Saturday, August 31, 2013

Horrible Bosses (Rat Entertainment, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., 2011)

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

Charles and I watched a DVD I had recently picked up of the 2011 movie Horrible Bosses, the sort of mediocre movie that could have been really great. It was directed by Seth Gordon from a committee-written script by Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein (for those not up on Writers’ Guild etiquette, that means Markowitz wrote his first draft solo and Daley and Goldstein teamed up to revise it), and it apparently was enough of a success ($117,528,646 gross on an estimated budget of $35,000,000) that a sequel is in the works. The plot centers around three drinking buddies, all of whom are in uncomfortable work situations. Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has been sucking up to a fascistic martinet boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), for 10 years in hopes of working up the corporate ladder (there’s no clue about what the company he works for actually does, as there is with the other two central characters), and he laments his plight in an opening narration that’s one of the funniest parts of the film: “I get to work before the sun comes up, and I leave long after it’s gone down. I haven’t had sex in 6 months with someone other than myself. And the only thing in my refrigerator is an old lime. Could be a kiwi, no way to tell.” Nick’s on the point of getting a promotion to vice-president in charge of sales when Harken, pissed at Nick for showing up two minutes late and trying to lie that he was only one minute late, decides to take on the sales position himself. Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is a dental assistant who’s being sexually harassed by the female dentist he works for, Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston) — one wonders whether someone on the writing team deliberately picked these names because they’re similar to those of people with intellectual cachet, actress Julie Harris (who just died a few days ago) and photographer Diane Arbus — and he’s worried that his boss’s amorous intentions towards him will break up his relationship with his fiancée Stacy (Lindsay Sloane). He also can’t find another job because he’s a registered sex offender; all he did was take out his dick to pee outdoors, but the empty lot he chose to piss in was a playground and that was enough to run afoul of the sex police. The third musketeer, Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), actually likes his work situation at the Pellitt Chemical Company, and he likes his boss — until said boss croaks of a heart attack in the company parking lot and he’s replaced by his sex-crazed coke-addict son Bobby Pellitt (an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell), who makes it clear to everybody around that he’s going to milk the company for all the money he can get out of it so he can continue his sex and cocaine binges.

The three hapless young (or not-so-young) men — nerdy little Dale and O.K.-looking but not drop-dead handsome Nick and Kurt — get together and start talking about knocking off their bosses, and at one point they actually cite both Strangers on a Train and its spoof/remake, Throw Momma from the Train, in hitting on the idea of committing each others’ murders. Eventually they decide to hire a hit man, at which they’re as inept as they are at everything else (one gets the impression there’s a reason, even in pre-recession times, these guys couldn’t get better jobs). The first guy they hire is someone who advertised on a “men seeking men” Web site for “wet work,” though when he comes to the hotel where they’ve arranged to meet him (and does a lot of James Bond-style “business”) the first thing he does is lay down a rubber sheet on the floor. It turns out he’s a hustler whose specialty is pissing on people (though I’d never heard the term “wet work” before in connection with that kink; the term I’ve heard is “golden showers”). The next guy is someone they go to meet at a bar Nick’s “NavGuide” system (supposedly a navigation aid that wires them to a call center in India, where their contact is named Atmanand but has been assigned the name “Gregory,” but one which turns out to have NSA-style Big Brother knowledge and influence over them) has recommended as the place where they’re most likely to be car-jacked (this is taking place in L.A. and the suburb of Riverside), where they meet up with a tough bartender and are accosted by a man who calls himself “Mother Fucker” Jones (an almost-as-unrecognizable as Farrell Jamie Foxx) because, as he explains, his original given name is “Dean” and having the same name as the (human) star of The Love Bug had less-than-zero street cred in the ’hood. He takes $5,000 from them but only to be their “murder consultant,” not to kill their bosses himself, and the plot proceeds from there into incidents that are genuinely amusing but mostly nowhere nearly as funny as the writers and director Gordon thought they were.

Through much of the film I found myself wishing a genuine comic genius could have got hold of this premise — what a movie Preston Sturges could have made around this concept! — until I remembered that in the late 1970’s a genuine comic genius, Colin Higgins, did get hold of this premise and made Nine to Five, a brilliantly funny film that also centered around three main characters (women instead of men) and an asshole boss (only one, whom all the heroines work for) they’d like to see dead, but brought a brilliant, anarchic energy to the concept and also did a lot more social commentary on the whole idea of “work,” of why the people of a country that celebrates “rugged individualism” and democratic freedom in the political and social arena passively accept the regimentation and dictatorial control of bosses in the workplace. Comparing Horrible Bosses to Nine to Five is a sobering lesson in how much the Zeitgeist has changed in the intervening 31 years, from an era in which movies could at least play at criticizing capitalism to one in which the system is sacrosanct and the people subjected to it realize that they really have no alternative but to knuckle under and hope for the best. Even the irony of having a woman sexually harass a man at work was already done (by Right-wing author Michael Crichton in Disclosure), and it’s funny at first but the one joke in the whole Dale-and-Julia plot line quickly wears out its welcome. Gordon and his writers at least don’t fall into the trap of making their movie too dark — though the transition of Kevin Spacey’s character from an ordinary nasty boss to a figure almost literally from hell pushes the plot beyond credibility — and though there are a few stray bits of social comment they seem to have sneaked in almost unconsciously rather than actually being thought out by the writers and director. I didn’t dislike Horrible Bosses — though almost all the comedy revolves around sex or raunch, that’s par for the course these days (and at least this is one modern comedy where we’re not expected to laugh at people farting — though there is an odd gag in which Kurt decides to fuck himself in the ass with his boss’s toothbrush, for reasons none of the writers trouble to explain) — I actually enjoyed it, but there were all too few scenes that made me laugh out loud, and properly done, with some real imagination, this premise could have generated a movie that would have had me falling on the floor.

NOVA: “3-D Spies of World War II” (PBS, 2011)

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

On Thursday night Charles and I watched an episode of NOVA called “3-D Spies of World War II,” dated January 18, 2012 on the page for the series. The title was a bit of a deceptive come-on since the “3-D” aspect of the story referred to a British photo-reconnaissance program which involved flying disarmed Spitfire planes over prospective targets for bombing raids inside Germany, and by having the pilots take many photos in sequence the analysts who looked at them were able to create a stereoscopic effect that helped them make sense of what they were seeing and create the information that would let the RAF know what were the most militarily significant areas for them to bomb. The real fascination of this piece lies in the heroism of the pilots involved, flying fighter planes well into German territory without any way of defending themselves either against German fighters or anti-aircraft guns (all guns had been removed from their planes to make more room for the cameras), and also in the success of the British in uncovering not only the Germans’ secret rocket installation at Peenemünde as early as 1942 but finding and destroying the launch sites for the V-1 “buzz bombs” (the narrator mentioned that the closest modern equivalent to the V-1, a pilotless guided jet aircraft set to crash-land into a target and blow itself and the target up, is a cruise missile; they’re sometimes called the ancestors of modern-day drones but they differed from drones in that they don’t have a remote pilot actually guiding them from afar) so, rather than the game-changers Hitler was hoping for, both the V-1’s and the V-2’s (the full-fledged rocket the Nazis’ scientists developed and which became the prototype for the spacecraft developed both by the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the ones that put the first artificial satellites in orbit over the earth and then put the first men in space and, ultimately, on the moon — naturally the program showed a photo of Wernher von Braun on one of the launching pads at Peenemünde and explained he was later instrumental in the U.S. space program as well — remember Tom Lehrer’s lines: “Some have harsh words for this man of renown/But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude/Like the widows and cripples of old London town/Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun”) were mere nuisances.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (The Filmgroup/American International Television,1968)

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

The film was Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, a 1968 release from Roger Corman’s “The Filmgroup,” distributed by American International Television, that actually began life six years earlier as a Soviet science-fiction film, alternately transliterated as Planeta Bur and Planeta Burg, directed by Pavel Klushantsev and co-written by him and Aleksandr Kazantsev. The 1962 Soviet version was filmed in Agfacolor, the old process invented in Germany in the 1940’s which the Soviets grabbed after they occupied Germany at the end of World War II, and though the page on the film doesn’t mention its original running time I suspect it had a lot of extra footage that doesn’t appear in this American version — including a final shot of a Venusian (the film is about a space journey from Earth to Venus) shown looking at itself in a reflecting pool right after the Earthlings have decided there are no sentient life forms on the planet and gone home. Roger Corman bought the U.S. rights and actually produced two different dubbed, re-edited and partially reshot versions, one in 1965 as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet with Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue in the new scenes. Alas, that one went nowhere at the box office, so in 1968 Corman hired aspiring director Peter Bogdanovich to do yet another rehash of the Planeta Bur(g) footage, this time adding Mamie van Doren and six other women in skin-tight white pants and nothing above the waist but seashell bras (I’m not making this up, you know!) and retitling the film Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to emphasize its appeal to the cheesecake crowd and sell tickets to the young, horny straight guys who were then considered the core audience for science fiction.

