Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Abolitionists (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s viewing was all three episodes in a recent PBS-TV mini-series, The Abolitionists, three one-hour programs telling the story of the movement to abolish slavery from its official beginnings in the 1830’s until the end of the Civil War. Written, produced and directed by Rob Rapley, it alternated between actors playing dramatized versions of real-life events and the Ken Burns approach with photos of the real people involved and actors (the same ones who played them in the fully dramatized sequences) reading their letters or published writings. It focused on five particular people, three men and two women: William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff), the white writer and editor who founded the first anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and helped pull together various abolitionist groups into the American Anti-Slavery Society; Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, who of all the actors looked the most like his real-life counterpart), the former slave who in 1845 published his famous autobiography (and though Rapley downplays this aspect in his script, one of the most important aspects of Douglass’s book was that the very phrase “Written by Himself” on the title page threw down the gantlet against racism; how, the claim of authorship mutely but powerfully asked, can you justify enslaving a race of people who are human and intelligent enough that at least one of them has written a book? No wonder Douglass’ claims of authorship were challenged at the time, with many opponents of abolition claiming that Garrison had ghost-written it!); John Brown (T. Ryder Smith), who ultimately became convinced that only revolutionary violence could take down the slave system and the social order that supported it.

The two women were a well-known name, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (who, according to this show, was roused to write the book partly because she needed a project to occupy her after the tragic death of her favorite son Charlie from typhoid fever and partly because the loss of her own son made her appreciate the even greater tragedy of a slave woman whose children were routinely taken away from her as soon as they were born and frequently sold to other masters); and a little-known one, Angelina Grimké, the daughter of a planter family in South Carolina whose religious convictions led her to turn against slavery and turn away from the South altogether. In 1838 Grimké published a book called American Slavery As It Is, a meticulous document of all the horrors of the “peculiar institution,” all the whippings and starvings and locking up recalcitrant slaves, turning them over to “slave-breakers” (like Edward Cowan, the man Douglass’s owner, Thomas Auld, turned him over to — Douglass physically fought him back and said that from that day forward he realized he was a man) and “selling them South” from the relatively easy work of the tobacco and rice plantations of the Carolinas and Virginia to the tougher life in the cotton fields of the Deep South. Though I can see why PBS cut this show up into three parts, there’s a peculiar intensity about it that comes through most strongly when you watch the parts consecutively as we did; and what comes through most strongly is how the abolitionist movement has provided a template for virtually every social-change movement that has followed it in America. Abolitionism begat first-wave feminism — the movement for women’s suffrage was started by women abolitionists who openly questioned why they were being made second-class participants in a movement that was supposedly about human equality — and it also set the pattern for the subsequent movement for African-American civil rights that percolated throughout the 20th century after the unrepentant Southern states (with the connivance of Northern business interests who wanted cheap cotton and steel for the Industrial Revolution) reversed the gains Blacks had made under Reconstruction and installed the system of segregation. In much the same way the revived African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s begat the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the movements of other people of color for their equality, the second-wave feminist movement (started by women in the 1960’s who wondered why they were being discriminated against inside the Left just as their 1850’s predecessors had wondered why they were being discriminated against as women within the abolitionist movement) and the Queer rights movement.

What’s more, The Abolitionists reveals disagreements and sectarian squabbles within the movement that have repeated themselves through virtually the entire history of the American Left: the clash between religion as an instrument of human liberation and religion as a justification of oppression and tyranny (virtually all the early abolitionists — especially the white ones — proclaimed their movement as a fulfillment of Christian beliefs and values that all people were equal before God; and the defenders of slavery were equally adamant that the Bible condoned it and therefore it was not only wrong but blasphemous to claim that Christian values and slavery were incompatible); the clash between nonviolent and violent means (Garrison was essentially a Gandhian before Gandhi — he remained a pacifist until the Civil War started and he realized that, even if the war hadn’t been started to defeat slavery, that might well be the end result of a Union victory); the struggle between whites leading a movement for Black liberation and the growing demand of Black people to take charge of their own struggle (exemplified when Garrison and Douglass broke over tactics and Garrison’s paper printed rumors of Douglass having an affair with a white female houseguest to discredit him — which Douglass understandably loathed as a blatant appeal to white racism); the endless sectarian battles and the whole question of the movement’s attitude towards America’s past: celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and say their guarantees of equality could be truly fulfilled once the slave power was defeated (as Radical Republican Congressmember Thaddeus Stevens did indeed say after the war), or attack the Declaration and especially the Constitution as fundamentally unjust because they had been built on a compromise with the slave power (as Garrison did when he ceremonially burned the Constitution on what would today be called an “alternative” Fourth of July celebration)? To say these are still live issues in (what’s left of) the American Left is to state the obvious. So is the whole question of how you relate to the electoral process — treat electoral involvement and direct action as mutually exclusive (as Garrison did when he urged abolitionists not to vote at all) or see them as reinforcing each other despite the constraints on elected officials (including the powerful interests on whom they depended then, as now, for the money to win office at all!) that never allow them to be as uncompromising as the outside activists can afford to be?

I think Rob Rapley was a bit hard on Abraham Lincoln — though given how nearly deified he has been by several generations of American historians and mythmakers it’s nice to be reminded that in his time he was reviled not only by his enemies in the South (where Lincoln and the Republicans weren’t on the ballot and did not pick up any popular votes!) but by abolitionists in the North who saw him as too ready to compromise with the slave power, too eager (at least in the first two years of the war) to agree to amend the Constitution to fix slavery in place where it existed in 1860 in order to preserve the Union. Rapley’s account of Lincoln’s attitude towards what to do about slavery in late 1862 is of a confused man who didn’t know whether he should free the slaves, keep them in bondage or try to get rid of them altogether — he describes a meeting Lincoln had with five African-American leaders in 1862 urging them to join the “colonization” movement and relocate the entire U.S. Black population to Africa; then mentions the famous letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley in August 1862 (which Greeley, no doubt as Lincoln had intended him to, published) saying that his purpose in waging the war was to preserve the Union and neither to preserve or destroy slavery (“if I could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do that; if I could preserve the Union by keeping them in bondage, I would do that; if I could preserve the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that,” Lincoln wrote — I’m quoting from memory here); then talks about Lincoln drafting the Emancipation Proclamation but being unwilling to sign it into effect; then mentions a last-ditch effort Lincoln made in terms of a feeler to some Southern representatives who were meeting with him to agree to yet another plan for a Constitutional amendment to freeze slavery in place if that would end the Rebellion; then his decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation after all. Other historians have told these stories differently; my own impression has long been that Lincoln’s letter to Greeley was a classic bit of disinformation since at the time he wrote it he had the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk drawer and was only waiting to sign it until the Union armies had won a big enough victory on the battlefield that it would have military as well as political credibility, which happened at Antietam Creek in September 1862.

Be that as it may — and as limited a document as the Emancipation Proclamation was (Lincoln restricted its application to the Confederate states because he didn’t want to alienate the so-called “border states” — slaveholding states that hadn’t seceded) — from the moment he signed it, ending the slaveocracy basically became a Union war aim whether either Lincoln or anyone else formally said so (and the Proclamation had its roots in the similar one the first Republican Presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, had issued in 1861 as military governor of Union-occupied Missouri), and Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (the actual subject of Steven Spielberg’s current film Lincoln), as well as the 14th and 15th amendments that followed, were the formal adoption of the terms of peace. It was fascinating to hear some of the abolitionists of the time calling for a new Constitution — which was essentially what they got with the post-war amendments, the 14th in particular — on the ground that the original one of 1789 had been fatally compromised by the slave-state power, in light of the fact that the 14th Amendment (which was essentially consigned to the scrap heap as an instrument of racial equality and civil rights a decade after Reconstruction and — to add to the plus ça change, plus ça meme chose department — instead became a tool used by corporations to raise themselves to the status of legal “persons” and effectively put themselves above the law) has once again come under attack by the Tea Party, whose most militant members regard the Constitution of 1789 as literally divinely inspired and the amendments of 1865-1870 as a human-made error blotting the original vision of the Founding Fathers by acknowledging the rights of immigrants (and their children!) as well as people of color. “Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding,” said Clarence Darrow in his opening statement in the Scopes trial. “Always it is feeding and gloating for more.”

