Thursday, October 31, 2013

Freaks (MGM, 1932)

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

I did want to comment on the strange and beautiful movie TCM showed last night, which for once I watched “live” as it aired instead of recording it and getting to it later: Freaks, the 1932 film directed by Tod Browning (though his credit simply reads “Tod Browning’s Production of Freaks” and the only other behind-the-camera credit goes to writer Tod Robbins, whose story “Spurs” was the inspiration) that became a Hollywood legend both when it was released and when it was rediscovered in the 1960’s after having been thought lost for decades. Freaks began with MGM production chief Irving Thalberg noted the grosses on Universal’s pioneering talkie horror films Dracula and Frankenstein and told his most macabre director, Tod Browning, to give him something “more horrible than Frankenstein.” At least that’s the version Jon Douglas Eames told in his book The MGM Story, though there are other sources that have Thalberg green-lighting Freaks before Frankenstein was even released. Browning drew on his background in the circus to create a story in which carnival freaks would be the heroes and people of normal size, gender and appearance (except for a couple of juvenile leads) would be the bad guys. The inspiration was “Spurs,” a story by Tod Robbins dealing with a little person, Jacques Courbe, who works in a circus in France until he inherits a large estate. He’s smitten with bareback rider Jeanne Marie, but she’s only interested in her riding partner, Simon Lafleur. However, since her boyfriend has no money and Jacques does, Jeanne agrees to marry her, thinking that he won’t live long, she’ll inherit Jacques’ fortune and then she’ll be free to have both the money and Simon. The wedding banquet of Jacques and Jeanne attracts the other freaks in their circus and soon degenerates into a shambles. Jeanne forces Jacques to get on her back so she can humiliate him by carrying him piggy-back, joking that she could take him “from one end of France to the other.” A year later she returns to the circus, unrecognizably disheveled and haggard, and it turns out that Jacques has put on a pair of spurs and literally forced Jeanne to carry him from one end of France to the other. Simon tries to rescue her but Jacques, aided by the wolfhound he used to ride in the circus in a parody of Jeanne’s act, kills him. Jacques boasts, “It is truly remarkable how speedily one can ride the devil out of a woman — with spurs!” Any misgivings Irving Thalberg may have had about green-lighting a movie with such a weird plot were cast aside by the fact that one of MGM’s biggest silent-era hits had been The Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning from a story by Tod Robbins, and that along with Lon Chaney, Sr. the cast of The Unholy Three had included the superb little-person actor Harry Earles, who would be perfect for the dwarf lead in Freaks and indeed was eager to play the role. (Earles had a fairly substantial career in the late 1920’s, repeating his Unholy Three role in Jack Conway’s sound remake — Lon Chaney, Sr.’s only talkie — and also playing a marvelous part in an early Laurel and Hardy short called Sailor Beware; Earles and his vampy girlfriend pose as a mother and baby to rob the other passengers of an ocean liner, and the film’s highlight is Earles and Stan Laurel gambling and Earles relieving Laurel of all his money: the irony is Earles is in baby drag but he’s acting like an adult but Laurel is a full-grown adult with the intelligence and maturity of a child.)

As the story developed — and though a plethora of writers were involved in Freaks, including “names” like Charles MacArthur and comedy specialist Al Boasberg as well as Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon and Edgar Allan Woolf (who seven years later would work on The Wizard of Oz, which employed some of the little people used in Freaks, including Harry Earles), the story and script were clearly from Browning’s own demented imagination — Browning expanded the film to include all sorts of freaks, from pinheads to bearded ladies to half-men/half-women (there are enough gender-bending characters in Freaks, including one pinhead who was passed off as female but was in fact male, though he wore a dress both on- and off-stage because he claimed dresses were more comfortable and easier to clean, that it practically qualifies as a Transgender movie) to “half-man” Johnny Eckstrom (who performed as “Johnny Eck” and was essentially missing the lower half of his body) and “human torso” Prince Randian (who lived only two years after making Freaks, though the most interesting part of his biography is that he had been born in British Guiana, lived in Paterson, New Jersey — also the home town of Lou Costello — and had a wife, four daughters and a son; a director even more twisted than Browning could have got a fascinating, if bizarre, movie out of Prince Randian’s home life and especially his sex life) as well as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who 19 years later would star in another movie that’s more interesting than you’d think, Chained for Life) and another little person, Angelo Rossitto, who like Harry Earles would go on to a semi-major career in films, including playing opposite Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes and Scared to Death and making something of a comeback in the 1970’s. The plot of Freaks deals with the Rollo Bros. circus — a few bits of French on the soundtrack hint that Browning kept the French setting of Robbins’ tale but didn’t stress it — which, as Variety noted, is just a one-ring affair but “carries three times as many high-class freaks as the Ringling show ever trouped in one season.” The story is a romantic intrigue in which the little-person stars, Hans and Frieda (Harry Earles and his real-life sister Frieda), are engaged to be married but are broken up by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Her real love — or at least sex — interest is Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Hercules is a brute who’s just been dumped by nice-girl Venus (Leila Hyams), who’s taken up with clown Phroso (Wallace Ford, top-billed — though, unusually for MGM, none of the actors are credited until the end) on the rebound. Cleopatra sneaks off to have her ashes hauled in Hercules’ wagon every chance she gets, but encourages Hans’ attentions because he loans her money and gives her expensive presents. Frieda pleads with Cleopatra to leave Hans alone, but in the process she inadvertently lets slip that Hans is the heir to a fortune — something Hans himself had been smart enough not to tell her. Cleopatra therefore hatches a plot of her own; she’ll marry Hans, knock him off with poison, grab the money and marry Hercules — only at the wedding banquet, one of the film’s two big highlight scenes, the freaks toast her (using the “gabba-gabba” chant later appropriated by the 1970’s punk band the Ramones) and declare her “one of us.” Her revulsion gets the better of her greed and she takes the loving cup she’s offered, spills it over the freaks, and tells them, “You’re just a bunch of stinking freaks!” — then stalks off.

She goes on with her attempt to poison Hans, but Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) —who spends so much of his time peering through windows spying on the other characters that if he were alive today he’d probably qualify for a job with the NSA — notices what’s going on, and the other freaks gang up and, on a dark and stormy night, gang up on Cleopatra and Hercules and exact their terrible revenge … Freaks is framed by a sequence in which an unseen hand tears away at the placard containing the film’s title and Browning’s and Robbins’ credits and reveals a carnival barker, promoting the freak show’s latest attraction and saying she was once a beautiful woman; in what was obviously supposed to be a big surprise reveal but won’t be to most modern audiences because virtually every book on the history of horror films in the 1930’s has reproduced the still of it, Cleopatra has been transformed into a “chicken woman,” her head mounted on the body of an oversized chicken. (In the film as it stands, her co-conspirator Hercules is dispatched when a tree falls on him, but Browning had an even nastier fate in store for him; he’s heard singing in a high voice as part of the freak show, indicating that the freaks castrated him as part of their revenge. This isn’t medically accurate — in order for a male to retain his high voice as a result of castration, the deed has to be done before puberty — and in any case it was so brutal a twist, even for the relatively liberal “pre-Code” early 1930’s, that it was cut from the film almost immediately after release and no copies of that footage are known to exist.) According to the commentary during last night’s TCM screening, featuring Robert Osborne and guest programmer Gilbert Gottfried (who picked a really eclectic list of movies, including the 1940 Of Mice and Men, the 1968 film The Swimmer — with Burt Lancaster in a satire of modern suburbia — and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation, a tale of a private eye who’s an expert on bugging; because of when it was released it was read as a metaphor for Watergate, but Coppola had conceived the story years before the Watergate break-in occurred), the “chicken” makeup had actually been created by Lon Chaney, Sr. for an unnamed project that was abandoned after his death of throat cancer in 1930.

I first saw Freaks as part of a horror revival showing in San Francisco in the early 1970’s and was blown away by it, though it’s been controversial since it was made and the debate over it in critical circles has always been over whether Browning sincerely wanted to show us the freaks as noble, decent people, morally superior to the movie’s physically normal characters, or whether he was exploiting them as thoroughly as their employers in circuses and carnivals from which he’d hired them. “Freaks is guilty of the crime it denounces,” said Surf Theatre programmer Tom Luddy in his notes on the film, and more recent commentators have suggested that the film comes off more exploitative than Browning intended because many of the lines that made the freaks seem more human were cut out of the final release. Some of the freaks who appeared in the film later denounced it and expressed their shame at having done it, while others were proud of it. The freaks were so disconcerting to others on the MGM lot that — except for the Earleses and the Hiltons — they weren’t allowed in the studio commissary and had to take their lunches during breaks on the set. Browning originally wanted an “A”-list cast for his film, but his first choices for the key non-freak roles — Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Jean Harlow as Venus and Myrna Loy as Cleopatra — all turned him down because they were revolted by the subject matter. I’ve personally blown hot and cold on this movie — when I first saw it in 1971 I loved it, later on I decided Luddy was right and I found it technically accomplished (it’s the only one of Browning’s talkies that’s directed with any real verve and flair; Browning, I suspect largely because the advent of sound coincided with the death of his greatest star and close friend Lon Chaney, Sr., was one silent director who went downhill when talkies took over) but exploitative; this time around I liked it all over again, noting the bits and pieces of dialogue that attempted to humanize the freaks that survived the extensive re-editing, and being amazed that this film even exists, as much as it gets to be slow going sometimes when the freaks (which Browning was smart enough not to give too much screen time to) take center stage — though there are also sequences in which Browning and cinematographer Merritt Gerstad give them an almost beautiful, haunting quality that probably influenced photographer Diane Arbus, who saw this film on one of its earliest revival screenings in 1962 and was inspired by it to take her own famous photos of freaks.

