Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Joan of Paris (RKO, 1942)

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

Charles and I watched an odd movie Turner Classic Movies had shown as part of this month’s “Star of the Month” tribute to Paul Henried: Joan of Paris, a 1942 wartime melodrama from RKO featuring people who would become two of the biggest male stars of the 1940’s — but not at RKO: Paul Henried and Alan Ladd. Both went straight on from Joan of Paris to their star-making films at other studios — Henried with Now, Voyager at Warner Bros. and Ladd with This Gun for Hire at Paramount — indicating that the “suits” at RKO had a good eye for talent but a lot of trouble keeping it. (The biggest and longest-lasting stars RKO ever “broke” — Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — were signed during the one-year tenure of David O. Selznick as studio head.) Written by Charles Bennett and Ellis St. Joseph from a story by Jacques Théry and Georges Kessel, Joan of Paris deals with a group of five Royal Air Force bomber pilots who are shot down over occupied France shortly after the German takeover. The squadron leader is Paul Lavallier (Paul Henried), who’s the product of a French father and a British mother. The other four, including “Baby” (Alan Ladd in the last of his galley-years films), are 100 percent Brits, and “Baby” was seriously wounded when German fighters shot down his plane. As a result, the other four are forced to hide in a sewer and Paul, the only one who speaks French (though of course, this being a U.S. movie, all the dialogue is in English!), is sent out to contact the Resistance and get help for the men. While fleeing he enters the apartment of Joan (Michèle Morgan, the one card-carrying French person in the cast), and though she’s initially perturbed (to say the least!) at the appearance of a strange man in her bedroom, eventually she agrees to help him, not only because she’s a decent person but also because she’d adopted Joan of Arc as her personal saint (remember that when this movie was made Joan of Arc had only been canonized for two decades!) and she’s impressed when the Free French medallion Paul wears contains the Cross of Lorraine (with two horizontal bars — the top shorter than the bottom — instead of the usual one).

A good percentage of the action (such as it is) in Joan of Paris takes place in a large French cathedral, billed in the “trivia” section of’s page for the film as “the studio’s largest single set since The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (the 1938 version with William Dieterle directing and Charles Laughton as star — which I rather heretically think is the best film of that story, superior to the quite good 1923 silent with Lon Chaney, Sr.), but I suspect it was the same set as the one built for Hunchback. The centrality of the church to the story is explained not only by the fact that Joan’s character is depicted as an intensely religious woman who’s adopted Joan of Arc as a role model but also because the priest, Father Antoine (a bit of intriguing anti-type casting for Thomas Mitchell — judging from the good-hearted drunks he usually played, one worries how they can keep Father Antoine from over-indulging in the sacramental wine), is a key contact for the Resistance. Most of the film is a chase scene through Paris, as Paul attempts to elude the Gestapo in general and two Gestapo agents in particular: local commandant Herr Funk (a rather oddly miscast Laird Cregar — he was great as a rogue cop in I Wake Up Screaming and the psychos he played in The Lodger and Hangover Square, but he’s too queeny to be believable as a Nazi and one can’t imagine a weirdo like Cregar comfortable as a cog in a machine of institutionalized evil) and his unnamed agent (Alexander Granach) who’s given the principal responsibility for keeping Paul under surveillance in hopes he’ll lead Funk to the other four British flyers.

I’d first seen Joan of Paris in the 1970’s, during my early days cultivating an interest in classic Hollywood — back in the pre-VCR, pre-DVD, pre-cable movie channel days in which satisfying your curiosity about a legendarily good (or legendarily bad) movie often meant staying up past 3 a.m. to watch it “live” as it aired on some obscure UHF channel — and I’d been disappointed in it. Now it seems like an oddly uneven movie, one that at times because of the World War II subject matter, Henried’s presence in the cast and the appearance of an exotic European beauty as the female lead to be a virtual prequel to Casablanca. At other times it seems just dull and one wishes it could have been directed by Charles Bennett’s former collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock — they made six movies together, five in England and one (Foreign Correspondent) in the U.S., and Bennett was essentially to Hitchcock what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra: the writer who did more than any other to shape the identifiable style of a superstar director — instead of the other major director to emerge from Britain’s film industry in the 1930’s and make a career in the U.S., Robert Stevenson. Much of Stevenson’s work here is genuinely imaginative — the first sequence is, of all things, a clip of the “Don’t Let It Bother You” number (and its preceding montage of Parisian night life) from the second Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, The Gay Divorcée, which is suddenly cut off when all the lights in the club set go out and we hear a radio advisement that the five British flyers are on the loose — and the screen remains pitch-black until a later scene when one of the flyers, in hiding, strikes a match and we finally get a look at them. There are also plenty of dark, shadowy atmospheric compositions in the style later known as film noir — the cinematographer was Russell Metty, who had shot some of the early tests for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and would later work with Welles on Touch of Evil — and a quite good chase scene in which our sights of the actors are reduced to little more than their feet and most of the story is told with sound effects alone, Val Lewton-style. (Was Lewton already influencing his RKO confrères even though he was just making his first movie as producer, Cat People, around the same time? Or were both Stevenson and Lewton drawing on the lessons in the creative use of sound RKO’s people had learned from former radio master Orson Welles?)

Joan of Paris is a maddening movie, quite good in spots, quite banal in others, suffering mainly from the naïveté of Michèle Morgan’s character — though within the limits of the script she acts it quite well — and also from the stuffed-shirt nature of Henried’s: here as in Casablanca he’s unable to bring much more than a sort of generalized idealism to his role as an anti-Nazi freedom fighter (even though Henried was German and an anti-Nazi refugee himself!). At the same time there are some great scenes, including one in which an already condemned British captive who’s refused to give the secret address of the underground leader to the Nazis under torture is visited by Father Antoine, who needs that information to help Our Heroes, and naturally he thinks the “priest” is a phony, an actor hired by the Nazis to trick him out of the secret they’d previously tried to torture out of him. At the end Michèle Morgan’s character gets captured and shot by the Nazis — thereby sacrificing her life for her country’s liberation, just like her namesake and role model — but she’s bought enough time for all the flyers, including Henried’s character (who was willing to give up his own life for the others to get away, but in the end didn’t have to), to make their seaplane connection back to Britain.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Fast Five (Universal, 2011)

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

Charles and I watched a movie that was a recent film and part of a highly successful franchise, but one neither of us had encountered before: Fast Five. This began life way back in 1954 as The Fast and the Furious, the first film released by American Releasing (later American International Pictures) and the first feature-film production credit for Roger Corman, who also wrote the original story, though the credited director is the film’s on-his-way-down star, John Ireland. The page for the film gives the following synopsis — “A man wrongly imprisoned for murder (John Ireland) breaks out of jail. He wants to clear his name, but with the police pursuing him, he's forced to take a beautiful young woman, driving a fast sports car, hostage and slip into a cross-border sports car race to try to make it to Mexico before the police get him” — which sounds like a quite different movie from the one made under the same title in 2001 which kicked off the current series: “Los Angeles police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) must decide where his loyalties really lie when he becomes enamored with the street racing world he has been sent undercover to destroy.” For some strange reason the 2001 The Fast and the Furious — starring Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the head of the street racing world who eventually “adopts” O’Connor as his partner in crime — was a massive hit and generated no fewer than five sequels plus another one, the seventh in the series, slated for release next year.

