Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Border Patrolman (Atherton Productions, 1936)

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

Charles and I ran a short movie that will probably be the last one I comment on in 2013: The Border Patrolman, an archive.org download of a 1936 production from Sol Lesser’s Atherton Productions (one of Lesser’s many corporate identities), directed by David Howard from a script by Dan Jarrett and Ben Cohen that seems to have originated when one of the writers said to the other, “Hey! Let’s do It Happened One Night as a modern-dress Western!” George O’Brien, whose career rivaled Johnny Mack Brown’s in its sudden descent from prestige roles in major films (like F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise and Michael Curtiz’ Noah’s Ark) to a long stint in “B” Westerns, stars as Bob Wallace, a border policeman — it’s unclear what government agency he works for, but his job seems to consist of riding along the fence separating New Mexico from the original Mexico, which as of 1936 was just two strands of barbed wire stretched across a line of thigh-high fenceposts (ah, how times have changed!), and busting people for relatively penny-ante offenses like smoking in fire-prone parkland. This part of his job causes him to run afoul of spoiled heiress Patricia Huntley (Polly Ann Young, sister of Loretta Young and Sally Blane), who thinks nothing of diving into the swimming pool of the New Mexico resort where she’s staying in her tennis outfit, stealing someone else’s robe to dry herself, and generally cutting a swath of destruction and misappropriation, secure in the knowledge that her grandfather’s money will pay for it all. Granddad is Jeremiah Huntley (William P. Carleton), who raised Patricia — that’s right, this is yet another movie featuring the Magically Disappearing Parents — and who’s spoiled her rotten, indulging her in her every whim except one: he strongly disapproves of the man she’s become engaged to, lounge lizard Courtney Maybrook (LeRoy Allen). Wallace catches Patricia and Courtney smoking in a national park and busts them, then is forced to let Patricia go and apologize to her when she comes on to his supervisor, Captain Stevens (Frank Campeau) — whereupon Wallace abruptly quits his job as border patrolman in protest against having to suck up to the rich bitch’s whims. It turns out, as anyone who’d seen more than about three movies in their life might guess, that this is all a blind; Wallace and Stevens are working together to catch a gang of jewel thieves who are smuggling stolen gems across the border and using the New Mexico resort as their base of operations. Needless to say, in addition to being a lounge lizard, a male gold-digger and an overall creep, Courtney is also the mastermind of the jewel-stealing ring; he has two associates, Johnson (Tom London) and Myra (Mary Doran — who had a long career in the 1950’s playing mothers, so it’s something of a surprise to see her young!), whom he’s told to lay low in Mexico until the border patrol stops putting so much heat on the area.

They’re getting restless, though, especially since Myra is in love with Courtney and is understandably jealous of all the attention he’s paying to Patricia. Polly Ann Young and Mary Doran look strikingly alike, and there’s at least one casually dropped line of dialogue suggesting that at some point the writers intended to make that a plot point, but instead they go the It Happened One Night route of having the heiress taken down by a hard-ass proletarian determined to teach her the virtues of simple living. Jeremiah Huntley hires Wallace to “bridle” his granddaughter — the script actually compares taming the wild heiress to breaking a wild horse! — which Wallace does by getting word to the hotel management that she is to have nothing: no cash, no gasoline for her cars, no drinks, without his written approval. She rebels by running off with Courtney and agreeing to marry him immediately in Mexico, which is just fine with him because he’s already stolen a priceless piece of jewelry (we’re told it’s a necklace but onscreen it looks more like a broach) and decided to get it across the border by buying her a Mexican handbag as a present, concealing the piece in a secret compartment in the bag, and thus making her his unwitting “mule.” The film is set in 1936 — something we were made aware of instantly by seeing a car in the opening establishing shot — and the final chase is done with cars instead of horses, though the cars are convertibles so that Wallace, once the baddies shoot out his own tires, is able to do a flying leap into Courtney’s car, take over the wheel and get the now-subdued crooks across the border so they can be arrested. The Border Patrolman benefits from reasonably creative direction by David Howard, who shot the final action sequence in Death Valley (and used it quite effectively, though the scene is handicapped by the lack of a music score — albeit the sorts of sorry stock recordings available to producers like Lesser might not have been much help), but it’s taming-of-the-shrew plot line had already been done to death in far superior screwball comedies.

