Friday, June 29, 2012

Thank Your Lucky Stars (Warner Bros., 1943)

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

The film was Thank Your Lucky Stars, one of the handful of big all-star musicals, some of them (like the independently made Stage Door Canteen and Warners’ Hollywood Canteen — the latter inspired by the fact that the real-life Hollywood Canteen had been founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, both Warners’ contractees) directly inspired by the war effort. This one was only indirectly inspired by the war effort: producers Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) and Dr. Schlenna (S. Z. Sakall) are putting together a big benefit for Atlantic Charities (an effort to raise money for survivors of air-raid attacks in allied countries) and for that they’ve decided they need the singer Dinah Shore (shown in a considerably less flattering hairstyle than she got later but still recognizable both physically and vocally). Unfortunately, Shore is under exclusive contract to radio star Eddie Cantor (playing himself), an insufferable egomaniac who insists on putting his personal stamp on everything he gets involved with, telling old, lame jokes, doing out-of-date songs and revamping the choreography. Cantor offers Shore for the benefit as long as he can get to be the chair of the benefit committee, whereupon he makes himself utterly hated by everyone else involved — and when, seven hours before the benefit is supposed to start, he brings in a small menagerie of zoo animals (including an elephant, a camel and a zebra) and announces they’re going to be used in a number that until then no one else connected with the show had the slightest idea even existed, the producers have had enough. Meanwhile, the ingénue leads — aspiring singers Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and Pat Nixon (Joan Leslie) — have been trying to get jobs, and Randolph’s fly-by-night agent has tricked Cantor into signing a contract to use Randolph on his show by making it look like he was simply asking for Cantor’s autograph.

There’s a charming scene in “Gower Gulch” — actually the part of Hollywood where the cheapest studios were located (including the companies that made Westerns exclusively because they could be shot entirely outdoors and therefore they didn’t need the expense of renting lights) but in this film depicted as a residential community whose down-and-out denizens have built themselves al fresco homes out of bits of old movie sets — where Randolph and Nixon sing a duet and hold their own against the comedic holocaust of Spike Jones and His City Slickers. There’s a third person in Randolph’s and Nixon’s circle, Joe Simpson (Eddie Cantor), a bus driver who does tours of the movie stars’ homes; he came to Hollywood to be a serious dramatic actor but no one takes him seriously because of his strong resemblance to Eddie Cantor. When Cantor (the real one) refuses to let Randolph sing at the benefit, he, Nixon and Simpson hatch a plot to kidnap him — executed by three Gower Gulch residents dressed as Indians — and have Simpson impersonate him at the benefit. The benefit goes on as scheduled and without Cantor’s unwanted changes, and the sequences of the big Warners stars performing at it are intercut with some quite funny slapstick scenes involving Cantor, the Indians, some dogs, maple syrup (he’s tied to a see-saw and the maple syrup is poured accidentally on his shoes, and the dogs lick them off to eat the syrup) and, when he escapes that peril, a psych ward in which he ends up in which cold water hoses are turned on him (the “water cure” was a common treatment for mental illness in 1943) and he’s prepped for a lobotomy.

When I first saw this one the most attractive bits were the two songs by Warners’ superstars who otherwise never made musicals — Bette Davis’s jitterbug number “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (lamenting that all the men her age were serving in the war and all she had left to date were teenagers or senior citizens — not surprisingly, Kitty Kallen sang this better on Jimmy Dorsey’s hit record than Davis did this in the movie but her game willingness to be flung around the set by real-life jitterbug champion Conrad Wiedell is engaging; according to, she really hurt her knee doing the number and the limp and look of pain she gives as she exits the set and leans on a lamppost to finish the number were for real) and Errol Flynn’s marvelous pub number “That’s What You Jolly Well Get” (he’s supposed to be playing a Cockney but his accent sounded more Aussie to me — Flynn was actually Australian but he usually affected a quite convincing British accent in his films and only rarely, as here, do his true origins come through) — though this time the songs by people with reputations as singers seemed at least as good. Dinah Shore gets to sing the title song in the opening of the film (depicting a typical Cantor radio broadcast) and an even better one called “The Dreamer” later on (both composed by Arthur Schwartz with lyrics by Frank Loesser — and while Loesser’s output improved in quality when he started writing both music and words, these are still excellent songs of the period). Ida Lupino’s appearance is as part of a trio doing a parody version of “The Dreamer” later on — she’s co-starred with Olivia de Havilland (whose vocal is dubbed by Lynn Martin, though Lupino did her own singing) and George Tobias, and the best part of the number is the energetic dancing (sort of) these three do to the song.

But the musical highlight of the movie is an elaborate number supposedly set in Harlem (in a set built with so many angles and forced perspective that Charles and I had the same thought at once: “The Harlem of Dr. Caligari!”) called “Ice Cold Katy,” about an African-American woman being pushed to hurry up and marry her servicemember boyfriend already before he ships out; besides all the acrobatic dancing and a surprisingly non-stupid role for Willie Best, it’s noteworthy particularly for Hattie McDaniel’s booming vocal. (She hardly ever got to sing in her films — though she was good enough to hold her own with Paul Robeson in the duet “Ah Still Suits Me” in the 1936 Show Boat, and before she went to Hollywood she’d toured on T.O.B.A. Black vaudeville bills with Bessie Smith — and I still think a Bessie Smith biopic starring McDaniel is one of the great might-have-beens of cinema history.) Other Warners’ stars who appear in the film include John Garfield (in the opening Cantor broadcast, in which he nearly strangles Cantor twice while narrating his criminal career to a parody version of “Blues in the Night” — in which the punchline is that, while recalling what his mamma done tol’ him, he recalls that she’s the one who turned him in to the cops!) and Humphrey Bogart, who actually got top billing (they were going alphabetically rather than by role importance) but just did one scene, in which he turns up in his Duke Mantee makeup, complete with three days’ growth of beard, and tries to intimidate S. Z. Sakall with his best “tough guy” manner — and can’t. “I hope my movie fans don’t find out about this!” Bogie says as he exits — and I couldn’t help but joke, “I had a really weird dream! I was making a picture about a guy who ran a bar in North Africa — and that guy was playing my bartender!” Lasting a bit over two hours, Thank Your Lucky Stars is a bit on the long side but is also quite charming, and the three elements — the all-star numbers, Eddie Cantor’s comeuppance (the fact that Cantor allowed himself to be cast under his own name as such an S.O.B. is pretty remarkable in and of itself!) and the love story — manage to mesh instead of clash.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

talhotblond (Motion Picture Corporation of America (MPCA), Silver Screen Pictures, Sony Pictures Television, 2012)

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

This morning I watched a Lifetime movie I’d timer-recorded on Saturday: talhotblond — as you could probably guess from that typography, it’s a story about the Internet (the Lifetime promos for it and its page both spell the title TalhotBlond, but the all-lower case spelling is the one that appears on the actual opening credit) and, since this is Lifetime, particularly about a sex-and-murder scandal revolving around the Internet. It’s actually based on a true story, though all the character names have been changed except for the male lead, Thomas Montgomery (Garret Dillahunt, a rather homely actor it’s going to be difficult to cast but who’s just right for this part). Indeed, a documentary about it, called talhotblond: (with the colon), was made in 2009 and directed by Barbara Schroeder, who also posted her own synopsis of it to “This is the true story of a love triangle that takes place entirely online. Lies lead to murder in real life, as a teenage vixen (screen name ‘talhotblond’) lures men into her web. Revealing a shocking true crime story that shows the Internet’s power to unleash our most dangerous fantasies.”

This non-documentary version also had a woman director: Courteney Cox, the star of the TV series Friends (a show I always avoided) and someone who always put me off because of the pretentiousness of her name: “Courtney” is already bad enough and the addition of the extra “e” makes it really crazy and silly. She actually does a good job here, turning in a brilliant story of seduction and nailing both the atmospherics and the characterizations. Thomas Montgomery starts the movie as a respected, productive factory worker who is responsible to a fault to his wife Carol (Laura San Giacomo, the female lead from sex, lies and videotape now turned into a surprisingly frumpy woman) and their two teenage daughters. His only outlet is a monthly poker night with some of his buddies from the factory, including his best friend Brian Barrett (Brando Eaton), until one night when Brian says the other guys are signing up for All Betz Off, an Internet site that runs an online poker game. Thomas logs on to the family computer and during the game his attention is distracted by a woman who logs on with the screen name “talhotblond” and asks for a private online chat with him. She sends a photo of herself as an 18-year-old bikini-clad blonde named Katie Brooks (Ashley Hinshaw) and the two are drawn into an online affair. Thomas has picked the screen name “marinesniper” — which he was, during the first Gulf War in 1991 — and in order not to turn off his teen dream he sends her a 20-year-old head shot of him in uniform, calls himself “Tommy” and claims to be about to deploy to Afghanistan.

