Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll (PBS, 2013; originally produced in the U.K. in 2011)

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

I ran Charles the PBS American Masters special Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll, a worthy tribute by Mick Czaky to the trailblazer of African-American gospel music and someone who broke through the barriers with a bulldozer. Born in Arkansas in 1915 to a ne’er-do-well father and an evangelist mother, Katie Bell Nubin, Rosetta went with her mom to Chicago when she was just six and became an integral part of her mother’s evangelism, drawing crowds with her precocious singing and guitar and piano playing. In 1934 her mother arranged for her to marry a minister, Pastor Thorpe of the Pentecostal Church in Philadelphia, but Katie’s hope that her daughter would be able to partner with her husband personally and professionally (as another gospel-music pioneer, Sister Ernestine Washington, did with her minister husband) were dashed; apparently Pastor Thorpe was a domestic tyrant who told his wife, “My way or the highway” — and Rosetta, who kept her married name but changed its spelling to Tharpe, went to New York and had a weird dual career, singing at the Cotton Club on weeknights and in churches on Sundays. This was a very controversial career move, since Black churchgoing audiences were notoriously intolerant of anyone who tried to cross over into the secular music market (not until Aretha Franklin recorded her Amazing Grace and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism albums in the 1970’s and 1980’s did a major secular soul star pull off a return to her church roots; when Sam Cooke tried to sit in with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group with which he’d launched his career, he was literally booed off the stage and heckled with comments like, “Get that blues singer off the stage! This is a Christian program!”), but with the sheer force of will and energy that seems to have powered not only her music but her whole career, Tharpe pulled it off. When she signed to sing with Lucky Millinder’s band — Millinder was one of the great Black hopes of music, having taken Chick Webb’s old place as leader of the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem (and he would manage to keep his career going when other Black bandleaders faltered by embracing rhythm-and-blues in the late 1940’s), and though he neither read music nor played an instrument, Dizzy Gillespie (who was briefly in Millinder’s band and made two records with it) said Millinder was the best conductor he ever had. Tharpe’s first records were made for Decca in 1938, backed solely with her own acoustic guitar and aimed squarely at the gospel market — they included her first recording of her trademark song, “This Train,” later covered by Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bruce Springsteen — but when she joined Millinder, instead of just standing in front of the band and singing the way good little band singers were expected to, she got a big electric guitar and ripped through song after song.

In 1941 she shot two “Soundies” — three-minute music videos made to be seen on a “Panoram,” a sort of video jukebox — with Millinder’s band on “Shout, Sister, Shout” (a major hit that fused gospel and R&B 13 years before Ray Charles supposedly became the first artist to do that with “I Got a Woman,” his star-making 1954 hit on Atlantic) and “That’s All” — and the contrast is utterly amazing. There’s Lucky Millinder, dressed to the nines in a white suit, standing in front of his band and sedately conducting a bunch of musicians in suits and ties, sitting behind music stands and running impassively through their arrangements — and in front of them is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, moving in time to the music, playing that huge electric guitar (which was loud enough she had no trouble being heard over all Millinder’s musicians), rockin’ out and looking like she got beamed in from 20, 30 or 50 years later. (Alas, those clips were not included in this documentary, though a couple of other “Soundies” she filmed with Millinder just as a singer, not a guitarist, are.) According to this documentary, Tharpe — like the great blues queens of the 1920’s, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith — was Bisexual, and though the show doesn’t quite come out and say that her performing partner from the late 1940’s, Marie Knight (by that time she’d quit Millinder and permanently abandoned any secular crossovers; she was a gospel singer, pure and simple), was also her lover, it certainly implicated it, especially noting that their professional association ended abruptly when Tharpe married for the third time, to a man named Russell Morrison who wanted to be both her husband and her manager. Though the documentary portrayed him as basically an incompetent wanna-be who just wanted to live off his wife’s money and cheated on her besides, Joop Visser’s liner notes for the four-CD Properbox set Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Original Soul Sister says that Morrison had previously managed the Ink Spots and therefore had some credentials in the music business. It’s unclear just who arranged this, but the Morrison-Tharpe wedding became a media extravaganza; it took place in 1951 in a baseball stadium that seated 25,000 people (and it sold out!), it was followed by a gospel concert featuring Tharpe, her backup singers (the Rosettes — even there she was blazing a trail later followed by Ray Charles and Ike Turner!) and some other music stars, and the whole thing was paid for by Tharpe’s record label, Decca, which issued the whole event (or as much of it as would fit on one disc) as an LP with, of course, a gold-ring motif on the cover. (And despite the suspicion of a lot of Tharpe’s friends that Morrison was just a gold-digger, she stayed with him for the remaining 22 years of her life.)

When her popularity began to fade in the U.S. in the 1950’s, she concentrated on touring in Europe, where most of the TV footage featured in this documentary was shot — including an incredible film that would be worth reissuing in its entirety, a 1964 special for British TV filmed in Manchester and featuring Tharpe with Muddy Waters and other blues stars. (Though the only other participants mentioned on the Godmother documentary are Waters and Country Joe Pleasant, the imdb.com page for the show includes Willie “The Lion” Smith, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis and Ransom Knowling, the great bass player who was essentially to the 1940’s Chicago blues scene what Willie Dixon was to the 1950’s and 1960’s: the go-to guy whenever any producer wanted a rock-solid rhythm player for a blues session.) The gimmick was that the audience arrived for the show on a train, and when it pulled out of the station the audience was on one side of the tracks and the performers were on the other — and they had to project across the yawning gap between them and their listeners. There’s a remarkable clip of Tharpe introducing one song with an extended electric solo playing what would be state-of-the-art rock guitar now; she not only plucks, she taps the strings, she does glissandi with her fret hand without strumming at all, she even shreds! Anyone who could watch that clip and not realize that all rock ’n’ roll is really just Black gospel music with secular lyrics needs to have their ears cleaned out! Tharpe’s latter years were sad; she still had her musical powers when she did her last filmed performance, in Copenhagen in 1970, represented here by her version of the gospel classic “Precious Lord” that (as John Ardoin said of Maria Callas’s recording of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) comes off as “more a resignation to death than a transfiguration through it.” Even in her early years, when she recorded this song for Decca, Tharpe had approached it quite differently from Mahalia Jackson (who had the crossover hit on it for Columbia in 1956 and established it as a gospel standard; Mahalia sang it at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968 and Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia’s funeral in 1972); they’re both great versions but Mahalia’s makes her life and death seem like the culmination of a giant struggle, a sort of how-sweet-thy-victory attitude towards death, while Rosetta’s is quieter, gentler, more an acknowledgement that death is inevitable but what lies beyond this world holds no terrors for a good Christian.

Tharpe’s music is infectious; to me she’s at her best playing either with a big band (Millinder’s or Louis Jordan’s, with whom she never recorded commercially even though they were both big sellers on Decca throughout the 1940’s) or a partner like Marie Knight (with whom she recorded one of her biggest hits, “Up Above My Head,” in which Knight’s Mahalia-ish gospel contralto and Tharpe’s jazz-rock-gospel soprano inspire each other vividly) or pianist Sam Price (with whose trio she covered Mahalia Jackson’s breakthrough hit, “Move On Up a Little Higher”), and as good as her records are this documentary suggests that she really soared when she played live. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s career came to a sad end in the early 1970’s when she caught diabetes; her foot, then her leg, turned black and had to be amputated, and though she continued to perform almost to the end (the year she died she recorded a final album for the Savoy label), she inevitably lost a lot of her energy and had to do her last concerts sitting down. (By one of the grim ironies, 20 years after Tharpe’s death, diabetes and amputation would silence another one of the great African-American woman singers, Ella Fitzgerald.) The PBS Web page for this show includes a button asking people to vote to call on the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame to induct Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but as far as I’m concerned she practically is the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; as this documentary demonstrates, she influenced virtually every singer, songwriter or guitar player in rock history, from Chuck Berry (who stole a lot of her licks) and Elvis (there’s a marvelous interview with Elvis’s friend George Klein, who remembers the two of them sneaking into Black churches to hear Tharpe — and having to sit in the back, a weird and ironic inversion of the way Blacks were segregated to theatre balconies and the backs of buses, and not just in the South, either!) to just about everyone since; after the Tharpe show KPBS ran an Austin City Limits featuring Gary Clark, Jr. (a surprisingly talented Black singer-songwriter-guitarist, clearly influenced by Jimi Hendrix instrumentally but with a softer, more ballad-soul voice) and the racially mixed rock band Alabama Shakes — and damned if their front person, heavy-set African-American singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, didn’t seem to be following in the giant footsteps of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC, 2/24/13)