Indeed, there seems to have been at least some attempt to make The Border Patrolman what I call a “portmanteau movie” — one with a lot of disparate elements seeking to appeal to as many different audiences as possible (a common strategy of producers in the 1930’s and a far cry from the narrow “niche marketing” most filmmakers pursue today, aiming their movies at one and only one set of filmgoers!): it contains a screwball plot, plenty of Western settings (and horses, even though the principals also drive cars) for the Saturday-matinee crowd, a typically dry comic-relief performance by Smiley Burnette (Gene Autry must have had that week off), who also sings two songs, and even a Mexican band (guitar, chitarrón, violin and bass) who do two songs in Spanish in the rather sad-looking cantina to which Courtney takes Patricia for the quickie Mexican wedding he wants to put her through (only she threatens to derail his plans when she gets cold feet and wants to wait). Charles pointed out that in Mexico a cantina is a really sleazy sort of bar to which women would be unlikely to go, but the place in this film is raunchy enough one can well understand Patricia’s disquiet at her groom’s insistence on marrying her in such a place. The film ends, of course, as you’d expect it to, with the crooks in jail, Wallace restored to the good graces of the border police force, and Patricia solidly attached to the poor but decent Wallace, with whom she’s inevitably fallen in love; it isn’t much as a film, but this is at least a good, solid piece of “B” moviemaking and probably helped O’Brien make his re-entrée to the world of the major studios (RKO would sign him after this one for a long-running series of “B” Westerns, with better production finishes than The Border Patrolman but generally without this film’s quirky appeal).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Taken for Ransom (Edell Film Fund I, Victory Angel Films, 2013)

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

At 9 p.m. December 29 I watched a Lifetime TV-movie called Taken for Ransom, billed as a “world premiere” but apparently a film that was shot with at least the glimmer of hope for a theatrical release. It was co-written by Steven Edell (Jeremy and Elaine Edell, presumably his parents, are listed among the film’s official producers, along with actress Tia Carrere, suggesting this might at least have started life as a vehicle for her; she’s in the movie but not, surprisingly, as the female lead) and Harvey S. Fisher, and directed quite capably by Barbara Stepansky (every time I see a woman credited as director, especially on a film as good as this, I have hopes that she’ll be able to crack the glass ceiling and get assignments on major features — and usually those hopes are dashed). It begins with a “teaser” shot of the heroine, Brooke Holton (Teri Polo), running through a wood in the middle of the night, clad in a prison-like blue denim outfit, and then it cuts to an earlier scene showing Brooke’s family life, seemingly happy, with husband Albert Fuentes (Matt Socia) — an aspiring novelist who’s working on a book about the Spanish-American War (obviously the real writers’ choice of such a recherché subject for their fictional writer’s novel is intended to tell us that either he’ll never get the damned thing published or, if he does, it won’t sell for shit and he’ll still be living off his multimillionaire wife’s money) and their kids Billy (Parker Niksich) and Emma (Kenzie Pallone). Brooke, we eventually learn, is the founder and CEO of Holton Industries, which makes cryogenic equipment so gases can be liquefied and shipped over long distances, and both her home and work lives seem to be going just fine until one day she’s driving her son Billy to a soccer game when her cell phone buzzes with an incoming text message, she’s distracted from the road to look at it, and just then a truck comes barreling down towards her and hits her car. She survives relatively unscathed, at least physically, but Billy is killed.

This sends Brooke into a depressive funk; after a typical Lifetime title — “Nine Months Later” — we see her as a desperate basket case, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and staying smashed all day on alcohol and pills (the latter she obtains from a succession of therapists whose attempts to get her to face up to her real issues she blows off). We also see a sinister pair of hoods, Carl (Paul Vincent Blue) and a tough woman who looks like Klute-era Jane Fonda, stalking her and getting ready to — you guessed it — take her for ransom. When she’s kidnapped, she’s taken to a compound in a remote location and learns that the head of the kidnap gang is a man named Jerry (Chazz Palminteri) — “as in Jerry Lewis, a very funny man,” he says — both Charles and I noticed his striking resemblance to Ringo Starr — and she’s being held in an abandoned gym. Also being held with her is one of the gang’s previous victims, a young man named Will (Luke Eberl) — his age is carefully unspecified in the script, though he’s presented as too young for Brooke to develop a romantic or sexual interest in her (in fact Luke Eberl was born in 1986 and Teri Polo in 1969, but they look closer together in age than that on screen) — who’s worried that the kidnapers are going to mutilate him. At one point the writers insert a macabre joke when Jerry tells Brooke they’re going to send her husband her wedding ring to prove that they’re holding her (the “official” word is that she killed herself — the kidnappers made her sign a fake suicide note that said she was going to jump off a bridge), and when she asks if her finger is still going to be attached to it, he dismisses it as “too clichéd.” The gimmick is that, confronted with a gang of psychos who are likely to kill her at any moment, Brooke is going to get over her addictions, pull herself together and regain her personal strength as she looks for a way to escape and take Will — to whom she’s developed a motherly attraction and started to see as the son she lost — with her. She literally goes into training, learning how to run long distances and climb ropes, and eventually she figures out how to break the padlock on a door to the gym where they’re being held, she and Will stage their escape but the kidnappers confront them, there’s a gunfight (Will has stolen one of the gang’s guns) and everyone but Brooke is killed. She’s eventually rescued by a passing motorist and taken to the police, but when they take her back to the place where she says she was held it’s just an abandoned warehouse and there are no dead bodies, no disabled car (she was supposed to steal the gang members’ car to use in her escape, but it wasn’t working), no gym equipment and none of the elaborate video monitoring setup that had kept track of her every move.

