Friday, May 31, 2013

Girl Fight (Front Street Pictures, Media Nation, 2011)

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

The film was an item I recently recorded off Lifetime called Girl Fight, whose page reveals that it was based on a true story — something Lifetime’s promos didn’t mention (they usually do when they show a film with a factual basis, however much the real-life incidents got distorted when they were run through the Hollywood — or, in this case, Hollywood, Canada — meatgrinder) but which I began to suspect pretty early on. This didn’t seem like something writer Benita Garvin could have made up; it’s true that the clichéd backstory of the high-school junior who’s been skipped over and thereby got a reputation as a hopelessly anti-social nerd who will do anything to make it into the popular clique, and the members of said clique who exploit her relentlessly, could well have been her invention, but I daresay she wouldn’t have dared ramp up the intensity level of the conflict if she’d had nothing to go on but her own imagination. In this case, the hopeless nerd is Haley (Jodelle Ferland, who actually delivers quite a complex and sensitive performance that puts flesh on those old clichéd bones), whose parents, Ray and Melissa (real-life couple James Tupper and Anne Heche — yes, that Anne Heche, who’s far more famous for having been Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend when Ellen came out than for any of her actual career, though aside from the fling with Ellen she’s been hetero her entire sexually mature life and Ellen herself, years later, said she made mistakes coming out she could have avoided if her partner at the time had been a genuine Lesbian instead of a straight woman taking a brief walk on the Gay side), are constantly throwing boring “parties” for her she hasn’t the slightest interest in. Melissa is a bit more mellow but Ray is all-controlling — and there’s a brief shot from director Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Maggie and Jake), a cut between Ray looking at his daughter and Haley’s ass swaying as she climbs up a flight of stairs in their house, that throws us a sidelong hint that he’s got an incestuous crush on his daughter (or have I just seen so many Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes that I’m reading more sexual undertones in this brief scene than Gyllenhaal and Garvin intended?).

Her rushing into the arms (metaphorically) of Alexa Simmons (a marvelous villainess performance by Tess Atkins) is as much motivated by the desire to get away from those horrendously controlling parents as it is an embrace of the “popular” clique in school — and Alexa and her gang turn out to be real pieces of work, showing up at the restaurant where Haley works as a waitress and bumming money from her to pay their check, also demanding that she cover the cost of the bottle of vodka they sneaked into what was supposed to be an exclusively non-alcoholic party (the condition Haley’s parents insisted on before they gave her permission to go), and finally getting her drunk enough that she doesn’t resist when Alexa and five of her friends decide to gang up on Haley at one of their alcohol-fueled soirées and literally beat the crap out of her, while another member of the clique films the whole thing on her cell phone. The idea is to get their 15 minutes of fame by uploading the girl-fight film to the Internet and letting the rest of the world — or at least the rest of their high school, which amounts to about the same thing in this hermetically sealed existence (ironically enough for a project starring Anne Heche, teenage males seem scarcely to exist during this movie; most films about rivalries between high-school girls motivate them at least partially by jealousies over high-school boys, but not this one — though given how homely most of the actors who play teenage boys in Lifetime movies are, I suspect I’d have found James Tupper the sexiest guy in this movie even if he’d had more competition!) — gawk at and revel in Haley’s humiliation.

The end result is that Haley is beaten so badly she ends up in the hospital, and there are indications she’s going to suffer long-term eye damage. A school official learns of the existence of the video and manages to get the parents of the girl who shot it to turn it over, whereupon the film becomes a series of crises of conscience over whether the girls will actually be prosecuted and whether Haley will be willing to testify against them. At first she won’t — she’s still concerned enough about her “reputation” with her fellow students not to rat them out — then she’s furious and determined she will testify, only at the end of the trial, when she learns that if found guilty her assailants could end up serving life in prison, she relents and urges her parents to accept the plea deal of one-year sentences the D.A.’s office worked out with the girls’ lawyers, but only on condition that Haley’s family agree to it. Girl Fight begins as a pretty ordinary high-school drama but director Gyllenhaal ramps up the intensity as it goes on, and he and Garvin give us so many glimpses of the girl-fight video itself we begin to feel violated by seeing it so often — and Haley’s shifting emotions during the aftermath, and in particular her crisis of conscience over how to deal with a law-enforcement system that seems intent on victimizing her all over again, are surprisingly well done by director, writer and actress. Though the rather milquetoast appearance that made her right for this role will probably be a handicap on other projects, I suspect we’ll hear more of Jodelle Ferland.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Search for Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (Danish Broadcasting, Czechoslovak TV, BBC, PBS, 1990)

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

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the world premiere performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Charles and I celebrated by watching The Search for Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” an hour-long special from PBS I videotaped in 1990 when it was first aired, which consisted of a half-hour documentary about how Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite of Spring, and Nicholas Roerich’s original stage designs, were reconstructed from whatever fragmentary evidence was available, followed by a full performance of the reconstructed ballet. The prime mover behind the reconstruction was ballet-meister Robert Joffrey, founder of the New York-based Joffrey Ballet, but their principal source was Marie Rambert, the last survivor of the company that performed The Rite of Spring at its infamous first performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. Rambert was a close associate of Nijinsky — she admitted in the archival interviews shown in the program that she had an intense crush on him, which she kept hidden because Nijinsky and producer Serge Diaghilev were living together as a Gay couple, but when Nijinsky and Diaghilev broke up both professionally and personally, and Nijinsky married a woman on the rebound, she not surprisingly was bitter on the ground that if Nijinsky was going to turn straight it should have been for her.

She also was a close associate of Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, the founder of eurythmics. Eurythmics was basically a style of dance in which there was a close relationship between music and movement — a note of a specific duration corresponded to a specific movement — and though Nijinsky didn’t go whole-hog into eurythmics when he did the original choreography for The Rite of Spring, he did attempt to match his movements precisely to Stravinsky’s score, bar by bar, note by note. The Rite of Spring is a story ballet set in pre-Christian Russia and, like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” it’s about a farming community which believes that every spring they have to choose a young virgin and sacrifice her to ensure that they have a good crop that year. Of course, this being a ballet, the way she’s supposed to be sacrificed is that she is compelled to dance herself to death. It reflected the Russian origins of the four principals — Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Roerich and Diaghilev — and while many of Diaghilev’s previous Ballet Russe productions had been cosmopolitan (before he hooked up with Stravinsky, Diaghilev’s most popular and enduring productions had been Les Sylphides, an orchestral score mashed up from some of Chopin’s big piano works, and Afternoon of a Faun, based on the previously written prelude by Debussy), Stravinsky’s presence in his operation and the success of his previous works for Diaghilev, The Firebird and Petrouchka (both based on Russian folk tales), steered them in the direction of a sort of naturalistic primitivism. The reconstruction was accomplished under Joffrey’s auspices (Joffrey had got his start as a choreographer with Rambert’s ballet company in London in the 1950’s) mostly by choreographer Millicent Hodson and her husband, designer Kenneth Archer, and the evidence they had to go on was mostly the photographs of the original production — with the dancers posing in slants and wearing batik-like costumes designed to look like hand-painted homespun — along with notes and sketches by various artists who’d witnessed the original, and a copy of an original score of the Rite in which Rambert herself had notated some of the choreography. (Rambert had sold the original during a time when she badly needed money; she had kept a copy but it was only at the very end of the process that it came to light and supplied Hodson with the last set of clues she needed.)

Granted that there’s no way of knowing how close any of Hodson’s work, executed here by a well-drilled set of dancers led by Beatriz Rodriguez as the sacrificial victim (though this is decidedly an ensemble piece and not a star vehicle the way, say, Swan Lake is), to what the Paris audience saw — or didn’t see — on May 29, 1913 (that early it’s highly unlikely anyone sneaked in a movie camera and filmed any of it surreptitiously the way some fans did with Broadway shows in the 1930’s), but The Rite of Spring in this version remains a bizarre and fascinating piece and it’s easy to see what provoked the Paris audience to intense expressions of disapproval. (The legend was that there was an actual riot in the theatre, but Ivan Hewitt recently wrote an article for the BBC Web site, available at, debunking that, pointing out that the performance actually ran until the ballet’s end — if there’d been a riot the police would have closed the theatre and escorted everyone out — though through much of it the yelling from people in the audience who didn’t like what they were hearing and liked what they were seeing even less was so loud Nijinsky stood in the wings and barked out rehearsal numbers to the dancers, so they could keep to his choreography and stay in synch to the music even though they couldn’t actually hear it over the yelling.) One person in the documentary portion made the point that while Nijinsky as a dancer was noted for his command of the language of classical ballet, in his few attempts at choreographing ballets for others he almost totally ignored that language. This Rite seems far closer to modern dance than anything we usually think of as ballet, with the dancers moving in tight synch to the music, making aggressive, jerky motions in stylized patterns (a couple of times they group themselves into a circle and move their arms in and out of it — if the people filming the ballet had raised their camera for an overhead shot it would have looked like a Busby Berkeley number set to a more musically sophisticated score), clapping and stamping their feet in time to the music, and wearing baggy costumes that concealed the forms of their bodies instead of the tight-fitting clothes of traditional ballet.