The real lesson of the abolitionists is that things change, and even under long odds the fight for social justice is not only an honorable calling but one which it’s worth pursuing; at a time when I often despair of the sheer power of the corporocracy not only in the U.S. but throughout the world, including the weight of the media power by which it constantly molds people’s minds so they accept it as not only the right but the only possible way society can be, it’s nice to be reminded that the slave power seemed as overwhelming in the 1850’s as the corporate power seemed today — indeed, the 1850’s consisted of one Southern victory after another (the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Law, the battles over “Popular Sovereignty” in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that was meant to put the slave power as far beyond any effective challenge as Citizens United was meant to put the corporate power) until the Southern leaders overplayed their hand and decided that rather than be governed by Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, they would quit the country entirely and found what would have been, if the South had won, essentially a latifundismo republic dependent for both its economic and military security on (ironically enough) Great Britain, as the principal market for the Confederacy’s cotton exports. The fact that abolition went from being a fringe movement to the law of the land in less than 20 years is an inspiring story and gives us all hope that we, too, can overcome the similarly entrenched economic oppression of our own time.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Under the Yum Yum Tree (Sonnis/Columbia, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of my recent recordings from TCM, a 1963 sex farce from Columbia called Under the Yum Yum Tree. I was a bit surprised that George Axelrod had nothing to do with this (Axelrod’s two best-known films are The Seven-Year Itch and another Lemmon vehicle, How to Murder Your Wife — in which, as in Yum Yum Tree, Lemmon plays a swinging bachelor with an apartment elaborately designed and mechanized to facilitate the seduction of any female unlucky enough to find herself there) because in its combination of titillation and silliness about sex it’s very much in Axelrod’s mold. After it was over Charles categorized it as “a one-joke movie” but it’s really more of a two-joke movie. Hogan (Jack Lemmon) is an independently wealthy youngish slimeball who busies himself running the Centaur Apartments — the place’s logo is a life-size statue of a centaur with Lemmon’s head —and renting out the units for below market rates ($75 per month, which was cheap even in 1963) to nubile young women he plans to seduce. The other joke centers around college girl Robin Austin (Carol Lynley) — rather oddly, and androgynously (even though there’s nothing androgynous about Lynley’s appearance!), referred to as “Rob” through much of the dialogue — who has decided not to let her boyfriend, graduate student Dave Manning (the terminally wimpy Dean Jones), rush her into marriage by getting her to have sex with him. So she hatches a plan that the two will live together but not sleep together — did the college drama department do Noël Coward’s play Design for Living? — and when her aunt, Dr. Irene Wilson (Edie Adams), abruptly quits her unit at the Centaur Apartments because she’s tired of yielding to Hogan’s advances, Robin grabs the apartment and leaves Hogan totally uncognizant that she’s not only going to have a roommate but that the roommate will be male. (Writers Lawrence Roman — who originally wrote the piece as a hit Broadway play — and David Swift, who also directed the film, pull this off by writing her dialogue telling Hogan about her roommate with no pronouns.)

The two jokes are Robin’s attempts to maintain their agreed-upon celibacy in the face of Dave’s bad case of blue balls, and Hogan’s attempts to seduce her and get Dave out of the picture, either by fomenting a quarrel between them or wearing him out — literally — since, in some of the movie’s funniest scenes, Hogan is giving Dave a heavy-duty physical workout on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered the only way to resist the temptations of the female flesh was through exercise. The film has an unpleasant air of Big Brother about it because Hogan regards it as his landlord’s prerogative to use a duplicate key and breeze into any of the apartments any time he pleases, and when he’s not actually letting himself in he’s spying on Robin and Dave through a glass pressed against their door, hanging himself off the roof (where he’s scared off into a major pratfall by his orange cat) and ultimately using a stethoscope on their door. I remember this movie from when it came out — at least I remember hearing about it because at 10 I wasn’t considered old enough actually to be allowed to see it (I finally caught up with it on TV about a decade later and it didn’t seem like much) — and now, at nearly 50 years old (one imdb.com “trivia” item about it notes that it was in the middle of its theatrical first run with President Kennedy was assassinated), it’s most interesting as an index of America’s attitudes towards sex c. 1963, at least to the extent they could be depicted in a movie made during the long, slow senescence of the Production Code. Hogan’s seduction act is so moth-eaten — and was probably considered so even in 1963 — it’s a wonder he gets anyone (especially a relatively intelligent woman like Irene Wilson, who’s a teacher at the local college with a course on “Preparing for Marriage” that Robin is a student in, and who’s finally got the courage to leave Hogan because she’s found herself a much better boyfriend, a fellow professor played by the underrated Robert Lansing) to have sex with him.

One gets the impression the character of Hogan was more or less patterned on Hugh Hefner — down to the famous red dinner jacket which he wears at all times — and much of the film’s appeal comes down to the extent to which he’s got seduction down to a science. His apartment is equipped not only with the obvious tricks like dimmer switches but an automatic music system which turns out to be a pair of player violins — and no, I’m not making this up (Charles thought a player-violin system would be technically feasible but would have to be a lot more involved and complex than the one in the film) — which run down like an old record player with the plug pulled out when the off switch is hit and they disappear into their cabinet. Under the Yum Yum Tree is a fascinating index of moral attitudes on the eve of the sexual revolution and the edge of the collapse of the Production Code — though the extent to which the filmmakers could only hint at matters sexual instead of showing them as what they are is a part of this film’s weird appeal as an historical document. Indeed, the predicament Robin has put herself and Dave in is an obvious metaphor for the double-bind Hollywood had put itself in on sexual matters since the Legion of Decency forced the major studios to get serious about enforcing the Code in 1934; like Robin herself, they could “tease” the audience into sexual situations but had to maintain a heavy-handed and unbelievable insistence that nothing sexual was “really” going on. A decade later a film with this basic premise would have had the young girl and her boyfriend screwing hot and heavy whenever anybody’s back was turned while publicly proclaiming that all they were doing was sharing a roof, not a bed; indeed, by the late 1970’s this situation would be done in the TV show Three’s Company and the gag would be the male living with two women would justify it by trying to convince everyone that he was Gay. (Three’s Company was based on a British TV show called Man About the House in which the young man living with two young women really was Gay.)

Much of the appeal of Under the Yum Yum Tree is based on its supporting cast, particularly the performances of Paul Lynde and Imogene Coca as the married couple who are Hogan’s only household staff — he’s the maintenance man and she’s his maid, and both of them delight in Hogan’s ultimate comeuppance even though there’s also a jealous tension between them as he can’t resist ogling Hogan’s would-be seducees while she naturally gets upset at him for doing so. (The gag of the incredibly queeny Lynde playing a married man whose extra-relational yearnings are strictly heterosexual is one of the funniest things about this film — and when at the end Roman and Swift rip off one of the gags from the Hope-Crosby Road movies and have the cat say the final line, done by animating its lips, it speaks with Lynde’s voice.) It’s also noteworthy for Edie Adams’ performance as the most level-headed character in the film; according to an imdb.com “trivia” poster, she got the part at Jack Lemmon’s insistence after her husband Ernie Kovacs had died suddenly in a car crash. Lemmon had co-starred with Kovacs in three movies and had been friends with him and Adams, and when he found that Kovacs’ death had left her broke he not only insisted the studio cast her, he had Roman and Swift fatten her part so her character had more to do than she’d had in the play. Under the Yum Yum Tree is more historically important than genuinely entertaining today — though it occurred to me that it might have worked better if Lemmon had played Dave Manning and they had cast Cary Grant as Hogan — and about the only way I could think of remaking it is if the new film had a frame in which Lawrence Roman’s play were being produced and the sexual connections of the actors playing the roles were deliciously, ironically different from the ones they were playing in the script!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Junction 88 (Century Theatrical Productions, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched an interesting movie last night: Junction 88, a 1947 “race” movie directed by Gordon Quigley from a script by Augustus Smith, who’s also in the movie as the father of the hero, Buster (Wyatt Clark), who is the musical director at the local Black church in Junction 88. I’d assumed from the title that Junction 88 was either a highway intersection or a nightclub located at one, but it’s actually the name of a small Southern town with — at least as far as we see — an all-Black population. Buster has assembled a “choir” of five people who sing at the church during its services, but he’s also pursuing a career as a secular songwriter and sending a Black publisher, Bob Howard (playing himself — or at least a character with the same name as his own), his songs under the pseudonym “Hewlett Green.” Howard and his sidekick Piggy — played by the marvelous Black comedian “Pigmeat” Markham, who made comedy albums for Chess Records in the 1960’s (including one recorded live at the Apollo Theatre that famously teamed him with Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the brilliant Black comedienne from whom Whoopi Goldberg ripped off almost her entire act) and in the early 1970’s did the famous “Here Comes the Judge!” routine that was showcased on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and recorded on Soul Records, a Motown subsidiary. With opening credits listing no fewer than seven original songs with music by Augustus Smith and lyrics by Herbert Junior (“Junior” actually seems to be his last name!), who’s also in the movie, and a running time of only 48 minutes in this archive.org download (though the original duration was 55 minutes), it had to zip through its plot fast and wrap it up in a breathless resolution that had me wondering if we’d got the whole movie (some of our downloads from this source have ended early), but what there was of a plot to this movie was essentially yet another reworking of The Jazz Singer. 