The Lifetime synopsis on this movie — “She later discovers that someone close to her may be behind her subsequent abduction and kidnapping” — hints at one of the final twists but not at the second one [spoiler alerts!]: at first we’re led to believe that she was kidnapped by gangsters hired by her husband, who was having an affair with her assistant Michelle Gaines (Tia Carrere) and wanted to get his hands on their money; but later we find out that “Jerry” was really a therapist hired by her husband and Michelle to get her out of her blue funk with something called “immersion therapy,” in which they would create a scenario that would put her in apparent life-or-death jeopardy and thereby force her to regain her mojo and get her life back together, and the other three people involved — including “Will” — were all actors “Jerry” hired as part of the plot. I’m not sure I really believe this weird twist ending — though it does explain how the crooks (or supposed crooks) could be so sensible in some of their precautions and so slapdash in others (like never replacing the padlock to the metal door after she breaks it off) — certainly the husband-turns-out-to-be-a-creep-who-did-it-for-her-money ending would have been more credible, at least in the Lifetime universe — but overall Taken for Ransom is a quite good movie by Lifetime standards, not a world-beater but a nice couple of hours’ worth of entertainment that mostly plays fair with its audience despite the two big reversals at the end. It’s also well acted; Teri Polo is credible as both the basket case and the competent, high-achieving woman she turns back into as a result of the kidnap scenario, and Tia Carrere is appropriately sinister enough that we could well believe she’d be after both Brooke’s husband and her job.

Young cutie Luke Eberl — described in a 2008 issue of MovieMaker magazine as one of “10 Young Americans to Watch” — takes both the aesthetic and the acting honors, though; he seems genuinely traumatized by the experiences, especially when he tells Brooke (as part of the plot) that his dad paid the ransom the gang was charging for him but they refused to release him, and obviously they were going to hold up his dad for more money until he refused to pay and they killed him. It’s the same kind of dual game Kim Novak had to play in Vertigo — as a person with sincere emotions and as a person hired to fake those emotions for a plot — and Eberl acquits himself marvelously and he’s fun to look at. Incidentally, imdb.com put up two “trivia” postings on this movie even before it was released, one about all the titles that were considered for it before the rather lame Taken for Ransom was picked (among the others was Matrix — already used, and too much of a giveaway anyway — The Holton File, Last Resort, Life Saver and Final Recourse, the title under which imdb.com lists it) and the other saying it was originally written with the genders of the couple reversed (a man as the basket case flagellating himself chemically over the death of his child and his wife — presumably that would have been Tia Carrere’s role — as the mastermind of the phony “kidnapping” to free her husband from his demons), but the producers eventually decided it would have a better shot at dramatic credibility as well as international grosses with a woman as the lead. They were right; having the heroine a successful businesswoman married to a nobody made for more powerful drama and made it more believable that the husband could hatch a sinister plot to go after her money after years of feeling “unmanned” by a relationship in which his wife made far more money and he basically lived off her.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

No Other Woman (RKO, prod. 1932, rel. 1933)

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

Charles and I watched a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM as part of a mini-tribute to Irene Dunne: No Other Woman, a 1932 production from RKO personally produced by David O. Selznick during his one-year tenure as production chief there, with Dunne billed over the title in the sort of movie you think you’ve seen before whether or not you have. It’s a Warners-esque proletarian drama in which the principals all live in Steel Town and work at, you guessed it, the local steel mill: Jim Stanley (Charles Bickford) is a mill worker who’s gradually working his way up to foreman, Anna (Irene Dunne) is the company bookkeeper and Joe Zarcovia (Eric Linden) runs the time clock. Jim is in love with Anna but she’s unwilling to marry him because she doesn’t want to be stuck in Steel Town all her life; eventually they tie the knot and have a son, Bobbie (Buster Miles), but Anna’s determination to make something of themselves and make a life outside Steel Town leads her carefully to husband her husband’s earnings, keep most of them in a savings account and get additional money by taking in boarders, including Joe. (For much of the film I thought Joe was Anna’s younger brother, but he wasn’t.) Joe is also an inventor who’s figured out a way to take the waste from steel production and turn it into a new dye that’s more permanent than any other on the market. Anna wants to invest the Stanleys’ savings into Joe’s invention, but Joe is tired of having to economize and announces that he’s going to take his latest paycheck and blow it all in one night on alcohol. As things turn out, he blows it on something more than alcohol: he comes home with another woman on his arm, and though he insists she’s just a drinking buddy and means nothing to him — at least nothing that would threaten his and Anna’s marriage — he feels guilty enough the next morning that in order to atone to his wife, he tells her to go ahead and invest their money in Joe’s dye. Jim and Joe form a company to exploit the invention, and within the space of a spectacular montage by Slavko Vorkapich (who’s credited with “transitional effects”) it’s a multi-million dollar concern with a factory complex of its own and both Joe and the Stanleys are millionaires.