When I first saw this show I was startled at how different the experience was from the one time I’d seen The Rite of Spring danced professionally — in Oakland in 1977, in a production by John Pasqualetti, who was known for the high sexual content of his ballets. He didn’t disappoint in The Rite — his dancers wore body stockings and made contact with each other, girl-on-boy and sometimes boy-on-boy as well (my date for the evening was my first boyfriend and naturally he was especially interested in the Gay aspects!) — but it was also danced far more smoothly than this version. For all the radical sexual content (maybe not that radical for the Bay Area in 1977!) Pasqualetti’s Rite was a far more conventionally “balletic” production than Hodson’s dans Nijinsky, which even now seems positively primitive in both senses of the word: literally so, as befits the subject matter of the Rite; and also in terms of the style of movement, the way the dancers relate to each other and the stylization of the piece, the way the dancers are not allowed to show off the beauty of their own bodies. The reconstructed Rite has been danced in other places and times, and even when companies don’t use all of Hodson’s choreography (which she has copyrighted, so they’d have to pay her a royalty) they’ve clearly been influenced by the restoration to make the movements of the Rite jerkier, more primitive, more physically intense and less ballet-oriented. This is a fascinating program that doesn’t deserve its obscurity; it was co-produced by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Czechoslovak TV (remember Czechoslovakia?), the BBC and PBS’s New York affiliate, WNET, but it’s not listed on or on PBS’s own Web site, and it’s virtually impossible to obtain a copy now: offers a download, but only of the actual performance of the ballet, not the equally fascinating half-hour documentary on the reconstruction that precedes it.

The Day It Came to Earth (Atlas Limited, Rainbow Productions, Howco International, 1979)

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

Alas, the movie we watched for the rest of the evening was hardly in the same exalted vein! I’d been curious about The Day It Came to Earth ever since I got the Alien Attacks boxed set, which contained Cat Women of the Moon from 1953; its surprisingly good quasi-remake Missile to the Moon from 1958; The Brain from Planet Arous from Howco International in 1957 (Howco International got its name from its founder and CEO, Joy Houck — whom I’d assumed was a woman but was really a boy named Joy; later on his son, Joy Houck, Jr., took over the company); and The Day It Came to Earth, which was also a Howco International production, a tribute to the cheesy sci-fi movies the company had made in the 1950’s even though it was made in 1979 and, unlike the other movies in the Alien Attacks box, was in color. What’s more, it’s not really about an alien attack; the plot revives around a high-energy meteor that falls to earth from space and is picked up by a group of college students, it’s not part of a spacecraft and there are no actual aliens in the dramatis personae. Indeed, the opening pre-credits sequence is a nice bit of neo-noir that seemed to come from such a different cinematic world than the movie we were promised on the DVD box that Charles and I at first wondered if we were watching a whole other movie that had been packaged in this box and labeled The Day It Came to Earth by mistake. Set in 1958 (we know because the car we see in the opening scene is a 1958 Ford and we hear a radio news report referencing “Vice-President Richard Nixon”), the scene establishes that gangster Lou Jacoby (Ed Love) has just given key testimony to Senator Estes Kefauver’s latest investigation of organized crime.

For this the government has given him a new identity so he can hide out from the gangsters he’s exposed and who are threatening to kill him — I don’t think the feds had a formal witness protection program that early but they did do that al fresco in some cases (but then I’ve had Joy Houck’s gender wrong for years so I’m not putting much faith in my own knowledge base right now!). Not surprisingly, though, the feds’ plans go for naught; the gangsters find Lou Jacoby (who incidentally bears the name of a semi-famous character actor of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, though he spelled it “Jacobi”; his most famous credit was as Moustache in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, in which he replaced Charles Laughton after Laughton’s death) and shoot him, then dump his body in the old Willow Lake. Only the meteor lands in the lake and the energy from it makes contact with Jacoby’s body, revivifying him but turning him into a homicidal monster who immediately targets two guys playing poker. Director Harry Thomason shoots a lot of the movie rather flatly but also inserts some scenes that show a real flair for visual atmosphere. He also shows off how many classic movies he’d seen; the sequence in which the monster kills the poker player has a swinging overhead lamp like the one in Psycho, and later there are scenes of the college students bathing in the lake while the monster watches them swim by but doesn’t bother them that are straight out of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. What Thomason doesn’t have is much of a sense of pace: scenes that could have been suspenseful and genuinely frightening are yawn-inducing instead because of his slovenly directorial style (and his editor, LeRoy Slaughter, doesn’t help much either).

Not that the script by Paul J. Fisk helps much; it’s basically your standard-issue set of sci-fi clichés (Charles noted the sheer number of movies we’ve seen in which some form of radioactivity on a lake or ocean floor has turned human corpses into reanimated monsters, notably The Horror of Party Beach — which is “worse” by any objective measure than The Day It Came to Earth but is also so wrong-headed it’s actually a lot of fun), including the avuncular professor (George Gobel, the only cast member I’d actually heard of before) who explains it all in the best pseudo-scientific terms writer Fisk could come up with. By far the most entertaining part of the movie is the physical appearance of the male leads, Eddie Newton (Wink Roberts) and his friend and roommate Ronnie McGuire (Roger Manning). They’re not drop-dead gorgeous sex gods but they are easy on the eyes, and director Thomason gives us plenty of chances to savor them; they’re introduced in adjoining twin beds in their dorm room, with Eddie in his underwear and Ronnie in pajama bottoms but blessedly shirtless above the waist. Naturally, they’re interested in women — though the body language between the two actors conveys some homoerotic tensions Thomason and Fisk probably didn’t intend (and ditto for the two college girls Eddie and Ronnie are attracted to, Sally [Delight De Bruine] and Debbie [Rita Wilson], who likewise do an awful lot of hugging in bed, the kind of sexually innocent but physically enjoyable horseplay same-sex roommates, especially in the military, indulged in before society’s awareness of Gay people made it difficult for basically heterosexual people to sustain this) — and the first big scene happens when the four dubious lovebirds go to the lake and find pieces of blue rock that are fragments of the extraterrestrial meteor. Eddie has a small chunk of it made into a pendant as a gift for Sally, but the way it glows on screen and is accompanied by a peculiar buzzing/ringing noise on the soundtrack makes us realize that the stone is a source of potentially dangerous energy.

The climax comes in a supposedly “haunted” house in which Sally, Debbie and about 10 other girls are supposed to stay overnight to prove their worthiness to enter the college’s hottest sorority. The boys crash the party, constructing a dummy that looks like a weird cross-breed of Alice Cooper and Tiny Tim. The monster crashes the party too and breaks it up, causing the kids to flee for their lives before the monster is finally cornered in an abandoned movie theatre and is set afire — it’s been established earlier that guns don’t harm it but apparently, like Fred Myton’s and Anne Rice’s vampires, fire can destroy it. The biggest problem with The Day It Came to Earth is the old one, uncertainty of tone: writer Fisk never decided whether he was creating a serious homage to the 1950’s sci-fi “B”’s or a campy spoof of them, and as directed by Thomason the story isn’t frightening enough to work as serious horror and isn’t silly enough to work as camp either. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is rather similar plotwise but much more entertaining because its creator, writer/director/star Larry Blamire, had no intention of creating anything other than a campy spoof of its models. Still, any movie that spends a lot of its running time offering us fetching glimpses of Wink Roberts and Roger Manning in surprisingly frank states of undress (as well as the pair of shorts Roberts wears, which shows off much more of his basket than 1950’s — or 1970’s — movie clothes usually did) is going to be entertaining for non-cinematic reasons! It was also amusing to have a film that contained so many cheesy pastiches of 1950’s rock ’n’ roll on its soundtrack — especially the night after we watched Shake, Rattle and Rock and got to watch Joe Turner and Fats Domino do the real thing, and do it superlatively well!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shake, Rattle and Rock (Sunset Productions/American International, 1956)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a 1956 movie called Shake, Rattle and Rock, a surprisingly good early rock ’n’ roll film from American International. The early omens on this one weren’t good; American International generally made lousy movies aimed mostly at the drive-in audience (and this was only their third year in operation; they’d begun as American Releasing in 1954 and their first film was Roger Corman’s The Fast and the Furious, an auto-theft drama whose modern-day remake has spawned no fewer than five sequelae, of which the most recent is the number one film in the country right now!), the director was Edward L. Cahn and the writer was Lou Rusoff, who was usually associated with American International’s rather silly horror movies. Surprise! Shake, Rattle and Rock turned out to be a little gem, with two of the all-time greats of rhythm and blues, singer Joe Turner and singer-pianist-composer Antoine “Fats” Domino, and a plot that was genuinely entertaining in and of itself and wasn’t just a way to mark time between the musical numbers. While other 1950’s rock movies occasionally touched on the controversies over rock and the determination of some moralists to shut it down, Lou Rusoff decided to make the controversies the focal point of his film.