Fast Five is, as the title suggests, the fifth in the series, directed by Justin Lin from a script by Chris Morgan based on characters by Gary Scott Thompson, and though ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone near a movie like this I happened to spot the DVD in the half-price rack at Vons and thought it might be fun to check out this cultural phenomenon. I wasn’t expecting much but at least I thought there would be a lot of high-tension action scenes that would provide mindless entertainment. Was I wrong! The first half-hour or so did indeed seem to be promising a hot action movie even though the big set-pieces had little or nothing in the way of plot to connect them — it begins with one of the gang being broken out of a bus taking him to prison when the hot cars the ring has stolen surround the bus and force it to flip over, much the way Somalian pilots surround a large ship with speedboats in order to capture it and hold its cargo and crew for ransom, and that wasn’t the only scene in this film that looked like a modern-dress high-tech land-based version of a pirate movie. In what’s by far the film’s best scene, the gang — having fled to Brazil, of all places, following the Great Escape — converges on a train carrying some hot cars belonging to Brazilian organized-crime kingpin Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and steals them by driving a weird desert vehicle alongside the train and using it to board the train. Eventually the boarding vehicle develops an off-ramp which they can lower and drive the cars into the desert — though given that the cars they’re stealing in this intriguing fashion are delicate sports cars like the 1960’s Ford GT40, it’s unlikely that they’d last very long being driven across the Brazilian desert as if they were ATV’s. But given how fast and loose (pardon the pun) this film plays with the ordinary laws of physics, that’s the least of its problems! 

Alas, once the characters settle in Brazil and steal the cars — it turns out the GT40 contains a computer chip on which is embedded all the details of Reyes’ operation, including the location of his cash drops (he does all his business in cash because he doesn’t want to leave what is still quaintly called a “paper trail,” but these days is more like an electronic trail, through the world’s banking system), and Reyes hired Our Anti-Heroes to steal the cars just to lay his hands on that chip — the movie turns dreadful, and dreadful in quite the opposite way from the one I’d anticipating. Instead of a series of exciting action scenes with only a pretextual plot to connect them, writer Morgan and director Lin make exactly the opposite mistake, devoting endless footage to the all-star gang Toretto and O’Connor recruit from around the world (including two heavy-set Black guys, a quite cute Asian and the obligatory females to double as action heroines and sex toys for the males — though interestingly we never see much of anything besides the obligatory embracing and closed-mouth on-the-lips kissing) in order to steal Reyes’ $100 million cash stash, which they propose to do by stealing his entire cash vault (which Reyes has housed in the headquarters of Rio de Janeiro’s military police — indicating that his reach includes most if not all of local law enforcement as well as the people of Brazil’s slums, the favelas, whose loyalty and service he’s bought by bringing them electricity, running water and the other “mod cons” the government hasn’t bothered to provide to the poor) and using their hot (in both senses) street racers to drag it through the streets of Rio until they reach their secret headquarters and they can open it at leisure.

Unfortunately, so much of the running time is spent on detailing the minutiae of this plot that Fast Five turns dull — a failing one doesn’t expect from a movie like this! Another problem is that, for all the film’s (and the series’) status as a glorification of outlaws and crooks, the two most interesting characters are both official (and uncorrupted) representatives of U.S. law enforcement, FBI agents Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, the ex-wrestler formerly known as “The Rock,” who quite frankly does a lot more for me physically than Vin Diesel does — those pecs!) and his assistant, a woman who joined the force after her FBI agent husband was killed in the line of duty. Alas, we get to see all too little of them. Charles and I screened the so-called “extended edition” of Fast Five, though it was only about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical release of 130 minutes — frankly this was a film that could probably have been better if it had been considerably shorter (about 90 to 100 minutes was about how much running time this slender story could have sustained) and if the action sequences hadn’t been encumbered by all the dull, banal and ridiculous plotting that surrounded them. There are a few felicitous touches in the writing that suggest that Chris Morgan’s heart was not in his work — a nice bit where Reyes explains that the Spanish and the Portuguese both tried to conquer Brazil, the Spanish by killing all the natives they could get their hands on and the Portuguese by bribing them with gifts and making them dependent; and a good gag in which one of the African-American members of the gang is trying to gain admittance to the military police office with an I.D. stolen from a white man, and when the clerk notices the discrepancy the Black guy says, “It’s a tan, get it? A TAN!” But for the most part Fast Five is a mediocre movie that doesn’t work even on its own terms as an action vehicle.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tumbleweeds (William S. Hart Productions/United Artists, 1925)

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

Charles and I ran a movie I’d recently burned from an download, Tumbleweeds, the last film of the remarkable early Western star William S. Hart, who began his career in the teens under producer-director Thomas H. Ince (the man who, more than any other single individual, invented the studio system both figuratively and literally; he build the huge complex that was taken over by Triangle, the company he, D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett founded when they merged; then by Goldwyn Pictures, then by MGM and now by Sony). Born in upstate New York in 1862, Hart was old enough to have lived in the Dakota Territory in the 1880’s and thereby personally witnessed the latter days of the frontier era in the West, and though he wasn’t the first major film star to specialize in Westerns (G. M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was), he did pride himself on the authenticity of his films. In his book The Liveliest Art, a history of the movies, Arthur Knight summed up how the mythos of the American West as depicted in films was changing in the early 1920’s and rendering Hart’s rather bleak, dark vision of it obsolete:

Early in the 1920’s the Westerns veered sharply away from the realistic portrait of frontier life that had characterized the William S. Hart pictures. Hart’s hero had been the Good Bad Man — a hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-shooting he-man, often an outlaw, often the adversary of law and order, but always true to the moral code of the old frontier. After the First World War, Hart’s descriptions of the West, although essentially truer than anything that has been done since, came to be dismissed as “old-fashioned.” Moviegoers — even Westerners — preferred the more romantic version of the West they found in the films of Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard. Now the hero was a Good Good Man, riding the range to protect the weak and bring the outlaws to justice. He never drank, never smoked and — unlike Hart with his blazing six-shooters — he used his pistols only when forced to.

I think Knight is being a bit unfair to Ken Maynard — films like Tombstone Canyon and Smoking Guns may not have been going for realism, but they have a moral ambiguity and a dark, almost Gothic obsessiveness far beyond what audiences expected from “B” Westerns in the early 1930’s — but it’s certainly true that Hart’s vision of the West was losing its commercial appeal. Hart knew it, which is why when he made Tumbleweeds he not only decided it would be his last film (which it was; though Hart lived 21 more years between its release in 1925 and his death in 1946, he never worked again and his only other on-screen appearance was narrating a brief prologue to Tumbleweeds for a sound reissue in 1939) but made it an elegiac piece about the passing of the West. He chose for his subject the Oklahoma Land Rush, that bizarre episode in 1889 in which a big chunk of the Cherokee Strip in what later became the state of Oklahoma was opened to white settlers. The date fixed for the opening was April 22, 1889, and a cannon was fired at noon to signal the beginning of the rush, during which would-be homesteaders would race to the choice pieces of property and literally stake their claims. Of course, a number of people tried to cheat, sneaking family members or friends onto the choicest parcels before the official start of the rush; they were called “Sooners” and became legendary enough that “The Sooner State” became one of Oklahoma’s mottoes. Hart cast himself as cowboy Don Carver, who finds it harder to make a living because the government is fencing off key cattle lands in preparation for making them available to farmers during the rush; he and his comic-relief buddy Kentucky Rose (Lucien Littlefield playing essentially a Walter Brennan role pre-Walter Brennan) both encounter women — Don falls for Molly Lassiter (Barbara Brennan, delivering a quiet, understated performance with none of the flibbertigibbet fluttering and coyness that marred all too many silent ingénues) and K. R. for Widow Riley (Lillian Leighton), who’s come out to homestead and is convinced she can do it on her own (which might have actually made for a more interesting plot line!).