Only — wouldn’t you know it? — Jim’s still got the proverbial roving eye; he ends up spending a lot of time in New York City in “conferences” with investors and bankers, and during one of these trips a gold-digger named Margot Van Dearing (Gwili André) gets her hooks into Jim and starts an affair with him. Margot is really being manipulated by her actual lover, attorney Bonelli (J. Carrol Naish), but — against Bonelli’s advice — she ultimately demands that Jim either divorce his wife and marry her, or say goodbye to her forever. Jim agrees but Anna doesn’t, and as a result Jim and Bonelli (who’s serving as Jim’s lawyer) hatch a plot to bribe the Stanleys’ servants to give false testimony at the divorce trial that Anna was the one having the affair — even though it gets pretty hard to believe when the man they produce as Anna’s alleged lover, Sutherland (Theodore Von Eltz), is the sort of nerdy milquetoast who generally inhabited stories like this as the querulous hotel clerk uncertain of the morality of his guests’ relationships, not a partaker in adultery (either as cuckolder or cuckoldee) himself. Jim not only wins his divorce case, he also wins custody of Bobbie — ya remember Bobbie? — only at the thought of losing her child, Anna freaks out in court and says she was having affairs, and the court can’t award custody of Bobbie to Jim because Jim isn’t his natural father. Then Jim has his own hissy-fit and confesses in court that he set up the whole thing; that his wife is blameless and he not only lied under oath but bribed his servants to lie as well. For this Jim is sentenced to five years for perjury and suborning perjury, and though he’s paroled after one year his company goes under when its stock price plummets due to the scandals, and ultimately he, Anna and Joe all return to Steel Town and the nothing proletarian jobs they were holding down at the start of the movie.

No Other Woman, directed by the quite interesting J. Walter Ruben with a major assist from Vorkapich and his “transitions,” is well directed and competently acted — especially by Bickford, who’s just right for his part as a hard-working proletarian in over his head among the rich — but the script by Wanda Tuchock and Bernard Schubert, from an “original” story by Owen Francis, is so predictable — and also so annoying in its classism: like a lot of other movies of the period (including many of Bickford’s other vehicles), it seems to take a perverse joy out of crushing the ambitions of our honest steelworker whose only failing is a fondness for booze and women. It’s one of those stories that basically outright says to the blue-collar audience, “Don’t even think of going into business for yourself and getting ahead. You’re precisely where nature meant you to be, and if you try to rise above your place you’ll just make yourself and everyone around you miserable and you’ll end up back where you belong, anyway.” The U.S. has always had a peculiar attitude towards inherited wealth; we were sufficiently appalled by the landed nobility of the United Kingdom that we inserted in our constitution a provision that no American government official could ever accept a title of nobility — yet over and over again we’ve gravitated to hierarchical arrangements in which wealth stayed in prominent families from generation to generation, from the slaveholders of the ante-bellum South and the “patroons” of early New York state to the Rockefellers, Morgans, Chases, Fords, and now the Waltons (as in Wal-Mart) and the Kochs. Indeed, if there’s been a change in the American ideology it’s that we’ve even intensified our worship of money from what it was throughout the nation’s history — and the notion of people being superior because they’ve had money in their family for several generations has become at least partially sidetracked by the idea that people are superior simply because they have money, here and now. A modern-day remix of No Other Woman would come down less hard on Jim Stanley than the 1932 version did — it would probably re-invent him as an Ayn Rand character who lost all his money and then, because of his innate superiority over the common run of mankind, made it all back again and more, and in the meantime laid down the law to his wife that he was going to fuck any woman he wanted any time he wanted and, precisely because he was a capitalist superman, she wasn’t going to be allowed to stand in his way.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Three Musketeers (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

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

Charles and I ran a rather quirky movie I’d picked up from the $4.99 bin at 7-Eleven: The Three Musketeers, a spoof version from 20th Century-Fox in 1939 starring Don Ameche (as D’Artagnan) and the Ritz Brothers (not as the Three Musketeers themselves but as three tavern louts who drink the Musketeers under the table and then impersonate them). It was directed by Allan Dwan (who’d directed the screen’s most famous D’Artagnan, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., not in his version of The Three Musketeers but in the sequel, The Iron Mask) from a script by the usual committee: M. M. Musselman, William A. Drake and Sam Hellman, with Sid Kuller and Ray Golden credited with “special material” — i.e., they were the Ritz Brothers’ gag men. It’s a movie I’d long wanted to see, mainly due to the raves it got from Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams — he called it “the team’s best … a vivid, entertaining musical comedy … remarkably faithful to [Alexandre] Dumas’ classic story” — and it turned out to be something of a disappointment, entertaining and amusing but only rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Part of the problem is the film’s running time — only 73 minutes, hardly enough to get Dumas’ plot and the Ritz Brothers’ comedy routines and four songs in — and part of the problem is the Ritz Brothers. They were capable and energetic, but they peaked early in their films — with their 1934 two-reeler for Educational, Hotel Anchovy — and they had the misfortune of arriving in Hollywood when the market for two-reelers was drying up and comedians were being forced into longer features, often padded out with elaborate plots and musical numbers. Charles said he thought of the Ritz Brothers as a sort of bastard cross-breeding of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, but they lack the sophistication and sheer anarchic zaniness of the Marxes and the almost balletic precision of the Stooges’ aggressive, violent slapstick.