It opens in the studio of a local TV station, where Garry Nelson (Touch Conners, the young, personable actor who later became a surprisingly credible private detective on the long-running CBS-TV series Mannix) is hosting a rock ’n’ roll TV show with a group of teenage kids he’s been able to pull off the streets and away from a life of crime by harnessing the righteous power of this music to lure them into wholesome recreation. Right now in the (unnamed) city where the film takes place he’s built 78 rock ’n’ roll clubs and got the young people in them interested in raising money for “safe” social causes. His latest project is to take over an abandoned building and turn it into a teen center. But he’s run afoul of self-appointed moralists Eustace Fentwick III (Douglass Dumbrille) and Georgianna Fitzdingle (the marvelous Margaret Dumont — so two supporting players in this film have Marx Brothers connections!), who organize a group with a tongue-twisting name to fight back against rock ’n’ roll by organizing petitions and letter-writing campaigns to get the TV station to take Nelson’s show off the air. He’s also run afoul of gangsters Bugsy Smith (Paul Duboy, proving that they didn’t break the mold after they made Sheldon Leonard) and his comic-relief sidekick Nick (Eddie Kafafian), who are upset that Nelson’s rock ’n’ roll clubs have turned potential hoodlums towards more constructive pursuits and thereby deprived Bugsy’s gang of its biggest pool of young talent. The gangsters and the old-fogy “reformers” end up making common cause at a big dance sponsored by Nelson to raise money for the teen center; Nelson’s own comic-relief sidekick, Albert “Axe” McAllister (Sterling Holloway, whom writer Rusoff and director Cahn try to pass off as a teenager even though he was already making movies in the early 1930’s, before any authentic teenager alive in 1956 was even born!), gets goaded into starting a fight with one of the gangsters, the police — already parked outside the hall, courtesy of Fentwick and Mrs. Fitzdingle — move in, and six of the kids respond by trashing Fentwick’s car.

With everything he’s worked for in ruins, Nelson sells his producer, Bill Bentley (Charles Evans), on the idea of having an on-air trial of rock ’n’ roll, with Fentwick as the prosecutor, himself as the defense attorney, a real judge (Clarence Kolb) in charge, and the jury being the TV audience, who will call in and render their verdict by voting either for or against rock ’n’ roll. The trial sequence contains some of the most brilliant gags in the movie, with Fentwick showing a scene of primitive dancing (actually, according to, a shot of Aboriginal people in Australia) to demonstrate the primitivistic, anti-civilized nature of rock ’n’ roll — and Nelson fighting back with a clip of flappers and their beaux Charlestoning in the 1920 to indicate that rock is just a new form of rhythmic music that won’t permanently corrupt the morals of its fans any more than 1920’s jazz did. Fentwick calls as a witness Aloysius Pentigrouch (Leon Tyler), a 17-year-old nerd whose favorite composers are Beethoven and Chopin, and his ballet-dancer girlfriend, and shows them off as examples of proper teenagers who appreciate truly great culture instead of this rock ’n’ roll crap — and Nelson fights back by having Pentigrouch repeat his performance of the Chopin Prelude in A minor, only emphasize the rhythm — and Chopin’s piece turns into a hot boogie woogie which Georgianna’s long-suffering husband Horace (Raymond Hatton) declares he likes better than he ever liked the work come scritto. It ends, of course, the way you know it would: rock ’n’ roll wins the “trial,” Pentigrouch and his girlfriend are shown doing a hot rock dance — and so are Horace and Georgianna once he’s recognized her younger self in the film clip of the Charleston and declared how much better he liked her then than he does now. (Anyone who’s seen the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, knows that the real Margaret Dumont in 1929 didn’t look anything like the lithesome dancing flapper who’s supposedly Georgianna’s younger self in this film.) Along the way we get to hear some superb rhythm-and-blues from Fats Domino and Joe Turner — I remember once reading an interview with Fats in which he said, “I always thought of myself as a rhythm-and-blues musician. Then they told me I was playing rock ’n’ roll. I hadn’t changed my style any — they’d just changed the name for it!” Indeed, Domino and Turner were about the only musicians I can think of (along with Dinah Washington) who established themselves before rock ’n’ roll and managed to sustain their careers, and even become more popular, once rock started; magnificent talents like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris and other R&B stars one would have thought would have been accepted by the rock audience weren’t.

Domino and Turner are in superb form in this film even though it’s obvious they’re just miming to their commercial records (by the 1950’s the sound quality of records had improved to the point where movie companies abandoned their long-standing insistence on re-recording musical artists on their own equipment and instead cut deals with their artists’ record companies to use their already existing records on film soundtracks). Domino does two of his biggest hits, “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I’m in Love Again,” as well as “Honey Chile” (a song I’ve always liked that didn’t get the attention it deserved because it was the flip side of an even greater Domino record, “Blueberry Hill”), and Turner sings “Feelin’ Happy” — a rock adaptation of the 1930’s Kansas City blues standard “Do You Wanna Jump, Children?” (which Charles argued was in turn no doubt derived from 1920’s Black Gospel music!) — twice, once over the opening credits and once on screen. He also does “Lipstick, Powder and Paint,” “The Choker” and “Rock, Rock, Rock.” The one white rock performer we see, Tommy Charles (doing a song by Wayne Walker called “Sweet Love on My Mind”), is O.K. but quite obviously not anywhere in the same league as Domino and Turner; it occurred to me that with the best white performers of the time already tabbed for similar movies by major studios like Columbia and 20th Century-Fox, American International went for great Black performers instead — with superior musical results (though the rock movies from Columbia and Fox had their share of African-American greats — Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively!). Of the 1950’s rock movies I’ve seen, Shake, Rattle and Rock is one of the best, right behind The Girl Can’t Help It (which has the benefits of color, CinemaScope, a theme song by Little Richard, a superb performance by Eddie Cochran, the anatomical wonders of Jayne Mansfield, and the mordant sensibility of director Frank Tashlin) and considerably better than the Alan Freed quickies being churned out by Columbia (even though the Freed films, reflecting the D.J.’s commitment to racial equality at least a decade before it became cool, not only showcased Chuck Berry as a performer but actually gave him a chance to act!). Shake, Rattle and Rock turned out to be a minor gem that was far better than we’d expected, a genuinely entertaining movie even when Fats Domino and/or Joe Turner weren’t on screen!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day Concert (PBS, May 27, 2013)

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

Last night I watched the latest so-called Memorial Day Concert special on PBS — an annual event that’s now in its 24th year and has long since shed any illusions of being a concert in the usual sense of the word. This morning I was looking at my comments on it from three years ago, when I watched the 2010 edition and there were still star performers on it singing songs that weren’t about the military, patriotism or public service. As the concerts have gone on the segments of people simply singing songs have shrunk to the point where they’ve virtually disappeared, and the parts that specifically pay tribute to the military, to the heroism of individual servicemembers and the dramatics of war have grown. The show was hosted by the usual crew — the MC’s were Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris also appeared — as, via a film clip from the 2004 event, did Charles Durning, who if he’d lived in the 1930’s probably would have become a star on the level of Edward G. Robinson. Alas, he came of age as a performer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, long after the day when character actors could become major stars. The big tearjerking veterans’ story was a fairly recent one, of two brothers, Eric and Joe Grenville from Cumberland, Pennsylvania, both of whom signed up for the National Guard and had the bad luck to enlist just two weeks before 9/11 and suddenly found themselves confronted with the fact that they were actually going to have to go out and fight real wars. Eric lost his leg in Iraq protecting other servicemembers from an IED; Joe made it through Afghanistan but then was turned down for a fourth tour and got so upset that he committed suicide. This was a fascinating story to be hearing on a show ostensibly devoted to a patriotic salute to the selflessness of America’s veterans and the nobility of their service — it was incredible that the show’s producers were acknowledging the reality both of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) itself and the fact that many veterans suffering from it don’t seek treatment because they think it would be dishonorable or somehow un-“manly” to do so. It’s also incredible that this show acknowledged that more veterans of the (second) Iraq war have killed themselves after they got home than have died in actual combat.