As he gets deeper into the affair, he buys a laptop of his own and spins more preposterous lies (he says he’s actually in Afghanistan and “national security” prevents him from giving her more information about his location, and sometimes because of duty he has to log off in a hurry). The relationship reaches its climax — in both senses — when Thomas, who’s previously been shown as no longer able to get it up with his wife, jacks off in front of his computer screen as Katie eggs him on and the two chat the usual stupid “sexy” things people do when they’re having cyber-sex. Meanwhile, his considerably younger, hotter and single friend Brian has also started an online affair with “talhotblond” and fallen hard for her, to the point of wanting to marry her — as does Thomas as soon as he can get out of the minor little inconvenience of his already being married. Midway through the story Carol, who’s much less naïve about these matters than the typical Lifetime heroine, opens Thomas’s laptop, guesses his password (“semperfi”) and sees the chat logs between her husband and his online girlfriend, and she writes her a letter with a photo of Thomas’s family explaining who and what he is and saying the “Tommy Montgomery” she’s been flirting with online doesn’t exist. She also banishes Thomas to the garage, and when he’s there one lonely night with his laptop (it’s a surprise she didn’t confiscate it and have its hard drive wiped) he figures, “A few hours of online poker wouldn’t hurt” — the classic cry of all movie addicts that they can handle just one more … As it turns out, he’s actually been blocked from the poker site but he can still reach “talhotblond” for a chat — and she writes him about how much she’s been hurt by his lies, and he pleads with her to resume their relationship. He also asks her if she’s indeed dating Brian, and when she says yes, he gets jealous and angry, accuses her of being a “whore” and says Brian is lying to her about himself — “what about ur lies?” she types back, with some justice — and he runs through women like Kleenex and if she gets involved with him she’ll regret it.

Then, during a lunch break at work, Thomas confronts Brian in the locker room and the two get into a fight that’s broken up by the foreman (Brett Rice), who tells Thomas that he’s going to let it slide this time but between the fight and the slacking off of his work performance, any more trouble and he’s going to have to fire him. The foreman tells Thomas to take the rest of the day (it’s Friday) off and do something to calm down over the weekend. Instead Thomas gets out his old Marine sniper rifle, ambushes Brian in the parking lot of the factory that night, and shoots him dead. Then he impulsively takes Carol and the family on a camping trip and he and Carol actually successfully have sex (nothing like killing your best friend over an online girlfriend neither of you have met to get the old juices going!). Only the police figure out the crime incredibly quickly and when the Montgomerys return from the camping trip, they’re camped outside the family home waiting to arrest Thomas whenever he shows up — and eventually the cops (one of whom has a nasal voice so reminiscent of Peter Falk’s one thinks Columbo is working the case!) get him to confess. In a big surprise twist at the end, it turns out “talhotblond” is really Beth Brooks (Molly Hagan), a frump who, like Thomas, has been lying about her age on the Internet and using photos of her daughter to lure men into thinking she’s young and hot. We see the image of Katie Brooks being asked by the cops if she knows anything about Brian Barrett or Thomas Montgomery, and saying no both times, twice, and the first time we assume she’s lying but the second time we know she’s telling the truth: Beth had just taken photos of Katie lying on a chaise longue in a bikini and used them as the images of “talhotblond” online. “You think you’re the only one who ever lied on the Internet?” one of the cops tells Thomas, who has to deal with the fact that he killed his best friend over a fantasy woman neither of them actually met and who didn’t really exist.

Mostly well-written (except for that corny “one’s too many and a hundred’s not enough” scene) by Trent Haaga, talhotblond is a quite exciting thriller that’s also well made in its depiction of the proletarian trap Thomas is in at the beginning of the movie (he and his wife both work long hours on their jobs, they never see each other, his job is dull routine and when he’s forced to make dinner for the kids because his wife is working late, his kids bitch about its high salt and fat content) and how easily he gets sucked into the online fantasy “talhotblond” is offering him — “you make me feel like a man again,” he writes her in one of her chat sessions. It’s not a brilliant movie but it is a quite well-done one, and the actors playing Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery are superbly chosen — not downright ugly but not exactly hot and gorgeous either — and they act well and make the characters’ discombobulated emotions credible. Ultimately the whole idea that two people could get so possessive over a woman they’d never met in person that one would kill the other over her in a fit of jealous rage (enough of one that Thomas got convicted of first-degree manslaughter instead of murder — presumably a plea bargain but also a reflection of the extenuating circumstances) — and that the real person would prove to be someone totally different from the one they were fantasizing about (and jacking off to her pics!) — is the most chilling aspect of this story; it makes me curious to see Barbara Schroeder’s documentary and get more of the real story, and at the same time I’m impressed with this production and particularly the sensitivity of the casting and the skill of Cox’s direction.

Cowboy from Brooklyn (Warner Bros., 1938)

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

The film was Cowboy from Brooklyn, a 1938 Warner Bros. release from the dog days of Dick Powell’s status as a Warners contract player. He starts the film as a hobo, Elly Jordan (an oddly “feminine” name for a Dick Powell character!), with a growth of beard that makes him look more like the Dick Powell who played Philip Marlowe than the one who was a Warners musical star, who’s rehearsing in a boxcar with his band “The Three Sharps” (himself on vocal and guitar, Candy Candido on novelty vocals and bass, and Harry Barris — one of the original three Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby and Al Rinker — on backing vocals and piano). The workers on the train are alerted by the sound and throw The Three Sharps off the train, along with their instruments — including the piano, which wasn’t actually theirs but one the train was shipping that they just opened up and took advantage of. They’re thrown off in Cody, Wyoming near the dude ranch owned by Pop and Ma Hardy (Granville Bates and Emma Dunn) but really run by their daughter Jane (Priscilla Lane).

Elly pleads with her for some food and says he’s willing to work for it; she doesn’t have any extra work on the ranch, but when he says he’s with two other people and they’re a musical band, she puts them to work entertaining at the nightly camp-outs — thereby pissing off her boyfriend Sam Thorne (Dick Foran), who also claims to be a singer-guitarist but merely croaks an off-key version of “Home on the Range.” (Foran actually had a nice, if not great, voice, and four years later he got to do essentially the same plot in Ride ’Em, Cowboy with Abbott and Costello, in which he got to play the urban tenderfoot passed off as a cowboy singer that Powell is playing here.) Elly accepts even though he’s deathly afraid of animals — all animals; he cowers in fear at seeing a rabbit emerge from a burrow hole (“He’s seen Night of the Lepus,” I joked) and flees in terror from a mule in what turns out to be a surprisingly creative (especially for a film whose official director was the hacky Lloyd Bacon) Keatonesque slapstick scene staged in longshot, with Dick Powell in front, the mule behind him, and Priscilla Lane on horseback behind him until she falls off and he gets to rescue and meet-cute her. Things go in this vein for 25 minutes until theatrical producer Roy Chadwick (Pat O’Brien) and his publicity guy/chauffeur Pat Dunn (Ronald Reagan, in his second year in the movie business; this was only his sixth film) show up, hear Elly’s voice and immediately sign him up. The only catch is that he has to use the name “Wyoming Steve Gibson” and pass as a real Westerner, and the scene in which Jane Hardy coaches him to do that (including a warning always to use the word “reckon” when he means “think”) is one of the best in the film. “Gibson” becomes a big in-person and radio star in New York until Thorne crashes an amateur-hour show and, when he’s gonged off, hogs the mike and announces to the city and the world that “Gibson” is a no-good fake who stole his gal.

Eventually “Gibson” has to overcome his fear of animals — which he does by being hypnotized by an entertainer from the dude ranch, Professor Landis (James Stephenson), though as a side effect two other people (including Mr. Urban himself, Pat O’Brien!) are also hypnotized into thinking they’re Wyoming Steve Gibson — and he enters the rodeo at Madison Square Garden, wins a big event, sets a world’s record in something or other (not being a big rodeo fan I didn’t remember what) and ends up with Jane. Cowboy from Brooklyn is considerably funnier than most of Dick Powell’s musicals; based on an old play called Howdy, Stranger by Louis Pelletier and Robert Sloane, it was adapted by Earl Baldwin in a light, campy way that genuinely works on screen — though the songs are pretty simple, not up to the best work of Richard Whiting (Margaret Whiting’s father), Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, awfully high-powered talents to come up with things with titles like “Cowboy from Brooklyn,” “Howdy, Stranger” and “Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride.”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hercules Against the Moon Men (Comptoir Français du Film Production (CFFP), Governor Films, Nike Cinematografica, 1964)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a movie — sort of: it was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode based on a 1964 Italian film called Hercules Against the Moon Men, though in the original Italian version the strongman star was actually playing a long-lived local character named Maciste, who had begun his reign over cheap Italian movies in 1912 and was still going strong as a box-office attraction into the 1960’s (sort of like Tarzan in the U.S.). But the U.S. distributors for this excessively boring movie decided that, as long as they were dubbing it into English anyway, they would change the name of the musclebound lead from Maciste to Hercules to tie it in with the fantastically successful Joseph E. Levine U.S. releases of the Italian cheapies Hercules and Hercules Unchained (both also parodied on MST3K). I had a hard time staying awake through this one — this was one of those bad movies which the MST3K crew seem to have picked because its badness manifested itself mostly as boredom — and from what I did see it looked like a standard-issue action-adventure science-fiction movie in which Maciste/Hercules/whatever his name was (played by an Italian actor named Sergio Ciani who was billed as “Alan Steel,” which sounds like a porn alias to me) has to fight a race of baddies who buried deep into the bowels of the earth (if they were indeed from the moon, as the title and the official synopsis stated, it wasn’t clear how they got there, though I think it was supposed to be that they took advantage of a convenient volcanic eruption to burrow into the earth) near the town of Samar, from which they demand a periodic sacrifice of the town’s children, who are marched into the leftover volcanic opening and done away with in some unmentioned (and undepicted) but presumably horrible fashion. Samara (Jany Clair), the queen of Samar, has apparently cut a deal with the Moon Men so she can be given eternal youth by being plugged into some kind of energy-transference machine so she can suck out the energy of her twin sister — which seems to work by intertwining their hair.