It also doesn’t help that, unlike the Marxes (even though they were brothers) or the Stooges (two of whom were brothers), the Ritzes never created characters differing from each other; one can watch just about any of the Ritz Brothers’ movies and, unless they actually address each other by name, not be able for the life of you to tell which Ritz is which. The result is a film that lacks the sheer zaniness the Marx Brothers could have brought to a Three Musketeers spoof in the 1930’s (or Mel Brooks could have in the 1970’s); instead it’s a clever film, well staged by Dwan and benefiting from the 20th Century-Fox infrastructure. The sets representing 17th Century France are absolutely convincing (probably a lot of them were pre-existing leftovers from other big costume epics) and the cinematography by J. Peverell Marley is absolutely gorgeous — and the edition we were watching was a commercial DVD that did full justice to Marley’s work. The supporting cast was also quite good: the bad guys (and gals) were cast mostly seriously — Miles Mander as Richelieu, the great Lionel Atwill as De Rochefort and Binnie Barnes as Lady de Winter (both a stronger actress and a sexier woman than Lana Turner, who took this part in the “straight” Gene Kelly version from MGM in 1948!), along with an almost unrecognizable John Carradine as Naveau — and though Gloria Stuart as the Queen was O.K. rather than great, her presence here is welcome if only because it puts the Ritz Brothers one degree of separation from Leonardo di Caprio! As the good girl for D’Artagnan to fall in love with, Pauline Moore as Lady Constance has a nice singing voice (considerably nicer than Don Ameche’s!) and a quietly strong screen presence that’s welcome.

The Three Musketeers isn’t a bad movie at all; it’s just not great, neither all that exciting from an action standpoint (despite some well-staged swordfights) nor all that funny. Don Ameche’s singing voice — which I’d forgotten I’d heard before in Alexander’s Ragtime Band — is, like the overall film, acceptable without being great; he doesn’t attack the numbers with the panache of Lawrence Tibbett or Nelson Eddy but he isn’t so embarrassingly bad as to be camp, either. As D’Artagnan he’s handsome and reliable — sort of like Walter Abel in the then-most recent “straight” version of the story — his performance “works” even though neither he nor Abel could compete with either Fairbanks or Kelly in the role. The Ritz Brothers get two great comedy scenes: one in which they literally upend Binnie Barnes and shake her to get an important document she’s concealed between her breasts (they shake loose a lot of romantic assignation letters before they get the key paper) and one in which they become a percussion ensemble, clashing together cymbals attached to each others’ bodies, to make so much noise that D’Artagnan won’t be caught while he’s ransacking the palace for something or other. The big plot gimmick is that no sooner have the Ritz Brothers assumed the identities of the real Musketeers (Douglass Dumbrille as Athos, John “Dusty” King as Aramis and Russell Hicks as Porthos, in case you cared), the King, Louis XIII (Joseph Schildkraut — it’s nice to savor the irony of casting a Jewish actor and Yiddish Art Theatre vet as the King of a country where Jews were unwelcome and various factions of Christians massacred each other!), issues an edict that anyone wearing a musketeer’s costume without official permission is to be put to death— which means the Ritzes spend virtually the whole movie cowering in fear over being thought out, while the writers throw them various complications that prevent them from doffing the Musketeer drag and returning to their normal appearance.

It also doesn’t help that the songs aren’t that memorable — except for the catchy one D’Artagnan sings as he rides his old plug horse through the French countryside. I wondered why he kept singing “Walla, walla, walla, walla, walla” until I looked the movie up both in the American Film Institute Catalog and on imdb.com and found the word was supposed to be “Voilà.” The Three Musketeers is a nicely entertaining film but nothing to write home about, though Charles was impressed that in the closing scene, with the Ritz Brothers exiting with their backs to the camera, they’re all carrying actual muskets; one could sit through a lot of the other versions of this story and not realize that muskets were actually a primitive sort of firearm! Incidentally, imdb.com lists versions of The Three Musketeers as early as 1903, 1914 and 1916 before the Fairbanks version of 1921 (and a French short made the same year); the first sound version was a four-hour French film in 1932 (the French were specializing in these hyperthyroid adaptations of their national literature just then; the French version of Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary from 1934 was three hours long, though it was cut to two hours when it was issued in the U.S.), followed by the 1935 RKO version, this one, ones from 1942 and 1945, a few more French versions and some made for TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s, then the Richard Lester version from 1973 with Michael York as D’Artagnan (the most recent of the “major” versions of this story, following the Fairbanks and Kelly films) and a few more from the 1990’s.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Shall We Dance (RKO, 1937)