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

The 2013 Academy Awards lasted a shade over three and one-half hours — relatively short — and host Seth McFarlane actually started promisingly with a joke about the movie Argo and the fact that the directors’ branch of the Academy had snubbed its producer/director/star, Ben Affleck (doesn’t he play a cartoon duck on TV commercials? Oh, never mind) by not nominating him for Best Director. He said something along the lines of, “The CIA mission depicted in the movie Argo is still so classified that even the name of the film’s director remains a government secret.” (The last time a movie won Best Picture without even a nomination for its director — with Driving Miss Daisy — that year’s Oscar host, Robin Williams, joked that Driving Miss Daisy was “the movie that directed itself.”) The advance publicity for the show was not too promising — some Academy P.R. person said that it was going to be not an awards show but “an entertainment show with some awards” — apparently the thought was to copy the Grammy Awards (which over the last few years have been drowning in their own glitz — the Latin performers Miguel and Jaunés got the best reviews from this year’s Grammys simply by not drowning their performances in pyrotechnics, chorus lines of a size that would have made even Busby Berkeley flinch, Cirque du Soleil-style performers over their heads — one horrible year the genuinely talented singer Pink even turned herself into a Cirque du Soleil-style performer — and the like) and create a theme show on the subject of “music in films.” This meant in practice that MacFarlane got to do a thoroughly tasteless song (backed by the L.A. Gay Men’s Chorus, who you would have thought would have been the last people interested in this as a concept!) about how many actresses have shown their breasts on camera — preceded by a lame attempt to make fun of its own tastelessness by showing what purported to be a TV monitor screen on which William Shatner (as he looks now) reprised his Captain James T. Kirk role from Star Trek and posed as a time traveler from the 23rd century (odd since the original Star Trek show took place in the 25th century) giving McFarlane reviews on his performance as Oscar host. It was an abysmal conceit — I wanted to send Shatner back to his hand puppets and his Priceline.com commercials — and was all the more pointless because on his own McFarlane was actually a decent if not brilliant host (but then only two people have really been able to make the Oscar-host gig their own: Bob Hope and Billy Crystal).

The awards went predictably, for the most part: Argo won Best Picture (it’s a measure of how weird Academy politics can get that it got Best Picture largely due to the sympathy vote for Affleck being snubbed for Best Director) but only two other awards; Ang Lee repeated his Brokeback Mountain experience with Life of Pi (a movie I have relatively little interest in seeing because the entire concept — a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger who doesn’t eat him in a minute — just seems too phony to me) by winning Best Director but losing Best Picture; Lincoln won for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role (and fortunately he did not give his acceptance speech in the nerdy voice he used in the actual movie) but not much else (the Academy tends not to give awards to movies so consciously shaped as Academy Award Material as Lincoln, nor do they give awards to Steven Spielberg unless they absolutely have to; they’re just too damned jealous that he’s made half of the most popular films of all time); Zero Dark Thirty won a tie for sound editing with the James Bond movie Skyfall (which seemed to be the box-office blockbuster the Academy considered sufficiently worthy of at least a few down-ballot awards; it got another craft award and Adele predictably won for her theme song; the show also featured a tribute to the music in Bond films, including Adele belting out her song and Shirley Bassey doing “Goldfinger” — her breath control isn’t what it was 49 years ago but that bizarre Black contralto still thrills). The snub of Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director nomination was generally explained by the reaction to the movie by three U.S. Senators — two Democrats (California’s own Dianne Feinstein being one of them) and Republican John McCain, the only sitting Senator who has actually been tortured — who said the film left an inaccurate impression that torture (oops, “enhanced interrogation”) was instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden in the first place (I don’t know if the film overall gives that impression — I haven’t seen it — but one critic called the first half-hour of Zero Dark Thirty “torture porn” and I suspect that here, as in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, talked a Left-wing movie but made a Right-wing one). I think it had as much to do with the sheer jealousy of other women directors who are glad Kathryn Bigelow cracked the glass ceiling and became the first woman to win Best Director — but for damned sure didn’t want her to be the second one too!

Only about two of the actual Best Song nominees were performed, and instead there was a really lame montage purporting to be a tribute to the best musicals of the last 10 years — Jennifer Hudson did “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and showed that Weight Watchers hasn’t impaired her vocal chops any, but the medley “cheated” big-time by featuring the song “All That Jazz” from Victor/Victoria, which was made in 1982 and therefore hardly qualifies as one of the great musicals of the past decade. Then again, what do you get in today’s musicals? A whole bunch of actors who can’t sing; no wonder Les Miserábles won for Sound Editing — someone had to patch and AutoTune the soundtrack so Hugh Jackman would sound like the modern-day Nelson Eddy! Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for something called Silver Linings Playbook which from the reviews sounds like an inchoate mixture of old-age drama and romantic comedy; the Los Angeles Times had run an article the day before lamenting that she was nominated for a movie almost nobody has seen and not for her performance as Katniss Everdeen in a movie almost everybody has seen, The Hunger Games — as it was, the girl who had moved through the killing fields of her blockbuster with grace and self-assurance stumbled and fell on the steps on the way up to the podium to accept her award (and frankly I was wishing her dress would have caught on fire!). Anne Hathaway won a predictable Best Supporting Actress for Les Miz (as it used to be called when this show glorifying poverty and revolution was inexplicably a hit among the 1 percent during the Reagan years) even though she couldn’t really sing any more than the rest of her cast could — still I have a soft spot for a member of the Brokeback Mountain cast, and the fact that she has the same name as Mrs. William Shakespeare also leads me to look on her kindly.

The Academy Awards are a testament to the fragmentation of film — it’s going to be a long time before any movie sweeps the awards the way Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, the James Cameron Titanic and the last episode of The Lord of the Rings did, and that’s not so much because the Academy is deliberately ignoring the big-ticket blockbusters and nominating the smaller, more human films instead — yes, there’s a lot of genre snobbery going on here and it was only Heath Ledger’s death that made possible the first major-category Oscar ever given to a movie based on a comic book — as that the industry itself has pretty much lost the knack of making a film that is both a blockbuster commercial hit and a truly great, award-winning film. Expanding the Best Picture category to “up to 10” films (this year there were only nine) hasn’t democratized the awards, nor has it boosted the ratings. What I’d like to see them do is go back to something they did in the very first Academy Awards in 1928 and bifurcate the Best Picture category into “Best Production” and “Most Artistic Quality of Production,” so there’d be a category into which they could nominate the audience-pleasers like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (both comic-book movies and the two most commercially successful films of 2012) and another in which they can have films like Argo, Lincoln and Life of Pi compete against each other — so the Academy members can have the feeling they’re advancing the art of film (and, more importantly, giving nods to films that need the help of the Academy’s cachet both at the box office and on DVD sales instead of ones that are going to be enormous hits regardless) and they can also have a category that acknowledges the films large audiences are actually paying to see.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I’d Give My Life (Paramount, 1936; reissued by Astor)