Of course it all leads up to a giant confrontation scene between Hercules/Maciste and the baddies, who look like animate rocks (and the costuming and effects work on them is so tacky one can’t help but remember how well a similar effect was done with the Clay People in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars in the 1930’s — albeit the Clay People were actually mostly on the side of good) and vastly outnumber Our Hero. Of course, since this is a movie, none of that matters: he’s able to knock down the rock men and turn them into ordinary, non-animate rocks. But what really makes this an especially terrible movie is that for some reason director Giacomo Gentiluomo (“gentleman”) — who, according to a “trivia” note on, quit the movie business after this film and became a painter — and writers Arpad DeRiso, Angelo Sangermano, and Nino Scolaro, decided to stage the final confrontation against the backdrop of a sandstorm that engulfs the entrance to the Moon Men’s cave and forces Hercules, his on-screen girlfriend and the other good guys to make their way to the Moon Men’s cave through an impenetrable goop that’s supposed to represent blowing sand and just makes it virtually impossible to tell what’s going on. For some reason the MST3K crew decided — rare for them — to telegraph the ending; in the setup sequences depicting the “invention exchange” between Satellite of Love denizens Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his robots Crow (Trace Beaulieu), Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Gypsy (Jim Mallon) on one side and the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester (also Trace Beaulieu) and his sidekick TV Frank (Frank Conniff) on the other, Dr. Forrester is shown scooping through a bowl full of sand and saying, “Sandstorm … sandstorm.” Not that it mattered much: Hercules Against the Moon Men showed an occasional shot of visual elegance (perhaps Gentiluomo did considerably better when he abandoned filmmaking for static art, at which this film suggests he would have been considerably more talented) and Alan Steel was nice to look at even though, as one of the MST3K crew commented, he made you miss the acting chops of Steve Reeves.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Murder in Greenwich (Columbia TriStar Domestic Television, Bernard Sofronski Productions, Carlton America, 2002)

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

I ran one of the items I’d recorded recently from Lifetime: Murder in Greenwich, a 2002 movie that was produced either for theatrical release or (more likely) premium pay cable because there were audible blips in the soundtrack — mostly of the “God-” from “Goddamn” and the “-hole” from “asshole.” When I saw this in the schedule and noted that Christopher Meloni was the star I was hoping this would be his first project since leaving Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — but no-o-o-o-o, it was actually filmed in 2002 (when he’d been doing SVU for only three seasons) and it once again cast him as a cop, albeit a retired and somewhat disgraced one. Murder in Greenwich was produced by Dominick Dunne — a specialist in real-life crime books and TV shows (though he’s mostly done documentaries rather than dramatizations like this) — directed by Tom McLoughlin (who did Friday the 13th: Jason Lives, Part VI in 1986, did a Friday the 13th TV series for one year thereafter and since has mostly done TV-movies, including those kinky Patricia Cornwell productions At Risk and The Front from 2010) from a script by David Erickson based on the book of the same title by Mark Fuhrman, the infamous L.A. police detective whose role in the O. J. Simpson case helped O. J. get free. I suppose if anybody playing Mark Fuhrman could get me to like the guy — whose reputation is a major part of Erickson’s script: when he’s met by one of the Greenwich, Connecticut townspeople who recites all the public criticism of Fuhrman he can think of to his face, he replies in that famous Meloni deadpan, “You forgot genocidal racist.” About the only concessions Meloni and the filmmakers make to “Fuhrmanicity” is having him wear blue jeans rather than Armani suits through most of the show (though McLoughlin gives us way too few of the mid-shots I was hoping for that would flash Meloni’s basket on screen) and giving him an ill-fitting wig instead of that famous receding hairline he’s shown on SVU and his irregular appearances in other things during his 12-year run on the series.

The story? Oh, the story! It was based on the murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley (Maggie Grace) in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1975 on the day before Hallowe’en — and the eventual attribution of it to her neighbor Michael Skakel (Jon Foster), younger brother of Tommy Skakel (Toby Moore) and several other Skakels. The Skakels were referred to as “Kennedys” in most of the publicity surrounding the trial that took place after Fuhrman’s book forced the state of Connecticut to reopen the case, mainly because Robert Kennedy’s wife Ethel was a Skakel, and I must say I avoided most of the tabloid attention at the time, mainly because the Right-wing media were seizing on the case to say that all Kennedys were psychopathic murderers, and therefore by extension all liberals were psychopathic murderers — and between that and the fact that the man who reopened the case was the racist cop from hell in the O. J. case (I have no doubt that O. J. was guilty as charged; I also have no doubt that Fuhrman deliberately tried to frame him and got caught at it — the two propositions are not mutually exclusive) I saw the whole affair as yet another Right-wing plot to make a famous progressive family and, by extension, the entire Left look bad. Erickson makes his movie move on two tracks at once, showing flashbacks to Martha Moxley alive and her relationship with the Skakels, and how the Skakels got screwed up (at one point Martha, who in Erickson’s script is literally narrating from beyond the grave — a great movie, Sunset Boulevard, used that device, and so did a lousy one, Scared to Death, and frankly this one is closer to Scared to Death than Sunset Boulevard! — compares their home to Lord of the Flies, because their mom is dead and their dad Rushton, played by Peter Rowley, is giving them virtually no supervision) while at the same time intercutting between those and scenes taking place in the (2002) present.

Mark Fuhrman is described as an interloper elbowing his way into a community already closed to outsiders before the murder happened and even more suspicious of a controversial cop coming in and messing around in the worst thing that ever happened there. If the townspeople don’t go quite as far as the famous scene in Nothing Sacred in which a small boy bites the interloping reporter on the leg, they get pretty close — and one of the most telling bits is when Fuhrman traces one of the previous suspects, who’s now working in an office, and his secretary asks for her lunch break early because she’s Black and doesn’t want to be in the presence of such a racist creep. Murder in Greenwich had the potential to be better than it is but Erickson and director McLoughlin kept going for the easiest ways out, turning Mark Fuhrman into a slightly less bald version of Elliot Stabler, a cop hated for being too good instead of screwing up and one who would ultimately win the day. The film also touches on the ability of rich people to cover up their misdeeds — though that, too, is something Law and Order routinely did better — and I’m afraid I can’t hate the Skakels as much as this script tells me I should if only because of that nasty history of the Republicans and their talk-radio propagandists using this case to argue that all Democrats are psychopathic killers and not to be trusted, while all Republicans are fair, upstanding Americans.

Next to Meloni, by far the most interesting actor in the piece is Toby Moore, a hot-looking young man (by comparison Jon Foster looks like a total nerd, which actually becomes key to the plot — Fuhrman’s solution to the case is that Michael Skakel killed Martha Moxley because he thought his older, hotter, sexier brother had seduced her and Michael was furious with her for giving herself to him) who’d actually be quite good casting in a biopic of Mick Jagger: he’s got the right combination of androgyny and butchness (and the famous gaping mouth) to play the younger Jagger on screen. Murder in Greenwich has its nice moments, mostly from its two charismatic male stars, but the writing is clunky and the relationship between Fuhrman and the cop-turned-chauffeur who worked the case originally in 1975 and ultimately helps him solve it is yet another potentially interesting dramatic theme Erickson and McLoughlin dance around instead of tackling head-on. Ultimately it’s just another TV policier without the passion, intensity and edgy writing of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Theatre Review: “Harmony, Kansas” (Diversionary, 2012)


