Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Racing Strain (Willis Kent Productions/Maxim, 1932)

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

The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was one I had recently downloaded from and the person who uploaded it had decided to shorten it by leaving off the credits, so it wasn’t until I looked it up after we watched it that I knew anything about it other than its title, The Racing Strain. The site listed two films by that title, one from 1918 about horse racing and this one, from 1932, about auto racing. It was a Willis Kent production, based on a story by Dorothy Davenport — billed as “Mrs. Wallace Reid,” widow of the major silent star who in 1923 achieved the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first (but hardly the last!) Hollywood movie star to die a drug-related death. (Like such later stars as Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, Reid had become addicted to opiates after he was prescribed them medically — in his case as painkillers following injuries he sustained making the 1919 film The Valley of the Giants, later remade with Kirk Douglas as The Big Trees — and he died of flu in a sanitarium while he was trying to kick his habit.) His widow teamed up with producer Willis Kent to make a film called The Road to Ruin, originally filmed as a silent in 1928 and then remade as a talkie in 1934 (it’s better by far than the other anti-drug movies of the period — Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Assassin of Youth, Cocaine Fiends, Narcotic — but it’s still a cheap, seedy exploitation movie), but she worked on other movies with Kent as well and this one was a vehicle not only for her but her son, Wallace Reid, Jr., who played the male lead. The film opens at an Indianapolis 500 race in the early 1920’s —though the cars we see in the race are early-1930’s production convertibles that wouldn’t have existed in the early 1920’s and wouldn’t have raced at Indianapolis when they did exist — in which race driver Jack Westcott (Lorin Raker) has a fatal crash. Like an opera character, he doesn’t die at once but manages to linger long enough to tell fellow driver King Kelly (Paul Fix) to take care of his son Bill (Dickie Moore) — the boy’s mother Rose left Jack years earlier and he hasn’t heard from her since, so his dying wish is that his son be raised by someone he loves and trusts.

The film flashes forward 10 years and Bill is now a teenager played by Wallace Reid, Jr. He and King are driving across the country in a raggedy-looking old Model T Ford which seems to be missing its fenders, and there isn’t a clue as to how they’re supporting themselves, but it’s quickly established that King was a star racing driver until he was indefinitely suspended from the sport for driving a race while drunk. While he and Bill, whom he calls “Big Shot” — a name his dad gave him literally with his dying breath — are driving across the desert they meet a young society woman, Marian Martin (the appealing Phyllis Barrington), and her surprisingly butch Aunt Judy (Ethel Wales) — we even see her in pants — in a fancy car that’s stopped running. Both King and Bill have a look at its engine before they realize that it’s out of gas, and they offer to tow it to the nearest gas station, though King insists on sitting in the big car with Marian and Bill ends up in the same seat as Togo (Otto Yamaoka), the Martins’ chauffeur, whom they run across inside a tree where he’s been chased by a cow he thinks is a bull. (The other characters immediately recognize the beast as a cow, and director Jerome Storm gets close enough to her udders that we do, too.) Needless to say, a romance develops between King and Marian, and she tells him of a mysterious “friend of my mother” who, she suggests, has enough pull with the racing authorities to get King’s suspension lifted as long as he agrees to remain sober. (It’s not surprising given Dorothy Davenport’s background that substance abuse, addiction and recovery feature prominently in her plot!) The mysterious “friend” turns out to be her father (J. Farrell MacDonald), who owns an auto company and not only gets King’s suspension lifted but gets him a ride for the first big race of the new season at Ascot near Los Angeles (which, according to an reviewer, was a real-life track that eventually closed because so many fatal accidents took place there). Needless to say, “Speed” Hall (Eddie Phillips), who won the racing championship after King was ruled off, becomes his rival not only on the racetrack but for Marian’s affections as well, and “Speed” is being backed by two sinister promoters who have bet heavily on the upcoming race and can’t risk King being able to drive in it, so they determine to sabotage him somehow. “Speed” is against this — he wants to beat King fair and square — but they meet and, without “Speed”'s knowledge, hatch a plot to get King out of the big race.

Meanwhile, there’s been another plot line in which Bill has developed into a capable driver but doesn’t want to race because he can’t get rid of the memories of his father’s death — so the “racing strain” in his blood has manifested itself in another way: he’s hooked up with a couple of promoters in the area who own a plane and sell rides as a carnival attraction. He begs them for chances to take up their plane and shows off his skill as a superb stunt pilot — the point is he isn’t willing to race cars but can do aerobatics because his father didn’t die in a plane crash and therefore isn’t traumatized by flying the way he is by driving — and the two plot lines converge at the end when we learn the plot the promoters has hatched to keep King out of the big race: they send him a letter from Bill’s mother Rose, or at least a woman purporting to be Bill’s mother Rose (both the American Film Institute Catalog and list the character as “Tia Juana Lil,” played by Mae Busch, but it’s not at all clear from the actual movie whether she’s an impostor or the real Rose Westcott fallen to lushdom in a Tijuana bar), demanding that she get back her kid. King decides that he has just enough time to drive to Tijuana, settle with Rose (or Lil,  or whatever her name is) and get back to drive in his race, but when he gets there “Rose” insists that she join him for a drink before she negotiates her payoff. The drink is drugged, and King loses consciousness. Bill and Marian find the note King got and Bill realizes the only way they have to rescue King in time is to fly, so he borrows his friends’ plane again, lands it three miles outside Tijuana (on an otherwise deserted strip of desert where a Mexican cabdriver just happens to be parked), and they set off to rescue King from the baddies, which Bill accomplishes with ju-jitsu moves Togo taught him. So now the suspense is whether they can get King back to the track in time and how the writers (Betty Burbridge and producer Kent, working from Davenport’s story) will resolve it — will King recover from the knockout drug in time to race or will Bill take over and drive his car to victory? Eventually Bill wins the race, overcomes his fear demons, but sneaks out of the car with no one the wiser and everyone at the track (including King himself, once he recovers) convinced that King drove the winning race.

The Racing Strain isn’t much of a movie but it’s quite good for the budget and the time: the script is quite well done, expertly constructed and building emotional identification with the characters instead of observing them from above, like lab rats, as all too many modern movies do; director Storm’s work is technically excellent and, though the racing sequences must have been liberally filled out with stock footage, the joins are surprisingly convincing and enough racing scenes were specifically staged for the film (probably at the real Ascot raceway) that we believe these people are actually driving an auto race, with all the risks attendant thereto. As for Wallace Reid, Jr., he has an almost unearthly beauty and he’s a good enough actor it’s surprising he worked only sporadically — just 10 films in all over 11 years, ending with an uncredited role as a pilot in a 1943 war movie called Bomber’s Moon ( lists 12 acting credits for him, but the first two were as children in his dad’s movies in the early 1920’s). The Racing Strain is the sort of film that deploys the expected clichés but does so in a fresh and surprising way, and as I noted above there’s real suspense over which of the two obvious plot resolutions the writers will use — and auto racing is intrinsically exciting from a visual standpoint and it’s surprising more films haven’t been made about it, especially since just about every article I’ve read on the subject says it’s the world’s most popular sport (though according to one source I’ve read, if you added all the different variations of football — rugby, soccer, American and such oddball variations as Aussie rules — and counted them as one sport, that would be more popular than auto racing).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wagner’s Dream (Susan Froemke Productions/PBS, 2012)

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

The film I had in mind was Wagner’s Dream, a Great Performances special on PBS that was supposed to be shown on September 11 and preface a nightly broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s current productions of Wagner’s Ring operas the next four days — only given the local KPBS outlet’s abject refusal to show any cultural programming, especially anything as recherché as a full-length opera, in prime time the operas are being relegated to KPBS’s usual ghetto for cultural programming, Sundays at noon (and this means Charles and I have already missed the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, which aired last Sunday — oops). Wagner’s Dream is a documentary by director Susan Froemke about the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and its controversial new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part, 16-hour cycle of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, under the direction of a French-speaking Quebeçois director named Robert Lepage (his name is pronounced in the French style, “Ro-BAIR le-PAAGHE”) who first worked at the Met in a production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust (which Berlioz intended merely as a “dramatic symphony” for concert performance but, unlike his previous “dramatic symphony” Rómeo et Juliette, is a fully written-out opera in all but name) which had the various characters inside a row of boxes at the back of the stage that reminded Charles of the set for the old TV quiz show The Hollywood Squares. (It did, too — as did the set for Penny Woolcock’s Met production of John Adams’ opera about the Manhattan District Project, Doctor Atomic.)