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

Our “feature” last night was a flawed but oddly compelling drama from Paramount in 1936, I’d Give My Life, produced by Richard Rowland (who owned the rights personally and co-produced with the studio rather than selling them) and directed by Edwin L. Marin, based on a 1926 stage play called The Noose by H. H. Van Loan and Willard Mack. Rowland had previously filmed it at First National in 1928 (just before Warner Bros. absorbed that company) with Richard Barthelmess and Montagu Love as the male leads, and Barbara Stanwyck had used its climactic scene — the central character’s girlfriend pleading with the state governor to give him a last-minute reprieve from his scheduled execution; or, failing that, at least to give her his body so she can give him a proper disposition — for a screen test at Paramount to determine if she should be hired to repeat the role she’d played on stage in the musical Burlesque. The “suits” at Paramount decided not to hire her for that part — instead they changed the title to The Dance of Life and gave the part to Nancy Carroll because she’d made films before and therefore had a movie “name” — but Frank Capra saw the test and hired her to star in Ladies of Leisure at Columbia, a blockbuster hit which put Stanwyck on the “A”-list overnight. I’d Give My Life has a weirdly assorted cast list — the top-billed actor is Sir Guy Standing as John Bancroft, the governor of the state where the film takes place, and most of the other cast members are either solid character actors or people with virtually no latter-day reputations at all. At the start we see a young man named Nickie Elkins (Tom Brown, actually a personable presence with an acting style somewhere between Chester Morris and James Cagney) flying his own plane with his girlfriend, singer Mary Reyburn (Frances Drake), at his side. They buzz a commercial airliner (with the TWA initials on its fuselage — it’s always a surprise to see an actual brand name of anything in a 1930’s movie!) carrying the wife of the governor Stella (Janet Beecher) and the governor’s mother (Helen Lowell), and with press photographers waiting to greet the governor’s family Nickie gets his picture taken with them after he retrieves Stella’s hat (it’s blown away in the backwash from a plane’s propeller) and returns it to her.

Then the film cuts to the governor’s office, where he’s meeting with the media to tell them that he’s going to keep all the promises he made in his recent campaign to clean up the state and get rid of its criminal syndicates. Afterwards we see Buck Gordon (a marvelously slimy performance by Robert Glecker) breeze past the governor’s secretary and crash his office without an appointment, and the reporters assume that because Gordon is the biggest crook in the state, all Governor Bancroft’s promises to clean things up are so much hogwash. Once they’re alone together, the governor tells Gordon to his face that he’s going to put him out of business, and Gordon darkly warns that if he tries it, it’ll be the governor who’ll sorry. We’re left in suspense as to just what Gordon thinks he has on Governor Bancroft that will derail his good-government crusade, and then the scene shifts to the Club Gordon, the flagship of Gordon’s enterprises, an above-board nightclub with a secret “members only” back room that’s really a betting parlor — only instead of running a to-live-outside-the-law-you-must-be-honest bookie joint Gordon has the clocks in his back room set far enough behind so he can take bets on races that have already happened, and have his staff talk down the horses that actually finished in the money and get the suckers to bet on the also-rans. (One of the episodes of the 1950’s TV show Racket Squad used the same gimmick, though with home recording having developed far beyond what it had been in the 1930’s the bad guys in that one actually recorded the radio broadcasts of the real races and played them for the suckers on tape-delay.) Mary sings at the Club Gordon — though she seems to know only one song, “Someday We’ll Meet Again” by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson (two otherwise infinitesimally-known songwriters who racked up the first Academy Award for Best Song in 1934 for “The Continental” from the Astaire-Rogers musical The Gay Divorcée) — and though Nickie seems at first to be just an innocent and naïve young man, it turns out he’s an enforcer for Gordon’s mob and has been ever since Gordon plucked him out of reform school and hired him.

Nickie has no idea what his life was like before reform school — he’s been told he was an orphan living alone when he got into trouble — until the big reveal happens: in order to keep Nickie in line after Gordon has ordered him to kill someone (he was supposed to take a jockey who’d won a race Gordon had ordered him to throw up in his plane and push him out in mid-air) and Nickie, whatever he’s done before, draws the line at murder, Gordon tells Nickie that he’s actually Nickie’s biological father — and his mom is Stella Bancroft, the seemingly ultra-respectable wife of the governor. What Gordon has been holding in reserve to break Governor Bancroft if his anti-rackets campaign got too close is the revelation that the governor’s wife had a child before her marriage — and that Gordon himself is the father. Only Gordon and Nickie have one of those infamous they-both-reached-for-the-gun scenes, and it ends with Gordon dead and Nickie arrested for murder. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to death (at least in the modern era, it seems odd that his attorney, who looks reasonably competent, couldn’t plea-bargain his sentence down to life in prison), and while everyone from the trial judge to his own attorney to the prosecutor to the governor insists that the only way he can get leniency is if he explains why he killed Gordon, he’s determined to die at the gallows rather than give away his secret. After Mary pleads with the governor to spare the life of her boyfriend, whom she’s still convinced is innocent, he says the law must take its course and Nickie must die on schedule. Then, the morning Nickie is supposed to die, the governor finds that the hotline phone with which he communicates with the prison has been moved, and when he calls the warden he finds that someone has already called in a reprieve on his behalf — and even though he didn’t authorize it, the law is that once a reprieve has been ordered the state has to wait at least 30 days to reschedule the execution. The governor summons Nickie to his office and Nickie reluctantly gives Stella a letter he had written her, revealing the secret, that was only supposed to be opened after he was executed. In a last-ditch attempt to keep what’s left of Gordon’s enterprises open, the crook who took over the nightclub (ya remember the nightclub?) after Gordon’s murder calls the governor and reveals Nickie’s identity, but the movie ends with everyone the wiser, forgiveness reigning and the governor promising not only to cancel Nickie’s execution but to lobby his pardon board for a full pardon for him.

I’d Give My Life is a frustrating movie because the central premise is compelling and riveting — one could readily imagine it being remade today with only a modicum of tweaking and updating — and despite the no-name cast, the acting is generally credible and sometimes more than that. The young leads are especially powerful; one wonders why on the basis of this performance Paramount didn’t give Tom Brown a buildup as their Cagney, and though Frances Drake almost certainly never saw Barbara Stanwyck’s test scene from this story, her performance is surprisingly Stanwyckesque — the tremulous voice, seemingly on the verge of breaking into emotional hysteria without quite going over; the similarly controlled movements, about ready to explode but not quite doing so — while her singing voice is hauntingly similar to Connee Boswell’s even though the song she’s stuck with is surprisingly undistinguished. (There’s an oddly deceptive credit in that Con Conrad and Herb Magidson are credited with “songs,” but in fact there’s only one song in the film.) The problem with the movie is the stagy script by George O’Neil, with “additional dialogue” by Ben Ryan — even if you didn’t know from the credits that this was based on a play, you could guess it; and while the actors speak normally and don’t … adopt … the maddening … pause-ridden … style of … acting common in the earliest talkies, in other respects this really seems more like a film from 1929 than 1936. Edwin L. Marin was a maddeningly uneven director — his best films, A Study in Scarlet and A Christmas Carol, both had their inspiration in major British authors’ works and had Reginald Owen as their star — here he occasionally creates a genuinely chilling and atmospheric image (notably when Mary is obliged to sing That Song in the nightclub on the eve of Nickie’s execution, and she throws the music away — and Marin and cinematographer Ira Morgan shoot her through the bars on her music stand, evoking the prison bars that are enclosing her boyfriend; five years later John Huston would use a similar shot to end The Maltese Falcon), but for the most part his direction is plodding and undistinguished. A story that could have used the full film noir treatment (granted that 1936 was a little early for noir, but William Wellman, Charles Vidor and Fritz Lang had all made U.S. films that basically qualified) doesn’t get it; instead we get scene after scene of flatly lit, stagily composed tableaux and little more than standard shot-reverse shot editing — and we can’t help but wish this could have been made at Warners, with the real James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck in the leads and Michael Curtiz directing!

