Friday, November 30, 2012

All About Eve (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

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

The night before last Charles and I ran an old DVD of the 1950 classic All About Eve, which remains a brilliantly wrought film even though it’s a bit too long for its own good (it runs 136 minutes and could probably have been dispatched in two hours even without losing anything except a few of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ wisecracks — though it’s Mankiewicz’ wisecracks that really make the film!): it’s both cynical and hilarious, it’s vividly acted (Anne Baxter delivered the performance of her life, and the lines George Sanders — whose character adds acid to the alcohol-drenched rest of the dramatis personae — delivers about Bette Davis’s character, Margo Channing, is equally true about Davis herself: “Margo is a great star, a true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else”) and, as I noticed the last time I watched it, impeccably constructed. Mankiewicz was very careful to time just when each character saw through Eve Harrington’s innocent act and caught on to the manipulative bitch she was — Thelma Ritter’s character saw through her instantly (Charles pointed out that this was the first of two films in which both Ritter and Marilyn Monroe appeared — the other was The Misfits, Monroe’s last completed movie), Celeste Holm’s was the last to catch on (only when Eve made a play for her husband, played by Hugh Marlowe), Davis’s caught on relatively early and the others, Gary Merrill as director Bill Sampson (listed as “Simpson” in the closing credits even though he’s called “Sampson” throughout the film) and Hugh Marlowe as playwright Lloyd Richards, find out somewhere in between — though not before the Richardses arrange, in a plot twist Mankiewicz seems to have “borrowed” from the movie Holiday Inn, for Margo to miss a performance of her current vehicle, Aged in Wood, so Eve (as her understudy, a job she wangled without telling Margo) can go on in her place, invite the critics to witness her performance and get the lead in Richards’ next play, Footsteps on the Ceiling. Charles pointed out that though it’s a backstage story, we never actually see any of these people’s creative work — we never hear a word of Lloyd Richards’ purported dialogue or watch Margo Channing or Eve Harrington act or Bill Sampson direct — though in a sense we don’t need to: all these people are so “theatrical” not only when they’re onstage but 24/7, they are not only in but of the theatre and we can easily imagine what they’re like onstage from what they’re like offstage.

George Sanders was used to being able to steal the acting honors from mini-talents like Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (the way he out-acts the stars in that practically has you rooting for the Philistines!) but here he makes a good play for them even with mega-talents like Davis and Baxter in the cast, and he’s marvelous as the cynical narrator (though the story is actually told through multiple flashbacks in the technique pioneered by Joseph Mankewicz’ brother Herman and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane). I’ve never been that impressed by Baxter — even under Orson Welles’ direction in The Magnificent Ambersons she’s still pretty much a non-entity, a quite ordinary romantic juvenile lead hung out there as a prize awaiting Tim Holt once he gets his “comeuppance” — but this is the performance of her career; Mankiewicz got a convincing bitch out of her and managed to turn the tables and make Bette Davis, even in full cry, surprisingly sympathetic and even a figure of pathos, especially when she delivers the speech that manages to be moving despite its rank sexism: “Funny business, a woman’s career — the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.”

 All About Eve, especially in Davis’s role, sounds so autobiographical it’s frankly unbelievable that it was ever considered for anyone else — least of all the relatively bland Claudette Colbert, who had weaseled out of the lead in Frank Capra’s State of the Union (Katharine Hepburn, who had been running lines privately with star Spencer Tracy, got the part) and got out of All About Eve as well — officially she hurt her back, but in light of her prima donna pretensions, vividly described by Capra in his autobiography (she said she would never work past 5 p.m. and had her agent put that in all her contracts because her doctor said she got too tired — “Her agent was her brother, and her doctor was her husband,” Capra acidly commented), I suspect she had a contractual problem and decided she didn’t want to do it for whatever it was she was being offered. Much to her credit, Bette Davis not only stepped in but allowed cinematographer Milton Krasner to photograph her unattractively, making her still a good-looking woman but also clearly a middle-aged one, and when she comments in the movie about how she’s tired of playing 20-somethings and for once would like to act her age, I couldn’t help but flash back to the last Davis film released before this one, Beyond the Forest (her last contract picture for Warner Bros. — she made Payment on Demand for Howard Hughes’ RKO in between but Hughes held it back until after All About Eve was released and was a smash hit), in which it looked like her makeup had been applied with a trowel in order to make her look younger (and her long black Morticia Addams wig seemed like it had been fitted on her head by a blind person). Once again, as through so much of All About Eve, it seemed like “Margo Channing” was an autobiographical portrait of Davis herself.

Current scholarship on the film tends to discount the long-held belief that Davis based her Margo Channing on Tallulah Bankhead — the raspy voice with which Davis speaks through much of the film apparently came from long drawn-out and often loud arguments between her and her soon-to-be ex-husband William Grant Sherry (father of her only natural child, daughter B.D., though she adopted two more kids with husband number four, Gary Merrill, whom she met making All About Eve) and the original basis of the story (a short story by Mary Orr called “The Wisdom of Eve”) was a young woman who hung around the theatre where actress Elisabeth Bergner was performing in London in the 1930’s and saw her current play over and over again. All About Eve is a marvelously bitchy film, but at the same time it has pathos and heart, and as one poster noted it seems odd that Joseph L. Mankiewicz knew little about the Broadway stage but made a great movie about it (even satirizing the Broadway actors’ lordly contempt for films as a medium), but when he came to make a movie about his own medium, film, it was The Barefoot Contessa, a critical and commercial flop and a lousy movie that wastes the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner (though it carries over the multiple-narrator structure Joseph Mankiewicz had appropriated from his brother’s script for Citizen Kane and used in All About Eve as well).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Columbia/Marvel/Ziskin, 2012)

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

The Amazing Spider-Man is an odd movie because for some reason the “suits” at Columbia Pictures (including the late Laura Ziskin, who was the principal producer and whose last film this was) decided midway through the planning process to junk the plans for a Spider-Man 4 with the original director (Sam Raimi) and star (Tobey Maguire) and instead “reboot” the franchise with a different director (Marc Webb) and star (Andrew Garfield, whose most important previous credit was probably as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network), working from a story by James Vanderbilt (though the script is credited to Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, indicating that they platooned at least two more writers and had them do rewrites of Vanderbilt’s material) which went back and told yet another version of the Spider-Man origin story. In this one, Norman Osbourne, the founder and CEO of OsCorp (which is headquartered in a huge New York skyscraper whose design by J. Michael Riva and his team of art directors is a dead ripoff of the still-unbuilt design for the huge tower that’s supposed to replace the World Trade Center on the original site of Ground Zero, adjacent to the reflecting pools marking where the original Twin Towers stood until September 11, 2001), is near death; for 15 years he’s been funding research scientist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) in search of a regeneration formula that will restore him to his original state of health and youth. Dr. Connors originally worked with another scientist, Dr. Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), who mysteriously disappeared from his home in the middle of the experiments, along with his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz — that’s what the cast list on says her name is!), leaving their son Peter Parker (Max Charles) — and no true Spider-Man maven needs two guesses as to who he’s going to grow up to be! — in the custody of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Then Richard and Mary Parker were killed in a plane crash and Peter grew up to be a high-school science student at New York’s Midtown Science High School (and to be played by Andrew Garfield) without any clear idea of who his parents were or what they had done before they died.

He doesn’t even know his dad and Dr. Connors were research partners until he finds a briefcase that belonged to his father and sees a picture of him and Dr. Connors together in it, and he decides to crash an internship program Dr. Connors is giving — only he’s caught, he ends up in Dr. Connors’ most secret lab, and he gets bitten by not one radioactive spider (as in the original comics and the first Spider-Man film with Tobey Maguire) but a whole pride of them, though only one actually penetrates — and in this version he even brings the spider home with him. It’s not radioactive this time, either; it’s been genetically engineered in Dr. Connors’ lab because his whole research approach is to isolate genetic traits that enable other species to regenerate themselves and insert them into human genomes. Dr. Connors is in the middle of animal tests on this formula, and he’s bred a race of three-legged mice as his research subjects. Most of the mice died, but when one lives and successfully grows an additional limb to match the complement of them mice have naturally, the formula is snatched away from him by Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), who announces that large-scale human trials must begin at once so the formula is ready before Norman Osbourne croaks. Dr. Connors balks at this, and Ratha tells him that at one point his associate Dr. Richard Parker had similar ethical concerns, only they removed him — and Ratha tells Connors that the human trials will begin at once at a local veterans’ hospital to which OsCorp’s charitable arm contributes. When Connors refuses to go along, Ratha simply orders his entire department closed and everyone in it fired. (In the earlier Spider-Man movies I noted the presence of a sort of nervous-tic anti-corporatism, and here it is again: a movie whose production budget is probably bigger than the gross domestic product of at least five sub-Saharan African nations is railing against the immense, unanswerable and irrevocable power of the 1 percent.)