For his Ring Lepage decided to search for inspiration in Iceland, source of the Eddas (the two books — the Elder, or Poetic, Edda and the Younger, or Prose, Edda — which later got adapted into the German Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied from which Wagner got his basic story), and he glued onto the fact that Iceland lies at the collision point of the American and European tectonic plates, which means not only that it’s highly seismically active but offers such spectacular visuals as the ground literally heaving under you and rocks breaking open and spurting lava into previously cold environments. (Charles saw a clip of an Icelandic volcano erupting under such conditions and it suddenly made the “ring of fire” with which Wotan surrounds Brünnhilde at the end of episode two, Die Walküre, seem real instead of just mythical.) Lepage decided to reproduce this effect by staging his Ring entirely on 24 huge steel planks which would travel up and down and give the “heaving” effect he wanted. He also came up with the idea that using these planks would enable him to project any backgrounds he wanted onto them rather than having to build big sets — though as things turned out the planks, which were supposed to have a total weight of 50,000 pounds, ended up weighing 90,000 pounds and required the Met to reinforce not only the stage wagons that maneuvered them on and off stage but the concrete floor of the stage itself to support their weight. Most of the documentary focused on the mechanics of Lepage’s construction and design rather than the actual singers — we’re more than 30 minutes into this production before we actually meet a real live opera singer, Deborah Voigt, who was singing the first Brünnhildes of her career in this production — which was rolled out piecemeal: Rheingold and Walküre in 2010, Siegfried (episode three) in 2011 and Götterdämmerung (the fourth and final episode) in 2012.

Not surprisingly, Voigt and the other singers worried about their safety on those movable planks — there had already been accidents on a similarly “advanced” Ring production, also with mobile sets, in Los Angeles (stills from that production I’ve seen make it look even more outrageous than the one in New York, complete with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats doing their stuff above the stage action and huge costumes that made some of the performers look like giant balloons), and on the opening night of Rheingold the set stuck in place during the final scene, the stage crew decided it could not be moved without jeopardizing the safety of the singers, and so opening-night attendees didn’t get to see one of Lepage’s planned stage coups: the ascension of the gods to Valhalla on the Rainbow Bridge, accomplished by having acrobats double for the actual singers because real opera singers wouldn’t have the agility or control over their bodies to make it up the steeply raked position of the planks. Instead the singers simply slipped off the stage as best they could and the audience got to see the Rainbow Bridge, or at least some lights purportedly representing it, stage center without anything actually going on anywhere near it. And for Brünnhilde’s entrance in Walküre, on opening night Voigt slipped and slid down the slanted planks — she actually demanded that her entrance be changed, but Met general manager Peter Gelb said no, and rather than pull a diva hissy-fit and walk out of the production, she stayed on and learned to handle the tricky set. What’s more, Lepage’s idea for the Ride of the Valkyries at the start of Act III of Walküre — one of the most famous bits in all Wagner and also one of the most problematical, since the Valkyries are supposed to be flying in and out of Valhalla on winged horses, bearing the bodies of dead heroes to be revived and serve as Wotan’s palace guard — was to have each singer playing a Valkyrie sit on one of the planks and have it move up and down to suggest she was sitting on and steering a flying horse. When record producer John Culshaw, in his book Ring Resounding, made a point about the correct rhythm of the “Ride” by suggesting it be sung with the words “I’m sick on a seesaw, sick on a seesaw, sick on a seesaw, sick on a train” (his point was that the strong beat should be on “sick,” not “see”), I don’t think he expected that someone would stage Walküre and literally put the Valkyries on seesaws!

Indeed, one thing I give Susan Froemke credit for was that, though she was making a film essentially to promote the new Ring production, she gave voice to traditionalists in the audience who, before the production opened, were skeptical about whether they would like it, even though her sympathies were obviously with Peter Gelb and the others in the movie who were saying that opera has to grow and change with the times and can’t just stay static, content to produce the 19th and early 20th century masterpieces the way they were produced when they were new. The odd thing is that’s a debate that has long since ended — right now an overwhelming majority of new opera productions, especially in Europe, feature radical stage techniques and wholesale reinventions not only of the time and place of the story but plot themes and details, many of which go totally against the grain of both the music and the original texts. Interestingly, Wagner in general and the Ring in particular have largely driven the reinvention of opera staging, starting in the 1920’s when Adolphe Appia published a book calling for a less realistic, more stylized way of designing and directing Wagner productions. He didn’t get many chances to put his ideas into action — though Toscanini called him in to do Tristan und Isolde at La Scala — but from what I’ve seen of his sketches he went in for stylization but didn’t go overboard with it: his design for the mountain rock on which Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep at the end of Walküre and surrounds her with a magic ring of fire only a hero without fear can pass through (the hero, of course, is Siegfried, Brünnhilde’s nephew and himself the product of brother-sister incest — an important turn in the story completely unmentioned in Wagner’s Dream) is at least recognizable as a mountain crag, and likewise his designs for Tristan were still recognizably a ship in act one, a garden in act two, and the balcony of a castle in act three.

Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandfather, threw all that out the window when he and his brother Wolfgang took over the Bayreuth Festival in 1951; Wieland’s Ring productions literally used a ring — a giant disc on the stage floor — as the overall visual motif, and whenever a special effect was needed (like the dragon Siegfried fights and slays in Siegfried) he would do it with a rather crude stage projection hovering over his big disc and the principals cavorting on it. John Culshaw, who attended the 1951 Bayreuth festival and watched a bit of the apocalyptic ending events of Götterdämmerung in Wieland’s production, which “was as if an enthusiastic amateur with very limited funds at his disposal had tried to create them with a few drapes and a spotlight.” Lepage and his co-workers and defenders generally cited Wagner’s dissatisfaction with the Bayreuth premiere of the complete Ring in 1876 (in which the singers playing the Rhinemaidens at the start of Das Rheingold were made to look as if they were swimming by being forced to lay inside steel frames and be pushed on a merry-go-round contraption in front of a painted backdrop of water) and his desire for something new — but the “something new” in Ring productions has already been done again and again and again: by Wieland Wagner in the 1950’s, Patrice Chéreau in the 1970’s (his idea was to have the Ring take place in the 19th century, when Wagner wrote it, and to that end he had Wotan wear a business suit and Siegfried forge his magic sword Nothung with the aid of a gigantic machine that got wheeled out by unseen stagehands — which really went against the whole point of the scene, which was that Siegfried overcame his obstacles and forged the sword himself with nothing but his own strength and the crudest of tools: an open fire, a bellows, a file and a hammer) and Achille Freyer in Los Angeles earlier in the 2000’s, as well as countless other weirdo Ring productions that have afflicted operatic stages all over the world.