Horror Castle (Atlantica Cinematografica Produzione Films, 1963)

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

I’ve spent much of the morning watching a truly odd movie on TCM, Horror Castle, an oddball Italian production from 1963 directed by “Anthony Dawson” (true name: Antonio Margheriti) and co-written by him, Ernesto Gastaldi and Edmond T. Gréville from a novel by Frank Bogart (presumably no relation). It’s an odd movie not in the sense that it’s any good, but that it’s so reliant on horror clichés that it achieves a level of near-plotlessness. It opens in a decaying Gothic castle somewhere in Germany, where Mary Hunter (Rosanna Podesta, eight years after she played the title role in Robert Aldrich’s Helen of Troy) awakes in a giant bed to find her husband Max (Georges Rivière) isn’t in bed with her — and she hears screams that sound like someone being tortured in their basement. Then we get the credits — including a series of restoration credits actually superimposed over the original images (though one thing they didn’t restore is the correct spelling of actor Christopher Lee’s first name — they left out the first “h” in 1963 and it hasn’t been corrected since) — and a dull piece of exposition in which a local doctor (Luigi Severini) and FBI agent John Selby (Jim Dolen), who’s on the trail of Nazi war criminals, explain that two hundred years earlier the castle was the domain of “The Punisher,” a red-cloaked executioner who would identify women who had transgressed against the sexual mores of the time and bring them to the castle’s basement, where he would torture them to death. Just about the whole movie consists of Mary wandering around the castle while various other characters menace her — including the castle’s butler, Erich (Christopher Lee, oddly made up to look like Montgomery Clift right after his accident), and Frau Marta (Anny Degli Uberti), who looks like she went to the Judith Anderson School of Housekeeping and Charm. There are also various other servant girls around the place, who end up as a revivified Punisher’s latest victims after being introduced by director Dawson in a Cuisinart editing style that leaves one wondering a lot of times during this film, “Who the hell is she?” The castle set itself looks like it was thrown together from bric-a-brac in the Hammer prop room — including two items that look like Egyptian sarcophagi and seem to have been designed (or trapped into service) just because the Mummy franchise was a lucrative source of horror plotting. One of them is the infamous “Virgin of Nuremberg” (that was actually the film’s original Italian title), a sort of ladies’ version of the Iron Maiden to which the Punisher assigned his most sexually transgressive victims.

It’s a pretty silly movie — one wonders if the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew ever took a shot at it; they would have had a field day! — and through most of the movie we’re carefully led to expect a sort of fusion of Rebecca and Gaslight in which Max would turn out to be the revivified Punisher, until Max himself is caught in (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a room connected to a nearby creek so when a valve is turned, it slowly floods with water and drowns the poor, unfortunate soul who’s been locked into it. Instead of Max or any of the other males we’ve actually met during the course of the film, the Punisher turns out to be [surprise!] a skeleton-faced man who looks something like Peter Lorre in Mad Love and is supposed to be Max’s father, captured by the Nazis after he was involved in the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler and, instead of being executed like all the other participants were, subjected to various surgical experiments until he was turned into an ugly, mindless killer. To deliver this exposition, the film stops dead in its tracks for a montage of actual footage of Hitler and the other Nazis (he has enough screen time that lists “Adolf Hitler [archive footage] [uncredited]” in the film’s cast!) followed by some stock footage of surgery in progress that looks like outtakes from They Saved Hitler’s Brain before we get back to the nitty-gritty and see Max (who freed himself from the drowning room when he remembered where the alternate exit was and started punching it out underwater) and Mary get away from the castle just in time while the Punisher immolates himself in the flame that usually burned down the wretched old building at the end of these things. (Roger Corman said he deliberately ended his 1963 film The Terror with the old castle flooding just to get away from the fire with which virtually all his previous period-Gothic films had ended.)

Beset by the usually awful dubbing (bear in mind that some of the actors were Italian, some British and some French, and so dubbing was built into the process; it was pretty routine for Italian directors then — even major ones like Fellini — to post-record virtually all their films’ dialogue because their casts didn’t all speak the same language — though there’s still no earthly excuse for the company in charge of the English-language version to have someone else dub Christopher Lee’s lines instead of Lee doing it himself!) and a virtually nonexistent plot, Horror Castle is one of the dumbest films ever made in a genre that practically invites dumbness, though there are a few shock cuts that probably gave the 1963 theatrical audience at least a few moderate frissons — and it’s also weighed down by a score by Riz Ortolani (whose only well-known credits are for Mondo Cane and its theme song, “More”) which at the beginning of that Gothic prologue goes into a wildly inappropriate big-band ballad that gets reprised every time something normal happens. During the horror scenes (or would-be horror scenes) Ortolani throws everything including the kitchen sink into his score, sometimes sounding like the organ on the old TV version of Lights Out and sometimes ripping off Wagner (a five-note motif from Siegfried’s Funeral March that only reminds one of the use made of that magnificent score in a far better film, 1933’s The Ghoul), bits that sit uneasily next to the jazz. It’s a quirky movie but the reaction it’s most likely to engender in a modern audience is, “Why the hell am I wasting my time watching this?”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MASH (Aspen Productions, Ingo Preminger Productions, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970)

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

Last night, as part of their three-month “Film Odyssey” series, Turner Classic Movies ran the film MASH — and yes, that’s the title spelling in the credits: all caps but with no punctuation marks between the letters (TCM’s schedule listed it as M-A-S-H and a lot of sources have it with asterisks between the letters, M*A*S*H, but that was the nomenclature for the TV show, not the film. MASH was based on a novel written by Richard Hooker about his service with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (which is what the initials mean) during the Korean war, and 20th Century-Fox put it in production in 1969 (it was released a year later but the Zeitgeist is really the 1960’s, not either the 1950’s when it takes place or the 1970’s when it was released) with a script by old Leftist Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the original Hollywood 10) and direction by a then 44-year-old director named Robert Altman, who’d done a lot of TV work and made a few films but hadn’t really established himself as a major director until the blockbuster hit status of MASH catapulted him to the A-list. I hadn’t seen MASH since the 1970’s — I caught it theatrically in its initial release and then I’m pretty sure I saw it at a revival screening at the original UC Theatre in Berkeley, the foundation of the Landmark chain — and Charles also hadn’t seen it in decades, though he became convinced that he must have seen a network TV screening that cut down the sheer gore of the operating-room sequences (a surprising amount of MASH is essentially medical porn).

The film gained a reputation for its matter-of-fact denunciation not only of war but of the stupidities of military ritual generally, and its depiction of people who are up to their noses in trying to clean up the messes combat has made of their fellow soldiers’ bodies and use black humor to relieve the stresses of literally having other people’s lives in their hands. It’s an odd movie to watch today because well after the film completed its original release, MASH was turned into a TV show that ran 11 years (twice as long as major combat operations in the Korean War — I put it that way because, as Charles pointed out to be last night, the Korean War is technically still going on; all that officially happened in 1953 was a cease-fire between the U.S. and North Korea, which are still at least on paper in a state of war with each other) and the series took a considerably gentler, less satirical and more warm point of view towards the material. In that it was actually closer than the movie to the spirit of Richard Hooker’s book, which I read some time after I saw the movie and was similar in terms of the big incidents (though one marvelous tale from Hooker’s novel — the MASH unit’s Korean houseboy, Ho-Jon, wants to get the money to emigrate to the U.S. and go to college, and in order to collect the money the doctors tour him around Korea, proclaim him to be the Second Coming of Jesus, and take in enough from credulous Koreans to give him the nest egg he needs for U.S. immigration and education — isn’t in the film, albeit the TV writers did a dramatization of it later) but was considerably lighter in tone. Seen in 2013, MASH doesn’t seem that innovative — one can tell what electrified audiences about it in 1970 (and why it was a bigger grosser than two other more prestigious and highly publicized war films, Catch-22 and Patton), but it’s badly dated, especially in its appalling sexism.

