him because he wouldn’t be able to understand the charges against him — and went ahead and married her second, high-society one anyway) and Margaret responds by drinking one of the poison vials the host had left around the apartment for that purpose, Sylvia more-or-less accidentally kills Cronin and then commits suicide by throwing herself at the electrified gate, and Dr. Reid is shot at 2 a.m. (the gimmick is that a death occurs every hour on the hour throughout the night). Eventually [spoiler alert!] Our Hero and Heroine realize that Henry Abbott was both the mystery host (on a 1930’s professor’s salary he must have saved up for years to have enough money to rent the penthouse and have it wired that way!) and the killer, and realizing that he’ll never have Jean’s love, he confesses all: Margaret’s first husband was his brother and the whole point of the evening was to get revenge on her, Sylvia (who represented her and arranged the commitment) and Cronin, and Henry first tries to shoot himself, James gets the gun from him and forces him at gunpoint to pull the switch that turns off the electricity in the gate, Henry lets James and Jean leave, and then he turns the gate back on and electrocutes himself with it.

 The Ninth Guest is a truly chilling story, far-fetched but at least believable, and it’s directed with real élan by Roy William Neill (though for some reason instead of his full first name he’s only credited as “R. William Neill”), complete with elaborate montage sequences and what is probably, next to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (made the same year!), the most convincing Gothic atmosphere ever achieved in a film that takes place in a modern building rather than a crumbling old castle. The film’s imdb.com page lists it as “referenced” in the 1939 film The Man They Could Not Hang (the first in Boris Karloff’s five-film “Mad Doctor Series” for Columbia), which also used the gimmick of a man luring the people he hates to his home and using an electrified gate to keep them trapped so he can kill them one by one — but as good as Karloff’s performance is in The Man They Could Not Hang, the entire film is far inferior to this one. It seems odd that The Ninth Guest should be so little known when the Agatha Christie version of the same story is an acknowledged mystery classic and has been filmed at least four times (I’ve seen the first two, from 1944 and 1966) and Manning and Bristow as writers clearly did a lot more with the premise — as did Neill as director and Benjamin Kline as cinematographer; The Ninth Guest is yet another forgotten gem from the studio years and probably counts at least visually (and maybe thematically as well) as proto-noir.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

But the Flesh Is Weak (MGM, 1932)

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

The film was But the Flesh Is Weak, the next film on the TCM sequence of movies by director Jack Conway from which we’d already screened Untamed, They Learned About Women and The Easiest Way. Once again Robert Montgomery was the male lead — as he was in Untamed and The Easiest Way — though the difference was by then he’d already been in the marvelous 1931 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, and But the Flesh Is Weak (the imdb.com listing has a hyphen in front of the title but the actual opening credit doesn’t) and this was clearly a follow-up. MGM bought the movie rights to The Truth Game, a highly popular 1928 play by Ivor Novello in which Novello himself had starred in both London and New York (so once again Montgomery was cast in a part created by a British Gay playwright as a starring vehicle for himself) and the movie went through various titles, including Novello’s original one as well as Mister and Mistress (which probably would have been too raw even for the relatively loose so-called “pre-Code” era!) and A Family Affair. This time Montgomery was clearly the star attraction: not only was he the only actor billed above the title, but the female leads, Nora Gregor and Heather Thatcher, weren’t exactly household names then or since.

The story casts Montgomery as Max Clement, whose father Florian (C. Aubrey Smith at his most C. Aubrey Smithiest) is training him to marry a rich woman in order to replenish the completely drained family fortunes — advice Florian once gave himself, only to ignore it and marry Max’s now-deceased mother instead. Accordingly Max cruises Lady Joan Culver (Heather Thatcher), whom the American Film Institute Catalog describes as “plain, but very kind,” though she seemed less “plain” to me than surprisingly butch, given an unattractive hairdo, ugly glasses and a severe, almost masculine wardrobe not that different from how Dorothy Mackaill had dressed in Warners’ The Flirting Widow (another rom-com about the British classes) the year before, and when Lady Joan says she’s lived for 10 years of adult life without any thought of marriage, one practically expects her to add, “At least not marriage to a man!” Only when Lady Joan takes Max home with her and a party is in full swing, Max is immediately smitten by one of the other guests, Rosine Brown (Nora Gregor), whose thick German accent is explained in the script by her being a Viennese woman who married an Englishman who has since died. Max is insistent on getting Rosine even though she’s not only broke, she has a sugar daddy of her own, foofy Lord George Kelvin (Edward Everett Horton), who shows up at Rosine’s house when Max is there — and Max actually locks Rosine in her bedroom and practically rapes her before she finally falls in love with him (either that or he just wears her down).

Max is ready to marry Rosine when his dad screws things up at a casino at which Florian hits a lucky streak, wins 5,000 pounds at baccarat, then loses it all and ends up 4,500 pounds in debt — and Max abruptly reverses course and proposes to Joan on condition that she cover his father’s debt. Only Rosine shows up at Joan’s engagement party and Max decides to tell Joan the truth: he’s genuinely fond of her and he’ll try to make her a good husband, but Rosine is the one he’s really in love with. Joan agrees to let Max go but Rosine is understandably upset that Max jilted her for Joan’s money, and it’s only when Max traps her in a bedroom (again!) and hits her that Rosine finally submits again, and there’s a clever finale in which Max is driving away in a car, Rosine runs after him, Max gets out of the car and they make up and then suddenly realize that the car is going off by itself with no one at the wheel, and they chase after it. The car, it turns out, is a present from Max’s father Florian, who landed a middle-aged rich woman, Lady Ridgway (Eva Moore, the religious fanatic in The Old Dark House) — in fact the one he jilted way back when to marry Max’s mom — so he’s got the money to pay Joan back and leave Max and Rosine enough to start a life together. There are some interesting casting quirks, including two of the character actors from Frankenstein, Frederick Kerr and Forrester Harvey — indeed, Kerr plays Joan’s father and after the wedding party turns into a fiasco I joked that Kerr would say, “Now I have to go worry about my son, the one who’s creating a monster in an abandoned lighthouse” — as well as Nils Asther, who’s billed fourth but only appears in one scene towards the end as Prince Paul, a rich man Rosine latches onto after Max temporarily abandons her for Joan. (He’s ahead of C. Aubrey Smith, who has a far larger part in the film in terms of character importance and screen time.)

But the Flesh Is Weak is clearly a movie that could only have been made in the so-called “pre-Code” (actually the Production Code was in effect but it was much more loosely enforced than it was later) period, what Charles and I like to call the “Hollywood glasnost,” and its easy equation of love and money as equally important motives for marriage and its honesty towards the existence of mistresses and the sugar daddies (or, sometimes, sugar mamas) that support them clearly mark it as a European rather than an American story — while the streak of romantic violence in Montgomery’s character is clearly (also) a reprise from Private Lives and he makes it credible even though the idea that a man could win a woman literally by beating her into submission seems not only barely credible but downright offensive today: one imdb.com reviewer noted that if a man behaved today the way Montgomery’s character does in this film at best he’d have restraining orders taken out against him and at worse he’d be prosecuted for rape and assault. Novello appears to have written the script for the film himself — at least no other writer is credited — and there’s a joke that seems odd coming from a British author: in the middle of a play attended by the characters, Max and Rosine leave during the second-act intermission and Max says, “There’s nothing wrong with an intermission. It depends on what it intermits” — the reason that’s odd in a British play is that in Britain a break in the middle of a performance isn’t called an “intermission” but an “interval.” (Maybe Novello wrote that joke for the New York version of the play.) It’s a charming story and Jack Conway directs it pretty straightforwardly, though it’s witty enough and moves fast enough that it doesn’t come off as a photographed play. I’m surprised to learn both from the American Film Institute Catalog and imdb.com that MGM actually did a “post-Code” remake, Free and Easy, in 1941 (a title recycled from Buster Keaton’s first talkie in 1930!), which would be interesting to see if only to learn how they bowdlerized it to get past the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency!