The film as it stands in this form is a total mess but there’s enough of interest in it to make me want to see the Soviet original some time; it’s probably ponderous and slow-moving (like most Eastern Bloc sci-fi — though I remain convinced that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is one of the two greatest science-fiction movies ever made, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one of the reasons I like the Tarkovsky Solaris and consider it far better than the Hollywood remake with Soderbergh and Clooney is that the slow pace gives the story more time to develop and adds to, rather than detracting from, the intensity) but at least the story would be coherent. The effects work is quite impressive for the 1960’s — including the dinosaur footage, since one of the conceits of this film is that Venus is inhabited mostly by dino-like creatures (along with a multi-tentacled something or other that looks like a land-based version of a sea anemone) — though the original Soviet footage is far better than the American additions in that regard and there’s one silly sequence in which one of the astronauts (presumably “cosmonauts” in the original) is supposedly traveling underwater and the footage we see looks like someone took film of an ordinary aquarium and used a process screen to patch the actor playing the astronaut (Gennadi Vernov, billed here as “Aldo Romani”!) into it. The plot, such as it is, concerns a spaceship sent to Venus (the planet Venus?) with three people aboard to rescue a previously launched spaceship with two other people who have stopped contacting Earth by radio. The cosmonauts explore Venus in a neat-looking hovercraft (if this movie had been made in the decadent, capitalistic West the studio would no doubt have made a cut-in deal with a toy company to manufacture a model of it) that unfortunately crashes into a pterodactyl that Mamie van Doren and the other Venusian babes worship as God (I’m still not making this up, you know!), killing it and getting the babes pissed off at the visitors.

The all-male astro-crew and the all-female indigenous population never actually meet — Bogdanovich either couldn’t or wouldn’t fake a shot-reverse shot sequence that would have married his footage with the Soviet original, nor does there appear to be much doubling even though the astronauts are wearing spacesuits through virtually the whole movie and therefore it would have been easy to shoot additional footage of them with other actors — but the whole film is narrated by Vernov/Romani’s character, who somehow intuited the existence of a really hot woman on Venus and is still ruing that they never hooked up. There’s also another narrator, a third-person voice who’s heard in the opening over a montage of models of actual or prototype spacecraft (including a mention of the Apollo mooncraft). The page on Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women credits Bogdanovich as narrator (the actual credits do, too, though his directorial credit is under the pseudonym “Derek Thomas”) but it’s not clear which narrator he is and the voices are different enough I really doubt he did both. (They’re also recorded in totally different acoustics: the third-person narration is clear and bright while the first-person is distant, hissy and difficult to make out.) I’ve sometimes said of certain movies that “this is a bad movie with a good movie trapped inside it, trying to get out” (actually a line I stole from Pauline Kael’s original review of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter), but in the case of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women that may literally be true; not that the Russian Planeta Bur(g) is necessarily going to rise to the top of my list of movies I haven’t seen and want to, but I suspect it’s considerably better than the hash made out of it in this version and it might be well worth seeing with English subtitles but otherwise au naturel.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Here Comes Tobor (Dudley/Guild, 1957)

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

Charles and I ended the evening by watching a rather odd item he had downloaded from Here Comes Tobor, a 30-minute unsold pilot for a TV series pretty obviously based on Tobor the Great, a 1954 film from Republic I remember watching on TCM ages ago but not sharing with Charles — mercifully, considering what I had to say about it the one time I watched it:

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a masterpiece compared to the movie I was watching today, a 1954 non-epic from Republic (it figures) called Tobor the Great — the title, in case you couldn’t tell, is “Robot” spelled backwards — all about a dissident space scientist (Charles Drake, giving a far better performance than this silly script deserves) and his older colleague (another dotty older colleague?) who invents a super-robot to pilot a spaceship before anyone dares to send living human beings up there. The film is stolen by Billy Chapin, an incredibly obnoxious child “actor” (that last word definitely needs to be in quotes) who plays the dotty old scientist’s 11-year-old genius grandson. Tobor the Great has it all — a silly story, inept direction, great John L. Russell photography and (except for Charles Drake) absolutely horrible acting; also the Red-baiting overtones one might expect for the time and the studio (with the possible exception of Walt Disney, Republic president Herbert Yates was the most diehard opponent of organized labor and anything even remotely progressive in Hollywood’s upper echelons), though it’s hard to work up much hatred against a group of Russian agents who all sound like S. Z. Sakall. — 2/18/97

I haven’t seen Tobor the Great since I wrote that, but I suspect Here Comes Tobor uses the same basic inspiration as well as the same prop to play the title character (a surprisingly elaborate robot suit for TV, though obviously with a human actor inside working it), and the story is similar: an atomic submarine in the South Pacific has been hijacked by a renegade admiral and his associate, “dream-builder” scientist Dr. Ohm (Franz Roehn), and only Tobor the Great and his pre-pubescent handler, Tommy Adams (Tommy Terrell, once again an obnoxiously cute kid — well after the height of Shirley Temple’s career, her example conditioned the treatment of children in movies and forced both girls and boys in films into the horrible cutesy-poo mold of la Temple’s characters), can save the day. The film’s coolest scene comes at the beginning, when two people from the U.S. military come to the secret lab of Prof. Adams (Arthur Space), a wheelchair-bound scientist who’s either Tommy’s father or his grandfather (it’s not clear which), and when they approach the gate in their car, an electronic voice announces that their motor has been disabled by an immobilizing ray and only once their credentials are cleared through electronic security will their car be restored to functionality and the gate opened so they can drive in. From that it turned out to be an attempt at a suspense show without much suspense; the baddies have invented the same sort of immobilizing ray but have made theirs effective over such long distances that they’ve been able to shoot down four jet planes launched from an aircraft carrier (cue the stock footage!). Prof. Adams realizes the only way to stage an effective counter-attack is to send Tobor the robot there inside a guided missile, which can fly in out of the range of Dr. Ohm’s ray, but Tommy Adams gets locked in the spaceship by mistake and it’s touch-and-go whether he’s going to survive, first the impact of the missile landing and then the Army’s decision to take out the renegade sub with a hydrogen-bomb attack. There are nice scenes of the gizmos in Tobor’s face going haywire as he’s being subjected to two control streams — one from a radio in Prof. Adams’ lab and one from Tommy, who supposedly communicates with Tobor through ESP but also speaks all the lines he’s allegedly aiming at the robot telepathically — but for the most part Here Comes Tobor is a bore that outstays its half-hour welcome, slovenly directed by Duke Goldstone (the producer is Richard Goldstone, which probably explains how Duke got the directorial job) from a dumb script by Arnold Belgard, a writer I’ve heard of with some much more respectable credits on his résumé (including the Laurel and Hardy film Block-Heads — though the gags that made that movie great were mostly the work of Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon). It’s not clear who the intended audience for this was — I suspect it was intended as a children’s show — and it’s pretty obvious from this dull half-hour why the show wasn’t picked up as a series.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Escape from Polygamy (Indy Entertainment/Lifetime, 2013)

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

The film was Escape from Polygamy, a production of something called “Indy Entertainment,” directed by Rachel Goldenberg from a script by Damon Hill — whose original working title for the film, Ryder and Julina, indicated that the obvious parallels he was inserting to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were deliberate. Julina (Haley Lu Richardson) is a 17-year-old girl who’s been brought up in a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that still allows (and even encourages) polygamy, though apparently her father never took more than one wife, Julina’s mother Leann (Mary McCormack, the remarkable actress from the USA Network series In Plain Sight playing a very different sort of role). After Julina’s dad croaks of a heart attack in front of her, the head of their sect, “prophet” Ervil Barlow (William Mapother — Tom Cruise’s cousin; “Mapother” is the original family name), orders Leann to become the fourth wife of one of the key figures in the cult, Merril (Sam Hennings), and to move onto the cult’s main compound. Julina is unused to the regimented lifestyle at cult central and is electrified when she meets a hunky young man named Ryder (played by the truly drop-dead gorgeous Jack Falahee, whom I’d definitely like to see more of) who turns out, much to Julina’s astonishment, to be the Prophet’s only son and chosen heir. Ryder starts cruising her in spite of the cult’s strictures against any men and women not only getting together and doing the down ’n’ dirty before the Prophet marries them but also against people selecting their own marriage partners: all the cult couples, singular or “plural” (to use Joseph Smith’s own euphemism), are paired by the Prophet. Julina is pleasantly surprised that the Prophet is a reasonably decent-looking man instead of the grizzled old codger she’d expected, but (in a plot twist that suggests Damon Hill’s reading list extended not only to Romeo and Juliet but Schiller’s — or Verdi’s — Don Carlos as well) she’s quite unhappy when the Prophet announces that he’s selected her as his next wife. So is Ryder, who like Don Carlos is understandably miffed that the woman he loves is about to become his stepmother.