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Say what you will about Diversionary Theatre, you never quite know what to expect from them. Their latest production, Harmony, Kansas, is an original musical — that’s something of a surprise right there — set in the Kansas flatlands and the town of Shiloh, described on the Web site as “a township in Neosho County … [whose] population, at the time of the 2000 census, was 297.” For those Queers whose association with Kansas is as the place Dorothy Gale was magically whisked out of by a cyclone that took her to Oz, Harmony, Kansas will be a jolting confirmation that we are, indeed, everywhere — even in the middle of the Kansas wheat country where virtually everyone is a farmer and there are virtually no opportunities to meet each other.
Written (book and lyrics) by Bill Nelson with music by Anna K. Jacobs, Harmony, Kansas centers around Heath (Jacob Caltrider), a Wisconsin native whose sex-fueled wanderlust cost his family their farm and who’s trying to make it right by building a spread in Kansas equal in size to the one he lost in Wisconsin. Either one or two and one-half years earlier — Nelson’s book is a bit unclear on the timeline — Heath met a man named Julian (Tom Zohar) in Kansas City (there are actually two Kansas Cities, but Julian is presumably from the larger and much more cosmopolitan one in Missouri rather than the one across the state line in Kansas), started a relationship with him and ultimately got him to move back with him to his farm.
There’s just one problem: Julian remains a city boy at heart, painfully yearning for the company of other people in general and other Gay men in particular. He’s found at least some of what he’s looking for in an informal singing group that meets every Monday night in Shiloh. The organizer is Wylie (John Whitley) and the other members include middle-aged bear type Fuzz (Bill Nolte); rather prissy homebody Darrell (Tony Houck) — whose partner Pete (whom we never see as an on-stage character) is out of town selling horses — Ken (Anthony Methvin), with whom Darrell has drifted into an affair; and 16-year-old D. J. (Dylan Hoffinger), who’s taking out his dual frustrations over being Queer and under the age of consent out on animals he puts in freezers or blows up with homemade bombs.
The plot of Harmony, Kansas deals with Julian’s desperate attempts to get Heath to join him in the singing group — whose members have informally nicknamed it “The Poker Night” because that’s what they tell anybody else who asks what they’re doing on those Monday nights — and the struggles of the various members to maintain their integrity as people against the relentless pressure on them to remain closeted. The first half is generally campy and a bit silly — though at least Nelson resists the temptation to turn the relationship of Heath and Julian into Green Acres, the Gay version.
Indeed, their cultural conflicts and the peculiar combination of love and guilt in the relationship between Darrell and Ken are presented dramatically and with genuine pathos, even though sometimes it seems as if Nelson has inverted the formula of “comic relief” by creating those moments as “serious relief” from the campy humor. At one point Darrell even gets miffed that Julian has brought snacks for the group and sings a song called “I Bring the Snacks.”
The second half gets a good deal more serious as the conflicts between Heath and Julian get more pointed, the triangle between Darrell, Ken and the unseen Pete becomes harder to maintain, and Wylie gradually wants to raise the profile of the singing group and have it perform in public. Though all the onstage characters are Gay men, Nelson does a superb job of dramatizing the closet and its corrosive effects on these men’s self-esteem, as well as their abject fear of “outing” themselves by appearing on a local stage with all their neighbors watching. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” may be history as far as the U.S. military is concerned, but at least as depicted here it’s still very much a part of life on the Kansas plains.
When Julian protests that their fellow farmers will have noticed that they are two men living together and therefore have intuited that they’re a Gay couple, Heath protests that he needs to maintain their respect (especially since he’s depending on them for the bank loan he needs to expand his farm) and therefore they can’t do anything that might be read as “flaunting.” Darrell is in an even worse pickle because the farm he lives on is owned by Pete’s family, and they have the power to throw him out and render him homeless any time they choose.
Harmony, Kansas gets darker and more emotionally intense as it goes on, and though it reaches an affirmative climax it gets there through a deus ex machina device of such bone-crushing obviousness one gets the impression that Nelson missed the class session of Playwriting 101 that would have taught him not to do that. Despite that miscalculation, though, it remains emotionally intense (this viewer cried!) and is superlatively staged by director James Vasquez and Diversionary’s technical crew, and impeccably acted by the cast.
Though Jacob Caltrider stands out — he’s the hottest man in the cast (when one of the other characters makes a joke about how well he fills out his Wranglers, virtually every Gay man in the audience — and most of the straight women as well — will no doubt agree!), he’s the most charismatic actor and he’s also got the strongest singing voice — Harmony, Kansas is really an ensemble piece. Tom Zohar gets a bit whiny sometimes as Julian, and John Whitley and Tony Houck don’t always maintain the right balance between their characters’ queeny exteriors and their emotion-ridden interiors, but Anthony Methvin is a powerful stage presence as the tortured Ken and Dylan Hoffinger is dynamic as the frustrated D.J.
The best part of Harmony, Kansas is the formidable vocal blend its actors have achieved. Adam Wachter, who conducts the show, plays the piano accompaniment (supported by Peggy Johnston on bass) and is responsible for the arrangements, deserves credit for rehearsing the actors and training them to become a first-rate singing group. The few times they’re less than perfect — like on the pathetic (in the negative sense) “Welcome Song” Wylie writes to welcome Heath to the group — are clearly intentional. Indeed, it might be nice to see these actors stay together and keep singing after the run of Harmony, Kansas ends on July 22; they’re good enough to sing the great standard songs their 1950’s harmonies were made for. (There’s one point during the musical in which Nelson’s dialogue seems to be setting up a song cue for “Over the Rainbow” — and it seems likely the only reason he and Jacobs didn’t go there was the nightmarish trouble and expense of securing the rights.)
Harmony, Kansas is produced with Diversionary’s usual technical aplomb. Sean Fanning’s unit set is reasonably credible as both farm country and living room, and only when we’re asked to believe that a crude stack of three chairs is a mechanical bull does it tax credibility. Shirley Pierson’s costumes are appropriate enough — especially D. J.’s overalls and Fuzz’s belt buckle, which tell us more than we need to know about them — and Michelle Carron’s lighting design is a bit on the autumnal side but still lets us see what’s going on. Overall, it’s a nice, uplifting evening at the theatre, a piece that fulfills the musical conventions (and is helped by being about people who sing!) despite some glitches in the dramatic construction which Nelson may well fix for subsequent productions.

Harmony, Kansas runs through Sunday, July 22 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Previews run through June 22 and the official opening is on Saturday, June 23. Performances are 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun. Special performances occur Wed., June 20 and Mon., July 9. For tickets and other information, call (619) 220-0097 or visit

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hi-De-Ho (All American, 1947)

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

The film was Hi-De-Ho, the third and last film Cab Calloway made with his famous trademark phrase in the title: the other two were band shorts, one called Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho from Paramount in 1934 (a quite remarkable 10-minute movie in which Cab is having an affair with the wife of a Pullman porter; the plot is that hubby has given wifey a radio so she can listen to Calloway’s live broadcasts from the Cotton Club, only when he comes home unexpectedly while she’s entertaining Cab, he hides out in another room and starts singing so she can pass off the sound of his voice as a broadcast she’s listening to on the fabulous new radio her husband brought her) and one called simply Hi De Ho (no hyphens between the words) from Warners in 1937 (an even weirder one described by an reviewer with the screen name “Spuzzlightyear” thusly: “While I love Cab Calloway, I'm really surprised they cast him in a role that is so dark, he regularly beats up his girlfriend, plays seedy clubs, and soon, has hits on his life set up by his vengeful girlfriend! Fortunately, his professional life is on the upswing, with his agent getting him out of seedy clubs and into the bigtime. Soon, after the hit on his life fails, and his nasty girl is out of the way, his agent takes over and soon Cab is the hit of the world!” My own notes on it similarly described it as “a surprisingly dark movie … far removed from the exuberance of the title … in which Calloway, a young Black blade who dreams of music stardom while his more down-to-earth mother works away at the washtub, visits a fortuneteller and sees a whole series of visions of his future in her tea leaves — one of which is set to a song called ‘Frisco Flo’ which is surprisingly moody and dark for Calloway, and is shot by director Roy Mack in proto-noir fashion — only an exuberant number at the very end gives us the Cab Calloway we all know and love!”).

The 1947 Hi-De-Ho was made by a New York-based studio called “All American” and features Jeni Le Gon, the great Black dancer who was featured with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Thomas “Fats” Waller in the great “Living in a Great Big Way” number that ends RKO’s otherwise workmanlike 1935 musical Hooray for Love — only in one of the most bizarre decisions ever made by a producer (E. M. Glucksman), director (Josh Binney) and writer (Hal Seeger), not only does Le Gon not get a chance to dance but the other female lead, Ida James, doesn’t get a chance to sing even though she had a superb voice (as anyone who’s seen her “Soundie” with Nat “King” Cole on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” will know; she has absolutely no trouble keeping up with him vocally and if she’d been properly promoted as a recording artist, she’d have given Dinah Washington a run for her money). The plot, what there is of it, features James as Nettie, a woman who’s signed to manage Calloway (who, like Desi Arnaz on the I Love Lucy series, is an internationally famous bandleader in real life portraying a small-timer stuck in tiny clubs), arousing the jealousy of Minnie (Le Gon), Calloway’s girlfriend — whom he slaps so hard in the opening scene he literally knocks her down. Nettie books Calloway an audition for the owners of the Little Jive Club (he plays the audition with a cut-down personnel featuring a clearly recognizable Jonah Jones on trumpet) and he gets the job, but he’s such a success he arouses the opposition of gangster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire) and his sidekick Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore), who own the nightclub across the street at which Minnie sings … and whose business has nosedived big-time once Cab Calloway was playing at the Little Jive.