Meanwhile, Peter Parker is developing super-powers from his close encounter with Dr. Connors’ super-spider, and at first he can’t control them — he turns his bathroom into a wreck the first time he tries to use it post-transformation — and as in the earlier versions of the story he doesn’t understand that with great power comes great responsibility. He uses his powers mostly to get back at the tall, blond, hunky star athlete Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) who’s been bullying him at school — I suspect the writers called him “Flash” as an homage to Flashman, the bully character in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days, which set the clichés for virtually every depiction of high school since — and to win over Flash’s girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who’s not only a hot-shot science student but also the daughter of police captain Thomas Stacy (Dennis Leary). One contributor noted that Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first girlfriend in the comic books, but she wasn’t; Peter’s original girlfriend was Betty Brant, a trick of Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to have the three principals in the stories (including J. Jonah Jameson, Peter’s boss at the Daily Bugle — a plot element completely eliminated from this version, probably because newspapers are so 20th century) have alliterative names; later Betty was dumped from the comics and Gwen replaced her, and Gwen was actually killed (giving the comic writers a powerful story arc showing Peter’s grief) before Peter got to graduate from high school, go on to college and start dating Mary Jane Watson, the name of his light o’love in the Maguire/Raimi films. Anyway, Peter Parker’s disinclination to get involved when a robber sticks up a bodega leads to the death of his uncle Ben, and the shock and grief smacks him to attention and he gets serious about the superhero business.

Meanwhile, rather than allow Ratha to use the poor old veterans in the nursing home as human guinea pigs, Dr. Connors decides to inject himself with the rejuvenation serum — and in the great tradition of self-experimentation gone wrong stories, including the great-granddaddy of them all, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the injection turns him into the Lizard, a 400-pound living dinosaur but with Connors’ brain intact. (Charles said he had no trouble suspending disbelief long enough to accept Peter Parker’s transformation but he had a great deal of trouble with the Lizard because he’s three times the size of Connors — Marvel had already pulled this gimmick with the Incredible Hulk but at least in his case he was a creation of radioactivity, which presumably could have expanded his atoms so he would be physically larger than he was as Dr. Bruce Banner while still having the same mass — but the Lizard is not the result of atomic energy.) The rest of the movie is typical superhero stuff, as the Lizard causes a wreck on the Brooklyn Bridge (he’s trying to stop Ratha from getting the serum to the veterans’ hospital) and Spider-Man has to spin his webs (in this movie they’re a mechanical/chemical device, not an intrinsic property of Spider-Man’s body; the comics started out with Parker inventing a device that spun his webs, later shifted to an organic one, and the Maguire/Raimi films made the webs organic from the get-go) and Spider-Man has to rescue a kid from a burning car. The Lizard hides out in the sewers under New York and Parker figures the only way to vanquish him is to invent a device that will freeze him, since like real lizards he’s cold-blooded and will suffer immobilizing paralysis from extreme cold.

The film times out at two hours and 16 minutes, but it’s half over before Peter Parker finally gets around to becoming Spider-Man and it’s at the two-thirds point before he has to deal with the Lizard — who quite frankly isn’t a particularly interesting super-villain (but then that’s been a weakness of all the current run of Spider-Man movies; aside from Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, they haven’t used most of the really imaginative villains from the comics) — but overall it’s a good but not great entry in the current comic-book superhero genre, with some marvelously campy moments (notably a fight scene inside the Midtown Science High library, in which one of the librarians is lost in a classical music piece he’s listening to over headphones and is totally oblivious to the fight between super-hero and super-villain going on just behind him) and a refreshing let-up on the miseries and angst that the Maguire/Raimi films emphasized (Spider-Man 2 made the title character so doggedly unhappy and unlucky I joked at the time it could have been called It’s a Wonderful Life, Spider-Man) — though I had an odd problem with Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man: he’s too good-looking, too sexy, to be believable as the nerd. Still, no one goes to a movie like this for the acting, and the ending (Thomas Stacy is killed in the final confrontation between Spider-Man — whom he’s been trying to arrest and prosecute as a vigilante all movie — and he extracts a promise from Spider-Man never to tell what really happened) is not only well directed and well acted but genuinely moving, ending the film on a sigh and a heartache rather than a baroque action climax.

Like most movies today, it draws as much or more on older, better movies than it does from life (even the weird, twisted version of it we get from comic books); like just about everyone who makes a superhero movie today, Marc Webb owes a lot to Tim Burton and the urban-Gothic look he got out of his London-built sets of “Gotham City” in the 1989 Batman, and as Charles pointed out the experiments in Dr. Connors’ lab hearken back even earlier, to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and the three films made from it. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man is good entertainment, blessedly lacking the forced “seriousness” of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and Watchmen — Webb and his writers remain aware that their story isn’t a great vehicle for making insightful comments on the human condition; it’s just a super-powered cop chasing a super-powered crook across a recognizable but stylized cityscape, and though it probably could have been cut to about two hours without suffering anything, it’s fine (and fun) the way it is.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Best Friend (FGM Entertainment/Tri-Star Pictures, 2002)

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

I ran New Best Friend, a 2002 movie recently shown on Lifetime even though it was apparently originally made for theatrical release (the production companies are something called FGM Entertainment and Tri-Star Pictures, and the ratings board gave it an “R” “for strong sexuality, language and drug use” even though its TV rating was “PG-S,” indicating that the dirty language had been removed and the drug use toned down but the sex remained). I’d had this one in the backlog for a while and I was looking forward to more soft-core porn — the hottest scene in the movie is a split-screen during the opening credits in which on the left side of the screen Alicia Campbell (Mia Kershner) is shown living a nerdy “grind” student’s life while on the right side her friend Hadley Ashton (Meredith Monroe, who’d actually be good casting in a biopic of her near-namesake Marilyn Monroe even though here she’s playing more like a cool “Hitchcock blonde” than an out-and-out sex goddess) is half-naked and making out with her boyfriend Trevor (Scott Bairstow, fourth-billed and the first male listed in the cast — and the director, Zoe Clarke-Williams, and writer, Victoria Strouse, are both women). All this is happening in Colby College in Lawrence County, North Carolina, and the film tells two parallel stories. The frame is an investigation being conducted by the newly appointed acting sheriff, Artie Bonner (Taye Diggs), into why Alicia Campbell started the year as an honor student, spiraled down into drink and drugs as Hadley befriended her, and ended up comatose and near death from an overdose. The flashback shows us the story of Alicia’s last year at Colby, as she and Hadley are paired up by a sociology teacher to do a final class project on the theme, “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.” Alicia is the child of a single mother (Glynnis O’Connor) and she’s determined to get into law school, but her ability to pay for it is dependent on her getting financial aid. Hadley and her two friends, Sidney Barrett (Dominique Swain) and Julianne Livingston (Rachel True), are all rich bitches who don’t have much to worry about in the way of finances, though Hadley is after her father to give her a job and he doesn’t want to because he knows there’s nothing he needs in his office (whatever it is — Strouse’s script is clear that Mr. Ashton is incredibly affluent and works in a fancy office, but it’s not at all clear what he does for a living), and he insists to her that he’ll only consider hiring her if she gets her grades up and makes straight A’s.

Hadley and Alicia form a quirky friendship out of their forced association on the project, which is going to playgrounds in grade schools in poor neighborhoods and interviewing the students while Hadley’s friend Warren (Eric Michael Cole) films them — and in one chilling scene that shows the noblesse oblige of the 1 percent Hadley slips one of the poor Black kids they’re interviewing a $50 bill and, instead of being horrified, Alicia tells her (maybe honestly, maybe hypocritically) what a wonderful thing she’s just done. For several reels it’s a typical story about a poor little not-so-rich girl worried about whether the rich will accept her and whether she can ever really be part of their clique, and whether the pretty but rather gauche-looking Alicia can make it with the girls and attract a boyfriend (or more than one boyfriend) from their circle. In order to do this she crashes one of Hadley’s parties — held at the home Hadley’s dad has bought for her, with a circular front porch that practically becomes a character in the movie itself — and starts helping herself to the plentiful booze and drugs. She starts to slip off the rails, but the rails get greased for her when she learns that though she’s been accepted to Colby’s law school, the school doesn’t have a big enough budget to give her the financial aid she needs to be able to afford it — and immediately she starts drinking, drugging and binging full-time, to the point where in a neat role reversal Hadley has to assume the reins of their school project in order to make sure it gets completed on time and both their grades in the class are secure.