Oddly, the Prophet doesn’t seem to be married to anybody and never has been except to Ryder’s mother, who mysteriously “disappeared” from the cult several years previously — though that hasn’t stopped him from having sex with anyone on the compound he wanted, including raping Julina’s overweight, learning-disabled 13-year-old friend Esther (Presley Henderson) and getting her “with child.” When Esther’s water breaks and she’s about to give birth, Julina’s mom Leann, who trained as a nurse in the outside world so she could help the cult’s women give birth without the intervention of the medical establishment (needless to say, Ervil doesn’t want outside doctors coming onto the compound and he’s even less thrilled about sending anyone out for medical care), takes charge of the case and delivers a healthy baby girl but is unable to save Esther’s life. This is just fine with the Prophet, as it turns out, not only because he was the father of Esther’s child but because he was worried that if she’d lived she’d have “outed” him as her rapist and her kid’s dad. Ervil expels his son Ryder from the camp and turns him out in the middle of the desert; Ryder manages to make it to Las Vegas and hook up — platonically — with his former friend Micah (Jake Weary), who was similarly expelled from the cult for not following the rules. Micah is blond, goes around shirtless, and leads a dissolute lifestyle involving drinking, drugs and male sex partners — though it’s not clear from Hill’s script whether Micah is “really” Gay or a basically straight boy who’s willing to hustle and have Gay sex for money. (In one scene in their hotel room he puts the moves on Ryder, who given that despite his expulsion from the cult he’s still a good little Mormon boy at heart is appalled, but it’s unclear whether Micah is actually trying to seduce Ryder or is just “showing him the ropes” of how to come on to men for pay.) In the film’s most powerful scene, the newly arrived Ryder goes into total culture shock when he’s turned loose on the Vegas strip — director Goldenberg, whose work in the rest of the movie is blessedly straightforward (without the music-video effects, flanging or other stupid tricks some Lifetime directors have used), gives us some incredible point-of-view shots as the lights of Vegas dazzle Ryder both literally and figuratively, symbolizing a whole sort of life he’d never dreamed even existed before: his only intimation of Vegas had been a photo of the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign Micah had sent him earlier. Anyway, despite the temptations of Vegas in general and Micah in particular, Ryder — who’s already done a D.I.Y. marriage ceremony with Julina reminiscent of the ones in Lucia di Lammermoor and the 1933 film Safe in Hell — resists and at the end is determined to return to cult central and get Julina out of there.

There’s a dramatic suspense ending with a few mind-numbing reversals as the film intercuts between Ryder’s and Micah’s invasion of the cult compound, the preparations for Ervil’s marriage to Julina, and Julina’s tearing her wedding gown into strips so she can hang herself with them, since she’s been imprisoned in a room with a locked door and barred windows and can see no other way out. Eventually Julina’s mom Leann insists on seeing her and they discover her hanging from the ceiling, apparently dead, and Ervil agrees to lead an impromptu funeral. He also catches Ryder on the property and beats him to within an inch of his life, leaving a picturesque scar across his forehead inflicted with a lead pipe (no, that was actually Professor Plum in the library!), and as in Shakespeare’s play it looks for a while as if both our young lovebirds are a-goner — only, this being a Lifetime movie instead of a literary masterpiece, it turns out that Julina and her mom faked her suicide, Ryder recovers from his injuries, someone else in the cult (it might be Leann’s husband Merril, but we’re not sure) shoots Ervil and thereby saves our lovebirds from his vengeance, and the film ends with Ryder and Julina getting the hell out of Dodge while Leann stays behind with Merril, the new cult leader, because “my life is here.” Merril preaches a sermon announcing that Ervil has gone to Mexico to start a branch of the cult there, a twist reminiscent of Ervil LeBaron, the real-life polygamist cult leader who in the 1970’s ordered the murders of several people, including his brother Joel, whom he thought were threats to his power (obviously Damon Hill got the first name of his “Prophet” from this real-life one), and who traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico (where his father, Alma Dayer LeBaron, Sr., had fled in 1924 to practice polygamy away from the mainstream Mormon church’s ban) and reportedly killed people on both sides of the border. (Indeed, according to the Wikipedia page on Ervil LeBaron, he continued to order killings even after his own death in prison in 1981; he supposedly left a 400-page manuscript called The Book of the New Covenants in which he listed people he wanted his remaining followers to murder, and some of those people were indeed killed over the next decade.) Escape from Polygamy is a pretty predictable movie but it’s well made, well cast (William Mapother and Jack Falahee look enough alike they’re actually believable as father and son, a rarity in any movie), well directed and decently written within the conventions and some of the forced Romeo and Juliet parallels. It’s not as intense, dramatic or thrilling as Baby Sellers — the “original Lifetime movie” premiered the previous weekend — but then few things on Lifetime are that good.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Across to Singapore (MGM, 1928)

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

Charles and I watched a film I’d recorded off TCM during one of the “Summer Under the Stars” tribute, this one to actor Ramon Novarro, a Mexican star who was Gay (and who came to a macabre end in 1970 when he was robbed and murdered by two hustlers he’d picked up) and whose most famous credit is the 1926 silent version of Ben-Hur. This is one silent film I like better than its blockbuster remake (Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments from 1923 is another — in fact I bought the DVD of the 1956 Ten Commandments just to get the silent version as a bonus), partly because Ben-Hur is such a surprisingly weak character, a man things happen to as opposed to someone who makes things happen, that Novarro’s androgyny actually suits the role better than Charlton Heston’s in-your-face masculinity in the remake. Anyway, the film we watched last night was a 1928 vehicle called Across to Singapore, based on a Ben Ames Williams novel called All the Brothers Were Valiant (which in some ways conveys more of what the story is about even though it doesn’t let you know that it’s a tale about sailors) which MGM had filmed under its own title just five years earlier (with Lon Chaney, Sr. in the role of the oldest, butchest brother, here played by Ernest Torrence in a surprisingly sympathetic role) and which was also filmed again in 1953. This version was such a star vehicle its opening credit announced, “RAMON NOVARRO in Across to Singapore,” and then in much tinier type, “WITH JOAN CRAWFORD AND ERNEST TORRENCE.” Within two years, of course, it would be JOAN CRAWFORD who’d be getting above-the-title billing in all caps (and just this morning TCM showed four of the early Crawford-Clark Gable films in a row: Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners, Possessed — the 1931 version — 16 years later Crawford would make another film called Possessed, but at a different studio, Warner Bros., and with a totally different plot — and Chained) and Ramon Novarro, despite the success of his first sound film, The Pagan, who’d be scrambling as MGM tried to figure out what to do with him in the talkie era. (In 1933 Louis B. Mayer would issue his famous ultimatum to Novarro and William Haines that they had to marry women immediately or he would drop them from his contract list; Novarro quit, returned to Mexico and made films there, while Haines signed for three films with the cheapie Mascot studio, later Republic, then quit acting and became a celebrated interior designer, largely after Joan Crawford hired her to do her house and had the result photographed and publicized in all the movie magazines, with Haines fully credited.) Across to Singapore might have been an attempt by MGM to butch up Novarro’s image, much the way Paramount had done with Rudolph Valentino casting him in the maritime melodrama Moran of the “Lady Letty” six years earlier, but it didn’t work as well: the story simply isn’t as strong, it’s too much about the rivalry of the four Shore brothers (an ironic last name for a family of sailors!) — Mark (Ernest Torrence), Noah (Dan Wolheim), Matthew (Duke Martin) and Joel (Ramon Novarro) — and all too little of it actually takes place either at sea or in Singapore, though the scenes on board ship are easily the strongest in the film.