For all the Left-leaning politics of the rest of the movie — particularly its condemnation of war as stupid and pointless (rather than destructive and evil — we hardly meet anyone who’s actually seen action against the enemy except as slabs of meat on the MASH unit’s operating tables) and the obvious Korea = Viet Nam parallels both Altman and Lardner were clearly keen to make — its treatment of women as sex objects is appalling. The character of Margaret O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), nicknamed “Hot Lips” midway through the movie, becomes the butt of the film’s biggest and most notorious jokes precisely because she doesn’t leap into bed with the three anti-social, anti-Army leads — Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland, giving a much darker, almost slacker-ish reading of the role that will jolt anyone who hasn’t seen this film before and comes to the character thinking of the more homey, friendly Alan Alda!), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould, taking the first step forward in his career that would finally get him out from under the shadow of his former status as Mr. Barbra Streisand); she tries to uphold military discipline and do so in a self-assertive proto-feminist way, and for that the filmmakers slam her by having her fall in love, or at least lust, with the martinet Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), to which the anti-social heroes we’re supposed to love as delightful, roguish scamps respond by wiring their quarters and broadcasting their sexual activities over the camp’s P.A. system, then pulling the curtain off her shower so she’s revealed in the altogether to the entire unit. The whole idea of women as nothing more than toys for men to play with — and to pass around to each other when they’re done with them — seems pretty appalling and reactionary today, marring a film that in its other respects seems to be making a progressive, albeit rather cynical, statement about war and what it does to people.

Indeed, the relentless darkness of MASH is the oddest thing about it ­— a decade later this property wouldn’t have sold unless the filmmakers had lightened up the way their counterparts on TV did — the film in general, and Donald Sutherland’s performance in particular, should be required viewing for anyone who thinks “mumblecore” is a new phenomenon. And the sexism of MASH wasn’t confined to what went on the screen, either; according to an “trivia” poster, Robert Altman and his editor, Danforth P. Greene, put up nude pinups of women on the walls of the editing room. Some “suit” at 20th Century-Fox saw them and sent a memo stating that from then on there were to be no pictures of naked women on the walls of editing rooms — and Altman responded by having the memo recorded and used in the movie as one of the announcements over the MASH’s P.A. system. MASH also anticipates Altman’s later movies in its patchwork story and multiple plot lines — and like a lot of Altman’s works it’s a film more appealing in its parts than as a whole, though for me the big sequence at the end (the football game in which the MASH unit beats a team from an airborne unit) has always seemed a bit “fake,” not only because of the use of John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post march but because the uniforms seem not only too clean but too elaborate (and, as an “goofs” poster, the helmets are from 1969 rather than 1951, when the film supposedly takes place). MASH was interesting to see again — it’s like running into an old friend and finding he’s not quite as you remember him but it’s still nice to have him around for a change — but, though I wouldn’t say it’s an overrated film, there are parts of it (especially its treatment of women — this is a film that makes you realize why there had to be a feminist movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) that date very badly.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Band Waggon (Gaumont-British/Gainsborough, 1940)

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

I ran a movie I’d recently downloaded off Band Waggon [sic], a 1940 Gaumont-British/Gainsborough production based on a then-popular radio show on the BBC starring comedians Arthur Askey and Richard “Stinker” Murdoch. It’s a wild, zany comedy that proves that the no-holds-barred style of British laugh-making did not begin with Monty Python, as a lot of U.S. Python fans assume, but if anything it was a tradition that ended, or at least culminated, with the Pythons. The opening of Band Waggon is an engaging satire of the BBC’s monopsony power (for those of you who missed Econ 102, a “monopoly” is a single seller and a “monopsony” is a single buyer) — if you were a British entertainer and you wanted to get on the radio, until the advent of commercial broadcasting in the U.K. in the early 1950’s the BBC was the only game in town. And in this movie the gatekeeper to the golden airwaves is Claude Pilkington (Peter Gawthorne), a sour old man who dictates a memo lecturing a sportscaster who used “can’t” instead of “cannot” three times in broadcasting a football game (soccer to us) — of course, he himself says “can’t” while dictating his memo — and is being inundated with over 500 bands demanding auditions for the BBC even though Pilkington can’t stand music. The plot of Band Waggon, to the extent it has one, deals with the sheer desperation with which Askey, Murdoch and Jack Hylton’s band (they play themselves and Hylton not only leads his famous orchestra — he was deservedly called the “British Paul Whiteman” — but even sings on a few of the film’s 14 songs) seek an audition. Askey and Murdoch actually camp out on the roof of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s famous headquarters in London, and live there for three months, subsisting on eggs laid by their own chickens and stringing a clothesline between the BBC’s two transmission towers so they can hang their washing. They’re caught when a pair of their long johns gets blown off the line and lands in Pilkington’s face, and later when they lower a can containing water and eggs into the fireplace of a BBC conference room to boil them — and they’re discovered in the middle of a staff meeting. Hylton’s band strings glass across the roadway Pilkington and his driver use every day so his car will develop a flat tire and he’ll be forced to wait while it’s repaired in the roadhouse where the band regularly performs.

Eventually Askey and Murdoch are forced to load all their stuff into a tiny Morris car — and they end up renting a cottage in the country that, unbeknownst either to them or the people who rent it to them, is also the headquarters for a German fifth-column effort that seeks to commandeer the BBC’s experimental TV outlet and use it to broadcast German propaganda. Our Heroes stumble on the TV equipment and use it to produce a show which they intend to jam onto the BBC’s airwaves and thereby get noticed — and hired — at last, and it all ends with a free-for-all in which Askey’s and Murdoch’s pet goat ends up with the Germans’ time bomb (they were planning an act of sabotage somewhere or other) blowing the house to smithereens, providing a spectacular end to the movie as Askey and Murdoch emerge from the rubble and Askey tells the audience, “And that’s how Band Waggon got on the air.” Band Waggon is an appealingly loony comedy that looks backwards and forwards — Charles said Askey and Murdoch as a comedy team sometimes seemed like Abbott and Costello and sometimes like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; I was thinking more along the lines of Wheeler and Woolsey (if only because Askey wears the same sort of round glasses Woolsey did), and like Wheeler and Woolsey and the half-British Laurel and Hardy, they frequently played around with sexual identity: though neither Askey nor Murdoch does drag in this movie (as both Stan Laurel and Bert Wheeler often did), certainly the opening scenes showing them living together in a disused BBC rehearsal hall as well as on the building’s roof look like a domestic comedy (which was probably what had Charles thinking of Lucy and Desi as the Ricardos). Band Waggon is a pretty trivial movie but it’s good fun, and sometimes better than that; it was also nice to see Hylton’s female singer, Patricia Kirkwood (who, like most of the people in this movie, used her own name for her character), because though she’s not homely she’s clearly a woman “of size” and, like the modern singer Adele, seems quite at ease in her body and unwilling to starve herself to concentration-camp-inmate proportions to satisfy the U.S. idea of female attractiveness then or now. She’s also got a quite comfortable and pleasant voice that’s a joy to listen to. Directed by Marcel Varnel (odd that something this thoroughgoingly British would be helmed by a French émigré!) from a script written by the usual committee (no fewer than eight writers are credited), Band Waggon is a minor but very funny little gem that deserves to be better known — even though there were probably a lot of topical references in the script that sail over a modern viewer’s head!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Paramount, Marvel, DMG Entertainment, Disney, 2013)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the DVD of Iron Man 3, which depending on how you count the omnibus multi-hero film The Avengers is either the third or fourth of the current cycle featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as one of Marvel Comics’ second tier of heroes from their golden years in the 1960’s. Like Batman, Iron Man was really a fabulously wealthy tycoon, part of the 0.01 percent, who used his riches to train himself, physically and intellectually, to be a superhero, though Iron Man’s alternate identity, Tony Stark, was also a scientific genius and developed a metal suit and something called “repulsor rays” which gave him the ability to fly — or at least to propel himself in short rocket-like bursts through the air — and were a powerful weapon against baddies. Lacking the angst of Marvel heroes like Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, or the weird family dynamics of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man had a following but not that much of one. (I remember the magazine Not Brand Ecch!, in which Marvel parodied their own heroes, in which Iron Man’s weapon was called “repulsive rays” — and when he fired it at one of the baddies, said baddie said, “Wow! That’s repulsive, all right! What’s in it?,” to which Iron Man replied, “Essence of skunk, I believe.”) When I first heard that Robert Downey, Jr. was going to play him in a big-budget superhero film from Paramount, I was a bit nonplussed because at the time Downey’s reputation was as a man who got so wasted from all the drugs he did that he did weird things like walk into other people’s bedrooms naked, though he’d just made the film The Singing Detective (quite good, actually) and seemed poised for a comeback. The first Iron Man was a big enough hit that it’s spawned two solo sequelae as well as Iron Man’s appearance with the other major Marvel heroes (Spider-Man excepted) in The Avengers, a film Charles and I hadn’t seen and were therefore somewhat at sea watching this one. In particular we were a bit baffled by the references to the “Battle of New York” with which The Avengers concluded — did it simply damage New York or obliterate it completely? (It’s an indication of the cheeky audacity the writing committees on these movies bring to them that they’d pick as the principal terrorist target the city that in fact sustained the greatest damage on September 11, 2001 — not unlike Japan, the only country ever on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, responding by making Godzilla and a whole raft of movie series about monsters either created or unleashed by atomic radiation.)