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

I ran Charles the 1937 film Shall We Dance, a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical (the seventh in the series) brought down by the tiredness of some of the series formulae but enlivened considerably by a superb George and Ira Gershwin score that generated three songs that have become standards — “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed” (the last my choice for unofficial theme song of the AIDS dissident movement). Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book has a good deal of scorn for this movie, not only for the central conceit — Astaire plays Peter P. Peters of Philadelphia, PA, a dancer whose manager (Edward Everett Horton at his absolute queeniest) has had the idea to sell him as a ballet star by passing him off as the Moscow Ballet’s premier danseur, Petrov — but also for the casting of Harriet Hoctor as Astaire’s other dancing partner. “Not even in his satin premier danseur tunic can Astaire be taken for a ballet dancer, but Miss Hoctor can be taken for nothing human,” Croce wrote. “She was a contortionist whose specialty, a horseshoe backbend on point, was already well known to movie audiences. (In this position she would kick herself in the head.)” Unlike those other movie contortionists, the Ross Sisters — who did so much to liven up the otherwise dreary 1944 MGM musical Broadway Rhythm — Hoctor is all too “serious” about this move, and not only does she perform the maneuver exactly the way Croce described it, director Mark Sandrich makes it worse by filming it, not from the expected side angle, but dead on, with Hoctor starting out with her back to the camera and then exposing first her face (upside down) and then her breasts, which end up resembling two marshmallows on top of a vanilla ice cream sundae. After she duly kicks herself in the head as promised — first with her right leg and then with her left (or was it the other way around?) — Sandrich mercifully cuts away. Shall We Dance is an uneven movie — great stars, great supporting players (particularly the marvelous Jerome Cowan as Rogers’ manager — he and Horton have a relationship that verges as close to the homoerotic as the tight Production Code enforcement of 1937 would allow!), great songs and a creaky, committee-made script (Lee Loeb and Harold Buchman are credited with the story, P. J. Wolfson with its “adaptation” and Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano with the actual screenplay — but at its best it’s marvelous and a great deal of fun in the best Astaire-Rogers tradition. — 9/21/98


Charles and I watched one of the films in Turner Classic Movies’ last day of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Fred Astaire. It was quite surprising that, for an Astaire tribute that ended on Christmas night, they did not show Holiday Inn, but instead they decided to go with the five films in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers canon they hadn’t run on the opening night four weeks earlier: Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and The Barkleys of Broadway. The one we watched was Shall We Dance, made in 1937 and the seventh of the nine Astaire-Rogers films made in the 1930’s for RKO (Barkleys was an MGM film made in 1949, a decade after the RKO cycle, and in it Rogers was a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland, who had one of her breakdowns and got fired from it). It was also a reunion between Astaire and songwriters George and Ira Gershwin — Astaire and his sister Adele had had some major hits with Gershwin musicals on stage in the 1920’s but they hadn’t worked together on a film until this one. It’s an indication of how much Gershwin’s star had fallen in the commercial worlds of music, movies and theatre that George and Ira got only $50,000 to write the score for Shall We Dance — a formidable sum but only half what Fox had paid them six years earlier for the film Delicious. In the meantime Gershwin had had three consecutive stage flops (Let ’Em Eat Cake, Pardon My English and his opera Porgy and Bess, in a problematical production by the Theatre Guild with spoken dialogue replacing Gershwin’s original recitatives and one of the score’s most powerful and wrenching numbers, “The Buzzard Song,” cut because the Porgy, Todd Duncan, was performing the role eight times a week and leaving it in would have wrecked his voice from the strain) and that had sent his asking price way down. His billing, too; where the opening title of Delicious had advertised “JANET GAYNOR and CHARLES FARRELL in DELICIOUS with GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC” (indicating that Fox had paid the Gershwins $100,000 in hopes that their name would be box office in itself), for Shall We Dance Astaire and Rogers got above-the-title billing while the Gershwins got a title card to themselves but only in the middle of the ones for everyone else. (When the names of George and Ira Gershwin appear on screen, the soundtrack cuts in with a snatch of the Rhapsody in Blue, then as now George’s most famous composition.)  

Shall We Dance was also the last production involving George Gershwin’s music to be premiered during his lifetime — before his untimely death he’d finished the songs for Astaire’s next film, A Damsel in Distress, and written about half the projected score for the film The Goldwyn Follies (Vernon Duke finished the project after Gershwin’s death), but he died two months before Damsel started shooting. He was not a happy camper about the movie; he wrote to a friend in New York, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should. They literally throw one or two songs away without any plug. This is mainly due to the structure of the story, which does not include any other singers than Fred and Ginger, and the amount of singing one can stand of these two is quite limited.” (Irving Berlin and Cole Porter both told interviewers that they’d rather have a song of theirs introduced by Fred Astaire than anyone else, but apparently Gershwin didn’t feel the same way — even though some of his greatest and most enduring songs, both on stage and on film, were first performed by Astaire.) He’s right; future generations have lamented that Harry Woods’ “Sweet Leilani” won the 1937 Academy Award for Best Song over “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” but the performance of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in Shall We Dance — Astaire sings it to Rogers as they’re on a ferry to New Jersey, where they’re going to get married because the world already thinks they are married, and therefore Rogers must publicly divorce him so she can marry her millionaire boyfriend (which, of course, she doesn’t), but they don’t dance to it and the great ballad is thrown away — shows why Academy voters rejected it.

