Thursday, November 28, 2013

Jerky Turkey (MGM, 1945)

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

Charles and I ran a couple of downloads last night. One was a Tex Avery cartoon from MGM called Jerky Turkey which we watched because it was obviously appropriate for Thanksgiving eve — and which turned out to be quite good, basically Avery’s “take” on a Bugs Bunny short with a turkey replacing the rabbit and a pilgrim replacing Elmer Fudd. The gimmick is the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock (which is actually shaped like a giant turkey) — only they do it in 1945, when the film was made, and the Mayflower has to become part of a giant convoy to avoid being sunk by a U-boat. Once the Pilgrims make it, the leader has to feed his people, and after some quite funny sight gags making fun of wartime rationing (the Mayflower lands in sight of a billboard reading, “Is This Trip Necessary?” and the Pilgrims encounter long lines for cigarettes once they land) he heads to “Ye Black Market” for a turkey — only the turkey (using the voice of Jimmy Durante) decides to sell himself to the Pilgrim but leave the package untied so he can escape. Throughout the action there’s a large bear walking through the action with a sandwich sign reading, “Eat at Joe’s,” and after various abortive attempts by the Pilgrim to shoot the turkey (in which Avery rips off one of the Road Runner cartoonists’ favorite gags — the “target” reverses the piping of the hunter’s gun so the gun shoots the hunter instead of the prey) they give up, end up eating at Joe’s — only they turn out to be the meal and the bear, with the Pilgrim and the turkey in his stomach, turns his back to the audience and it reads, “I’m Joe.”

The Bat (Robert Saudek Productions; TV, 1960)

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

Our “feature,” though it was only 52 minutes long, was a 1960 TV version of The Bat that Charles had downloaded and which I had wanted to see as a counterpoint to the 1926 silent directed by Roland West and the 1959 version from Allied Artists with Crane Wilbur as writer and director and Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead as stars. Though it was hardly at the level of the West silent, this production, from a TV series called The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (indeed it was the first episode, originally aired March 31, 1960), turned out to be quite good, considerably better than the 1959 movie despite the obligation of writer Walter Kerr (adapting the original play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood) to cut the play severely to get it into a one-hour (less commercials) TV time slot. The site said this was a “kinescope,” which means they stuck a film camera in front of a TV set and filmed the output. They usually did this so they could take a TV show that was being aired “live” on the East Coast and fly out filmed prints so the show could be screened on the West Coast in the same time slot — though it meant West Coast viewers got inferior picture and sound (it was for this reason that Desi Arnaz insisted on doing I Love Lucy on film so it could be shown across the country and everyone would get the same image quality no matter where they were in the U.S.), but judging from the sophistication of director Paul Nickell’s staging and the multiplicity of views of the old-dark-house set, I suspect this was an early videotaped show rather than a kinescope of a live broadcast.

The cast was first-rate, with Helen Hayes featured as Cornelia Van Gorder, Margaret Hamilton outpointing her feature-film counterparts as Cornelia’s maid Lizzie Arlen, and Jason Robards (whose actor-father was still well remembered enough in 1960 he was billed as Jason Robards, Jr.) as Detective Anderson, who turns out at the end to have been the master criminal The Bat (he waylaid and incapacitated the real detective, then impersonated him and had to do some quick changes between normal clothes and Bat-drag). Walter Kerr’s script manages to preserve most of the high points of the original — the theft and burning of the blueprints for the house that might reveal the location of the secret room where banker Cortleigh Fleming hid the $1 million he embezzled (though in this, unlike the previous versions, he doesn’t turn up alive at the end after having been thought dead); the murder of his son, Richard Fleming (Karl Light), by the Bat; the romance between Van Gorder’s niece Dale Ogden (Bethel Leslie) and Jack Bailey (Martin Brooks), the bank clerk suspected of the embezzlement who shows up at the house disguising himself as a gardener (this version keeps the marvelous scene from the 1926 film in which Van Gorder “outs” him by asking him about “plants” like rubeola which are actually the names of diseases); the final unmasking of the Bat and the appearance of the real Detective Anderson (Reedy Talton) after he escapes and captures the Bat. Even the Bat’s costume is closer to the 1926 film (and to the appearance of Batman, whose costume and visual iconography were ripped off by his creator, Bob Kane, from the 1926 film), and there’s a marvelous shock moment in which he appears in full regalia at the top of a staircase and shoots down at Richard Fleming, who’s on the ground floor. This version also pushes Dr. Wells (Shepperd Strudwick) back into his proper place as a supporting character instead of a florid villain in his own right, as Crane Wilbur did so Vincent Price could play him in the 1959 version (in which he murders Cortleigh Fleming to get his hands on the $1 million).

For a TV production — even if it was videotaped instead of done live — it’s quite sophisticated, full of oblique camera angles and noir compositions from director Nickell and the camerapeople (the only one credited is Ralph Holmes as lighting director), and production designer Henry May takes full advantages of the opportunities in an old-dark-house setting in ways David Milton did not in the 1959 film. Though Roland West’s silent version remains the winner and still champion (unless it’s eclipsed by his 1930 wide-screen talkie remake, which I haven’t seen), the 1960 Bat is quite an estimable production and worthy of its source. About the only tacky aspect of this program is the person producer Robert Saudek chose as his on-screen host: Joseph Welch, Jr., the attorney who became famous nationwide for standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and five years later got an acting role playing the judge in Otto Preminger’s film Anatomy of a Murder (an example of the sort of “gimmick” casting Preminger loved). Here, watching Welch appear as an out-and-out pitchman for a company as evil as Dow (makers of napalm) Chemical, I couldn’t resist the thought that I’d have wanted to ask him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last,  have you no sense of decency?”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

She (Hammer, Seven Arts, MGM, 1965)

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

The film was the 1965 Hammer/Seven Arts production of H. Rider Haggard’s She, which apparently has been filmed at least seven times — the most famous versions being one from RKO in 1935 (with Helen Gahagan Douglas in her one movie role as Ayesha, a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey, the military officer who bears a striking resemblance to the man she loved and lost 500 years before, and the setting moved from Haggard’s original Middle East to the Arctic) produced by Merian C. Cooper and directed by Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel from a script by Dudley Nichols and Ruth Rose (wife of Cooper’s long-time producing and directing partner Ernest B. Schoedsack) and this one, which starred Ursula Andress as Ayesha, moved the story back to Haggard’s original setting (Palestine in 1918, just after the First World War) and located the lost city of Kumar in the so-called “Empty Quarter” of Arabia (though the location work was actually done in the Negev Desert in Israel). The gimmick is that Ayesha has been able to remain alive for 2,000 years thanks to a blue flame that, if you walk into it, makes you immortal. Way back in her early days as a normal human she fell in love with Kallikrates, an officer in Alexander the Great’s army, and though he died after living the normal human span, she’s never given up hope that he’ll be reincarnated and this time she’ll be able to turn him immortal before he croaks. Oddly, watching this the day after Charles and I saw Man of Steel, this turned out to be yet another movie that took a potentially interesting premise and made an incredibly dull film out of it. For the most part it’s just three white British guys — Leo Vincey (John Richardson), Major Horace Holley (Peter Cushing) and Job (Bernard Cribbins, the comic-relief guy) — wandering around the desert looking for the mysterious woman who had previously appeared to Leo and shown him a pendant with a medallion bearing the image of Kallikrates (in profile, and looking way too modern — especially in his hair style — to be a Macedonian Greek from 2,400 years ago). Leo’s in love with Ayesha but he’s also in love with Ustane (Rosenda Monteros), who was used by Ayesha’s prime minister (and unrequited lover) Billali (Christopher Lee) to lure Leo to the lost city of Kumar, where Ayesha holds forth and rules with an iron fist that makes her come off (as Charles noted) as Pol Pot in drag. A sample exchange:

Leo Vincey: Was that barbaric execution necessary?
Ayesha: It was necessary!
Maj. Horace Holly: In God’s name, why?
Ayesha: As a demonstration of my absolute power! How else could I hold my soldiers and these pathetic creatures as my subjects? How else but by instilling fear and terror into their very souls.
Maj. Horace Holly: But nothing is gained by fear and terror.
Ayesha: Is your world so much better? Your world where men kill each other in their millions in the name of freedom? Your world that has not long to live. A few decades only before it destroys itself. Then, what will be left?