The land rush claimants assemble in the town of Coldwell, Kansas, which suddenly becomes a boom town while all these people are staying there waiting for the Big Day. The villains of the piece are Molly’s brother Bart (Jack Murphy) and the no-goodnik who’s using him, city slicker Bill Friel (Richard Neill) — and, needless to say, in addition to wanting to make a killing by seizing the former Box K Ranch during the rush, Bill also wants to marry Molly and thinks that by making her brother his stooge he can pull that off. Written by Hal Evarts and C. Gardner Sullivan, and directed by King Baggot with uncredited assistance from Hart himself (I suspect that Hart, like Buster Keaton in his glory days, pretty much directed his own films no matter who was officially credited as director), Tumbleweeds is relatively non-violent but otherwise is quite a good Western, occasionally veering off into clichéd situations but telling the cowboys vs. farmers part of the Western legend with surprising eloquence and power. Hart himself is an arresting screen presence, visibly old (he was 63 when he made this film!) and craggy, anticipating the worn, weather-beaten appearance of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood in their late-in-life Westerns. The plot has Bart and Friel framing Don and getting him arrested on the eve of the rush in hopes of keeping him out of it; he breaks jail with a spectacular pole-vault out of the stockade where he’s being held (no doubt Hart was doubled in the sequence!) and tears through the rush on his horse, anxious to get to the Box K and claim it for himself and Molly — only in a bit of a surprise, Molly lets herself be convinced by her brother that Don really is a crook, which leaves Don determined to leave Oklahoma and go to South America, where there’s enough free rangeland to make cowboy a realistic career option — only in the end agriculture and domesticity win out and Don and K. R. settle down with their respective wives-to-be on their homesteads.

Tumbleweeds is quite a movie — obviously Hart was out to compete with the spectacular big-budget Westerns from the major studios like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (Paramount, 1923) and John Ford’s star-making film The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924) — and he was determined to stage the land rush and the other spectacular sequences without any use of stock footage. (Naturally, Tumbleweeds became a major source of stock footage for later “B” producers wanting spectacular scenes and lacking the budget to stage any themselves.) It may not be quite the poetic evocation of the passing of the West Hart was hoping for, but it is a quite well-done movie; unlike a lot of movie stars of his time, Hart had saved his money and went out on a high note before his well-deserved retirement. Alas, Hart’s departure from active filmmaking and the financial failure of Ford’s surprisingly sophisticated Three Bad Men in 1926 pretty much put on hold any attempt to make deeper, more intelligent Westerns for nearly three decades, until filmmakers of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s started coming up with “psychological Westerns” — and thought they were inventing the whole idea!

Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story (Front Street Pictures, Kahn Power Pictures, Romeo Kill Productions, 2013)

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

I ran a movie I recently recorded from Lifetime called Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story, a true-crime saga whose central character, Chris Porco, actually sued (unsuccessfully) to stop it from being shown when Lifetime originally planned to air it in March 2013. Ironically, Porco claimed that the screenwriter, Edithe Swensen, and director, Norma Bailey (a quite good director of suspense and Gothic melodrama who deserves a shot through the glass ceiling to make a feature film), had distorted the facts of the case to make him look guilty — while one reviewer said he actually lived in the town where the real Porco killing happened and that Chris Porco had been even more of a sociopath than the movie made him out to be. Anyway, in the case the original judge slapped the filmmakers and Lifetime with a temporary restraining order but then backed off, realized it was a classic case of the sort of prior-restraint censorship the First Amendment is supposed to forbid, and let Lifetime go ahead with the showing of Romeo Killer. Set in the town of Delmar (one word) in upstate New York, Romeo Killer deals with scapegrace college student Chris Porco (played by drop-dead gorgeous Matt Barr — he’s such a nice slab of beefcake no wonder Lifetime used him as a villain!) who’s away at college when his father, Peter Porco (Lochlyn Munro), is brutally killed with an ax. Only he wasn’t really away at college; he actually sneaked off campus, went home, used the master code for the house’s burglar alarm to enter, then took his ax to the burglar alarm to make it look like a random break-in, and hacked away at both his parents. Somehow his dad managed, despite being fatally wounded, to dress himself, brush his teeth, make it to the kitchen and die clutching a check he had written to take care of Chris’s accumulated parking tickets (accumulated in a canary-yellow Jeep that’s so distinctive it practically becomes a character in itself!). As for mom, Joan Porco (Lolita Davidovich), she survives the attack and is found by police just before she slips into a coma; they ask her if she knows the person who did this to her and she nods her head yes, which becomes a key piece of evidence against Chris, but when she finally recovers — albeit with deep gashes across her face that become scars and make her resemble the surviving victim in a bad horror film — she’s convinced that, no matter how strong the evidence against him, her son couldn’t possibly have done such a thing either to her or her husband/his father.

Romeo Killer is less interesting than it could have been because we’re never in much suspense as to whether Chris Porco did it — we’re obviously supposed to believe he’s guilty even before writer Swensen bothers to give us much of a case against him — and the main antagonism is between Chris and Detective Sullivan (Eric McCormick, top-billed and another surprisingly attractive guy for a Lifetime movie — especially since we’re supposed to believe he’s the good guy!), who’s assigned to investigate the case for the Delmar Police Department. This poses something of a conflict of interest for Sullivan because 1) he’s never liked Chris Porco — he was a friend of Chris’s parents but thought Chris himself was a scapegrace sociopath who was ripping off his folks (which he was; earlier he’d staged another fake “burglary” and stolen his dad’s laptop, which he then sold on eBay to a kid in San Diego; then he altered a check his dad wrote him for $2,000 so it said $30,000) and it was only a matter of time before he killed them for their money; and 2) much to Sullivan’s disgust, Chris is dating his daughter Melanie (Sarah Desjardins). This appears to be why the film is called Romeo Killer — the Romeo-and-Juliet aspects of the accused murderer dating the daughter of the cop investigating the crime — either that or Chris Porco’s incredibly easy time finding dates generally, since while he’s seeing Melanie he’s also hanging out with the 40-something veterinarian he works for and he’s also dating another age-peer, whom Melanie catches him kissing and abruptly breaks things off with him. Chris carefully crafted an alibi that he was sleeping in the basement of his frat house while he gave another man his bed — until his frat brother Brody McAllister (Reilly Dolman) blows it and tells the cops what he was really doing — and ultimately Chris is tried and convicted, he exhausts his appeals and at the end the only person who’s still standing by him is his mother, who still can’t believe he tried to kill her.

Romeo Killer is one of those frustrating Lifetime movies that could have been considerably better than it is; director Bailey shows talents way beyond the requirements of Swensen’s script — including some quite remarkable bits of visual atmospherics and a flashback to the murder that’s worthy of a horror film and is considerably more frightening than a lot of today’s gore-fests. She’s also helped by the personable cast, including a drop-dead gorgeous leading man as her villain and a quite good-looking guy as her police detective hero — but this is one of those movies in which the personal traumas the characters must have been going through as that hot-looking mask of Chris Porco dropped off and revealed the monster beneath are totally ignored and we’re not vouchsafed a word of explanation why his mom stays loyal to him even though as far as we can tell she was one of his victims. Also there are some pretty big holes in the case against him as presented here — including the biggest: he’s supposed to have committed this heavy-duty Gothic murder that splattered blood all over everything, yet not one hint of blood was found either on him or in his car. The prosecutor at the trial explains that as an assistant in veterinary surgeries, Chris would have been able to clean up and make sure no trace of blood was found either on his person, his clothing or his car — but even assuming he committed the crime wearing a hospital gown which he then disposed of, given Luminol (which Edithe Swensen seems never to have heard of) and all the other ways police now have of tracing minute amounts of blood, it’s hard to believe that Chris Porco could have chopped his parents to death or near-death with an ax and not left some tell-tale sign of blood on himself or his car. I’d have been tempted to acquit him on that point alone!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Celebrity Game (CBS-TV, 1965)