Shall We Dance has its problems — the story asks us to suspend disbelief that ordinary common-Joe American Peter P. Peters (Fred Astaire) has somehow managed to become a huge international ballet star under the sobriquet “Petrov” (and while it was actually fairly common for American ballet dancers to take Russian names and pass themselves off as Russians, Astaire’s attempts at ballet illustrate both his superb control over his body and his stylistic unsuitability for that sort of dancing), and it’s structured so there are too many scenes in which he and Rogers’ character, musical star Linda Keene, hate each other and not enough in which they love each other — but it’s actually a quite witty film, with a great Gershwin score, a witty, wisecrack-filled script by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano, and an interesting plot conceit: the reluctant Petrov falls in love with Linda (“I haven’t even met her, but I’d sort of like to marry her — in fact, I think I will”) as well as with her style of dancing (there’s a nice scene at the beginning where Astaire takes a break from ballet rehearsals, closets himself in a secret studio, and does a hot tap routine to a swing record of Gershwin’s “Beginner’s Luck” — the record sticks in several places and ultimately winds down, as often happened in those days because a lot of record players were still powered by clockwork). The film starts in Paris, where Petrov wants to stay because Linda is performing at a local nightclub — only he overhears that she’s sailing that night for New York, whereupon he tells his imperious manager Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton at his dippiest — I hadn’t realized before last night how much Horton resembled George W. Bush, particularly in that deer-in-the-headlights look both men had at their moments of crisis) that he’s leaving that night on the same liner. 

She too has an imperious manager, Arthur Miller (the marvelous Jerome Cowan, playing a queeny stereotype quite far from his usual casting — Cowan was a very underrated performer and his reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that his most famous role was as Miles Archer in the 1941 Maltese Falcon, in which he’s killed in the first reel), who’s worried that her impending retirement to marry a millionaire is going to kill him financially; when she says of her impending nuptials, “I’m facing happiness for the first time,” he says, “And I’m facing bankruptcy … for the third time.” (One wonders why he doesn’t sell his backers 25,000 percent of Linda’s next show and deliberately make it so bad it flops.) On the liner, Petrov — who’s already alienated Linda by visiting her room and playing the haughty Russian artiste pose to the max (when she asks if he has another name besides Petrov, he says in an hilariously bad “Russian” accent, “Like Caesar, only Napoleon, and just Garbo, so Petrov, she is enough, too”) — cruises her on deck as she’s walking a dog (to a piece by George Gershwin variously called “Promenade,” “Walking the Dog” and “Strictly Instrumental,” which Michael Tilson Thomas had transcribed for his 1985 Gershwin album and which now regularly appears on programs of Gershwin’s concert music). The ship’s radio operator hears a rumor that Petrov and Linda are secretly married (there are at least two sequences in this movie in which various shipboard and hotel officials hear discussions of Astaire’s and/or Rogers’ relationships and, though the truth is both morally and Production Code-wise innocuous, the Scott-Pagano dialogue makes it sound considerably racier than it is, leaving the eavesdroppers shocked) and it becomes an international news story (“It must have been a slow news year,” I joked), leading to that odd scene in which the two hatebirds comment that they’re the only people in the world who don’t think they’re married to each other, and Linda hits on the solution of actually getting married so they can then get divorced.

Shall We Dance is a bizarrely mixed film whose biggest problem is that, in a plot centered around the clash between ballet and popular dancing, the pop side is represented by Astaire and Rogers at their peak as a team (even though, of the three numbers they have together only one, “They All Laughed,” is actually a dance; the others are that instrumental dog-walk on the deck of the ocean liner taking them from France to the U.S., and a roller-skating sequence to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”) and the ballet side is represented by hideous choreography by Harry Losee (fresh from doing Sonja Henie’s skating routines in the film Thin Ice) that Arlene Croce, in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, derisively called “turned-in toe dancers rumbl[ing] around in clumps.” With the plot temporarily splitting Astaire and Rogers in time for Petrov’s big opening at Arthur Miller’s rooftop nightclub (the first rooftop nightclub had been opened by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1912 and the most popular — or at least best-known — example was the New York Rainbow Room owned by NBC, RKO’s parent company)— he’s accepted Miller’s offer after New York’s Metropolitan Ballet has fired him for his “scandalous” behavior with Linda Keene — Astaire’s dance partner for the big number at the end is someone or something called Harriet Hoctor. Croce is withering about her: “Not even in his satin premier danseur tunic can Astaire be taken for a ballet dancer, but Miss Hoctor can be taken for nothing human. She was a contortionist whose specialty, a horseshoe backbend on point, was already well known to movie audiences. (In this position she would kick herself in the head.)” And while directors of her other movies (there were other Harriet Hoctor movies, which is rather amazing in itself) usually shot her self-kicking sequence in profile, the director of Shall We Dance, Mark Sandrich (making his fourth of five movies with Astaire and Rogers), shoots it full on, making Hoctor look like a submarine suddenly upending itself to do a crash dive, with her breasts as the conning towers. Nonetheless, there are quite a few interesting elements in Shall We Dance, including the queeniest set of supporting performances in an Astaire-Rogers movie since The Gay Divorcée — in one audacious sequence Jerome Cowan gets Edward Everett Horton drunk on champagne and damned if it doesn’t it look like he’s getting him plastered so he can have his wicked way with him! — and a series of astounding visual representations of Rogers that form a probably unintentional but nonetheless amusing spoof of celebrity culture.