In a jealous snit, Minnie approaches Boss Mason to arrange to have Calloway killed, but when Mo (who’s so inept he makes one think he’s the survivor of an attempt to do a Black version of the Three Stooges) actually fires the gun, Minnie steps in the path of the bullet and takes the shot instead. We assume she dies — we never see her again — and the remaining half-hour of this 64-minute film (it was originally released at 72 minutes and featured Black comedian Dusty Fletcher doing his famous “Open the Door, Richard” routine, which he wrote and recorded for National, the predecessor company to Atlantic, only Jack McVea’s band beat him to the hit with their record for the short-lived Black & White label, but Fletcher’s number didn’t appear in the shorter reissue version we were watching from the Mill Creek Entertainment 20 Classic Movie Musicals boxed set) is simply a sequence of Calloway’s band (brought back up to full big-band size) at the Little Jive, mostly playing instrumentals backing up dance acts (notably the surprisingly heavy-set but still quite agile Paris Sisters) but sometimes featuring Cab’s vocals, notably a version of “St. James Infirmary” in which Calloway performs in a “tramp” getup that looks like Red Skelton’s Freddie Freeloader with a hint of Chaplin around the edges — and in which his voice projects the darkness of the lyrics (it is a song about a man contemplating his own death, after all!) surprisingly effectively for anyone who thinks of Calloway as just the guy who jumped up and down, shook his heavily “processed” hair and screamed that he was the hi-de-ho man, that’s me!

Calloway didn’t do quite as much jumping as he had in his 1930’s films but he was still in excellent command of his body and his voice was in great shape — though quite frankly I liked him better in the more intimate songs, the ones at slower tempi with lyrics full of the sly wit of pieces like “Hey Now, Hey Now.” As a movie this isn’t much; as a musical it would have been a lot stronger if they’d cut some of the dance acts and given Ida James a chance to sing with the Calloway band; but as a showcase for Calloway it’s superb and well worth watching. It also helps that producer Glucksman had access to better camera equipment than most earlier race-movie producers did — and, even more importantly, better sound equipment: the lyrics Calloway is singing are actually understandable instead of a morass of sonic sludge, and though Calloway had long since lost the two best jazz soloists he ever had (tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, who was killed in an auto accident in 1941; and trumpeter John “Dizzy” Gillespie, whom he fired that same year as the result of a misunderstanding in which bassist Milt Hinton threw a spitball at Cab and Cab blamed Dizzy) he still led an excellent band that played great swing instrumentals as well as playing solid, driving beats behind Cab’s vocals that showcased him at his best. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nik Wallenda’s Niagara Falls Tightrope Walk (ABC, 2012)

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

Last night Charles and I spent the evening “in” watching a peculiar spectacle on TV: Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. I had seen this promoted the night before on ABC-TV’s Nightline program, in which it followed a story about silly stunts young people are involved in — including rolling themselves off rooftops in plastic trash barrels, “car surfing” (standing on top of a car and trying to hold on while the car is driven around ordinary streets), the “cinnamon challenge” (swallowing a spoonful of cinnamon and trying to hold it in your mouth for 60 seconds — apparently almost nobody can do it and what usually happens is you end up coughing up a great cloud of cinnamon dust) and other idiotic stunts that are becoming more popular because their practitioners have themselves filmed and the resulting videos are posted on the Internet, where other people can learn about these potentially dangerous pastimes and try them out themselves. (One teenage woman was shown with her head encased in a bizarre white helmet which she apparently has to wear 24/7 because she took a fall while “car surfing” and great chunks of her skull simply broke off; the purpose of the headdress is to hold the artificial replacement pieces in place until the whole thing heals.) It was hard to tell from the Nightline show why the teenagers who shoot each other doing these preposterous stunts deserved opprobrium for their idiocy while Nik Wallenda deserved acknowledgment as a hero for something even crazier — walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, which according to the Nightline program he would be the first to do.

Not so, said Charles: a Frenchman named Charles Blondin (his true name was Jean-François Gravelet, and he was mentioned by that name in the Los Angeles Times article announcing that Wallenda was going to do this, which Charles said would be like writing about Harry Houdini but using only his given name, Erich Weiss) had done a walk across Niagara Falls — indeed, he’d done it so many times it practically became a regular entertainment at the site. According to Blondin’s Wikipedia page, “He especially owed his celebrity and fortune to his idea of crossing the Niagara Falls gorge on a tightrope, 1100 feet (335 m) long, 3¼ inches in diameter, 160 feet (50 m) above the water. This he accomplished, first on 30 June 1859, a number of times, always with different theatric variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.” But in 1896 both the U.S. and Canadian governments passed laws forbidding any more daredevil tightrope walks across the falls, and Wallenda had to spend three years just lobbying both governments either to repeal the laws or at least to set them aside for him. (It wasn’t clear which.)

ABC inflated this stunt to a three-hour program (the actual walk took just a shade over 25 minutes) including footage from famous daredevil stunts throughout history (or at least ones for which film existed, which basically meant everything from Evel Knievel on — the rocket on which Knievel tried to leap the Snake River Gorge was shown, though as I recall the stunt was a fizzle: Knievel neither made it nor died, and quite frankly those were set up in the pre-event publicity as the only two dramatically acceptable outcomes; instead he parachuted into the gorge, rather anticlimactically) and backstory on the Wallenda family, which apparently has been doing this sort of thing for seven generations (plus another one to come: Nik Wallenda met his wife while she was performing as an acrobat at the same circus that employed him, and they have two kids and both of them are doing practice tightrope walks in their backyard), including Nik’s legendary grandfather, Karl Wallenda. I remember first hearing about the Wallendas in 1962 when Life magazine showed pictures of the horrible accident in which the Flying Wallendas’ seven-person pyramid on a tightrope collapsed; two Wallendas were killed, a third (Karl’s son) was permanently paralyzed, and Karl himself signed out of the hospital the next day, totally against medical advice and with two broken bones, because he felt he had to do his next performance. Nik Wallenda is a quite attractive, personable blond man (the sort of athletics he’s involved in means he needs to be in excellent physical shape but can’t let himself get too muscular — unnecessary muscles mean extra weight and make it harder to maneuver in the straight line of a tightrope walk).

The publicity mentioned that ABC’s conditions for telecasting the event included that Wallenda must wear a tether — a sort of harness between his body and the rope that was supposed to snag him in case he fell, though he claimed the tether was making the stunt harder, not safer, since he’d never used one and it was throwing off his balance. In the event, Wallenda had to contend with the mist from the falls (apparently the main difference between him and Blondin was he was tightroping not only across the Niagara Falls gorge but over the falls themselves, thereby having to contend with spray, mist and water on his tightrope — he practiced for these conditions by having his practice rope sprayed with a firehose and a wind machine aimed at him but still said afterwards that the real winds from the Falls’ air currents were a lot harder than anything he’d simulated during his practices), water on his rope and the overall atmosphere of the stunt, which included him being wired for sound and occasionally answering a few interview questions during the walk. At one point he said he was praying to Jesus the whole way — and I couldn’t help but note the irony that Wallenda was 33 years old, the generally accepted figure for Jesus’s age when he was crucified. It was a fascinating program; for all the hucksterism it was still a man pushing himself to his limits and doing an heroic thing, showing off what a person can achieve if they just put both their body and their mind to it and have this extraordinary level of commitment.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Elvis Costello and the Imposters: The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook! (Universal Music, 2011)

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

For our “feature” last night I showed Charles something, if not completely, at least rather different: Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ live album (recorded May 12, 2011 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, a surprisingly intimate venue for someone who’s still enough of a star that one would think he could fill a bigger space) called The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Costello’s record label, Universal Music, released this in three formats — as a CD, a DVD and a deluxe package that combined both. Naturally, I got the deluxe package that combined both, and though I hadn’t played the CD version (and since CD’s have less playing time than DVD’s I suspected — correctly — that it didn’t contain the complete concert), I wanted to share the DVD with Charles since he’d also been a Costello fan “in the day,” though I suspect not as much as I was. I remember Elvis Costello as one of those artists — along with Bob Dylan and David Bowie — whom I didn’t just like, but from the moment I heard a song by them I was convinced that they were the coming voice in music, the voice that would change the art form forever and dominate it in their time. It seems odd at this stage to be treating Elvis Costello as a nostalgia act, especially since (like Bruce Springsteen) he’s done as much as possible to avoid being pigeonholed that way, recording different kinds of music with different ensembles (among his on-the-record collaborators are mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie van Otter, a string quartet, Burt Bacharach and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans) and sometimes going on tour with one of his alternate bands. The Imposters are three-fourths of the original Attractions (Elvis Costello on vocals and guitar, Steve Nieve on keyboards, and Pete Thomas on drums), but with a different bassist, Davey Faragher, since the original one, Bruce Thomas, apparently quit in a hissy-fit over royalties allegedly promised but not paid. The “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” is a concept Elvis Costello first toured with in the late 1980’s in which he took along a giant wheel-of-fortune spinner with the names of songs from his catalogue in the slots; he would invite people from the audience to spin the wheel and then he and the band would play whatever song came up.