The narration also claimed that Wagner was asking for the impossible in his stage directions — people becoming invisible, changing into dragons, flying through the air on winged horses and transforming into other people — which, as Charles pointed out, vastly underestimated the level of special effects known to exist on the 19th century stage. (Even a relatively low-budget pop theatre like the Grand Guignol in Paris could do flight.) Wagner had been to productions of Meyerbeer’s big operas at the Opéra in Paris and other heavy-duty special-effects pieces like Rossini’s William Tell (the hero shoots an apple off his son’s head? No problem!) and the French production of Weber’s Die Freischütz (he criticized the effects as tasteless but admitted they were well done) and he knew all about the capabilities of the stage machinery of his time. I’m not one of those cultural reactionaries who insists that operas or classic plays should only be performed in the time and place the authors originally specified, but I think there ought to be a reason for doing an abstract or modern-dress production, and it should be one that brings the meaning of the work closer to a contemporary audience rather than trashing the meaning of it altogether. This is why, when Peter Sellars made his famous productions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas in the 1990’s, I loved his version of The Marriage of Figaro because he found modern-day equivalents for the social class positions of the characters in the original — but hated his Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte because there he didn’t bother and instead ran roughshod over the works. Judging from the bits of Lepage’s Ring production shown here, aside from the accident-prone nature of the beasts — the technical mishaps on Rheingold and Walküre, the illnesses that forced James Levine to withdraw as the production’s conductor after Walküre (and his replacement by the far less interesting and intense Fabio Luisi) and the last-minute cancellation of the original Siegfried, Gary Lehman (I’d already heard the radio broadcast of Siegfried and I thought the tenor who replaced him, Jay Hunter Morris, had a fine lyric voice but one about a couple of sizes too small for what is almost certainly the toughest tenor role in all opera) — the production looks like it would be well worth watching, refreshingly free of the extraneous silent characters some latter-day Rings have added and surprisingly convincing in the ability of Lepage’s projections to evoke the various locales of the story. 

Where I part company with him is in some of his weird speculations about Wagner’s characters; maybe because I went through something like  this myself (I grew up calling my stepfather “Dad” and my father “Daddy George” and it was only when I realized that “Daddy George” was actually my biological father that I insisted on using his last name, not my stepfather’s), I’ve always identified with Wagner’s maddening uncertainty about which of the two men in his mother’s life, Carl Friedrich Wagner or Ludwig Geyer (who boarded in the Wagners’ home and married Wagner’s mother just six months after Carl Friedrich’s death while baby Richard was just six months old), was his actual father and his insistence, starting at age 14, that he be called Wagner instead of Geyer. I’m sure it was because of Wagner’s own uncertainty about who he was that so many of the male leads in Wagner’s operas — including Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal — are orphans who grow up unaware of their family history, and when they do become aware of who and what they are it’s an important step in their maturation. I was put off by Lepage’s rather airy description of Siegfried as a young, naïve man who appreciates the world “sensually” — he’s right about the youth and the naïveté but he ignores what seems to me to be the most important aspect of Siegfried and the crux of his tragedy: that he grows up not only not knowing who he is but literally being lied to about it; that his whole character arc is his gradually becoming aware of his identity, his heritage and his destiny; and he only puts it all together and becomes a man when he’s singing his death scene after he’s already been fatally stabbed in the back. (For all Wagner’s challenge to the conventions of opera, one of the sillier ones he did keep was this whole business of having characters mortally wounded but continuing to sing long solos before the mortal wounds finally kill them — in Tristan’s case it takes him over half an act to expire.) Still, as modern-day and self-consciously “avant-garde” (but nowhere near as “avant-garde” as advertised!) Ring productions go, Lepage’s looks like it would be interesting and Wagner’s Dream serves as a good introduction to it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Genetic Roulette (Institute for Responsible Technology, 2012)


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

The film was called Genetic Roulette and was based on a book of the same title by Jeffrey M. Smith, a long-term activist who’s written other books on the subject and set up a Web site called the Institute for Responsible Technology ( Charles and I had a close association with the issue of genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s) when we were heavily involved in the protests against the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)’s 2001 convention in San Diego, and the biggest difference between the information as it was presented in 2001 and the information as it’s presented in 2012 is that the dangers we were warning about then — notably the cross-contamination of GMO and non-GMO genes in the environment, the possible evolution of new, previously unknown organisms with potentially destructive properties, and the direct health hazards of eating GMO foods (both for livestock and for humans who consume GMO’s both directly, through products like corn and soybeans that are almost universally genetically modified in the U.S. today — 88 percent of all U.S.-produced corn is GMO, along with 94 percent of soy, 90 percent of canola, 90 percent of cotton, 95 percent of sugar beets and more than 50 percent of Hawai’ian papaya — as well as eating meat from cows, pigs and chickens fed GMO feed) — are now coming true.

The film is a good review of the case against GMO’s, both the intrinsic case and the corruption of the process used to allow them to be marketed; in 1992 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GMO food did not have to go through any special health or safety testing whatsoever because it was “chemically identical” to food produced with conventional methods. The villain in the piece, at least according to Genetic Roulette, is one Michael Taylor, who has turned the “revolving door” between private industry and public service into a warp drive: he has easily shuttled back forth between the U.S. government and Monsanto, which according to the film is the number two marketer of genetically modified seeds and products designed to work with them (which rather begs the question of who’s number one) but has become the symbol of GMO evil for the opposition. According to Genetic Roulette, there are 65 documented health hazards in eating GMO food, including inflammation, immune disorders (since the human immune system frequently recognizes GMO genes as “foreign” or “non-self” and mounts an attack on them), nutrition deficiencies because GMO foods don’t contain as much protein or important trace minerals as their non-GMO counterparts, allergies (including increasing levels of food allergies as people who get allergic to GMO foods end up also allergic to their non-GMO counterparts), reproductive problems (noticed both in humans and in livestock, to the point where animal raisers have lost 90 percent or more of their herds when switching from non-GMO to GMO feed), infant mortality, sterility, disease and death. Those last items are particularly a problem for Bt, which is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium originally discovered in Thuringia, a German state, which in the early 1960’s was promoted as a non-toxic alternative to DDT as a pesticide. Bt became a standard technique for organic farmers since it poisoned insects while leaving plants healthy and unscathed — but that wasn’t good enough for the biochemical industry in general or Monsanto in particular, who sought to isolate the gene in Bt that generates the toxin and insert it right into corn.

The parts of the film that resonated with me particularly were the evolution of an entirely new microbial pathogen that’s been discovered in the guts of farm animals fed GMO food — it’s not a bacterium (the people in the movie have the annoying and all too common habit of using the word “bacteria” as singular as well as plural), a virus, a viroid, a rickettsia or a macrophage, but it’s been proven according to Koch’s Postulates to cause disease — and the relentless attacks from the biotech industry and its captive politicians on scientists who try to expose the flaws in the studies by industry scientists supporting GMO’s and do their own studies that show they’re not safe. The stories of Dr. Arpad Pusztai and others who have lost jobs and grants because they dared to perform and publish studies challenging the safety of GMO’s are all too similar to those of other scientists who have found their careers, and sometimes their livelihoods, destroyed because they dared do work that challenged an industry — like John Gofman, a nuclear physicist who challenged the safety of nuclear power; or Peter Duesberg, who shredded his scientific career by questioning the dogma that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS. It reveals an all too familiar pattern that, whereas in the past scientific research had to contend with interference from religious authorities (does the name “Galileo” mean anything to you?) and from political dictatorships with their own agendas (like the way Stalin elevated Trofim Lysenko’s ideas about genetics to official dogma and punished any scientists who clung to the established Mendelian ideas about heredity), right now the biggest single threat to scientific integrity is the same as the biggest single threat to economic well-being and political liberty: the awesome power of the giant corporations and the unscrupulousness with which it is yielded by these amoral organizations that exist for no other purpose than to maximize their own profits. In a very real sense, the message of Genetic Roulette is that scientific truth has ceased to exist: in science, as in economics and politics, the “truth” is whatever the big corporations say it is.