I’ll say one thing for Iron Man 3; under the command of a new director, Shane Black (who also co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce), for once a modern-day superhero movie was fun, achieving at least some of the campiness of the 1960’s Batman TV series instead of the earnest seriousness of the Christopher Nolan Batmans or the Sam Raimi Spider-Mans. As Charles pointed out, this time around Black and his cinematographer, Jon Toll, as well as the makeup people did not try to reverse the effects of years (some of them pretty wild) on Robert Downey, Jr.’s face and body; he looks like a man in his mid-40’s (he’s in fact 48), and since much of the plot of this movie casts him as a literally homeless person (his home, a state-of-the-art creation that looks like what Richard Neutra would have designed if he’d been inspired by a bunch of mushrooms, has been blown to smithereens by a terrorist attack led by someone or something called “The Mandarin”) with a malfunctioning suit and only sporadic assistance from Jarvis, Stark’s super-computer that serves him much the way John Gielgud served Dudley Moore in Arthur, his seedy appearance is actually appropriate for much of the story. Iron Man 3 actually has a bit more plot than usual in a superhero film of the 21st century — it’s not just a series of action-porn scenes and a few plot contrivances to get from one big action set-piece to the next à la a Republic serial — centering around a super-scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). In 1999 Killian crashes a big New Year’s party at a scientific conference and extracts a promise from Tony Stark to meet him on the roof to discuss a project called AIM for which Killian wants Stark’s research and financial support — only Stark, then still in his pre-Iron playboy days, stands him up because he’s more interested in screwing pretty little dark-haired scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).

Being a character in a comic book-derived fantasy, naturally Killian spends the next 13 years harboring thoughts of revenge, and he achieves them by recruiting Maya to his operation. The two of them create something called “Extremis,” which appears to be a human genetic-modification program that takes ordinary people and runs them through a painful transition, following which they gain super-powers but also become slaves to Killian’s will. Killian also hires an out-of-work actor, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), who’s disgraced himself with drug-fueled antics and thereby wiped out all his chances for an above-ground career (it seems like Black and Pearce were doing a weird in-joke plotline based on Robert Downey, Jr.’s own much-publicized antics while on drugs!), to pose as a super-terrorist called “The Mandarin” who ostensibly heads the terror ring actually commanded by Killian. This is supposed to be a big surprise reveal made only when the film is two-thirds over already, but it’s absolutely no surprise at all, at least to anyone who’s seen more than six movies before in their life. Slattery has been lured by Killian’s promise of all the drugs he can take and all the women he can fuck to make periodic appearances before a video camera — broadcast worldwide through Killian’s high-tech video technology, which can cut in on the world’s TV broadcasts any time he likes — and spout rhetoric which sounds like Noam Chomsky has gone really, really bad: “Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. America. Ready for another lesson? In 1864, in Sand Creek, Colorado, the U.S. Military waited until the friendly Cheyenne Braves had all gone hunting. Waited to attack and slaughter the families left behind. And claim their land. Thirty-nine hours ago, the Ali al-Salam Air Base in Kuwait was attacked. I, I, I did that. A quaint military church, filled with wives and children, of course. The soldiers were out on maneuvers. The ‘Braves’ were away. President Ellis, you continue to resist my attempts to educate you, sir. And now, you’ve missed me again. You don’t know who I am. You don’t know where I am. And you’ll NEVER see me coming.”

Also among the plot lines in this movie are Iron Patriot, a.k.a. War Machine (Don Cheadle), a U.S. government super-soldier equipped with one of Tony Stark’s high-tech suits; a president who’s a grey-haired white male (which probably made more conservative members of the theatrical audience heave sighs of relief after five years they’ve had to look at an African-American in that job for real) and ends up in one of the Iron Patriot suits; a meeting between Stark and a refreshingly unsentimental street kid, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), with whom he has some of the funniest and most sparkling bits of dialogue in the film. It ends with Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, whose presence in this role practically defines “overqualified”) being subjected to Extremis by Killian and apparently gaining superpowers herself — a Mr. and Mrs. Superhero story for Iron Man 4 would actually be a fun and creative way to take the franchise (though perhaps the decision-makers at Marvel figure they’ve done that already with The Fantastic Four) — while at the same time successfully persuading Iron Man to have all his Iron-suits self-destruct (one conceit behind this series is that the suits can fly and use their weaponry whether there are people in them or not) to try to get the burden of him being a superhero off their relationship as it continues after the final spectacular action scene that for once is not an anticlimax (as it was even in something as otherwise finely honed as the 1989 Tim Burton Batman, which if pressed I’d declare the greatest superhero movie of all time). There’s also a cameo appearance by Marvel honcho Stan Lee as the judge of a beauty contest (though both Charles and I missed it) and a final sequence after the credits have concluded in which Tony Stark, who has been doing a film noir-style narration throughout, is revealed to be talking to a doctor and revealing his innermost secrets — only (and this is something neither Charles nor I registered while watching, though it’s clear on the page) he’s not a psychiatrist, or even an M.D. He’s Dr. Bruce Banner, nuclear physicist and also the Incredible Hulk!

The Husband She Met Online (NB Thrilling Films/Lifetime, 2013)

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

Last night I watched the “world premiere” movie on Lifetime, The Husband She Met Online, fitting into their odd series of formula titles (The _____ S/he Met Online, _____ at 17, The Perfect _____) and with a script by Lifetime’s prime auteur (or should I call her a Schreiber, since she makes her personality felt on all her projects no matter which hack-of-the-week directs them?), Christine Conradt. It’s a reasonably good example of the Lifetime formula but it doesn’t really transcend it the way a few of their movies have done. The heroine is Rachel Maleman (Meredith Monroe, who was quite good in the 2006 Lifetime movie Not My Life — a wilder and more far-fetched story than this one but also a more intense and exciting film — but this time just seemed to be going through the motions) — and what was going through Conradt’s mind to assign her heroine, who though she’s a successful professional (a wedding and special-events coordinator for a major hotel) is still a girly-girl at heart, a bizarre name like “male man”? As the movie opens she’s just dumped her boyfriend and co-worker John Anderson (Brett Watson, a pasty-faced man of medium height who looks stolid and dull, just the way Lifetime usually likes its non-psycho leading men) because he got drunk at a business party and ended up having sex with another woman. She’s moved into the spare room of her best friend, Laura (Krista Morin) — who’s having her own relationship problems; she’s just broken up with her boyfriend Roger and then suddenly discovered she’s pregnant by him — and purely for a lark she goes online to meet a new boyfriend. She finds him in Craig Miller (Jason Gray-Stanford, who’s tall, rail-thin and decent-looking but a bit on the prissy side, though he’s attractive enough that we get the impression that just on looks alone she’s trading up from John), only it turns out that not only is Craig up to no good (well, it’s a Lifetime production of a Christine Conradt script, so what did you expect?), he’s been stalking Rachel and doing Web searches of her and he’s got a private detective following him. The detective is Jerry Berman (Bill Lake, the sort of homely, heavy-set guy Lifetime likes as its private eyes— though he probably looks more like a real one than did Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell!) and he’s been hired by Howard Ranton (Tom Berry), father of Craig’s previous girlfriend Dominique (Allison Brennan). It seems that Dominique mysteriously disappeared six months previously, just before Craig turned up in Rachel’s life, only because she didn’t take her credit cards and cell phone with her, her dad is convinced Craig murdered her. It takes a while, but eventually Conradt and her director, Curtis Crawford, give us a flashback sequence showing that he’s right; she got tired of his control-freak tendencies, she announced she was leaving him, he gave the no-one-ever-leaves-me speech and he strangled her then and there.