New Best Friend has one big flaw — it’s structured to parallel Alicia’s downfall with Bonner’s investigation of her case, and some of the edits are awfully abrupt — we cut from Alicia the party girl to Alicia the coma patient with a breathing tube stuck in her nose, and back (at least in Citizen Kane, a pretty obvious model for this story’s structure, Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz were careful to keep us aware of when we were and whose point of view we were experiencing at any given moment) — but as annoying as the constant flashing back gets, this is a genuinely powerful and ambiguous movie in which we’re generally uncertain about both Alicia’s and Hadley’s characters and how we’re supposed to feel about them. In other Lifetime movies this has just seemed like sloppy scripting, but this time around it seems as if it’s what writer Strouse and director Clarke-Williams intended — and it’s an indication of the power of this movie that most of the debates about it on the message boards have revolved around the morals of the characters. Hadley seems at first to be your standard-issue spoiled rich bitch, but her uncertain relationship with her father and her desperation to please him gives her a degree of pathos — and Alicia is even more ambiguous, seeming as Bonner delves deeper into his investigation to be less the naïve little good girl she comes off as in the beginning but a woman with secrets and an ability to manipulate the other characters to get their sympathy. At one point she insists that she’s never had sex with a man — to which Susan, who asked her The Question, says she’s had 42 different male partners — and later Alicia and Susan get it on themselves, provoking jealousy from Julianne (who’s African-American — essentially the daughter of one of the token Blacks in the 1 percent, proving that the capitalist elite may find racism, sexism and homophobia useful divide-and-conquer strategies against the 99 percent but doesn’t need them to maintain its power and can let a few women, people of color and Queers into its ranks as long as they behave), though it’s clear that for these people Lesbian sex is just an expression of their polymorphous perversity and not either a lifestyle choice or a “born this way” status.

Later Susan says she was molested by her father and Alicia says, “Me, too, by dad number two, for five years” — indicating that Alicia is actually manipulative and good at sucking for sympathy with whomever she’s with. Alicia also makes a play for Hadley’s boyfriend Travis, justifying it because Travis was complaining that Hadley had cheated on him with Warren (their videographer), and there’s a sequence in which the characters are in some sort of outdoor location on campus and Hadley takes a fall on a grating while Travis is with Alicia telling her how honest he finds her, unlike you-know-who. The payoff comes when Hadley misses a date with her father — she’s used to him standing her up but this time he shows and Alicia, who’s carefully kept his messages from reaching Hadley, turns up instead, has dinner with him and practically flirts with him. Do they get it on or don’t they? Strouse doesn’t tell us yes or no, but he’s obviously taken enough with her that he offers her the job Hadley wanted and also to pay for her to go to law school at his alma mater, Stanford — and Hadley, whose own relationship with her dad seems to echo that between Natalie Wood’s character in Rebel Without a Cause and her father (namely, that he was so afraid of being sexually attracted to her he wouldn’t even touch her in ordinarily legitimate ways), has a jealous hissy-fit. She scores 100 percent pure pharmaceutical-grade cocaine from an orderly in the hospital where she was being treated for her fall — he’s tall and a bit dorky but not bad-looking and, of course, sex (or the offer of sex) is the lure Hadley uses to get him to do her bidding — then sneaks it into one of the multicolored envelopes in which the local drug dealer puts his considerably weaker (20 percent pure) cocaine product, puts it in a stash in her dresser that Alicia was used to stealing from, and Alicia does the whole packet and goes into a coma. (Hadley later explains she didn’t want to kill Alicia, just to make her dad see that Alicia wasn’t the goody-two-shoes he thought and therefore was unworthy of his help.)

Bonner figures all this out because the medical examiner recovered residue from Alicia’s nose showing that the “hot” dose was pure cocaine and not the usual street product, and that gives him the clue he needs to unravel the whole case — despite the efforts of the college dean (Edmund Kearney), whose “pull” with the City Council will decide whether Bonner gets hired as the sheriff full-time, to get him to call off his investigation because the town gets 90 percent of its tax revenue from the college and its students, and anything that discredits the college and makes the rich parents less likely to send their kids there is going to hurt the town. So in a way New Best Friend is a story of two people — Alicia and Bonner — both of whom are aware in no uncertain terms that in order to get ahead they have to suck up to the super-rich, only Alicia tries to deal with them from a position of deceit while Bonner retains his integrity, pursues his investigation to the end and ultimately resigns as acting sheriff in a handing-over-his-badge scene much like the ending of Dirty Harry — after he does the Law and Order thing and arrests Hadley right after she receives her degree in Colby’s graduation ceremony, the most publicly embarrassing place he can take her into custody. It’s a surprisingly effective film that works on many levels (though it’s clear from the reviews that a considerable amount of the original’s soft-core porn lubricity was cut from the Lifetime version): as a tale of school friendships gone horribly awry, a just-say-no movie (in the earlier scenes Alicia, the dedicated, non-partying student, reminded me of me) and a parable of class and class consciousness reflecting an F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish love-hate relationship towards the rich.

The River (U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1937/38)

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

I showed The River, Pare Lorentz’ other movie (at least virtually the only other one anybody’s seen!), his 1937 documentary (though for some reason dates it as 1938) for the Farm Security Administration, which had absorbed the Resettlement Administration (for which he’d made The Plow That Broke the Plains) when the focus of the Roosevelt Administration’s response to the Dust Bowl crisis shifted from getting the farmers to relocate to helping them stay there and learn to farm the land responsibly and minimize soil erosion. The River was mocked when it was new (and has been ridiculed since) for the incantatory style of Lorentz’s narration (delivered again, as in Plow, by Thomas Chalmers, who speaks in the earnest style of the narrators of “audio-visual” movies used in schools in the 1960’s — in fact one person who reviewed The River on actually recalled seeing it for the first time as an “audio-visual” movie in high school!), especially when he starts reading off all the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi, the titular river and the subject of the film: “The Yellowstone, the Milk, the White, the Cheyenne; the Cannonball, the Muscle Shoals, the James, the Sioux; down the Judith, and the Osage, and the Platte; the Skunk, the Salt, the Black, and Minnesota; down the Rock, and the Illinois, and the Kankakee; the Allegheny, the Monongahela, Penawba and the Muskegon; down the Miami and the Wabash and the Lickee and the Green; the Cumberland and the Kentucky and the Tennessee; down the Wachita, the Wichita, the Red and Yazoo; down the Missouri, 3,000 miles from the Rockies; down the Ohio, 1,000 miles from the Alleghenies; down the Arkansas, 1,500 miles from the Great Divide; down the Red, 1,000 miles from Texas; down the Great Valley, 2,500 miles from Minnesota, carrying every rivulet and brook, creek and rill.”

Typical of the commentary on this film is Arthur Calder-Marshall’s rather snippy reference to it, Lorentz’s other film The Plow That Broke the Plains, and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath: “[B]oth Steinbeck and Lorentz had shied away from the stark horror [of the Dust Bowl migration], the former into romantic sentiment and the latter into an incantatory use of Indian names. The sordid suffering was covered in the aspic of Art.” It’s interesting to note that despite Lorentz’ use of all the other major creative personnel from Plow on The River — himself, narrator Chalmers, composer Virgil Thomson (whose score is absolutely brilliant, surpassing his excellent work on Plow, despite his use of two schlocky pseudo-folk songs; in one sequence he uses a banjo with orchestral accompaniment to underscore shots of a riverboat, and Charles joked that it was probably the most “serious” piece of music ever composed that used the banjo) and conductor Alexander Smallens — none of the cinematographers from Plow (not even Paul Ivano, the only one of the four on Plow who lasted to the end) worked on The River. Instead the cinematographers on The River were Floyd Crosby (already an Academy Award winner for the F. W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty semi-documentary Tabu in 1931, and the father of rock musician David Crosby), Willard Van Dyke and Stacy Woodard, and Crosby’s influence on the visual style is readily apparent from his off-beat angling and heavy use of the red filter.

The River — even in the context of a photographically lousy print from — is a quite beautiful film, especially haunting in its images of the river itself. Its basic moral is the same as that of Plow: the catastrophes of nature in the Midwest and South — the Dust Bowl of Plains and the Mississippi River floods here — are the fault of human beings meddling with nature in chancy, catch-as-catch-can ways, but the solution is not to leave nature alone and with minimal interference, but to remodel it in even more extensive, but carefully planned, ways. In what up until its last five minutes or so has been a hymn to nature and a condemnation of human efforts to tame it, we suddenly start seeing entire cliffsides blow up and Chalmers’ narration makes it clear we are supposed to approve. The last few minutes of The River are out-and-out propaganda supporting the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the shots of the TVA’s network of dams being built are among the most awe-inspiring in the film even though they bring Lorentz’s style even closer to what in the U.S.S.R. was being called “socialist realism” than it’s been throughout the previous 25 minutes (and all of Plow as well, where for all Lorentz’ clear veneration of Eisenstein, his editing was a good deal sloppier — at one point he cut from shots of the Great Plains to a series of explosions from cannons, and while Chalmers’ narration quickly makes it clear these scenes are supposed to illustrate World War I in progress, for a moment the juxtaposition makes it look like the Plains have come under enemy artillery fire).