There’s an attempt at the end of the movie to portray the situation as not entirely hopeless — including a list of previous attempts to market GMO’s that failed due to organized campaigns of consumer resistance (from the “FlavrSavr” tomato, which was a GMO with a flounder gene inserted — yes, that’s from a fish — to make the tomato flatter and therefore easier to ship — to the madness of using recombinant bovine growth hormone to boost cows’ milk production at a time when there were already milk surpluses; ironically Walmart, the evil empire on so many issues, emerged in Genetic Roulette on the side of good on this one as the first major supermarket chain to realize that rBGH milk was going to be a money-loser for them because people didn’t want it) and a major push for Proposition 37 on the California ballot, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. It’s not surprising that Monsanto and the other GMO companies have fought labeling requirements tooth and nail — just as the political Right has fought against disclosure requirements that, if they wouldn’t stop corporations and wealthy individuals from buying elections, would at least let us know who was hijacking our democratic-republican process with big money — because, as one of the activists shown in the movie says, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I can hardly wait to go to the supermarket today to buy some of that yummy genetically modified food!” Given a choice, most people will prefer to buy food without genetically modified ingredients — which is why the industry has fought so hard not only to get their crummy GMO food to the marketplace but not to let us know that GMO food even exists. (Indeed, at the height of the rBGH controversy the Alta-Dena dairy had to go to court to win the right to advertise that their milk didn’t contain it; the dairies who were using it claimed that Alta-Dena was libeling them by implying some doubt about the safety and health of rBGH milk, even though all Alta-Dena was saying in their ads was, “If you want to avoid rBGH in your milk, buy from us.”)

It’s fascinating that the people who scream the loudest against government regulation and in favor of the “free market” are also the ones who scream the loudest against being made to level with the public as to just what’s in the products they sell or under what circumstances they’re manufactured; Adam Smith himself, the founder of capitalist theory, said a free market wouldn’t work unless people knew what they were buying and could trust the sellers to be honest with them — but then what passes for “capitalism” in the U.S. (and most of the world) today has little or nothing to do with Adam Smith; indeed, by allowing corporations to merge and become fewer in number and larger in size, the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the European Union are reproducing the era of mercantilism, a corrupt economic system to which Smith was promoting free-market capitalism as a superior alternative. Under mercantilism, the government designated one company to have a monopoly over a certain industry — and in many industries we’ve seen a sort of neo-mercantilism emerge from the ashes of the “free market.” (This was the real significance of that bizarre antitrust suit the feds filed against Apple and three book publishers that alleged price-fixing in the price of Internet books — a suit that helped because the deal between Apple and the publishers had been aimed at breaking Amazon’s monopoly power over the pricing of e-books. The feds had essentially designated Amazon as a state-sanctioned monopoly by punishing other corporations that tried to challenge them.)

Smith’s film is an eye-opener and yet more evidence that the real threat to liberty in this country is Big Business, and to the extent Big Government is a threat to liberty it’s not from overly restricting the private sector but, quite the contrary, by enabling and protecting it, allowing it to market its poisonous products and to drive down wages so much that the economy will remain in a state of permanent decline because American business will still have the capability to produce lots of stuff (even though they send the actual jobs of manufacturing it to China and other countries where dictatorial governments enforce sweatshop conditions and arrest or assassinate people who try to organize unions) but they won’t be able to sell it because they’ve done such a good job driving down wages that no one has the money to buy it. It’s nice that the anti-GMO activists were able to get Proposition 37 on the ballot, but barring the intervention of a billionaire do-gooder like (do I dare say the name?) George Soros on the anti-GMO side, they’re likely simply to get crushed by the advertising blitz Monsanto and other GMO companies are going to unleash on them to make California voters think GMO’s are the greatest thing since sliced bread and that enforcing labeling requirements on them will drive up the price of food and starve the Third World (a favorite argument of Monsanto’s PR people, official and unofficial, expertly debunked in this film).

Elephant Boy (London Films/United Artists, produced 1935-36, released 1937)

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

Charles and I got back from the Genetic Roulette screening to have time to watch another movie: Elephant Boy, the 1935-37 film from Alexander Korda’s London Films that marked the screen debut of Sabu — and a movie I had just mentioned in these pages because Charles and I had just watched his second film, The Drum, also a Korda production and also set in Sabu’s native country, India (though the locale of The Drum is the Northwest Frontier country that is now part of Pakistan). Elephant Boy had an odd beginning and a troubled production history. It began in 1935, with the great American documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty living in the U.K. and needing a job after the financial failure of his previous movie, Man of Aran (1934), a documentary filmed off the coast of Galway Bay in Ireland and dealing — like his star-making film, Nanook of the North (1922) — with desperately poor individuals fighting nature to survive. He hired a British agent named T. Hayes Hunter (who occasionally dabbled in the creative side of directing, notably making the quite remarkable 1933 film The Ghoul with Boris Karloff), and Hunter scored him a contract with Korda.

“Flaherty agreed without a murmur to a contract which gave Korda overriding supervisory powers,” said Flaherty’s biographer, Arthur Calder-Marshall. “With the enthusiasm generated by every big-money venture, he believed that this time he had really found the producer to understand him. … The truth is that Elephant Boy … was Flaherty’s one sustained effort to make a box-office feature picture. … Elephant Boy sprang from Flaherty’s profound need to make a lot of money; and Korda, instead of thinking of a modest-budget prestige picture, planned to make a large-scale production, based on Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants. Flaherty thought he could get the best out of Korda, while Korda thought he could get the best out of him; but their methods were so incompatible that they brought out the worst in each other.” The first obvious difference between Elephant Boy and every film Flaherty had made before that was it started with an already written story — by Rudyard Kipling, whose name itself had box-office appeal — rather than Flaherty going out to his location, assembling his cast members and looking for a story on the fly. He also went out with a huge crew — previously he had relied on himself as the cinematographer, used his wife Frances and his brother David as his assistants, and trained indigenous people from his location to handle the technical end, including doing the grunt work of actually developing and printing the film. Instead Flaherty accepted the invitation of the Maharajah of Mysore, an independent principality in southern India that was part of the confederation of Indian states ruled by the British under the Raj, to make the film there. The Maharajah’s government made available to Flaherty and his crew the animals in the Royal Zoo and loaned him an unused palace, the Chittaranjan Mahal, as headquarters for the film crew and the lab where the picture film was developed. (Flaherty shot some sequences with synchronized sound — the first time he’d ever done so — but the soundtracks were processed in Bombay, now Mumbai.) “You would think we were a bloody factory!” Frances Flaherty wrote to her daughters from the Indian location, noting how many hundreds of people had come out from Britain and/or been hired in India instead of the skeleton crews she and her husband were used to using.