The remarkable soprano Katherine Jenkins returned (she did a duet with Andrea Bocelli on the 2010 show and totally out-sang him) for the “Pie Jesú” and a version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — a song Charles thought was very ironic because in its original context, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, it’s sung about a man who abused his wife, got killed committing a crime and returned from the grave to haunt her. It’s become a sort of monument to sappiness — at the height of the AIDS epidemic it became de rigueur at all the big benefits — and it’s probably indicative of how sugary Hammerstein’s lyrics are that my favorite version of all time was the first I ever heard, pianist Roger Williams’ instrumental of it. The most recent American Idol winner, Candace Glover, sang the national anthem, and she was followed up by Jessica Sanchez singing “God Bless America.” Alfie Bove sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables — at last! Someone singing this music who actually has a voice instead of a non-singing movie star aimed in the general direction of the correct pitches by AutoTune! — and the rest of the songs were all themed around service and loss, including Chris Mann’s “There Are Roads” and “You Raise Me Up” and tenor Roland Tynen’s “To Fallen Soldiers” (I’d like to hear him do something else sometime — like maybe the tenor part in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a far better piece of music on the same general theme) along with the usual medleys of marches and service songs. Jack Eberle, or whatever his name is — the person who took over conducting the concerts after their creator, Erich Kunzel, died after the one in 2009 — did a decent enough job in a program that mostly relegated the National Symphony to a backup band for the military melodramas (in the word’s literal meaning: a dramatic monologue accompanied by music) and the vocalists. It was an all too often bathetic but sometimes genuinely moving program.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (Universal/Amblin, 1995)

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

The movie was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, an impossible mouthful of a title for a film from 1995 that seemed to be Hollywood’s response to the surprise-hit status of an Australian movie with an almost as indigestible title, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in 1994. The major studios looked at the box-office returns of this tale of drag queens driving through Australia and figured that a U.S. version with A-list stars would be even bigger, so Universal and Amblin Entertainment (one of Steven Spielberg’s companies) greenlighted director Beeban Kidron’s (a womyn-born woman who was actually in the later stages of pregnancy through the entire shoot — she gave birth to her baby Noah Kidron Style on the last day of filming and inserted a credit to Noah as “Best Baby,” a pun on the frequent listing of technical assistants as “Best Boys”) and writer Douglas Carter Beane’s project about three racially assorted drag queens driving across the country in a 1960’s-era yellow Cadillac they acquired from a used car lot (the man running the lot was honest about the Caddy’s mechanical failings and tried to sell the “girls” a Toyota Corolla instead, but they weren’t about to go cross-country in something as hopelessly unstylish!). The film opens at New York’s Webster Hall (also a locale where several important live jazz albums have been recorded), where there’s a major drag-queen contest going on in which first prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood to compete in the world’s championship. As things turn out, the contest is a tie between Black queen Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and white queen Vida Bohème (Patrick Swayze), but when they come upon Latina queen Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo, who for my money stole the film right out from under his two more famous co-stars) fleeing from Queer-bashers in her neighborhood, they take her under their wings and decide to turn in their plane tickets to the contest sponsor and get a cash payment by which all three will go to California. (The person who they do this deal with is the contest sponsor, played by Robin Williams in a surprising cameo — the sort of unbilled appearance that makes you go, “Was that … ?” — and in this case made me wish Williams had played Patrick Swayze’s part, which would have made a funny film even funnier and more moving.) This begs the question of how they’re going to get to California — not by train, not by bus (“Who do you think I am — Miss Rosa Parks?” Noxeema spits out in Wesley Snipes’ surprisingly convincing “queen” drawl), but in that chancy used Caddy. They have a roadside encounter with Sheriff John Dollard (Chris Penn, son of Leo and brother of Sean and Michael, who died in 2006 after an odd career that included important parts in such films as Rumble Fish and Reservoir Dogs), whose badge is misprinted “Dullard.” Dollard stops their car and sets his cap for Vida, who’s driving — until he reaches under “her” dress and responds, not by puking à la The Crying Game, but by getting furious and starting an altercation that ends with Vida knocking him down and leaving him by the roadside, apparently dead.

Then they head through more desert until they arrive in the tiny rural enclave of Snydersville, where their car breaks down and the local mechanic Virgil (Arliss Howard) announces that he can fix it in an hour but first he has to send for the needed part, which will take three days. They stay in a cheesy hotel run by Virgil’s wife Carol Ann (Stockard Channing, who aside from a women’s basketball team the “girls” hang out with in an early scene is the first womyn-born woman we’ve seen in the whole movie even though she doesn’t enter until about half an hour through this 109-minute film) and learn that Carol Ann is a victim of spousal abuse from a man who’ll throw a stew pot across the kitchen just because one of the queens, thinking she was doing her a favor, put some spices in it. Chi Chi nearly gets gang-raped by a group of rednecks (some of whom were being played by genuinely attractive young actors who did more for me aesthetically than the stars did, even though I must say I had a lingering crushette on Patrick Swayze after Dirty Dancing — but then I suspect most of Gay male America did too!) but she’s saved by hot-looking local Bobby Ray (Jason London, who should have got more of a career boost from this movie than he did — he’s hot, personable and charming and should have gone on to better things than a TV-remake of Jason and the Argonauts), who immediately falls in love with “her” despite the jealousy of his authentically female girlfriend (at least she has a crush on him) Bobby Lee (Jennifer Milmore). Vida beats the shit out of Virgil and gets him to stop beating his wife. Sheriff Dollard comes to town and sits next to Virgil in a sleazy but definitely straight bar and starts pouring his heart out about how much he hates male homosexuals — “Men, acting like women. Men wanting to be with one another, men touching each other. Their stubbly chins rubbing up against one another. Touching each other. Manly hands touching swirls of of chest hair. An occasional wiff of a rugged aftershave. Their low, baritone voices sighing, grunting. They hold one another in manly, masculine arms. Hold one another. Tight” — which made me think that Douglas Carter Beane was going to have Sheriff Dollard and Virgil discover their true sexual orientations and run off with each other, but even a nervy movie like this wasn’t about to go that far.

Indeed, To Wong Foo probably got the mass audience it did (it was the #1 movie the weekend it was released) largely because it virtually ignored the whole idea of a Gay community: we don’t see any non-drag Gay men, we don’t see any physical displays of affection between Our Hero(ines) and anybody else, and though we assume they’re Gay we don’t see any actual romantic or sexual interests between each other or anyone outside. All we see are these three guys in endless supplies of flashy dresses acting as fairy (in both senses!) godmothers to the townspeople, jazzing up their annual strawberry celebration and leaving Snyderville considerably happier and more fashionable than it was when they arrived. The scene then cuts to the big pageant in Hollywood, where Chi Chi takes the prize away from her more experienced mentors and is presented with the award by … Julie Newmar, who was originally only asked to lend her name and an autographed photo (Vida steals it from the wall of a New York restaurant just before they leave) but visited the set and enjoyed what was going on so much she agreed to play a cameo role as the award-giver in the final scene (and though her face shows the lines of age, her body is in excellent shape and one could readily imagine her in a modern-day Batman movie as an older, retired Catwoman mentoring the latest one). To Wong Foo is a remarkable movie but also a rather claustrophobic one, and while there’s a major plot point early on that the other two are experienced drag queens while Chi Chi is just a boy in a dress, in fact Leguizamo manages to comport him/herself more convincingly than the other two stars and is much better at suspending our disbelief — though enough of Wesley Snipes’ usual machismo shows through the dress and the makeup that the effect is ironic, if nothing else. It’s a nice movie — I’m glad I saw it at long last and I was entertained — but I was sufficiently tired of the drag world by the time it was over that I bypassed the deleted scenes offered as a bonus on the DVD.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Missile to the Moon (Layton Productions/Astor Pictures, 1958)