Buster’s dad wants him to take a regular nine-to-five job while his mom (Abbie Mitchell, whose performance is authoritative enough that for once in a race movie we get to see a Black person who could act) wants him to keep working on his music. Buster is also dating Lolly (Marie Cooke), who’s inspiring his secular love songs and occasionally singing them with him — though her dad thinks Buster is a layabout and she should instead marry local hanger-on Onnie (Herbert Junior), since at least he has a regular job — to which Buster’s mom points out that Onnie “drinks like a fish.” All gets resolved when bandleader Noble Sissle (playing himself, and for some reason billed in the credits as “Sissel”!) ends up stranded in town when his band bus breaks down, and he and his musicians — some of them, anyway; the conceit is that his band was traveling on two buses and so only Sissle himself and a small group drawn from his band are there (obviously this plot gimmick was used only because the producers, a company called “Century Theatrical Productions” whose work was distributed by the old reliable race-movie distributor, Sack Amusement Enterprises, couldn’t afford to pay Sissle’s whole band). Marie Cooke does a solo number with Sissle’s band (or what there is of it in this movie) which was pretty wretched and made it all too clear that she was not going to follow Sissle’s most famous previous singer, Lena Horne, into superstardom (Horne and Sidney Bechet were Sissle’s two biggest stars in the 1930’s, and though Horne made her recording debut with Sissle her records with him were a bit dull and squarely phrased versions of not very good songs; she didn’t make the explosive impact the young Ella Fitzgerald, making her first records with Chick Webb’s band around the same time, did).

 Junction 88 is a decently entertaining movie, and Wyatt Clark has a nice voice even though it’s the sort of high Black tenor that had been popular in the 1930’s (Pha Terrell, the singer with Andy Kirk’s band, had been the first to have hits in that style, and he was copied by Harlan Lattimore with Don Redman, Orlando Robeson with Claude Hopkins, and ultimately Herb Jeffries with Duke Ellington) but by 1947 had been superseded by the jazzier, more incisive style of Nat “King” Cole and the deeper, richer Black baritones like Billy Eckstine. The best song in the show is the arrangement for the church “choir” of the old spiritual “In the Time of Saul,” and the conflict between religion and a secular music career is very much there in the film (Buster’s dad questions whether Buster can have a career in music and still stay true to Biblical principles and lead a moral life, and his mom tries to reassure her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about Buster keeping his principles because he holds them too strongly to give them up), though like virtually all the dramatic issues raised it’s pretty much forgotten on the way to Buster’s final triumph — Bob Howard signs him to a contract as a songwriter and the last shot is him and Lolly in a clinch. Junction 88 is late in the day for the race movies, and it’s marginally better acted and noticeably better recorded than most of the earlier ones, but the script still suffers from that weird internal racism within the African-American community that held that the lighter-skinned you were, the more status you had: genuinely dark African-Americans in movies like this were usually either villains or, like “Pigmeat” Markham here (who’s genuinely amusing but doesn’t have enough material to be all that funny), the comic relief.

Abandoned and Deceived (Crystal Beach Entertainment, TriStar Television, 1995)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the next movie recorded on my disc containing She Made Them Do It, a 1995 TV-movie called Abandoned and Deceived that turned out to be one of the best things I’d seen on Lifetime in some time. It begins in the early 1980’s — we can tell because not only is Ronald Reagan President (we know that because we hear a radio news report about him) but the heroine, Gerri Anderson (Lori Loughlin) is driving an AMC Gremlin, one of the most preposterous-looking cars of all time, and a junky old orange Gremlin at that. (I remember Ellen at Lite Touch Camera, where I had the Zenger’s half-tones shot until I figured out how to do them myself on the computer and no longer had to strip in photos by hand, drove an orange Gremlin, and every time I went there and saw the car in the parking lot, it was sadder-looking and there were more rust holes, until eventually it wasn’t there at all and Ellen told me it had literally rusted away.) Gerri is incensed with her husband Doug (Brian Kerwin) because she caught him having an affair with the woman who was their marriage counselor — a pretty audacious opening even for Lifetime — which she found out about when one of the officials at the therapy center (the sort of avuncular African-American they like in these sorts of roles — this time it was an avuncular African-American man instead of a woman) pulled her into a private office at the facility and told her the staff had witnessed “inappropriate contact” between her husband and the (female) therapist. Gerri not surprisingly turns on Doug with a fury and the two divorce. We hear a lawyer’s voice reading the settlement between them, which allows her to keep the house and have custody of their two sons but she doesn’t request alimony; all she asks for from him financially is child support. Shortly thereafter Doug stops sending the support checks, and when Gerri confronts him about it in her sons’ presence, he accuses her of making her look bad in his sons’ eyes and tries to shame her into not making a big deal out of it. Shortly thereafter he decides to stop sending support checks at all, and though she has a low-paying job of her own (this is in Kansas) she ultimately runs out of money to keep up the mortgage payments on the house and the electric and cable bills. There’s a marvelous scene straight out of Barbara Ehrenreich in which Gerri pores through all the past-due bills on her desk (we can tell they’re past due because they’re all on colored paper) trying to figure out what’s the next one she can afford to pay, and ultimately she says, “And the lucky winner is … the gas company!”

Meanwhile, Doug is so determined not to let his wife find him — even if that means giving up all contact with his sons, which doesn’t seem to bother him — he even quits his job and doesn’t tell anyone at his former workplace where he’s going. The bank forecloses on her house shortly after she’s lost the electric bill (with a nice bit of irony, director/writer Joseph Dougherty has the power go out just as her kids are watching the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers — this was a production of Columbia’s TV branch and therefore they had access to film clips from Columbia’s old movies — and it goes dark just before the flying saucer crashes into the Washington Monument) and, with nowhere else to go, she retreats up the Mississippi to her native Wisconsin. (Given how much Bix Beiderbecke I’ve been listening to lately — including the superb Off the Record CD transfer of his first records with the Wolverine Orchestra — it was an emotional wrench for me when she and her kids drove that dowdy orange Gremlin through Bix’s home town, Davenport, Iowa.) Her parents take her and the kids in, but once she’s settled and has found a job (another ill-paying one, of course) she rents a dowdy house of her own and settles into such a relentlessly penny-pinching existence she yells at her kids for grabbing a few dry corn flakes as a midnight snack. The kids in turn give her a Christmas present: an old crossword book from which they’ve painstakingly erased all her answers so she can use it again (though one would think the number of erasers needed for that would cost more than a new crossword book).

After the first half of the film deals with Gerri’s adjustment to the life of a divorcée and her struggle to keep herself and her kids alive and sheltered — and her long-thwarted desire to go back to nursing school, a career path she abandoned when she got married, and at least have a shot at better-paying work — her dad’s already precarious health takes a turn for the worse and mom therefore can no longer offer her services doing free child care because she has to take care of her husband instead. This throws Gerri’s financial problems into overdrive again and forces her into the humiliating position of having to apply for welfare — and the first time she goes to the Department of Social Services she finds a long line of people waiting around the block, most of whom are sent home empty-handed because the department only takes a certain number of applications each day. So the next day Gerri comes bright and early, and she and her fellow assistance seekers camp outside the building waiting for it to open, as if they were concertgoers looking for tickets to an especially hot band. She finds that she can only qualify for welfare if she quits her job and thereby lowers her income threshold, and her problems continue when she tries to find what she can do to get her husband to pay his child support bills and finds that the process takes a year or two after her husband is located — which she has to do on her own because the state won’t lift a finger to help her find him. She locates Doug’s parents, who also live in Wisconsin and are such pieces of work that when she visits them with the children, they give her sons special toys and nice clothes but force them to leave them behind instead of letting them take them back to Gerri’s home. Gerri asks why, and she’s told, “Because we don’t think Doug’s children should be punished any more than they already have been.” Gerri naturally asks why she should be punished, what she’s being punished for, and when her punishment may be allowed to end — and of course Doug’s folks don’t tell her.