Unfortunately, Korda was neither willing nor able to wait for Flaherty to follow his usual modus operandi of using unprofessional actors as his cast members, shooting months of tests and finally evolving the story and structure of his film. Part of the problem was that London Films was in financial trouble; Korda had put his little British studio on the map in 1933 with The Private Life of Henry VIII, an enormous international hit (and the first non-U.S. film to win a major Academy Award: Charles Laughton for Best Actor) but, as Calder-Marshall put it, “the brilliance of the cheap success of The Private Life of Henry VIII had been dulled by many costlier failures.” Flaherty didn’t communicate with Korda until he’d been in India seven months, by which time he’d discovered Sabu (whose full name is given in various sources as Selar Shaik Sabu or Sabu Dastagir), who’d been a sort of mascot for the royal elephant stables in Mysore — and he was the answer to Flaherty’s dreams: he was photogenic, he radiated charisma on screen, and since he’d been living with the Maharajah’s elephants since his father (a mahout, or elephant driver) died at age nine he would have no trouble handling an elephant on screen, and he also could easily play an orphan. (Toomai’s mother is dead before the film begins and his father is killed by a tiger midway through the action.) Unfortunately, Korda couldn’t leave well enough alone, and he kept sending Flaherty “helpers” who just got in the way. First was Lajos Biró, a playwright from Korda’s native Hungary who was his all-purpose script doctor. Then there was Monta Bell, a Hollywood hack (Calder-Marshall derisively notes that his credits included titles like West Point of the Air and The Worst Woman in Paris; he also directed Greta Garbo’s first American film, The Torrent, but that was a success in spite of its director), who got the “brilliant” idea to scrap the Kipling story and substitute one from a book by Maurice Collis called Siamese White even though it had nothing to do with Toomai of the Elephants — for one thing, it took place in Siam (modern-day Thailand); also it was about a man named Samuel White, a British native who was appointed a mandarin of Siam during the reign of British King James II; and the aspect that attracted Bell to it was it featured a ghost elephant. Bell actually had a live elephant white-washed to play a ghost one, but, according to Calder-Marshall, “All the footage shot on this blunder — and a good chunk it was — went into the ash-can.” Finally Korda sent his ace troubleshooter: his brother, Zoltan Korda, and according to Calder-Marshall, “In the spring of 1936 there was a steady build-up of Denham [Korda’s British home base] technicians, cameramen and production staffs, until at the end there were … three different units shooting madly to three different scripts.”

In June 1936 Alexander Korda finally pulled the plug on shooting Elephant Boy and hired yet another troubleshooter, writer John Collier, to see if he could make sense of all the footage. Flaherty, said Collier, “had shot some marvelous backgrounds and we ran 17,000 feet of them. The absence of a story was noticeable. It was suggested that a very simple story could be devised, such as could be shot (in the studio and on the lot) in about 5,000 feet of screen time and that this should be grafted into an equal amount of Bob’s material. Korda declared that this involved 29 impossibilities; however, it was done.” The studio portions of the movie were written by Collier and directed by Zoltan Korda; the key role of Petersen Sahib — the white hunter who was sent out into the Indian jungle to capture wild elephants and round them up into a kheddah, also referred to as a “stockade” but really a giant outdoor pen, and who took along young Toomai and treated him better than his countrymen — was recast with a professional actor, Walter Hudd, instead of the non-professional who had played him in Flaherty’s footage; and the studio recruited zoo elephants and made dummy elephant feet to bolster the footage of the so-called “elephant dance” (actually a group of elephants in the jungle getting restive and looking like they’re about to stampede) because Toomai has been told he won’t be allowed to be a hunter until he sees the elephants dance. What Korda ended up with was a messy but often brilliant film and an excellent launch for the brief but stellar movie career of Sabu, who comes across as a sort of male Indian version of Shirley Temple. Just as Marjorie Rosen argued in her book Popcorn Venus that Shirley Temple was the most liberated female in 1930’s movies precisely because, as a child, she didn’t pose a sexual threat, so Sabu got away with playing a wise-beyond-his-years character instead of the usual casting of people of color in American or British movies as either doofuses or villains precisely because he was prepubescent and therefore unthreatening. Indeed, as I argued when Charles and I watched The Drum, it seems likely that Sabu’s career declined as quickly as it did (as did Temple’s, come to think of it!) because once he got older and his physical age started to match his on-screen maturity, the act lost its appeal and he dropped to being just another supporting player of color.

Elephant Boy begins with an embarrassing opening — Sabu standing in front of a white screen and declaiming for about three minutes about the story and his role in it — and once the film proper begins it’s all too easy to tell what footage was shot by Robert Flaherty in India, what was shot by Zoltan Korda in the U.K., what scenes are Korda’s foregrounds with Flaherty’s footage as process-screen backgrounds (one could make a case that on Elephant Boy Flaherty was the highest-paid second-unit director in history) and what lines Sabu spoke in India and what lines he spoke in England — this film has far more “wild” lines (dubbed in during scenes in which the actor or actors speaking have their backs to the camera so the editors and mixers didn’t have to worry about lip-synch) than just about anything made since the earliest days of the talkies. The story is a pretty obvious but still charming tale about young Toomai — his father and grandfather were also called that — and his deep love for his elephant, Kala-Nag, about whom he is ferociously protective. “There was a genuine Flaherty theme in the oneness of created life, the love of boy and elephant,” Calder-Marshall wrote. “But apart from the general theme, if he was going to film an elephant-boy story, there was a great deal of rehearsal. The love had to be built up. The elephant had to be taught how to act, to pick Sabu up and place him on head or back according to the script. Even the blondest film actress from Scandinavia can learn faster than an elephant.” As the film unfolds, the older mahouts and the Indian characters in general are amazed that Toomai has taught his elephant that trick, and the MacGuffin is an elephant hunt being organized by Petersen Sahib (incidentally Sabu pronounces Sahib as “Sahb” — it’s usually pronounced “Sah-HEEB” but since Sabu was a native of Mysore, I’m going to trust him on this one), a great white hunter (yes, the character is as clichéd as my description) who’s setting off in the jungle in search of between 50 and 200 wild elephants, and he needs a party of 40 tame elephants to pull this off. He rejects an elephant whose legs are chained together because that’s a sign that he’s run off before and gone amok, and he hires Toomai’s father to drive Kala-Nag on the big hunt — and of course, this being a movie, Petersen also allows Toomai to accompany the expedition.

Alas, the hunting party goes deeper and deeper into the forest without finding the wild elephants, and the dialogue drops hints that the elephants are doing a mass congregation in the depths of the jungle that only happens once every 100 years. (The script includes the fact that elephants have a life expectancy about three times that of people; we’re told that Kala-Nag has been in Toomai’s family for at least four human generations.) Then a tiger menaces the camp, and rather than seek help — which would alert the Indian members of his party to its presence and might get them to flee in panic — Petersen and Toomai, Sr. decide to go after the tiger themselves, just the two of them. Petersen shoots the tiger, the tiger drops, Toomai, Sr. congratulates Petersen on his marksmanship — and just then the tiger, unhurt, leaps up and claws Toomai, Sr. to death. There’s a beautiful, moving sequence in which the elephant keens in mourning for its master, and Petersen worries that Kala-Nag might go feral — though the actual cause of the elephant’s subsequent rampage is Rham Lhal (Bruce Gordon), who demands to take over as Kala-Nag’s driver and whips the poor elephant until he goes crazy and starts stomping out the buildings on the campsite. Needless to say, only Toomai, Jr. can calm the crazy elephant, but according to Indian law an elephant that attacks a human is supposed to be put to death. Toomai, pretending to sleep, overhears that Petersen, like Captain Vere in Billy Budd, is going to order the execution even though he doesn’t believe in it, so Toomai steals Kala-Nag, hides him out in the jungle — and he comes across the wild elephants Petersen’s party has been looking for in vain throughout the movie, making dance-like motions as they prepare to stampede. The next morning Toomai returns to camp to let Petersen know where the wild elephants are, and the film’s climax shows the members of Petersen’s party herding the elephants and driving them into the stockade, and Toomai getting not only his hunting merit badge (so to speak) but being hailed with the honorific “Toomai of the Elephants.”