We’re given a bit of pseudo-Freudian psychology to explain why Craig is such a rotter: it seems that he’s the heir to a huge fortune but the purse strings are controlled, in more ways than one, by his mother Doris (Mimi Kuzyk), who’s objected to every girlfriend Craig has ever dated and has made it clear he’s not getting the family fortune (from whatever business it was accumulated in — Conradt couldn’t care less about minor details like that) until he marries someone of whom she does approve. Craig also has a younger brother, Ryan (Damon Runyan, who though he looked enough like Jason Gray-Stanford to be believable as his brother struck me as much sexier and, indeed, the only truly hot guy in this film), who’s married to a mousy woman named Tasha (Cinthia Burke). Needless to say, Ryan is involved in his brother’s criminal schemes up to his fancy haircut — he even knocks off Rachel’s ex, John (ya remember John?), when he’s worried John is getting too close to the truth — but the clueless Tasha has no idea until the private detective shows up at the end after Craig has decided he’s going to marry Rachel immediately and fly her to Belize (I’m presuming they have no extradition treaty with the U.S.), where the two of them shall live happily ever after on Craig’s share of the wealth and income of the 1 percent. Just before one commercial break we see Rachel, whose suspicions have finally been aroused by the visit of the detective and her own online search for information on the disappearance of Dominique Ranton (did Conradt deliberately intend her name to resemble Dominique Francon, the heroine of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead?), begging off the relationship and saying they need time to work out whether this is what they both want, and after we return from the commercials we see Rachel tied to Craig’s bed with heavy chains. No, they haven’t suddenly discovered an interest in bondage (though given the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequelae, a plot in which a man from the 1 percent subjugates and turns a lower-status woman into his sex slave through subjecting her to increasingly extreme S/M might have been both a good deal more interesting and a good deal more popular than the film we actually have!); this is Craig’s idea of persuading Rachel to be a good little girl and marry him. Craig’s brother Ryan is also on the scene and Rachel pleads with him to untie her — in vain, of course.

By saying he’ll kill her friend Laura (ya remember Laura?) if she doesn’t, Craig forces Rachel to get into his car, drive to the town hall and undergo the marriage ceremony, and on the way he stops the car to let out Rachel’s dog Cody, saying that she can’t take the pooch with them and either Craig will tie him to the back of their car or she’ll have to set him free. Craig should just have shot the mutt, because Cody is picked up by a passing truck driver and, though Craig removed his collar and identification tag, Rachel had implanted him with a microchip, through which the authorities at the humane society are able to trace him to Laura, so both the private detective and the official police are on the scene when Craig arrives at the airport, intending to have his pilot (Corry Burke) fly him and Rachel to Belize in his Learjet. The cops arrive in the nick of time, the pilot — who, like Tasha Miller, had no idea Craig was involved in anything illegal — gets nonplussed when Craig holds a gun on him and orders him to fly out in defiance of the authorities, and official police detective Eve Millstrom (Catherine Mary Stewart) takes advantage of Craig’s momentary confusion (hold the gun on Rachel or his pilot?) to blow him away. There’s a weird little tag scene in which Rachel is out walking in the park with Laura and her baby (ya remember Laura’s baby?), when Rachel runs into another man, whom we’re obviously supposed to read as the nice guy who’s going to be a good boyfriend for her and help her get over the traumas of Craig … either that or Conradt is setting up an equally dire sequel, The Husband She Met in the Park. It was obvious from Conradt’s usual formulae that she was setting John up for one of the two fates that befall nice guys who either used to date the heroine or had an unrequited crush on her before the perfect guy she met online came into the picture — either he’s going to be there to get her on the rebound at the end or Conradt is going to knock him off halfway through — and in this case she chose the latter. The Husband She Met Online is a decent piece of Lifetime-style entertainment, neither especially good nor especially bad, filled with people who are neither especially sexy nor especially homely (except for Cinthia Burke), with Christine Conradt’s writing and Curtis Crawford’s direction also neither especially good nor especially bad; the viewers of this fare no doubt got what they were expecting (certainly I did) but without the twists and turns some other writers and directors (as well as Conradt herself in some of her scripts) have used to add piquance to the basic Lifetime stew.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Nitwits (RKO, 1935)

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

The film was The Nitwits, a 1935 RKO vehicle for their star comedians Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey, who’d been making movies for six years and were sort of bread-and-butter stars there, making cheap movies that produced reliable profits and helped fund the rest of the RKO output. They were also a training ground for up-and-coming directors, whom RKO usually started on the comedy shorts of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough; if they did well there, they would get to do Wheeler and Woolsey films; and if they did that one well, they would get the premiere assignment RKO had to offer an aspiring director: a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. This one was directed by George Stevens, a young man who’d started as Leo McCarey’s assistant at Hal Roach Studios and cinematographer on some of the early Laurel and Hardy classics McCarey directed — and yes, that training really shows through in this movie. His next film after The Nitwits, the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Alice Adams, would put him firmly on the “A” list, and the year after that he’d get his Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time. The Nitwits is a peculiar combination of slapstick comedy, murder mystery and old-dark-house thriller; it’s set in the building occupied by the Lake music publishing company, whose slogan is, “Lake Songs Make the Whole World Sing.” We see a Lake song doing that very thing in the opening sequence — after an inventive set of credits in which the title and names of the cast and crew are shown as perforations on a player-piano roll (which, as Charles noted, is traveling in the opposite direction from a real one) — in which a young man (Joey Ray) with a nice voice is singing Lake’s latest hit, “You Opened My Eyes.”

The song is picked up by a woman (Joan Andrews) with almost no voice at all, then by a decent if unspectacular vocal trio, as it makes the rounds of practice rooms and CEO Winfield Lake (Hale Hamilton) decides it’s got such great hit potential he’s going to drop everything else and make it his company’s number one priority. The Lake company occupies most of the building but there are a few other businesses there, including a cigar stand run by Johnny (Bert Wheeler) and Newton (Robert Woolsey). Johnny is madly in love with Lake’s secretary, Mary Roberts (Betty Grable, five years before she achieved superstardom at 20th Century-Fox; it’s a nothing part any reasonably attractive young woman could have played, but there’s an absolutely marvelous moment in which Lake, who’s married, is putting the make on her; he puts his hand on her wrist and she politely lifts it off her and says, “I’d rather you not do that again,” a surprisingly mature depiction of sexual harassment for a 1935 film!), and also a costume company (which becomes significant later). Newton is also an amateur inventor who’s just come up with a set of electrodes that fit on either side of a person’s head and are supposed to be able to get the person to tell his innermost thoughts — one contributor about this film said he thought the U.S. could have used this at Guantánamo (though if they had they’d have probably got a lot of people saying things like, “I’m not a terrorist! That awful brother-in-law who’s never liked me sold me out to you!”) — and the murder plot thickens when Lake receives a written extortion demand from a mysterious super-criminal called “The Black Widow.” Lake and his wife (Evelyn Brent, on her way down as Stevens and Grable were on their way up) decide to call in private detective William Darrell (Fred Keating), whom they’d used on a case before — and the moment he arrives he’s so smarmy and self-righteous we’re almost certain he’s going to turn out to be the killer even though the movie throws us a lot of red herrings.

Among them are the composer of “You Opened My Eyes,” George Clark (Erik Rhodes — whom it’s odd to hear speak with his normal voice, or what I assume was his normal voice, instead of the marvelous faux-Italian accent he used in the Astaire-Rogers Gay Divorcée and Top Hat), and Lurch (Arthur Aylesworth), a shriveled man who hangs around the Lake office and insists that virtually anything anybody says there — including something as innocuous as “Good morning” — is ripped off from one of his songs. (Charles said he should be alive today; he’d make a great patent troll.) Anyway, the extortionist kills Lake by moving aside the chandelier on the ceiling of his office (obviously the killer is on the floor just above) and sticking his gun through a hole in the ceiling. What follows is a surprisingly creepy Old Dark House-style movie interspersed with some quite inventive gags, notably one in which Mary is arrested for murdering Lake and Johnny and Newton figure out a weird way to visit her in jail; they hang out outside the jail wearing stilts, which almost raise them to the level of the second-floor window of her cell, and they sing “Music in My Heart,” the song Johnny and Mary had previously danced to on the staircase of the Lake office building (shot with an elaborate traveling camera; I suspect Stevens borrowed the famous “Astaire-Rogers crane,” which RKO had devised to film the Fred-and-Ginger dances in the single, uninterrupted take Astaire insisted on; the joke on the lot was that the person pushing the crane had to be as agile as Astaire and Rogers were!). They get a lot of curious looks from the male prisoners; The Nitwits was one of the first films to bear a Production Code seal (#839) but it still had a bit of the cheekiness of the so-called “pre-Code” era! The finale is an elaborate chase scene in the building in which Johnny and Newton trap Darrell in Newton’s “truth detector” machine, Darrell says, “I’m the Black Widow!” — and our two nitwits don’t believe him even though he is the killer.