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

After last night’s documentary on TCM, Excavating the 2000-Year-Old Man, I was eager to play the album Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner at the Cannes Film Festival — the only one of the series I actually had a copy of (though I understand all the Reiner-Brooks albums have been reissued as a CD boxed set — which would probably be hilarious!) — so the day before I had dubbed it to my computer and last night I burned a CD and played it for Charles. It’s a brilliantly funny album containing two 10-minute sketches — one a spoof of the Cannes Film Festival with “Adolph Hartler” of the “Narzi Film Company” (even that early, six years before The Producers, Mel Brooks was doing Hitler gags — though there’s a bit of “first-itis” in the American Film Institute tribute to Brooks in saying he was the first comedian to take on Hitler — do the names “Charlie Chaplin” and “The Great Dictator” mean anything to these people?), Greek-Italian director “Federico Fettucini” and British angry-young-man director “Tippy Skittles” (the best parts were when Fettucini explained why all his films feature rape — “it’s about man’s inhumanity to man” — and then Skittles came in and said he’d give up his own directorial career to appear in a Fettucini film because “I want to be in all those orgies and rapes!”) and one a 2000-Year-Old Man routine in which the 2000-Year-Old Man explains that he has a birth certificate but never carries it around because “it’s a boulder,” and in the bit I remembered best from when I first got this album he recalls Rembrandt as someone who didn’t each much because “he spent all his money on paint — paint, paint, paint, a few girls maybe, and then paint! And then for a while it was all girls.” It also had shorter sketches — an interview with Dr. Felix Wheird (who insisted his interviewer pronounce the “h” in “Wheird” because “otherwise people will think I’m just a kook!”), author of the diet book Hey, Fatso!; and a routine about the L.M.N.O.P. advertising agency. (The funniest part of the ad agency sketch was a comment at the very end, when Brooks as the agency head explains that their latest client is cholesterol. “We want to get cholesterol into the American heart,” he says — a gag that’s funnier now than it was then!)

After we heard this brilliantly funny album I ran Charles a 25-minute TV show that had come up when I searched for Carl Reiner on The Celebrity Game,  1965 quiz show Reiner hosted that was unspeakably boring when it wasn’t offensively sexist (this show came from a time when putting up with sexual harassment was considered one of the prices a woman had to pay if she wanted a professional career). The gimmick was to get nine celebrities or semi-celebrities — mostly “B”-listers of the time (people like Connie Stevens, Suzy Parker and Louis Nye) with a few stars of the future (like Lee Marvin, probably wishing someone would put a machine gun in his hand so he could blow all these boring people away) and some stars of the past (Mickey Rooney, Gypsy Rose Lee, Oscar Levant — Levant was his usual acerbic self but the format didn’t give him much of a chance to shine) — and three ordinary panelists, then ask the celebrities a question and see if the ordinary panelists could guess how the celebrities would answer it. The questions were all about (straight) dating and marriages — one was whether it would be a good idea to give American couples a tax credit per child the way they do in France (by 8 to 1 the celebrities answered no, an indication that even in the era of the Great Society there were strong limits on just how much help from the government Americans thought their fellow countrymen should get); another was whether wives idolizing movie stars gets in the way of their marriages; and one was whether a woman should marry a man 10 years younger than herself. (Then the celebrities split 5 to 4 against; today it would be more likely unanimous or near-unanimous that she should if she were genuinely attracted to and in love with the man — I guess we’ve made some progress.) The boredom of the show’s format was matched by the sexism of the questions (Dr. Joyce Brothers, of all people, was the show’s consultant on drafting the questions) and the responses — it’s indicative of how different an era this was that the panelists could explain their answers with the most appalling judgments of how women are fundamentally different from men (though given the debate at the meeting I’d just attended, which was all about men, women and sexual harassment in the workplace, I was probably more highly sensitized to sexism than I would have been watching this some other time) and get away with it. There’s only one episode of this show on and I suspect that this may be the only one that was ever shot — there’s a sponsor tag for Lipton tea (though no actual commercials) and a CBS end credit but I suspect, given how dull this turned out to be, that what we were watching was a pilot that was not turned into a series episode.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Twelve Chairs (Avco Embassy, 1970)

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

Last night Turner Classic Movies did a major tribute to Mel Brooks that included a rare showing of his second, and least known, film as a director, The Twelve Chairs, along with an edited version of the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement tribute to him, a 12-minute clip of him being interviewed by Johnny Carson in February 1975 (he was supposed to be on the show to promote Young Frankenstein but about all he bothered to say about that film was how wonderful he thought Gene Wilder was in it), and a documentary called Excavating the 2000-Year-Old Man about the famous comedy routine Brooks did with Carl Reiner in which Brooks played a 2000-year-old man with a lot of Jewish-humor observations about the famous historical events he’d witnessed. It turns out that, like Frank Loesser’s song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the 2000-year-old man routines were originally just performed privately at parties — Reiner and Brooks thought up the idea when they were both working for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows (Reiner as a supporting actor and Brooks as one of the writers along with other comedy geniuses like Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen) and just as a weird little joke to pass the time Reiner asked Brooks if he’d witnessed the Crucifixion — and Brooks muttered a world-weary “Oh, boy,” and they went from there. (It got really funny when Brooks recalled hiring Jesus to build him a cabinet and said, “If I’d known what a star he was going to become, I’d have made him a partner in the store!”) The show also mentioned that the 2000-year-old man got recorded as a result of pressure by Steve Allen, who booked World Pacific Studios and told Reiner and Brooks to be there, put the routine on tape, and if there was enough material for an album, all well and good; if not, they would shelve the tapes and no one would be the wiser. They invited 300 guests for the session — you couldn’t make a comedy album back then without an audience present to laugh at the jokes (though one of their technical problems was keeping Carl Reiner from laughing at Mel Brooks’ jokes — Reiner had to remember to turn away from the mike to make sure his laughter didn’t get on the tape) — and ended up with the first of five smash-hit albums, the last of which, The 2000-Year-Old Man In the Year 2000, won a Grammy Award (and helped make Brooks one of the few people in showbiz history who’s won all four of the big awards: Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy).

The Twelve Chairs was the film Mel Brooks decided to make for release by Joseph Levine’s Avco-Embassy Pictures after both he and the studio were riding high on the success of his first film, The Producers. (This was the one Levine hadn’t wanted to release until Brooks sneak-previewed it in a private screening at Peter Sellers’ home; Sellers thought it was screamingly funny and took out full-page ads in the Hollywood trades demanding it be released — which it was, though Levine insisted on changing the title from Brooks’ original, Springtime for Hitler.) Well, this was yet another example of a producer who was wrong about a director’s first film deciding to make it up to him by giving him carte blanche for what he wanted to do next — and what Brooks wanted to do next was film a 1928 Russian novel called Dvenadtsat stulyev (“Sitting on Diamonds”) by Ivan Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov (who signed it with their last names only). He wrote the script himself, working from an English translation of the novel by Doris Mudie, and filmed the entire movie on location in Yugoslavia, the most liberal of the Eastern Bloc countries and therefore a haven for Western filmmakers who wanted an authentic Slavic background. (Orson Welles’ The Trial, Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, and Barbra Streisand’s Yentl were all made there.) Alas, The Twelve Chairs was a major box-office flop, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a marvelously funny film but it’s not zany, and it’s certainly not what people expected from Mel Brooks then — or now, for that matter. The plot opens with a dying Russian noblewoman (Elaine Garreau) summoning her scapegrace son-in-law Ippolit Vorobiyaninov (Ron Moody) to her deathbed and telling him that in order to keep the Bolsheviks from confiscating the family jewels, she had them sewn inside the seat of one of 12 walnut dining chairs, upholstered in gold brocade. Alas, the chairs have been seized by the Soviet government and distributed around Russia — so Ippolit has to travel through the country tracing them. Naturally he wants to keep his mission a secret, and being the hero (or at least the central character) of a comic movie he blurts out the secret almost immediately to a con artist, Ostab Bender (a drop-dead gorgeous Frank Langella in his first feature film — one doesn’t expect to see any male, especially a white male, that hot in a Mel Brooks film!), and an opportunistic priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), is also after the chairs. What follows is a brilliant comedy that offers satire, pathos, slapstick (Brooks himself — playing Tikon, Ippolit’s former servant who remembers him as a particularly nice master: “He hardly ever beat us” — takes a spectacular pratfall I wouldn’t have thought he had in him) and some stunning visuals that take full advantage of the Yugoslav countryside.