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

Last night Charles and I watched two of the four films in the Alien Attacks four-DVD boxed set — which turned out to be one of the weirdest packaging ideas I’d seen: instead of what I’d expected, which was two movies on each disc packaged in a conventional double-DVD box, it was each of four movies on a single DVD packaged in a normal-sized DVD container with an especially long spindle so the four discs could be stacked on top of each other. The films were Cat Women of the Moon from 1953 (though apparently not in the original 3-D version); its 1958 semi-remake Missile to the Moon; The Brain from Planet Arous from 1957, hilariously described in Harry and Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards; and the “ringer” in the bunch, one I’d neither seen nor heard of before, The Day It Came to Earth. “It,” according to the DVD box, is a “flaming monster” (sounds like an especially obnoxious drag queen!) which “crash-lands in a small swamp town and unleashes a shambling zombie terror.” Cat Women was the only film in this package I’d seen before last night, an unspeakable bore which I hadn’t watched since September 1997, when I wrote the following about it:

I headed over to Charles with the videos of Cat Women of the Moon (not Cat Women on the Moon, which I’ve seen cited as the title and which actually made a good deal more sense) and The Conqueror Worm (the movie formerly known as Witchfinder General), but we only watched the former. Cat Women of the Moon was one of Rhino’s 3-D releases, along with The Mask (the 1961 Canadian version, which is actually a pretty good movie for the budget and for the time — Slavko Vorkapich’s proto-psychedelic dream sequences are excellent and the framing scenes are poverty-stricken and mediocrely acted but are still legitimate) and Robot Monster, a legendary good/bad movie I’d very much like to see (enough to shell out $12.98 plus tax for the tape should I ever find it on sale). Alas, much of Cat Women was printed badly out of registration, so by the technological magic of videotape and 3-D the image looked like a bad old over-the-air TV picture with heavy ghosting — it was difficult to sit through these sequences and later on I joked to Charles about how if I felt any worse I’d start seeing four of him in bed with me!

Even when the technology was working effectively (which gave a mild 3-D effect and an overall reddish tinge to the picture), Cat Women of the Moon turned out to be a consummately boring movie (just as I’d remembered it when I caught it on the old Channel 36 out of San José early one morning during the early 1970’s under its less florid alternate title, Rocket to the Moon). It was one of those films that actually lasted just a shade over an hour but actually felt like two hours — “or a lifetime,” Charles joked. In fact, I ran the Rhino video edition of Plan Nine from Outer Space this morning, and next to Cat Women of the Moon, Plan Nine looked like a deathless masterpiece, if only because at least Edward D. Wood, Jr. had a certain stylistic flair that makes his movies most entertaining, even though hardly in the sense he intended them to be! Lacking any discernible directorial talent or even the sort of bad-movie flair Wood or Ray Dennis Steckler had, Arthur Hilton’s direction of Cat Women plodded onward through the ridiculous script by Roy Hamilton (presumably not the same Roy Hamilton as the singer who had the first hit on “Ebb Tide”), pointing his camera in the relevant direction of most of the action but otherwise adding nothing to this ridiculous movie (when he tried for an impressive effect — like his occasional shots of the cat women’s shadows lurking about — he ended up with a yawn). The plot, if it can be called that, is about a secret pocket of atmosphere in a cave under the dark side of the moon and a race of cat women (who have progressively eliminated all men from their society — “A Lesbian separatist’s paradise!” I joked) who plan to hijack the spaceship of the first humans to land on the moon (commanded by Victor Jory and Sonny Tufts) by telepathically taking over the brain of the ship’s one female crew member (Marie Windsor, who actually turns in one of the closest approximations to acting in the film — not that she approximates it by much, but at least she and Jory come closer than the rest of the principals).

Once the rocket arrives on the moon, the cat women (played by the Hollywood Cover Girls, whoever they may have been, whose ensemble work is actually better than that of the billed players!) attempt to maintain a united front against Our Heroes (while simultaneously cavorting on what looks like an old Jon Hall/Maria Montez set and may very well be an old Jon Hall/Maria Montez set, borrowed from Universal-International for the occasion) but naturally enough are sabotaged when one of their number, Lambda (there would be a Lambda — in fact, all the cat women are named after letters of the Greek alphabet; not surprisingly the queen of the cat women is Alpha and her second-in-command is Beta), falls in love with one of the more nondescript of the male crew members and betrays the whole enterprise. The idea was that three of the cat women would fly the rocket back to earth along with Marie Windsor, leaving the male earthlings stranded up on the moon, and thereby re-establish their civilization (which in the absence either of men or of any indication that they had invented parthenogenesis was on pretty shaky ground to begin with!). Not that any of this makes sense; Roy Hamilton’s screenplay proceeded from beginning to end without even any major attempt at narrative consistency, sporadically remembering that there is no atmosphere on the moon and then forgetting it again (as when he has the heat of the sun spontaneously ignite a cigarette left on the lunar surface) — and as I already wrote in connection with the Commando Cody serials made at Republic, three years after the success of Destination Moon there was no excuse for a movie about space travel to ignore the reality of weightlessness!

Missile to the Moon proved quite a surprise: a much better movie than Cat Women (but then I was already on record as saying that Plan Nine from Outer Space is a better movie than Cat Women!) from the producer-director team of Marc Frederic and Richard Cunha, respectively, a Layton Film Production released through Astor Pictures (which was generally a TV reissue label for old Monogram and PRC product). Those were the same people behind Frankenstein’s Daughter, released the same year (1958) and also a better-than-average 1950’s sci-fi indie which I described as “an intriguing film that definitely shows its origins for the drive-in market but manages to be a little bit better than that despite some pretty risible elements.” That could apply to Missile to the Moon as well even though Cat Women was obviously a less powerful source of inspiration than Mary Shelley’s classic novel and James Whale’s great films! The script for Missile by H. E. Barrie (who also worked on Frankenstein’s Daughter) and Vincent Fotre added some intriguing variants to Roy Hamilton’s tale: it opens at a privately funded missile base on whose launching pad sits a moon rocket designed and built by eccentric genius Dirk Green (Michael Whalen).

Dirk’s friend and collaborator Steve Dayton (Richard Travis, top-billed and an actor with some pretty respectable credits on his résumé; he started in the Warners meatgrinder and got supporting parts in classics like The Bride Came C.O.D., The Man Who Came to Dinner and Humphrey Bogart’s underrated The Big Shot) has come to tell him that his project is being taken over by NASA and that they’ll have the entire infrastructure of the U.S. government to improve their rocket and ensure it will actually get to the moon as planned. Sounding a good deal like an Ayn Rand hero, Dirk is so unthrilled with this news that for a moment I thought he was going to tell Steve that if the government tried to take over his rocket, he’d blow it up à la Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Instead he determines to take the rocket up himself before he has to hand it over. Meanwhile, two convicts, Gene Fennell (Tommy Cook) and Lon (Gary Clarke, yet one more James Dean wanna-be who hoped the tragic death of the original would open doors for him career-wise), have just escaped from a nearby prison and Gene gets the bright idea to hide inside the moon rocket. Dirk discovers them there but instead of turning them in, he essentially requisitions them to be his crew, holding a gun on them to force them to help him fly his missile to the moon. Steve and his girlfriend, fellow scientist June Saxton (Cathy Downs), enter the missile to find out what’s going on, and they also end up as reluctant astronauts on Dirk’s moon mission. During the trip to the moon Gene tries to rape June and Dirk successfully defends her honor, but at the cost of his life; a weird box that looks like a radio falls on his head and injures him fatally. (One “Goofs” poster on noted that there’s no indication of what the other astronauts did with his body.) Before he expires he gives Steve a medallion — it looks from afar like a St. Christopher’s medal but he says it’s important and will save his life once he lands on the moon — and he also tells Steve to make sure the ship lands exactly where he programmed it to on the moon’s surface. Then he starts mumbling something about missing someone named “Lido” before finally dying — as I joked to Charles, I’ve seen operas in which the death scenes were quicker than this!