Through much of the chase he wears a skin-tight skeleton suit appropriated from that costume company, and he runs into a group of five Black people playing a crap game — their leader, “Sleepy” (Willie Best, playing the same racist garbage as usual even though some of his gags are genuinely funny for a change), worked there as a janitor and thought of sneaking his crew in the building because the cops had staked out their other locations (anticipating by about 15 years the central plot gimmick of Guys and Dolls!), only of course, being 1930’s movie Blacks, they’re scared shitless and flee at the sight of him. While it’s not part of the top tier of Wheeler and Woolsey films — I’d rate Half Shot at Sunrise, Hold ’Em Jail, Cracked Nuts and the marvelous Peach-o-Reno ahead of it — The Nitwits is genuinely amusing, written by Fred Guiol (who briefly cracked the directorial ranks at Roach and RKO before reverting to screenwriting and eventually working on a number of George Stevens’ big movies, including Gunga Din and Giant) and Al Boasberg from a story by mystery pulp writer Stuart Palmer ( records three other writers who worked on the gags, including Grant Garrett, future RKO “B” producer Leslie Goodwins and Stevens himself), and directed by Stevens with an awareness of the slapstick lessons he’d learned from working for Leo McCarey on Laurel and Hardy movies at Roach; it’s also got two good songs (plus a gag one, ripped off from the “Lon Chaney’s Going to Get You If You Don’t Watch Out” song in MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929), personable performances by the stars and, in Betty Grable, a far more appealing and tolerable leading lady than their usual one, the annoying Dorothy Lee. Interestingly, lists no other movie with The Nitwits as its title, and it was nice finally to see the player-piano credit sequence restored; when I first saw the film in the 1980’s it was in a C&C Television print that freeze-framed the start of the credits to insert their logo in place of RKO’s!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Son of Sinbad (RKO, 1953; released 1955)

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

The film was Son of Sinbad, one of Howard Hughes’ personal productions during the seven years (1948 to 1955) he owned RKO Radio Pictures, and a pretty generic Arabian Nights adventure but one with some truly weird curveballs thrown at the audience that probably reflect Howard Hughes’ own obsessions. As is well known, Hughes maintained a sort of Hollywood harem; he would sign literally hundreds of attractive, hot-looking Hollywood girls with hopes of breaking into movies, put them up in motel rooms or small bungalows, maybe occasionally visit them (or not), maybe actually offer them a minor part in a film (or not), and then forget about them, leaving them to collect a regular paycheck from his organization but otherwise do nothing. Son of Sinbad is the sort of movie a man with that sort of hobby might make — especially if he were also a recluse who was increasingly out of touch with normal humanity and normal standards of human behavior, and whose whole idea of the rest of human existence came from everybody else’s movies. Son of Sinbad was made in 1953, though it wasn’t released until 1955 (which probably reflects both Hughes’ obsessive tendency to pick things apart and the reaction of the Production Code Administration to the many scenes of exotic dancing in this film and the scantily clad harem girls and other female performers), and it was recently shown by Turner Classic Movies as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Vincent Price.

Sinbad, son of Sinbad, is played by Dale Robertson, a rambunctious young scamp (and quite a hot-looking man, especially in the frequent shots of him shirtless, but for all the attempts of Hughes’ more recent biographers to “out” him posthumously as Bisexual, Hughes was far more interested in cheesecake than beefcake and the movie shows it), who’d much rather crash the harem of the Caliph of Baghdad (Leon Askin) and dally with the harem girls than do anything particularly heroic. His sidekick Omar Khayyam — yes, that Omar Khayyam — feeds him lines of poetry, Cyrano-style, to make Sinbad’s wooing more effective. Omar is played by Vincent Price, who approaches this part with the same double game he would use in a lot of his horror films (especially the dementedly silly ones he made in the 1960’s at American International): he rolls his eyes, smiles at the audience and overacts so relentlessly that to a sufficiently savvy viewer he’s letting us in on the joke: “I know you don’t take any of this seriously — and I don’t either!” Sinbad son of Sinbad is attracted to so many women in the story it’s hard to keep track of them all — and though some of them are dark-haired and some of them are blonde, they’re otherwise pretty much built to the same specifications: lithe, almost boyish and (mostly) small-breasted (despite Hughes’ much talked-about breast obsession that led him to sign Jane Russell, one of only two women — Jean Harlow was the other — who passed through the Hughes machine and became enduring stars) — but the three who stand out, at least in terms of screen time and billing, are Ameer (Sally Forrest), Nerissa (Lili St. Cyr, a star stripper whom Hughes signed for the role), and Kristina (Mari Blanchard, who later signed with Universal-International and remade Marlene Dietrich’s role in the 1954 version of Destry Rides Again).

For about the first hour of its 91-minute running time not much happens in Son of Sinbad except Sinbad breaks into the harem, dillies with one girl, dallies with another, and the action periodically stops for a belly dance — indeed, there are at least four major dance sequences in the film, practically enough to qualify Son of Sinbad as a musical even though no one sings (which is probably just as well) — until an action plot finally develops. It seems Baghdad is being menaced by the conquering Mongol hordes led by Tamerlane, who isn’t shown as an on-screen character but his lieutenant Murad (Ian McDonald) is. Sinbad and Omar have just been captured by the Caliph, who’s threatening to execute them, but they come up with a way to evade it: they offer to crash Murad’s camp and steal back the secret of “Greek fire,” a primitive explosive which apparently really existed; as an contributor explained, “Attributed to the ancient Greeks, it was composed of pitch or bitumen, sulfur, and other ingredients. It was used in naval warfare and the Romans also made use of it. With the fall of the ancient Western world, it was temporarily forgotten, but it was rediscovered by the Arabs, from whom European Crusaders also learned the method of making it.” Sinbad and Omar are counting on the help of the Forty Thieves, who have lived in a cave redoubt in the desert since the days of Ali Baba — only it turns out [spoiler alert!] that the Forty Thieves are women, the daughters of the originals who took over the family business after Ali Baba had their dads put to death (at least I think that’s what the script said). All of a sudden, this heavy-duty male-chauvinist fantasy becomes a proto-feminist film, as the chiffon-clad women take on Murad’s men and, armed with Greek fire — which they use partly as a sort of primitive bomb (Sinbad takes metal canisters full of it, attaches them to chains, swings them like bolos and lets them fly at the enemy) and partly to tip their arrows with so they can shoot flaming arrows at the baddies.

The staging of the final battle scene is a dead giveaway that the film was originally shot in 3-D — we get plenty of those flaming arrows aimed directly at the camera — though by the time Hughes had finished battling with the censors over the sexually explicit dances he insisted on putting into the film (Production Code Administration head Joe Breen had ruled the film in violation of the Code for “indecent dance movements and too scanty costuming”) two years had gone by, so many rotten films had been released in 3-D that it was the kiss of death at the box office, and instead Hughes cropped the film to wide-screen format and issued it as an RKO SuperScope presentation (RKO’s competitor to CinemaScope after other studios realized that though 20th Century-Fox had trademarked the CinemaScope name, the basic technology — French inventor Henri Chrétien’s anamorphic lens, which “squeezed” the image during filming, and the decoder lens for the projector that opened it up again so the people looked normal but the frame was twice as wide — was in the public domain, so any studio could use it as long as they called it something else and could get someone to grind the lenses for them, which was tougher than a lot of them realized). The Turner Classic Movies print was obviously from the original 1.33-1 version, since it was framed for that screen aspect ratio and did not betray the God-awful framing typical of a wide-screen movie that’s been panned-and-scanned to fit into the 1.33-1 box of an old-fashioned TV set. (Modern-day TV sets are at the digital-TV and digital-theatre projection standard of 1.78-1, and I’ve seen TCM showings on a modern digital TV in which the top and bottom of the screen disappear — leaving a lot of actors with the tops of their heads cut off.)

Son of Sinbad was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, a former cinematographer (his most famous credit in that craft was Hitchcock’s Notorious) who turned director and scored an early hit with The Window, a 1949 film noir that managed to be quite exciting, unnerving and properly despairing despite the leading character being a child — and an obnoxious Disney child, Bobby Driscoll, at that. (Driscoll had starred in Son of the South and So Dear to My Heart for the Mouse Machine and, since RKO was still Walt Disney’s distributor at the time, it was easy for RKO to borrow Driscoll from Disney for the role.) Alas, Tetzlaff’s directorial career never took off the way it should have, and for a quite common reason: lack of good material. Here he got stuck with a script by Aubrey Wisberg (who in the 1940’s had written some of Universal’s sillier horror films) and Jack Pollexfen (who would become an independent producer-director specializing in science fiction), apparently with an uncredited assist on the screenplay construction by one Jeff Bailey (what, did Howard Hughes catch him talking to a real-life Leftist one day?), which makes little sense as a movie but is a lot of fun in terms of its reflection of — and indulgence in — Howard Hughes’ obsessions, even though Wisberg and Pollexfen seem bizarrely unaware of the campier aspects of their script and aren’t playing anywhere nearly as artful a balancing act as David Mathews did in an even cheesier but better Arabian Nights film from 1951, The Magic Carpet. Still, no doubt Son of Sinbad gave Howard Hughes what he wanted — lots of glimpses of nubile female flesh and a chance to amortize at least some of his investment in all those young starlets he had stashed all over Hollywood — and seen today it’s an amusing movie, and to this Gay male viewer at least Dale Robertson is fun to look at (despite his underdeveloped nipples) and to any viewer Vincent Price ought to be fun to watch, playing with an awareness of the idiocy of his material without condescending to it: a skill that would keep him at least a niche-market star for decades to come even though he’d get saddled with even worse scripts than this!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Showed Under (Warner Bros./First National, 1936)