Blue-Eyed Butcher (Silver Screen, Sony, Lifetime, 2012)

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

After But the Flesh Is Weak I stayed up and ran a movie I’d recently recorded off Lifetime: Blue-Eyed Butcher, a true-crime story about Susan Wright (Sara Paxton), a hot young woman in Galveston, Texas who’s working as a stripper but has aspirations to be a nurse, who meets and falls in love with hot, sexy stud Jeff Wright (Justin Breuning) and marries him — only, as any inveterate Lifetime watcher could tell you, any genuinely hot male in one of their movies turns out to be the villain, and Jeff is no exception: after lots of hot shots of his bare chest (his nipples not only shown but actually highlighted — yum!) and some good soft-core porn of the two of them having sex, once they get married he turns out to be neurotically possessive, jealous and convinced that she was lying about using birth control so she would get pregnant and “hook” him into marriage. He’s got a good job but he starts staying away nights and burning through their money on booze, drugs and visits to strip clubs — it seems that once her doctor tells her she should abstain from sex for four months after giving birth, that’s all the excuse Jeff needs to seek other women he can get his rocks off with — and when he is home he beats her regularly, though director Stephen Kay and writer Michael J. Murray are awfully reticent about showing this. Eventually, five years and two children — sons Andrew and Cody — into this hell of a marriage, Susan just snaps: having used the last of their money to buy him a chicken dinner and doll herself up so he’ll want to have sex with her again, to which he responds by coming home late, drunk and coked up to the gills, and passing out in their bed, she ties him to the bed, gets a kitchen knife and starts stabbing him, stops when her son Andrew approaches the room, puts him to bed, then gets another knife from the kitchen and continues the job — but, at least according to the script (inevitably, given that this is a true-crime story, there’s some doubt as to whether she was as mentally discombobulated as she and her attorney portrayed her at trial), she has some weird idea that even though she’s inflicted so much injury he’s obviously dead, he’s going to recover and come out of the crude grave she’s put him in (a hole he had previously dug to install a fountain on their lawn, which she covers with potting soil — only she’s found out when the family dog digs through the soil and uncovers his remains) to terrorize her all over again.

Had the film been shot with a more straightforward time sequence Blue-Eyed Butcher could have been a domestic-violence exposé film on the level of The Burning Bed (essentially a similar story but with far better actors, Farrah Fawcett as the abused wife and Paul LeMat from American Graffiti as the husband who terrorized her until she killed him by, as the title suggests, setting their bed on fire with him passed out on it) or Black and Blue, but instead Kay and Murray decided to intercut the scenes of Jeff’s and Susan’s marriage with sequences set during her trial, thereby breaking the chain of terror in which she was enveloped by her husband and allowing the actors playing witnesses at the trial to tell us about their relationship and its master-slave (a term actually used in the dialogue!) aspects when we should instead have been shown how he was terrorizing her into total submission and why she would grab the chance to fight back and do it so violently and intensely. Still, it was certainly weird after watching But the Flesh Is Weak and its frank acceptance of violence against a woman as an acceptable way of wooing and keeping her to be seeing a modern version of the story in which the husband is a sexy but otherwise pathetic rotter and the viewer’s moral sympathies are clearly supposed to be with the wife despite the intensity of her revenge — and in some ways the most interesting character is the prosecutor, Kelly Siegler (Lisa Edelstein), who at first is disposed to be sympathetic towards Susan until she realizes she didn’t report the crime for a week, she walked around as if Jeff was still alive and reported his abuse to the police after she’d killed him, all of which convinces her that Susan was faking the whole thing, she wasn’t abused at all and she killed hubby for the $200,000 life insurance policy he’d just bought her. One gets the impression that she’s prosecuting the case to the nines precisely because she’s furious that Susan’s lies (as she sees them) will just make it harder for real victims of spousal abuse to come forward and be believed. Blue-Eyed Butcher, a movie Lifetime really hyped heavily (they showed it no fewer than four times in three consecutive weekends), is a film that could have been considerably better than it was, though it still had its moments, and it helped that it was well acted: Sara Paxton has the right combination of (seeming) innocence and willful poutiness for the role, and Justin Breuning burns up the screen with charisma (his main gig these days is as a male lead on the soap opera All My Children, and apparently he fell in love for real with the woman who played his partner on the show and married her), makes it believable that Susan would find him charming before their marriage from hell, and also credibly charts the character’s descent into drugs, alcohol, cheating and abuse.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Iron Lady (DJ Films/Pathé/Goldcrest/Ciné Cinéma/Film4/Canal+/U.K. Film Council, 2011)

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

The Iron Lady is a fascinating and also frustrating movie in that the filmmakers, director Phyllida Lloyd (a respected British stage veteran but one whose only previous film credit was for Mamma Mia!, the light musical based on Abba’s songs (and which also featured the star of The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep) and screenwriter Abi Morgan, decided to devote at least half of the screen time to Thatcher in her dotage, suffering from Alzheimer’s and in particular beset by the delusion that her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is not only alive but in the house with her and being so bothersome that at one point, displaying the slippage between various levels of consciousness and awareness of reality characteristic of Alzheimer’s, she tells him he’s dead just to get him to go away. In between the scenes of Thatcher in her (relatively) current state are interspersed flashbacks into What Made Maggie Run, from her early days as a grocer’s daughter surviving air raids in World War II to her first run for Parliament in 1954, her success in the next election, her rise within the Conservative Party, her reputation for boldness and unwillingness to compromise, her ultimate election as Prime Minister in 1979 and her tumultuous eleven years in that office, in which she served longer than anyone else in the 20th century, until she finally stepped down because her ideological rigidity was seen by her fellow Conservative leaders as ensuring defeat in the next election.

I remember living through the Thatcher years, which roughly overlapped the Reagan and Bush I years in the U.S. (Thatcher’s term was 1979 to 1990, Reagan and Bush I between them held the U.S. presidency from 1981 to 1993), and I’ve often quoted her famous comment (oddly, left out of Morgan’s script) that “There is no such thing as ‘society,’ there are only individuals” as a pithy one-sentence summary of the essence of the modern-day Right: the idea that you’re on your own, you have to make it (or not) on your own merits and willingness to work, and that while it’s O.K. if friends, family members or churches are willing to help you when you’re in need, there is no justification for government taking the taxes paid by the “producers” and using them to fund social-welfare programs. The film has been criticized on the Left — The Guardian, an openly progressive British publication with a minority audience but one far greater than any news medium with similar politics in the U.S., denounced it as propaganda for the current Conservative Party — and also by some pro-Thatcher people for spending at least half its running time showing the old, dotty Thatcher rather than the (relatively) young, vigorous one. I remember reading a Los Angeles Times op-ed by a former Conservative M.P. who worked with Margaret Thatcher and who — unlike some of the movie critics who reviewed The Iron Lady — praised screenwriter Morgan precisely for not giving Thatcher a deep “inner life” that would have supposedly explained her politics and the ferocity with which she pursued him. I’m unable to locate this article or the name of its author (the Los Angeles Times Web site is being singularly unhelpful) but his point was that the public Margaret Thatcher was the real Margaret Thatcher: the reason the movie didn’t show her as having any inner depths is because she didn’t — what you saw was what you got.