Like The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River is a real period piece, sometimes incredibly beautiful (particularly when the images from Crosby and company and Thomson’s music fuse just right) and sometimes banal, and politically problematic now when the U.S. has largely soured on big-ticket efforts to remake nature — and the Left, to which Lorentz clearly belong, is probably sourer on them than anyone else! A TVA-like development would be politically impossible today because the Right would insist that it be done by the private sector and the Left would fight against it being done at all; at least one of the reasons President Obama’s “stimulus” didn’t have the kind of economic “juice” the WPA did was that both environmental and business opposition to major public-sector construction projects had become so entrenched there were woefully few jobs that were really “shovel-ready” — in the 1930’s government had essentially said, “Damn the corporations, damn the environment, full speed ahead,” but at least since the 1970’s that kind of rapid development has been well-nigh impossible (as much as the Right likes to call for it, especially in energy). Lorentz’s films are, ironically, “timeless” in their depiction of environmental catastrophes and very much of their time in terms of what they say we should do about them — and it’s for both of those reasons that they remain interesting. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifty Million Frenchmen (Warner Bros., 1931)

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

The film was Fifty Million Frenchmen, a really peculiar 1931 Warner Bros. production that actually began life as a Cole Porter musical on Broadway in 1929 — and Warner Bros., looking at the grosses of the previous Porter musical Paris and also at the enormous audience for just about any film that featured singing and dancing, put up either all or part of the production cost (sources differ) in exchange for the movie rights. But by the time they were ready to film it in 1931, the bottom had dropped out of the musical-movie market and so Fifty Million Frenchmen hit the screen as a nonmusical farce-comedy with slapstick overtones, and Porter got a screen credit (along with the original book writers, Herbert Fields and E. Ray Goetz) but none of his tunes were actually sung in the film, though some (including the show’s two big hits, “You’ve Got That Thing” and “You Do Something to Me”) were heard in the movie’s overture and under the printed titles that covered the original stage version’s changes of scene. Oddly, though Warner Bros. took out the film’s songs, they hired three of the actors from the original stage production — William Gaxton, Helen Broderick (she made her screen debut here and didn’t make another feature-length film until her memorable turn as the second female lead in the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat four years later) and Lester Crawford (Broderick’s real-life husband — their son Broderick Crawford became a bigger star than either of them, though it’s difficult to imagine him as their progeny given what they look like here!) — to repeat their roles in the film. Bereft of its songs and also the two-strip Technicolor it was originally shot in — it’s yet another two-strip movie whose extant prints are in black-and-white (though at least the actors’ makeup doesn’t look as hideous as was the norm in black-and-white versions of two-strip films) — Fifty Million Frenchmen emerges as a sporadically amusing but mostly dreary would-be comedy, remodeled to feature the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.

They were enormous Broadway stars (especially after 1938, when they debuted a madcap revue called Hellzapoppin’ which was basically the ancestor of the 1960’s TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: it featured a large cast and a lot of flamboyantly unreal situations, including a famous gag in which a woman would be seen by theatergoers carrying a small potted plant and calling out to someone named Oscar; at periodic intervals she’d walk through the theatre calling, “Oscar! OSCAR!” and each time the plant would be larger, until as the audience left they’d see her in the lobby, nestled in the branches of a potted tree, still screaming, “OSCAR!”) but they made only nine feature films, three for Warners in 1930-31, two for Republic in 1936-37 and four for Universal in 1941-45. (The Universal films are generally considered their best but are almost never shown today — any hopes they’d had for ongoing movie stardom were dashed by the almost simultaneous appearance of Abbott and Costello on the Universal lot — and they even made fun of that in their second Universal film, Crazy House, in which they show up at Universal ready to make a follow-up to the movie version of Hellzapoppin’ and get on the intercom of the production head to announce, “Universal’s number one comedy team is here!” He replies, “Send Abbott and Costello right in!” I’m still hoping Universal Home Video will release the four films together in a boxed set the way they did with the first four Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies.)

Fifty Million Frenchmen is a typical Broadway story about love and money among the upper set — in this case, as the title suggests, American tourists in Paris. Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is the son of a wealthy family who’s attracted to Lu Lu Carroll (Claudia Dell), another rich American in the French capital, but he’s also trying to shake off Marcelle Dubrey (Carmelita Geraghty), a Frenchwoman with whom he had a shipboard romance she obviously took a lot more seriously than he did. She demands a 10,000-franc settlement to leave him alone and the cash-poor (even though he has a line of credit available) Jack accepts a loan from his friend Michael Cummings (John Halliday) to pay off Marcelle. But Michael and a third person in their party, Billy Baxter (Lester Crawford), insist as a condition of their loan that Jack must live for two weeks in Paris without any money at all other than what he can earn in whatever jobs he can get during that time. They sweeten the deal with a $50,000 bet and hire two American detectives, Simon (Ole Olsen) and Peter (Chic Johnson) — one wonders if the Biblical names were a deliberate joke either on the part of the original writers or Joseph Jackson and Eddie Welch, who wrote the screenplay — to follow Jack and see that he doesn’t cheat on the terms of the deal. There really isn’t much more plot to it than that, though the basic situation sets up some interesting gags — in one of which Jack, needing an evening coat for a party Lu Lu is attending, wins one by playing a game of strip poker with the obnoxious kid (Norman Phillips, Jr.) of a couple (Nat Carr and Vera Gordon) he’s been squiring around Paris in a short-lived job as a guide for American Express (it wasn’t always just a credit-card company!), only it’s too small for him.

There is one song in the movie, a comic number Jack, Simon and Peter do in the detective’s hotel room (which of course comes equipped with a piano), but it’s so crude it’s impossible to believe it’s Porter’s work and more likely Olsen and Johnson wrote it themselves. (“The Laughing Song,” a composition of theirs from their previous movie, Oh, Sailor, Behave!, had been a surprise hit.) There’s also a scene reminiscent of Chaplin’s The Pawnshop in which Jack, about to be thrown out of the hotel for non-payment of his bill, disguises himself as the famous magician Orizon (Bela Lugosi, in one of only two color films he ever made — alas, this one doesn’t survive in color and the other one, the 1947 film Scared to Death, does) and gives a show that ends up with him demolishing a rich guest’s heirloom watch and scrambling it inside a top hat with an egg. The big highlight of the movie is another scene ripped off of an earlier and greater comedian — in this case, an intriguing variant of Buster Keaton’s Cops (and indeed it’s tempting to imagine how much funnier this movie would have been with the Great Stone Face playing Gaxton’s role!) in which Billy Baxter, who wants Lu Lu for himself, has hired two thugs to kidnap Jack. Simon and Peter are following — on foot, even though the kidnapers have a car — and after them is coming virtually the whole gendarmerie, alerted by the hotel manager (Charles Judels) who claims they’ve stolen a purse. The chase scene hits a patch of street that’s been oiled, so the participants slip and slide; and then another part that’s just been tarred, so they get stuck and move in slow motion, and the sequence is funny enough that the inevitable happy ending (Jack and Lu Lu get together, he gets access to his money again, and he gives the bet money to Simon and Peter, who tear up their return ticket to the U.S. and decide to stay in Paris on the ground that “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” the only reference to the famous saying that gives the film its title) just seems anticlimactic.

There’s also a scene in which, in order to trick Jack out of what little money he’s been able to amass, he meets him at a racetrack and tells him to bet on a no-talent horse named Pansy — who wins the race, then is faced with disqualification, then isn’t disqualified after all but in the meantime Jack has torn up his and Lu Lu’s tickets on him so he doesn’t get the winnings (though Helen Broderick has sent him to pick up the proceeds of her bet on Pansy and this momentarily gives Lu Lu the impression that he’s involved with another woman) — and a cute scene earlier on in which Broderick’s character, Violet (she’s essentially the heroine’s sidekick the way she was with Ginger Rogers in her two films with Rogers and Astaire), tells Jack, “I want to be insulted,” but it turns out that every sexually racy thing he can think of to show her, including 3-D postcards and live peep shows, she’s already done. Fifty Million Frenchmen is directed by Lloyd Bacon with rare vitality — at least by his standards — and if the Porter songs had been included and the film survived in color it would be a lot more enjoyable than it is; as it is, it’s just another historical curio with an oddly homely leading man (Gaxton would play leads on Broadway for another decade but it’s readily apparent why he never became a film star — he’s stout, homely and has a grating speaking voice that makes me wonder how he negotiated Porter’s songs in the stage version and again in Anything Goes) and a comedy team that wouldn’t really hit their stride for another seven years. (Another Olsen and Johnson anecdote: during the film of Hellzapoppin’ they wander through several sets at Universal, and in one of them they see, hanging from the prop wall, a sled called “Rosebud.” They were almost certainly the first people to parody Citizen Kane.) Ironically, it would be this film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, who would direct 42nd Street, the film that would restore musicals to popularity, two years later.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Sisters from Boston (MGM, 1946)