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

The film was Snowed Under, fourth and last in the recordings I made from TCM of films featuring Glenda Farrell (they actually did a whole day of her movies as part of the “Summer Under the Stars” series last August, but most of the others they showed — including acknowledged classics like Little Caesar, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Gold Diggers movies in which she appeared, as well as some of the Torchy Blane series films — were items I already had) and an engaging little 1936 comedy that’s a pretty obvious ripoff of Seven Keys to Baldpate. Broadway producer Arthur Layton (Porter Hall) is exasperated because the continued existence of his company is dependent on the success of a new play by his star writer, Alan Tanner (George Brent, top-billed). Only Tanner’s writing has fallen off drastically in the two years since he broke up with his first wife, Alice Merritt (Genevieve Tobin, who was probably relieved for once to be playing the “good girl” instead of the femme fatale who broke up the hero’s relationship with the “good girl”!), who set up an interior-design salon after the divorce but isn’t doing too well financially. On the rebound — the term is actually used in the script by Laurence Saunders, F. Hugh Herbert and Brown Holmes — Tanner married Daisy Lowell (Glenda Farrell), only that marriage also soured and left Tanner single again with an outstanding alimony bill of $1,200 — which he has no way of paying unless he can come up with a workable third act to the play he’s working on for Layton. Tanner decides to repair to his country house in Bridgeport, Connecticut for the weekend and crank out a new third act to replace the three he’s already written and Layton has rejected as unproducably terrible — only his sanctum sanctorum is invaded by Alice (sent there by Layton to see if she can inspire him to a great third act the way she used to when they were married), local sheriff’s deputy Orlando Rowe (Frank McHugh, even whinier than usual if such a thing is possible), attorney McBride (John Eldredge) who’s representing Rosie in her suit for back alimony, Rosie herself and Tanner’s current girlfriend, Pat Quinn (Patricia Ellis), a nice and naïve young girl who hasn’t the foggiest notion what she’s getting herself into.

With all three women in Tanner’s life — past, present (or more recently past) and (presumably) future — on the scene with him in a remote locale, Snowed Under begins to seem like a straight version of a Jane Chambers play (Chambers was a pioneering Lesbian playwright who died of cancer in 1983; her plays generally centered around a Lesbian who invited her past, present and hopefully future girlfriends to an isolated spot for the weekend), and though the conflicts aren’t all that interesting it’s still a very entertaining and reasonably amusing film. George Brent is playing a light enough role that his deficiencies as an actor — his stiffness and woodenness (judging from Bette Davis’s comments about him over the years, he probably got a lot of parts mainly because his female co-stars wanted to bed him; she describes him in person as devastatingly attractive but he comes off on screen as just rather ordinarily good-looking, the reverse of legends like Valentino and Monroe whose friends described them as no more than decently attractive in person but who radiated irresistible sensuality on screen) — aren’t much of a problem this time around. Genevieve Tobin is actually surprisingly credible as the voice of reason — the payoff is that she and Brent are going to reconcile and Layton ends up with two third acts for his play, one written by Tanner at his maid’s home and one by Alice — and Patricia Ellis is good as the nice girl we don’t want to see drawn into Tanner’s crazy life. Eventually the writers and director Ray Enright (a hack as usual, but at least an energetic cog in the Warners machine — though this is one of those movies that’s a Warner Bros. production in the opening credits and a First National picture in the closing ones) pair off Tanner and Alice, Pat and lawyer McBride, and Rosie with Orlando (as in Mystery of the Wax Museum, they stick Glenda Farrell with Frank McHugh at the end and once again waste this very talented actress in a “stick” gold-digger role) — and they don’t make as much as they could have of the irony that the play Tanner is working on mirrors his own life: it’s about a man who leaves one woman, falls for another but doesn’t stay with her either. Instead he decides he hates women and goes off on his own — and that’s where his third-act troubles begin; I joked that in a modern play with this premise he’d probably realize that he’s Gay, but they didn’t do that sort of thing in a 1936 movie!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Monty Python Conquers America (Python [Monty] Pictures, Ltd., 2008)

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

Monty Python Conquers America — also known as Monty Python: The Other British Invasion (other to what? 1775? 1812? 1964?) — is an hour-long TV special originally included as bonus content on a DVD mega-box of the complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus (at least all the shows that are known to exist). The box actually featured two documentaries, one on the prehistory of Monty Python — the various appearances the Pythoners made on BBC shows (including a children’s show called Do Not Adjust Your Set) and how they came together to form the comedy troupe we all know and love — and this one, dealing with the 1970-76 period during which Monty Python were established as American attractions despite the conviction of most of the U.S. entertainment business that the Pythons were too outré, too intellectual and just too damned British ever to win an American audience. One person rather stupidly says, “British humor just never went over in America” — to which my immediate reaction was, “Huh? Do the names ‘Charlie Chaplin’ and ‘Peter Sellers’ mean anything to you?” If there’s a flaw in Monty Python Conquers America it’s the usual one of biopics, especially biodocs: what I call “first-itis,” the assertion that the people you’re biographing are the first people to do something even though it’s relatively easy to trace other people who did it before.

As great as they are, Monty Python had a long string of antecedents in British comedy, some of them featuring people (including Peter Sellers and the Beatles) who became major U.S. stars. The real birthplace of the zany sort of British comedy — at least the earliest example I know of; there may be others even farther back (there are hints of the Python frame-breaking as early as Gracie Fields, who commemorated her move from EMI Records to the cheap Rex label by starting her first record for Rex, “Why don’t you buy my new Rex record? It’s only a bob!”) — was the Goon Squad, a BBC radio show in the early 1950’s starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, which also produced a series of hit records for EMI’s Parlophone label that were produced by George Martin (and the heavy use of sound effects on the records by the Goon Squad was experience that stood Martin in good stead when he worked on records by his later stars, the Beatles). Martin’s autobiography All You Need Is Ears mentions one record that the Goons did that was a parody of the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, only at the last minute Columbia Pictures threatened to sue them if they used the name “Kwai,” so they changed the album title to The Bridge on the River Wye and Martin had to go through the master tape and carefully snip out the letter “K” in “Kwai” wherever it appeared. He also recalled taking a meat cleaver and various melons to the studio to determine which would create the most convincing sound effect of a prisoner of war being beheaded — much the way Alfred Hitchcock would a few years later to determine how to do the sound of Anthony Perkins stabbing Janet Leigh in Psycho. The success of the Goons spawned other British troupes, including Flanders and Swann (a duo who spoofed classical music and all sorts of other things) and probably the Pythons’ most obvious precursor, Beyond the Fringe (Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and yet another British comedian who became a major U.S. star, Dudley Moore), at least some of whom performed successfully in the U.S.

This strain of zany British humor was also seen in the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, as well as the much-maligned Magical Mystery Tour, and so it shouldn’t have been as great a surprise as it was to a lot of people when, after some bizarre false starts (including a Buddah Records release of the Pythons’ first two record albums, Another Monty Python Record and Monty Python’s Previous Record, and an appearance on the Tonight Show in 1972 in which the Pythons’ humor just sailed over the heads of the studio audience), the Monty Python TV show finally was made available for syndication on U.S. stations in the early 1970’s. After the commercial networks passed, it ended up on PBS (where it probably belonged anyway; in the mid-1970’s PBS was running so many British shows, from Masterpiece Theatre to Upstairs, Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga, I, Claudius and the like, that some wags called it “BBC West”) and was first aired in the U.S. in October 1974 on KERA-TV in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Despite the legendary conservatism of Texas, this crazy show, with its bad drag queens and overall air of irreverence for the conventions of everything, including filmed comedy, somehow caught on and gave KERA literally the best ratings by far it had ever had as a PBS station. (“We had a 6! We’d never had a 6 before!” enthused the son of the program director who had ordered it aired.) The show details how Monty Python slowly built an audience, station by station and city by city, and how they already had a fanatical following in Canada (where they literally were treated by rock stars — their tour was promoted by someone who’d previously done Led Zeppelin and was relieved that the Pythons didn’t feel a compulsion to trash their hotel rooms after they got back from their gigs — and one of the Pythons joked that it was like being in a rock band except you didn’t get groupies: “The kinds of groupies who follow a comedy troupe aren’t the kind you’d want anything to do with anyway”) when the U.S. finally started to notice them.