My one previous encounter with She was when my mother and stepfather took my half-brother and I to a drive-in that was showing it when it was new. I fell asleep during it then and didn’t have an easy time staying awake during it now, either. Though one reviewer claims that this film has “far more action than any other version” — most of it the three Brits from heck surviving being attacked by much greater numbers of Arabs (the usual convention of white-made movies set in the Third World: “the natives may outnumber us but because we’re white, we’re so superior we defeat them easily”) — that only makes me wonder if the other ones are even duller; it’s not until the final scenes, when Ayesha’s subjects finally rebel and storm her castle, and she steps into the Blue Flame of Immortality with Leo only to find that her second trip undoes the work of the first and she ages 2,000 years and then croaks (obviously director Robert Day and/or screenwriter David T. Chantler had seen Lost Horizon), while as the castle is crumbling around him and the other two Brits are telling him to get the hell out of there, Leo is mooning over his lost chance of immortality and saying he’ll be ready if he ever gets the opportunity again. One quirk of the film is that André Morell is in it as Haumid, another one of Ayesha’s minions — thereby reuniting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson from the 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles — though both he and Ursula Andress had voice doubles for their entire roles: Morell’s was George Pastell and Andress’s was Nikki Van der Zyl, who also dubbed her in her star-making role in the first James Bond feature film, Dr. No. (That was the movie in which she emerged from the Caribbean Sea in a white bikini with a knife on her side — inspiring Mad magazine to call her “Ursula Undress.”) The 1965 She is a misfire on almost every possible level — Ursula Andress is hot enough one can readily imagine how many young, horny straight boys put her poster on their bedroom walls, but she’s utterly unable to project a figure of impossible allure (but then again, aside from Garbo in the mid-1930’s, I can’t think of anyone in the 1930’s, the 1960’s or, for that matter, now who would have been right for this role), and like his co-star John Richardson is easy on the eyes (and then some!) but hardly the type to make one believe he’s genuinely torn between his normal existence and the prospect of immortality with a hot babe in the Arabian desert. For someone who did play a part like this vividly, turn to Zita Johann in the 1932 film The Mummy — which one could argue was She with the genders reversed; a man who’s been given an artificially prolonged existence meets a modern woman who’s the reincarnation of his long-lost ancient squeeze — and note how vividly she played the conflict between the two incarnations of her character, showing subtleties that totally eluded Richardson here.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Man of Steel (Warner Bros., Legendary, Peters Entertainment, Syncopy, DC Comics, 2013)

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

Charles and I ran the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel — which turned out to be one of the most disappointing movies either of us had seen in quite some time! This was an enormous summer hit — erasing the black mark on the Superman character from the failure of the 2006 Superman Returns (with someone named Brandon Routh as Superman and Marlon Brando, via unused footage shot for the Superman II sequel in the late 1970’s, as his natural father Jor-El) — and also got surprisingly good critical reviews, praising it as one superhero movie even intellectuals could love. Not this intellectual, though; reflecting the sensibility of Christopher Nolan, who directed the last three Batman movies and came up with the original story for this one (though David S. Goyer collaborated with him on the story and wrote the script solo, and according to it apparently drew heavily on plotlines done by Mark Wald for the Superman comics), Man of Steel emerged as a ponderous bore, heavy on the barely motivated action scenes superhero movie fans demand and full of glorious visual sequences — the director is Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen (Watchmen is the only previous film of his I’ve seen, and like Man of Steel it’s visually spectacular and makes virtually no sense) fame. But the story is not only dull, it’s so focused on the wrong things — particularly the lead super-villain, Krypton survivor General Zod (Michael Shannon), who probably gets more screen time than any other character — that Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Kal-El (his original Kryptonian name — pronounced here as in Cal Worthington or the abbreviation of California; I’d always assumed it was pronounced “Kahl-El” but that’s not what you hear on this soundtrack) sometimes seems like an extra in his own vehicle. The film is already about half an hour through its 142-minute running time before Superman’s home planet, Krypton, self-destructs (there’s a very mild bit of pro-environment social commentary when Jor-El, played this time by Russell Crowe, explains that Krypton’s impending demise is due to the government’s hubris in tapping the planet’s inner core for energy) and baby Kal-El is loaded into that spaceship, along with a knickknack that looks like a sculpture of a chimpanzee’s skull but supposedly is the “Codex,” which — though we only learn this towards the end of the movie — contains the genetic code for all Kryptonians.

We learn quite a bit about life on Krypton pre-apocalypse; the planet is run by a Governing Council with which, as in previous versions of the legend, Jor-El is pleading to allow him to build spaceships and evacuate the Kryptonian population before the place blows up. His plans are complicated by General Zod, who stages a coup d’état and shoots the head of the Council, announcing that the rest of them will be put on trial (it reminded me of the marvelous scene in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream — an audacious sci-fi novel predicated on the assumption that after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch Adolf Hitler emigrated to the U.S., got a job as an illustrator for a sci-fi pulp and then, once he learned enough English, started writing for them — in which Hitler’s stand-in, Feric Jaggar, similarly takes over by arresting the Council members and having them shot). Exactly what Zod wants, or what he hopes to accomplish by taking over a planet that’s going to blow up in weeks anyway, isn’t clear, but what is clear is that Krypton is a weird mix of high-tech and primitivism. Apparently on Krypton the dinosaurs (or their equivalent) never died out and are used as beasts of burden — there’s one aerial dinosaur that looks like a giant scaled-up dragonfly with which Jor-El flies around the planet — and also for some reason Kryptonians abandoned normal sexual reproduction and instead started making their babies factory-style à la Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. What makes Kal-El special is not only that he’s about to be launched in a rocket ship and sent to earth to be Superman (and Goyer’s script is filled with a lot of palaver from both his natural and his adoptive father about how he’s a person of destiny who’s going to change the world) but that he’s the first Kryptonian in centuries who got conceived the old-fashioned way by his dad “blanking” his mom. (Mom is called Lara Lor-Van — at last, she gets a last name! — and is played, quite hauntingly, by someone named Ayelet Zurer, which frankly seems more like the name of a medical device than a person.)

During the running time of Man of Steel — an appellation I can’t remember hearing at any time during the film itself — we learn quite a lot of cool things about Krypton, reflecting the far greater interest of Messrs. Nolan, Goyer, Snyder and Wald in Kryptonian life and culture than in the comparatively petty (at least to them!) life of Earth. We learn that they’ve blurred the distinction between living beings and mechanical devices big-time — their machines seem to come with giant tendrils with which they can manipulate objects, and the faces of Jor-El’s two robot familiars serve as TV screens even though they move with greater alacrity and flexibility than what we think of as robots in more conventional science fiction. Indeed, the Kryptonians themselves move with such great agility and take such extensive flying leaps through their own atmosphere one wonders why they need to come to Earth to be super! We also learn that the Governing Council manages to reverse Zod’s coup and send him and his staff, including his second-in-command Faora-Ul (Antje Traue, who turns in one of the best performances in the film), to the Phantom Zone. This was an element that got added to the Superman mythos in the 1960’s; it was an isolated realm in another space-time continuum to which the Kryptonian judicial system sentenced their meanest, nastiest, most vicious and most evil criminals — with the ironic result that they all survived after Krypton itself self-destructed. I’d longed for a Superman story in which the villains were escapees from the Phantom Zone because the big problem in plotting Superman has always been that he’s so powerful and so invulnerable that it’s hard to come up with any real menace towards him — which is why Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to come up with Kryptonite (fragments of the once-radioactive core of Krypton that entered space and landed on earth as meteorites) just so Superman would be vulnerable to something and plotting him wouldn’t become quite so boring.