Elephant Boy is a film that virtually defines “uneven.” Flaherty’s footage — Toomai’s prayer to an enormous statue of the god Jain (one of the few scenes in which we see Sabu without his almost omnipresent turban and in which Sabu’s voice is heard in the Indian footage; though the voice is recognizable throughout, when the company returned to the U.K. Korda’s voice coaches worked on Sabu to improve his English and the difference is noticeable); the construction of the elephant stockade (with the tame elephants used as beasts of burden to hoist the beams used to trap their wild brethren); the scenes with Toomai and Kala-Nag bonding; the “elephant dance” itself; and the big final sequence of the elephant drive — is magisterial, but the gap between it and the rest of the movie, with its scenes of “Indians” (including W. E. Holloway as Toomai, Sr.) wearing tacky “dark” face makeup and obviously false beards, is as great as the gap between the beauty of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance numbers and the lumbering plots within which they were contained. And yet it’s highly likely that an Elephant Boy consisting entirely of Flaherty’s footage would have been less watchable than the one we have, largely because (as Calder-Marshall acknowledged in his biography) Flaherty had never learned to shoot a film bearing in mind that it was going to have a soundtrack: “Flaherty’s original weakness of continuity had been covered in silent days by the sub-title, which provided an optical break and a logical join between one sequence and the next. He had clung to the old silent technique even in Man of Aran; sound was an afterthought, a form of fashionable ornamentation rather than part of the structure of the film.” As it is, we watch Elephant Boy much as we would a pre-Wagnerian opera, sitting through Zoltan Korda’s and John Collier’s recitatives so we can be charmed and moved by Robert Flaherty’s magnificent arias. It’s also lovely to see a jungle movie that is refreshingly free from stock footage (although there is at least one pretty blatant stock clip — a shot of an elephant approaching the camera that has a white scratch through it) and is, indeed, the sort of movie that probably served as a source for stock footage! Charles was utterly astonished at the fact that there were no women whatsoever in the dramatis personae — since Sabu was prepubescent there couldn’t be a young damsel in distress awarded to him as a prize at the end, but aside from a reference to his having a dead mother this movie was so female-free (at least as far as the human characters) that Charles joked that Toomai and his father appeared to be products of parthenogenesis.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Son of Monte Cristo (Small/United Artists, 1940)

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

Charles and I eventually watched a feature last night: The Son of Monte Cristo, a 1940 film that was a sequel to the 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo with the same producer (Edward Small) and director (Rowland V. Lee); credits the original story to Alexandre Dumas père but the American Film Institute Catalog merely states it was “suggested” by the original novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas and Charles Fechter — though Small made quite a few movies based, or loosely based, on Dumas’ works, including the two Monte Cristo films as well as The Man in the Iron Mask (the 1939 version directed by James Whale and starring the man who also played the title character in The Son of Monte Cristo, Louis Hayward), The Corsican Brothers and Black Magic. Apparently Small announced this film as early as 1936 and wanted his star from The Count of Monte Cristo, Robert Donat, to play the lead, but after making The Count of Monte Cristo in Hollywood Donat decided never again to work in the U.S. (apparently because of his chronic asthma — as I noted in my comments on his version of The Count of Monte Cristo one would have thought that the relatively clean, dry air of pre-smog Los Angeles would have been better for an asthmatic than the dank, foggy atmosphere of his native England, but Donat wanted to work in his home country and even when he signed with a U.S. studio, MGM, it was with the proviso that all his films be made at MGM’s British studio) and so the film didn’t get made until 1940, with Hayward in the male lead, Joan Bennett in the female lead and George Sanders easily taking the acting honors as the principal villain.

George Bruce, the only credited screenwriter (usually a good sign), came up with a wild story that isn’t a patch on Dumas but on its own is both an exciting adventure yarn and a veiled but unmistakable parallel to what was going on in Europe in 1940. The story takes place in the fictional duchy of “Lichtenburg” (the same name — an obvious combination of two of Europe’s real-life country-ettes, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg — was used for the fictional country in which Irving Berlin’s musical Call Me Madam takes place, and Call Me Madam was filmed in 1953 with at least one actor in common with The Son of Monte Cristo, George Sanders), nominally ruled by the young and attractive Grand Duchess Zona (Joan Bennett) but really controlled by her unscrupulous general, Gurko Lanen (George Sanders at his oiliest). Sanders’ hot black-leather costume, his imperious Prussian military bearing, his close-cropped hair and even his moustache (not an exact duplicate of Hitler’s but close enough to work subliminally) can’t help but evoke a parallel to the Nazis and their rule, and the chilling arbitrariness with which he forestalls the plots (real or imagined) against him, coolly orders people’s executions and has his soldiers smash the printing press used to publish an anti-regime newspaper, The Torch, suggests not only Hitler but Stalin as well.

Edmond Dantes (Louis Hayward), the son of the count of Monte Cristo, has inherited the family’s fortune and its banking business; he’s arrived in Lichtenburg to see if its government is worthy of the 25 million francs they’ve asked to borrow from his bank. In his spare time he’s trying to do a bit of hunting on the French-Lichtenburgian border, and his hunting dogs interfere with the flight of Zona and her confidante, Countess Mathilde (Florence Bates), who were trying to escape the country in Zona’s carriage so she could deliver a letter to French emperor Louis Napoleon (a.k.a. Napoleon III) asking him to send an army to Lichtenburg to conquer Lanen’s army, take over the country and restore the Grand Duchess to effective control. Only Lanen gets a tip from Stadt (Ian Mac Wolfe), his spy in the Grand Duchess’s circle (whom she trusts implicitly because her late father, the Grand Duke, did), who leaks him a copy of the letter, which was actually written by prime minister Baron Von Neuhoff (Montagu Love). Lanen uses this evidence to have Von Neuhoff arrested for treason and sentenced to death, and the count of Monte Cristo decides to rescue him. He reasons that the best way he has of getting access to the palace (in whose dungeons Von Neuhoff is being held) is to offer to make Lanen the 25 million franc loan and suck up to him, even though by doing so he repels Zona, who had previously fallen in love with him. Monte Cristo poses as a fop to convince Lanen he’s harmless, but he also adopts a mask and hood to pose as the superhero “The Torch,” break into the prison and free Von Neuhoff.

His plan succeeds — with the aid of a couple of men in the palace guard who pretend to obey Lanen but are really loyal to the Grand Duchess (one of them is played by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore, while future Dick Tracy Ralph Byrd plays a would-be assassin who’s executed early on for taking a shot at Lanen and, alas, missing) — but Lanen hits on another idea: he’ll make an alliance with the Russian ambassador that will turn Lichtenburg into a Russian protectorate, and he’ll use that treaty to blackmail Zona into marrying him even though she loathes him. In his “Torch” drag, Monte Cristo holds up the Russian ambassador, Prince Pavlov (Michael Visaroff), in his carriage on the road out of Lichtenburg, but Lanen learns that Monte Cristo is the Torch after Zona accidentally “outs” him, steals back the treaty and sentences Monte Cristo to hang at the exact moment he and Zona are getting married (in what appears to be an Orthodox church service — apparently Lichtenburg, being on the border of both France and Russia, got Russia’s rather than France’s brand of Christianity), but Von Neuhoff and his loyal revolutionaries figure out a Trojan Horse-style way to get into the palace dungeon, free Monte Cristo and set up a big swordfight sequence (one of several in the film between Hayward and Sanders) in which Lanen is finally killed. The film ends with Monte Cristo and Zona in a clinch before the admiring Lichtenburgian people but no hint of what’s going to happen to them after that — a pity, since a bittersweet parting à la The Prisoner of Zenda would seem both more believable and more moving than the implication that they’re actually going to stay together at the end.