Mark Shore is the captain of a ship called the Nathan Ross, Noah is his first mate, Matthew is a sailor on board an unrelated vessel called the Sea Robin, and Joel is a wanna-be who in the opening scene is playing a mutinous pirate on an old hulk with Priscilla Crowninshield (Joan Crawford), daughter of Joshua Crowninshield (Edward Connelly), best friend of the Shore brothers’ father Jeremiah (Frank Currier). The two young lovebirds seem so right for each other — especially since they’re the only major characters in the film who don’t have heavy-duty Biblical first names — that we just know some complication is going to intrude, and it does: Jeremiah Shore and Joshua Crowninshield cut a deal for Priscilla to marry … Mark, who’s got a decidedly unrequited crush on her. Without consulting Priscilla, the fathers get the local minister to announce their “betrothal” even though Priscilla recoils as soon as Mark tries to kiss her. After a few atmospheric scenes in the local bar — where the Shores start a bar fight with a group of Puerto Rican sailors from a ship called the Santa Rosa — the Shores duly ship out and Mark has reluctantly allowed Joel to join the crew of the Nathan Ross. But Mark Shore is too busy mooning about Priscilla and swearing to kill the other man who’s his rival for her affections (he’s correctly guessed she’s not interested in him because she loves someone else, but hasn’t caught on that her true love is his rather nellie younger brother) to be an effective captain, and as a result Noah Shore is washed overboard in a storm. When they get to Singapore they receive word that Matthew Shore has been killed in an accident involving the Sea Robin, so now Mark and Joel are the only Shore brothers left. Mark, despite misgivings, immediately promotes Joel to replace Noah as first mate — much to the displeasure of Finch (played by an actor billed as “James Mason” but not the later one who became famous under that name, and probably not a relative either), who thought he was in line for that promotion and decides to get his revenge by getting Mark out of the way and taking over the Nathan Ross. He abandons Mark in Singapore and makes the rest of the crew (and the audience) believe Mark is dead. Six months pass, and Mark is determined not only to captain the Nathan Ross on its next voyage but to take Priscilla along and go back to Singapore and find Mark, whom he is convinced is still alive even though everyone else thinks he’s dead.

Mark is still alive, only he’s become a big-time alcoholic and he’s living with a Singaporean woman (played by an almost unrecognizable Anna May Wong), his uniform is in tatters, and he’s obviously in no condition to captain a ship or do much of anything else. Priscilla doesn’t want Joel to find Mark because under her “betrothal” back in the U.S., if he’s still alive she’ll be obligated to marry him even though she really loves Joel (why? The story takes place in 1857, when it’s entirely possible a “betrothal” of this type conferred a legal obligation on the woman to marry her “betrothed” even though she never consented to it!). Joel has just ordered Finch to lead him to the place where he abandoned Mark, only that never happens because just then Mark himself arrives on board the Nathan Hale, climbing up the side of the ship with the look of a desperate man, and when Joel has him put in irons because he’s worried about Priscilla’s safety (by then Mark has seen Priscilla and Joel kissing and finally realizes his rival for her love is his one surviving brother), Finch tells Mark that Joel deliberately abandoned him in Singapore on the Nathan Ross’s last voyage so he could go home and have Priscilla. Mark and Joel end up fighting, seemingly to the death, only Finch overplays his hand by locking them both in the hold and announcing his intention to stage a mutiny, so the two brothers break out of the cell and, with Priscilla’s help — she grabs a gun and picks off one of the bad guys, which led me to joke, “Now it looks like a Joan Crawford movie!” — they break up the mutiny. Eventually Finch throws a harpoon into Mark’s back, killing him, and Finch and Joel have a fight while holding on to the front of the ship (one scene that does look like director William Nigh — back in the days when he could still get jobs on decent movies with A-list actors before his losses in the 1929 stock market crash, and his insistence on paying back everything he owed in full, forced him to take the long series of wretched assignments at Monogram and other “B” factories that form most of his résumé — had seen Moran of the “Lady Letty”), which Joel wins, so Mark is conveniently eliminated and Joel wins back control of the ship and also gets Priscilla.

 Across to Singapore has a lot of sequences in which key action is either obliterated or made difficult to follow by nitrate burns — as Charles noted, this is one film the preservationists got to just in time — and it’s not that great a movie (and Joan Crawford is singularly ill-suited to the sort of simpering coyness required of most silent ingénues — though she gets better as the film progresses), nor does the cheesy solo piano accompaniment it got in TCM’s version help much (especially when the pianist responds to the Nathan Ross’s arrival in Singapore by playing some cheesy whole-tone scales to suggest “Asianicity”), but it’s still an interesting and compelling movie, partly because it has enough variations on the clichés it’s really not all that clear how it’s going to turn out (the writers are Ted Shane for “adaptation,” Richard Schayer for “continuity” and Joseph Farnham, the creep who eviscerated Greed, for titles) and partly because it’s interesting how Ramon Novarro manages to be a credible male lead even though he’s a good deal nellier than the major male stars of the 1930’s and 1940’s and he never credibly butches up the way Valentino did in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Moran of the “Lady Letty.”

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Life of Muhammad (Crescent Films, 2011)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the recent three-part PBS telecast on the life of Muhammad, which was actually filmed in 2011 by a company called Crescent Films (which is sort of like forming a company to make a documentary on the life of Jesus and calling it “Crucifix Films”) and produced and directed by Faris Kermani, written by Ziauddin Sadar, and featuring as on-air narrator and principal personality one Rageh Omaar. Rageh Omaar, who tells us in the opening minutes that he is himself a Muslim, was born in Somalia and formerly worked for BBC News as a world-affairs correspondent (which explains his excellent “Beeb” English), then joined the British commercial TV network ITV News as their Middle Eastern correspondent and host of his own monthly show, The Rageh Omaar Report. Life of Muhammad is divided into three parts, “The Seeker,” “Holy Wars” and “Holy Peace,” and it’s a fascinating presentation of Muhammad’s life juxtaposed with how Muhammad’s evolving beliefs and revelations, as codified after his death in the Holy Quran and the hadith (the latter being the collections of sayings attributed to Muhammad, which Muslims don’t believe are divinely inspired the way the Quran is but are authorities for how to interpret the Quran and put its ideas into practice in the here and now).

What’s most fascinating about Muhammad’s story is how closely it parallels those of other prophets who founded new religions; though Omaar goes out of his way in the opening to disclaim any similarities between Jesus’s background (at least as it’s presented in the Christian faith) and Muhammad’s — Muhammad had an ordinary conception, birth and childhood, though the latter was shaped by his status as an orphan (his father died before Muhammad was born and his mother died when he was six) and the way he was passed around not only among relatives but at one point actually taken out of his birth tribe, the Quraysh, and briefly passed to a band of Bedouins to raise. (The Quraysh were the elite of Muhammad’s home town, Mecca, but he was a poor relation and had no status in Mecca’s acutely stratified society — and the Quraysh were the old order that bitterly fought and tried to repress the new faith of Islam throughout most of Muhammad’s adult life.) Muhammad became a merchant, apparently because that was the only sort of career open to someone without a family to sponsor him in anything else, and he worked for his uncle and traveled throughout the Middle East. Though the show points out that Muslims to this day insist that Muhammad could not read or write — apparently, according to Omaar and some of the people he interviewed, because Muslims believe their prophet’s illiteracy means that he was not influenced by the Bible (which is nonsense; even if he couldn’t read or write, he could well have heard Biblical stories from preachers in the towns he visited while on his trading journeys) even though Muhammad himself acknowledged the influences of both Judaism and Christianity on Islam by claiming to be the last in the line of prophets that included Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad lived a relatively normal life as a merchant, though his choice of a wife was unusual: Khadijah, a woman somewhat older than himself, a wealthy widow who had inherited a fortune from her husband and through her own business acumen had increased it. Apparently Khadijah was the great love of Muhammad’s life: though he lived in a society in which polygamy was the norm, he never married anyone else until after her death, and (ironically given the way women are treated today in many Muslim countries) Muhammad preached that married women should be able to own property independently of their husbands — a right which didn’t become generally accepted in the Christian world until the early 20th century.