And what you got, at least according to this movie, was a woman whose Right-wing political views were inculcated in her by her father, a grocer (I couldn’t help but note the irony that the other most famous English person whose father was a grocer was Alfred Hitchcock), who lectured her incessantly while she was growing up (in these early scenes Thatcher — or Margaret Roberts, to use her unmarried name — is played by Alexandra Roach, and the double casting is so convincing that Roach, Streep and the film’s casting director, Nina Gold, all deserve credit for leaving us not altogether sure where Roach’s performance leaves off and Streep’s begins) about how terrible unions were and how people ought to help each other but the government shouldn’t. At least according to this movie, Margaret Thatcher seems to have got her political ideology flash-frozen from her father and accepted all his ideas as if he had brought them back from Mount Sinai chiseled in stone. It’s fascinating to watch the scenes of Thatcher as P.M. — devastatingly self-confident, displaying the usual movie hero’s 100 percent rectitude and invincibility as she cows her lily-livered colleagues into submission (the rebellion within the Conservative leadership that ultimately cost her the prime ministership seems to come out of left field), smashes Britain’s vaunted trade unions, privatizes much of the British economy and ultimately imposes a national poll tax with rhetoric that has been copied by most of the Republican Presidential candidates this year: that even the poorest people in the country ought to pay something to the government because if they don’t, they won’t have a stake in society and therefore they’ll be willing to trash it. One of the worries I had in watching a film about Margaret Thatcher was whether I’d end up rooting for her — after all, it’s a movie convention (and a dramatic convention well before movies existed) to root for the underdog hero taking on the forces of entrenched corruption and resisting the siren’s call of “compromise,” and that’s how Thatcher is depicted here — and it was interesting to read that among the people who shared my doubts about the movie was its star, Meryl Streep.

On her (not the film’s) imdb.com page there are a number of fascinating quotes from her about the role: “I still don’t agree with a lot of her policies. But I feel she believed in them and that they came from an honest conviction, and that she wasn’t a cosmetic politician just changing make-up to suit the times. … She’s still an incredibly divisive figure, but you miss her clarity today. It was all very clear and up front, and I loved that eagerness to mix it up and to make it about ideas. Today it’s all about feelings. You know, ‘How do I come off?’ and, ‘Does this seem O.K.?’ You want people who are willing to find a solution” — a line that is curiously echoed in Morgan’s script, which has Thatcher saying, “‘How do you feel?’ / ‘Oh, I don’t feel comfortable.’ / ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, we the group, we’re feeling … ’ Do you know, one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Now, thoughts and ideas, that interests me.” Streep also said of Thatcher, “I admire the fact that she was a ‘love-me-or-hate-me’ kind of leader who said: ‘This is what I stand for.’ It’s a hard thing to do and no one’s doing that now” — though one of the things that made George W. Bush so successful is that he, like Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan, who projected an aura of uncompromising Right-wing rectitude even though he did a lot of compromising and conciliating when he was in office — with the curious result that both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. claim Reagan’s legacy, the Republicans pointing to how he spoke and the Democrats to what he did), was unflinching in what he said and what he believed (or at least what he said about what he believed), to the point where when he was running for re-election in 2004 there were a lot of people who told pollsters that they didn’t necessarily agree with everything he stood for but at least they knew what it was, whereas they weren’t sure what John Kerry stood for, if anything.

This has been one of the great frustrations for progressives and Leftists in American politics since at least 1980 (though I would trace the conservative dominance of the U.S. electorate back 12 years before that, to 1968, when between them Richard Nixon and George Wallace won 57 percent of the presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, thereby ending the New Deal coalition and putting together the Right-wing majority that has effectively dominated American politics since): the Republicans have offered clear alternatives and bold visions, and have had the kind of history-is-on-our-side self-righteousness that in the 1930’s was shown on both the Right and the Left, while the three Democrats who have served as President since 1968 (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) have if anything seemed ashamed of their party’s progressive heritage (both the reality of how Democratic Presidents governed in the 1930’s and 1960’s and the myth that still surrounds the Democrats of that era and makes them seem more radical in retrospect than they were, or could have been given the constraints of politicians under capitalism) and anxious to run away from it to establish their bona fides as “reasonable” moderates. I think this was what I was getting at when I shocked some of my friends in 2008 by saying, “I love Sarah Palin!” — hastening to add, of course, that I loathed everything she stood for, but that I thought she was a powerful and authentic political leader and I wished our side had someone like her. It’s impossible to watch The Iron Lady as someone on the political Left and not wish our side had more people like Margaret Thatcher, more people not only convinced that their ideals are correct but that willing to go to bat for them, to risk their political futures standing up for them and, in the face of reversals, to double down on their ideals rather than hastily retreating from them.

As a movie, The Iron Lady spends too much time in Margaret Thatcher’s sickroom — I think it would have been stronger if they had shown the aged dementia sufferer only at the beginning and the ending and otherwise gone for straight chronology — and it works as a tour de force for Meryl Streep (it won the only two Academy Awards it was nominated for, one for Streep’s performance and one for the makeup people who transformed her into an utterly convincing simulacrum of the middle-aged and old Thatcher) and as a powerful drama, some of which hit home for me (it’s hard to watch, unmoved, when a woman finally packs up the old clothes left behind by her dead husband for shipment to charity — a politically “safe” one, Oxfam — and, at least according to the script, by doing so exorcises her husband’s annoying ghost and is finally able to reconcile herself to his death — especially given that I’ve gone through a similar experience myself lately!) while some of it just seemed annoying, though I can certainly relate to Streep’s defense of the film against the critics who said it spent too much time with Thatcher in her sickroom and not enough time with her on the hustings: “I have always liked and been intrigued by older people and the idea that behind them lives every human trauma, drama, glory, jokes, love. … If you think that debility, delicacy, dementia are shameful, if you think that the ebbing of a life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from these images then — yes — then you’ll think it’s a shameful thing.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hollywood Palace (ABC-TV, October 9, 1965)