 The Son of Monte Cristo is derivative as all get-out, borrowing the superhero-as-fop bit from The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Mark of Zorro and even ripping off Richard III in the “courtship” scenes in which Lanen tries to seduce the woman who has every reason to hate him. (The year before he made this film, Rowland V. Lee had shot a version of the Richard III story at Universal, Tower of London, with Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.) But it’s also well paced, a lot of fun, and blessed with Lee’s fluid and mobile direction (though James Whale could have done it even better!) as well as a story that maintains a nice combination of intrigue and camp and makes the social comments (Lanen = Hitler, and his minions are the Nazis) without hitting us over the head with them or risking giving offense to isolationist-minded viewers of the time. And while it’s not hard to think of actors around in 1940 who could have played this part better than Louis Hayward (including Ronald Colman, who did play this sort of part better in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, as well as Robert Donat, Errol Flynn and even Cary Grant), he’s certainly personable and athletic enough for it and one can believe Joan Bennett is attracted to him without making us feel like she’s slumming. The Son of Monte Cristo is little more than a footnote to its illustrious predecessor but at least it’s a good footnote, doing what a sequel should do — evoking enough of what was good about the previous film to remind us of what we liked about it and entertain us in a similar way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sea Devils (RKO, 1937)

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

The film was Sea Devils, an unusual 1937 RKO vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Preston Foster (reuniting the two male leads from John Ford’s multi-Academy Award-winning 1935 film The Informer) that story-wise was your typical macho men fighting over a woman piece of tripe but gained novelty from the fact that out of all the branches of the military service writers Frank “Spig” Wead (a World War I aviator who was crippled in both legs in a plane crash and thereafter went from flying planes himself to writing about people who did; between them he and John Monk Saunders basically created the clichés of the aviation movie and Wead was eventually the subject of a biopic, The Wings of Eagles, in which John Wayne played him), John Twist and P. J. Wolfson could have set their story in and around, they chose … the Coast Guard. William “Medals” Malone (Victor McLaglen) is an irascible officer aboard the Coast Guard cutter Taroe; at some time before the main action begins he must have been married, or at least involved in a serious relationship with a woman, because he has a daughter, Doris (Ida Lupino, midway between her native British accent and the American one she learned after years of making films in the U.S.). An obnoxiously vain ladies’ man in the Coast Guard, Mike O’Shay (Preston Foster, acting with considerably more spirit than usual — enough that this is one movie of his I didn’t sit through wishing James Cagney had been playing his part, even though it would have been a better movie with the Warner Bros. team for these sorts of roles, Cagney and Pat O’Brien), puts the make on Doris, much to her initial disgust — and also her dad’s, since he’s already picked out the man he wants her to marry: a quiet, bookish Coast Guard seaman named Steve (Donald Woods) who’s studying to take the test for the Coast Guard’s officers’ academy because he thinks that only if he can get to be an officer and get the higher pay therefrom will he be able to afford to marry Doris.

Needless to say, Mike seduces Doris (in a decorous Production Code-approved way) away from Steve, and Medals reacts by requesting that Mike be assigned to the Taroe, where Medals orders him to do the nastiest, most makework jobs on board he can think of. The Taroe gets sent to Alaska to test new explosives aimed at blowing up icebergs so future ships in those lanes don’t meet the fate of the Titanic (1937 was the 25th anniversary year of the Titanic disaster and the Titanic is actually mentioned in the dialogue), only there’s an accident caused by Medals and Mike getting involved in one of their periodic brawls and Steve, trying to stop the explosion since the brawlers have let their escape boat go adrift, is blinded and severely wounded in the process. The crew returns to home base and Mike is indicted and tried in a court-martial — where Medals and he get into yet another brawl that leads to Mike’s conviction and sentence to the brig, while Medals is demoted and decides to retire. There’s also the poignant character of Sadie (Helen Flint), who owns the local bar at which Medals does most of his drinking (every time he walks in the bartender slides him either a beer or, later in the movie, a shot of whiskey, and he says, “Put it on the slate” — we get the impression that by now he probably owes her something approaching the entire production budget of this film — he also hits on her for money to redeem his medals when he’s had to pawn them, and he strings her along with promises of marriage).

Anyway, just before Medals’ retirement is scheduled to take effect all the Coast Guard personnel in the area are called on to do rescue work in a severe hurricane that has, among other things, put a yacht in imminent danger of foundering and drowning her whole crew. Mike escapes from the brig so he can be part of the rescue effort, and Medals also shows up; the two of them rig a “short line” — basically a long rope with a sort of canvas saddle in it that can hold a person; by having each yacht passenger get in this contraption and hauling the rope back and forth, the Coast Guardsmen are able to save all of them by getting them off the boat one by one, but with Mike and Medals both on the yacht and the mast about to collapse, which will render the short line useless, Medals knocks out Mike, puts him in the saddle and saves him at the cost of his own life. There’s a postlude five years later in which Mike and Doris have had a son and Mike has nicknamed him “Medals” and is teaching him to box. RKO made quite a few attempts to poach on Warners’ territory in the mid-1930’s but this is one of the very best of them, perhaps because Frank Wead was one of the screenwriters; aided by a sterling directorial effort by Ben Stoloff — who for once gave a film the fast pace of a Warners product instead of the usual pokiness of an RKO melodrama, the writers create genuinely conflicted characters (though there are a few wince-inducing fallbacks to the old clichés) and the movie is both attention-keeping and genuinely fun in a way few RKO products of the time (outside of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals) were.

Captive Girl (Columbia, 1950)

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

The film was Captive Girl, a 1950 entry in Columbia’s “Jungle Jim” series starring Johnny Weissmuller as the white big-game hunter in Africa, originally created in 1934 as a comic strip by the talented and prolific Alex Raymond (who also created Flash Gordon and drew the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip for Dashiell Hammett!), who ended up on the big screen when cheapie producer Sam Katzman (running a company of his own variously called Banner, Esskay and Sam Katzman Productions) bought the rights and worked out a production/distribution deal with Columbia to make a series of Jungle Jim movies aimed at the prepubescent (or barely pubescent) male audience that flocked to Saturday matinees. As his star he tapped former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, who was still a nice-looking man and convincingly butch but was getting too hefty to be credible wearing a loincloth and swinging on jungle vines. Charles and I had watched the first Jungle Jim movie not long ago and hadn’t thought much of it, but I wanted to watch this one because one of the villains was played by Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who had a career trajectory similar to Weissmuller’s: they were both champion swimmers, both won Olympic gold medals, and both got signed by movie companies to play Tarzan (so Captive Girl counts as one of my “doubles” movies). The story is the typical fol-de-rol concerning an African tribe; its hereditary ruler, Chief Mahala (Rick Vallin, the nice-looking and surprisingly talented young man who was in Ghosts on the Loose with Bela Lugosi, the East Side Kids and Ava Gardner, who of course went on to biggers and considerably betters — Vallin should have had more of a career than he did, since he was not only personable and good-looking but he obviously could act, even though here the only concession to “nativicity” was plastering dark-brown makeup on his face that made him look like a white guy who’d gone to a really good tanning salon), has just returned from getting a white man’s education and is ready to take over and rule the tribe. Only he’s got a major rival for the throne: the tribe’s medicine man, Hakim (John Dehner, virtually unrecognizable under the bone-studded headdress he wears in all his scenes), who’s out to murder all his rivals and take the chief’s position himself.