Eventually Gerri finds Doug’s home, only to be told by the officious social-service worker in charge of her case, Donald Quinn (Gordon Clapp), that they can’t do anything unless she locates his place of work as well. When she finally does so, Quinn insists that he’s investigating her case but he’s really dumped her papers in a box of files under his desk containing cases he has no intention of ever working. We’re dropped a big hint why not when Gerri comments on the picture of his children on his desk and ask where’s their mother, and Quinn snaps back, “We’re divorced.” A sympathetic but frightened woman working in Quinn’s office eventually alerts Gerri to what’s going on — or not going on — with her case, and when she confronts Quinn directly the response she gets is a speech tearing into her and all the other women out there who keep badgering their hard-working exes for money when said exes just want to forget about their marital mistakes and get on with their lives. Quinn also says that the Wisconsin Department of Social Services building is full of people whose job it is to look after women, and he’s decided to balance things out by using his office to look out for the interests of men. (It’s essentially the same ideology as that controversial “Men’s Legal Center” in downtown San Diego, that offers male clients help with custody, support and other issues and whose sign loudly proclaims, “Men Have Rights, Too!” They got unwanted publicity when the head of the Men’s Legal Center, Charles Candelore, mounted a stealth campaign to try to get himself and two others elected as judges to the San Diego County Superior Court; he failed, but two years later Right-wing attorney Gary Kreep made it onto the bench and asked for family court as his first assignment.) Frustrated and unwilling to take it anymore, Gerri scrapes her pennies together and takes out a classified ad in the paper urging women who’ve had trouble collecting child support payments to call her, and after her home fills with tens of women who’ve responded to her ad and want her to help them do something about it, she writes out a notice and posts it on the bulletin board near Quinn’s office wall.

When Quinn tells her that individuals can’t post on that board — only organizations can — she immediately improvises a name, “Association for Children for Enforcement of Support,” or ACES, and says, “O.K. Now I’m an organization.” ACES grows in popularity and influence, though not without its pitfalls; bomb threats are regularly called into its offices (once the Women’s Federation donates them office space) and Gerri gets so many harassing phone calls she tells her sons not to answer the phone and carries a police whistle with her to blow into the receiver whenever someone starts in on her. The harassment doesn’t just happen over the phone; one afternoon she’s having lunch with some of the other ACES women when a man at the restaurant gets in her face and starts berating her. Eventually she holds out, becomes a feminist heroine and gets a women’s service award; she also finally reconnects with Doug — though in the meantime she’s started dating another man, Gary Larsen (oddly the imdb.com page on Abandoned and Deceived doesn’t mention who plays this role, but he’s unusually hot, especially for a Lifetime leading man!) — and at long last he pays her the $7,000 in support payments he owes her. From the title I had thought Abandoned and Deceived would be about a woman being chased by a guy she had casually dated who had turned out to be a psycho, but what I actually got was a much better film than I’d expected, a moving Norma Rae-ish docudrama (it’s supposedly based on a true story) in which the focus is Gerri’s self-discovery through activism and how she becomes a better and stronger person in her own right by helping others — and as someone who was a child of divorce and was raised on support payments I can quite understand the situation Gerri finds herself in, victimized by a deadbeat dad whose I-don’t-care attitude towards not only his ex but their kids reaches the virtually psychotic (and he seems like such a nice guy at first, too!).

Friday, January 25, 2013

XXY (Historias Cinematograficas Cinemania, Wanda Visión S.A., Pyramide Films, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday, January 23, the SAME Alliance in San Diego showed a quite compelling gender-bending movie from Argentina called XXY — in what imdb.com would call a “Crazy Credit” the film’s title is made to look like three X’s in which the bottom right bar of the last X has been broken off to make it resemble a Y — a quite clever metaphor for the film’s leading character, Alex (Inés Efron), the teenage child of marine biologist Kraken (Ricardo Darín) and his wife Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli). It’s the summer and she’s with her parents on a field project researching what’s happening to some seagoing turtles — the film supposedly takes place in Uruguay but someone who doesn’t live there would probably have a hard time telling it apart from Argentina — and during her time there she’s beaten up her former best friend Vando (Luciano Martín Nóbile) and is in the middle of a weird relationship with a young, rather effeminate man named Alvaro (Martín Pirovansky). It’s been billed as a Transgender movie but it goes pretty far beyond the norms of Transgender cinema (including the one another local political group, Canvass for a Cause, showed last weekend called In the Wrong Body, a pretty straightforward documentary about a male-to-female transformation whose only novelty was that it was made and set in Cuba — and the Transgender person we see undergoing the transition, Mavi Susel, had the operation in 1988 and, though she received personal congratulations from Fidel Castro’s office, the operation was subsequently banned in Cuba and not performed there again until 2007) because Alex is not a female-to-male Transgender (which itself would be an odd enough subject for a film!) but the type of person once called a hermaphrodite and now commonly (or at least politically correctly) referred to as Intersex — having fully functional male and female genitalia.

Writer-director Lucía Puenzo, working from a short story called “Cinismo” by Sergio Bizzio, managed to create a rare and beautiful film full of the kinds of symbolism and irony that seem to come naturally to Argentine writers. The film opens with Kraken dissecting a marine animal that’s been fished out of the ocean (he’s mostly studying turtles but the creature on his dissecting table looks like a ray), and the rest of the movie is full of images of slicing and dicing, reflecting the dilemma Alex is in as to whether she should choose to be operated on to lose her female genitals or her male ones — and the images of living or once-living things being cut up persists throughout the movie, including one chilling scene in which we see Alex’s mother chopping a carrot shortly after we’ve seen Alex with one of her dolls to which she’s attached a carrot to give the female doll male sex characteristics. There’s also a weird scene in which Alvaro and Alex have sex until Alex’s dad catches them — only Alvaro is on the bottom and Alex is fucking him. At first we think — or at least I thought — she was merely rubbing herself against his butt and reaching orgasm that way, but later we’re told that she actually has a penis and was penetrating him more or less for real. Later on Alvaro’s dad says, “Well, at least he’s not a fag” — and though the imdb.com synopsis says that Alvaro’s experience with Alex is what shows him he is Gay, I don’t read the film quite as definitively as that: I thought the takeaway from Alvaro was that his experience with Alex had opened him up to possibilities beyond straight or Queer, challenging the gender binary rather than reinforcing it.

Another nice touch is that in an early scene we see Alex reading a book that challenges gender binaries throughout the animal kingdom — before we realize that the author is in fact her father: that having literally “written the book” on gender ambiguity, he’s in a much better place to accept Alex the way s/he is rather than impose a gender category. The film is full of felicities like that, including Vando’s father turning out to be the turtle poacher Kraken is looking for and Vando himself coming to Alex’s aid when four other boys attempt to gang-rape her and demand to see her naked crotch so they can find out if she really has both sets of parts (remembering Boys Don’t Cry, I dreaded the outcome of this scene; in a U.S. film on this topic, the most likely fate for the gender outlaw is s/he would be killed and the film’s tragedy would be his/her martyrdom). XXY is a quite remarkable movie, an interesting addition to the world of gender-bending cinema, and yet more evidence that in other parts of the world people can make movies that accept homosexuality, transgender status or Intersex status as just facts of life instead of feeling compelled either to condemn them or condemn the Queer people to endless levels of angst about their fates and tragic outcomes. (It still rankles me that Brokeback Mountain got considered the greatest Queer film of all time by so many otherwise intelligent people when it was really just the same-old same-old: two men fall in love, one ends up Queer-bashed to death, and the other ends up an emotional basket case.)