That’s a real surprise because, aside from Young Frankenstein, it’s hard to imagine another Brooks film that has real visual distinction — things like The Producers and Blazing Saddles are hilarious but one doesn’t go to them for the kinds of breathtaking shots Chaplin and (especially) Keaton could throw into their movies and awe your eyes while still tickling your funnybone — and aside from Young Frankenstein and Brooks’ odd remake of To Be or Not to Be (which Charles remembers seeing on its original release and not having any idea that it’s a quite close remake of a movie Ernst Lubitsch made during the war!), The Twelve Chairs is the only time Brooks really went for pathos. It’s also got some amusing bits of satire on the Russian bureaucracy — trying to trace the chairs Ostab goes into a giant hall with various offices: “Bureau of Tables and Chairs,” “Bureau of Bureaus and Dressers,” and of course “Bureau of All Furniture Not Covered by Any Other Bureaus” — and even some class-conscious jokes: needing to raise 30 rubles in a hurry to buy three of the chairs from a theatrical producer touring a play about the Revolution (did he soak the Soviet government for 25,000 percent of its production budget? Just asking … ), Ostab presses Ippolit into service as a beggar, faking epilepsy, after an initially reluctant Ippolit raises himself to his full aristocratic arrogance and says, “No Vorobiyaninov has ever sunk so low as to beg!” I’d seen The Twelve Chairs in a theatrical revival in the mid-1970’s but hadn’t encountered it since, and Charles had never seen it at all — but it holds up as quite a good movie, even though aside from a couple of scenes with the DeLuise character (one in which he’s trying to buy one of the chairs from a family, and another in which he assembles the chairs he’s been able to acquire on the beach and holds one, praises its beauty and workmanship, then smashes it to splinters looking for the jewels that may or may not be inside) it almost completely lacks the zaniness we expect from Brooks. The slapstick scenes are stylized, shot in fast motion with tinkly pseudo-ragtime on the soundtrack, but through much of the rest of the film Brooks seems to be making a rare (for him) attempt to connect with the audience emotionally instead of just being outrageous.

The Twelve Chairs might have looked more like a normal Mel Brooks film (and done better at the box office) if Gene Wilder, the actor Brooks wanted as Vorobiyaninov, had been in it — but Wilder would only be in the film if he could play Ostab, and Brooks pointed out that the book described Ostab as “devilishly handsome” and, for all his talents, no one ever said that about Gene Wilder! As it is, Brooks was obviously directing Ron Moody to copy Wilder’s mannerisms instead of finding his own way into the part, and that may have accounted for the rather chilly reception this film got originally — despite a huge advertising campaign (a Joseph Levine specialty — when he picked up the U.S. rights to the Italian film Hercules he spent more money promoting the American release than the Italian producers had spent to make it!); I remember TV screens in 1970 being inundated with scenes of all these odd-looking people running around a beach holding these elaborate chairs. The Twelve Chairs wasn’t even the first U.S.-produced filmization of the novel; in 1945 another quirky Jewish comedy genius, radio star Fred Allen, had produced one called It’s In the Bag, relocating the story to the U.S. and simplifying it by reducing the number of chairs to five — and his version had been a modest hit instead of a mega-flop. As it was, the failure of The Twelve Chairs put Mel Brooks into what’s come to be called “movie hell” — nobody would give him a job in films until Warner Bros. called him in the early 1970’s and asked him to do some touch-up writing on a film they were developing called Tex X, a comedy about a Black sheriff in the Old West. The rest, as they say, is history …

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Follow the Fleet (RKO, 1936)

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

The film was Follow the Fleet, the 1936 movie from RKO that was the fifth of their nine with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (the 10th Astaire-Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway, was made at MGM in 1949, 10 years after the last one for RKO, and was originally intended as a followup to Easter Parade featuring Astaire and Judy Garland until Judy had one of her nervous breakdowns and was replaced by Ginger — Astaire’s reaction was basically, “We’ve stayed in touch and always wondered what it would be like to do another one together”) and, surprisingly, the biggest-grossing Astaire-Rogers film in initial release. That’s surprising because it’s really not much of a movie in between the spectacular dance sequences — some of the other Astaire-Rogers films (notably The Gay Divorcée, Top Hat and Swing Time, despite the annoyingly whiny part played in the last by Victor Moore) work as total entertainments and are fun to watch even when the stars aren’t dancing. Not this one: Follow the Fleet is saddled with a lumbering plot (from Hubert Osborne’s 1922 play Shore Leave) and a pair of second leads (Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard — then Ozzie Nelson’s band singer but not yet his wife — who, as Arlene Croce put it, “go together like red whiskey and Seconal”) enacting Osborne’s plot about a woman who falls in love with a sailor, buys him his own ship, and then ends up rejected by him out of pride or (as in this case) a misguided desire to date only women who won’t expect the M-word and the longtime exclusive commitment it expresses. Shore Leave had previously been adapted in the late 1920’s as the musical Hit the Deck (“and either Shore Leave or Hit the Deck is the basis of practically every musical about sailors that has been made since,” Croce wrote), which RKO bought the rights to and filmed in 1930.

For Follow the Fleet they took the basic plot of Shore Leave/Hit the Deck but junked the original score by Vincent Youmans (ironically, the composer for the first Astaire-Rogers movie, Flying Down to Rio) even though it contained such standards as “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “Hallelujah.” Instead they assigned the score for Follow the Fleet to Irving Berlin as the second film in his two-film contract after the Astaire-Rogers Top Hat, and he came up with a stunning set of songs including the awesome “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” — the big final Astaire-Rogers romantic ballad dance at the end. Berlin was (and is) sometimes patronized as the “simple” songwriter, who created good tunes and simple lyrics but didn’t have the sophistication of Gershwin or Porter — but “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” with its Continental flavor, its uncertain tonality (the chorus is in a minor key, it shifts to major for the release and then minor again for the reprise) and its wordplay (“Before the fiddlers have fled/Before they ask us to pay the bill/And while we still have the chance”), sounds an awful lot like a Cole Porter song to me and works stunningly for the Monte Carlo-set dance drama for which it’s used here: Astaire is a gambler who’s about to shoot himself after losing all his money, Rogers is about to throw herself off the casino balcony, only they end up rescuing each other and doing perhaps the most stunning dance of the series. It was also one of the most painful dances Astaire ever did; the problem was Rogers’ beaded gown, which she designed herself — and those long, hanging sleeves full of beads were stingingly painful when she accidentally slapped him with him repeatedly.

Nonetheless, Follow the Fleet was a departure from the Astaire-Rogers series norms and quite frankly suffered from it. In The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Arlene Croce suggests that was deliberate: “One way to keep star vehicles moving is to put them into reverse. Follow the Fleet banished Continental chic by casting Astaire as a gum-chewing sailor and Rogers as a dance-hall hostess in a setting of San Francisco harbor lights, dime-a-dance palaces and apartments with sad little kitchens.” For Rogers Follow the Fleet was a return to the proletarian musicals she’d been making at Warners before she switched studios to RKO in 1933; for Astaire it was the first time he’d made such a grungy movie since Dancing Lady, his film debut and MGM’s attempt to duplicate the success of Warners’ 42nd Street. Follow the Fleet was the first Astaire-Rogers musical set entirely in the United States (of their previous films Flying Down to Rio had started in Miami but moved to Brazil, and the other three had taken place in Europe: The Gay Divorcée in London, Roberta in Paris and Top Hat in London and Venice) and by an odd happenstance it featured two performers, Harriet Hilliard and (in a bit part as one of Ginger Rogers’ co-entertainers) Lucille Ball, who went on to TV stardom in the 1950’s in sitcoms in which they co-starred with their bandleader husbands, who also produced the shows. It also has one of those piss-ant little plots in which the meanness that often crept into Astaire’s characters on screen gets pretty trying after a while — Astaire gets Rogers fired from her job as band singer and taxi dancer at the “Paradise Ballroom” (though the film is set in San Francisco the establishment was modeled on the real-life Palomar Ballroom in L.A., where Benny Goodman had his breakthrough success in 1935; RKO needed dancers to lose a dance contest to Astaire and Rogers, so they ran a real dance contest at the Palomar and the winners got to be in the movie as the star duo’s rivals on the floor) and later sabotages her audition with a Broadway producer by putting bicarbonate of soda in her drinking water (he thinks he’s sabotaging a rival instead of Rogers herself) — all too blatant a warmup for Holiday Inn (which shared three of the main creative personnel with Follow the Fleet: Astaire, Berlin and director Mark Sandrich), in which once again the songs are superlatively beautiful and the nastiness of the plot scenes between them makes the movie virtually unwatchable between numbers.