The exterior of Krypton looks like a cross between Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, with bits of The Matrix and Avatar thrown in for good measure — yes, this is one of those many movies made today that seems to take its inspiration more from other movies than from life — and it seems to take us forever before we get off the alien planet and baby Kal-El finally lands on earth in his spaceship and is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). There are a few quirky bits in which the young Clark Kent (Cooper Timberline at age nine, Dylan Sprayberry at age 13 and British actor Henry Cavill as an adult) allows himself to be bullied and gets chewed out by daddy Jonathan for rescuing a school bus that had run into a river and saving all the kids inside from drowning, since Jonathan had put Clark under a solemn injunction never to use his super-powers until he was “ready” (whenever that was going to be) and to keep them a secret. The intent seems to have been to put our young super-kid in the same bind as the X-Men were in — stay in the closet or come out — but the writing simply isn’t as insightful and just about all the interesting story possibilities the writers thought of got abandoned almost as soon as they got established. Aside from Lois Lane, shown here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning star reporter who manages to crash a secret U.S. military installation in the Canadian Arctic by filing suit with the Canadian government to break the U.S. military’s ban on her presence there (a plot inaccuracy because the U.S. doesn’t build a base anywhere in the world without an agreement from the host government that their courts can’t order the base opened to civilians), the human characters in this are quite dull. Lois stumbles on a spaceship buried under ice that turns out to have been from — you guessed it — Krypton, 20,000 years earlier when Krypton was still sending out colonizing parties to look for hospitable worlds in which they could plant outposts and imperialistically extend the reach of their civilization, before they became decadent (in more than one sense of the world), turned inward and abandoned their explorations.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne — I suppose it’s an advance in anti-racism that Clark Kent’s and Lois Lane’s boss is Black this go-round, though perhaps they wanted Fishburne simply because as a veteran of the Matrices he’s used to this sort of story) spikes the story Lois writes about this, but then General Zod makes his spectacular appearance on Earth by jamming the world’s TV broadcasts and announcing, “You Are Not Alone.” He’s supposedly doing this in every Earth language but the ones we hear and see on his video are English, Chinese, Portuguese, Esperanto and — a nod to the Star Trek universe — Klingon. (I’m surprised Charles missed the Esperanto.) Zod is there to use the information on the codex to repopulate the Kryptonian race and have it take over earth even if it means the genocidal elimination of the human race — and I couldn’t help but recall not only that Superman was the creation of a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but the years between 1932, when they first conceived the character (briefly as a super-villain before making him a superhero), and 1938, when the first Superman story was published in Action Comics #1, were also the years in which Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, solidified his control, suppressed all political opposition and got ready to start World War II and the Holocaust for the same stated reasons as General Zod in the movie: to eliminate so-called “inferior populations” to make room for the Master Race. Alas, Michael Shannon as General Zod turns in a mannered, mostly overacted performance that fails to make the most of potentially the most interesting character in the story — when he’s supposed to be sounding a note of twisted idealism in his determination to revive the Kryptonian race no matter what the consequences to anyone or anything else (including the life of Our Hero — it turns out Jor-El encoded the entire codex into his son’s DNA and Zod is determined to extract it even if it means killing Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman) he just sounds petulant, and Zod’s plan to revive Krypton on earth is foiled half an hour before the movie is over and the rest is his temper tantrum, in which he determines to destroy as much of earth as he can in the limited running time remaining in scenes of falling buildings and people fleeing in panic that remind one of the actual footage of the 9/11 attacks (which in turn reminded a lot of people, including me, of the mass destruction of New York buildings in the movie Independence Day).

And what of the new Superman, Henry Cavill? He’s certainly a departure from the physical “type” we’re used to in the role; in the comic books he was depicted as larger than the average Earthling and a buff, butch, muscular type, and the casting tradition of live-action Supermans — Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve — pretty much followed that until we got into the later TV derivations like Lois and Clark and Smallville (I didn’t catch those when they were new but I’ve seen a few rerun episodes of Smallville recently and been quite impressed by their irreverent but still respectful “take” on the Superman legend). Cavill is of medium height and wiry rather than muscular, though several “trivia” commentators on have described the ordeals he went through to bulk up enough to be believable in the Superpart. “Henry Cavill refused to take steroids to muscle up for the role,” said one poster (good for him!). “He also refused any digital touch-ups or enhancement to his body in his shirtless scenes. He said it would have been dishonest of him to use trickery while playing Superman and he wanted to push his body to the limits to develop his physique into one that was worthy of the character.” Alas, the limits of the Nolan/Goyer story and script didn’t test his acting chops anywhere nearly as much as the character’s appearance tested his will power and ability to diet and exercise! Cavill doesn’t get much to say, he has little to do with the human characters (there’s nothing in this movie that humanizes Superman the way the marvelous flying-date sequence between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the 1978 Superman: The Movie did), and he’s let down by the effects people as well: despite the vast advances in special effects in the last 35 years he’s simply not as convincing when he flies as Reeve was. (Maybe Cavill should have taken flying lessons; Reeve said his experience piloting aircraft helped him make the right motions in front of the effects screen to make it look like he could fly without one.) I can’t really say if Cavill has it in him to be a great Superman or not; the writers were obviously trying to complicate the character so he didn’t emerge as the goody two-shoes he was in the comics, but they didn’t do a good job of it and so Cavill had too little to work with in making the Man of Steel a truly multidimensional character. Frankly, I’d rather see him in some of his other credits; he did appear in one film I quite enjoyed, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009) — the movie I thought should have been Allen’s comeback vehicle the way Midnight in Paris was two years and two movies later — but according to my review at the time I didn’t find him particularly impressive: “John Gallagher, Jr. disappears way too quickly and the actor whose character takes over his story function, Henry Cavill, is hardly as interesting either as a body or a personality.”

He’s thoroughly out-acted by Amy Adams as Lois Lane, who for sheer spunkiness and drive is a welcome return to the super-reporters played in 1930’s films by actresses like Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell — roles Siegel and Shuster probably had in mind when they created her — and a script that treats her with respect instead of making her a ninny who’s always getting in stupid scrapes Superman has to get her out of. It was also welcome to see my man Christopher Meloni in the movie, his first project since he left the cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit 2 ½ years ago. The initial reports were he was going to play Jonathan Kent, but Kevin Costner got that part (when his widow shows Lois his tombstone I joked, “He died right after he built that baseball diamond in the back f- — oops, wrong movie”) and Meloni got cast as Col. Nathan Hardy, who seems to turn up whenever the U.S. military is investigating something mysterious that turns out to be Kryptonian. That actually gave him more screen time than Costner got, but it also meant that he spent the whole movie in fur coats (his opening scene is a confrontation with Lois at the site of the Kryptonian spaceship being excavated in the Canadian Arctic), flight suits, military uniforms and other things even less revealing than the Armani suits he wore in his SVU role. Still, he exudes his usual power, authority, drive and no-holds-barred sexiness — and makes me wish someone had cast him as Superman (20 years ago he would have been absolutely right for it!). Man of Steel is a frustrating movie because it’s one you want to like, but the plot is so ponderous even the action scenes look dull, and it’s also one of those damnable plots (like the story of Snyder’s Watchmen) in which anything can happen and therefore you can’t surprise an audience by violating their expectations because you haven’t created any in the first place.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Bat (Roland West Productions, Feature Productions, United Artists, 1926)

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

Charles and I watched two movie versions of the Mary Roberts Rinehart suspense story The Bat. Years ago I read a novel by Rinehart called The Bat and assumed that was the original version of the story; it may have been the book Rinehart published in 1908 under the title The Circular Staircase, or it may have been a novelization of the play actually written by Steven Vincent Benêt in 1926 but frequently reprinted under Rinehart’s name even though she had virtually nothing to do with it. In 1920 Rinehart and Avery Hopwood (who two years later would write a play about aspiring Broadway actresses called The Gold Diggers that would launch the series of Gold Diggers films) adapted it into a hit play that, according to a Mystery File blog post,, also included plot elements from a story Rinehart published in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Borrowed House.” It’s been filmed several times, but the 1926 version was the first; it was directed by Roland West, whom William K. Everson in The Detective in Film called “a dilettante director who worked because he liked making films, and one of the peculiarities he indulged was a fondness for shooting only at night. His films were literally dark, nightmarish, shot at night as well as taking place at night.” The Bat is a pretty conventional old-dark-house story except for the bizarre villain, a man who dresses up in a tight-fitting costume with a cape, wears a mask that looks like a giant version of a bat’s head, swings acrobatically from building to building on a rope he carries with him so he can use it anywhere, and announces his presence with a flashlight with a silhouette of a bat taped across the business end so he can project the image of a giant bat to herald his arrival.

If all this sounds familiar, it should; Bob Kane, the officially credited creator of Batman, admitted that he ripped off almost the entire visual iconography of his famous character from the Bat in this movie — even though Kane’s (and his uncredited co-creator Bill Finger’s) Batman is a superhero instead of a super-villain. (Also the headdress worn by the Bat in this movie is far more anatomically correct as a replica of a real bat’s head than anything Batman ever wore.) He begins the movie by sending a letter to the owner of the priceless Favre Emeralds that he’s going to steal them that very evening, and indeed he does — helped, this being one of those annoying “comedy-mysteries” that were so common in the 1920’s, by the stupidity of their owner, who takes them out of his safe, holds them in his hand and even dangles them out of an open window, the better to help the Bat rip them off. Then he goes to hide out in a town called Oakdale, which features a large old mansion that is reputed to be haunted. It was built by Oakdale’s principal banker, Courleigh Fleming (Charles Herzinger), who has just been reported dead while on vacation in the Colorado Rockies. Courleigh Fleming had left instructions that under no circumstances was the house to be rented out, but his ne’er-do-well son and heir, Richard Fleming (Arthur Housman, later a comic drunk in movie after movie but here quite good in a straightforward and reasonably serious performance), needed the money to pay off his gambling debts and so he rented the house to eccentric heiress Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy). Two mysterious men talk about how the presence of tenants in the house has spoiled their plans — obviously something criminal, though at this point we know not what — and the Bat himself shows up at the house looking for $300,000 in cash that was stolen from the Oakdale bank by an insider, who took the money in the form of negotiable bonds and then cashed them out. The prime suspect is bank clerk Brooks Bailey (Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s far less popular and successful brother), who got into the Van Gorder household by posing as a gardener even though he had impeccably manicured hands.