The promotion around this concept, both in the 1980’s and more recently, made it seem as if Costello were making up his entire set list from random spins of the wheel, but in fact all he did was play three or four randomly determined songs and plug them into what was otherwise a pretty normally predetermined set list. One of the quirky things was how much the concept hearkened back to the forms of show business common in the early 1900’s — the DVD came with an optional introduction with Elvis, dressed in a top hat and tails and carrying a cane, explained (in his “Napoleon Dynamite”) persona the concept in such a stylized fashion it began to seem like The Imaginarium of Elvis Costello. He would put on this get-up during the show whenever he invited someone from the audience to spin the wheel and thereby sort-of pick the next song. The result was actually a fairly normal Elvis Costello concert video, not as blisteringly intense as some of the live recordings of him that exist from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (especially the Washington, D.C. concert from the This Year’s Model tour, which remains the best Costello live recording I’ve ever heard) but comfortable: he’s stouter than he was in the late 1970’s (aren’t we all?) but he’s still an energetic performer and he’s still good not only at writing songs but at playing the intensity of his music against his nerd-like public persona. And the accoutrements with which he surrounded this performance — the spinning wheel (the band even accompanied the wheel-of-fortune segments with an instrumental version of the Blood, Sweat and Tears song “Spinning Wheel,” a reference you’d really have to be up on late 1960’s/early 1970’s trivia to get) and the cage with go-go dancers doing their thing while the band played — added to the appeal and projected the image of a basically dorky guy trying to be a “showman.”

At least two of the volunteers were named Alison — a name to conjure with among Costello fans because one of his most beautiful early ballads was named “Alison” — one Alison spun the wheel and another one got called out of the audience because she was holding a sign that read, “My name is Alison. Please let me spin the wheel because My Aim Is True” (a reference to Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True, on which he recorded “Alison”). She got more than a wheel spin: she got invited on the stage and Costello sang “Alison” directly to her for one of the most moving parts of the show. I also liked the part in which Costello sent the band off stage briefly and did two acoustic songs, one of which was “Slow Drag with Josephine,” which he said was like an authentic ragtime-era number (well, yeah — except the lyrics are typical Costello, full of modern-day references and the sorts of stylish puns that made me think he was the one person who could have replaced John Lennon in a reunited Beatles — especially once he actually wrote a few songs with Paul McCartney!), and the fact that unlike virtually all other modern artists he was willing to do songs he hasn’t released on record, some of them originals and some of them covers (the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” and the Who’s “The Kids Are All Right” — I’d still want to hear Costello do the Who’s “Substitute” some day; Pete Townshend basically wrote an Elvis Costello song a decade before Costello started writing them himself! — as well as snatches of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a Clown” which he tacked on to one of his own songs). Though all things considered I’d probably rather be listening to Elvis Costello exploring new musical horizons than reliving his past (and it makes me feel damned old that I can remember when these songs first came out … over three decades ago!), it’s still a fun disc and worthwhile for fans of Elvis Costello and anyone who still holds to the faith that just because music is “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be trivial.

Black Legion (Warner Bros., 1937)

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

Black Legion was more melodramatic than I remembered it (director Archie L. Mayo probably told star Humphrey Bogart to give the somewhat overwrought performance he did; I recall Bette Davis saying she had to fight him for the right to underplay a big scene when she felt that was appropriate), but it’s also still powerful and surprisingly relevant to today. The story of Black Legion concerns a secret, Ku Klux Klan-like organization (which actually existed), based in the northern Midwest and focused more on foreign (mostly Eastern European) immigrants than on Blacks, but just as unscrupulous and nasty. Bogart plays a factory worker who joins the Legion after being passed over for a promotion in favor of the son of a Polish immigrant, goes on a series of night rides that terrorize the town where all of this is taking place and finally ends up shooting his best friend (Dick Foran) when Foran, who’s learned the secrets of the Legion from Bogart when he was drunk, threatens to go to the police. A dramatic courtroom finale, probably inspired by Fritz Lang’s Fury, shows a conscience-stricken Bogart breaking down in the middle of the trial when his estranged wife (Erin O’Brien Moore) comes back; he abandons the carefully constructed self-defense scenario the Legion has come up with, confesses his own involvement and names names. In an amusing scene, the organizers of the Legion turn out to be promoters who find selling “patriotism” much more lucrative than the worthless oil stock that was their former source of income. This, I understand, was actually historically true; the Klan of the 1920’s self-destructed over internal feuds, fueled by greed over which faction would get the revenue from “official” Klan uniforms and other merchandise. Black Legion is all too relevant today, when people like Tom Metzger (at least until the court system took care of him) are organizing similar groups, and xenophobia is becoming so powerful a force in American politics a major candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles (Tom Houston) is basing his whole campaign on attacking “illegal” immigrants. It is not at all difficult to imagine a modern remake of this film — the targets of today’s equivalents to the Black Legion are Central and South American immigrants rather than Eastern Europeans, but the hatred is just as ugly and the potential for violence just as great. — 3/3/93


Black Legion was a 1937 Warner Bros. production, one of their “torn from the headlines” specials, and gave Humphrey Bogart his first genuinely good role since he had come to Warners in 1936 to repeat his stage role as the Dillinger-esque outlaw Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. (When Jack Warner gave him a crappy script and told him it would be his next film, Bogart objected. “You can’t expect every picture you make to be as good as The Petrified Forest or Black Legion,” Warner said. “Why the hell not?” Bogart replied.) The Black Legion was a real outfit, a bunch of Ku Klux Klan wanna-bes who terrorized Michigan and other Midwestern states in the mid-1930’s, and while their official list of targets included the usual suspects — Jews, Roman Catholics and Blacks — their principal targets in practice were white ethnics who supposedly were taking the jobs of “100 percent Americans.” It came to an abrupt end in 1935 when the Legion killed a WPA worker named Charlie Poole and Dean Dayton, the actual shooter, turned state’s evidence at the trial. In the movie, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a factory worker (we’re never told what the factory actually makes and the only piece of equipment we see in operation is a drill press) who’s up for the job of foreman, but the management instead promotes a younger worker, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), because he’s been to college, he’s already worked out a new invention that is saving the company money, and therefore they decided he’s earned the promotion.

Taylor, who lives in decent but financially strained circumstances with his wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore, who delivers a quiet, finely honed performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters) and their son Buddy (Dickie Jones), is counting on the promotion to buy a new car and do some work on his house, and when Dombrowski gets the job instead of him he goes into a black rage, drinking, screwing up on the job (and getting a smarmy lecture from Dombrowski that he’s too good a workman to be chewing up valuable drill bits by being careless) and generally moping around until one night he hears a voice on the radio (the favorite medium of hatemongers then and now) blaming all America’s ills on “foreigners” and calling for “real Americans” to rise up against them — and do what, the voice never actually quite says (back then there were still broadcast standards enforced even against the Right-wing radio commentariat), but Taylor’s fellow worker Cliff Summers (Joseph Sawyer) hears Taylor sounding off at work and recruits him to the Black Legion. In one of a series of surprisingly Gothic-looking scenes for a film directed by the usually hacky Archie Mayo (there are more Gothic shots in Black Legion than in Bogart’s one out-and-out horror film, The Return of Doctor “X”), Taylor assembles in a wood as a Black Legion initiate and swears an oath to God and the Devil (“one to reward and one to punish”) that turns out not to have been written by the screenwriters (Robert Lord, story; Abem Finkel — Paul Muni’s brother-in-law — and William Wister Haines, script), but by the actual Black Legion. I remember how stunned I was when I saw a book from the 1930’s on then-current Right-wing movements in the U.S., read the real Black Legion oath — and recognized it from the movie.

He gets issued a Black Legion robe and hood, and also a Black Legion special .38 revolver — both of which he has to pay for out of his already meager earnings, since (as an exposition scene soon tells us) the founders of the Black Legion are a gang of con artists who previously sold worthless oil stock and couldn’t care less about racism or foreigners allegedly taking over America. What they’re after are the money they can make from membership dues and Black Legion merchandise — something that turned out to be true of the real Black Legion’s organizers as well (we’ve come a long way from the radical Right being financed by hucksters trying to make a buck to today’s radical Right being financed by the already mega-rich who want to remake society so they can be even mega-richer) when they were finally rounded up and put on trial. Taylor’s first action as a Legion member is a nighttime raid on the chicken farm owned by Joe Dombrowski’s father; they trash the place, the Dombrowskis leave town and the foreman job opens up at last — only Taylor loses it again when, in response to a demand from the Legion to increase their recruitment efforts, he pulls a worker off a machine to talk to him in the restroom and the inexperienced person he leaves in charge of it ends up making a mistake that wrecks the machine completely. The foreman job goes instead to Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), whose daughter Betty (Ann Sheridan) is Ruth Taylor’s best friend. Betty’s fiancé, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran, who was usually a decent-looking but pretty empty screen presence but actually rises quite well to the challenge of playing the voice of reason in this film), gets suspicious when the Black Legion stages an attack on Grogan that involves tying him to two adjacent trees and whipping him (maybe Abem Finkel wrote this scene with the inspiration of his brother-in-law’s sequence as a whipping victim in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang — though we don’t see the flogger land on Grogan’s flesh, the scene is still quite terrifying explicit for a “post-Code” movie), and after Taylor’s drunk his way out of his job, his wife and child have left him, and he’s taken up with Ed’s slutty ex-girlfriend Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint), he spills the Black Legion’s secrets to Ed while “in his cups.”