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

For last night’s “feature” I ran Charles Two Sisters from Boston, an obscure but surprisingly charming MGM musical, produced by Joe Pasternak and directed by Henry Koster (the same team who had made Deanna Durbin a star with Three Smart Girls at Universal in 1936, a decade before this 1946 film) and starring Kathryn Grayson and June Allyson as the title characters. The film is set in 1900 and begins at a staid tea party in Boston, given by the Chandler family, where Martha Canford Chandler (June Allyson) is playing piano in a terminally dull chamber work and everything is going along at a snail’s pace of “correct” tedium when an officious young man announces to Martha’s uncle Jonathan (Harry Hayden) and aunt Jennifer (Isobel Elsom) — this seems to be yet another one of those movies in which teenagers have been palmed off on their aunt and uncle, presumably because their parents died — that the family’s name has been hopelessly disgraced. Both the dialogue and the demeanor of the actor’s performance (he’s nice-looking and a quite powerful performer, so it’s a real pity that we don’t see him again) are so reminiscent of a film from four years earlier in which Tim Holt played a young man equally upset with real or imagined blots on his family’s reputation that I immediately joked, “Ah, The Magnificent Ambersons — the musical!” No such luck, but the plot that did develop from this is quite witty in its own right. It seems that the big scandal that threatens to disgrace the Chandler family and cost uncle Jonathan his chance to be elected mayor of Boston is that Martha’s sister Abigail (Kathryn Grayson) is working as a nightclub entertainer at a sleazy spot called the Golden Rooster in the Bowery district of New York. The Chandlers immediately set out for New York to find out if this is true and, if it is, to pull Abigail from that unhealthy environment and drag her back to Boston post-haste. Next we’re taken to the Golden Rooster, where Abigail is billed as “High-C Susie” in a show MC’d and led from the piano by “Spike” (Jimmy Durante, who looks startling at first because he has much more hair than we’re used to seeing on him, but later we find out it’s a toupée when he takes it off and reveals the typical Durante scraggle), singing songs as raunchy as composer Sammy Fain and lyricist Ralph Freed could make them in a Production Code-era movie and showing off her legs (‘her limbs,’ the shocked Chandlers say in disgust).

When her folks from Boston come to visit, Abigail hatches a scheme to make them think she’s actually appearing in the opera — and when they find a slip of paper on the floor of her room with the name “The Golden Rooster” written on it, she convinces them it’s really the name of an opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or (which wasn’t written until 1907, seven years after this film supposedly takes place). The Chandlers immediately announce that they’re going to buy a ticket to that very night’s opera performance so they can see Abigail — which leaves her the task of bribing, flirting or bulling her way through onto the opera stage. She does that with the help of “Spike,” whose modus operandi throughout the whole film is to whisper something in the ear of the person he’s trying to influence — some deep dark secret he supposedly knows about them — and invariably he hits on a location they were in when they did do something they wouldn’t want the world to know about, and says his lips will be sealed if only they will … He manages to get Abigail into the chorus of an opera (a rather lame faux-opera concocted by Charles Previn, the music director, and Wilhelm von Wymetal, the opera director who got the call for a lot of Hollywood’s forays into the operatic world — and who “Anglicized” his name and is billed as “William Wymetal” here), where she steps out and embarrasses herself and everyone else (though she impresses her family) by breaking into a few coloratura bits in the middle of the big aria sung by tenor Olstrom (Lauritz Melchior, the main reason I wanted to see this — not surprisingly, his singing is acceptable in the faux-opera bits but comes to life when he can actually sing Wagner, the bridal-chamber duet between Lohengrin and Elsa in English translation and the Prize Song from Meistersinger in the original German, in a sequence supposedly representing a recording session) and getting herself barred from the opera house — to which she only got invited in the first place because “Spike” had dropped hints she was the mistress of Patterson (Thurston Hall).

Meanwhile, Patterson’s son (Peter Lawford) has fallen in love with Martha, and the plot spirals out of control into complications that end with Martha claiming that she is “High C Susie” from the Golden Rooster (and having to go on stage with a refractory non-voice to prove it!), Patterson fils being shocked that his new girlfriend would do something so unbecoming and socially embarrassing, “Spike” hatching a new scheme to get Abigail (back) into the opera by presenting her at a social event being given by Patterson père and his wife (Nella Walker) — which means he has to figure out a way to persuade Olstrom, the guest of honor, not to attend (the moment he recognized Abigail he would presumably order her out of there), along with an amnesiac butler at the Patterson home (Ben Blue) who’s also a regular at the Golden Rooster and therefore could also “out” Abigail, but he’s no threat if he’s kept sober (since, at least according to this script, alcohol consumption gets his memory to work again) — and there’s a final sequence in which Olstrom is starring in another faux-opera called Marie Antoinette, he’s playing Louis XVI (he’s listed in the poster for this opera as a baritone even though Melchior was a tenor) and Abigail (under a pseudonym) is going to play Marie Antoinette, and she thinks she’s got away with her disguise until her costumer takes off her wig for alterations, Olstrom recognizes her instantly, at first refuses to sing with her but later relents, Abigail gets the opera career she’s wanted all along (she only took the job at the Golden Rooster in the first place to make money to pay for singing lessons, and unlike Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco and Dorothy Patrick in New Orleans, she doesn’t discover a hot new kind of popular music she wants to bring to the concert hall) and Patterson, Jr. gets Martha. It’s not much in synopsis, but Myles Connolly’s script (with additional dialogue by James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane) is a good one, full of witty bits (including the sequence in which Olstrom’s dog, Tristan, hears the playback of Olstrom’s record, assumes the classic RCA Victor/HMV trademark pose, and one of the recording engineers gapes in awe and says, “His master’s voice … ”) and enough variations on the old clichés we’re really not sure how it’s all going to turn out.

And for those who wonder how a screen teaming between Lauritz Melchior and Jimmy Durante would turn out, well, he’d earlier been teamed with Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich in a previous MGM musical (Thrill of a Romance, also a Pasternak production) and he seemed to be having a good time through the whole thing — in fact, around this time Melchior was briefly signed with MGM Records as well as making films for the parent studio. He’s properly avuncular and temperamental, but the film does do justice to his voice (at least in the Wagner segments), and the depiction of a 1900 recording session was accurate in part (the master record is recorded on a zinc blank which can be put immediately into a metal bath and played back — later wax blanks were used, which sounded better but required major off-site processing and couldn’t be listened to for about three weeks after the record was made — and the producer of the session is shown pulling Melchior back when he’s about to sing loudly and pushing him closer to the recording horn when he sings softly — this was so the record would reproduce at an even volume and a loud note wouldn’t cause the cutting stylus to vibrate so violently that it would slice through the adjoining grooves, ruining the record) and anachronistic in part (he’s accompanied by a small orchestra, with string players using normal instruments instead of Stroh violins — though in 1900 the frequency range that could be recorded was so narrow most opera records were made with no instruments at all except a piano). I hadn’t had much hope for this movie — I was mainly watching it as a relatively minor Melchior credit in between the Esther Williams Technicolor extravaganzae Thrill of a Romance and This Time for Keeps — but it turned out to be graceful, witty and genuinely charming, a triumph of style over (lack of) substance and yet more evidence that Henry Koster was a genuinely creative director and not just another studio hack.

The Plow That Broke the Plains (U.S. Resettlement Administration, 1936)

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

In the wake of the Ken Burns mini-series The Dust Bowl I had downloaded from Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film The Plow That Broke the Plains, a 25-minute documentary produced by the U.S. government back when Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) had hired people not only to dig ditches and build bridges, highways and government buildings (many of them still in use today!) but to do some pretty far-afield things like put on plays, write books (mostly travel guidebooks giving the histories and listing the attractions of some of America’s historic regions) and make movies. The Burns show had mentioned this film and had said that when it was shown in the still-operating movie theatres in the Dust Bowl region itself, audiences hadn’t liked it, partly because they went to the movies to escape the reality instead of watching it bigger than life on screen, and partly because they felt insulted by it since the film essentially blamed the Dust Bowl crisis on the farmers themselves for plowing up too much marginal land and expecting to make a living out of farming wheat in places with big winds, hot sun and very little rain.