There’s also a nice comic-relief performance by Louise Fazenda as Lizzie Allen, Van Gorder’s maid (in one quite wry title she says she put up with Van Gorder’s “socialism, theosophism and rheumatism, but I draw the line at spookism!”), and a Japanese butler named Jimmy (played by the first-rate Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin, the second person to play Charlie Chan — alas, his Chan film, the 1928 silent The Chinese Parrot, is lost, though the 1929 early-talkie from MGM The Unholy Night cast him as a detective and gives an indication of what his Chan might have been like) who supposedly came with the house. There are a few minor characters, including Van Gorder’s daughter Dale Ogden (Jewel Carmen), a sinister doctor named (I’m not making this up, you know!) H. G. Wells (Robert McKim), and the person whose arrival they’re all waiting for, police detective Moletti (Tullio Carminati, one of the few people in this film whose career did survive the coming of sound; though he never became a major star he got the prestige role opposite Grace Moore in the highly successful 1934 Columbia film One Night of Love, which did enough business it convinced a lot of other producers to make films about opera singers), who’s there to catch the Bat. There’s a lot of skulking around the Old Dark House, some of it looking pretty aimless and some of it apparently devoted to finding the missing $300,000, which may or may not exist and, if it exists, may or may not be in a secret room of the house that Courleigh Fleming may or may not have had built in it and which may or may not be indicated in the house’s blueprints — only the Bat steals the blueprints at gunpoint before anyone else has a chance to look at them. The Bat kills Richard Fleming in mid-movie for reasons Rinehart, Hopwood and scenarist Julien Josephson never make quite clear, and in the end it turns out [spoiler alert!] that Courleigh Fleming isn’t dead at all; he embezzled the $300,000 from the Oakdale bank, cashed out the bonds and hid them in the house. It also turns out that the supposed Detective Moletti is really the Bat — and Anderson (Eddie Gribbon), is really the detective. In a nice bit of triumph for the comic-relief characters, an early scene features Lizzie setting up a bear trap with which she hopes to catch the Bat — and at the end of the film that’s exactly how he is caught.

The Bat is one of those films (like Paul Leni’s similar The Cat and the Canary, made at Universal the next year) whose style triumphs over its lack of substance; for most of its running time it’s just people running around the old dark house with conflicting and not always clear agendas, but director West and an astonishing collection of talents behind the camera, especially for a film with such low star power in front of it — Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon — 1941 version — and Casablanca) is the cinematographer (and lists an uncredited Gregg Toland as his assistant!); William Cameron Menzies did the set designs (including a beautiful glass-painted cityscape at the beginning and a nice model of the house that manages to strike just the right balance between realism and stylization); and Hal C. Kern, later head of David Selznick’s editing department, was the editor and is also credited as one of four “production assistants” along with future director Thornton Freeland (Whoopee, Be Yourself, Flying Down to Rio). The film is full of chiaroscuro scenes, oblique camera angles and so many stylized sets as to evoke Cabinet of Dr. Caligari comparisons; had Roland West’s directorial career lasted into the film noir era (he lived until 1952 but never directed a film after 1931, even though his first talkie, Alibi from 1929, shows a full command of sound, and in 1930 he remade The Bat as The Bat Whispers with sound and an experimental 70 mm widescreen process) he would have felt right at home! West and his illustrious colleagues fill Rinehart’s and Hopwood’s rather silly and jerky tale with such a sense of style — including one bizarre shot in which the screen is masked in a zig-zag pattern as the Bat walks through a hidden staircase, presumably to that secret room — that it’s enjoyable on its own terms as a romp. The version we were watching was from, and the picture quality wasn’t especially good but it did come with a dubbed-in soundtrack, appropriately doleful classical music that for once fit the mood of the visuals (though it did seem a bit odd in the comic scenes, which according to the original promotion were one of the elements the releasing studio, United Artists, thought would bring in the customers; the slogan was, “A laugh with every gasp!”) and added to the film’s effectiveness.

The Bat (Liberty Pictures, Allied Artists, 1959)

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

Alas, despite a cast that at least on paper would seem superior — Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead as the leads and Gavin Gordon as Lt. Anderson, the cop who turns out to be the Bat at the end — the 1959 version of The Bat simply wasn’t as good a movie, largely because it was both written and directed by Crane Wilbur. Crane Wilbur was one of the key people who helped “type” Vincent Price as a horror star and brought him out of the rut of second-tier character parts he’d been playing before his breakthrough movie, House of Wax (1953). Though André de Toth directed House of Wax, Wilbur wrote it and made some rather wretched changes from the original he was remaking, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) — notably eliminating the reporter character played in 1933 by Glenda Farrell — but came up with a script that was at least entertaining, mainly because Price (as he was to do over and over and over again later) covered for the script’s inadequacies by adding a layer of camp to his performance, a winking acknowledgment to the audience: “I know you think this is preposterous and you don’t take a moment of it seriously — and I don’t either!” Though a far inferior film to its illustrious predecessor, House of Wax scored through the novelty of its 3-D (I saw it that way in 1971 and was mightily impressed), de Toth’s tight and suspenseful direction (even though he was missing one eye and therefore couldn’t see the 3-D effect himself) and Price’s performance.

Alas, The Bat was a cheapo movie whose producers, Allied Artists (née Monogram) not only didn’t shoot it in 3-D but couldn’t even afford color. Moorehead plays Van Gorder — in this version she’s a Jessica Fletcher-style mystery writer and Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane) is the secretary to whom she dictates her novels (apparently, at least according to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Wikipedia page, this gimmick was in the original play but was ignored in the 1926 film) — and Price is Dr. Wells, this time given the first name “Malcolm” and a much more substantial part. In the 1959 Bat we’re told almost from the outset that banker John Fleming (Harvey Stephens) — a lot of the characters’ first names were simplified in this one; his son became Mark (John Bryant) and the unjustly suspected bank clerk was Victor Bailey (Mike Steele), with Dale (Elaine Edwards) playing his wife — embezzled $1 million (ah, inflation!), because after the establishing scenes at “The Oaks” (instead of the town, it’s the house that has the arboreal name) we suddenly and abruptly cut to a scene in Colorado, where Fleming Sr. and Dr. Wells are in a vacation cabin together. The banker tells Dr. Wells he stole $1 million and will give the not-so-good doctor half the fortune in exchange for his help concealing it, including finding a dead body that can be sent home in a sealed casket so it can be buried as John Fleming and he’ll be declared dead so the police won’t look for him and he can get away with his ill-gotten gains. Of course, being played by Vincent Price, Dr. Wells simply kills John Fleming, sends his body home in the sealed casket and decides to help himself to all the money — only he soon deduces that it’s hidden somewhere in The Oaks and so he has to show up at the old house and find it.

If the 1926 Bat was a lot of running around an old-dark-house set enlivened by the extraordinary style with which the tale is told, the 1959 Bat was a lot of running around an old-dark-house set dully staged by a director with absolutely no visual sense whatsoever. Even the Bat’s disguise is simply a black face covering and gloves with metal claws — a far cry from the vivid, imaginative one Roland West and his crew came up with in 1926. Nobody was going to be inspired to draw a legendary superhero comic by the sadly tacky appearance of this villain! Agnes Moorehead turns in a solidly professional performance with a script that offers her neither the pathos of her roles for Orson Welles (especially Mina Harker in the radio Dracula as well as Citizen Kane and her finest film, The Magnificent Ambersons) nor the glorious opportunities for scenery-chewing, overacted villainy she got as the mother-in-law literally from hell on the TV series Bewitched. Vincent Price just looks bored; like Moorehead, he’s dealing with a mediocre script that offers him neither the chance to act with seriousness and dramatic distinction nor the opportunity to do the delicious camp act he used to make the silly scripts he got from William Castle (and, later, Roger Corman) entertaining. He’s also unattractively photographed by the usually reliable Joseph Biroc — his face is baggy (he actually looked younger in the Corman Poe series, made later) and his movements are so slow he almost seems to be acting under water. There are other versions of The Bat available, including Roland West’s 1930 sound remake The Bat Whispers and a 1960 TV adaptation (also available on, which The Bat Whispers alas is not).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Opposite Sex (MGM, 1956)