She Made Them Do It (Front Street/Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a film I recorded off Lifetime a couple of weeks ago: She Made Them Do It, a pretty clinical and game-giving-away title for what turned out to be an unusually good thriller, supposedly based on a true story, in which the “she” of the title is Sarah Ponder (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). At the start of the movie Sarah is touring the campus of Purdue University with her boyfriend Rick (the very hot-looking Greyston Holt). She had to drop out earlier but is planning to re-enroll there in the fall with the $2,500 in cash she’s saved up from the drug-dealing she and Rick have been doing — though it’s made clear in the opening that Rick is the drug user in the couple and Sarah the brains of the operation. Only Rick has opened their home to some ne’er-do-well house guests, a man and a woman who have stolen Sarah’s $2,500 and used it to buy cocaine, which they were planning to sell but in the great tradition of bad drug stories (both fictional and real-life) are using themselves. Furious, Sarah demands that Rick do something about the pair who’ve ripped her off — and he does so by getting a shotgun Sarah bought him the day before and offing them. Writer Gary Tieche and director Grant Harvey show a couple of alternate versions of this incident later on in the movie — including one at the end that shows Sarah actually wielding the gun herself — but it’s hard to take that seriously given that in the next two hours (less commercials) Sarah’s usual modus operandi is to (as the title suggests) get other people to commit crimes for her rather than to do anything illegal by her own hand. Sarah and Rick make an inept attempt to flee but they’re caught after Rick makes the rookie mistake of renting a motel room for them with his credit card — he’s supposed to be the one with the criminal record but it’s Sarah who’s convicted of the killings (Rick maintains he shot the pair in self-defense but the cops don’t believe that, mainly because they didn’t report the crime immediately and tried to run away instead) after the bodies of the dead pair are found in a nearby dumpster (where Rick threw them away surprisingly easily given how heavy a dead human really is and how hard one is to lift).

Sarah gets a 50-year sentence for killing the male half of the couple and a consecutive 60-year sentence for killing the woman — and she stays in touch with Jamie (Mackenzie Phillips), whom she met in jail while awaiting trial and with whom she had a Lesbian affair. Then in prison — this is in Indiana, by the way — she romances not only one of her fellow female inmates but also a male guard, Spitler (Nels Lennarson), whom she literally seduces into helping her escape after her appeals are exhausted. Once she’s out she goes through all her prison acquaintances — including Farrell (Lisa Marie Caruk), a young mother of two whose aunt and uncle, who were taking care of her kids during her incarceration, whose parole she jeopardizes by coming to their place and asking to stay there; and also Cheryl (Bethany Brown), a butch Black woman who also looked like one of Sarah’s jailhouse flames. Jamie and Spitler eventually ended up serving time themselves for helping Sarah break out of prison, but none of the other people were prosecuted — apparently U.S. marshal Jeff Harlan (who’s not identified on the imdb.com page for the movie or on Lifetime’s official site for it even though he’s the principal character in the second half of the movie) didn’t let up and pursued Sarah with a Javert-like (or Ahab-like) persistence and ultimately got her case featured regularly on America’s Most Wanted, which eventually got her turned in by Bob (Andrew Airlie), a wealthy paper manufacturer who met up with Sarah when she turned up at the strip club where Jamie worked, looking for a rich pigeon she could seduce, and at one point Bob set her up in an apartment and it looked like she was going to be his long-term mistress until he got tired of her, realized how having her around could jeopardize his marriage — to which she responded by going onto his computer and looking up undetectable poisons on the Web (“Is she going to go Double Indemnity on us?” I started to wonder) — and though it’s not spelled out in Tieche’s script it’s pretty clear we’re meant to think that Bob was the anonymous tipster who called the law on her and gave up her whereabouts in order to save his marriage from both a messy divorce and a psycho mistress who wanted to do his wife in and replace her.

So far there are no comments on the movie from the imdb.com site but on Lifetime’s site for the movie there are several, including some defending Sarah. One of them was from Jamie’s husband (depicted in the film as a fat, grey-haired slob who stole the money Jamie was holding for Sarah — she had an underground business selling prescription drugs inside the prison but needed a “banker” to hold the proceeds for her outside — to buy a Jacuzzi; judging from what happened the last time someone stole a large sum of money from Sarah, he should have been watching his back!), who wrote, “I can honestly say that I saw very little truth or facts in most of this great work of fiction. This movie … is based on a few far-stretched facts and the writer’s imagination. The truth will come out when Sarah is vindicated and we’ll see if they want to make a movie out of the REAL story and how the system failed Sarah and continues to fail others in the Indiana Judicial system. The acting was good and so was the story, it’s just sad it was nowhere near the truth.” At least two other posters expressed similar sentiments (including one claiming that Sarah’s original prosecutor has switched sides and is now on her defense team) — quite a surprise given that when Lifetime usually does a true-crime dramatization involving a woman culprit they’re generally criticized the other way by people who say they’re whitewashing the female and making her look less guilty than she really was.

Be that as it may — and I say this as someone who knows nothing about the real case — She Made Them Do It is quite a good movie, not a deathless classic but several cuts above the Lifetime norm, made great (or at least greater than usual) by Harvey’s relentless, fast-moving direction and, above all, by Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s performance in the lead. Recognizing that an all-out bravura femme fatale performance like Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity, Mary Beth Hughes’ in The Great Flamarion or Ann Savage’s in Detour would just be laughed off the screen today, Dewan-Tatum plays Sarah with a kind of relentless, demented perkiness that probably gave Mackenzie Phillips some uncomfortable flashbacks to the way Valerie Bertinelli played off her in the 1970’s sitcom One Day at a Time and eclipsed both her and the actress playing their mom. At one point Harlan complains that he can’t get a handle on Sarah’s shifting identities — “She’s Manson, she’s Gandhi, she’s Gay, she’s straight” — in other words, she’s whatever she has to be to survive and maintain herself in the circumstances in which she finds herself. She Made Them Do It doesn’t try to offer any more than the most obvious insights into What Made Sarah Run (in both senses of the word!) but it’s still a fun and gripping movie, even though that out-of-character flashback showing her actually shooting two people (a version of the crime which Sarah’s defenders on the Lifetime comments page say no one, not even people who were convinced she was guilty, say happened — whatever her culpability, it’s clear Rick actually pulled the trigger) ends the movie on a weird and gratuitously violent note. Still, it’s a good thriller and especially convincing in depicting the sexual thrall with which Sarah holds her seducees of both genders and gets them to do her bidding.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pro-Indian 1932 Western Screens in Hillcrest this Saturday, January 26

As part of its continuing exploration of Native American rights and the continuing oppression and virtual genocide against Native people in the United States, Activist San Diego is showing a rare and unusual film from 1932 this Saturday, January 26, 7 p.m., at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, in the Uptown District mall on Vermont Street north of University between Panera and Aladdin Restaurants.

The film is “End of the Trail,” a 1932 Columbia Western that was the first U.S. film to depict the Indian Wars of the 1870’s from a pro-Native perspective. Strikingly similar in plot and theme to the 1980 Academy Award winner “Dances with Wolves,” “End of the Trail” tells the story of U.S. cavalry captain Tim Travers (Tim McCoy), who is unjustly thrown out of the U.S. Army for allegedly providing guns to the Arapahoe Indians. Then an attack by Travers’ former fellow officers results in the “collateral damage” death of Travers’ son. With nowhere else to go, Travers joins the Arapahoes and becomes part of their war council.

At a time when virtually all Westerns depicted Native people as mindless savages, “End of the Trail” — despite at least one wince-inducing line — shows them sympathetically and condemns the U.S. government’s systematic breaking of all treaties with the tribes. Tim McCoy’s unusual background helps explain why he made this film. In the 1920’s he was part of an oral history project that interviewed Native survivors of the battle of the Little Big Horn, thereby taking down the only firsthand accounts we have of it. The film’s script by Stuart Anthony anticipates the pro-Native readings of the Indian Wars by 1960’s and 1970’s historians like Native writers Dee Brown and Vine DeLoria, Jr. and whites like Howard Zinn.

The screening is free of charge, but donations to Activist San Diego’s community radio project, KNSJ 89.1 FM — an FCC-licensed broadcast station in East County scheduled to go on the air in April 2013, and an affiliated Internet radio site now operational at www.knsj.org — will be requested.

For more information about this event, please contact Mark Gabrish Conlan at (619) 688-1886.