Ironically, the Ken Burns documentary basically told the same story from the same point of view, though it had nearly four hours to tell it in versus Pare Lorentz’ 25 minutes; Lorentz’ take on it goes back at least to the 1890’s and the battles between cattlemen and homesteaders over the future of the Great Plains, which have been the subject of innumerable Westerns (from Oklahoma! and Shane to Heaven’s Gate); first the cattlemen moved in after the land was “cleared” (an astonishing euphemism showing that even a man as self-consciously Leftist as Lorentz wasn’t immune to the prejudices of his time) of the Indians and the buffalo, and grazed their herds on the native grasses that had previously supported the buffalo (and the Native Americans who depended on them for food, clothing and shelter!); then the farmers came in and their plows started to break the plains (the marvelously punning title — “broke” in the sense of opening the soil for tilling and planting, and “broke” in the sense of destroying — is one of the best things about this film) and they started eking out a marginal existence; then World War I opened up huge new markets for wheat and the plains farmers took advantage of the war-driven boom (and the bubble-driven boom of the 1920’s which followed) and a decade or so of really good rainfall to plant wheat and harvest bumper crops which they could sell for a lot of money; then the national economy collapsed in 1929 and the farm ecology of the Plains states collapsed two years later, leading to the Dust Bowl and the catastrophe Lorentz and his squad of four cinematographers — Leo T. Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Paul Ivano — captured in images of heart-stopping beauty and horror even in the poor-quality print available on (According to a “trivia” note on, all the camerapeople except Ivano — perhaps not coincidentally, the only one who’d had Hollywood experience; he’d worked on Valentino’s films in the 1920’s and made a comeback in the 1940’s as a noir specialist — walked out on the production because they wanted a more visually oriented, less narration-driven approach than Lorentz’s.)

What’s most amazing about The Plow That Broke the Plains today is its obvious debt to the films of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein’s in particular (but then this was an era in which virtually every progressive filmmaker in the world regarded Eisenstein as a god; I can remember Charles and I watching John Grierson’s first film, the 1929 silent documentary Drifters, and noting its obvious debt to Battleship Potemkin even though the sailors in Eisenstein’s film were starting a revolution while the ones in Grierson’s were just catching herring); it’s essentially a work of socialist realism done in and about the U.S. Even the rather emphatic narration by Thomas Chalmers (not exactly one of the golden throats of the day) has the air of the Popular Front about it, its attempt to communicate the ideas of the Left in the folksy tones its city-bred creators hoped would make the point to rural audiences (and the narration got awfully patronizing and preachy at times but it still marks a time when the Left actually tried to reach out to middle America in general and rural America in particular instead of regarding it as hopelessly beyond the pale).

The most famous element of The Plow That Broke the Plains (and of Lorentz’s follow-up, the 1937 documentary The River, about the Mississippi) is the original musical score by Virgil Thomson, conducted by Alexander Smallens (who also conducted the world premiere production of Porgy and Bess), which essentially is in what could be called the “Americana” vein of Aaron Copland except that Thomson was writing that way before Copland was. Thomson even uses the same Western folk song, “I Ride an Old Paint,” that Copland used in the slow “Saturday Night Waltz” section of his ballet Rodeo six years later. The Plow That Broke the Plains is visually stunning (it’s a hymn to the effectiveness of the red filter, a device that alas became unusable once color replaced black-and-white as the movie standard), narratively creaky, musically fascinating (Leopold Stokowski made a famous LP of the scores for this and The River and more recently the films have been reissued on DVD with Smallens’ versions of the scores erased and new recordings of Thomson’s music dubbed in) and a real period piece even though Ken Burns not only showed the opening credits in The Dust Bowl but also included, as if it were actual newsreel footage, the shots of a farmer (Bam White) and his family packing up their meager goods in their car and trailer before setting off to flee the Dust Bowl.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Unfaithful (20th Century-Fox/Regency/Epsilon, 2002)

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

I watched a 2002 movie called Unfaithful that I had recorded off Lifetime on June 24 (just one day after John Primavera, my friend and home-care client of nearly 30 years, died suddenly) starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who reunited for a much better film called Nights in Rodanthe just six years later. Unfaithful was a U.S. remake of a 1969 French movie called La Femme Infidèle (“The Unfaithful Wife”), written by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr. from the original French screenplay by Claude Chabrol (who also directed the French version); this one was directed by Adrian Lyne, who despite his réclame from having made Fatal Attraction in 1987 hasn’t directed a film in the 10 years since Unfaithful (though his page lists something called Back Roads as being in pre-production). It’s the sort of movie that’s so evidently trying for Seriousness with a capital “S” that it’s heartbreaking to see it go awry at almost every turn. After a prologue of boringly banal suburban domesticity, it starts in New York City on a windy day (which makes it rather appropriate watching in the wake of  Hurricane or Superstorm or whatchamacallit Sandy), in which suburban housewife Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) takes a bad fall on the street and is rescued by Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), who runs a seedy little used bookstore and apparently lives in a flat above the store in the same building, and takes a lot of his stock home with him since the place is virtually filled with bookshelves containing such treasures as a first-edition copy of Jack London’s White Fang with the original dust jacket (did they have dust jackets back then?) which he proudly tells her he bought for $1.50 and is worth $4,000. Paul is your typical movie French seducer with the bad accent — he fractures English even worse than Charles Boyer (whom he’s obviously mimicking) ever did — and Connie is inexplicably drawn to his combination of gorgeous looks and bad attitude.

We’ve already seen the suburban domesticity she’s longing for an escape from — hubby Ed (Richard Gere) and 10-year-old son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan) in a big, sterile house — and Ed’s having career problems which are never quite explained (at least in the Lifetime version — it’s clear some major surgery was done on this movie to make it fit for basic cable: the “memorable quotes” section on includes Ed chewing out Connie with the F-word after he’s discovered her affair with Paul — “How you fucked him over and over and over? You lied to me over and over and over. … You threw it all away like it was nothing. For what? To a fucking kid!” — which of course we heard neither hide nor hair of in this bowdlerized Lifetime version) but we’re told briefly that he owns a fleet of trucks and he’s recently bought 200 more of them but he can’t run them because some authority has imposed a “suspension” on him that he’s having to fight in court. Maybe the original French version was better (though it’s not like I’m actively going to seek it out) but the U.S. one is all too soaked in America’s peculiarly mixed attitude towards sex, in which we’re at once titillated by and condemnatory of those who “cheat” (itself an awfully loaded term for something that’s often a simple, basic expression of our humanity!), resulting in a movie like this in which the guilt feelings of the characters (the American ones, at any rate) are part of the plot. About the one thing Lyne, Sargent and Broyles get right is the clash between the French and the American attitudes towards extra-relational sex: Paul thinks it’s no big deal and nobody’s business but his and his partners’ whom he has sex with; Ed not only guesses his wife is having an affair but hires a private detective to tail her and take surveillance photos of her and Paul together; and even Connie gets ridiculously possessive and flails at Paul and his alternate girlfriend (Murielle Arden) when she catches them necking in between the shelves in his bookstore.

The movie rambles on for about half its running time with Connie making more and more preposterous excuses for getting away to be with Paul, building up the suspense over how Ed is going to find out for sure about the affair and what’s going to happen when the two men confront each other — which finally occurs in Paul’s upstairs apartment, where Lyne’s camera gives us a shot from Ed’s point of view as his gaze travels through the studio room, alights on the bed where his wife made love with that person, then notices a crystal snow-globe, picks it up and says, “Rosebud” — oops, wrong movie. Ed recognizes the snow-globe, asks Paul where he got it, and when Paul says, “Your wife gave it to me,” Ed gets furious, says, “I gave it to her!,” picks it up and clobbers Paul in the head with it (and of course Lyne can’t resist copping Orson Welles’ famous shot of the snow-globe hitting the floor and rolling towards the camera in extreme close-up, though this time it doesn’t shatter — it has to remain intact to set up one last plot twist towards the end). It’s the sort of movie assault where it looks like Paul just suffered a light tap on the head, enough to draw blood but hardly life-threatening, but we’re told the blow was instantly fatal — and, as in Gere’s star-making film, American Gigolo, the mid-film murder blasts this movie from the realm of the merely mediocre to the out-and-out campy-bad. We’re rooting (at least I was!) for Ed to come to his senses and call 911 — obviously he’s better off being charged with assault than ultimately arrested for murder — and he actually picks up Paul’s phone, presses the “9” and then the “1,” but idiotically draws back from pressing “1” again and instead starts wiping every surface he’s touched to avoid leaving fingerprints. He wraps Paul’s body up in a carpet, seals it with duct tape (he’s beginning to look as if he’s auditioning for America’s Stupidest Criminals), and drags it into the building’s elevator — which sticks — and when he finally gets himself and the body out of the building he’s accosted by a passer-by (a witness!). He packs the body into the trunk of his car and eventually disposes of it in what looks like either a construction site or a dump — only it’s found and the police start investigating. The film ends with Ed and Connie having been brought back together by her husband’s murdering her lover; they’re sitting in their car (with their son in the back seat, maybe asleep, maybe awake) and as the film ends they talk about relocating to an island, assuming other identities, and hiding out for the rest of their lives — an annoyingly inconclusive ending which Lyne insisted on.