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

The film was The Opposite Sex, a Joe Pasternak-produced 1956 MGM remake of The Women, a classic 1939 film based on Clare Boothe Luce’s hit 1936 play. The plot is about a group of gossipy women who’ve all landed (or are seeking to land) rich men, and who meet at exclusive restaurants, department stores and (especially) beauty salons to chatter away about who’s sleeping with whom that they’re not married to, or who wants to, or who’s getting divorced or remarried or pregnant. The 1939 version was a major production, co-starring Norma Shearer as the innocent wife Mary Haines and Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen, the department-store shopgirl who sets her sights on Mary’s husband Stephen, wins him, then loses him again after Our Mary (as I’ve pointed out here before, thanks to the Jesuits running the Production Code Administration many studios picked the name “Mary” for their most innocent, morally pure heroines) realizes that in order to get back her man she has to play just as dirty as her friends. The Women became legendary because, though virtually all its female characters’ gossip is about men, no men appear as onstage dramatis personae — and George Cukor, the closeted Gay man who directed the 1939 version, took the gynocentrism of the piece to such extremes that he insisted all the animals in the movie (of which there are quite a few, mostly dogs, cats and horses) be female and all the books in the characters’ on-screen libraries be by women authors. Alas, the writers of this version, married couple Michael and Fay Kanin, decided to blow the original concept and put the men on screen. According to TCM’s host Robert Osborne, the original plan was to keep the piece a non-musical and star Grace Kelly as the wronged wife — which might have been interesting even though I find Kelly deathly dull in virtually all her films except her three with Alfred Hitchcock directing — but she walked out on her film career to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Producer Pasternak’s next brainstorm was to turn it into a musical and star Esther Williams, but she turned it down, so eventually it got filmed with June Allyson as the wife — renamed Kay Ashley Hilliard — and Joan Collins as Crystal. Joan Collins as Joan Crawford actually works surprisingly well — she’s not as good at making the character, if not likeable, at least understandable the way Crawford did, but she does evil bitchery just as well as her near-namesake — and though not as formidable as the supporting cast from 1939 (who included Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell and Mary Boland), the secondary gossips this time around include Dolores Gray (who sings the title song under the credits but is not shown singing in the film), Ann Miller (who likewise doesn’t dance even though she was one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest dancers) and Agnes Moorehead (more Endora than Mrs. Kane or Fanny this time). The Kanins also changed the occupation of Stephen Hilliard, née Haines (Leslie Nielsen) from attorney to Broadway producer, and included a flashback sequence showing how the two men: he was a servicemember in World War II and she was a USO entertainer who performed at the camp where he was stationed, doing “Young Man with a Horn” with Harry James (playing one of his most spectacular solos on film) in what I originally suspect was a clip from the 1944 movie Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson’s star-making film —until I looked up Two Girls and a Sailor on and found it was in black-and-white whereas The Opposite Sex was in color (and that accursed “colorization” technology hadn’t been invented yet). The song is introduced via a flashback sparked by a man from Kay’s former record company bringing over a reissue album of her old recordings — and, anachronistically, bringing over a literal album, a collection of 78 rpm discs bound together like pages in a photo album, when by 1956 such a reissue would have been on a vinyl LP.

Though not as stylish as the 1939 version, and cursed with a set of singularly uninteresting songs (except for “Now, Baby, Now,” which June Allyson performs after she and hubby have divorced and she’s had to go back to work as a singer), The Opposite Sex still has an abundance of neat wisecracks — some of them Clare Boothe Luce’s and some of them the Kanins’ — and director David Miller gets it on and off screen efficiently and manages to bring it some comic flair even stuck with the lousy CinemaScope wide-screen format (which just about everyone in Hollywood hated; Alfred Hitchcock said it was only good for snakes or funerals, and Don Siegel said, “If you go to a museum and look at the world’s great paintings, you will find they are not in the shape of Band-Aids”). Even some of the film’s misfires manage to be entertainingly campy, notably the genuinely hot Jeff Richards as Buck Winston, cowboy and all-around assistant to Reno divorce-ranch owner Lucy (Charlotte Greenwood in her last film, still tall, rail-thin and looking like she could have outrun and outlasted some of the other women in the movie), whose moth-eaten “Southern” seduction technique seems like it wouldn’t have fooled anybody (and every time he puts the move on one of the about-to-be divorcées the soundtrack gives out with the then-current hit “The Yellow Rose of Texas” — referencing Stan Freberg’s parody, I asked at one point, “Where’s that snare drummer when we need him?”) but who nonetheless attracts the attentions of Sylvia Fowler, who sponsors his New York nightclub debut as a singer — doing a song called “Rock and Roll Tumbleweeds” that’s so infectiously lame, and so totally detached from the real rock ’n’ roll of the period, it works as pure camp. Another plus for the film is June Allyson; though I only dimly recollect Norma Shearer’s performance in the original, Allyson brings a refreshing edginess to her performance, a sense that she’s devastated that someone as slimy as Crystal has seduced her husband away from her but also resilient enough to keep going and eventually win him back as well as resuming her career (and I found myself wishing at the end that she’ll keep her comeback going instead of just sinking back into 1950’s urban domesticity). There’s also the rather depressing spectacle of Stephen’s and Kay’s daughter Debbie (Sandy Descher) sounding like an apprentice bitch in training as she breaks the news to her mom that Crystal is having an affair with Buck behind both Stephen’s and Sylvia’s backs.

One irony about this story is how many people in it had actually lived the lives it depicts: Clare Boothe Luce famously seduced her husband, Time and Life publisher Henry Luce, from his first wife; June Allyson seduced Dick Powell away from his previous wife, Joan Blondell (who’s actually in the movie — the two Mrs. Powells famously hated each other but Ellen Powell, daughter of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, apparently pleaded with her stepmom to let her mom be in the film because Blondell was broke and desperately needed the work) — and when Joan Collins, largely forgotten, made her big comeback in the 1980’s TV series Dynasty older critics with long memories said she was basically playing the same sorts of roles she’d had in this and her other big 1950’s movies like Land of the Pharoahs and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing: the seductress with a heart of stone. Of course, given how Leslie Nielsen made his 1980’s comeback — from the Airplane! Movies, the comedy TV series Police Squad, and the Naked Gun movies that spun off from it — it’s a bit hard, to say the least, to take him seriously! Indeed, this film is full of all sorts of people who were famous for doing other things; among the four listed “guest stars” were Harry James, Art Mooney (the accordionist and bandleader who leads that silly so-called “rock” number with Jeff Richards), Jim Backus and Dick Shawn. The latter two participate in an attempt at a comic musical number, with novelty lyrics set to the tune of the title song, in which Backus plays a psychiatrist (Mr. Magoo, M.D.!) examining Shawn and trying to figure out why he’s so relentlessly attracted to so many different girls. Given how queenily Shawn plays in this number — a sort of cross between Jerry Lewis and Truman Capote — it would have been easier to believe he was attracted to so many people of his own sex than the opposite one, but because of the Production Code movies still couldn’t go there in 1956. “Frankly,” I said to Charles as this dreary number ran its course, “I liked him better as Hitler.” And it’s also worth noting that the manicurist who, in one of the play’s and the earlier film’s most famous scenes, lets slip to the cuckolded wife that her husband is having an affair (she’s gossiping about Stephen Hilliard without realizing that her customer, whom she’s never seen before, is Mrs. Hilliard), is Alice Pearce, who later turned up as a regular on the TV series Bewitched, in which her Opposite Sex cast-mate Agnes Moorehead played the mother-in-law literally from hell!