The big dance numbers in Follow the Fleet score one after another — “Let Yourself Go” (the dance contest at the beginning after Ginger sings the song with three backup singers, Joanne Gray, Joy Hodges and future superstar Betty Grable); “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” in which Astaire leads a corps of sailors in a drill routine (first he dances solo and then, on cue, the other sailors come down from their stations on the ship to serve as his chorus line — Charles laughed at the risibility of this gimmick but it’s an old musical convention and it was fun); a reprise of “Let Yourself Go” as Ginger Rogers’ tap solo at her audition; “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” (“the prize goofball routine of all time and the only one [Astaire and Rogers] ever did,” wrote Croce — on the basis of this sequence maybe Rogers could have partnered Astaire in the “runaround” or “nut” dance he and his sister Adele had made one of their trademarks on stage, but Astaire didn’t think so and saved it for his first RKO film sans Rogers, A Damsel in Distress, in which Gracie Allen — a superb dancer in her own right as well as a brilliant comedienne — partnered him); and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” There are also two solo songs for Harriet Hilliard, “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?,” rather mopey pieces — the first signaling her weakening determination to resist the dubious charms of Randolph Scott; the second her upset when a rich divorcée (Astrid Allwyn) pulls him away from her (temporarily, because Astaire has another nasty trick up his sleeve to break up Scott and Allwyn and return him to Hilliard’s arms) — which were cut from the TV versions shown in the 1950’s through the 1970’s and only seen on the home screen when cable movie channels — first AMC and now TCM — started showing Follow the Fleet in the 1980’s. Hilliard had a good voice — low for a woman and sounding quite like a late-1920’s/early-1930’s torch singer, though without the soggy intonation and deliberate tear-jerking that breed were partial to — but the songs are a bit of a drain on the movie’s energy level. RKO originally tried to get Irene Dunne to play Hilliard’s part — she’d collaborated with Astaire, Rogers and Randolph Scott in Roberta and delivered stunning performances of that show’s two big ballads, “Yesterdays” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” — but Croce thought Follow the Fleet would have been improved if Ginger Rogers had played both sisters — which would at least have showcased her dramatic versatility the way the numbers showed off her dancing versatility.

Rogers was not a happy camper throughout the making of Follow the Fleet — before it started she and her mother Lela, her manager throughout her career, held up RKO for a major salary increase and a guarantee of co-star billing with Astaire; and during the filming she gave an interview to a reporter in which, right after an exhausting dance rehearsal, she said, “After this, I’d like to take a vacation — digging mines!” She was pushing for more films without Astaire on her way to establishing a reputation as a non-musical actress — at which she succeeded; two years after the RKO series with Astaire ended she won the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle (and Rogers’ success in breaking away from musicals motivated Judy Garland to try the same thing; she got MGM to give her one non-musical, The Clock, and it made money — but her musicals made so much more money that Louis B. Mayer put her back into singing/dancing roles) and in the 18 months between Shall We Dance in 1937 and Carefree in 1938 she made three films to Astaire’s one. As for Astaire, he wasn’t as anxious to transition out of musicals as Rogers was, but he might have been able to do it; when I first read The Maltese Falcon it occurred to me that out of all the men in Hollywood in 1941 Astaire came closer than anyone to the physical description of Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and as perfectly as Humphrey Bogart played the role I’d still like to think there’s a parallel universe out there in which Astaire played Spade (with Barbara Stanwyck as Brigid and Edward Arnold as Gutman) and made the transition from musical star to noir actor the way the other great male musical star of the 1930’s, Dick Powell, actually did — certainly the nastiness that gets in the way of enjoying some of Astaire’s musicals would have stood him well in noir parts!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Falcon’s Adventure (RKO, 1946)

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

This morning I watched TCM’s latest presentation of one of the Falcon-series detective films, The Falcon’s Adventure — not that the word “adventure” had any particular reference to the plot, which is a farrago of the usual nonsense. On his way to a fishing vacation with his long-suffering comic-relief companion “Goldie” Locke (Ed Brophy), Tom Lawrence, a.k.a. The Falcon (Tom Conway) sees a beautiful young woman, Louisa Braganza (Madge Meredith), kidnapped by a sinister cab driver and gives chase. Lawrence’s car gets in the way of a police vehicle that’s also chasing the girl and the baddie-cabbie, but he frees her, takes her back to her hotel in the city, and learns that she’s a Brazilian in the U.S. to help her uncle Enrico (André Charlot) negotiate the sale of a formula for making industrial diamonds. Only no sooner does Lawrence find Enrico and obtain the formula for him than the sinister cabbie crashes the hotel room, knocks Lawrence out and kills Enrico, leaving Lawrence’s wallet behind so the police will think Lawrence is the murderer. Lawrence takes Goldie to Miami, home of Enrico’s contact for the formula deal, Denison (Ian Wolfe), only on the train Lawrence hears a blonde woman, Doris Blanding (Myrna Dell), arguing with a masher who’s pushed his way into her compartment.

In the one genuinely honest and surprising (more or less) reversal in the script by Aubrey Wisberg and baseball fan Robert E. Kent), she and the “masher,” Benny (Steve Brodie), turn out to be husband and wife, and part of a criminal gang out for the formula masterminded by an industrial diamond maker named Sutton (Robert Warwick), who also hired the cab driver to kidnap Luisa and hired him to kill Enrico — and Denison as well, once again framing Our Hero for the crime. Eventually Sutton tricks Louisa into trusting him and bringing the formula on board the yacht, which is about to sail for Brazil, only the Falcon takes over (no wait, that was another film in the series), boards the yacht, kills the cabbie-gunman, and along with Goldie holds the rest of the gang at bay until the police arrive. One especially enthusiastic reviewer called this “the Casablanca of ‘B’-movies” (no, that’s Detour!); I wouldn’t go that far, but for all the familiarity of the plot (there must have been some especially interesting ballgames going on when Robert E. Kent worked on this script) there are some interesting noir-ish atmospherics in William Berke’s direction (for some reason RKO had two cinematographers working on this little “B,” and one of them was Harry J. Wild, who photographed RKO’s noir masterpiece Murder, My Sweet) and good performances by the women (though Madge Meredith is clearly struggling to fake the accent that would have come naturally to Rita Corday!) and reliable ones from Conway and Brophy. Too bad this was the last Falcon movie that RKO would make, though independent producer John Calvert bought the rights and cranked out three more (with an actor other than Conway) before the Falcon was finally laid to rest on the big screen in 1949.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Men of the North (MGM, 1930)

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

The film was Men of the North, a 1930 snooze-fest from MGM directed by Hal Roach (of all people — apparently as part of Roach’s distribution deal with MGM to release his marvelous comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy, Anita Garvin and Edgar Kennedy, and others, he asked for and was given the assignment to direct this serious “Northern” drama at MGM itself) from an “original” (quotes definitely merited) story by Willard Mack and a screenplay by Richard Schayer. It was one of a series of “Northerns” TCM decided to show one recent morning, and it stars Gilbert Roland as French-Canadian trapper Louis La Bey. At the start of the film he’s celebrating his birthday with a case of (stolen) beer in a hall large enough for his guests to do the Virginia reel (Sammy Lee was credited with dance direction but this is a simple and well-known enough dance he really didn’t need to work that hard at it), despite the tsk-tsk’ing of his best friend, a priest played by Robert Graves, Jr. He encounters hot blonde white girl Nedra Ruskin (the singularly uncharismatic Barbara Leonard) and immediately falls for her, much to the consternation of his Native girlfriend “Woolie-Woolie” (Nina Quartaro).