Orff: Der Mond (ZDF-TV, 1965)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a download of a 1965 ZDF German TV broadcast of Carl Orff’s opera Der Mond (“The Moon”), which Charles and I both thought might be interesting because just about the only Orff piece anybody’s likely to have heard these days is Carmina Burana. Alas, the download was in German and there were no subtitles, so to get at least a clue of what the piece was about (besides its title) I looked it up on the Internet and came out with the following on its Wikipedia page: it was based on one of the Grimm fairy tales and “the story involves characters who steal the moon for their country which does not have a moon. They take the moon to their graves upon their deaths and St. Peter goes to the underworld to retrieve it and hang it again in the sky. Two speaking roles include that of a child and a landlord. Singing roles include the four rascals who steal the moon, St. Peter, a farmer and the narrator.” Though we were quite a bit back of scratch trying to figure this one out because it was in untranslated German and we could only pick out the occasional word here and there, it was clear that Der Mond — at least its first half — was the work of a composer with a sense of humor (an impression one does not get from Carmina Burana, despite the light-hearted and even racy nature of some of the ancient German texts!). It also differs from Orff’s wall-of-sound masterpiece (there’s a reason why Carmina Burana — especially its opening section, “O Fortuna!” — has adorned so many film scores, including those of movies like The Doors about a quite different sort of music) in using a chamber orchestra and small choir, though it’s similar in that it’s also a piece where the chorus (however small) is more important than the individual vocal soloists, and the one substantial solo role is the narrator, who in this production is stuck inside a tree and supposedly reading the story from a large book. Another point of similarity between Carmina Burana and Der Mond is that the tenor part — the narrator, sung here by John van Kesteren — is written at the extreme high end of the tenor range, and even though the opera is short (an hour and 10 minutes, a one-act usually paired with another work of Orff’s called Die Kluge — “The Wise Girl”) one worries that he’s going to poop out before the end of it.

This telecast was from Munich in 1965 and was in black-and-white, and was conducted by Kurt Eichhorn (who, not coincidentally, made the first — and so far the only — studio recording of Der Mond for German RCA five years later) and directed by Arno Assmann; the production is quite clever and has some charming stage settings, including a large tree in which the moon hangs until the four “Bursche” (translated by Wikipedia as “Rascals”) steal it. The rascals in this production (Willi Brokmeier, Claudio Nicolai, Werner Kotzerke and Erich Winkelmann) are made up to look like what the Marx Brothers would have looked like if all had used Harpo’s makeup, and the actual theft of the moon is done with some amusing slapstick byplay between them. The scene after they die (though without the synopsis it wouldn’t be at all clear that that’s what happened) is also well done, especially when they split the moon into four pieces and each carry a piece of it down into the underworld. Alas, once St. Peter (Heinz Herrmann) enters the action the piece turns preachy in all the respects you’d expect from an opera with St. Peter as an onstage character, and Orff’s writing turns a good deal duller. It also doesn’t help that there aren’t any adult women in the dramatis personae, though a girl (Annemarie Sschuder) comes on at the end as a sort of dea ex machina. It would be nice to see Der Mond either with English subtitles or in translation — Orff’s writing is neither so lyrical nor so keyed to the rhythms of German that it would lose much in another tongue — and would be especially nice to see it on a double bill with Die Kluge: the two pieces were premiered together in Frankfurt in 1943 and, with the Nazi regime still a going concern, the opening of Wikipedia’s synopsis of Die Kluge — “A poor peasant finds on his land a mortar made out of gold. He decides to take it to the king, thinking that he will be rewarded for being a loyal subject. His wise daughter tells him not to, because the king will throw him in the dungeons thinking that he has stolen the pestle, which in truth he didn’t find. The daughter's prediction comes true” — seems like quite a gutty thing to have produced during the reign of such egomaniac savages as Hitler and his crew!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Raiders of Old California (Republic, 1957)

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

Charles and I ran Raiders of Old California, an intriguing 1957 “B” Western from Republic during the dregs of their existence as a company. Just one year later founder Herbert B. Yates would close the studio (and sell it to CBS, which would call it “Television City” and film the Carol Burnett Show there) and would continue his film developing business, Consolidated Film Laboratories, and keep Republic alive solely as a label under which to sell his old films to TV. The imdb.com page on Raiders of Old California gives two other production companies as the makers of the film — Albert C. Gannaway Productions and Gavel — and Gannaway (the person) also gets credit for producing and directing the film from a script by Sam Roeca and Thomas G. Hubbard. From the appearance of Faron Young and Marty Robbins, two major stars of country music in 1957, I had expected something considerably lighter, a musical Western in the vein of the ones Republic had made with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers throughout the late 1930’s and the 1940’s. Instead neither Young nor Robbins sang in the film at all, and the movie turned out to be a surprisingly dark tale beginning at the end of the Mexican War of 1846-48. A company of U.S. soldiers led by Captain Angus Clyde McKane (Jim Davis, top-billed, and the same Jim Davis as the one who co-starred with his near-namesake Bette Davis in Winter Meeting, her second-to-last Warner Bros. contract film in 1948 — Bette Davis and Marty Robbins, one degree of separation!) besieges the hacienda of Mexican landowner Miguel Sebastian (Larry Dobkin). They kill all of Sebastian’s men and are about to kill Sebastian as well when a Mexican courier turns up with the news that the war is over. Instead — though we only learn this for sure towards the end of the movie, albeit it’s no particular surprise — McKane forces Sebastian to turn over his huge land grant (one so old it was issued by Philip II in the 16th century when he was king of Spain) in exchange for his life. The film then flashes forward to 1850 and McKane is a land baron, and with his henchmen Damon Pardee (a young but still evil-looking Lee Van Cleef) and Timothy Boyle (Marty Robbins), he regularly terrorizes the locals and installs suitably compliant sheriffs like the current one, an old whiskey-soaked guy played by a virtually unrecognizable Douglas Fowley (if you know him from his leads in above-average “B” movies like Lady in the Death House or his character roles in big movies like Singin’ in the Rain, in which he played the director, you’ll never guess he’s in this role; he’s made up to look like Walter Huston’s character in Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to make sure he can dispossess both white settlers and any leftover Mexicans relying on oral promises Sebastian made to let them stay on their land.

Only U.S. government justice is about to arrive in the persons of marshal Faron Young (Faron Young, surprisingly using his real name as that of his character) and judge Ward Young (Louis Jean Heydt, who judging from his appearance here had aged worse than Fowley had). Judge Young is ready to put McKane and company on trial for stealing Sebastian’s land, but he needs a witness — and it’s Marshal Young’s task to find one. He finds Scott Johnson (Harry Lauter) working a farm on the old Sebastian land grant; Johnson originally was one of the three witnesses who signed the deed granting McKane ownership of Sebastian’s land, and so far he’s gone along with McKane’s cover story that Sebastian gave it away to cover his gambling debts, but right now he’s having an attack of conscience. Of course, like innumerable stupid movie characters both before and since, he tells the villain to his face that he isn’t going to go along anymore instead of shutting his trap until he can reach someone in law enforcement and just telling them the truth. The villains respond by ambushing him, Marshal Young, the judge and Mrs. Johnson (Arleen Whelan) as they’re setting forth to town to record his testimony — and he’s wounded but survives. Meanwhile, however, McKane and his men have murdered the Mexican settler Diego (Edward Colmans) who apparently was the one lead to Sebastian’s current whereabouts, since he was supposed to be dead but the good guys have found out he’s alive but don’t know where. They trace him to a small town where, in need of a doctor for the wounded Johnson, they are told there isn’t a doctor locally but the town priest can help — and, as is revealed in a cunning point-of-view shot showing that Gannaway was considerably better than run-of-the-mill Republic directors like R. G. Springsteen, Lesley Selander or Joseph Kane, the town priest is Sebastian (though the film leaves it unclear whether he’s just posing as a priest or actually took vows in the intervening years since he was done out of his ranch). Eventually the good guys hold their trial, Sebastian and McKane give their conflicting accounts, the jury finds McKane guilty — and just then a cattle stampede McKane has arranged as a diversion from the trial comes to town (though these are some of the sickliest, scrawniest cattle ever seen on screen — Charles even wondered if some of them were pigs crudely made up to look like cattle) arrives and runs McKane over in the street, killing him and ending the threat from his gang (most of whom have been killed in previous shoot-outs anyway).