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

I ran Charles a quite interesting download from archive.org I had just burned to disc: the October 9, 1965 Hollywood Palace program hosted by Joan Crawford (one of the things that came up when I did an archive.org search for her — I was hoping they’d have her Brunswick records, but they didn’t) and featuring some of the same dorky acrobat acts and dance troupes that also appeared on Ed Sullivan (and which begged the question of where else these people worked!) as well as a brilliant set by the Black comedian Godfrey Cambridge (whom I always wanted to see play Charlie Parker in a movie: he was not only a skilled actor but his resemblance to the real Parker was almost uncanny — and when he died in 1975 on the eve of filming a TV-movie about the Entebbe hostage raid, in which he was supposed to play Idi Amin, I thought, “There goes the Charlie Parker movie” — ironically, the Parker biopic was made in 1988 with Joel Oliansky as screenwriter and Clint Eastwood as director, and Parker was played by Forest Whitaker … who 18 years later would win the Academy Award for The Last King of Scotland, in which he played, you guessed it, Idi Amin), two songs by Jack Jones (including a version of the Mondo Cane theme song “More” by Riz Ortolani) and one by Joanie Summers, whom Crawford introduced with the lines, “Of course I may seem a bit partial, but this charming lady happens to be my favorite singer. I guess it’s because she always hits the spot, and for those who think young, here she is, Miss Joni Summers.” Just about anyone who was alive and sentient in the mid-1960’s will recognize those lines as catch-phrases from the Pepsi-Cola commercials of the day, and indeed Miss Joni Summers was the pitchwoman for Pepsi (which Crawford still owned in 1965, having inherited it — and its debts — from her last husband, Pepsi founder Alfred Steele), though on this program instead of a soft-drink jingle she did an ill-advised uptempo swing version of Meredith Willson’s lovely ballad from The Music Man, “Till There Was You” (neither Barbara Cook, Shirley Jones, Peggy Lee nor Paul McCartney, who sang lead on the Beatles’ cover of this song, was liable to have been up at night worrying about the competition). Also on the bill was the comedy team of Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, doing a mildly amusing sketch about the Boy Scouts.

The acrobat acts weren’t so bad, actually: there was an eight-member German troupe called the Rodos and a no-hands bicyclist named Lily Yokoi from Japan — and she was astonishing, ending her act by making the bike do a pirouette with herself on it (just how she got enough pedaling done to sustain the momentum a bike needs to keep going was pretty mysterious in itself!). The show we were watching was 46 minutes, cut down from the original hour length by eliminating most of the commercials (one for Sherwin-Williams paint — they had an animated sign on the way from San Francisco to the East Bay when I was growing up that demonstrated in neon their slogan, “Covers the Earth,” with an unseen hand pouring a giant can of paint over a globe and literally covering the earth) and also cutting out a trained animal act called Stebbings’ Boxers, which was just as well as I’m concerned (few things put me off more than watching these sorts of acts with animals, especially dogs), though the show ended with a seemingly endless “inspirational” reading by Crawford that was supposed to be something about the innocence and beauty of children (something Joan Crawford was an expert on, of course!) and just got more and more boring despite Joan throwing all the lessons she’d learned lo those many years ago from the MGM voice-and-diction department of how to put claptrap like that over and make audiences believe it. And it’s an interesting indication of how far removed this show was from the younger audiences and artists who were remaking the world of entertainment that there was no mention that the date this show aired was also John Lennon’s 25th birthday!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Easiest Way (MGM, 1931)

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

Charles and I spent the rest of the night watching the next film in sequence from the batch I recently recorded from Turner Classic Movies, along with Untamed and They Learned About Women, and it turned out to be quite the best of the three: The Easiest Way, a quite sexually explicit melodrama from MGM in 1931 starring Constance Bennett (who had already broken free of the studio system) as Laura Murdock, one of a very large family who live in a small apartment and have to double and even triple up in the same beds — depicted in a marvelous tracking shot across the various beds by director Jack Conway: we see the conditions in which these people have to live well before we know who they are or that they’re biologically related to each other. Their father Ben (J. Farrell MacDonald) is a longshoreman but he’s getting awfully old to continue in such a physically stressful job; mom Agnes (Clara Blandick) can keep the house running and all her children fed only by maintaining virtually military discipline — a far cry from the warm, loving character she played in her best-known role as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz at the same studio eight years later! — and though there are so many Murdock children it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them all, the story (the script is by Edith Ellis based on a 1909 play by Eugene Walter that had already been filmed as a silent in 1917) quickly focuses on two of the older sisters, Laura and Peg (Anita Page).

Peg is engaged to Nick Feliki (Clark Gable, in his first film as an MGM contract player — all he’d done before this was extra work, a handful of bit parts and his first featured film role as the villain in the 1930 William Boyd Western The Painted Desert — looking ridiculously gawky and with his ears sticking out even more than usual; maybe the rumor that MGM sent him to a plastic surgeon to have his ears shrunk is true after all!), the son of a laundryman who’s planning to go into business for himself. Laura works selling neckties at a department store and fending off the inevitable advances from the men who shop at her counter (why a woman is assigned to sell a male clothing item is a mystery actually pondered in the film itself), including Gensler (Charles Judels), a pretty repulsive man with the sort of thin moustache which (except on Ronald Colman and the later Gable) instantly marked a man as someone not to be trusted, especially around women. Gensler works for the Brockton Advertising Agency and offers Laura a job modeling for the artists who do their magazine ads, and though his real motive is to get into Laura’s pants any chance he has of that is short-circuited when his boss, Willard Brockton (Adolphe Menjou), takes an interest in Laura himself and eventually recruits her to be his mistress.

This being the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose (but not nonexistent) Production Code enforcement — The Easiest Way spent four years in development hell and was abandoned by three other studios, First National, Fox and Columbia, as well as independent producer Pat Powers, when their writers couldn’t come up with a way of filming it that the heads of the Production Code Administration, Will Hays and Jason S. Joy, would sign onto (and Columbia studio head Harry Cohn was furious when MGM got the go-ahead to film it after his plans had been nixed by the Code office; he suspected they were discriminating against his company because it was much smaller and less important than MGM, and given the discrimination that goes on today in which movies from independent producers get tougher ratings than those from major studios, it seems likely he was right) — we’re left in no doubt about the real nature of the relationship between Laura and Brockton. At the same time her decision is depicted surprisingly sympathetically (which, judging from the letters from Hays and Joy to MGM quoted in the American Film Institute Catalog, seems to have been the biggest thing that bothered the censors); though her parents don’t actually approve of the way they’re living, her dad is increasingly unable to work and her mom gets deathly ill midway through the movie and they have no compunction about accepting the money Laura offers them and adopting what now would be called a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards how she got it in the first place. Laura’s arrangement is upended when she falls in love with a penniless reporter, Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery), who proposes to her just before he’s scheduled to take a months-long assignment in South America — and he extracts a promise of fidelity from her and at the same time she jokes about his need to stay out of the clutches of those South American babes. (Given that we’d just seen Montgomery as the male lead of Untamed, made two years earlier, I thought, “Yeah, there’s a woman down there in a remote village who looks exactly like Joan Crawford!”)

She gets regular cables from him until he’s sent into the interior, whereupon she hears nothing; she gave back all the jewelry Brockton gave her when she broke up their relationship and has sold or pawned all her fancy clothes when the seedy hotel she’s been staying at presents her with a bill for $62 (in 1931 dollars!) and tells her to pay or get out. Desperate for money, she tries to borrow it from her former friend Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau), also the mistress of a rich man, who turns her down. Then she contacts Brockton, who agrees to help her but only if she returns to him and the sordid lifestyle they were leading; desperate, she does so (there’s a marvelously cynical scene in which the prissy desk clerk who’s been withholding her room key because she hasn’t paid her bill suddenly gives it back to her when Brockton shows up). She’s living with Brockton in a fancy apartment when Madison finally returns home and asks to marry her just before he leaves on another trip, this time to the Soviet Union, and she plans to elope with him; she tells her maid to pack her clothes and intends to sneak out surreptitiously, but Brockton returns before she and Madison have a chance to get away. (Jack Conway’s suspense editing is quite good here; Conway’s reputation is as a reliable MGM hack but there are moments in his films when he’s as good a director as any of the ones Andrew Sarris and company hailed as the great auteurs of classic Hollywood. He was also a practicing Christian Scientist and he probably got this assignment for the same reason he got to make Jean Harlow’s breakthrough movie, Redheaded Woman, a year later: MGM often handed the highly moralistic Conway stories they thought would get them in censor trouble in hopes he’d tone them down in his treatment of them.)