Back Pay (Warner Bros. as "First National," 1930)

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

After The Opposite Sex, I went hunting for a relatively short movie to fill out the evening and found it in Back Pay, a 1930 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag (the logo on the end credit was even the First National one — a map of North America ringed by a chain, symbolizing that First National was founded in 1918 by independent theatres who organized into a chain, started a studio and hired the two biggest stars they could get, Mary Pickford from Paramount and Charlie Chaplin from Mutual, so they could ensure access to first-rate product with “A”-list stars and resist the efforts of Adolph Zukor of Paramount to merge the major studios into one giant company that would control all the top box-office draws — and not the familiar Warners shield), a remake of a 1922 silent and based on a story by fabled tear-jerker writer Fannie Hurst. The story opens in the small town of Demopolis, Virginia, which boasts that it has now reached sufficient size to support its own department store, Finley’s — but at the time (which is 1914, on the eve of World War I) it still doesn’t have much in the way of paved roads or automobiles: Finley’s customers still generally get there via horse-drawn wagons or carts. Hester Bevins (Corinne Griffith, a major silent star whose career quickly ended once talkies came in — she retired in 1932 and made only one more movie thereafter, Paradise Alley in 1962, though she lived until 1979) is a restless salesgirl at Finley’s who’s first seen at the picnic of the “Finley Employees’ Loyalty Association” (which sounds like a “company union” to me!) in the company of her boyfriend, apprentice bookkeeper Gerald Smith (Grant Withers, who looks like an apparition with his hair dyed blond; it’s the most attractive I’ve ever seen him but he’s still a mediocre actor). He wants to marry her, but she doesn’t want him because he’s poor; instead she wants to go to New York City, meet a rich man and become a kept woman. She pulls this off; a salesman who services the store, Al Bloom (Hallam Cooley), invites her to take the New York train with him, and in the film’s most powerfully staged sequence — much of the direction is surprisingly creative for a 1930 talkie, especially given that the director is the usually hacky William A. Seiter (his two best films, Sons of the Desert and Roberta, are great only because of the legendary teams that star in them: Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert and Astaire and Rogers in Roberta!) — we see Hester in her room, debating whether to stay in Demopolis and be a good little girl or flee, and the noises of the train are heard outside her room, beckoning her to go — which she does with only the clothes on her back. Then we see a title saying essentially that Bloom couldn’t hold her long given that there were much higher bidders available, and in the next scene we see who won the auction: Charles Wheeler (Montagu Love), who’s first seen tearing his hair out over the bill for more than $1,000 she’s just stuck him with for her most recent wardrobe.

Wheeler and his kept woman have the usual useless hangers-on of both sexes, and they seem to spend most of their time getting into their cars (as an “goofs” poster pointed out, this is supposed to be taking place during World War I but both the women’s hairstyles and the cars are those of the late 1920’s) and going on long trips, first to Lake Placid in upstate New York and then to Hot Springs, Arkansas — which, at least according to the script Francis Edward Faragoh (whose most famous credits are Little Caesar and Frankenstein) fashioned from Fannie Hurst’s story, is close enough to Demopolis that Hester manages to convince Wheeler and their traveling companions, Ed (William Bailey) and Kitty (Vivien Oakland), to stop there so she can see the place for old times’ sake. By this time it’s 1917 and Gerald, convinced that Hester is a successful career woman, still wants her to marry him, and when she turns him down again he decides to enlist in the Army and go to France to fight in the war. Then he disappears from the story until there’s a big parade of returning disabled veterans, and Hester sees a list of the participants’ names in the paper and notices Gerald’s on it. We’ve already seen how he got injured — he was on a night detail laying down barbed wire to protect his trench from a German tank attack when he got pinned down and the Germans launched a gas attack which permanently blinded him — and of course it’s a shock to Hester. She asks Wheeler for permission to marry Gerald and stay with him for the two to three weeks his doctors say he has left to live. Wheeler duly O.K.’s this unusual deal, and Hester and Gerald live a happy and decent life for the time he has left — and by Fannie Hurst’s authorial fiat, Gerald lives just long enough to hear the Armistice Day parade go by his window (courtesy of some relatively well-integrated stock footage of the real one) before he croaks. Needless to say, Wheeler fully expects this woman in whom he’s invested so much to return to him, but Hester — who’s already signaled her discontent with being kept during one of the drunken parties Wheeler and company threw for her by saying, “If the wages of sin is death, I’ve got a lot of back pay due!” (the only time we hear the title explained) — walks out on her sugar daddy to a fate left powerfully unstated at the end.

This isn’t much of a plot, but there are so many felicities in how it’s done that Back Pay is worth watching almost in spite of itself — despite the major surgery it got when director Seiter’s original 77-minute cut got shorn of 20 minutes before the film’s general release (and no, I have no idea of what was deleted). I was particularly amused when Wheeler is planning to take Hester to the opera, and I couldn’t help but joke, “What opera? Traviata? Bohème? Manon?” — all operas about women torn between being mistresses of rich men and their genuine love of not-so-rich ones, and all works in which the heroines die at the end. What makes this especially interesting for an early talkie, though, is Seiter’s surprisingly stylish direction, even though the film was shot with the cumbersome Vitaphone sound-on-film process (the next year Warners would abandon Vitaphone and start shooting sound-on-film like everyone else); the film includes quite a few uses of off-screen sound effects as well as musical underscoring under dialogue without any on-screen source (the film histories generally cite Cimarron, from 1931, as the first talkie to use unsourced music under dialogue, but here’s one from a year earlier). Seiter also gets a relatively naturalistic dialogue delivery from his actors, though one can pretty well tell why Corinne Griffith’s career ended so quickly after the transition; like John Gilbert and Marion Davies, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with her voice per se but she delivers all her lines in pretty much of a monotone, without varying her inflections to convey emotions. Still, Back Pay is an interesting movie — watching it right after The Opposite Sex offered a compelling contrast in their attitudes towards women gold-diggers (and, if anything, the portrayal in Back Pay seems actually a bit more sympathetic — or at least understanding — towards the “kept woman” even though we don’t really like her until her love and self-sacrifice at the end ennoble her), and it was also a surprise that a usually plain and unstylish director like William A. Seiter actually had some creative talent before it got burned out of him by years of hackwork.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stage Struck (Warner Bros./First National, 1936)

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

Last night Charles and I watched Stage Struck, an item from a recent Turner Classic Movies day-long tribute to Busby Berkeley that focused on his lesser efforts rather than monuments like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, Wonder Bar or the Gold Diggers movies. Though it ran a full 90 minutes, this was definitely a budget-conscious production that didn’t give Berkeley the money to be Berkeley: it contains none of the famously demented, people-filled extravganzae on which he made his reputation — just three cast members from Gold Diggers of 1933 (Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Warren William) reunited in a weird story by Robert Lord, scripted by Tom Buckingham and Pat C. Flick, with songs by no less than Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (the Wizard of Oz guys). The film opens with two high-school boys standing outside a theatre arguing; one of the boys says he’s just given up his ambition to go to college and study engineering. Instead he wants to be a dance director like the famous George Randall (Dick Powell, ornamented with a thin “roo” moustache that just makes him look silly) because “you get to be around beautiful girls all day — and you get paid for it!” The scene, of course, then shifts to a depiction of the trials and tribulations of actually being George Randall, especially once his producer, Wayne (Hobart Cavanaugh), announces that he’s just fired the leading lady of Randall’s new show and replaced her with Peggy Revere (Joan Blondell). Revere can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t act, and she’s a bitchy prima donna with a retinue of dogs (the canine kind) who attack just about everyone near her as if they haven’t been fed for a week, but she’s got two assets that give her the part. She’s got a large bankroll, part of which is financing the show, and she’s currently notorious for having shot her latest husband (non-fatally). Randall almost immediately insults Peggy, with the result that she pulls out of the show, she pulls out her money as well, Wayne can’t afford to produce it without her, and 100 chorus girls, supporting players, general assistants and stagehands are immediately out of work.

On his way out of the show Randall encounters Ruth Williams (Jeanne Madden, billed fifth), the “stage-struck” girl of the title, who’s just come from the Midwest with a purse full of press clippings of reviews of her performances in amateur theatricals. Naturally she thinks she can Conquer Broadway, and equally naturally Randall tries to dissuade her, even setting up a job for her in a flower shop run by a friend of his (of course she doesn’t take it). Randall lives at home with his mother, sister and aunt — the aunt fancies herself his “manager” — all of whom depend on him for their own livelihoods, and they naturally badger him about going back to work. He’s offered a job directing a new show by producer Fred Harris (Warren William), but like Wayne he’s so broke the only way he has of getting together his production cost is to — you guessed it — hire Peggy Revere and let her back the show in exchange for the starring role. Prompted by the coincidence that his assistant’s name is Oscar Freud (a quite nice performance by Johnnie Arthur), Harris hits on the idea of reconciling Randall and Peggy to working together by getting them to fall in love with each other — despite Randall’s actual interest in the fresh, charming and relatively unspoiled Ruth Williams. When Randall refuses to hire Ruth for the chorus of the show — thinking that being in show business will only ruin her — she seeks out the leading man, Gilmore Frost (Craig Reynolds), and gets him to sneak her into the show. The production opens out of town for tryouts, which are a disaster — “the audience laughs in all the wrong places,” the post-show reviews read — and she ends up on the receiving end of a punch from Frost when he chews her out for having made the show fail. Nonetheless, it opens in New York as scheduled, though with Randall virtually having Peggy kidnapped to prevent her from going on, Ruth Williams (of course! When it comes as a total surprise to her, I couldn’t help thinking, “Girl, didn’t you ever see 42nd Street?”) is her replacement, and when the police arrest Frost on a bench warrant Randall himself has to go on in his place … but we never actually see the big finale our movie-conditioned expectations have led us to anticipate and hope for at the end. The romantic entanglements are simply wrapped up as the show is still going on, and then suddenly … The End!