What’s interesting about Raiders of Old California is that, while it remains unaffected by the overtones and (sometimes) pretensions of the “psychological Western” that began with films like Blood on the Moon (1948), Winchester .73 (1950) and High Noon (1952) — though John Ford had beaten all those filmmakers to the punch with Three Bad Men back in 1926 — it’s considerably more violent and nasty than most of the Republic Saturday-matinee oaters from the company’s glory years. McKane isn’t just an unscrupulous land baron but a psychopath, and even more than previously in Republic’s history the film is little more than violence porn. Instead of the relatively innocent fist fights by which the goodies usually subdued the baddies in Republic’s earlier Westerns, there are a lot of shoot-outs and there’s a high body count among the characters. Indeed, it’s the sort of film where you can pretty much guess the ending just by surmising, based on the usual character conventions, just who’s going to be left alive at the fade-out! It’s fascinating to watch the usual Republic “B” crew trying to keep their Westerns popular by making them bloodier and gorier — though one convention they did keep from their glory years was the almost supernatural power of the hero. Faron Young manages in scene after scene to dispatch bad guys who vastly outnumber him, all the while keeping his white shirt immaculately clean and the Brylcreemed hair perfectly in place, as if he’s going to go from these old-Western gun battles directly onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a quirky movie, predictable but a lot of fun along the way, though perhaps if they had made it a musical and given Young and Robbins a chance to sing it would have been even more entertaining!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thunder Afloat (MGM, 1939)

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

The film was Thunder Afloat, a title which meant nothing to me except that the word “afloat” indicated it would have something to do with sailing or seafaring. It turned out to be a 95-minute production from MGM in 1939 — originally scheduled for release in October of that year but moved up to September 15 after World War II was declared in Europe and the isolationist strictures that had hamstrung Hollywood’s efforts to deal honestly with the world situation were starting to crumble. One imdb.com reviewer claimed there was actually a clause of the Neutrality Act passed by Congress that forbade the movie studios from making films sympathetic to one side or the other (the reviewer said “this law clearly violated the U.S. Constitution,” but actually it didn’t; in 1912 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that movies were strictly “a business” and therefore were not covered by the First Amendment, and it wasn’t until 1953 that the Supremes reversed that and said films were a form of “speech” within the meaning of the First Amendment), with the result that before 1940 the only major-studio production to deal with the evils of Nazism was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and even that one focused on the German-American Bund and its attempts at espionage and subversion in the U.S. rather than an exposé of Nazi rule in Germany itself. Anyway, Thunder Afloat got around the prohibition (whether legislative or simply the studios’ own self-censorship for fear of alienating a still largely isolationist movie-going populace) by setting its story during the First World War, when German U-boats were (at least according to this story) not only sailing up and down the U.S. coast but boarding and blowing up tugboats and other light vessels — one wonders why they were bothering with boats too small to carry cargo, since the whole point of the U-boat war in the North Atlantic in World War I, as in World War II, was to sink ships large enough to be carrying supplies and war materiel to the anti-German countries.

It begins with tugboat owner/captain John Thorson (Wallace Beery, overbearing as usual; in his finest film, Flesh, director John Ford got the performance of a lifetime out of him by creating a character that was supposed to be overbearing but also giving him enough naïveté to be bearable and even somewhat likeable) looking over his derelict tugboat — it hasn’t quite sunk yet but it looks well on its way, and the ancient hand pump and leaky hose available to him and his daughter Susan (an appealingly spunky performance by Virginia Grey) to bail it out aren’t doing much to get the water out of its hold so it can be refloated. The boat is called the Susan H., and Thorson feels particularly connected to it because he built it himself by hand — all except the engines — and his daughter was born on it, while her mom died when she fell overboard it and was washed out to sea (which makes one think he would rather have been rid of the thing than cherished it!). Thorson is convinced his boat was sabotaged by rival tugboat owner/captain “Rocky” Blake (Chester Morris, who as William K. Everson once pointed out was giving James Cagney-style performances before Cagney himself ever made a film; the fact that MGM didn’t promote him as their alternative to Cagney probably kept him from potential superstardom) so that Blake could beat him out of a major contract. When the U.S. gets involved in World War I and German submarines start patrolling the New England coast (where this film takes place, on a marvelous series of sets that look like old woodcuts of sailing villages), Thorson decides to eliminate the competition by tricking Blake into joining the Navy — only when his own boat is boarded and exploded by a German sub crew headed by Carl Esmond as the U-boat’s captain (TCM was actually showing this one as part of a salute to the little-known Esmond!), he’s determined to get his revenge by joining the Naval Reserve and blowing up German subs.

The bulk of the movie is a Warners-style proletarian drama — it’s mostly along the lines of the movies James Cagney and Pat O’Brien made together, differing mainly in using the older actor, Beery, as the one who’s challenging the Navy’s rules, regulations and discipline, and the younger one as his commanding officer who’s trying to harness Thorson’s talents while getting rid of his attitude and making him follow Navy rules. At one point Thorson sails away from the other two sub-chaser vessels in his convoy (it’s not clear from the apparent size of these craft on screen whether they qualify as boats or ships) and chases a sub on his own, but he doesn’t have enough depth bombs to sink her and ends up with the sub’s captain literally lassoing him and dragging him underwater. For this he’s busted from captain down to ordinary seaman and ordered to paint ships, and he’s humiliated and ready to desert when “Rocky” catches him and assigns him to a so-called “mystery ship,” which is supposed to look like an ordinary fishing trawler but is really a ruse to lure the German sub (the same one) out of hiding: the trawler has a secret radio transmitter inside so when the sub attacks it, its radio operator can call to the sub chasers and they can come in and sink it. The Germans spot the trawler but also find the hidden radio equipment and take Thorson hostage, thinking that the Americans won’t dare sink the sub if one of their own is being held on board — and where I thought this was going was that Wallace Beery’s character would sacrifice his own life to make sure the German sub that sank his tugboat several reels earlier went down with all hands. Instead the Navy takes the sub intact and captures its crew alive, Thorson is rescued and restored to the Navy’s good graces, and in the final frames “Rocky” and Susan Thorson end up in a clinch even though there hasn’t been a hint of any genuine romantic or sexual interest between them up to this point.