Brockton bluntly informs Mitchell what kind of girl Laura really is and how she’s been living, and Mitchell has a moralistic hissy-fit and abandons her. We then get a montage of her sinking to the gutter again until it’s Christmas Eve and she drifts by the home of Nick Faliki (ya remember Nick Faliki?) and his wife, Laura’s sister Peg, and though Nick had previously rejected Laura he relents, he and Peg take her in, and in a surprisingly open-ended ending for a 1931 movie (or a modern one, for that matter) Peg reassures her that someday Jack Madison will forgive her and take her back. The big deal for the censors about The Easiest Way was that “it builds up audience sympathy for Laura Murdock and supplies her with the means of securing sympathetic excuses for, if not actual approval of, her weakness of character” (of course it does! If it didn’t, it would be far less powerful as drama!); they complained that Ellis’s script was “much more dangerous than the original play” and did not go “far enough in building up the idea that Laura is being punished,” to which MGM producer Hunt Stromberg wrote back that he would have a scene added in which Laura “makes it plain that the life she has been leading has been hideous, destructive, shameful and unhappy.” Fortunately, Stromberg, Conway, Ellis and whoever else was involved managed to make that point without getting that preachy; instead, when she’s comfortably ensconced in Brockton’s apartment (again) Laura gets a visit from Elfie, the old friend who had earlier refused to help her, only this time it’s Elfie asking for help because she’s now broke: the man who’d been keeping her all those years suddenly died and left her penniless — “his family came in and took everything,” she laments (which struck a bit close to home for me right now!) — which made the point that being kept is a sordid way to live without having to stop the movie for a sermon.

The Easiest Way — the title itself is marvelously ironic because the so-called “easy way” turns out to be quite hard after all — is a quite good movie, though given how MGM cast him later it seems a pity Clark Gable didn’t get the Robert Montgomery role (Gable would have been convincingly butch whereas Montgomery still seems callow and shallow), albeit that Gable’s character seems to have been consciously shaped as an alternative to Bennett’s: a model of legitimate upward mobility in accord with the proletarian virtues. Constance Bennett’s performance is a bit mannered at the beginning but gains power and strength as the film progresses and the script shoves her moral dilemmas in our faces; it’s certainly a lot better than the similar tear-jerkers she was making at RKO at the same time (What Price Hollywood? excepted) even though at RKO she got a stronger leading man, Joel McCrea, than Montgomery, who’d develop into a much better actor than he was this early in his career. What’s most impressive about The Easiest Way now is precisely what pissed off the censors about it while it was being made (when the censor board in Alberta, Canada got hold of it it had already been so badly cut one of the board members wondered if the reels were being shown in the right order!): its refusal to make moral judgments, its willingness to present Laura Murdock’s dilemma with sympathy rather than blanket condemnation, and her ultimate redemption coming from her (biological) family rather than an outside man willing to “forgive” her. Interestingly, this was one of those early talkies MGM filmed an entirely separate version of in a different language with a different cast: in 1932 they put out a French-language version called Quand on est belle, with Lili Damita (star of Cary Grant’s first feature, This Is the Night, and the first Mrs. Errol Flynn) in Constance Bennett’s role, André Burgère in Robert Montgomery’s and André Luguet in Adolphe Menjou’s (a bit perplexing, that, since Menjou was French and therefore could easily have repeated the part — I suspect he asked for too much money).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

They Learned About Women (MGM, 1930)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a movie that by any normal standard is pretty dreadful but is fascinating as a slice of cultural history: They Learned About Women, a 1930 MGM musical directed by Jack Conway and Sam Wood (though I have no idea what the actual split in their labors was) from a script by Sarah Y. Mason (she and her husband Victor Heerman worked both jointly and severally; while she was working on this script he was in New York directing the Marx Brothers’ second film, Animal Crackers) based on a story by A. P. Younger with dialogue by Arthur “Bugs” Baer. They Learned About Women was a vehicle for the vaudeville team of [Gus] Van and [Joe] Schenck, who had been popular for at least 15 years when this film was made and were obviously still big enough stars that MGM was expecting a major box-office windfall from them. The film runs 95 minutes (nine minutes longer than Untamed, the Joan Crawford film from a year earlier TCM ran immediately before this one) and co-stars Academy Award nominee Bessie Love — though it casts her in a too-good-to-be-true ingénue role that does far less for her than her lovesick sister in The Broadway Melody, the film for which she got her Academy nomination.

The basic plot of They Learned About Women is that Jack Glennon (Joe Schenck) and Jerry Burke (Gus Van) are the star pitcher and catcher, respectively, for the (decidedly fictitious) major-league baseball team the Blue Sox, and during the off-season they tour with a vaudeville act and are major stars. (The 1949 film Take Me Out to the Ball Game has sometimes been called a remake of They Learned About Women, but about the only thing the two films have in common is this conceit of two stars who are ballplayers during the baseball season and vaudeville performers at other times.) Contrary to the title, Jerry and Jack already seem to know quite a bit about women: Jerry keeps trying to get Jack to take his training seriously and get to bed at a decent hour, and Jack keeps staying up all night entertaining his lady friends (he always seems to have an entourage of them) with songs he sings and plays piano on — not especially distinguished songs at that; though Van and Schenck had got some good material in the past (notably introducing a George Gershwin standard, “Somebody Loves Me,” as well as another Gershwin song, “Yankee Doodle Blues,” that was so little known the plot of the 1951 musical I’ll Get By tried to pass it off as a newly discovered and previously unheard Gershwin song), none of the songs they sing in this film are anywhere near that interesting.

It’s obvious that their act had already got pretty stale by the time this movie was made, and now of course it’s hopelessly dated — though I did give the filmmakers points for not putting in the infamous “secret orchestra” of later musicals: the only time Van and Schenck are heard with an orchestra is when they’re performing in a vaudeville theatre. Elsewhere we only hear them with Schenck’s piano accompaniment — and though MGM had introduced pre-recording musical numbers in The Broadway Melody it seems likely that in the scenes where they’re supposed to be performing informally that they were working “live.” By far the best scene in the film is the musical number that occurs right after Van and Schenck do their vaudeville turn in a theatre: their last song is a number called “Harlem Madness” (recorded by Ray Miller and his orchestra for Brunswick Records on December 21, 1929 — one of their records, along with “Cradle of Love” from the previous January, on which it’s been rumored that Bix Beiderbecke was making an uncredited appearance, though the story around Bix being on either record has been pretty well debunked by now), and just as they finish it there’s a cut to a troupe of African-American performers (including a lead female dancer that seems like the beta version of Josephine Baker) doing the same song and, not surprisingly, doing a considerably hotter and more exciting version. Indeed, this number was so spectacular (and so unrelated to anything in the rest of the movie) that I wondered if it had been shot in two-strip Technicolor but only the black-and-white version survived, as was frequently the case with early musicals.