For more information about the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022856/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

For a review of the film by Mark Gabrish Conlan: http://moviemagg.blogspot.com/search?q=End+of+the+Trail

The Lost City (Sherman S. Krellberg/Super-Serial Productions, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the first episode of an intriguing 15-chapter serial I just downloaded from archive.org: The Lost City, produced by Sherman S. Krellberg for a company he owned called Super-Serials, which according to the credits was based in New York City — though The Lost City was actually filmed in Hollywood at the former Mack Sennett Studios. It’s an intriguing variant on the mad-scientist-ruling-a-lost-city trope, though it came a full year before the first Flash Gordon serial, which was similarly plotted: though the villain Zolok (William “Stage” Boyd) is working out of a so-called “magnetic mountain” in the middle of Africa rather than on another planet, he’s clearly cut from the same cloth as the Emperor Ming, and The Lost City begins with the identical plot gimmick as Flash Gordon: the bad guy is sending out energy waves that are causing shipwrecks and floods (represented by absurdly obvious model work) all over the planet, and good-guy scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) — note the last name! — traces the source of the waves to central Africa, mounts an expedition to go there and put a stop to them. The plot is less interesting than the personnel; William “Stage” Boyd was a scapegrace actor who had been arrested for alcohol and drug possession. He also had a near-namesake, William Boyd, who had been a semi-major silent star in the late 1920’s, appearing in blockbusters for Cecil B. DeMille like The Volga Boatmen and The Yankee Clipper, and had successfully made the transition to sound — until William “Stage” Boyd got busted and the L.A. papers covered the story but illustrated it with a photo of the other William Boyd. RKO invoked the morals clause in his contract and fired him, so the good Boyd sued the bad Boyd and won a court order compelling the scapegrace Boyd to use “Stage” — in quotes — as a middle name in any subsequent films.

“Stage” Boyd died right after making The Lost City, the only film in which he was billed that way, while — what would you call him? “Screen” Boyd? — couldn’t get a job except at a cheapo “B” Western unit at Paramount that wanted him to play a character by Western writer Clarence B. Mulford named “Hopalong” Cassidy. (Mulford called him “Hopalong” because in his books the character had taken a bullet in the leg and ever after walked with a limp. Needless to say, his movie incarnation wasn’t similarly disabled.) In order to get good-Boyd to take a role so far below his previous ones, Paramount agreed to give him the TV rights to the Cassidy movies, figuring that that never would amount to much — instead it made good-Boyd a multimillionaire when TV, hungry for programming in the early days, eagerly snatched up his movie oaters and paid him well for them. But that’s not the William Boyd we’re talking here; this William Boyd turns in a full-tilt villain performance as Zolok, making the Emperor Ming seem like a Rotarian by comparison, holding hostage a great scientist named Dr. Manyus (Josek Swickard, who’d played Rudolph Valentino’s father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Zolok lured Manyus into his employ by promising him seed money to create inventions that would benefit humanity; instead he’s forced Manyus to invent incredibly evil machines that will attack humanity and enable Zolok to rule the world, and his leverage over Manyus is that he also has control over Manyus’ daughter Natacha (Claudia Dell, who played the female lead in the first version of Destry Rides Again with Tom Mix in 1932) and threatens to kill her if Manyus (essentially the Dr. Zarkov of this tale) doesn’t cooperate.

The infernal machines are actually the fabulous creations of Kenneth Strickfaden — many of them will be familiar if you’ve seen the first two Universal Frankensteins as often as I have — and though Universal rather churlishly didn’t give him screen credit, Sherman S. Krellberg did. For a “B” serial produced under independent instead of major-studio auspices, The Lost City is quite handsomely staged; the sets are substantial and quite elaborate, Harry Revier’s direction genuinely exciting and suspenseful, the script (by the usual committee: Zelma Carroll, George M. Merrick, and Robert Dillon, story; Eddie Granemann, Leon D’Usseau, and Perley Poore Sheehan, screenplay) quite imaginative — the first-chapter cliffhanger is a trap-door Zolok and his minions build into one of the caves approaching their headquarters so they can pull a switch and send Our Heroes, Bruce Gordon and his sidekick Jerry Delaney (Eric Fetherston), down a seemingly bottomless shaft, presumably to their doom — while Zolok’s plot involves capturing Black men from the jungle, putting them into a machine actually called the Brain Destroyer, then artificially enlarging them to about half again their normal size and setting them loose as zombies under Zolok’s total control. (The screams of terror the victims who are going to be put through this process issue as they’re being dragged into Zolok’s lair are genuinely frightening and way more intense than what we expect from a mid-1930’s “post-Code” movie.) Krellberg was racing to get his serial finished and into theatres before Nat Levine at Mascot released the similarly plotted The Phantom Empire (which was practically the movie world’s only science-fiction Western — the star was Gene Autry — until the recent Cowboys and Aliens), so he set up two units shooting at two different studios. More importantly, in William “Stage” Boyd’s last performance he got the performance of a lifetime; he’s one of the creepiest and most full-blooded serial villains ever, and though it’s impossible to believe that he could have ever blended in the way some serial villains did, he’s a treat to watch in an otherwise unusually well-acted serial with none of the halting first-day-of-acting-school deliveries of lines common to the genre. Though one could wish The Lost City had weathered the years a bit better, what we have of it is quite good and I eagerly look forward to additional episodes, especially since they promise to extend the dramatis personae and include some good as well as evil underground rulers. — 1/8/13


Charles and I eventually squeezed in the second episode of the 1935 serial The Lost City, “The Tunnel of Flame,” something of a misnomer since the heroes are trapped inside a tunnel at the end (as they were at the beginning; the long hole they were dropped through from the fake house in episode 1 turns out to have been a slide, delivering them into an underground prison, since the villain, mad scientist Zolok, wants them alive, not dead) but it doesn’t appear to be particularly “flaming.” It’s still a surprisingly competent piece of filmmaking, well directed by Harry Revier (who got a “signature” credit — his name across the screen in cursive script — not a common honor in the independent world then), who manages to keep the action moving fast enough we’re not concerned by the stale and hard-to-believe plot. This is turning into a quite good serial even though, as one imdb.com reviewer said, it seems to have been “scripted by someone who must have been drunk out of his mind (or SOMETHING)” — hard to believe since six people are credited as writers, unless they were passing around a pipe (or bottle) filled with something incredibly strong. — 1/10/13


I showed the third episode of the serial The Lost City, “Dagger Rock.” The titling strategy on this one seems to have been to name each episode after the mortal danger the heroes (or some of them) were put in at the end in the cliffhanger sequence, though the resolution of the cliffhanger between episodes two and three was extremely disappointing: at the end of episode two heroes Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) and his sidekick Jerry Delaney (Eddie Fetherstone) are grabbed by one of the electronically altered Black giant/zombies the principal villain, Zadok (William “Stage” Boyd), ruler of the Lost City in the Magnetic Mountain in the middle of darkest Africa, has forced scientist Dr. Manyus (Josef Swickard) to make for him — the gimmick is that Manyus sought out Zadok for financial backing for inventions he meant to help humanity; instead Zadok took Manyus’ daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) hostage and has used that leverage to force him to construct infernal machines with which he can conquer the world. (It occurs to me that these days Manyus would be an academic with a burning desire to make lots of money off his inventions, and Zadok would be the venture capitalist he turned to for investment capital.) At the end of episode two the Black giant has both arms across the necks of the hapless white heroes in one of those forearm choke holds police are often accused of using as a method of brutality without having to draw their guns, and it looks like curtains for our heroes — only at the start of episode three Jerry passes out from the treatment, the giant lets him go, and once Jerry recovers he’s able absurdly easily to rescue Bruce from the giant just before the giant was supposed to hurl him into the “Tunnel of Flame” (actually a sort of closet with one of Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical gadgets in full operation, apparently ready to electrocute anyone who dared step through the door). Despite that disappointment, The Lost City is rather fun, as in this episode Dr. Manyus and his daughter Natcha (not “Natacha,” Natcha!) are being pursued not only by Bruce and Jerry but also by Reynolds (Ralph Lewis) and Colton (William Millman), two more prosaic baddies than Zadok who want to capture Manyus so they can take him back to the Western world and exploit his inventions for his own enrichment. There’s also a “freeze gun” Manyus has invented which instantly neutralizes electrical current and therefore allows him and other characters to pass safely through the doorways Zadok has booby-trapped with electrical current, though the actual prop we see is disappointing — like the 1930’s version of a Coleman lantern that producer Sherman S. Krellberg’s prop man must have bought at a department store — and a really silly sequence in which Zadok is accidentally trapped in his own dungeon but the two people in the cell with him do nothing to neutralize him or take him hostage. The ending is cool, though — Manyus, Reynolds and Colton have escaped the Lost City, only Manyus is captured by the natives and he’s put under the “Dagger Rock,” literally a rock with daggers stuck into it, with which they intend to kill him by crushing him with it so he’s impaled on the daggers and then squashed to pancake thinness by the rock. — 1/14/13