Thunder Afloat has the problem of any Wallace Beery movie — especially one in which he’s the star — and that’s Wallace Beery: his bellowing line delivery and old-salt attitudes (his early-talkie successes in Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie got him typecast in these crusty-old-captain roles) quickly get tiresome, while the physical displays of affection between him and Susan border on the incestuous at times (but then I just heard the song “Sweet Little Sis” from 1929 on the Grey Gull Rarities reissue CD and its lyrics had me wondering, “What is this — Die Walküre, the jazz version?”). But it also had a real-life Navy officer, Commander Harvey Haislip (a name I’d seen before on films as a technical advisor), actually involved in co-writing the script (the story with Ralph Wheelwright and the script with Wells Root), and a movie that put some unusual “spins” on the general clichés of Navy films. It wasn’t a cheap “B” either; the female role was originally offered to Barbara Stanwyck and the Chester Morris part to Franchot Tone (and though Stanwyck would have been even better Virginia Grey is quite good, capturing the character’s butchness to perfection), the production budget was $1 million (at a time when that was a substantial amount of money to spend on a film) and the crew did location shooting outside Annapolis as well as off the Coronado coast.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mysterious Man of the Shroud (Landau Entertainment, 1997)

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

I stayed up with our friend Garry Hobbs and watched a DVD he’d brought over called The Mysterious Man of the Shroud, a gloriously tacky TV documentary about the Shroud of Turin. I would have no problem living my life completely unaware of the existence of the Shroud of Turin, but in case you’ve been fortunate enough actually to pull that off, it’s the piece of twill-woven cloth which first publicly appeared in 14th Century France after it was supposedly brought back from Jerusalem by Crusaders searching for relics of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was purchased from the family whose crusader ancestor supposedly brought it back from there by the Royal House of Savoy, which eventually fled France and relocated to Italy, which is how it ended up at Turin, and the Vatican, which now has nominal ownership of the Shroud, has never said yea-or-nay to the claim that it’s the actual burial shroud of Jesus Christ but allows it to be exhibited and used as an object of public veneration. The only person listed on the imdb.com page for the program is Hector Elizondo, who appeared on-screen as narrator and host, but the program — written and directed by Terry Landau for his own company, Landau Entertainment — was very much in the typical mold of History Channel documentaries on so-called “supernatural” or “paranormal” phenomena, lots of talking-head interviews with experts (I was amused at how the scientists and historians from Israel, the self-proclaimed “Jewish state,” were considerably more skeptical about the claims made for the Shroud as being the actual burial cloth of Jesus which became imprinted with his image when he essentially burned through it as he was resurrecting himself), bizarre re-enactments (focused less on when the Shroud was supposedly made and used and more on when it was first photographed, in the 1890’s and then not again until the 1930’s by a French researcher who thought he could capture more detail as camera equipment had improved) and an overall air that to this highly skeptical observer comes off as kind of a breathless silliness — “Could it be that … ?” “Is the Shroud possibly … ?” “Can it have happened that … ?”

The most blatant bit of ballyhoo both in the movie itself and in the promotional material on the DVD box cover was the “three-dimensional image” of the man who might or might not have been buried in the Shroud that might or might not have contained the body of a person who might or might not have been Jesus Christ, basically a tall, rather plump guy with a lot of stab marks all over his person (alas, his crotch and butt cheeks were carefully concealed — tough luck for all those perverted Gay men out there who might have been wondering about the cock size of the Son of God) with long dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard — since one of the show’s more believable arguments was that, authentic or not, the Shroud has set the template for most artistic depictions of Jesus. The Mysterious Man of the Shroud showed scientists who claimed to have lifted blood from the Shroud’s surface and tested it to confirm that it was human DNA (which gave me the idea for a science-fiction tale, sort of The Passion of the Christ meets Jurassic Park, in which a mad scientist who’s also a committed Christian uses DNA extracted from the Shroud to try to clone Christ and thereby bring about the Second Coming), though when the blood was deposited on the Shroud’s surface remained a mystery. It also showed the outcome of radiocarbon-14 dating tests (which meant having to take a few pieces of the Shroud and essentially turn them into charcoal) which established that the cloth was not from 2,000 years ago but from the 14th century, when the Christian world was being flooded with relics looted from the Holy Land by Crusaders, and there was a thriving business in manufacturing fake relics, not so much to sell them as to build up certain regions and ruling families as holders of actual objects involved in the Christian founding history. There was a joke once that if all the “splinters of the True Cross” that circulated in the Middle Ages had been authentic, Jesus would have had to have been crucified on an entire forest containing at least 60 different species of trees.

The show did offer some insight into the mechanics of how crucifixion worked — thanks largely to the discovery of the skeleton of an actual crucifixion victim (the show hinted that crucifixion was a considerably rarer form of execution than some historians have maintained, reserved for the “worst of the worst” criminals whom the authorities wanted publicly shamed) with the obligatory stake through both legs — and it argued that while most crucifixion victims were attached to the cross with rope bindings around their wrists, people the authorities especially wanted to humiliate and torture were nailed to the cross through their wrists (not their palms, even though that’s become the norm in artistic depictions of crucifixion, because nails through the palms would not have supported the weight of a human body), in addition to a single nail at the base of the cross through the victim’s feet — the point of all this being that the crucifixion victim could inhale but if he needed to exhale, he would have to bend his body into a shape that would cause even more excruciating pain. (The ancients were decidedly not nice people. Crucifixion, like the hemlock poisoning Socrates was killed with, was deliberately designed to make capital punishment as drawn-out and excruciatingly painful as they could.) Frankly, the most credible explanation for the Shroud of Turin in this program was the one that it’s a “dust painting,” a form of art that involves sprinkling dust on a piece of paper, then putting cloth over the paper, transferring some of the colored (pigmented) dust to the cloth, then heating the cloth so the image “sets” and becomes permanently fixed. It was almost certainly a fake, created in the 14th century at a time when the demand for relics of early Christianity was at its peak (despite the attempts by believers to claim that the radiocarbon dating was wrong because the original Shroud’s carbon atoms supposedly got mixed with the secretions of other things, ranging from bacteria to humans, that could have contaminated the samples and got the measurements mixed up), a fake that arguably succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest imaginations, to the point where we’re still arguing about it (and watching TV shows about it) to this day.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ramona (Biograph, 1910)

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

The event last night in San Diego’s Old Town was a commemoration of the Adobe Chapel on Conde Street, which apparently was the first dedicated Roman Catholic church in San Diego after the Mexican War and had a convoluted history, which was presented on a leaflet they gave at the showing. The film was a 16 ½-minute adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, directed by D. W. Griffith and starring the 17-year-old Mary Pickford as Ramona from “the great Spanish house of Moreno” and Henry B. Walthall (later the “little colonel” in The Birth of a Nation) as Alessandro, a Native American with whom Ramona falls in love even though that costs her her life as a Spanish grandee’s daughter. Helen Hunt Jackson was a New Englander by birth and a friend of the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (though Jackson far outlived Dickinson) who, like Verdi, was permanently scarred by the loss of her young spouse and their two children. She achieved her reputation as a writer of romantic potboilers, moved to Colorado for her health, remarried and became aware of the mistreatment of American Indians at the hands of white soldiers and settlers. In 1881 she published a nonfiction attack on the U.S.’s Indian policy with the incendiary title A Century of Dishonor, but it sold poorly, and the message Jackson got was that in order to bring Native American rights front and center to the American political discourse, she’d have to do what Harriet Beecher Stowe had done with slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: write a novel with all her skills at creating romantic tearjerkers and move people through their hearts instead of their brains. Ramona was an instant hit, but unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin it wasn’t a political success; instead it became a massive inducement to tourism in Southern California. Since Jackson had set her tale in real locations and given them their actual names — and apparently she based the characters of Ramona and Alessandro on a Native couple that had been married by the priest who was her technical advisor (so to speak) — promoters were able to stage Ramona pageants and offer Ramona tours. John D. Spreckels said that the big Mexican estate in San Diego he had just bought was the location of Ramona’s and Alessandro’s wedding — and the priest who’d worked with Jackson and actually married the real-life models for her characters said no, it wasn’t.