The studio (20th Century-Fox, producing in partnership with companies called Regency and Epsilon — that’s right, this isn’t a “B”-movie, it’s an “E”-movie!) wanted it to end with Ed getting out of the car — which is parked in front of a police station — and turning himself in, which would have made a lot more sense both dramatically and morally; for once a studio was right about a movie and its director was wrong! There’s certainly some novelty value in Unfaithful, if only because we expect that in a movie about adultery with Richard Gere as the star he’s going to be the cuckolder instead of the cuckoldee, but the moral attitudes of the story are all wrong, Olivier Martinez’s English accent is a thing of ugliness and a horror to behear, and Adrian Lyne could give the usual Lifetime hacks lessons in how to ruin a movie by overdirection: in one scene Ed is shown getting off the commuter train at Grand Central Station, and there’s none of the pushing and shoving and jockeying for position we’ve seen in just about every other movie showing this sort of scene. Instead, the passengers, all virtually identically dressed males in ugly suits, get off the train in unison with the smooth, well-rehearsed precision of a Busby Berkeley chorus line. What’s most interesting in Unfaithful is how its moral attitudes exemplify the sexual counter-revolution: in the 1930’s a plot like this would mostly likely have ended with the woman (not her husband!) killing the lover and suffering picturesquely before she’s taken away and punished in the final reels; in the 1970’s movies like An Unfinished Woman took this basic situation and presented adultery as a form of women’s liberation from the stultifying reality of a suburban marriage; by 2002 the pendulum had swung again and the story is once again ridden with guilt and angst (in what Sargent and Broyles obviously thought was irony, Ed kills Paul just before Connie leaves a message on Paul’s phone, which Ed hears, saying she’s going to break off the affair because “I just can’t do this anymore”) and, despite his murderous overreaction, our sympathies are clearly with the husband.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Dust Bowl (Florentine Films/WETA/PBS, 2012)

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

I put on the first half of The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns’ latest slice of elegiac American history from PBS — oddly, KPBS was showing it at 8 p.m. and then repeating the whole program immediately afterwards at 10 — and I had set the DVD recorder to record it on the first go-round but caught it “live” on the second. Burns’ vision of the Dust Bowl is not merely a freak set of accidents that caught the farmers of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado unawares but a man-made environmental disaster of terrific scope, the end of a 50-year process in which overly optimistic farmers bought the propaganda of greedy land merchants and set up stakes in an arid area — not really desert but not all that good arable land either — then chewed it up with their plows and took advantage of a few good, rainy years until the rains stopped just about the same time as the national economy collapsed completely, in 1931 (until then the plains were producing bumper crops of wheat and the farmers were pretty much insulated from the effects of the Depression), and farmers responded to falling prices by planting more and more wheat, thereby just digging their holes deeper because rising supply meant prices fell even further.

The Dust Bowl is an obvious cautionary tale for today — the failure of just about everyone in American politics and economics to respond to the potential catastrophe of human-caused climate change is the obvious modern parallel, especially since instead of working on a transition to renewable energy the U.S. is now boasting that it’s producing more fossil fuels than ever before and is poised to become the world’s leading oil producer by 2020 (thanks to the insanely destructive “fracking” process) — but that’s a lot clearer in the quote by Dust Bowl survivor Wayne Lewis on the PBS Web site than Burns made it in the film itself (probably because he’s dependent for his production money on the very giant corporations that are making money off the economy the way it is and have no interest in the wrenching changes needed to stave off global warming): “We want it now – and if it makes money now it’s a good idea. But if the things we’re doing are going to mess up the future it wasn’t a good idea. Don’t deal on the moment. Take the long-term look at things. It’s important that we do the right thing by the soil and the climate. History, is of value only if you learn from it.” What came through most strongly in The Dust Bowl is the sheer orneriness of the people who stuck it out year after year — one survivor called the residents of Oklahoma’s thin sliver of land atop the Texas Panhandle, nicknamed “no-man’s land” and the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, “next-year people” because no matter how hard they were hit by whatever was going on that year, they were always convinced, or at least held out the hope, that “next year” would be better. One New York reporter who encountered the worst storm of the Dust Bowl — the big one on April 14, 1935 (“Black Sunday”) — and actually coined the phrase, said that farmers in the area lived by three words: “If it rains … ” Thanks largely to the enduring popularity of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, our collective memory of the Dust Bowl and the “Okies” focuses primarily on the people who left the region and desperately hit the roads to seek their fortunes elsewhere — whereas Burns seems deliberately trying to revise that history and make his focus the people who stayed, who stuck it out and tried as best they could to weather (pardon the pun) the crisis and bring their lives back to normal.

 The Dust Bowl focuses on individuals like Caroline Henderson (who settled in the Oklahoma “no-man’s land” as a single woman in 1906, married a man she hired to dig wells on her property a year later, and contributed a column called “The Homestead Lady” to what was then America’s most prestigious magazine, The Atlantic Monthly) — indeed, the only people listed on’s cast listing are Carolyn McCormack, who reads Henderson’s letters and columns on the show; Patricia Clarkson, who does the same for another pioneer woman, Hazel Lucas Shaw; and Peter Coyote, who narrates (as he’s done for most of the Burns movies since David McCullough gave it up) — and for some reason the PBS Web site contains a lot of background information on the film and some of the haunting still photos used in it (apparently only two home movies of the big April 14, 1935 dust cloud exist — evidence that these were people who even before the crisis were making pretty marginal livings and couldn’t afford to film themselves) but does not offer a cast and crew credits list. It’s an intensely moving film but the individual stories come through more strongly than the social lesson — and at the very end of part one there’s a familiarly twangy voice telling a story about how he met some people who were leaving the area because after years of living through the dust crisis they’d finally given up. He remembered that as they took off, they said, “So long, it’s been good to know yuh” — and the voice remembered how he had taken that line and written a song around it. Then the voice, which of course belonged to Woody Guthrie (this is from the series of recordings he made for the Library of Congress, both as storyteller and singer), went into the song — and the Los Angeles Times reviewer said that at that point the movie perked up because pretty much all we’d been hearing musically up to that point were doleful renditions of pioneer folk songs like “Home on the Range” and “Shenandoah.” (I recalled to Charles getting the Woody Guthrie CD reissue that contained one of his earliest songs, “A Picture from Life’s Other Side,” and reflecting on the basis of that piece of bathos that if it hadn’t been for the Dust Bowl Guthrie would have spent his entire career as a mediocre Jimmie Rodgers imitator handicapped in that regard by his inability to yodel.) — 11/19/12


Part two of The Dust Bowl was more of the same — intensely moving in its personal stories, a bit muddled in its attempts to draw comparisons between the Dust Bowl and more modern environmental catastrophes (it’s telling that KPBS showed the first part right after a NOVA program about Hurricane Sandy called “Inside the Megastorm,” a scheduling quirk which said more about the commonality between the Dust Bowl and the big storms of the 2000’s than The Dust Bowl itself did) and quite forthrightly (bothersomely so to conservative viewers — of the three people who have posted reviews to so far, one said that for 30 years Burns has been making these documentaries with an “agenda,” then added, “If Burns were not affiliated with PBS I may view his documentaries more open-mindedly” — giving away that he dislikes the movies at least in part because conservative propagandists have told him to mistrust anything he sees on PBS) says that the Dust Bowl was a failure of private enterprise and “The Market” and only government intervention was able to save the area for agriculture. What’s most striking about the Dust Bowl is the extent to which it followed a pattern that’s been repeated again and again and again in human history in general and American history in particular: find a natural resource, exploit the hell out of it, then watch helplessly as the resource collapses and nature responds against the arrogant attempts of man to manipulate it for our own purposes.

We’ve seen it in the vast exploitation of fossil fuels, in which like the Prodigal Son we ran through our patrimony in about 150 years and rather than heed the warning signs from nature that it’s time to get off our fossil-fuel “jones,” we’re delivering ever more ferocious insults to the earth (including literally injecting it with toxic chemicals in what’s called “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking” for short) to get the last shards of oil, gas and the rocks containing them out of the earth so we can burn it ever more quickly and thereby consign the human race to globally warmed oblivion even sooner. We’ve seen it in the outright denial of human-caused climate change — the percentage of Americans who believe human activities play a role in climate change has plummeted from 71 percent in 2007 (the year Al Gore won the Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth) to just 44 percent today — and we’ve heard radical-Right propagandists on talk radio actually proclaim that as a political victory for their side. The Dust Bowl had similar origins — farmers cultivated marginal land with destructive means (particularly shifting from the Lister plow to a cheaper version that turned the soil less deeply) and seized on a few relatively wet years to get away with it until nature dried up the skies and the area’s endemic high winds took the bone-dry soil with them — and the pattern, with land speculators and so-called “Sunday farmers” (people who bought acreage in Oklahoma and the states bordering it without actually visiting their land or knowing jack about farming) bidding up the land in a classic bubble that, like all economic bubbles, eventually burst, is all too much a part of how capitalism in general and American capitalism in particular generally operates. One of the most poignant stories in The Dust Bowl is of the patriarch who mortgaged his own homestead in 1928 to buy enough land so he could give each of his five sons (he had nine children altogether but he obviously intended his daughters to be taken care of by the men they would marry) 640 acres, and instead he ended up living in a series of houses he either got foreclosed out from under or had to rent.