It eventually turns out that Dirk is himself a moon person — apparently the last male who survived — and the Lido, or Queen, of the moon people (who live in a deep cave that contains normal air — a conceit of a lot of movies made about the moon before we actually got there, including Fritz Lang’s marvelous Woman on the Moon), was his wife. He built a rocket to get himself from the moon to earth to see what he could do to save the moon’s remaining population, which consists of a lot of beauty contest winners (they’re actually so billed in the opening credits — a definite step up from the Hollywood Cover Girls used as the lunar princesses in Cat Women!), from the impending disappearance of their remaining air and food supplies. The unlikely astronauts eventually land on the moon and have to fight off the Rock People — the materialization of one of these monsters from the moon’s rock surface is genuinely frightening and reveals Cunha’s flair as a director even though the Rock People themselves are all too clearly stunt people on stilts wearing baggy, ill-fitting costumes in which the folds in the cloth are all too visible — before they discover the cave and meet the Lido (K. T. Stevens, another cast member with an association with Hollywood’s greats — she acted with Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle and Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig). She’s blind, she immediately thinks Steve is the now-dead Dirk (after all, he’s wearing his medallion — which she recognizes by touch) and she’s hopeful that the moon people can finally evacuate their dying satellite and go either to earth or somewhere else (though exactly what other planet they might migrate to is carefully unspecified). Only the Lido’s second-in-command, Alpha (a surprisingly butch Nina Bara), is determined to marry Steve — apparently she was engaged to Dirk when he left and with him dead she’s willing to settle for sloppy seconds — and also to knife the Lido and take over. Steve tries to put her off but, when she sees Steve and Alpha together, June has a jealous hissy-fit that pisses off the new queen and leads her to condemn all three of the other earth people (aside from Steve, whom she’s still intent on marrying) to a pit where they’ll be devoured by a giant spider. (The giant spider is a papier-maché construction even less realistic than the rock people, and the wires moving its various body sections are all too visible on screen.)

Meanwhile, Gene is sneaking around the moon people’s encampment collecting diamonds, which on the moon are as common as pebbles on ours, thinking he’s going to go home to earth with millions of dollars worth of precious gems — and Lon has attracted the affections of moon person Zema (billed as Marjorie Hellen but identified on as Leslie Parrish), who in a surprisingly exciting climax decides that the only way her boyfriend and the other earthlings are ever going to get back to their home planet safely is if she breaks the window in the cave (a window in a cave?) that will release the cave’s atmosphere and annihilate the remaining moon people so they can’t stop the earthers from leaving. Alpha gets another protracted death scene (don’t moon people ever die quickly?) and the astronauts recover their spacesuits and escape, only Gene is slowed by the heavy bags of diamonds he’s carrying and is killed, not by the rock people (one of whom is taken out by a grenade the original Lido slipped Steve earlier on) but by the force of the sun, whose rays hit him without the protection of an atmosphere and vaporize him immediately. Missile to the Moon isn’t much as a movie, and it’s full of improbabilities and the kinds of bad science that make a lot of sci-fi films unintentionally hilarious — like Arthur Hilton on Cat Women, Richard Cunha doesn’t even try to do weightlessness, and when the astronauts first encounter the rock people on the moon’s surface they fire ordinary pistols at them and the bullets bounce off. The bullets shouldn’t have been able to come out at all, since gunpowder, like any other combustible material, can’t ignite in the absence of oxygen. But it’s also a good film within the limits of sci-fi cheapies c. 1958; though it’s 15 minutes longer than Cat Women it seems shorter because of the genuine flair for pacing, suspense and horror in Cunha’s direction. Oddly, Cunha only directed six films in his career: besides this one and Frankenstein’s Daughter they were She Demons, Giant from the Unknown, Girl in Room 13 and the English version of a German film called Einer Frisst den anderen. He really deserved a shot at better scripts and bigger budgets!

The Brain from Planet Arous (Howco International, 1957)

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

The Brain from Planet Arous, which we actually watched before Missile to the Moon, proved to be a real disappointment: too mediocre to be effective as a genuine sci-fi thriller and not bad enough to be entertaining as camp. The premise of this one is that the beings on the planet Arous have become pure intellect and their bodies have been reduced so the only part that remains are free-floating brains, which look like giant “brain” balloons (they have two normal-looking eyes set in the front of their otherwise brain-like grey matter). Two of Arous’ brain-people make it to earth; one is an evil brain called Gor with designs on conquering the universe, while the other is Val, part of the brain police (finally answering the question Frank Zappa asked in one of his best early songs, “Who Are the Brain Police?” — incidentally Sting wanted to name his band the Brain Police but Frank Zappa threatened to sue, so they achieved fame simply as The Police) who follows Gor to earth to capture and/or kill him. Gor takes possession of the body of nuclear physicist Steve March (John Agar, once again trying to copy the vocal tics and mannerisms of his good friend John Wayne for a part ridiculously unsuited to them) on the eve of a major nuclear test in the Nevada desert. March announces to the government officials in charge of the test that he’s going to give them a demonstration of his powers that will be more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — and he follows through by using his new-found mental powers to get an airliner to blow itself to pieces in mid-air. During the extreme close-ups of March using Gor’s mental energy to blow up planes and vaporize people (including his former assistant Dan Murphy, played by Robert Fuller — whom it’s a pity to lose so early because he’s not only the cutest guy in the film, he’s also its best actor) it looks like John Agar is wearing spectacularly ill-fitting contact lenses to make it look like his eyes are bulging out. According to one “trivia” poster on, that’s exactly how the special effects were done!

March demonstrates his powers by blowing up all the model houses and people constructed in the desert to test the effects of the bomb — the tests really were done with models to see how destructive the bombs would be, and this footage was readily available both in newsreels and in movies like the unspeakably bad Mickey Rooney vehicle for Republic, The Atomic Kid (ah, how the mighty had fallen!). When I saw these clips — first in the trailer (included here as a bonus item) and then in the film itself — I joked, “Special effects by the U.S. government!” The sight of the toy buildings blowing up before they were supposed to causes the world’s governments to yield to March’s demand that they convene a meeting of plenipotentiary representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, India and China (“Which China?” Charles joked) so he can present his demands to them — and when the meeting occurs March informs them that the entire earth’s population will become slave laborers to build spaceships so he can create an invasion fleet that will conquer the universe on his (Gor’s) behalf. Meanwhile Val, the cop-brain sent from Arous to catch or destroy Gor the crook-brain, has a meeting with the only two people with any apparent connection to March: his girlfriend Sally Fallon (Joyce Meadows) and her father John (Thomas Browne Henry). They talk about who Val can take over so he can have a human body in order to catch Gor, but instead of imposing his will on either of the people he ends up taking over March’s dog. Val explains to the Fallons that every 24 hours or so Gor has to leave March’s body to replenish his oxygen supply (why he can’t supply himself oxygen through the same normal respiration process that March used to sustain his normal human-born brain is not explained by writer Ray Buffum), and once he does this he can be killed by a blow across the fissure of Rolando, the seam down the middle of the brain. It’s helpfully illustrated in a copy of the Encyclopedia Americana from which Sally tears out the relevant page and leaves it with a note so March will know how to kill his malevolent brain-possessor once it leaves his body and becomes a brain-guy again. March takes up the opportunity and grabs an ax, though he keeps flamboyantly missing the brain by so much it’s hard to understand exactly how Gor does die — but he does, Val heads back to Arous with his mission accomplished and the world is safe for niceness ever after.

Probably the most frightening part of The Brain from Planet Arous is the make-up credit to Jack P. Pierce (the Frankenstein monster’s, the Wolf-Man’s and the Mummy’s creator — once again, how the mighty had fallen!); other than that it’s a barely competent sci-fi movie that takes a preposterous premise and makes it at least halfway believable. The biggest problem with it is the risible appearance of the brains (plural) from planet Arous — especially Gor bobbing around at the end on wires like a particularly nasty helium balloon sold for Hallowe’en — but John Agar’s acute limitations as an actor (to put it politely) also hurt the film. Delivered with the panache and élan of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, March’s lines when he’s announcing his Gor-driven intentions to conquer the universe would sound positively chilling; out of the mouth of a bland screen presence like John Agar, whose only hint of dramatic expression was to try to sound like John Wayne, they just sound like the ravings of a harmless lunatic. The Brain from Planet Arous was directed by Nathan Juran, though on this occasion (and on some others when he was similarly embarrassed by the quality, or lack of same, of the script he was given) he used his middle name and had himself credited as Nathan Hertz. (Juran, under his actual name, worked on such sci-fi and fantasy spectaculars as The Black Castle, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, though the main reason one would watch The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is the still-impressive effects work by the recently departed Ray Harryhausen, proving for all time that given enough artistry and patience stop-motion animation can still hold its own against CGI for believability and spectacle.) The director formerly known as Juran does his best with an impossibly silly script and an actor who can’t rise even to its limited challenges, but The Brain from Planet Arous plods through 71 minutes of running time and, as I noted at the outset, isn’t good enough to be entertaining as drama and isn’t bad enough to be entertaining as camp either. One noteworthy aspect of this film is it was released by Howco International, whose name derived from its owner, Joy Houck — at a time when it was a rarity for a woman to be involved as a CEO or top executive of any film company, even a cheap-jack outfit like this! [Actually Joy Houck was a man — and to make it worse, he named his own son Joy Houck, Jr.!]