Then he went through what would today be called a mid-life crisis; he began to withdraw for longer and longer periods to pray and meditate in the hills, and during one of those prayer sessions, at about age 40, he was (at least according to Muslim belief) visited by the Archangel Gabriel who started dictating to him the Quran (literally “recitation” in Arabic) with the word “Read!,” even though Muhammad tried to beg off by telling Gabriel he couldn’t read. Eventually Omaar and his filmmakers get to the parts of the story most people know about, including the long silence between Gabriel’s first revelation to Muhammad and his later ones; the growing evolution of Muhammad’s teachings; his building a following, first among his relatives and the lower strata of Meccan society (like Jesus, Muhammad seems at first to have reached out to the less affluent on purpose) and then among enough people that the Quraysh decided he was a threat and needed to be eliminated; his flights, first to Ethiopia (where a Christian king gave him and his followers asylum once Muhammad convinced him he too revered Jesus) and eventually to the town of Medina, where Muhammad set up a government that granted equal tolerance to Muslims, pagans and Jews. Muhammad is supposed to have drafted the world’s first written constitution, the Constitution of Medina, to govern his new state — though no version from Muhammad’s time survives and the only references we have to it are bits and pieces collated as part of the hadith two centuries after Muhammad died. But a series of new revelations and the resulting changes in Muhammad’s religion — including his insistence that Muslims face in the direction of Mecca, not Jerusalem, when they pray — antagonized the pagans and the Jews, and some of them (particularly one Jewish tribe within Medina) aided the armies of the Quraysh when they came to besiege Medina and ultimately to kill Muhammad and suppress his religion. The last part, “Holy Peace,” depicts how Muhammad ultimately won control and allegiance from Mecca basically by wearing the Quraysh down — much the way Christianity went from a viciously persecuted minority sect in the Roman Empire to the official state religion — and how Muhammad, like Jesus, delivered a final sermon just before he died (of natural causes as a respected, powerful man, essentially the first leader of a united Arabia) that summed up his life’s work and his vision for the future.

The other most fascinating thing about Life of Muhammad is it is quite obviously the vision of liberal Muslims attempting to take back the history and principles of their religion they feel have been corrupted by the extremists within Islam (the word “Islam,” by the way, is translated here as “surrender” even though all other sources I’ve seen give it as “submission”). In that regard it’s something like a biographical documentary on Jesus would be if produced by someone like Bishop John Shelby Spong (though Life of Muhammad says nothing about Queer people, pro or con), essentially arguing that Muhammad’s life, faith and teachings have been hijacked by brutal people with their own agendas and a lot of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have bought into the perversion of Islam by groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda because they simply haven’t known better. The show takes on some of the most highly charged recent controversies around Islam, from the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist suicide attacks (interestingly, Omaar mentions briefly Muhammad’s injunction against suicide but, in his discussion of the “sword” verses of the Quran — the ones that supposedly give Muslims the right to wage holy war against non-Muslims, which Omaar and the filmmakers interpret as statements giving the Muslims of Muhammad’s time the authority to defend themselves against attacks by the Quraysh — he doesn’t mention the statement in the Quran that no Muslim may ever justifiably kill another Muslim, which the people in al-Qaeda and other terror groups get around by saying that their Muslim victims have strayed so far from their understanding of the faith that they’re not “really” Muslims) to the controversies over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. (When I read The Satanic Verses I became convinced that Ayatollah Khomeini had declared his famous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder not so much because of his treatment of a particularly infamous incident in Muhammad’s life — when he had apparently described revelations allowing Muslims to compromise with the pagan rulers of Mecca, then rescinded those revelations and said they had been given by Satan, not God — as Rushdie’s character called “The Imam,” a vicious and quite obvious caricature of Khomeini himself.)

Omaar and his director and writer, Faris Kermani and Ziauddin Sadar, seem to want to present both Muslims and non-Muslims with a 21st century version of Islam, in some cases returning to Muhammad’s progressive ideas (notably on the treatment of women!) and in other cases noting how much of what a lot of contemporary Muslims believe — including the Shari’a, which the show notes was compiled centuries after Muhammad’s life and isn’t a divine revelation but simply a human attempt to create a system for putting Islamic principles to work in social governance, the idea being that since it is a system created by humans Shari’a can be changed by other humans and the Muslim world is under no religious obligation to govern itself like it was still the 10th century — isn’t a necessary requirement for their religion. I wish Omaar and his collaborators well — a world in which more of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims believe in their sort of Islam rather than Osama bin Laden’s or the Taliban’s will be a considerably more peaceful, just, fair and happy place (just as will a world in which more of the Christians believe in the more liberal, less judgmental sorts of Christianity) — but all too many of the world’s trends are going the other way. With the economic depression gripping most of Europe and the governments instituting “austerity” measures to cope with it, many Europeans (now that the Left has been, at least in popular propaganda, thoroughly and historically discredited) are giving unprecedented (at least since the days when fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were still going concerns) support to Right-wing parties who are openly anti-immigrant in general and anti-Muslim in particular. What’s more, after the brief hope of the “Arab Spring” authoritarianism has reasserted itself in the middle East big-time; the military’s determination not only to reconquer Egypt but wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood once and for all is going to convince believers in Islam as a political as well as a religious force that “democracy” is a sham and will therefore increase, not decrease, the level of terrorism.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Warner Bros., 1935)

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

The film was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Warner Bros.’ 1935 filmization of Shakespeare’s play, which was co-directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle and based on a very famous stage production Reinhardt had directed in Germany in the 1920’s before the Nazis took over and forced him to flee the country. Reinhardt, working at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin and the Theatre in der Josefstadt in Vienna, staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a legendary Berlin production in the mid-1920’s that used a large stage, elaborate special effects and the incidental music Felix Mendelssohn had composed a century earlier. The Berlin production used a German translation of the play by August W. Schlegel (in German literary history Schlegel’s translations of Shakespeare are considered masterpieces in their own right and are still often the versions used when Shakespeare is staged in German-speaking countries), but apparently Reinhardt took the production to the U.S. as early as 1927 and staged it in Shakespeare’s original English. Reinhardt settled in the U.S. in 1935 (though he traveled back to Austria and continued to work there until the Nazi Anschluss in 1938) and started staging his massive productions in the L.A. area — including The Eternal Road, a collaboration with fellow anti-Nazi refugee Kurt Weill that was performed in the Hollywood Bowl (the only place in town that had a stage big enough for it), got bad reviews denouncing it as an overblown spectacle and has also suffered from Weill’s spectacularly wrong call that the Jews had survived pogroms before and they’d be able to survive the Nazi oppression as well. (Still, some of The Eternal Road was finally recorded by the Naxos label a few years ago and it turned out to be a fascinating, if often pretentious, musico-dramatic piece about the history of anti-Semitic oppression.) Warner Bros. signed Reinhardt, who’d made a couple of poorly received silent films in Germany in the early “teens,” to reproduce his famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream production on film, and offered him the pick of their contract cast list — though Reinhardt had to fight Jack Warner to get to cast James Cagney as Bottom (Warner wanted him to use Guy Kibbee, probably thinking of all the money he was losing by having Cagney cavort on Reinhardt’s and art director Anton Grot’s massive fairyland sets instead of having him crank out a few cheap, quick and lucrative crime dramas) and Bette Davis got aced out of the female lead, Hermia, by her good friend Olivia de Havilland (whose last name was spelled with only one “l” in the credits).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most charming plays but also one of his least well structured; the three interlocking plots — the battle of Athenian prince Theseus (Ian Hunter, a British actor who delivers the Shakespearean dialogue idiomatically enough but seems so hammy he practically glues himself to the lens) to get the bride he’s forced to marry him, Amazonian queen Hippolyta (the Athenians have just defeated the Amazons in battle and she’s his prize for the victory), to love him; the interlocking romantic intrigues of Lysander (Dick Powell, pushing his naturally high voice even higher than usual and responding to the challenge of acting Shakespeare by speaking as if he sucked on helium before each take), Hermia (Olivia de Havilland), Demetrius (real-life Bisexual Ross Alexander, who looks so queeny in this one you wonder why he and Powell don’t pair up and leave the women alone) and Helena (Jean Muir); and the intrigue among the fairies and also the proletarian players who are anxious to win the lifetime pension offered to anyone who performs a show at Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding — don’t really reflect each other that well and often get in each other’s way. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was part of Jack Warner’s campaign to get the rest of Hollywood to accept Warner Bros. as a full-fledged major studio, the equal of MGM and Paramount, instead of just that nice little company in Burbank that made gangster movies and musicals. First, in 1934, he’d green-lighted Madame DuBarry, William Dieterle’s remake of an Ernst Lubitsch German silent about French King Louis XV’s famous consort, which flopped at the box office largely because it got caught in the crossfire over the Legion of Decency and its successful campaign to end the relative sexual freedom of American films during the so-called “pre-Code” era — though it turned out to be a marvelous film, vividly acted by Dolores Del Rio as DuBarry and stylishly directed by Dieterle. Then in 1935 Warner green-lighted A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended up with a visually stunning tour de force, an overwhelming movie in both the good and not-so-good senses of the term, which flopped at the box office but fulfilled its purpose in giving the studio prestige. The next year Warners grabbed two of the biggest story properties around, Hervey Allen’s novel Anthony Adverse and Marc Connelly’s play The Green Pastures, filmed them and ended up with two blockbuster hits.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the movie) is an astonishing spectacle, variably acted — of all the cast members only Olivia de Havilland is comfortable enough with the Shakespearean language not only to speak it effectively but use it to convey emotion. James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck (who according to the American Film Institute Catalog broke his leg shortly before filming and had to act much of his part riding around on a tricycle to get around the big sets as fast as Reinhardt wanted him to) largely use Shakespeare as an excuse to overact — though both of them have surprisingly strong moments, Cagney when he loses his donkey’s head (an immobile mask, though his man-to-donkey and donkey-to-man transformations are accomplished through double exposures, much the way Lon Chaney, Jr. changed into the Wolf-Man) and realizes he’s once again a normal human; and Rooney when he delivers the play’s epilogue. Where the film scores is in the incredible visual atmosphere, especially in the fairyland woods; the special effects — people magically appearing and disappearing, flying through the woods, and transforming — are state-of-the-art for 1935 and still enormously impressive; and, oddly for a Shakespeare movie, the strongest moments are when the characters are not talking, but moving with dancers’ grace (Reinhardt actually did cast dancers in most of the non-speaking roles) through the big forest sets to the themes from Mendelssohn’s score as arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (in his first job in films). A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated for three Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Assistant Director (Sherry Shounds) and Best Editing (Ralph Dawson) — and won two: Dawson for editing and Hal Mohr for cinematography. This was the last of two years in the mid-1930’s in which the Academy allowed write-in votes; Mohr — who had replaced Ernest Haller early in the production, told Reinhardt that the big forest set was unfilmable as it stood, and had some of the artificial trees taken out and metal reflectors put in throughout the set, which gave the film the remarkable sparkledust effect that’s one of the biggest things anyone remembers about it — had, depending on which account you read, either tried to settle a cinematographers’ strike or scabbed on it. As a result, his fellow cinematographers didn’t like him and denied him the nomination he richly deserved — but the Academy voters responded and gave him the award on a write-in, whereupon the Academy eliminated the write-in option and thereby made Mohr the only write-in Oscar winner in history.