What’s fascinating about his tale is that on the one hand he had an idea of the continuity of the generations and the need to plan ahead to secure the well-being of his family past his own lifetime, but at the same time he was attempting to do that by practicing the same kind of farming his neighbors were, which was good at extracting value from the land in the short term but ultimately destroyed it in the long term. We live in a country which, despite its long-term attachment to a largely mythologized history, celebrates the new, the quick, the short-term money-making strategy, which in our own time has become the shibboleth of “shareholder value” and the idea that a business enterprise is only worth what people will pay to own stock in it, and any idea of building and maintaining a viable business for the long term has fallen by the wayside. Mitt Romney and his company, Bain Capital, was a pioneer in the idea that businesses were merely poker chips in a giant speculative casino, that could be put together or taken apart based on the immediate need (and greed) of financial speculators: the idea of making a profit and maintaining a viable business that preserves roots in a community and pays its workers enough that they can afford its products is so-o-o-o-o 20th century. We’ve become a country that blows up its mountains to obtain coal, injects the earth with toxic chemicals to release oil and gas whose combustion will just speed up the environmental apocalypse policymakers in both government and the corporate elites deny is even happening, and crusades against any effective (or even not-so-effective) regulation of corporations in general and the financial sector in particular on the ground that we must “unleash the private sector” if we’re going to have shared prosperity. Seen today, the story of the Dust Bowl is a microcosm of so many bad habits and destructive policies that have become the orthodoxy of our time — Mitt Romney may have lost the election, but he and his side long since won the ideological war, to the point where the big debate in Washington as the so-called “fiscal cliff” looms isn’t going to be whether to cut the social safety net (already shredded by years of deregulatory hegemony in both major parties) but by how much, and whether the top income tax rate (easily reduced by super-wealthy individuals) should be 35 or 39 percent — in the 1950’s it was 90 percent and in the 1960’s it was reduced to 70 percent (a cut which the Right of the time, including the editors of the Reader’s Digest, proclaimed as socially irresponsible because it fostered inflation!), and Americans enjoyed a greater level of shared prosperity than they do now.

The Dust Bowl suffers from the usual problems with Ken Burns’ documentaries — the sentimentalism and the elegiac tone (maybe the conservative commentator to had a point; like some of the later Roman historians, Burns obviously works from a point of view that says his country’s best days are behind it) — and the personal stories are absolutely astonishing (the tale of Caroline Henderson, who arrived in Oklahoma in 1906, set up a homestead as a single woman, married a man she hired to help her dig a well a year later, and stayed on her farm through boom, bust, disaster and recovery until 1965, when she reluctantly left her land to live with her daughter, a doctor, in Idaho, would make a marvelous dramatic film, an epic for the ages, and if there’s any actress out there who wants the role of a lifetime and has the prestige and clout to set it up … ) but don’t always mesh that well with the social commentary. The second part gets more into the federal response, which essentially relied on soil scientists working out ways the plains land could be farmed effectively without drying up and blowing away during severe and sustained droughts (they involved contour plowing, which is a term that isn’t explained very well in the movie; the Wikipedia page on it says it means “the farming practice of ploughing across a slope following its elevation contour lines. The rows form slow water run-off during rainstorms to prevent soil erosion and allow the water time to settle into the soil. In contour ploughing, the ruts made by the plow run perpendicular rather than parallel to slopes, generally resulting in furrows that curve around the land and are level. A similar practice is contour bunding, where stones are placed around the contours of slopes” — though quite frankly in land as flat as the Oklahoma and Kansas plains it’s hard, at least for someone like me who in Woody Allen’s phrase is “at two with nature,” to tell where the natural slopes you’re supposed to contour or terrace around are; they also included letting some of the land go back to its native grass and planting trees to serve as natural windbreaks) and using a combination of carrots and sticks to get farmers to use the new techniques,

One of the fascinations of The Dust Bowl is the ongoing tension — again, characteristic of American history in general — between the ferocious idea of “independence” (there are plenty of stories here, as in just about every era of American history and in particular every economic and social crisis, of people drawing back at receiving government help because they were “too proud” to admit that they needed it) and the desperation with which people with no other help turned to the government, the federal government in particular, and pleaded, “Save us.” It’s indicated by how Kansas and Oklahoma, two of the most reliably Republican states in the U.S., voted for Franklin Roosevelt in both 1932 and 1936 (despite the fact that the Republican nominee in 1936 was former Kansas Governor Alf Landon … but then Mitt Romney didn’t carry Massachusetts either, come to think of it, though the term “home” is so inapplicable to Romney’s lifestyle I remember joking grimly that he would have won the election easily if he could just have carried all his home states). The Dust Bowl was a disaster that was caused at least in part by the abuses of private enterprise and was solved at least in part by the collective wisdom brought to bear by a strong, activist national government — no wonder a story about it today, especially from a source like PBS which they want to defund completely, sticks in the craw of the Right! The film also proceeds from the unusual assumption that the most interesting story of the Dust Bowl is in the people who stayed behind and endured it (which were three-fourths of the total) rather than the people who fled, who have become the master narrative thanks largely to the success of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and the film John Ford made from it. (Ironically, the narration of The Dust Bowl points out that Steinbeck’s central characters, the Joads — a name I suspect Steinbeck picked because it sounded like “Job” and reinforced the central metaphor of his novel, which was as much or more religious than political — were dispossessed cotton farmers from Eastern Oklahoma and therefore not from the Dust Bowl at all.)

One of the quirkier stories told in the movie is that of Sanora Babb, a writer who was hired by the Farm Security Administration of the U.S. government to document the Dust Bowl and ended up writing a novel and getting a meeting with Random House owner Bennett Cerf — only by the time her novel was ready for publication, The Grapes of Wrath had become such an enormous hit Cerf decided it had eaten up the market for a Dust Bowl story and Babb’s book, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, two years before Babb’s death (and to make it even more ironic, Babb’s reports to the Farm Security Administration had been key sources Steinbeck used for his book!). Interestingly, Babb was also the long-time partner of Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe, but couldn’t marry him until 1948, when the California Supreme Court ruled the state’s law against interracial marriage unconstitutional. And Woody Guthrie, who made a brief appearance at the end of part one, predictably becomes a more important figure in part two — indeed, two segments of his actual voice, heard in recorded interviews, are used in the film — and though we only get a few snippets of his songs it’s bracing to be reminded of how much faster and less sentimental his performances were than the way these songs are performed today, now that they’ve become official Monuments of American Culture. It’s also nice to be reminded that he didn’t start out as particularly radical; it was the experience of living through, and then fleeing from, the Dust Bowl that radicalized him and led him consciously to shape his career as a folksinger of “the people” (there’s a haunting image of a crudely lettered poster saying, “Hear WOODY Sing,” aimed at fellow Dust Bowl refugees, promoting a free concert) and have the same sort of uncertain love-hate relationship with the music and entertainment business we’ve seen in other socially conscious performers since.

Overall, The Dust Bowl is a compelling movie, relatively short (just four hours — a far cry from the mega-productions with which Burns made his mark: The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) and compact, hinting at the modern-day parallels without shoving them in our faces, the sort of film that should be shown in contexts where you can discuss it at the end, a haunting movie perched between individual stories of sacrifice and struggle and a broader social tale with a moral lesson — though it’s possible conservative audiences could read the history of the Dust Bowl differently from the way Ken Burns does, not as a demonstration of the need for community and an aggressive government response to disasters but as the farmers’ justly deserved punishment for their hubris and something that wasn’t really a problem for anyone not directly involved. It’s ironic that even within Franklin Roosevelt’s Cabinet there were people like Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who said, basically, let the plains farmers die and nature reclaim their land — though Roosevelt sided with his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace (who because of his dissent from the Cold War consensus a decade later became, and has remained, one of the most reviled figures in American history), who pleaded for a major government effort to restore the plains to farmland with scientific methods and offer relief to its people. The parallel with the argument between Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, who said the way to deal with the Depression was to let it run its course and not even try to stop it or offer relief to its victims, is inescapable. — 11/20/12