Friday, May 24, 2013

His Double Life (Eddie Dowling/Paramount/Atlantic, 1933)

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

The film was a really peculiar recent download from called His Double Life, a fascinating film that was shot in 1933, produced by Eddie Dowling for his namesake production company, originally distributed by Paramount and with far more illustrious talent both behind and in front of the cameras than usually found in a 1930’s indie. The real brainchild of this film was Arthur Hopkins, best known as a stage writer and producer — his most famous play as a writer was Burlesque, a Broadway musical originally filmed as The Dance of Life in 1929 and then remade twice (Swing High, Swing Low, 1937; When My Baby Smiles at Me, 1948) — who directed it and co-wrote the script with silent-era veteran Clara Beranger (best known for her script for the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore) based on a novel called Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett and a play called The Great Adventure which Bennett adapted from his own book. The lead actor is Roland Young, playing England’s most famous and best-paid painter, Priam Farrel — only Farrel is such a neurotic recluse that no one actually knows him except his valet, Henry Leek (Roland Hogue). In addition to the customary duties of a servant, Leek’s job includes facilitating Farrel’s escape from wherever he happens to be living once Farrel thinks someone has come too close to discovering his whereabouts or, worse, entangling him in a committed relationship. At the start of the movie we see a Farrel show in a gallery whose owner, Oxford (Lumsden Hare), has been his exclusive representative for 15 years but has never seen him — and neither has anyone else at the show, including people who’ve been following him for his entire career. Then we cut to a seaside village in Spain, where one of the local women has set her trap for Farrel and expects him to marry her. Farrel says to Leek that this time they’re going to flee to the one place in the world no one will think of looking for him: his native but long-abandoned country, England, and particularly an apartment he owns there that hasn’t been lived in for years.

Once Farrel and Leek get there, Leek ends up sprawled out on the couch, feeling surprisingly weak; at first I thought he was just having an allergic reaction to the dust and musk in the room, but it turns out he’s contracted double pneumonia. Farrel calls a doctor, who mistakes Leek — the man in the big bed — for Farrel; then, when Leek expires from his disease, it’s Farrel the doctor pronounces dead. Farrel’s officious cousin Duncan (Montagu Love) takes charge of the estate and implements a will Farrel drafted as a joke, leaving virtually all his fortune to found an academy for modern art (ironic since every example of Farrel’s art we see is kitschy landscapes in the pre-Impressionist French Academy style!), though Leek was set to inherit an income of 100 pounds a year. When Farrel tries to explain to his cousin that he is really Farrel and it is Leek who has died, Duncan thinks he’s just another pushy servant trying to grab off properties of his dead master — Duncan won’t let Farrel have his own robe and paints (“Oh, so you think you’re an artist, too?” Duncan snidely replies) — instead Duncan palms him off with an eight-pound severance and Farrel is forced to re-enter the world, a place he ran from even when he had money, under the more difficult circumstances of not having money. When he attends his own funeral at Westminster Abbey, he breaks down, cries, gets himself thrown out and plaintively tries to convince two policemen that he’s really Farrel, and of course they think he’s crazy. Ultimately he ends up in a country house, living with Mrs. Alice Chalice (Lillian Gish, delivering a surprisingly mousy, ZaSu Pitts-ish performance which works for the character but still seems a comedown for someone who was as big a silent-era star as she was), a widow who had met Leek through lonelyhearts ads (the pre-Internet equivalent of Internet dating) and had received a photo of Leek and Farrel together but had got confused as to which was which. Farrel — or Leek — protests that he can’t marry her because he has no money, but she says that between Leek’s income from Farrel’s estate and her own dividends from her stock in a brewery they’ll have enough to live on.

Only the brewery goes out of business (this was a Depression-era movie, after all!) and in order to make ends meet Farrel has to start painting again. He carefully leaves his new canvases unsigned but they make their way to Oxford (the gallery owner, not the university!), who sells them as previously unknown, newly discovered Priam Farrels. All goes well until one of the buyers notices that the back of the painting contains a stamp from the company that made the canvas — and the stamp was dated 1932, two years after Farrel’s (supposed) death. Farrel also gets a visit from a middle-aged woman (Lucy Beaumont) who claims to have been Leek’s wife, who shows up with two men (Oliver Smith and Philip Tonge) who say they’re the sons of Leek and this woman, and the trio threaten to have Leek (really Farrel) prosecuted for bigamy. We never find out whether these people were in fact the real Leek’s wife and sons, but since Farrel isn’t the real Leek and has never been married before it really doesn’t matter. Oxford pleads with Farrel to testify at his trial to prove that he is Farrel and therefore the “Farrel” paintings he’s been selling are the real deal, and with Leek’s alleged family breathing down his neck and giving him a reason to re-establish his identity as Farrel, he agrees to do so. The film, which has been relatively naturalistic up until the trial scene, suddenly turns into a bizarre, almost operetta-ish scene, as jurors and spectators alike chant in unison with the art experts who proclaim the pre-1930 Farrel paintings as authentic and the later ones as fakes. It turns out that the only way Farrel can prove he is indeed Farrel is by showing the two moles on his neck Duncan recalled seeing on the real Farrel when they were both kids — before they had a lifelong falling-out over a plum pie (“I think,” Duncan equivocates on the stand). Not surprisingly, Farrel balks at this but eventually yields and is found to be the real Farrel, thereby establishing that his new paintings are authentic and he’s not a bigamist, but with their identities blown he and the missus beat a hasty retreat to New York so he can maintain his incognito and his isolation from the world.

Though we were watching it in a ghastly print quality — the first reel in particular was so badly scratched and splicy it looked like it had been edited with Ginsu knives — His Double Life still came through as a quite wonderful film, told with wit and insouciance and beautifully acted by Roland Young (he’s not one of my favorite performers but he’s just right here), Lillian Gish, Montagu Love (marvelous as the creepy villain), Roland Hogue (like Jerome Cowan in The Maltese Falcon, he makes such a good impression it’s a pity the plot requires him to get killed so soon) and the creeps who play Leek’s (supposed) “family.” His Double Life was a surprise, a genuinely entertaining movie that was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studios in New York and originally released by Paramount, though the print we were watching was from “Atlantic Pictures” and made me wonder if this was a British movie that had been picked up by an independent distributor for its U.S. release instead of a major studio. (The fact that virtually everyone in the cast except Lillian Gish was British lent credibility to that.) It’s a charming movie that manages to get laughs without going whole hog into screwball, and achieves poignancy without tear-jerking. It makes me wish Arthur Hopkins had directed more movies — it’s his only sound film and the only other directorial credit lists for him is a 1919 silent from Goldwyn called The Eternal Magdalenenot a Mary Magdalene biopic but a modern story based on a novel and play by Robert McLaughlin (so both Hopkins’ directorial efforts were based on novels later adapted for the stage by their original authors) — for he’s a quite accomplished filmmaker who seemed to be aware, as some other stage directors who tried their hands at moviemaking weren’t, of the differences between stage and film, and in particular that film is a more intimate medium that requires a more understated approach (and the fact that he picked a cast that, except for Montagu Love, didn’t contain any blatant hams helped in that department). It’s a lovely movie and quite a surprise in that one doesn’t expect an independent film, especially an American one, from 1933 to be this good!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (PBS "American Masters," 2013)