Through most of the film we’re carefully led to believe that Louis is really the outlaw “Louis the Fox,” and he’s being chased as such by the Columbo-like Mountie Sgt. Mooney (Robert Elliott, an actor whose approach to being in a talkie is evidently to see if he can gum his lines to death before they exit his mouth) — only he seems to be on hand to rescue both Nedra and her father, Senator John Ruskin (Arnold Korff), so often the Lone Ranger seems like a recluse by comparison. They get stranded in the snow? He’s there to pick them up and offer them a lift. They get buried in an avalanche (a scene I suspect was taken from the same Northern documentary — the 1926 Pathé two-reeler Alaska Adventure — as the “Frozen North” footage in the 1944 Monogram film Return of the Ape Man)? Louis is there to dig them out and rescue them again. Eventually the jealous Woolie-Woolie reports Louis to the cops, Sgt. Mooney and his even dumber and more oppressive assistant Corporal Smith (George Davis), and he’s duly arrested for stealing gold from a mine owned by the Ruskins. He’s put through a preliminary hearing — at which it develops that he was really half-owner of the mine, only his partner sold his share to the Ruskins and told them they were buying the whole mine, so he was merely taking back the gold that was rightfully his. Accordingly Louis is freed, he and Nedra pair off and goodness knows what happens to Woolie-Woolie, who’s not only a much more interesting character but is played by a far better actress. Men of the North is the sort of movie that could have been made quite excitingly about six years later, when sound technology had been perfected, actors were allowed to speak normally on screen, background music was available to liven up the action scenes, and the major studios had become far more adept at splicing stock footage and second-unit work into the main action. Alas, the version we have was actually made in 1930, and despite his reputation for running his own lot like a tyrant Hal Roach was still letting the people in the studio sound department push him around, telling the actors … to … speak … very … slowly … and … distinctly, and patiently wait for their cue line to finish before they spoke their own line.

There are plenty of stories about how clueless Hollywood in general was in the early days of sound (one of my favorites was how Paul Whiteman was summoned to Universal in 1929 to make The King of Jazz and forced to assemble his orchestra on the sound stage and record innumerable “tests” for sound engineers who knew far less about how to record a band than did Whiteman, who in 1929 had been one of America’s top recording artists for nine years), and though it’s not as horrendously dull and awful as Behind That Curtain, Men of the North is pretty boring. About the only fun the movie involved is the sheer camp element: it’s hard enough to believe Gilbert Roland’s sing-song speaking style as coming from a French-Canadian — he seemed to think he could disguise his genuine Mexican origins by pushing his voice higher and adopting a sing-song timbre without actually changing his accent — and it’s harder to believe the even thicker-accented Latina Nina Quartaro as a Native from north of the U.S., though aside from the risible “Mexican Spitfire” accent she’s a quite dynamic screen presence and she dominates every scene she’s in. The film also suffers from an all too obvious mismatch between the second-unit footage that was actually shot on a snowy location with silent cameras and the “outdoor” footage involving the stars, which was obviously from a backlot set with a lot of white-painted cornflakes strewn about to represent snow. It’s clear that none of the actors involved have any idea of how to drive a dog-team to pull a sled — something that happens quite often in this film — instead none of the sleds would move if it weren’t for the actors’ doubles driving them correctly across genuine snow in long-shots. Between the mish-mash of accents, the mish-mash of studio and location footage, the overall clichéd dullness of the script and the utter failure to depict that the actors are really in extreme climates (as in all too many “Northerns,” the actors’ breaths don’t steam the way people’s do in genuinely cold environments), Men of the North is an endurance test (it’s only 65 minutes but it seems considerably longer than that), and it’s hard to believe anybody took it seriously just eight years after Robert Flaherty had shown us what this country really looked like, and how people lived in it, in Nanook of the North!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tip on a Dead Jockey (MGM, 1957)

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

Charles and I watched a movie I’d recorded from TCM earlier that day which I’d long been curious about: Tip on a Dead Jockey, a 1957 thriller (at least in genre convention) directed by Richard Thorpe from a script by Charles Lederer and Irwin Shaw based on a story Shaw had previously published in Cosmopolitan magazine (though identifies the story source as a novel). I’d been curious about this because I’d first read about it in John Russell Taylor’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, which mentioned that he had originally optioned the film rights to the story but ultimately decided not to film it and to make The Wrong Man and Vertigo instead. The film opens in Reno — the first shot is the iconic “Biggest Little City in the World” sign — where Phyllis Tredman (Dorothy Malone) has gone with her father (Hayden Rorke) to get herself divorced from her husband Lloyd Tredman (Robert Taylor). Only her rather unctuous divorce lawyer says she can’t have the divorce unless she can come up with something bad he did to her — mental cruelty, infidelity, spousal abuse or desertion — instead Lloyd just cabled her from his current redoubt in Madrid and told her he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. So Phyllis decides to go to Madrid, find him and get him to tell her to her face why he doesn’t want to be married to her anymore. Her thought is that there is another woman, only she has no idea who she is, and given the presence of Gia Scala as third-billed in the cast list we’re sure there’s another woman and that she’ll end up playing her. Instead, when director Thorpe cuts to Madrid we see Lloyd in the same bedroom as another woman, though since the Production Code was still in effect they’re sleeping in twin beds and there’s no evidence that they did anything with each other besides getting drunk at a succession of parties and passing out in adjoining beds.

The woman is Sue Fan Finley (Joyce Jameson), a blonde with a bimbo manner and one of the most atrociously phony “Southern” accents ever heard on screen. Lloyd ushers her out of his bedroom — once he’s convinced her that it is his bedroom, not hers — and we never see her again. Gia Scala turns out to be playing Paquita Heldon, Spanish wife of American flyer Jimmy Heldon (Jack Lord, later the star of the Hawai’i Five-0 TV series), on whom Lloyd has a crush but he’s too respectful of his friend and his friend’s marriage to do anything about it. Also, Paquita has a child, which puts her even farther on the “respectable” side of the Madonna/whore divide and therefore makes her that much less acceptable as a potential partner for adultery. For most of its running time Tip on a Dead Jockey is a psychological drama, exploring the inner state of mind of Lloyd Tredman — who served honorably and courageously in both World War II and the Korean War (he was called up for the latter just weeks after marrying Phyllis), and it was his experiences in Korea that led to his alienation and his desire to return neither to their marriage nor his inter-war career as an airline pilot. Indeed, he’s sworn to himself that he’ll never fly again. Lloyd is also broke, and yet his phobias keep him from accepting any gainful employment that’s offered him because all the offers seem to involve getting into the cockpit of a plane again — including flying a stunt for a film being shot in the area, for which he’d signed on as technical advisor, only he turns down the stunt job and walks out as tech advisor as well because the producer has broken his word to him that he wouldn’t be required actually to fly. The “tip on a dead jockey” comes in because about the only thing Lloyd has going for him financially is a one-third interest in a horse, which he plans to sell and use to place a big bet on the horse to win his upcoming race — only a bad guy who’s involved with one of the other horses has his jockey foul Lloyd’s jockey in the middle of a steeplechase jump during the race, with the result that Lloyd’s horse goes down and his jockey is killed.