I’d already heard of the Pythons before their show first aired on the San Francisco Bay Area PBS station KQED in the summer of 1975 — a friend of mine had given me a mix tape of various oddball British and German songs that ended with a brief snippet from one of the Monty Python LP’s (I forget what it was and it didn’t particularly impress me), and I’d seen the trailer for the first Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different (a compilation of sketches from the TV show — though refilmed and sometimes with considerable variations — produced by Playboy Enterprises’ film division and supposedly distributed by Columbia Pictures, who pretty much abandoned the film after it flopped in initial screenings), and wondered what that was about. But when the TV show came on, and the initial episode featured the talk-show spoof It’s A. Tree — “featuring the legendary intellectual, Arthur Tree” — and A. Tree turned out to be a real tree, with an animated mouth in the middle of its trunk, while his guests were “a block of wood, a patch of creosote and a piece of laminated plastic” — which hooked me then and forever on the Pythons’ relentless sense of humor. What’s amazing from this show is that there were a hard core of people who’d experienced Monty Python and believed there would be an American audience for it — and also the later comedians who were influenced by Python, though not always to their best: Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Paul Rudd, and Jimmy Fallon. As outrageous as Monty Python often got, they didn’t become in-your-face gross until their last project together, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — they had much to do with the “fart humor” that so dominates modern-day movie “comedy” as Wagner had to do with creating Guy Lombardo; what passes for comedy these days in movies and on TV has generally copied the Pythons’ irreverence but not their intellectual approach to humor or the breadth of knowledge that has allowed them at once to ridicule the clichés of comedy and to transcend them.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (Ghost Light Films/Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2013)

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

The show was called Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, and was a mostly engaging history of the superhero genre, starting with the publication of the original Superman story in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. Written by Michael Kantor and Lawrence Masdon (and directed by Kantor), this show was created in such a way that it could be sliced up into three separate episodes (which was welcome in that it gave us necessary bathroom breaks — one enduring problem with noncommercial television is when do you get to use the bathroom when nature tells you to) but for its premiere was shown complete. If there was a fault I could find with this episode it’s that they tended to treat the superhero genre as something de novo and totally American — but just as the Broadway musical grew out of European operetta, the American superhero comics grew out not only of American pulp magazine stories (Kantor and Masdon make the rather provocative case that Batman is merely a rehash of The Shadow, though they ignore the even more obvious derivation of Superman from Doc Savage; though Doc Savage was an ordinary human produced by selective breeding rather than an alien from another planet, he was called the “Man of Bronze” vs. Superman’s “Man of Steel,” and like Superman his first name in his non-super alternate identity was “Clark” — a name both Doc Savage creator Lester Dent and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seem to have got from Clark Gable!) but a long tradition of European hero literature. If there’s an ur-superhero story that really defined the clichés of the genre, it’s probably Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel; like both Superman and Batman, he concealed his real identity behind a masquerade as a milquetoast character; and like Superman he was both male points in a bizarre love triangle with a woman who went gaga for his superhero identity and couldn’t stand his normal one. And the first superhero created by an American writer was probably Johnston McCulley’s Scarlet Pimpernel knock-off, Zorro.

The writers attribute Batman to the Shadow and the Joker simply to the joker figure in a card deck, ignoring the two classic silent films Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, always said were his inspirations: the 1926 adaptation of Mary Roberts Reinhart’s The Bat (though in that case the person in bat-guise is actually a master criminal posing as a detective — ironically, Jerry Siegel’s original conception of Superman in 1932 was also as a super-villain and it was only in later drafts that he became a superhero instead) and the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, in which Jack P. Pierce’s hideous makeup for Conrad Veidt to play Gwynplaine, a captive turned by the Gypsies who stole him into a monster by altering his face into a permanent grin, was the obvious model for the Joker. (The still from The Man Who Laughs in Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Universal Story gave the game away well before I saw the film — and, indeed, while the film was still thought lost.) The filmmakers managed to score interviews with quite a lot of people involved in creating superhero comics — including artist Carmine Infantino, who was one of the most colorful and compelling characters in it (and who for some reason is not listed in the cast list) — as well as actors who played superheroes on TV, notably Adam West in the 1960’s camp Batman and Lynda Carter from Wonder Woman (and oddly Carter was not a sex bomb; one reason she was credible in the role was she was credibly muscular and not drop-dead gorgeous). The documentary at least touched on the incredibly exploitative practices of comic-book publishers — as late as the early 1990’s artists and writers who asked for royalties on their works were routinely shown the door (that’s when a number of top people at Marvel walked and started their own company, Image Comics) — and mentioned that it was not until 1978, with the release of the blockbuster Superman movie (the first feature film built around a superhero character — earlier superhero films had been either theatrical serials or TV series), that Siegel and Shuster got residual payments and full screen credit as Superman’s creators.

To my mind, the most interesting episodes here were the first two — detailing the prehistory of the comic superheroes and their first two waves of popularity, in the 1940’s and the 1960’s. The show went into the crisis that faced the comics publishers when religious groups and self-appointed moralists went after them in the early 1950’s — there’s even a film clip of Dr. Frederick Wertham before a Congressional committee saying his famous line that Batman and Robin were “a wish-fulfillment fantasy of two homosexuals living together” (oddly, Wertham wasn’t always a reactionary prig; he was also one of the social-science experts who testified against segregation in one of the cases that became Brown v. Board of Education) — much as they had against the movie studios in 1934 — and the response of the comics industry was the same one that had worked for the movie business. They formed their own self-censorship business, the “Comics Code Authority,” which was given the authority to review and approve every comic before it went out. Among the rules of the Authority’s version of the Production Code were no horror titles at all (which was a major hit to William Gaines’ business, Entertaining Comics, though Gaines’ other main title, the satire magazine Mad, proved so successful in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s his company stayed in business and even prospered) and no references to drugs. This was what finally led to the breakdown of the Authority in 1971 when Stan Lee commissioned a Spider-Man episode in which Spider-Man rescues a young man who’s overdosed and hurled himself off a rooftop under the delusion that he could fly. More could probably be made of the irony of a character in a superhero comic being under the delusion he could fly when the recurring characters themselves either flew, like Superman, or came so close to doing so, like Batman and Spider-Man, it made virtually no difference plot-wise. Anyway, the Authority rejected the Spider-Man issue with the drug storyline — and Stan Lee did exactly what Otto Preminger had done 15 years earlier when the Production Code Adminstration refused to give a Code seal to his anti-drug piece, the film The Man with the Golden Arm: he released the book without the seal, it was a best seller and the Authority modified the Code to make it more liberal.

I was probably most interested in the middle segment because it covered the 1960’s, the decade during which I read comic books (like a lot of people back then I read a fair number of comics while I was the target age for them and then stopped as I grew into teenager-dom) and fell in love with Batman (purely platonically!) through the campy mid-1960’s TV show — which led me to the reprints of the 1940’s and 1950’s Batman stories, with their much richer, darker, noir approach to the character that would get revived with the Dark Knight series, first in the comics (courtesy of the reclusive writer Alan Moore, who is actually shown here being interviewed — which is something like seeing J. D. Salinger do the Tonight Show — and who bears a striking, and not altogether inappropriate, resemblance to the rock musician Roy Wood, who founded the Move and Electric Light Orchestra but unfortunately left after ELO’s first album — he was essentially John Lennon to Jeff Lynne’s Paul McCartney and ELO would have been considerably more interesting and less critically maligned if he’d stayed) and then in the Christopher Nolan movies — of which, oddly, I didn’t care for the first two but quite liked the third, The Dark Knight Rises. The third portion is a typical story for the 21st century in that it depicts the superhero business as bigger than ever — virtually all the big summer blockbuster releases are superhero stories of one form or another — even while the original delivery form, comic books, is fading like virtually all other print media and distribution of superhero comics is being taken over by, you guessed it, the Internet via e-readers, tablets and all those other God-awful devices that are supplanting ink on paper. It also mentions the writers and artists who are doing D.I.Y. superheroes on line — though it’s hard to tell from just seeing this work flashed momentarily on screen in a TV documentary if any of it is any good.

Overall this was an interesting show, a bit overwrought in comparing the superhero mythologies to previous cultures’ versions of myths and legends — what’s most interesting about the superhero business (and it was certainly a big part of the “history of Superman” book I read recently) is that whereas previous cultures evolved their legends organically over time, this capitalist culture has turned its mythology, like everything else, to private profit-making corporations. So if these characters follow the Zeitgeist, it’s because market researchers in the big companies have carefully crafted them to do so based on audience surveys and other inputs to try to give them a handle on what the audience will like. Not that they always guess right, but it’s clear that — like all other products in the corporate-capitalist marketplace — the superhero stories are designed to give the audiences “what they want” and at the same time to reinforce the system of production under which they’re created so that audience dissatisfaction, rebellion and alienation gets channeled into “safe” realms — like the ending of the film The Dark Knight Rises, which reasserts the primacy and legitimacy of official law enforcement against the superheroes and the rebels of both Left and Right; or (to detach a bit from the superhero genre — though Katniss Everdeen is as mythic a figure as anyone created by the comics industry) the Hunger Games trilogy, which begins as a neo-socialist critique of the corporate state of today, then creates a “revolutionary” state which is just as oppressive as the Capital elite, and finally ends in a Voltairean anarchist scene of the heroine, no longer involved in anything as futile as activism, retreating to her private life and literally tending her garden. Think the world is a lousy place, our modern capitalist myth-makers ask? You’re right, but anything you try to do about it collectively will only make things worse — so suffer it and do what you can to make life better for yourself as an individual.