There’s also a white villain, deep-sea diver Barton (Buster Crabbe), who uses a SCUBA tank when they were still a relative novelty on the screen and who’s out to steal the treasure buried in the “Lagoon of the Dead,” including the golden chains with which the medicine men tie up anyone they want to get rid of to weight down their bodies so when they’re thrown into the lagoon, they’ll drown. And the “Captive Girl” of the title is a mysterious someone-or-other (Anita Lhoest), an impassive woman with long blonde hair (she looks something like Morticia Addams would have if she’d dyed that long straight hair blonde and dressed in a leopard-skin two-piece swimsuit) and a pet tiger (I’m not making this up, you know!) whom she can control by whistling at it. Captive Girl was at least marginally better than Jungle Jim even though the director (William Berke) and screenwriter (Carroll Young) were the same, if only because this time around Berke got a better sense of atmosphere and was considerably more adept at matching the film’s oodles of stock footage to the new scenes (a better cinematographer — Ira Morgan instead of Lester White — no doubt helped). The plot is silly and the film suffers from the weird resistance of Katzman’s casting director to using Black actors as the “Africans” — the “natives” in this film either look like (East) Indians, Polynesians or whites getting the suntan treatment, but it’s still a lot of fun to see Weissmuller (or his stunt double, Paul Stader) swing through the jungle on rope vines as he had in his old Tarzan days, and perhaps out of reference to their swimming backgrounds writer Young and director Berke staged the climactic fight scene between Weissmuller and Crabbe under water, which was fun.

The gimmick is that the mystery blonde woman is actually Joan Martindale, the daughter of two anthropologists who set out to discover the “Lagoon of the Dead,” did so but then were caught and killed by Hakim, so she’s been staging one-woman guerrilla attacks on him ever since (exactly what she was doing to discomfit him, Young never specified), and the surprisingly thrilling climax to an otherwise rather dull movie occurs when Jungle Jim, Mahala and Joan, captured by Hakim and seemingly doomed to eternal rest in the “Lagoon of the Dead,” are rescued by a stampede of primates, summoned by Joan’s whistle, who overpower the baddies and spare the lives of the good guys. It’s a neat ending but also a mysterious one: obviously the monkey stampede is pre-existing footage, but from what, and how was it staged in the first place? There are also major roles for Jungle Jim’s pet chimpanzee as well as the obnoxious poodle he had as a pet in the first film — they don’t get along, of course, though at times the chimp delivers a more expressive and emotionally committed performance than any of the humans in the film and he and the dog work out a deal whereby they trade bananas for bones (this was obviously supposed to make the original audience think, “My, how cute”).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Enter the Lone Ranger (Apex Films, 1949)

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

The film was Enter the Lone Ranger, a 1949 production that was created as a pilot for the Lone Ranger TV series but was also shot to run as long as a feature film (albeit a “B” feature), which I presume was so that if the producers couldn’t sell the series to television they could still get some of their money back by releasing it theatrically. (Apparently the film was cut up and used as the first three episodes of the TV series.) It’s a perfectly workmanlike “B” Western, directed effectively by George B. Seitz, Jr. from his own script based on the character created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. (He was the producer of the radio show and she was the actual creator of the character, though her only credit here is as “editor” of the script.) As the title suggests, the show tells the origin story of the Lone Ranger: he was one of a company of six Texas Rangers and his real name was John Reid (Clayton Moore). His unit was commanded by his brother, Captain Dan Reid (Tristram Coffin), and when the show opens they are after the gang led by outlaw Butch Cavendish (former Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange). They’re visited by Collins (George Lewis), a half-breed who shows up with a wound in his arm he got from the Cavendish gang, and he offers to lead them to the Cavendish hideout — only it’s a trap: he’s been assigned to ambush the Rangers and lead them into a closed-off valley where the Cavendishes can pick them off. The trap works, only Collins gets shot in the back by one of the gang members on the ground that if he could betray the Rangers he could betray them just as easily, though he survives — and so does one Lone Ranger, John Reid, who’s desperately wounded but still alive as he makes his way to a spring of water (the location appears to be the same one that was used as the good guys’ hideout in the film Flame of Araby — indeed just about all the locations here are mind-numbingly familiar from innumerable previous “B” Westerns) and is then discovered and rescued by his old friend Tonto (Jay Silverheels), whose life he saved when they were both boys and who nicknamed him “Kemo Sabe,” which — just in case you were wondering all those years — means “Trusty Scout.” (Apparently the names of “Tonto” and “Kemo Sabe” came from one of the other writers on the original radio show, William Jewell; “Kemo Sabe” was the name of a summer camp in upstate Michigan and “Tonto” meant “wild one” in the language of the Native tribes in Michigan, though many people have assumed that “Tonto” was named after the Spanish word for “fool.”)

Once he’s nursed back to health, the Lone Ranger decides to stay in the crime-fighting business but always to wear a mask (he wants people to think John Reid is dead and, indeed, he goes so far as to dig himself a false grave next to the ones of the five Rangers in his original party who were killed by the Cavendishes) and always shoot to wound or incapacitate, not kill. Meanwhile, Butch Cavendish decides to take over the nearby town of Colby (Charles joked that afterwards they were going to go after the towns of Mozzarella and Limburger) by assassinating all the civic leaders and bringing in his own gang members to take their places. The Lone Ranger figures out the plot and tries to alert the sheriff, “Two-Gun” Taylor (Walter Sande), to it by sending Tonto (which couldn’t help but remind me of Bill Cosby’s old joke about how the Lone Ranger would always send Tonto to town and Tonto would have the crap beaten out of him — Cosby fantasized that at one point, Tonto would say, “No, Tonto no go to town,” and when the Lone Ranger would say, “But Tonto, I need you to go to town to get the information,” Tonto would say, “Information say Tonto no go to town”) to get the sheriff to raise a posse, but the sheriff — influenced by his deputy, who unbeknownst to him is one of Butch Cavendish’s plants — refuses. Eventually the Lone Ranger and Tonto repair to the silver mine the Lone Ranger owned and operated before he joined the Texas Rangers in the first place (he had to have somewhere he could get the silver metal for all those bullets! Mad magazine’s early parody had him frantically searching the ground wherever he’d been involved in a shoot-out and recovering his spent ammunition because “it’s plumb hard to come by them silver bullets!”) and they hook up with the Ranger’s old friend Jim Blaine (Ralph Littlefield), who’s being framed for the murder of Collins (ya remember Collins?).

Eventually, of course, it ends with the good guys winning and the Lone Ranger deciding to keep going as a crimefighter — and to keep wearing his mask, shooting silver bullets, avoiding killing whenever possible (on the ground that the law, not one man, should decide whether a particular person should die for his crimes) and playing a fortissimo rendition of the William Tell Overture by Rossini behind his opening and closing credits. (I’ve been to concerts where people have been told the William Tell Overture is the source of the Lone Ranger theme but not that the Lone Ranger music doesn’t appear until the final three minutes of the piece — and they usually fidget through the preceding 10 minutes waiting for it with growing impatience. I also loved the way Mad satirized the ubiquity of the theme music: their Lone Ranger carried around a portable record player so he could blast the William Tell Overture wherever he went.) Enter the Lone Ranger isn’t much as a movie but it’s certainly a great salute to a myth — the Lone Ranger had originated as a local radio program in 1933 and was already a popular character and even a legendary one by the time it hit TV via this program — and there’s a reason why Clayton Moore (as disappointing as his previous career has been — watching him as an FBI agent in Black Dragons, one of Bela Lugosi’s muddled Monogram vehicles, he looks about six inches shorter and considerably nerdier than he does as the Lone Ranger) and Jay Silverheels have become so iconic in these roles that attempts to do more recent Lone Ranger filmizations with other actors have routinely flopped. From out of the past … the Lone Ranger rides again!