Charles and I screened episode four of the serial The Lost City, an intriguing independent film from Sherman S. Krellberg’s Super-Serial Company (like most of the majors, the financial and business end was run out of New York City but the film itself was shot in Hollywood); the fourth episode was called “Doomed!” (each episode’s title seems to have come from the cliffhanger at the end) and it began with a really annoying resolution of the cliffhanger in episode three. Instead of the heroes rescuing Dr. Manyus (Josef Swickard) from the peril of Dagger Rock (a.k.a. the Torture Stone), it’s the villain Zadok (William “Stage” Boyd, top-billed) who sends out his strong man Appollyn (Jerry Frank, easily the hottest piece of man-meat in this film) and his electronically enlarged Black giant Hugo (Sam Baker, whose visual introduction in the prologue to the first three chapters had been almost defiantly racist: he emits an apelike wail and his huge mouth opens and bares its teeth like a real ape about to go into combat) go out and save Manyus because Zadok wants him alive to invent more infernal machines to fulfull Zadok’s dream of world conquest. There’s a conflict between the slave trader Butterfield (George “Gabby” Hayes, surprisingly effective as a secondary villain!) and the not-quite-so-mean-but-still-corrupt Prof. Reynolds (Ralph Lewis) and Dr. Colton (William Millman) — Reynolds and Colton wanted to kidnap Manyus and take him back to civilization so they can profit from his inventions; Butterfield incited the natives (who are as stupid as Blacks generally were in Hollywood’s movies of the time) to capture Manyus and kill him with the Torture Stone; and there’s been precious little of Kenneth Strickfaden’s cool electronic equipment in this one as the various factions, including at least three villains that got to come along on Bruce Gordon’s expedition (didn’t he bother to vet these people?), chase each other around the cheesy “jungle” locations that are all producer Krellberg and his director, Harry Revier, could afford — though Revier is several cuts above the hacks who usually directed serials: he not only keeps the action moving but manages to pace this film so fast that it’s only afterwards that you start realizing how many plot holes there are. One that Charles did spot immediately was that Hugo was still alive, moving and very much participating as Zadok’s zombie even though we’d seen him pushed through an electrical door and vaporized in an earlier episode — though Zadok could have created more than one giant and Krellberg could have simply had Sam Baker play all of them. — 1/16/13


Charles and I watched the next episode in sequence — number six — of the 1935 serial The Lost City, which has got considerably less interesting now that the last two episodes (and most of the immediately previous one) have taken place outside the Lost City itself, a high-tech redoubt in the middle of Africa powered by the “Magnetic Mountain” and ruled by the serial’s principal villain, Zolok (William “Stage” Boyd). At least inside the Lost City you got to marvel at Kenneth Strickfaden’s magnificent electronic gadgets — this film was made right after The Bride of Frankenstein and much of Baron Frankenstein’s lab equipment appears here as well — and also savor the wonderfully overacted performance of Boyd, who’d been forced to take “Stage” (in quotes) as his middle name after his drinking, drugging, carousing and other antics had got the other William Boyd (the one who played Hopalong Cassidy) fired from a contract with RKO. (This was “Stage” Boyd’s last film; after it was finished the drinking, drugging and carousing caught up with him and left him dead at age 45.) Episode six, “Human Beasts,” features yet another rather dorky cliffhanger (for a serial with six writers the cliffhangers are oddly unimaginative, though I must say that they haven’t yet used the Republic gimmick of having the hero or heroine escape danger by simply jumping — I’ve already commented that anyone who’d seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went over the cliff, they jumped out of it), though the end of cliffhanger five was marvelous for the cause of feminism: Natcha Manyus (Claudia Dell) managed to use the propelling stick of her raft to fight the tiger that was menacing her. (This scene rubbed me a bit the wrong way because it had been my impression that tigers, like most cats, don’t willingly go into water and swim. It rubbed Charles even more the wrong way because the only places tigers exist naturally are in Asia; unlike lions, there are no native African tigers.)

This episode was pretty much more running around and more human skullduggery between the good guys — hero Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond), his sidekick Jerry Delaney (Eddie Fetherstone), Natcha (not Natacha, Natcha!) Manyus and her super-scientist father, Dr. Manyus (Josef Swickard) — and the bad guys, who seem to be the entire rest of the dramatis personae, a mix of mad rulers, Arabs, Blacks and whites including slave trader Butterfield, played by George “Gabby” Hayes in the most anti-“type” role he probably ever played — though the presence of a slave trader in 1930’s Africa seems dreadfully anachronistic — as well as renegade scientists Reynolds and Colton, played by Ralph Lewis and William Millman, respectively, and Arab leader Sheikh Ben Ali, played by Gino Corrado. The other actors seemed at a loss to decide on a common pronunciation of Ben Ali’s name — at one point they were pronouncing it “Ah-LYE” instead of the usual “Ah-LEE” — and director Harry Revier, who was quite good on the sets of the Lost City, seemed at a loss how to hold the film together and pace it effectively once he got outside and had to deal with an enormous amount of stock footage and those annoying Black zombie giants. Hugo (Sam Baker) is the only one of the giants with a specific actor playing him, though I suspect Baker played more than one of the giants (and I’m trying to figure out where his real body ended and all the stilts and pads and whatnot began — the script called for the giant to wear a grass skirt but otherwise be naked, and it’s obviously a lot harder to build someone up to make them look larger when they’re mostly unclothed than when they’re clothed — still the effect, especially on a rather murky original print, was convincing enough that for a while I wondered if they simply found an uncommonly large Black person to play the part!), and they’re just not all that interesting as menaces. The most interesting parts of The Lost City are the Strickfaden devices, “Stage” Boyd’s vividly campy overacting, and the sheer weirdness of the plot, as if the six writers put all the traditional serial clichés on strips of paper, drew them at random from a bag, and typed them out in the order in which they pulled them. This is one of those films you forgive for not making any sense because you get the impression it was never supposed to! — 1/18/13


Charles and I watched episodes seven and eight of The Lost City, “Spider Men” and “Human Targets,” and lamented once again how the quality and interest of this serial has really nose-dived since episode four, when the action left the Lost City and the center of the plot shifted from the super-villain Zadok (William “Stage” Boyd) to more commonplace baddies like renegade scientists Reynolds (Ralph Lewis) and Colton (William Millman), both members of the expedition organized by the hero, Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond, at the start of a career spent mostly in serials and action “B”’s); along with slave-trader Butterfield (George “Gabby” Hayes, usually a comic sidekick in Westerns!); Arab Sheikh Ben Ali (who wants to capture Professor Manyus, the Dr. Zarkov equivalent played by Josef Swickard, so Manyus can convert the Black natives to eight-foot super-giants and he can use them as slaves); and, finally introduced in Chapter Eight, Queen Rama (billed variously as Margot Duse and Margot D’use, with the apostrophe — I had wondered if she was a relative of the legendary late-19th century Italian actress Eleanora Duse, but almost certainly not). It’s not sure what she’s queen of, exactly, but she’s at least an interesting character and one imdb.com reviewer of The Lost City suggested that she came closer to genuine acting than anyone else in this serial. That’s actually being unfair to William “Stage” Boyd,” whose strident villainy gets awfully hammy at times and who hasn’t had the screen time he deserves in the later episodes, but he’s still eminently watchable — as is his hunchbacked assistant (do all movie mad scientists have to have hunchbacked assistants? Actually, no, but the most memorable ones all seem to) Gorzo — played by William Bletcher, who seems to be patterning his performance on Dwight Frye’s in Dracula and Frankenstein. (There are certainly worse models!)