Ed immediately threatens to go to the police (a script hole in a lot of 1930’s movies; instead of saying he’s going to go to the police and thereby alerting the bad guys that they’d better shut him up pronto, why doesn’t he keep his mouth shut and just go?) and the Legion kidnaps him, takes him out to those marvelously Gothic woods (the Warner ranch in Calabasas) and Frank Taylor shoots his former friend when he tries to get away. He makes it as far as a roadhouse, ditching his Black Legion uniform on the way (but keeping the gun!), and two cops just happen to show up there, notice his nervousness and arrest him. The Black Legion concocts a cover story that Taylor shot Ed in self-defense after Ed started threatening him with a gun over their rivalry for Pearl Danvers, and Pearl herself testifies in the trial according to the Legion’s script — but Taylor balks at the last minute because, with his wife and son in the courthouse, he can’t lie and say he was planning to dump the good woman, especially not for such a wretched scrap of female humanity as Pearl. Taylor agrees to name names and the judge (Samuel S. Hinds) orders the courtroom sealed so all the Black Legionnaires in attendance can be arrested, and eventually they’re convicted and sentenced to life. Black Legion remains a tough, uncompromising and brilliant movie, partly because of its no-nonsense script, partly because of Bogart’s performance (he’s completely convincing as a proletarian, and he believably depicts his bitterness and rage that gets channeled into violence by the Legion, even though his character arc — a basically good but limited man drawn into evil, who repents only when it’s too late — is essentially the reverse of the one he later played in his star-making vehicles, a world-weary cynic whose good instincts are roused into the service of a cause greater than himself) and partly because the kinds of people who ran the Black Legion are still very much around and, indeed, have far more power today than they did in the 1930’s.

One could easily imagine the basic story being remade today — even though one irony is that it’s people with names like Dombrowski and Grogan, the targets of 1930’s nativists like the Black Legionnaires, that today swell the ranks of the Tea Party and make similar noises against people of color and Queers. The modern version would likely start with a factory worker passed over for promotion by an affirmative-action hire (the stories I’ve read about people joining the militia movement, the White Aryan Resistance and other violent far-Right fringe groups of today almost always begin with a reference to them having become embittered and led to racist hate groups by losing a job, or perceiving themselves as having lost a job, to affirmative action), then joining a Tea Party and finally getting into a militia movement or something more serious and violent. The passions that motivated the Black Legion both in life and on film are, if anything, more widespread and influential now than they were in 1937 — then radical-Right speakers had to thread the needle of a deliberately apolitical mass-media structure to get on the air (even the most popular of them, Father Charles Coughlin, ultimately was cancelled by CBS and, since he was a Roman Catholic priest, he was also subject to the authority of the Vatican, who basically put brakes on him); now they have their own media in talk radio and Fox News, and the kind of Right-wing chatter that occasionally made it onto the airwaves in 1937 can now be heard 24/7 everywhere in the U.S. (Indeed, in most of the U.S. it’s the only sort of political opinion that can be heard on the air.) Black Legion is very much a movie of its time, but in some senses it’s timeless — and the ending is particularly moving in that the one thing that snaps Frank Taylor to his senses, the one good thing that’s withstood all the bad he’s become, is his love for his family and his final unwillingness to betray them. — 6/14/12

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Master of Ballantrae (Warner Bros., 1953)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite interesting Warner Bros. feature from 1953: The Master of Ballantrae, which was Errol Flynn’s last film as a Warners contract player (five years he would return to the studio as a free-lancer to play John Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon — the memoir of Diana Barrymore, John’s daughter and Drew’s mother — mainly because Jack Warner, who had worked with both Barrymore and Flynn, found them equally talented and equally self-destructive, though as one of Flynn’s biographers acidly pointed out it took Barrymore 62 years to drink, drug and screw himself to death and Flynn accomplished it in just 50) and the last film directed by veteran Warners hack William Keighley (his name is pronounced “Keeley,” something I would never have known if I hadn’t heard one of the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts from after he replaced Cecil B. DeMille as the series’ host because as a matter of Right-wing principle DeMille refused to join the American Federation of Radio Artists) — though he would live until 1984. It was based on an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (one commentator ranked it and the unfinished The Weir of Hermiston as “generally conceded today [to be] Robert Louis Stevenson’s two greatest works” — huh? Better than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island or Kidnapped?) set during the 1740’s in Scotland, during the last-ditch attempt of clan lords loyal to the Stuart family to dethrone the House of Hanover as the ruling family of Great Britain and restore the Stuarts to the throne in the persons of Bonny Prince Charlie and his father. Ballantrae is a Scottish village ruled by the Durie family: father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer), oldest son Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn) and his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel). Never having read Stevenson’s novel I can’t vouch for how close the adaptation is ­— though in at least one particular writers Herb Meadow (screenplay) and Harold Medford (additional dialogue) — I guess your initials had to be “H.M.” to get the job working on writing this movie! — softened the tale. Stevenson apparently meant the work as a critique of family feuding and the egomaniacal quest for “glory” in fighting for hopeless causes, and to make that point he dispatched both younger Duries to their graves at the end, while Meadow and Medford left both of them alive.

It was Warners’ last-ditch attempt to return Flynn to the costume-drama milieu in which he’d made his greatest successes and most legendary films — Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — though he was older and considerably stouter than he’d been in his prime, and whereas he’d faked his way through the fencing duels in those previous movies (much to the discomfiture of Basil Rathbone, who was an accomplished fencer and rued that the scripts of Captain Blood and Robin Hood called for him to lose his on-screen duels to Flynn, who faked it all), this time around he had a fencing double, Bob Anderson. Anderson, who died just a month or two ago, was best known for a film he worked on 24 years after this one — the first Star Wars, in which he was the on-screen body under the Darth Vader costume (though James Earl Jones dubbed the character’s voice) and was picked because of his skill in fighting on-screen duels; in The Master of Ballantrae he doubled for both Flynn and one of his on-screen opponents and thereby “killed” himself. As presented on screen, the plot of The Master of Ballantrae (incidentally the last syllable is pronounced “-tray,” not “-try”) actually tracks pretty closely to Flynn’s first starring vehicle, Captain Blood: he ends up on the wrong side of a civil war (Warners showed the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, where the British redcoats mopped up the Scottish clans and the Stuart cause was defeated once and for all, but they weren’t about to give this film enough of a budget to stage any of the actual battle), has to flee the oppressive British occupation of Scotland (they are executing anyone with any connection with the rebellion), meets up with a comic-relief sidekick named Col. Francis Burke (Roger Livesey, one of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s favorite actors) — an Irish officer who fought with the Stuarts — and the two of them flee and eventually end up on a pirate ship captained by a supercilious Frenchman, Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier).

They make an uneasy alliance with him until the crew mutinies; they take over the ship from Arnaud but Jamie takes it back and takes over as captain, and eventually they sail back to Scotland with a treasure with which Jamie hopes to re-establish himself as the master of Ballantrae and finally marry his high-born fiancée Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). Earlier in the story Jamie had been shown having an affair on the side with tavern wench Jessie Brown (Yvonne Furneaux), and when Alison showed up at Jessie’s tavern on the night Jamie and Burke were supposed to take a small boat to a smugglers’ vessel and flee for France, Alison kissed Jamie in Jessie’s presence and Jamie had a hissy-fit of jealousy and got revenge by reporting Jamie’s planned escape to the British, who intercepted them on the beach and nearly captured them. Jamie had assumed his brother Henry (ya remember Henry?) had turned him in to get the Ballantrae estate and Alison’s hand for himself — and his suspicions are only strengthened when he comes home and finds Henry living as the master of Ballantrae (even though their father is still alive!) and engaged to Alison, who justified her actions on the assumption that her real lover, Jamie, was dead. (It seems to me there’s another Warner Bros. movie, a much more prestigious one, that used this particular plot gimmick. Oh, right — Casablanca!) In the end Henry gets to keep the Ballantrae estate and Jamie even gives him the treasure so he’ll have the funds he needs to maintain it, but Alison runs off with Jamie and Burke, fleeing to heaven knows where.