In 1910 the American Biograph company paid Jackson’s publisher, Little, Brown, $100 for the movie rights to Ramona and assigned the film to Griffith as director and Pickford and Walthall as stars — but none of the people were credited on screen, because as one of the seven companies of the Motion Picture Trust (the ones that had been licensed by Thomas A. Edison to use his patented movie camera and projector technology) Biograph had pledged not to bill any of the people who made their films, on the ground that they didn’t want the movies to adopt the “star system” that had become common in live theatre, where the leading players were able to make high salaries because people knew who they were and wanted to see them. We all know how well that turned out — starting in 1912, when Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, lured a winsome young actress previously known only as “The Biograph Girl” to his independent (and patent-breaking) company by offering to bill her under her real name, Florence Lawrence (that really was her name, not the sort of made-up star pseudonym that became common later!), movie actors got billing and were able to build up the followings that made more money for their studios as well as themselves — but in 1910 the rule was still that a movie just appeared with no clue on the titles as to who made it or who those people on screen really were. What’s more, Ramona was made only one year after Griffith started his career as a director with Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest in 1909, and it’s still a quite primitive movie: there are few of the luminous close-ups that later became a hallmark of his style, none of the quick cutting between scenes taking place in different locations at the same time, and a real disappointment when one of the most tragic scenes in his highlights-adaptation of the book (at 16 ½ minutes he could hardly do justice to the whole thing!), the burning of Alessandro’s native village by white settlers, is represented by nothing more than a plume of smoke coming up from the floor of a canyon and a few men on horseback and a horse-drawn wagon passing by on a road about midway down the canyon wall. One aches for the way the director of The Birth of a Nation could have depicted this action just five years later (and on a bigger budget than Biograph was handing its directors in 1910!).

Ramona was billed by Biograph as the most expensive movie made to its time (which it might have been if one only considers American movies; no U.S. studio had yet produced a film longer than two reels, or about 20 minutes, but the French had already made the world’s first feature film, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, in 1908 and hired a major “name” composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, to provide the background music to be played live in the theatre as it screened) and the first film ever made on location: the credits ballyhooed that it was “taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.” Apparently at least some of it was shot in San Diego as well; the whole point of screening it at the Adobe Chapel was that the building supposedly appeared in the movie— though the only glimpse of anything that could have been it was the scene in which the priest who married Ramona and Alessandro sends them on their way after the ceremony. (The real priest who had traveled through the Indian country with Helen Hunt Jackson and married the real-life models for Ramona and Alessandro pointed out that no Roman Catholic priest would marry a couple outdoors, as John Spreckels claimed they had and as it was depicted in the Ramona pageants, and in 1910 D. W. Griffith couldn’t have filmed the ceremony in the actual chapel because artificial lights weren’t yet being used in filmmaking: all films were illuminated by daylight and interiors were sets with walls and floors but not ceilings. Various sorts of cloth were held up over the tops of these sets to control the intensity of light so the early cinematographers — including Griffith’s favorite, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, who shot this film — could get an appealing and properly exposed image.) Ramona is not only primitively directed but mostly abominably overacted; scenes that cried out for restraint get the hideous hands-over-heads, deep-furrowed grimacing and all the rest of the dreadful gestures early silent-film actors fell into; even Pickford, who’d become one of the major stars of the silent era largely by knowing when to cool it, does beaver imitations all over that artificial scenery. What saves Ramona is the beauty of the natural scenery and the uncompromising vigor with which the story (or at least as much as Griffith and his co-writer, Stanner E. V. Taylor, could get into a two-reeler) is told, particularly in the no-holds-barred condemnation of the whites’ treatment of the Indians. It may seem surprising that Griffith, whose most famous film is the openly racist The Birth of a Nation, should be so good at depicting the plight of oppressed people of color (he did it again in Broken Blossoms, in which the sympathetic victim of prejudice was Asian), but perhaps — like an earlier Virginian, Thomas Jefferson — Griffith was able to see through the socially current prejudices against Indians even while buying into the ones against Blacks.

Charles was unable to make it to the Ramona screening with me, but I downloaded the film from archive.org and showed it to him later — and the comparison was fascinating in its own right. The print screened in Old Town was from a Milestone DVD of another, longer Mary Pickford movie, came from Pickford’s personal print, and had excellent image quality — far better than the archive.org download — but it also came equipped with a really dire score, a combination of a string-heavy chamber orchestra for some scenes and self-consciously “primitive” drumming in others. The archive.org download also came with a soundtrack (a lot of their silent films don’t) that began unpromisingly with a couple of typical modern-day Mexican pop songs, complete with saccharine vocals, but then got better with a Latin guitar instrumental that yielded to recordings of Native American chants, which suggested how this story should be scored for film: with Latin music to represent Ramona’s upper-class Californio upbringing and gradually changing to traditional Native music as she and Alessandro are driven farther and farther away from civilization by the prejudices that ultimately destroy them. Not surprisingly, Ramona has been filmed several times since this version: Michael Druxman’s 1975 book Make It Again, Sam lists three subsequent feature-length Ramonas, from 1916 by a company called Clune, directed by Donald Crisp (mostly known as an actor) with Adda Gleason as Ramona; a 1928 version from United Artists directed by Edwin Carewe with Dolores Del Rio; and a 1936 color version from 20th Century-Fox, directed by Henry King with Loretta Young as star. The 1936 Ramona was actually started at Fox Film before Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures took it over in a merger, and Fox production chief Winfield Sheehan was grooming a half-American, half-Argentinian Latina starlet named Rita Cansino for the lead — but when Zanuck took over he fired Cansino and gave the part to Young, with whom he’d been working ever since the early 1930’s at Warners, and Cansino’s promising star career was derailed until she met a car salesman named Edward Judson, who became her manager and husband, and he had her hairline raised with electrolysis and her remaining hair dyed red, changed her last name to Hayworth (after Haworth, her mother’s maiden name) and got her a contract with Columbia and, ultimately, the superstardom that had eluded her at Fox.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Robe (20th Century-Fox, 1953)

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

The film was The Robe, a 1953 20th Century-Fox production based on a novel by Magnificent Obsession author Lloyd C. Douglas, a former minister turned author who basically preached as much on the printed page as he had from the pulpit. This is a Biblical extravaganza centered around the life and death of Jesus Christ as seen from the point of view of Gaius Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a Roman tribune whose father (Torin Thatcher), a Senator, was attempting to do his best to restore the Roman Republic before Emperor Tiberius (a delicious performance by Ernest Thesiger) died and yielded the throne to his scapegrace heir Caligula (Jay Robinson). Marcellus pisses off Caligula by buying a rebellious slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature), whom the emperor-to-be wanted to turn into a gladiator (there actually was a sequel to this film a year later called Demetrius and the Gladiators), and Caligula gets his revenge by arranging for Marcellus to be posted to command the legions in Jerusalem. “Where’s that?” Marcellus asks, and when he’s told that it’s in Palestine, he snarls in Richard Burton’s trademark snarl, “The sinkhole of the Empire.” Marcellus arrives in Jerusalem just as Jesus Christ (played onscreen by assistant director Donald C. Klune and voiced by Cameron Mitchell — there’s a grimly funny imdb.com “Trivia” item about Klune, in his assistant director capacity, signing payment vouchers for the extras while still in Jesus drag and taking his meals in his dressing room because the staff at Fox didn’t think it was appropriate to have Jesus Christ sitting in the commissary for lunch) is in the last week of his life, leading up from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion, and as the commander of the Roman army on the scene he makes a half-hearted attempt to talk Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) out of authorizing the crucifixion, but eventually the execution of Jesus goes forth as scheduled. A group of Roman soldiers starts gambling over the remnants of Jesus’ wardrobe (that part is in the Bible) and Marcellus enters the game and wins the red homespun robe Jesus was wearing during his walk with the Cross. Demetrius, who has accompanied his owner Marcellus to Palestine and become a follower of Jesus, tries to reclaim the robe; Marcellus puts it on and starts screaming in a bizarre combination of mental agony and guilt, then claims the garment is bewitched and tries to burn it.