Through most of the middle episodes all we see of Zadok is him standing at his television receiver (in the mid-1930’s television was still an experimental gadget, and when it appeared in films like Murder by Television and Trapped by Television it was as a novelty high-tech item) and barking orders by radio to his minions outside the Lost City, Gorzo and Appollyn (Jerry Frank, who goes about in half-gladiator, half-Tarzan drag and is by far the hottest-looking male in the film!). Charles was amused to see Appollyn plug a metal rod from his radio receiver into the earth before taking Zadok’s call — obviously he was making sure it was grounded! Alas, without Zadok (and “Stage” Boyd’s viscerally exciting acting of him — in a film that was pretty obviously, shall we say, inspired by the Flash Gordon comics even though Flash Gordon wouldn’t be filmed, also as a serial, for another year, it’s not surprising that he comes off so much like Charles Middleton’s Emperor Ming), the Lost City and the cool electric devices by Kenneth Strickfaden that represent Manyus’s super-high-tech inventions with which Zadok hopes to rule the world, The Lost City has pretty much degenerated into just another jungle shoot-’em-up, and the cheapness of the budget is working itself out into some pretty tacky effects, notably the “giant spider” that’s supposed to menace the good guys at the end of episode seven and which is merely done by superimposing shots of a normal-sized spider onto the image of the people standing behind a giant fake web. — 1/19/13


Charles and I went home and watched episode 10, “The Lion Pit,” of the bizarre 1935 serial The Lost City. The principal villain, Zadok — played by the infamous wastrel William “Stage” Boyd, whose pattern of drink, drugs and general dissipation made John Barrymore look like a temple-qualified Mormon by comparison — seems to have virtually disappeared after the third or fourth episode, more’s the pity, and as we’ve watched the increasingly dull episodes taking place in the jungle outside the Lost City Zadok rules, I’m beginning to wonder if Boyd was taking some spectacular falls off the wagon during the shoot, making himself unavailable or unable to work and forcing the serial’s six writers to rework their story around his absence. The character of Queen Rama of the Wangas (Margot D’Use), introduced in chapter eight, has become more important in subsequent episodes because the writers and director Harry Revier (who, like the writers, also seemed a lot more turned on by the Lost City as a setting than by the jungle around it, regarding which the writers just recycled all the Tarzan movie clichés — only instead of a good-guy jungle man the hot half-clad hunk of man-meat, Appollyn [Jerry Frank], is one of the baddies, one of Zadok’s minions along with hunchbacked Gorzo [William Bletcher], who seems to be the brains behind Zadok’s throne) needed a bravura villain to take Boyd’s place.

It’s hard to explain why this serial’s imdb.com reviewer, who used the screen name “earlytalkie,” called D’Use “the only element of good acting” in this film when to me she seems to be screaming her performance start to finish, going even farther over the top than the relatively restrained “Stage” Boyd (whose performance, at least what there’s been of it, is on the same level as Charles Middleton’s finely honed work as the Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon serials). Predictably she first attempts to seduce the hero, Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond, who developed into a reliable action hero in his later serials but here seems to be just along for the ride — all too often it’s the villains who have to rescue him from the cliffhangers! — and, when he says no, she drugs his drink and then captures Natcha Manyus (Claudia Dell), whom she rightly surmises is the woman Bruce is turning her down for, and throws her into the titular lion pit that supplied the episode’s name. The Lost City had a promising beginning but is turning into the usual serial dreck, and the absence of a musical score during the big action scenes isn’t helping either — though the music we do hear over the opening and closing credits is cheesy enough that perhaps the underscoring available to Revier and his producer, Sherman S. Krellberg, wouldn’t have been any better. It’s been all too many episodes since we’ve seen either the interior of the Lost City, William “Stage” Boyd doing anything but tuning his TV system so he can watch the outside action, or Kenneth Strickfaden’s cool electronic devices (many of which had just been used in The Bride of Frankenstein by a director, James Whale, who actually knew what to do with them!), and we can only hope based on the titles of the last two chapters, “The Death Ray” and “The Mad Scientist,” that we’ll at least get a spectacular finish that takes out Zadok and the Lost City but at least gives us some more look-sees of them! — 1/22/13


Charles and I had finally finishes screening the quite interesting serial The Lost City two nights ago, watching episodes 11 and 12, “Death Ray” and “The Mad Scientist.” A lot of serials had odd lacunae and an overall airy indifference to the whole idea of continuity, but the ending of The Lost City — indeed, the last three episodes all told — took that aspect of serial-making to extremes even for an indie operator like Sherman S. Krellberg and his “Super-Serials Productions.” The Lost City is a quite good serial for its first four episodes or so, which actually take place in the Lost City itself, a super-high-tech bastion of mad scientist Zadok (William “Stage” Boyd) whose using its advanced electronic gear (actually built by Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed and built most of the gadgetry for Universal’s early-1930’s horror films and was savvy enough to retain ownership and simply rent it to Universal, Columbia, Republic or any other company that wanted it). In The Lost City we can see clearly recognizable machines from The Bride of Frankenstein and other Universal classics, and the Death Ray in episode 11 was quite obviously the “moon lamp” Henry Hull used to get the Mariphaisa lumina lupina flower to bloom in The Werewolf of London, though its beam is surprisingly laser-like. Indeed, the scene in which Zadok straps hero Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) to a metal table and uses the laser to kill him by literally burning his body into two halves with his light beam was copied almost exactly 29 years later in the James Bond film Goldfinger! The continuity breaches get weirder and weirder — and so do the resolutions of the cliffhangers; at the start of episode 11 Gordon, blinded by a drugged drink given him by villainous Queen Rama (Margot D’Use) of the Wangas, is led to the site where Rama is about to drop heroine Natcha Manyus (Claudia Dell) into a pit filled with lethally hungry lions by Rama’s lady-in-waiting, who’s turned against her, and he manages to rescue Natcha despite the minor little detail that he can’t see.

The printed foreword to episode 11 references that Gordon and Rama were planning their wedding when Rama, suspecting that Gordon wasn’t going to go through with it, drugged him — there was no sign of such a scene in episode 10, where it just looked like that nasty dark-haired Rama was trying to seduce Our Hero from his good, upstanding, white blonde girlfriend (though it’s possible the Production Code struck after episode 10 was released and insisted the producers bowdlerize the explanation of what had happened in that episode even while leaving the released footage of episode 10 intact). The film also depends for its resolution on some really bizarre moral reversals; the scummy slave-trader Butterfield suddenly becomes a good guy when Natcha’s father, Professor Manyus (Josef Swickard), rescues him, and he mobilizes his Black army to defeat Rama’s in the nick of time to save Gordon, Natcha and Manyus. (He also figures out how to make an antidote to restore Gordon’s sight.) What’s more, he’s followed in this convenient redemption by Zadok’s hunchbacked assistant Gorzo (William Bletcher), who changes sides in episode 11 and joins forces with the good guys to lock Zadok in his own prison — only Zadok has what looks like a miniature acetylene torch with him and burns through the door of the cell, but instead of actually using the machines of the Lost City (which, remember from the exposition to episode one, can actually cause earthquakes and floods thousands of miles away!) he stumbles through the Lost City sets and ultimately gets the whole place to blow up. I’d conjectured that Zadok’s virtual disappearance in the last two-thirds of this serial might have had something to do with the bad habits of the actor playing him — William “Stage” Boyd was infamous throughout Hollywood for drinking, drugging and probably a lot of other things the papers of the time didn’t dare mention, and his bad habits caught up to him when he died at age 45 shortly after making this film; and in the last scenes he gets in the final episode of The Lost City he looks drunk and/or stoned, shambling around the Lost City sets and talking to himself in a monologue that clearly indicates he’s delivering his lines in an unpleasantly altered state of consciousness.

A contributor to imdb.com said that producer Krellberg was rushing to get The Lost City released before Mascot’s (later Republic) similarly plotted serial The Phantom Empire, so much so that he had three separate production units filming at once so he could get the movie finished in 21 days instead of the scheduled 35 — but as far as the two films are concerned quality-wise, there’s no contest: Kane Richmond and Gene Autry are equally anodyne as heroes but “The Scientific City of Murania” in The Phantom Empire is even more striking and impressive than the Lost City (which, Charles was convinced, was just some old sets representing the interior of a ship, tricked out with Strickfaden’s spectacular equipment), and the queen in Phantom Empire is that rarity in a serial, a truly multidimensional character and a figure of genuine pathos, rather than the cardboard villain Rama is. I’ve read The Lost City described as a camp-fest, which it is some of the time — especially when “Stage” Boyd (who had to use that middle name so he wouldn’t be confused with the other William Boyd, the one who’d played leads for DeMille in the silent era and did the Hopalong Cassidy Western series from 1935 to 1949) is on screen, front and center, creating an all-out serial villain to rival the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon — though at other junctures it’s too boring and clichéd even to achieve camp greatness; director Harry Revier (who, with co-cinematographer Roland Price, went on from this production to do something even weirder, the semi-documentary Lash of the Penitentes) tries his best to keep it fast-paced and exciting, but the script by a six-person committee (Zelma Carroll, George Merrick and Robert Dillon, story; Eddie Granemann, Leon D’Usseau and Perley Poore Sheridan, script) pretty much defeats him, especially in those long stretches in the jungle where nothing much happen except the heroes are periodically menaced by badly made Black people (or white people in blackface) portraying indigenous malevolence in the approved booga-booga style. The Lost City is one of those bad movies that you can’t forget! — 1/24/13