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

Charles and I watched the new documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise on PBS as it premiered nationwide (and fortunately the local affiliate KPBS actually showed it when it was supposed to be introduced instead of relegating it to later in the schedule as they do with so many of their shows), which did as good a job as one could in an hour and 22 minutes of capturing what this relentless funnyman was/is all about. There were a lot of Brooksian stories that didn’t make it into this film, but the ones that did were predictably fascinating. Brooks himself cooperated fully with this film — he never had for a documentary project before — including sitting for interviews at a singularly boring-looking set, simply a desk set up in front of a blue screen with a giant TV monitor nearby that showed whatever was being filmed in real time, creating an odd effect not only for Brooks’s own interview but also for those with collaborator Carl Reiner (they did the famous 2000-Year-Old Man sketches together), Tracey Ullman and other people who were actually being interviewed afresh for the show. (There were quite a lot of archival scenes, too, including some with Brooks’s late wife Anne Bancroft, with whom he finally got to make a film when they did the remake of To Be or Not to Be in 1983.) The film does a good job tracing Brooks from his beginnings as a New York Jew — his birth name was Melvin Kaminsky (by coincidence Danny Kaye’s original last name was also Kaminsky) — his childhood, his beginnings at the Jewish resorts in upstate New York, his stage fright that led him to prefer writing for other people to performing himself (though occasionally he has performed his own material, not only on film but also in public as the 2000-Year-Old Man and some other bits), his early training in the writers’ room for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows — alongside such other comedy geniuses as Reiner, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart! — and his struggles to break into the movie business. One project that isn’t mentioned in the film itself (but is on PBS’s Web site, where there’s a clip of Brooks talking about it) was The Critic, a four-minute short from 1963 directed by Ernest Pintoff and inspired by the experimental movies of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren. Norman McLaren had pioneered the art of making films without a camera by drawing directly on clear film stock, and while some of the movies he made that way were crude animations of figures, others were abstract patterns of lines, squiggles and dots. What Pintoff had in mind was doing a McLaren-style abstract movie while the soundtrack would feature Brooks playing an old Jewish kvetch who had stumbled into the theatre and was grousing about what he was seeing: “DOTS? I paid two dollahs to see dots?

The film also didn’t mention the story Brooks told to the Los Angeles Times not long ago about how his first feature film as a director, The Producers, got released: it was filmed for Avco Embassy Pictures, whose head, Joseph Levine, was reluctant to release a movie that not only made fun of Nazis but in its initial incarnation was actually titled Springtime for Hitler. So Brooks sneaked a print to Peter Sellers, who showed it in his home theatre for himself and some friends, then loved the movie so much he took out a full-page ad in the trades announcing how much he’d enjoyed Springtime for Hitler and how sad he was that nobody else would get to see it because of the stupid obstinacy of Joseph Levine in refusing to release it. Levine got the message loud and clear, and his only condition for releasing the film at long last was that Brooks take the “H-word” out of the title and call it The Producers. Of course there were clips from The Producers in the documentary — not only from the original film (including the big “Springtime for Hitler” number itself, complete with the Busby Berkeley spoof of the chorus forming a revolving swastika) but from the sensationally successful musical revival on the Broadway stage in 2001, with Nathan Lane in Zero Mostel’s original role and Matthew Broderick in Gene Wilder’s. The Producers holds up as sensationally funny, even though there’s a part of me that almost heretically resents the way Mostel hammed it up as Max Bialystock and wishes Brooks himself could have played the role (but then Mostel was a major star from the Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof and Brooks was having enough trouble getting the project green-lighted; had he insisted on starring in the film as well, it probably never would have been made).

The show also noted that Brooks originally conceived of Springtime for Hitler as a novel, until an editor said it was all dialogue and no descriptions and therefore would work better as a play; then Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden told Brooks, “It won’t work as a play; it has too many locations. Why not try to do it as a movie?” The trivia page on The Producers has a number of items that seem almost as lunatic as the film itself, like the fact that because of the “Springtime for Hitler” number it couldn’t be shown in Germany until someone got the bright idea of booking it as part of a festival of films by Jewish filmmakers, and that Brooks himself had worked as a writer on two major Broadway flops, Shinbone Alley and All American, before making it. The show didn’t mention that the basic concept of The Producers — an unscrupulous producer collects several times the budget needed for a production, then stages a deliberately bad play that will flop so he can pocket the extra money he raised — had been an urban legend on Broadway for decades; Groucho Marx had wanted to film it with the Marx Brothers in the mid-1930’s (Irving Thalberg rejected it and made A Night at the Opera instead), and the 1945 detective “B”-movie The Falcon in Hollywood used the Producers premise seriously. That wasn’t the only dramatic film that used a premise also employed by Mel Brooks: in 1975 former football star Fred Williamson and Creature from the Black Lagoon director Jack Arnold made Boss Nigger, in which, as Harry and Michael Medved put it in The Golden Turkey Awards, Williamson “rides into a bigoted, lily-white Western town and, much to the horror of the white inhabitants, installs himself as the straight-shooting Black sheriff. Sound familiar? It’s the same plot as in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, but this time around it’s supposed to be taken seriously.”

Brooks went on from The Producers to The Twelve Chairs, based on a Nikolai Gogol story in which to keep them safe from the revolutionaries, a dispossessed Russian noblewoman in 1917 sews a small fortune in jewels into the cushion of one of 12 identical chairs, and a group of various characters searches for them all over Russia (though the film was actually shot in Yugoslavia). The Twelve Chairs was also an Avco Embassy release and was a dismal flop — though former Fanfare reviewer Royal S. Brown said it was the one time in Brooks’s work, apart from Young Frankenstein, that he had actually shown subtlety, pathos and wit — and Brooks was persona non grata in the film business until Warner Bros. hired him to make a comedy Western they already had under development called Tex X. Brooks originally begged off on the ground that he only directed scripts he’d written himself, and then Warners offered him $100,000 for the project and he decided that for that kind of money he could break his rule. He also recruited Richard Pryor both to work on the script (which he did — Brooks felt he needed him because all the other writers were Jewish and he needed a Black person to write for the Black character) and to star (which he didn’t because the “suits” at Warners were concerned about his already legendary drug use), and he hired Gig Young to play the drunken gunfighter — then fired him because Young showed up for the first scene (the famous one in which the gunfighter is hanging upside-down in the town jail’s drunk tank and is supposed to react to Cleavon Little’s “Are we … O.K.?” with, “I don’t know. Are we … Black?”) not on the wagon, as he’d promised, but drunk to the gills and suffering from D.T.’s, so the line came out like gargling and Brooks fired him and brought in Gene Wilder. Blazing Saddles was a blockbuster hit and Brooks ended up next at Columbia, where he was going to make Young Frankenstein until the “suits” there rejected his plan to shoot it in black-and-white, whereupon Alan Ladd, Jr., newly appointed studio head at 20th Century-Fox, took up the project and had no problem with it being in black-and-white.

The hits just kept on coming for Brooks — Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie (which, judging from the clips shown in it, probably would also have been better in black-and-white à la The Artist), the Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (Hitchcock was still alive when it was made and Brooks screened it for him; Hitch sat through it impassively, occasionally giving a very restrained British-style chuckle, until he got to the spoof of the shower murder in Psycho, whereupon the Master told Brooks he’d made a mistake: there were 13 rings on the shower curtain in High Anxiety, whereas in Psycho there had been only 10), History of the World, Part 1 — until they stopped coming. Brooks ended up at MGM making Spaceballs (a film I’ve always found screamingly funny, mainly because there was already something so silly about the Star Wars mythos he didn’t need to do much to it to push it into parody; in this case George Lucas’s only request to Brooks was that they not merchandise Spaceballs action figures because they’d look too much like the Star Wars action figures; instead Brooks inserted a scene spoofing merchandising into Spaceballs) and Life Stinks, then doing critically reviled and commercially unsuccessful spoofs like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (which the Los Angeles Times critic found especially disappointing coming from the director of Young Frankenstein!) until he made a blazing (pardon the pun) comeback with the enormous success of The Producers as what Brooks had wanted to write lo those many years ago: a Broadway musical. Since then there’s been a successful musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein and there’s still talk of one of Blazing Saddles (whose fart scene is shown here and regarded as the origin of all the tiresome gags about involuntary body functions that plague so many so-called “comedies” today; it’s tasteless, all right, but at least the fart scene in Blazing Saddles is funny, which most of the subsequent ones haven’t been). Mel Brooks has been making me laugh for decades now, and this is the sort of show that makes you want not only to re-watch your favorites of his films but to check out some of the lesser-known ones to see if they’re really as bad as their reputations!