The film, which for the first 40 minutes or so (when it centered around such corrupt Roman rituals as slave auctions and orgies, though this is a tame, Production Code-sanitized orgy) was quite exciting, turns dull and mopey once it gets to Palestine and Douglas’s characters start to preach; I don’t know whether to blame Douglas or the writers, Gina Kaus (credited with “adaptation”), Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood 10 and an odd credit indeed for a Biblical movie; he was originally not credited but his name has been added to the current prints) and Philip Dunne (who’d already had Hollywood Biblical experience as the writer of the 1949 film David and Bathsheba), for the dull, stilted quality of the faith-based dialogue, but once it gets to the good guys the film seems to go on forever and get oppressively dull. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun.” They certainly are in this movie! Eventually the action comes back to Rome as Marcellus, now a converted Christian (one imdb.com commentator noted that during Caligula’s reign as Emperor Christianity, which probably wasn’t called that yet, was still a minor little cult in the Middle East; the first reported mention of Christians in Rome itself was during the reign of Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius, and the first organized persecution of them under the Roman Empire occurred during the reign of Claudius’ successor Nero), returns with Demetrius to help protect and spread the new faith. Naturally he’s called to Caligula’s court and has to defend himself in a rump “trial” for treason Caligula orders before the Senate — and Marcellus’s old girlfriend Diana (Jean Simmons, who deserves credit for getting through this mock-historical nonsense and somehow retaining her dignity), who turned down the offer to be Caligula’s bride out of loyalty to Marcellus, goes with him in an ending that’s a stone ripoff of The Sign of the Cross (also a story about a Roman general who becomes a Christian and gets himself  disgraced and executed), and the final shot is a risible scene of the two of them walking on their way to the archery field (I wasn’t aware that bow-and-arrow equipped firing squads were a common Roman means of execution), their huge faces against a blue-and-orange sky as they walk proudly to their exit from this world and their joint apotheosis in the next. 

The Robe is historically important as the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, the 2.33-1 aspect ratio process based on the anamorphic lens, invented in 1937 by French researcher Henri Chrétien. It basically “squeezed” the image vertically when it was photographed, and required a reverse decoder lens on the projector to unsqueeze the image on standard-width 35 mm film to produce a wide-screen image. CinemaScope was essentially the mp3 of big-format movie processes — the sort of “good enough” technology that sometimes wins out over superior but also more difficult inventions; whereas Cinerama involved a wraparound screen and four separate, linked projectors (three to show the picture and one containing the sound — an odd throwback to the early days of talkies in which the soundtrack had been on a Vitaphone record instead of actually printed on the film), and 3-D required two interlinked projectors and could only be seen with glasses (Fox made it a selling point of CinemaScope that you didn’t need glasses to watch it!), CinemaScope could be shown in any movie theatre large enough to put in the big, curved wide screen. All the theatre owner needed was the screen and the anamorphic decoder lens for the projectors — a much easier conversion than that required for Cinerama — and Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck sweetened the pot by announcing that all his studio’s future productions would be in CinemaScope, thereby ensuring hesitant theatre owners that there’d be a steady flow of product in the new process and thus encouraging them to spend the money needed to convert. The Robe wasn’t actually the first film shot in CinemaScope — How to Marry a Millionaire was — but Zanuck correctly reasoned that a Biblical spectacular would provide a far more prestigious and saleable introduction to the technique than a sex comedy, so he put The Robe out first and made the new format a major selling point for the film. (It’s actually listed in the credits as “A CinemaScope Production,” while later films in the process were usually called “A CinemaScope Picture.”) CinemaScope also came equipped with a four-track stereo sound system, though on our old (barely) stereo TV there were a few discernible directional effects on the soundtrack but nothing to write home about (nothing at all like the astonishing moment in the first Tim Burton Batman in which, if you saw it theatrically, the Batmobile appeared to be driving through the theatre itself!).

 The Robe was directed by Henry Koster, who for some reason got a lot of spectacle assignments in the 1950’s, including Désirée and The Virgin Queen, even though he’d made his reputation directing Deanna Durbin’s star-making vehicles in the 1930’s and previously to this his main contribution to religious films had been The Bishop’s Wife, a refreshingly un-serious and un-preachy comedy with a supernatural angle. It seems odd that in the era of the super-spectacular Koster would have got these plum assignments while a far better German expat director, Fritz Lang — who’d established his skill with the spectacle film in the 1920’s with Die Nibelungen and Metropolis — was cranking out vest-pocket noirs like The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat for any company or low-budget producer that would have him. Not that Koster directs badly; indeed it could be argued that he barely directs at all, hamstrung by the CinemaScope edict (enshrined in a production book published by Fox as a guide to filmmakers on how to use the new process) that because of the sheer size of the screen, close-ups were no longer necessary, and also hamstrung by a cast — the male leads in particular — that was going to act whatever way they wanted to act regardless of what the director tried to tell them. I’d always assumed that Victor Mature, a far better known performer than Richard Burton to U.S. movie audiences in 1953, would have got top billing — yet the opening credits listed Burton, Jean Simmons, Mature and Michael Rennie (as the Apostle Peter, traditionally considered the first Pope — referencing his role in The Day the Earth Stood Still two years earlier I joked to Charles, “So the Church of Scientology isn’t the only religion that has space aliens as part of its origin story!”), and Burton already, nine years before his supposed “corruption” at the hands (and other parts) of Elizabeth Taylor, starts his performance at 11 and keeps it there, bellowing just about every line, no matter how trivial, at fortissimo volume and full intensity. (In an earlier stage in 20th Century-Fox’s history, the male lead would have gone almost automatically to Tyrone Power, and indeed Zanuck offered it to him as an inducement to renew his Fox contract — but Power wanted to edge himself away from the studio system and instead accepted Charles Laughton’s offer to direct him in Stephen Vincent Benêt’s play John Brown’s Body, which ran just 69 performances.) Victor Mature’s incompetent underacting makes him a weirdly appropriate foil to Burton’s overacting — at the start of Mature’s film career Josef von Sternberg had got a marvelous performance out of him as the corrupt doctor in The Shanghai Gesture but no one ever came close to getting him to act that well again — spitting his lines out through clenched teeth and flexing his muscles to show distress at being enslaved and, later, tortured. Jean Simmons gets little to do but look attractive — as I noted above, the fact that she maintained her dignity through this farrago of nonsense (as she managed in a lot of films in which she was horrendously miscast, including Guys and Dolls) is a testament to her talent and skill as an actress even though it doesn’t make the movie any better.

The Robe is exactly the sort of movie its makers wanted to make, and judging from its box-office performance ($36 million gross in the U.S. alone on an estimated $5 million production budget) it was exactly the sort of movie 1953 U.S. moviegoers wanted to see, either in CinemaScope or in the ordinary 1.33-1 aspect ratio (which, since the studio technicians hadn’t figured out how to pan-and-scan yet, meant that virtually every scene in the movie had to be shot twice, once for each camera format, so Fox would have an alternate version for theatres not equipped to show CinemaScope): a leaden, preachy religious spectacle. One watches in vain for the sort of artistry Douglas Sirk (another German expat!) brought to his adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession the following year — a story that at least had the advantage of being set in contemporary times and translating Christ’s message of altruism and sacrifice into modern terms (you might say that The Robe is a sermon and Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession is a parable), and the energy level perks up only when the Romans are on screen, front and center (I almost wrote “on stage” there, perhaps because the lack of close-ups gives this film a tableau-like quality that makes it look like a stage play when it isn’t using the breadth of the CinemaScope screen to show us wide ranges of landscape — even though the scene in which the principals embark on a ship to take them from Palestine to Rome is shot on one of the most blatantly obvious soundstage “exteriors” ever constructed!), and particularly when Jay Robinson is on screen as Caligula. Virtually all his utterances at the Roman court show him literally screaming well before he reaches his climax (pun definitely intended; this Production Code-sanitized Caligula could hardly be as crazy or as polymorphously perverse as the real one, but Robinson’s high-pitched voice and queeny mannerisms help fill in what the script was obliged to leave out), and I found myself wondering if Robinson was deliberately patterning his performance on Adolf Hitler and Der Führer’s famously overwrought screaming/speaking style in public. While The Robe was billed in its own time as a technological (as well as an artistic) triumph it’s really not much of a movie, all too much in the usual mold of Hollywood’s take on the Bible.