What’s good about Stage Struck are a lot of wisecracks, a brilliantly funny rehearsal scene in which Randall’s assistant Sid (Frank McHugh) has to take over for an absent leading lady in a hymn to the moon, two of the Yacht Club Boys’ hilariously explosive numbers (one of which, called “The Income Tax,” laments the high taxes during the Depression years and has a great punch line: when the voice on the boys’ radio, which actually interacts with them, announces that they have a refund coming, one of them says, “A refund? I won’t pay it!” — and the other, “The Body Beautiful,” is a surprisingly homoerotic parody of bodybuilder and acrobat acts, with the boys dressed in the flounciest costumes Orry-Kelly thought he could get away with), and a quite nice Arlen-Harburg ballad called “In Your Own Quiet Way.” The song is first sung by Dick Powell in the producers’ offices and then on stage by Jeanne Madden, who had a quite lovely voice (hardly in the same league as Jeanette MacDonald’s — I suspect Warners were hoping she’d be “their” MacDonald — though still nice, with luminous high notes) but not much in the way of screen personality when she wasn’t singing. She’s in a typical Berkeley set, in front of a giant window and wearing a dress with a train so long it’s practically transcontinental, and the moment she finishes the song we expect the scene to open up still farther and a big Berkeley production number to happen — but it doesn’t. The other interesting thing about Stage Struck is the way it casts Joan Blondell; usually she was the voice of reason in these sorts of stories, not the crazed prima donna she’s playing here — and Stage Struck was made right after she and Dick Powell got married, which must have made it interesting (to say the least!) for them to play these bitter scenes of hatred right when they’d tied the knot and were presumably in the first throes of love.

Rambling ’Round Radio Row #5 (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1933)

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

Just before Stage Struck TCM had shown a nine-minute vest-pocket musical short from the Warner Bros./Vitaphone Corporation (Warners kept the Vitaphone name and trademark for their musical and vaudeville shorts in the 1930’s even though they abandoned the Vitaphone sound-on-disc recording process at the end of 1930 and went to shooting sound-on-film like everybody else) series Rambling ’Round Radio Row. This was a succession of shorts (at least 11 were made) that spiced up film programs and gave audiences a chance to see what some of their favorite radio performers actually looked like. This was called Rambling ’Round Radio Row #5 and featured the incredibly queeny Harry Rose as host, introducing a succession of musical acts, most of them surprisingly interesting. The one that opens the show is probably the best of them, The Three Keys: three African-American performers who sing tenor, baritone and bass (respectively); one of them also plays guitar, another one plays piano (though only a bass part) and they scat like the Mills Brothers on the great Maceo Pinkard song “Them There Eyes” (previously recorded by Louis Armstrong and later, memorably, sung by Billie Holiday). It’s a tribute to the enormous popularity of the Mills Brothers that the airwaves and the film studios were clogged with so many Mills Brothers wanna-bes at the time — though these guys are among the very best of them; like their prototypes, they have an infectious sense of rhythm, a beautiful vocal blend, and they swing. (Apparently one of the Three Keys was George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, who would later become the Black male singer with Jan Savitt’s white swing band.)

The other performers are Leo Conrad and his (definitely non-swinging) orchestra, with Conrad himself on vocal, performing “Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep,” the second most famous song ever written by Herman Hupfeld. (His most famous song, of course, was “As Time Goes By,” though it didn’t become famous until it was used in the film Casablanca over a decade after Hupfeld wrote it.) A woman singer named Harriet Lee — quite good, and at least attempting to swing, though the Boswell Sisters, Annette Hanshaw or Mildred Bailey she is not — goes through a song called “A Great Big Bunch of You” with a quite nice set of male backup singers harmonizing like the Rhythm Boys and leading me to joke that Harriet Lee seemed to be trying for “female Bing Crosby” as her market niche (much the way a number of white trumpet players in the 1930’s and 1940’s, notably Johnnie “Scat” Davis and Louis Prima, who sang in gravelly voices seemed to be trying for “white Louis Armstrong”). We also get a scene of performer Don Carney leading a group of kids in a sing-along of “And the Green Grass Grew All Around” —which he does very much faster than I’ve ever heard it anywhere else — and the repetitiveness of the song is merely underscored by an intertitle after the first few choruses that says, “One hour later … ” Of course, “one hour later” Carney and the kids are still at it. The last guest performer is Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who had reached the apex of his short-lived movie career in 1927, making the first Academy Award Best Picture winner, Wings, as well as My Best Girl with Mary Pickford, whom he would marry in 1935. Alas, though Rogers was something of a bandleader — he would do an act in which an assortment of brass instruments would lay on a table in front of him and he’d pick up each one in turn and play it (“each was worse than the last one,” said Gene Krupa, who played drums for him in the early 1930’s until Benny Goodman liberated him from horrible jobs like that) — he’s not shown playing or singing anything in this short. Still, this is an appealing mélange of the sorts of acts you could hear on radio in those days — and the Three Keys are wonderful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1948)

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

Orson Welles’ film The Lady from Shanghai remains one of my very favorites, looking backwards to Citizen Kane (both films have long, joyless party scenes set in jungle environments and involving a super-rich but utterly hateful man and his blonde trophy wife; also, Welles deliberately cast the jurors in his trial scene with the same actors who’d played the former Chronicle columnists Kane lured over to the Inquirer) and even farther back, to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (one of Welles’ all-time favorite films and the inspiration for his decision to set the final shoot-out in a fun house; in his next film, Macbeth, Welles would tap Caligari for inspiration again and deliberately use stylized, anti-realistic sets to make the entire film a visual reflection of Macbeth’s madness). But Shanghai also looks forward to Touch of Evil (notably in a scene in which Rita Hayworth flees through a seedy Mexican town with Welles in hot pursuit) and some of Hitchcock’s films. Welles essentially transformed Hayworth for this role the way Hitchcock made over Kim Novak for Vertigo (a film with some intriguing similarities to Shanghai, not only in the San Francisco setting — the two even share a setup of the heroine’s big car pulling up in front of one of the classy hotels on top of Nob Hill — but also in casting its leading actress as a blonde luring the hero into an unwitting involvement in her husband’s murder plot). Shanghai is a marvelous movie, one of the very best noir films (right up there with the 1941 Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet) even though its plot makes almost no sense — at a screening of a rough cut on the Columbia lot studio chief Harry Cohn offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain the story to him! — and it’s also, by a wide margin, Rita Hayworth’s finest performance; whatever the personal trials and tribulations between Hayworth and Welles, on screen and off, he got her to give her finest and most sexually alluring performance precisely by toning her down and not letting her just hurl her physical beauty at the camera. Just about everything I’ve read about Hayworth indicates that she was a reluctant performer who regarded acting as a job — not a calling the way, say, Bette Davis did — and it took either an unusually well-written role, like the title part in Gilda,[1] and/or an especially talented director like Welles to give her any real impact and depth on screen. — 7/25/04


Our “feature” last night was The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles’ enigmatic film noir from … well, it was shot (mostly) in 1946, the copyright date (and the one listed for it in is 1947 but it wasn’t generally released until 1948. It was made by Columbia Pictures as a vehicle for their biggest star, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles’ second wife; their marriage was on the rocks at this point but she nonetheless agreed to make a film with him in hopes it would help his career. The project began when Welles asked Columbia president Harry Cohn for money to keep afloat his 1946 stage production of a musical version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, and Welles told Cohn he had a script in mind that would pair him and Hayworth which he would film for Columbia if Cohn backed his show. Cohn sent the money after asking Welles what the story for the film was called. Seeing someone in his crew reading a pulp mystery called If I Die Before I Wake by one Sherwood King, Welles gave that as the title of his film and told Cohn to buy the rights. Later Cohn found that he didn’t have to buy the rights because he already owned them; William Castle, legendary as the horror-schlockmeister of the 1950’s but then a director in Cohn’s “B” unit, had paid for the book out of his own pocket and assigned Columbia the rights on condition that he either direct the film himself or be involved in the production. Accordingly, Castle got credit as “associate producer” and worked essentially as Welles’ assistant (and uncredited second-unit director and screenwriter) on the film. The plot somewhat follows the template of Hayworth’s previous success, Gilda (1946), in casting her as the unhappy wife of a rich man who toys with a much younger, hunkier, sexier affair partner — only the presence of Welles as director (instead of Charles Vidor) and star (instead of Glenn Ford) makes this a considerably more interesting movie. The naturally dark-haired Hayworth, née Cansino, was naturally a raven-haired half-Argentinian but had become a superstar in 1941 after dyeing her hair red and using electrolysis to raise her hairline — but that wasn’t good enough for Welles: he insisted that Hayworth bob her hair and bleach it blonde, giving her the same sort of enigmatic air as the famous blondes in Hitchcock’s movies. Indeed, Welles’ transformation of Hayworth in Shanghai is an eerie premonition of what Hitchcock did to another Columbia sex goddess, Kim Novak, in Vertigo a decade later: he got her to tone down the blatant sexuality and therefore made her more powerful and alluring than she’d been before. To the extent you can follow it, the story — which was so confusing that when it was first screened for Cohn and the other Columbia “suits,” Cohn famously said he’d pay $1,000 to anyone who could explain it to him — deals with Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles, in an “Irish” accent that sounds pretty phony but rooted enough in reality that Charles asked me if Welles was Irish — he wasn’t, but he had spent two years in Dublin as a teenager, apprenticing at the Gate Theatre), a sailor at liberty in New York who rescues Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from an attempted mugging in Central Park, then commandeers the carriage she was riding in and takes her home. He’s immediately smitten with her, and remains so even though she’s the wife of the famous criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), who prides himself on never having lost a case.