The person who arranged this is a sinister operator who goes by the name Bert Smith and is played by Martin Gabel — though Gabel’s horrible attempt at a Spanish accent is supposed to indicate to us that he’s a local boy — and the reason is he’s desperate to hire Lloyd as a smuggling pilot and wanted to make sure Lloyd would have no other source of income and therefore would be unable to say no. Instead Bert Smith hires Jimmy — and when Jimmy is three days’ late returning from the flight Lloyd decides to go on Smith’s next run instead to make sure Jimmy survives instead of leaving Paquita a widow and their baby son an orphan. The flight takes off about two-thirds of the way through the film and from then on the movie finally looks like a suspense thriller; Lloyd takes along his comic-relief character friend Toto del Aro (Marcel Dalio, a star in pre-war French films — including classics like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game — before he fled the Occupation and ended up in Hollywood as a character actor, best known as the croupier in Casablanca) and the two have to dodge the minions of Interpol, who catch on to the fact that they’re smugglers. (I joked that today Interpol wouldn’t bother them because they’d be too busy trying to catch the makers of pirated DVD’s.) Ultimately Lloyd and Toto realize that the cover story they were given — that they were flying British currency out of Egypt (Shaw set his story during the turmoil in Egypt when King Farouk was deposed in a military coup led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser — plus ça change, plus ça même chose!) — was just that, a cover; concealed in the box of money bundles was a large bag of white powder, obviously drugs (“Heroin, cocaine — who cares?” Lloyd thunders in Robert Taylor’s most self-righteous tones), which leads Lloyd to the conclusion that his only way out is to report Bert Smith to the Guardia Civil. When Smith is duly busted Lloyd is told that if he claims the reward for him Lloyd will be prosecuted, but if he doesn’t they’ll let him go — and go he does, into the waiting arms of Phyllis, who didn’t divorce him after all and therefore is willing to take him back.
Tip on a Dead Jockey is an oddly soap-opera-ish movie for much of its running time, but it’s also a psychological study of Robert Taylor’s character — Taylor was one of those matinee idols who actually got better as an actor once he got to be middle-aged, he lost his pretty-boy looks and therefore had to work harder as an actor to create a character audiences would be interested in seeing. Also this performance leaves a distinct sense that even though his two-decade marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was beginning to unravel when this film was made, he’d learned something from her example; much of Taylor’s acting here shows the quiet intensity that was her hallmark. Taylor’s performance and the easy chemistry between him and Malone (at one point they even get together behind a piano and sing an old song, “You Found Me and I Found You” by Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse, and his voice is strictly amateur but hers is surprisingly good) are the best things about a film that, as Charles pointed out, seems to be from a decade or so later than it was actually made. Certainly it was unusual in the 1950’s for the male protagonist of a film to be a dropout and a slacker! Aside from that, it’s a pretty dull movie through a lot of its running time, and it suffers from the casting of Jack Lord, who was great in his TV role as a super-cop but didn’t have the depth for the morally mixed character he’s playing here — though the film overall, with George Folsey’s chiaroscuro camerawork (despite having to deal with the Band-Aid shape of the CinemaScope screen) and the marvelous world-weariness of Taylor’s performance, almost qualifies as noir. It’s interesting to ponder what Alfred Hitchcock might have made of this story — it hardly seems up his alley until you remember that the movies he did make instead of Tip on a Dead Jockey, The Wrong Man and Vertigo, were themselves two of the most obsessive psychological studies of his career, so maybe that’s where his head was at in the late 1950’s before The Wrong Man and Vertigo both flopped and he went back to the action-thriller style of North by Northwest and then unforgettably dabbled in horror with Psycho.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Falcon's Alibi (RKO, 1946)

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

The film was The Falcon’s Alibi, a 1946 RKO “B” production towards the end of the Falcon detective series and a quite good movie in which I remembered one of the key characters — “Nick the Night Owl,” a D.J. who broadcasts from midnight to 3 a.m. on radio station KGR from inside a hotel, played by Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his best performances (rivaling his work in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Killing) — though somehow I had transposed him to The Falcon in San Francisco instead (perhaps because the “K” at the beginning of his station’s call letters indicated a West Coast or Rocky Mountain zone location, and “KGR” sounds an awful lot like the real San Francisco station KGO), though Cook’s casting and the writing of his role (by Dane Lussier and Manuel Seff, with uncredited additional work by Edward Dein and Charles “Blackie” O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal’s father) are a weird breath of film noir air in an otherwise pretty formulaic plot line. Like several other Falcon adventures, this one begins at a racetrack, where the Falcon, a.k.a. Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), runs into dotty dowager Mrs. Peabody (Esther Howard) and her secretary/companion Joan Meredith (Rita Corday, whose hint of a European accent sits oddly on an “American” character with an Anglo name). Lawrence is immediately taken with Joan Meredith and agrees to help her — as part of her job she took Mrs. Peabody’s pearl necklace to a jeweler to be copied and appraised, and as a result she found it was a fake, so she’s worried she’ll be accused of stealing the original and wants the Falcon’s help in keeping her name clear — and the action pretty quickly moves to (and resolutely stays in) the hotel where Mrs. Peabody and her entourage, including a dispossessed baron (Lucien Prival) and his wife (Jean Brooks) and a man named Beaumont (Jason Robards, Sr. — father of the Jason Robards we’re familiar with), as well as an insurance man named Metcalf (Emory Parnell) who’s investigating a series of jewel thefts in the hotel to see if they’re part of an attempt by jewelry owners to scam his insurance company.

There’s a nightclub within the hotel wherein Alex Olmstead (Paul Brooks) and his band perform. His star singer is Lola Carpenter (Jane Greer), who’s secretly married to Nick the Night Owl but wants to leave him and marry Alex because he can do so much more for her career. One of the members of Mrs. Peabody’s entourage gets murdered — it’s hard to remember which one — and eventually so does Lola Carpenter, and it turns out Nick is the real culprit; he killed his wife out of jealousy and because she had reacted to his confession that the jewelry he had given her had been financed by robberies from the hotel guests. To alibi himself, he transcribed his radio show so he could play the transcription record on the air and people would think he was in his booth broadcasting his show. Only the Falcon figures this out — which wouldn’t have been that difficult; in the mid-1940’s transcribed shows were a relative novelty and several movies of the period, including Laura (which I think was the first one to use this gimmick), featured radio performers pre-recording their programs and playing the transcriptions over the air to give themselves an alibi for the murder they were about to commit. At the end, Nick is doing this again — though he knew, or should have known, that someone was on to him since his transcription disc was moved from one part of the studio to another (by the Falcon as part of his test to see if he was right) — so he can knock off Jane Meredith, only the Falcon arrives in time, saves Jane and Nick takes a header off the balcony from which he had been planning to push Jane so he dies. It also turns out that Mrs. Peabody herself, who up until the end has seemed like just another ditzy comic-relief character, is the mastermind of the insurance swindle — something that upsets Metcalf, who ends up whining, “I thought we were friends!” The Falcon’s Alibi was directed by Ray McCarey (Leo McCarey’s far less prestigious brother — when Charles and I watched a movie in which Ray McCarey directed Bob Crosby I joked that both of them had brothers with far bigger reputations than theirs!) and produced by William Berke, who’d directed some of the previous Falcon movies and who came to the major studios from a background in independent production in the late silent era (and who actually returned to indies and made the first two films of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels before dying relatively young in 1958), and it’s an oddly schizoid movie in which Elisha Cook, Jr. and the character arc featuring him seem to have come in from the film noir world and settled uncertainly into the more genteel mystery story represented by the Falcon series. If he weren’t in it The Falcon’s Alibi would be just another series entry, and a relatively weak one at that, but his performance gives this otherwise mediocre movie real dramatic power and scope. And it did occur to me that it was interesting that just one day after having watched a crime film featuring George Sanders, here we were seeing one with his less well known and less highly regarded brother, Tom Conway!