Not that this is a movie where one really cares about the plot: it’s basically action porn, but at least it’s good action porn, and it’s also utterly gorgeous, not only because it’s in three-strip Technicolor just as it was about to be replaced by Eastmancolor but because the cinematographer is Jack Cardiff. The Cardiff touch shows throughout this movie: the interiors burnished with a painterly glow, the exteriors also looking like landscapes of the period and not like soundstages with a nature painting as a backdrop — and I suspect Cardiff may have directed some of the film because there’s a visual imagination and a sense of excitement far beyond the norm for a film by William Keighley. (Keighley’s and Flynn’s paths had crossed during the glory years: Keighley started The Adventures of Robin Hood but was fired because Jack Warner and Hal Wallis didn’t think his footage was exciting enough, and Michael Curtiz was brought in to replace him while B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason shot a lot of the action footage.) Flynn had actually taken Cardiff under his wing and engaged him to make his directorial debut in a 1955 epic shot in Continental Europe; it was supposed to be the story of William Tell, but after about half an hour of the film was shot Flynn’s producers pulled their financial backing, he was unable to find replacement money, and he lost what little money he had left over from his glory years at Warners and was bailed out by Herbert Wilcox, British producer-director who gave Flynn two fat parts in the musical spectacles he produced for his wife, actress Anna Neagle, to star in. The Master of Ballantrae isn’t a great movie but it is a reasonably fun one, and while a number of commentators regretted Flynn hadn’t been able to make it a decade earlier (though in the meantime Flynn’s acting chops had actually improved — in the 1940’s he turned in finely honed performances in Escape Me Never and That Forsyte Woman that would have been inconceivable for the Flynn of the 1930’s), it’s still one of his best late films and a nice hour-and-a-half of entertainment.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Big Band Vocalists (PBS, 2012)

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

The night before last Charles and I had watched a PBS pledge-break special called Big Band Vocalists, a follow-up to another big-band show they did a year or two ago (which I’ve got in the backlog but haven’t actually watched yet) with some fairly familiar clips, hosted by Peter Marshall (the host of Hollywood Squares in its heyday) and Nick Clooney (who’s lived his entire life in the uncomfortable position of basking in reflected fame: first everyone thought of him as Rosemary Clooney’s brother and now everyone thinks of him as George Clooney’s father), many of them coming from two movies Columbia released in the early- to mid-1940’s, Reveille with Beverly (1943) and Jam Session (1944). The film opened with a clip that seemed just to drip with ironies: “I Had the Craziest Dream,” sung by Helen Forrest and played by her then-boyfriend (as well as then-employer) Harry James from the 1942 film Springtime in the Rockies, in color and (supposedly) taking place outdoors with a deep blue three-strip Technicolor backdrop to represent sky. The irony comes from the fact that this film was the occasion on which Harry James met the woman he’d jilt Helen Forrest for, Betty Grable.

Next was the familiar clip from Stage Door Canteen of Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman’s orchestra singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” one of the few white covers of a Black song that was better than the Black hit: it was written by Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s first husband, and recorded by Black singer Lil Green as a rather dull blues dirge — a far cry from the brassy sassiness Lee brought to it. Ironically, when this clip was shot the emphasis was on Benny Goodman — Allen Jenkins’ introduction hails him and doesn’t mention her — but within a decade she’d be a bigger star than he was, as the big bands faded and solo singers became the new music stars. Then there was the famous Reveille with Beverly clip of Frank Sinatra singing “Night and Day” with six women piano players and what looked to be like an all-woman string section — of which I wrote when Charles and I screened Reveille with Beverly “complete,” “Though he was already 27 when he made this film, Sinatra looks about 19, dressed in a slovenly bow tie (this was when his first wife Nancy was still making them for him herself) and a black suit that looks like he wore it to his high-school prom. The arrangement of the song is gimmicky (powered by six female pianists and an all-woman string section — well, that was one way to ensure your musicians wouldn’t get drafted!) and gets in the way of Sinatra’s phrasing (especially as compared to the prayer-like record of it he’d made with Axel Stordahl for Victor in 1942), but he already had the magic that would make and (except for that bad patch in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s) keep him a superstar. When Sinatra became the teen-idol sensation of the early 1940’s, Columbia advertised this film as if he were the star — probably pissing off audiences who paid their money and then got to see him just as a guest artist singing one song.”

The next song was the Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” from the 1942 “B” Private Buckaroo (a far less prestigious vehicle for Harry James than Springtime in the Rockies, though nothing of James was included in this program) — the giveaway was that the great comedian Shemp Howard was shown in the clip —and after that there was a quirky, possibly postwar, clip of Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers singing “It Started All Over Again.” It was a lovely song and well sung, but somehow one (this one, anyway) missed the extra suavity and elegance Frank Sinatra had brought to his record of the song with Tommy Dorsey, on which Stafford and the Pipers were his backup singers. Afterwards they showed a clip from one of Martin Block’s late-1940’s shorts with Buddy Clark singing “I’ll Dance at Your Wedding” with Ray Noble’s band (Noble looked considerably more than 10 years older than the youngish man who’d played the foofy suitor of Joan Fontaine in the Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress, and Clark looked like a used-car salesman, but there was nothing wrong with his voice), and afterwards they showed an unidentified clip of Jimmy Dorsey’s band with Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell doing their famous tag-team vocals (he’d sing the song “straight,” Dorsey would play a jazz solo, and then O’Connell would come in and sing the song in jazz style and tempo), and after that they showed a quite impressive clip of Dick Haymes doing a song called “You Send Me (Right Out of This World).” This was actually the best Haymes I’ve heard; for once in his life he actually seemed to give a damn about phrasing and soul.

Then they showed Alice Faye singing “You’ll Never Know” from the 1943 period musical Hello, Frisco, Hello (the song was written for the film and was one of Harry Warren’s three Academy Award winners, along with “Lullaby of Broadway” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”), and afterwards they showed Perry Como with his original employer and mentor, Ted Weems, doing “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” — obviously a later 1950’s clip from Como’s TV show rather than one featuring the then-unknown Como with Weems in the 1930’s. The next segment (the pledge breaks were distributed in the show at five-song intervals) opened with Doris Day singing “It’s Magic” from her first film, Romance on the High Seas — a glorious performance, but Sarah Vaughan did the song even better on her Musicraft recording, and it’s a real pity no one at Warners thought to hire Sarah Vaughan and an all-Black supporting cast and shoot a “race version” of the movie right after La Doris and the white cast finished. Then came the other clip from Reveille with Beverly, Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack doing “Cow Cow Boogie,” a song which holds up beautifully (it’s one of the legitimate claimants as the first-ever rock ’n’ roll song) despite Morse’s idiotic costuming: as I wrote when I saw this last, “Though stuck with a silly-looking dress that attempts to be creating bull’s-eyes on her nipples, she still comes through and is one of the legitimate claimants for the title of first white rock ’n’ roll singer.” Then they showed a clip of Tex Beneke’s band (post-war, after the death of Glenn Miller and Beneke’s attempt to continue not only the band itself but its trademark “sound” of a clarinet doubling the sax line an octave higher — Duke Ellington was known for this in the early 1930’s but for some reason Miller got the credit for thinking up this bit of orchestral color) and a 1960’s TV appearance of Dinah Shore with the Duke Ellington band doing “Blues in the Night.”

The segment ended with a Jam Session clip of the Bob Crosby band, complete with Crosby and a vocal group, expanding the marvelous novelty “Big Noise from Winnetka” (originally a record featuring just Bob Haggart on bass and Ray Bauduc on drums — including a bit in which Bauduc “plays” Haggart’s bass strings by hitting them with his drumsticks — I’ve liked to cite this to “dance music” fans as the first “drum-and-bass” record in history, since that’s all it is) into a full-fledged song, though the additions really don’t add that much to the marvels of the original. The next and final segment began with a late-1940’s color clip of unknown provenance of Rosemary Clooney doing “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (beautifully, but Billie Holiday’s 1937 record was even more beautiful). The next two were “mystery clips” of Nat “King” Cole and Tony Martin from Cole’s 1950’s TV show duetting on “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Martin would have sounded just fine if he’d been alone, but Cole so totally out-phrased, out-swung and out-sang him the clip was a bit pathetic) and June Christy with Stan Kenton doing the great novelty song “Tampico” (one actually written for Christy’s predecessor with Kenton, Anita O’Day, but by the time Kenton was ready to record it O’Day had quit over the Kenton’s band chronic rhythmic stiffness). The segment continued with the other Jam Session clip, Louis Armstrong wandering through a nightclub in which the entire clientele seemed to be part of his band or his dance troup while performing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” in a version that showed off just how much more self-assured as a performer he was than when he first recorded the song in 1929 even though, as I wrote when Charles and I first saw Jam Session, “The staging is silly: Armstrong is a singing, trumpet-playing bartender whose musicians are lounging around the interior of the bar while a long line of African-American chorines sit at the bar and gape at him in wordless admiration.”

After that almost nothing could have followed, but the makers of this special plugged in Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America” from the 1943 Warners color musical This Is the Army — and Smith became so totally identified with this song it was a surprise when a few of her other records trickled out and it turned out she’d actually sung other things in her life. I remember getting the Columbia Legacy two-CD set From Gershwin’s Time, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth by collecting contemporaneous recordings of his songs — and “I Got Rhythm,” introduced by Ethel Merman on stage in the original production of the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, was sung there by Kate Smith, whose voice was just as big as Merman’s and whose musicianship (especially her intonation) was far superior. The “God Bless America” clip featured some proto-music video effects, including a shot of Mount Rushmore, footage of President Franklin Roosevelt and black-and-white newsreel clips of America’s WW2 military in action, and it ended with a priceless shot of future president Ronald Reagan (who had a featured role in the complete film) with that same clueless deer-in-the-headlights look he had when he was president. Big Band Vocalists was oddly lacking in African-American talent — just Armstrong, Cole and Ellington (the last atypically represented by a TV clip from well past the heyday of the big bands — if I were doing a show about great big-band vocalists I would surely have included the Soundie of Ivie Anderson singing “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” with the Ellington band in 1940, but this show completely avoided Soundies altogether, perhaps because very few of them survive in good condition): no Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan (maybe PBS was saving them for another pledge-break show, Jazz Icons, in which Ella and Sarah do indeed appear) — but aside from that lapse it was a fun show and a worthy tribute to the era even if the gabbing of Messrs. Marshall and Clooney did get oppressive at times.