The atmospherics are a good deal more compelling than the plot(s), in which the fairies — led by King Oberon (Victor Jory, oddly made up with a crown with a lot of branches sticking out above it) and Queen Titania (Anita Louise), who are feuding — try to use love spells to get the recalcitrant humans properly paired off, and of course screw it up: their spells make Lysander (briefly) abandon Hermia (whom he’s been forbidden to marry by her father Egeus, played by Grant Mitchell) for Helena, while Demetrius, who’s the man Egeus has chosen to be his daughter’s husband, also falls for Helena (who’s had an unrequited crush on him from the start), and also make Queen Titania fall for the donkey-headed Bottom — when the two men in her life confront each other I joked, “Oh, great. She gets to choose between a donkey and a tree.” The scenes with the proletarians — Bottom the weaver, Quince the carpenter (Frank McHugh), Snug the joiner (Dewey Robinson), Flute the bellows-mender (Joe E. Brown), Snout the tinker (a marvelous Hugh Herbert, who for once makes his “woo-woo” act work in context), and Starveling the tailor (Otis Harlan) — are the closest this film comes to true Warner Bros. territory, and as they enact the “tragical comedy” of Pyramus and Thisbe (which comes off as a Shakespearean self-parody of Romeo and Juliet!) seeing James Cagney cruising Joe E. Brown in drag is great fun and an interesting premonition of Brown’s later marriage proposal to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot. I’m not sure what to make of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a totality; some of it is marvelous, some of it maddening, and I suspect Reinhardt’s three-ring circus production style is responsible for that. Other directors who’ve tackled A Midsummer Night’s Dream have tried to smooth out the discontinuities in Shakespeare’s script; Reinhardt seems to have reveled in them, delighting in the crashing gear-shifts in tone and clearly more interested in the fairy scenes, where he could be abstract and throw the entire armamentarium of available special effects in the mix, than in the relatively staid and dull romantic intrigues at the Athenian court.

It’s not the sort of film you want to see every day, and one can readily understand why it was a money-loser in 1935, yet it’s also audaciously imaginative in its use of sets, costumes, movement and music; Charles argued that Mendelssohn seems to have pioneered some of the techniques later associated with Wagner, though I suspect Erich Wolfgang Korngold made Mendelssohn’s music sound more “Wagnerian” than it did originally, picking the most famous parts of Mendelssohn’s score (the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne, choral finale and the big wedding march) and chopping the themes up to serve as Leitmotifs. (Still, Wagner was clearly influenced both by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, even though they were the two Jewish composers he singled out for abuse in his infamous essay “Judaism in Music.”) It’s also not clear whether Leo F. Forbstein, credited as usual in Warners’ films of the time as “musical director,” or Korngold himself conducted — though my money is on Korngold as conductor; the music is not only superbly adapted but richly shaped and phrased in a way I can’t believe a journeyman conductor like Forbstein could have accomplished. The following year MGM filmed Romeo and Juliet (a far better constructed play) in a more straightforward adaptation that holds up as a better movie but isn’t anywhere nearly as creative (and Herbert Stothart’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky for the score is hardly in the same league as Korngold’s adaptation of Mendelssohn here!). Incidentally the opening credits for A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only indicate the prestige nature of the project (instead of just saying “Warner Bros. Pictures present” they say “Warner Bros. Pictures have the honor to present”) but co-credit the direction to Reinhardt and fellow German expat (“ex-patriot,” he’s called in the American Film Institute Catalog, in one of their wilder typos) William Dieterle, and I had assumed that Jack Warner had given Reinhardt a co-director who was more experienced both with English and with movies — but according to the AFI Catalog, Dieterle filled in for a week or so when a French producer obtained an injunction against Reinhardt forbidding him to work for anyone else, and Warner put Dieterle on the project so shooting could continue until Reinhardt won his freedom from his French contract in court.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Eagle (United Artists, 1925)

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

The Eagle, the 1925 vehicle for Rudolph Valentino that was last night’s silent-movie showcase at the San Diego Organ Pavilion, turned out to be a truly weird movie, an odd fusion of action melodrama and romantic comedy. It was Valentino’s next-to-last movie and the first of two produced by Joseph M. Schenck, head of United Artists, who had just signed the Great Lover after Valentino had had three flops in a row — Monsieur Beaucaire, A Sainted Devil, and Cobra. Valentino’s previous studio, Paramount, had got tired of his contract demands (he was the first major star to go to court to try to break the hold of the studio system on his career — 12 years before Bette Davis, Myrna Loy and James Cagney tried it) and the influence of his wife, Natacha Rambova, on his career. Natacha was either Lesbian or Bisexual (accounts differ) and she pushed Valentino’s movies into a world of gender-bending that seems audacious even now and no doubt contributed to all the “pink powder-puff” nonsense that was written about him during his lifetime. Schenck was convinced that Natacha’s influence was responsible for Valentino’s box-office decline and had a clause put into his contract that she was not to be allowed any input on his future films. He also decided that the way to rehabilitate Valentino’s career was to butch him up and put him in a Douglas Fairbanks-style film that would alternate between spectacular action and romantic comedy. Accordingly Schenck hired screenwriter Hans Kräly to concoct a script from Alexander Pushkin’s novel Dubrovsky about Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), the son of a dispossessed Russian aristocrat who runs afoul of a surprisingly butch-looking Czarina Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) — though she’s called merely “the Czarina” throughout the movie and it’s only when she signs Valentino’s death warrant towards the end that we see her sign the name “Catherine” — when he won’t go to bed with her at her command (“I signed up for military service only,” he rather huffily tells her in a title by George F. Marion, Jr. — the titles here are genuinely witty and harmonize well with the mordant tone of Kräly’s script).

As (bad) luck would have it, Vladimir alienates the Czarina just before he receives a letter from his father Alexander (Spottiswoode Aitken) saying that he’s just been cheated out of his estate by his neighbor Kyrilla (James Marcus). Vladimir has also spotted, and instantly fallen in love with, Kyrilla’s daughter Mascha (Vilma Banky) — though he has no idea who she is — whom he’s rescued her from a runaway carriage by doing a spectacular leap on the Czarina’s favorite horse, chasing down the carriage and leaping onto one of the carriage’s horses to stop it. (Valentino was sufficiently convinced of the need to butch himself up that he sent his stunt double, Nicky Caruso, home and did this stunt himself.) For all Joseph Schenck’s insistence that he needed to butch up Valentino to restore his popularity — a conclusion Valentino seems to have agreed with — The Eagle is a truly odd movie, reflecting less the sensibility of Schenck or his director, Clarence Brown (who would shortly sign with MGM and stay there for the remaining quarter-century of his career; he was mostly a hack, though a talented one; he directed quite a lot of Greta Garbo’s movies but she didn’t like him that much, and quite frankly the best Garbo films are the ones in which she had stronger directors: Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, Cukor’s Camille, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka) than of writer Kräly. Hans Kräly had worked on the scripts for Ernst Lubitsch’s early films in Germany and seemed to be having the sort of ongoing writer-director partnership with him that Charles Bennett did with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Riskin with Frank Capra or Dudley Nichols with John Ford until Lubitsch caught Kräly having an affair with Mrs. Lubitsch. Rather than react in the disengaged, “ah, what the hell, men will be men and women will be women” way of a character in a Lubitsch movie, Lubitsch had a jealous hissy-fit and banned Kräly from his future projects, but Kräly followed his former boss to Hollywood and got the job adapting Pushkin’s novel for this film.