Bannister hires O’Hara to work on his yacht, the Circe (played by Errol Flynn’s yacht, Zaca — the film crew actually toured through the Caribbean, down to Brazil and back up via the west coast of Mexico on the Zaca, and Flynn, who had rented the yacht to Columbia on condition that he be allowed to come along and that the studio hire his usual crew and take over paying them for the duration of the production, got into some bizarre scrapes that in some ways were as dramatic and entertaining as anything in the film itself), and the film is full of both sexual and class tensions between the crew, the servants and the principals: O’Hara, the Bannisters and Bannister’s barely competent law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby tells O’Hara he wants to disappear and move to a South Seas island with his wife to avoid the coming nuclear holocaust. To do that, he’s hatched a plot to pay $5,000 to O’Hara to sign a confession saying that he murdered Grisby. The idea, or at least so Grisby tells our rather dim hero, is that Mrs. Grisby will collect on the couple’s insurance and join him there with the money, and the two will live out their days accordingly. Only by the time the Circe reaches its destination, San Francisco, Grisby ends up killed for real — as does Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), who had shipped out on the Circe as a steward but was really the private detective Bannister used in divorce cases, there to collect evidence of Elsa’s infidelity so Bannister could divorce her and not have to pay a settlement. O’Hara is arrested for Grisby’s murder — after all, there’s a confession he signed stating he did it — and Bannister agrees to represent him but deliberately does such an incompetent job he turns the trial into a farce. Facing almost certain conviction — though we never actually hear the jury’s verdict — O’Hara escapes and hides out in a theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown that’s performing a Chinese opera. Elsa follows him there, but O’Hara ends up groggy from some pain pills he took in court in a botched suicide attempt (at least we think it’s a botched suicide attempt) and when he comes to he’s in the fun house at San Francisco’s real-life Playland (an amusement park on the city’s west coast that actually existed, but was torn down in the early 1970’s), where Bannister and Elsa confront and shoot each other. Before confronting his wife, Bannister had left a statement with the San Francisco D.A., to be opened on his death, explaining that Elsa actually killed Grisby and thereby freeing O’Hara of legal responsibility for the charge, so O’Hara is free and all the other principals are dead.

It’s not much of a plot in synopsis, but it’s what Welles does with it on screen that matters; drawing on influences as varied as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which was, not surprisingly, where Welles got the idea of setting the final shoot-out in a fun house, with the famous shots of Bannister and Elsa in the hall of mirrors, aiming at each other and shooting out their multiple reflections) and Welles’ own Citizen Kane (both Kane and Shanghai feature sequences in which middle-aged men throw lavish picnics for their blonde trophy wives that become singularly joyless occasions; “It was no more a picnic than Bannister was a man,” Welles as O’Hara tells us in his wry, cynical voice-over narration), Welles put together one of the most powerful femme fatale stories of the entire noir era even though the story makes precious little sense. The Lady from Shanghai has its flaws — most of which aren’t Welles’ fault; the film is way overscored by Heinz Roemheld, who with Cohn’s enthusiastic support threw out Welles’ carefully crafted sound design and wrote a lot of “Mickey Mouse” cues that mimicked the action on screen with embarrassing obviousness. (The term “Mickey Mousing” comes from Walt Disney’s insistence on the early Mickey Mouse cartoons that picture and sound be very carefully and closely synchronized so the whole idea of a talking cartoon would make sense to audiences. Disney’s films became so famous for this that “Mickey Mousing” became a standard term in Hollywood to indicate any film in which the images and soundtrack were very closely synched.) Cohn also commissioned a song called “Please Don’t Kiss Me” by his house songwriters, Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, and had Rita Hayworth sing it in one sequence (though she was actually dubbed by Anita Ellis, who’d been her voice double in Gilda as well; in later years Hayworth was bitter that Harry Cohn had spent a small fortune on voice teachers for her but never actually used her singing voice in a film) — which Welles shot while she’s lying on some rocks on a beach, in anticipation of the way Marilyn Monroe would be depicted singing in several of her films (and the breathy delivery Ellis gives the song only adds to the Monroe-esque quality!).

The film also includes an intense chase scene through some of the seedier parts of Acapulco that echoes a long sequence Welles had been forced to cut from his immediately previous directorial project, The Stranger (the only film Welles ever directed that turned a profit on its initial release) and anticipates what Welles would do to the U.S.-Mexico border in Touch of Evil a decade later. The Lady from Shanghai absolutely jolted me when I first saw it on the “Dialing for Dollars” show in San Francisco in the early 1970’s, and it’s still an impressive piece of work, full of Wellesian touches — long tracking shots, round camera images, chiaroscuro camerawork, depth-of-field shots (Charles Lawton was the credited cinematographer and it’s clear he grasped Welles’ style well, though lists noir specialist Rudolph Maté — on the cusp of transition from cinematographer to director — and Joseph Walker, the man who shot most of the major Columbia Capras, as uncredited co-cinematographers) and an overall sense of malevolent fate surrounding the characters. At points during the movie one gets the impression O’Hara and Elsa are being so completely watched they simply can’t get a break; not only does Grisby’s roving telescope (the source of those round images) follow them during the yacht trip, but even in San Francisco, meeting in the Steinhardt Aquarium, they’re discovered kissing by a teacher leading a field trip and her whole class. The film went through several working titles, including Black Irish (the nickname of Welles’ character, though one can see why Columbia didn’t go with “Rita Hayworth in Black Irish”) and Take This Woman, before it ended up named after a reference Elsa makes to having lived in Shanghai for a while (which becomes an important plot point later on when she’s able to locate O’Hara in Chinatown because she speaks Chinese — though a “goofs” poster on notes that though Shanghai has its own dialect, the Chinese Rita Hayworth speaks is sometimes Mandarin and sometimes Cantonese) that gave the film an appealingly exotic air even though not a frame of it actually takes place in China.

The Lady from Shanghai was a box-office flop, though part of that seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of Harry Cohn; because he didn’t think audiences would want to see Rita Hayworth in a film with her soon-to-be ex-husband in which he’d shorn her famous flaming red tresses and bleached them blonde, he basically dumped the film on the market and rushed Rita into a more conventional movie, The Loves of Carmen, based on the novel and opera Carmen and co-starring the male lead from Gilda, Glenn Ford. Not surprisingly, as Welles’ reputation as a director improved, The Lady from Shanghai got rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece; in his 1958 book on Welles, French critic André Bazin said that if Welles had made no other films than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai, he would still be one of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. (Welles’ own list of his best films was Kane, Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, but Chimes wasn’t made until seven years after Bazin’s death in 1958.) The Lady from Shanghai is also probably the Orson Welles film in which he looks the hunkiest he ever did, apparently thanks to a diet he went on just before making it: so much so that my mother formed a crush on him when she saw it on its initial release. Alas, Welles soon left the U.S. to live in Europe for the next decade, and my mom didn’t see Welles in a movie again until Touch of Evil, by which time he’d become the huge, bloated apparition he was in his later days — aided by body padding, which he wore in both Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight after some bizarre imp of the perverse by which he apparently decided that once he could no longer slim down to play the romantic leading man, he would go whole-hog (no pun intended) the other way and make himself not only fat but grotesquely obese on screen. My mom told me she saw Touch of Evil on its initial release and sat through the whole movie — or at least every scene in which the bloated Welles appeared — remembering the hunk she’d seen in The Lady from Shanghai and thinking, “What … happened? Whathappened?” — 11/15/13

[1] — Though based on the evidence of Shanghai I still think Gilda would have been a much better movie if Welles had directed it and also played the Glenn Ford role!