The plot of They Learned About Women is nothing much: Jack abandons both Jerry and his good girlfriend Mary (Bessie Love) — given that the people who wrote and enforced the Production Code in the early days were Jesuits, just about every time a screenwriter wanted to indicate that a female character was the acme of innocence, he or she called her “Mary”! — for the dubious charms of vampy vaudevillian Daisy Gebhardt (Mary Doran); he leaves both Mary and the team for Daisy and starts an act with her, only in the middle of their first tour she leaves him for someone else on the bill, and eventually he comes back to his senses, rejoins the team in its World Series against the Bears (another fictitious team, though the baseball scenes are certainly padded out with scads of stock footage of real games!) and gets the Blue Sox out of a six-run deficit: told to “use your head” by the Blue Sox’ irascible manager Brennan (Eddie Gribbon) when it’s his turn to bat, Jack does so by getting beaned, whereupon the next Blue Sox up drives in the winning runs with an inside-the-park home run just so directors Conway and/or Wood can maintain the suspense of whether or not Jack will be thrown out at home. (Charles said the fact that it was an inside-the-park home run was the only even remotely novel thing about how this film ended.)

Van and Schenck can’t act, and they’re clearly middle-aged and unathletic so they’re not believable as ballplayers either (unlike the people who played these roles in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the superbly athletic Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who though small and skinny was also wiry and therefore believable in a sport like baseball in which agility can count for as much as sheer strength), and their songs are too far removed from either today’s entertainment or the best singers and songwriters of their day to carry the film today the way they no doubt did for its 1930 audience (one imdb.com reviewer said that Van and Schenck were one — or maybe two — of the reasons vaudeville died, and during the film Charles had expressed a similar sentiment), but it’s still an interesting curio in that the two were obviously major stars of the day and MGM had high hopes that their live popularity would carry this film; they didn’t, but it was still an interesting glimpse of what at one point had been considered state-of-the-art entertainment.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Untamed (MGM, 1929)

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

The film was Untamed, a 1929 MGM production that is usually listed as Joan Crawford’s first talkie — though Hollywood Revue of 1929, an all-star musical MGM released the exact same day as Untamed (November 23, 1929), also counts as a Crawford talkie (and features her in a two-strip Technicolor scene; in 1939 Crawford appeared in two other films with color sequences, The Women and Ice Follies of 1939, even though she didn’t make a film entirely in color until Torch Song in 1953), and in both movies she not only dances but sings (doing the latter in a foghorn contralto that compared favorably to a lot of the so-called “torch singers” of the time — Crawford even made a few records for the Brunswick label in the mid-1930’s, though to my knowledge none of them are available today). What makes this movie particularly weird is the bizarre, contrived plotline, based on a story by Charles Scoggins, scripted by Sylvia Thalberg (no need to tell you whose sister she was!) and Frank Butler, with Lucille Newmark as title writer (like a lot of early talkies, this film continued the silent convention of using titles to indicate changes of scene, locale or time and to provide plot exposition, even though sound had rendered dialogue titles unnecessary) and Willard Mack, uncredited, providing additional dialogue. Untamed is one of those odd movies that’s really two films rather arbitrarily joined together at the midpoint: the first 40 minutes take place in the jungles of Latin America (it’s not clear which Latin American country they’re talking about, but the hints are that it’s a relatively large one with a big river running through it, so I guessed Brazil).

Alice Dowling (Joan Crawford) has been living there since girlhood, when her father Hank Dowling (Lloyd Ingram) took her down there as he was looking for oil. He found it, but in the meantime he’s descended from normal white guy to drunken wreck, and when the movie begins his daughter — nicknamed “Bingo” by the natives — is shown singing a Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed song called “Chant of the Jungle” with a full band of native players. Then she’s nearly raped by a seedy-looking guy with a scraggly beard; unwilling to take no for an answer, her would-be rapist (whom she’s successfully fought off; Bingo’s quickness to resort to fisticuffs whenever she doesn’t get her way is a leitmotif of the film) goes to daddy and essentially asks the old man to sell him Bingo for drink money. Showing that all his ethics haven’t quite yet been pickled in alcohol, the old man picks a fight with Bingo’s assailant — and gets mortally wounded. Fortunately, Hank Dowling’s old friends Ben Murchison (Ernest Torrence) and Howard Presley (Holmes Herbert) chose that time to show up with the idea of taking Hank back to civilization. On his deathbed Hank tells Ben and Howard that there’s a tin box under his bed with clear title to huge tracts of oil-producing land, and he wants them to take Bingo out of the jungle and make sure she gets her fair share of the money from the oil. They take her to New York City on a tramp steamer, where Bingo meets and immediately falls in love with Andy McAllister (Robert Montgomery, in his fourth film, looking like he just got out of high school — though later writers Scoggins, Thalberg and Butler make his youth and lack of money a principal driving issue in the plot) and threatens to beat up the woman Andy has been dating, Marge (Gwen Lee), if she doesn’t give him up. Needless to say, Ben and Howard worry about this, not only because Howard has a crush on Bingo himself but also because they realize that once she gets to New York they’ll have to teach her conventional social manners and how to behave around people who didn’t spend years of their lives in the jungle, forced to be on guard and constantly fight others for their survival.

The story of just how they trained the jungle ways out of her could have made an interesting series of scenes, but instead the writers and director Jack Conway use one of Newmark’s titles to jump forward eight months, when the transformation is complete and Alice Dowling — to use her “civilized” name — comes down a spectacular staircase in the Cedric Gibbons-Van Nest Polglase-designed mansion her oil money has bought her, dressed to the nines in one of Gilbert Adrian’s fabled creations. She’s still quick to anger and quick to threaten, but the rest of the plot takes much the same turn as the other reverse-Cinderella stories that were a short-lived rage in early-talkie Hollywood (Dynamite, The Hot Heiress and Love Me Tonight), as Alice’s money and Andy’s lack of it combine to monkey-wrench their relationship until, on the eve of a big party at which Alice is planning to announce her engagement to Andy, Ben writes a $50,000 check to Andy, intending that he’ll tear it up and be so hurt by the blow to his pride that he’ll walk out of their lives forever, whereupon Howard can marry her (even though he’s twice as old as she, pretty seedy-looking and there’s no evidence that Alice a.k.a. Bingo was ever interested in him as a potential romantic or sexual partner) — only Andy double-crosses them and announces he’s going to take the money and marry Marge on it. Then, after he’s got horribly drunk at the party, he triple-crosses them and tears up the check after all, and finally Ben and Howard offer Andy a job running the Dowling mines (mines? Earlier on it was established that the Dowling money was from oil!) back in Brazil or wherever the movie started, so the two of them can get married after all and get safely out of the country where Alice’s, nèe Bingo’s, money won’t be an issue. (Well, at least it’s a little better than the finales of Dynamite and The Hot Heiress, in which the rich woman had to give up all her money at the insistence of the hot but broke proletarian she had married.)  