Whatever Dubrovsky was in print (and remember that Pushkin is the person the Russians consider as the Russian writer, the way Shakespeare is the English writer and Goethe the German writer) — and I suspect it probably had a lot more, and edgier, satire of the whole madness of the Czarist regime (Pushkin was an ardent anti-monarchist and ended up losing his life in a duel with a member of the aristocracy over precisely that point) — Hans Kräly, with an assist from the equally mordant wit of title-writer Marion, turned it into a Lubitschesque romantic comedy with only a few side notes of adventure. It’s likely Kräly sold Schenck on his script by having the dispossessed aristocrat Vladimir Dubrovsky gather a batch of similarly ill-treated locals into a band of merry men and steal back for Kyrilla’s peasants some of the goods Kyrilla’s men had stolen, extorted or taxed away from them — as head of United Artists, Schenck would have been well aware of the boost Douglas Fairbanks’ career had got when he abandoned modern-dress romcoms and started doing big, lavish period-set epics like The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood (and Valentino’s costuming as the avenger “The Black Eagle,” complete with domino mask, certainly has more than a bit of resemblance to Fairbanks’ Zorro!). Though not the sheer delight it could have been with Lubitsch himself directing (Lubitsch directing Valentino: ah, what might have been!), The Eagle emerges as a quirky romcom in which Valentino and Vilma Banky are hostile to each other through most of the film and therefore it’s not until the very end that Valentino gets to do some of the heavy-breathing love scenes that were his stock in trade. Indeed, through much of the film Valentino’s acting is so deadpan he seems more reminiscent of Buster Keaton than anyone else (and one finds oneself wishing Keaton had made a parody of this; it would have been very, very funny!), even when he’s trapped in a wine cellar with a live bear — one of Kyrilla’s favorite tortures (he’s done this earlier with the judge whom he bribed to take over the Dubrovsky estates, only in the scene where the judge is tortured it’s clearly a real bear while when he does it to Vladimir it’s a man in a bear suit) — and he manages to keep his cool until Mascha rescues him.

The plot enables Vladimir to infiltrate Kyrilla’s estate by waylaying the coach containing Mascha’s French tutor, Monsieur Marcel LeBlanc (Mario Carillo), trussing him up on its floor and impersonating him, whereupon he pisses off his men by getting so wrapped up in courting Mascha he forgets about the revenge plot. In one of the nice “touches” Kräly learned from Lubitsch (or maybe the other way around!), Mascha tries to talk Vladimir out of killing his father by underlining the portion of the Bible that says, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and Vladimir comes right backs and underlines the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” passage. Other Kräly touches that made it into the movie despite Brown’s acceptable but mostly prosaic direction include a marvelous moving-camera shot down a table so long that, according to an “trivia” poster, the table had to be split down the middle and taken apart, then put back together, by unseen stagehands so the camera could move the way Brown and cinematographer George Barnes had worked out. (This film is full of behind-the-scenes people who became famous later: the set designer is William Cameron Menzies — whose touch is shown in Catherine’s palace, an imposing piece of gingerbread resembling no palace or any other real building that ever actually existed — the costumes are by an uncredited Gilbert Adrian and the editor, Hal C. Kern, later headed the editing department at Selznick International.) The ending is a bit of a surprise, since our film-soaked expectations are that Kyrilla will die somehow and Vladimir will regain his family’s estates, either by legal process or inheriting them through marrying Mascha; instead he’s arrested by the Czarina’s police just as he’s managed to elude Kyrilla’s men, and she signs a warrant for his execution and entrusts General Kuschka (Albert Conti) — who got his promotion by accepting the opportunity to be Catherine’s boy-toy that Vladimir had turned down — with supervising it. Only Kuschka double-crosses the Czarina by having the firing squad fire at blank targets, then having her sign the passport application for Marcel LeBlanc to leave the country with his fiancée — perhaps just eight years after the Russian Revolution American audiences couldn’t believe that a Russian couple could have a happy ending unless they left the country!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Baby Sellers (Halmi/Reunion/Lifetime, 2013)

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

The film was Baby Sellers, billed as a “world premiere” Lifetime showing of a quite powerful and well-done thriller from producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (he and Halmi, Jr. are known for socially conscious TV-movies) which had some of the usual Lifetime sillinesses and improbabilities, but had enough energy and power to transcend them. The star is a young, compactly built blonde woman named Jennifer Finnigan, who plays Detective Nicole (“Nic”) Morrison of the (presumably fictitious) “Homeland Security Investigations” law-enforcement agency, or HSI. When the film starts she and her male African-American partner (alas, not identified on the cast list on are hot on the trail of Rafael Ochoa (Zak Santiago), a crime kingpin involved in a number of illegal enterprises, including smuggling undocumented immigrants into the U.S. in the backs of large trucks. The film actually opens in a small village in India, where kidnappers literally steal Mira, the recently born baby of a young couple, Dilip (Arjun Gupta) and Noureen (Veena Soud), who can recognize her if they see her again because she has a tear-shaped birthmark under her left eye. Then it cuts to the U.S., where Nic and her partner almost catch Ochoa’s agent but the agent and Ochoa himself escape. They do, however, recover the truck in which they were smuggling in their latest batch of undocumented immigrants — pregnant women. Ochoa is shipping them into the U.S. so they’ll give birth on this side of la linea and therefore the kids will be U.S. citizens; then the babies will be taken away from their mothers and placed with wealthy Anglo families for adoption. At the crux of all this is an adoption agency with the typically smarmy title “Road to Love” run by Carla Huxley (Kirstie Alley) — and I can’t help but think writer Suzette Couture deliberately named her after an author whose most famous work is Brave New World, a novel about the mass production of babies. Huxley delivers a well-honed sales talk to prospective adoptive parents in which she trots out her own Third World-born adopted daughter Alyssa (Corale Knowles) and tells what a wonderful success her own adoption has been — “My mom is awesome!” Alyssa tells her mom’s prospective customers, before we get a scene between the two of them in which Carla turns out to be a tough taskmaster with an obsessive concern about her daughter’s diet. Directed by Nick Willing, Baby Sellers flits confusingly between the U.S., India and Brazil (another important stop on Carla’s baby-selling network), and at times you have to look closely to determine which Third World country with dirt roads, shaky buildings, grinding poverty and nut-brown people is which (some of the switches in location are indicated by chyron titles but most aren’t), but it’s generally well plotted and it’s powered by fascinating female characters as both heroine and villainess.

It’s also a movie which, despite the sometimes confusing changes in locale, manages to tell convincingly tragic plot lines and avoid the soap-opera trap of too much blatant tear-jerking. Nic’s round-the-world search for Carla and her connections is counterpointed with Dilip’s desperate search to find his baby and get her back — he even hitches a ride with the low-level thugs who kidnapped her and Nic tries to follow them but loses them in the heavy-duty Mumbai traffic — only to get himself killed when four of the baddies ambush him in a warehouse just as he’s recovered his daughter and is about to take her home. There’s also another story, of a young Brazilian girl named Dolorita (Nicole Muñoz) who gives birth in a hospital whose principal pediatrician, Dr. David Azevedo (Alessandro Juliani) is in league with Carla’s gang. Since the baby’s father, who abandoned Dolorita after he knocked her up, is blond and blue-eyed, Carla has earmarked her child for a demanding white couple who want their adoptive baby to be white, and so Dr. Azevedo has his nurse tell Dolorita her child died shortly after birth even though he’s really shipped the baby off to Carla’s operatives. When Dolorita starts making trouble and leaves a report with the U.S. consulate, a corrupt Brazilian cop and his associate in the gang kidnap her, drive her out to a deserted area, kill her and bury her body — and though Nic gets to Brazil too late to see Dolorita, she’s tipped off by the existence of the consulate report and the testimony of Dolorita’s boss (she’s a barista at a Brazilian coffeehouse) to the effect that she’s never been late for work before and now she hasn’t shown up at all. Nic got to do this round-the-world tour only because her Black partner was blown up in a house Ochoa had booby-trapped early on, but she’s forced to rely on local police for backup and seemingly all the local police she’s told to contact are corrupt and being paid off by Carla’s gang. Eventually she’s ambushed by the same corrupt cop who killed Dolorita, but she shows off some impressive martial-arts skills, subdues the guy and gets his gun, and later she does the same to Rafael Ochoa himself in a meeting between them and Carla she’s set up to try to entrap Ochoa into confessing — only Carla grabs Ochoa’s gun after Nic disarms him, shoots Ochoa, claims self-defense and gets off, though at least she’s out of the baby business.