Untamed is actually a good movie technically — the camera angles are varied and the actors deliver their dialogue naturalistically without … those … damnable … pauses between each other’s lines that make a lot of early talkies almost unwatchable today (and gave rise to the frequently expressed sentiment among film critics then that the silent screen was actually a more realistic medium than the sound one) — and Crawford gets to sing two songs (one of them a duet with Montgomery, who has even less of a voice than she; no record company in the world was going to sign him!), do some wild dancing (before she signed with MGM she’d been known primarily as a featured dancer in the Shubert musical revues on Broadway, and even some of her silent films, notably Our Dancing Daughters, feature her as a dancer) and generally project herself as the forceful, rebellious personality the audiences from Crawford’s silents had come to expect before she transitioned from that image to the long-suffering shopgirl trying to sleep her way to upward mobility which she played in most of her early-1930’s films. The rest of the acting is serviceable, though Robert Montgomery is a virtual blank — it’s hard to believe from this movie that within two years he’d be a sophisticated enough light comedian to play the role in Noël Coward’s Private Lives that Coward had written for himself — and Ernest Torrence, an effective villain in silent films, has a scratchy voice that gets a bit annoying, especially since here he’s playing a rare (for him) sympathetic role. It’s well made and it’s got plenty of the MGM gloss — though the jungle scenes are utterly convincing (as they’d been in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar in 1928 and would be in Red Dust in 1932 — for a studio whose contemporary urban-set films were so glossy MGM was surprisingly good at depicting the Third World!) and the Bingo incarnation of Crawford’s character is frankly more interesting than her Alice incarnation.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (MGM, 1936)

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

The film was the 1936 MGM version of Romeo and Juliet, a movie I’d heard about for years without getting the chance actually to see. It was a pet project of MGM producer and sometime studio head Irving Thalberg (who left the U.S. on a medical leave of absence in 1932, whereupon his immediate boss and partner Louis B. Mayer reorganized production on the lot to the so-called “unit system,” whereby Thalberg and his assistant producers each got their own unit and developed their own projects using MGM’s stars, directors, writers and other personnel) to showcase his wife, Norma Shearer — when the opening credits billed “Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard” I joked that Thalberg had probably wanted to change the title to Juliet and Romeo — one in a series of prestige roles for her that also included Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (filmed two years earlier) and the title role in Marie Antoinette (filmed two years later, after Thalberg’s death). It wasn’t the first time Shearer had played Juliet in an MGM film: in the plotless musical Hollywood Revue of 1929 she and John Gilbert had appeared in a two-strip Technicolor version of the balcony scene, first played come scritto and then gussied up with “modern” 1920’s slang dialogue. Romeo and Juliet was a troubled production, humorously described in Gary Carey’s book All the Stars in Heaven: Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, and the first problem was getting it greenlighted; Mayer pointed to the box-office failure of the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (the one with the infamous writing credit: “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”) and the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Max Reinhardt at Warner Bros. and, though in English, based on his famous 1920’s production of the play in Berlin, in August Schlegel’s German translation) and, according to Carey, “Thalberg argued that the Reinhardt Dream and the Pickfair Shrew had failed because they were bad films, not because they were Shakespeare. Mayer wasn’t buying that, but when [MGM president Nicholas] Schenck and the New York office okayed the production, he grudgingly bowed before the inevitable.” The next task was casting the rest of the parts, notably Romeo: Fredric March, Shearer’s co-star in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, was Thalberg’s first choice, but he turned it down. The American Film Institute Catalog lists quite a few actors who were considered, including Robert Montgomery, Brian Aherne, Clark Gable (no kidding!), Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier (then making his first Shakespearean film, As You Like It, with Elisabeth Bergner in England), Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Paul Muni and the one Thalberg finally signed, Leslie Howard.

Critics at the time the film was released scorned MGM for casting the 42-year-old Leslie Howard and the 36-year-old Norma Shearer as Shakespeare’s star-crossed teenage lovers, and that’s been a point of ridicule for this movie ever since — unfairly, at least in Howard’s case. Yes, he’s clearly a quarter-century too old for his part, and MGM’s makeup people probably applied his makeup with a trowel to try to make him look suitably adolescent for the camera, but Howard was an accomplished British stage actor, fully trained in how to play Shakespeare (though it had never been one of his favorite roles, he had played Romeo on stage), and his relatively high voice, superb breath control and “musical” line delivery are actually quite pleasant and believable for the character. The supporting cast was also intriguing, notably John Barrymore as Mercutio; Basil Rathbone as an almost psycho Tybalt (he got an Academy Award nomination); and Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse (though she’s supposed to be playing a sympathetic character, she’s crotchety enough one can well imagine why she was MGM’s first choice to play the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: alas, both she and the studio’s second choice, Gale Sondergaard, turned it down); as well as Ralph Forbes (he was known in Hollywood as the guy you signed if you couldn’t get Leslie Howard, so it’s something of a surprise to see him and Howard in the same film!), wasted as usual in the trivial role of Paris, the young man Juliet’s family, the Capulets, wanted her to marry. Talbot Jennings received sole credit for the screenplay, though Professor William Strunk of Columbia University (best known these days as the author of The Elements of Style), who’d previously worked with Romeo and Juliet on Katharine Cornell’s stage production, was credited as “literary consultant” and, according to Carey, helped prepare a script “which expunged most of Shakespeare’s bawdyisms but otherwise provided an acceptable acting version of the original.” (Not all of Shakespeare’s bawdyisms, thank goodness: among the best parts of the movie is John Barrymore’s delight in getting to do a pun on the word “prick.”)

British designer Oliver Messel was brought in as a sort of all-around consultant, working with Cedric Gibbons and the rest of MGM’s art department on the sets (apparently a research crew was sent to the real Verona, Italy to take pictures as guides); they built three different versions of the balcony set so they wouldn’t have to use a camera crane; and they brought along at least two dialogue coaches, Constance Collier for Shearer and Margaret Carrington for Barrymore. (He’d used her on his successful stage productions of Richard III and Hamlet.) George Cukor was assigned to direct, and he decided that he wanted the play filmed in sequence even though, as Carey noted, “this plan meant an expensive and very lengthy shooting schedule for a picture that was already costing enough to send Mayer, Schenck and the New York executives into mass cardiac arrest. The long shooting schedule kept getting longer every time Barrymore stepped before the cameras. Cukor had worked with Barrymore on A Bill of Divorcement and Dinner at Eight; there had been no problems then, he expected none now. But three years had passed, hundreds of gallons of liquor had been consumed, and Barrymore now looked like a final sketch for the portrait of Dorian Gray. He was also beginning to have trouble memorizing lines, and take after take was ruined as he lost his way through the maze of Shakespearean verse.” It got so bad that Cukor asked Thalberg to replace Barrymore with William Powell, but Powell refused because he’d got his start in films in Barrymore’s 1922 movie Sherlock Holmes (making Romeo and Juliet a “doubles” movie in that it features two movie Holmeses, Barrymore and Rathbone, and offers the interesting spectacle of one killing the other) and he wasn’t going to take a part from the man who had helped launch his film career. “So for better or worse, Thalberg and Cukor were stuck with Barrymore, who plays Mercutio as a flaming queen,” Carey notes. “By all conventional standards, he’s perfectly awful, and yet he’s rather wonderful too. The sheer perversity of his performance is galvanizing, and the film needs all the energy it can get.”