Afterwards there’s a title about the impact of human trafficking, including the claim that it’s now the world’s second largest and most lucrative criminal enterprise (after drugs but before weapons), which reminds us that the Halmis were also the producers of the Lifetime movie Human Trafficking, which was a pretty bad production which, when I reviewed it for, I headlined my review with the phrase, “Good intentions doth not a great movie make.” I wouldn’t call Baby Sellers a great movie, either, but it’s far better than Human Trafficking; it’s not only a fast-paced, exciting thriller (we open in the middle of a chase scene instead of getting the usual 20 to 40 minutes’ worth of dull exposition typical of Lifetime’s thrillers) but it has two great tour de force roles for women. Kirstie Alley is absolutely brilliant, capturing not only the character’s evil but the smarmy self-righteousness and gooey sentimentality with which she conceals the evil not only from the people she interacts with but from herself; as I wrote about her the last time I saw her play a villainess in a Lifetime movie, as the murdering mother Brenda Geck in Family Sins, I wrote that she played the killer mom (who got her sons to be accomplices in her crimes) “neither as raving psycho nor coolly collected psycho but as a woman constantly on the defensive, able so totally to compartmentalize her mind (what George Orwell called ‘doublethink’) that she can not only declare herself the world’s greatest mother and get other people to believe her but believe it herself as well.” She shows the same skill here — and she’s matched by Jennifer Finnigan, who manages to be just as tough as Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit without being either as self-consciously butch or as annoyingly schoolmarmish. Finnigan’s combination of little-slip-of-a-girl appearance, implacable will and surprising toughness and skill with the action scenes is remarkable, eminently watchable and makes me wish the Halmis and Lifetime would get together and build a series around this remarkable actress and her character here.

Pioneers of Television/Crime Dramas (PBS, 2011)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched one of the PBS shows that had accumulated in my backlog, an episode of the Pioneers of Television series dealing with crime dramas and hitting the expected high points of early TV’s crime shows: Dragnet, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and I Spy along with such later 1970’s phenomena as Police Woman and Columbo. The show touched on how TV’s policiers managed to break down racial (I Spy) and gender (Police Woman) barriers basically by not making a big deal about them: Robert Culp recalled how he had to fight to keep Bill Cosby as his co-star on I Spy (though it’s not clear whether the “suits” at NBC objected to Cosby because he was Black or they were afraid that, as someone whose previous career had been entirely as a stand-up comedian, he couldn’t act — or maybe a little of both), to the point where he told the network, “If you replace him, you’ll have to replace me too.” Perhaps the most interesting segment was about Dragnet because it went into some depth about just how Jack Webb — who was not only the star of Dragnet but also its producer, frequently its director and clearly its auteur — got the effects, including the famous clipped monotone with which not only he but also virtually everyone on the cast delivered their lines and the emphasis on close-ups.

It seems that Webb had once watched an old Western movie on TV and realized that, especially given the poor reception and small screen size of 1950’s TV sets, vast, panoramic vistas that looked impressive on a movie screen just looked flat and dull on TV. (I have a joke I’ve repeated fairly often on what it would be like to watch Lawrence of Arabia in a letterboxed print on a normal-sized TV: “You see that big expanse of desert? You see those two little dots in the middle of all that desert? Well, that little dot is Peter O’Toole, and that other little dot right next to it is Anthony Quinn.”) So Webb decided to shoot Dragnet almost exclusively in close-ups, and while the tennis-match back-and-forth cutting between Webb as Joe Friday and whoever it was he was interrogating did get a little old and stale after a while, it did allow his actors to show emotion with their faces that they couldn’t show with their voices due to the clipped, even, flat line deliveries he insisted on. Dragnet was also the first fiction show to use a teleprompter; instead of having the actors memorize their dialogue as usual, Webb wanted them to read it off the teleprompter. This both cut down production time — an episode that would have taken five days to shoot with the actors speaking memorized dialogue only took a day and a half with the actors reading their lines off the prompter (a throwback to Dragnet’s early days as a radio show — radio shows were always performed as readings; on the rare occasions radio producers tried to have their actors speak memorized dialogue, the little slips and hesitations between and during lines audiences wouldn’t be bothered by if they were watching the performance live or on film proved intolerable to people who were just listening) — and helped Webb get the flat, emotionless delivery he was after. One of the most fascinating interviewees on this program was a woman who took a job as a guest star on Dragnet, came to the set line-perfect for the whole part, and got chewed out by Jack Webb and told to use the prompter. So she had to struggle and keep turning her head between the camera and the prompter — until Webb said, “We can’t use this. It looks like you’re reading it.” “I am reading it,” she said, whereupon Webb, for the first and apparently last time in the history of Dragnet, let her perform her role from memory.

As the show progressed it started getting into more recent shows that I had seen when they first aired, including Columbo (which I found utterly delightful for the same reason everyone else did: Peter Falk’s amazing, amusing, often irritating characters — sometimes you actually started feeling sorry for the bad guys as he continually badgered them until they confessed) and Mannix (which I liked because it aired just as I was getting interested in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and in the 1970’s the Mannix character was as close as you could get to seeing anyone like Philip Marlowe on TV), along with Hawai’i Five-0 (an O.K. show whose principal attraction was the sheer energy level of Jack Lord’s performance, though this documentary gave it points not only for shooting on the Hawai’ian Islands but showing Hawai’i’s actual racial mix of populations, including Polynesians, Japanese and Chinese — though the “novelty” of an Asian detective in Hawai’i was nothing new to fans of Charlie Chan, whom Earl Derr Biggers based on a real Chinese-born detective on the Honolulu Police Department’s homicide squad). I don’t remember ever seeing Police Woman when it was new, though Angie Dickinson’s bad-ass female detective is the obvious ancestress of every lady cop on TV since, especially in her audacious straddling of the line between butch and femme. It was interesting that Dickinson’s then-husband Burt Bacharach refused to write the theme song for the show because he thought it was silly, and that the one script she refused was one that would have required her to drive an 18-wheel truck — she said that though she might be able to hold her own in fight scenes with bigger but less well-trained men, she didn’t have the musculature to handle a big rig. The show alluded to Dickinson’s experience making Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawks, who was famous for making his women “one of the boys,” which probably prepped her for this series.

It also made the distinction between Dragnet and The Untouchables, particularly in the amount of violence — Dragnet was understated and kept most of the violence off-screen (Webb was concerned less with the depiction of actual crime than with its aftermath, and in particular with the details of the police investigations of crimes) while The Untouchables seems over-the-top even now in its open brutality, though at least producer Desi Arnaz and his directors cut away from the actual bloodletting. (The narrator also made a pretty funny mistake when he identified the real Elliot Ness as an FBI agent; he was actually a U.S. Treasury agent.) Indeed, one of the oddest things about this show was it revealed how crucial Lucille Ball’s role was in creating a lot of the crime shows that defined the genre in the 1960’s even though her own fame was as a comedienne; it seems that Lucy was so popular even after she and Arnaz split in 1960 (and she retained control of Desilu Studios until she sold it, and its franchises, to Paramount in the late 1960’s) that she could get just about any series she sponsored on the air on her network, CBS. It was the post-Desi, pre-Paramount Desilu that originated Mission: Impossible, Hawai’i Five-0 and Mannix — and when Martin Landau and his then-wife Barbara Bain left Mission: Impossible over a salary dispute they were replaced by Leonard Nimoy, just coming off his three-year run as Spock in the original Star Trekanother show Lucille Ball green-lighted for production at Desilu (something even Charles hadn’t realized). I remember getting into an argument once with someone who said he didn’t like Lucille Ball because he preferred watching more serious TV, like Star Trek — and my voice rose to its “indignant” level as I said, “If it hadn’t been for Lucille Ball there wouldn’t have been a Star Trek!” It’s a testimony to Lucy’s skill as a talent-spotter and show-picker that her successes ran so far outside her own genre.