Ironically, for a film that came from such a troubled production process and was ridiculed then and since for the overage leads, the 1936 Romeo and Juliet emerges as quite a fine movie, much better than its reputation and one of the brighter spots in the generally sorry history of Shakespeare on film. Most of the acting is quite good — Howard’s, Barrymore’s and Rathbone’s in particular (and for all Carey’s whining about Barrymore playing Mercutio “like a flaming queen,” his performance is appropriate and even beautiful, especially in the “dream” speech: I think it’s the single earring Barrymore wears on screen, more than anything he says or does, that gives the impression of queeniness) — and Herbert Stothart’s musical score is deployed with commendable restraint, except for the two sequences (the end of the balcony scene and the one night Romeo and Juliet sleep together) where he uses the cheaply gushing main theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture (if he had to rip off a classical composer’s take on Romeo and Juliet, why didn’t he use the far more beautiful and subtle treatment by Berlioz?). If there’s a problem with this film it’s its raison d’être, Norma Shearer, who clearly simply isn’t as comfortable with Shakespeare or blank verse as Leslie Howard. She’s actually pretty good in Juliet’s quieter moments, but when the script forces her to turn up the emotions the best she can get out of herself is a low simmer — and the mismatch between her and Howard in terms of stage experience in general and Shakespeare experience in particular makes her seem worse than she would have with Robert Taylor or another American “movie” person as her co-star. It’s become a sort of in-joke between Charles and I how often I say that such-and-such a movie from the classic age that Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t in would have been better if she had — but I’m going to say it again: she may not have had any more experience playing Shakespeare than Shearer did but her emotional intensity and her astonishing versatility (name me one other actress, then or now, who could have played such wildly varying roles as Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity — all right, maybe Meryl Streep) could have led her to a Juliet for the ages, one who could have made the final scene heartrending instead of merely sad.

And speaking of Romeo and Juliet itself, it’s long struck me as the ultimate disconfirmation of the rather silly idea that in order to be a great tragedy, a play has to make the protagonist’s fall “inevitable.” There’s hardly a less “inevitable” tragedy than Romeo and Juliet; the plot is so strongly driven by coincidence and happenstance that one can point all the way through it to plot junctures where if only y had happened instead of x, Romeo and Juliet would either never have met each other or would have survived, stayed together and lived to a ripe old age. The MGM Romeo and Juliet is a quite honorable and moving adaptation of the play, it’s well worth seeing and it’s a much better movie than its reputation (like a lot of other films since — can you say Waterworld? — it was reviewed as much on the basis of the trouble and cost of making it as it was on its own merits as a film), though many of its strongest scenes are purely visual and don’t involve Shakespeare’s dialogue — including the almost Gothic appearance of Friar Laurence’s hideout and an effective shock scene in which Romeo charges straight at the camera to challenge Tybalt to a duel. For some reason in his introduction on Turner Classic Movies Robert Osborne said it was a box-office hit whereas every other source I’ve seen said it was a costly flop. (According to Gary Carey, it cost over $2 million to make and lost almost $925,000.) Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t become movie box office until the 1960’s — first in the modern-dress musical version, West Side Story, in 1961; and then in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of the Shakespeare original, which was not only filmed in Italy but employed teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the title roles and took advantage of the greater sexual freedom of 1960’s films to show them half-naked and depict their attraction far more lubriciously than it ever had been before.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zontar: The Thing from Venus (Azalea/American International, 1966)

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

The film was Zontar: The Thing from Venus (“the planet Venus?”), a dreadful 1966 remake of a pretty bad 1956 American-International movie called It Conquered the World which was itself a combined ripoff of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We weren’t watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of it but the film would certainly have fit their format (it’s not on the complete list of shows on the MST3K digital archive but they did do It Conquered the World in their third season): it’s boring, tedious, badly acted and so cheap that even though it’s supposed to be a horror film the only real monsters are a race of flying whatsits that are usually described as bats but looked more like Rocky the Flying Squirrel to me and Zontar him/her/itself, a Venusian creature that looks like a very badly burned human body and isn’t seen until the final minutes (not that I particularly minded that, especially since the monster was just too repulsive-looking to be genuinely scary). The plot features a scientist named Keith Ritchie (Anthony Huston, an oddly nerdy presence for a character played by Lee Van Cleef, of all people, in the original!) who has built himself a closet full of high-powered radio equipment and is warning his colleagues at the local NASA base, including Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar, doing his usual weirdly inappropriate John Wayne impression in the role — Agar and Wayne were friends and Wayne got Agar roles in some of his films, and Agar’s performance here recalls the proverb, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” — in the middle of a cast full of totally talent-less non-actors, Agar actually looks rather good by comparison), not to launch the new laser-powered satellite because mysterious forces from elsewhere in the solar system have decreed that earth shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the rest of the planets until we stop having wars and otherwise showing that we’re too primitive to be trusted.

Then we see him working his closet radio and getting, through the interplanetary static, a signal that sounds suspiciously like a theremin, which he later explains to us, his wife Martha (Pat Delaney), Curt and Curt’s wife Anne (Susan Bjurman), is actually the voice of Zontar, putting him under what Keith calls “interplanetary hypnotism” so the two can communicate even though Zontar doesn’t speak English and Keith doesn’t speak Venusian. Keith thinks that Zontar is involving him/her/itself in human affairs to help him make the world a better place, but of course what Zontar is really up to is conquest, which he hopes to achieve by turning off all sources of energy — not just electricity but motor vehicles, fire and even water — to demonstrate its power, and also sending “injectabots,” tiny little probes that look like twist-ties and are injected into the back of the neck of the human victims Zontar wants to put under its control. He takes over the general in charge of the base and also Anne Taylor — forcing John Agar to strangle his own wife and then explain to Keith that she wasn’t his wife anymore but a Venusian injectabot victim — and eventually Keith has a crisis of conscience after his own wife is killed by Zontar and he destroys the monster with a laser probe of his own invention that he has to stick into it like a harpoon. Lou Rusoff’s original script for It Conquered the World was adapted by Larry Buchanan, who also directed (sloppily) and Hillman Taylor, and they blessedly removed a lot of the Right-wing Libertarian anti-Communist propaganda from the original. In It Conquered the World the big final speech read:

He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature... and because of it, the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. And when men seek such perfection … they find only death … fire … loss … disillusionment … the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to the toil and misery, but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from Man himself.

In Zontar: The Thing from Venus the big speech reads:

Keith Ritchie came to realize, at the cost of his own life, that Man is the greatest creature in the Universe. He learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death … fire … disillusionment … loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart of Man himself.

The difference is subtle but it does make Zontar seem a little more Gandhian and a lot less Randian than It Conquered the World. Also to the benefit of Zontar is the monster: it may be too disgusting to be scary but it’s at least a slight improvement over the risible upended half-cucumber of the earlier film (to which they had to add an artificial head because it was supposed to scare Beverly Garland witless and yet when they shot the first scene between them, she towered over it). But aside from that it’s a totally useless movie that doesn’t even have the dorky charm of the earlier one, shot in color (which seemed to be the point of the remake: so American International could include it in a TV package at a time when TV was starting to turn its back on black-and-white movies) but in a very dull, cheap process — not too surprising for a movie that almost never got out of one suburban room!