We first see Ginger Rogers in this film as a dancer in a flip-book of photographs sold at the club where she performs, and which Astaire shows to Horton to illustrate the woman he hasn’t met yet but thinks he’s going to marry. (In the original script there was an even more elaborate introduction; Astaire was going to mention to Horton that he’d seen a poster of his dream girl, and in a sequence apparently patterned on the beautiful “A Needle in a Haystack” scene in The Gay Divorcée he was going to dance through the streets of Paris until he came upon the theatre where she was performing, which would be showing a film of her dance on a small monitor to let audiences know what they would be in for if they paid to see her, and then the film would dissolve to her actual dance with her partner — only the bean-counters at RKO decided this wouldn’t be worth the extra $50,000 it would have added to the budget, while the song the Gershwins wrote for it, “Hi-Ho,” went into storage and wasn’t unearthed and published until 1967.) Then there’s a life-size model of Rogers of almost unearthly realism, which Miller and a photographer in his employ sneak into Astaire’s bedroom and take a picture of him with the model Rogers in his bed, then release it to the papers to establish that Petrov and Linda are in fact married to each other. And there’s the final sequence in which Astaire decides that if he can’t dance with Rogers in his big number, he’ll dance with images of her; he has photographic masks of her face made up and has every chorus girl in his “Ballet Meets Broadway” routine hold one in front of her face as she dances the routine. Ginger shows up with her rich idiot fiancé, sneaks backstage, dresses in a chorus girl’s costume and joins the line, at one point letting her mask slip so Astaire’s character will know it’s the real Rogers onstage behind one of the Rogers masks — but which one? He dances his way through the chorus line, “unmasking” each one in turn. “If this were a Romantic ballet,” Croce wrote, “he would have gone on hunting forever, but the music races on in a new key, the lights come up bright, and after a bit of dancing (a very little bit), the movie ends with, ‘Ho, ho, ho, who’s got the last laugh now?’” It seems odd that the “Promenade” has been transcribed and included in concert programs of Gershwin’s music while this final scene — with its daringly dissonant music when it isn’t incorporating the melodies of the film’s songs — hasn’t been; it would be nice to hear it outside the distraction of Losee’s boring choreography. — 12/26/13

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Selfish Giant (Potterton Productions/Reader's Digest, 1971)

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

Charles ran me a half-hour cartoon short of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant from 1971 which was a special favorite of his, and which he thought was unique even though, when I searched for it on imdb.com, seven other versions came up, including some made for television (notably a 1939 version from the BBC’s experimental TV production group), and a version dated 2013, though that one is described as “a contemporary fable about two scrappy 13-year-old working-class friends in the UK who seek fortune by getting involved with a local scrap dealer and criminal, leading to tragic consequences.” Exactly what that has to do with Wilde’s story, if anything, is something I won’t know until I see it. In any event, this Selfish Giant is a quite charming, if rather crudely animated, 26-minute cartoon offered by, of all companies, Reader’s Digest, based on a Wilde story that’s a pretty obvious parable about the joys of altruism and the dangers of selfishness — the sort of children’s story you might expect from an author who wrote an essay called “The Soul of Man under Socialism” that clearly came from a point of view that regarded socialism as a good thing.

The story deals with a giant (though given the scale with which he was drawn as compared to the human characters he’s not that giant — more like about 12 feet — and his appearance, particularly his facial structure and his clothes, made me think the animators were deliberately copying the famous Frankenstein monster makeup from the Universal films) who leaves his castle and garden for seven years to visit the Cornish Ogre, an equally jumbo-sized humanoid who lives on an island. When he returns, he finds that children have made it a habit to play in his beautiful garden. Being selfish, he’s horrified by this and immediately puts up a “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign, walls off his castle and garden, and makes sure the kids can’t come in and play. He’s visited by Winter, the North Wind, Jack Frost and Hail, all of whom camp out in his garden and turn it into a year-round wasteland of frost, cold and other unpleasantnesses. Then one child manages to discover a crack in the wall and sneak in, and the Selfish Giant takes pity on him, installs him at the top of a tree in the garden, and by his example the child attracts Spring and more clement weather beings and turns the garden beautiful again. The Giant tears down the wall and the sign, lets the children play in his garden again, but is broken-hearted because he never again sees the child who sneaked in and softened his attitude in the first place — until the very end of the story, in which the mystery child literally turns out to be Jesus Christ (we can tell by the wounds on his hands and feet left by the Crucifixion), who tells the giant, “You let me play once in your garden; today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.” Then the giant is allowed to die (the story has taken place over decades and by then he’s quite old) in peace.

The 1971 adaptation is a bit on the cutesy-poo side for me, complete with a couple of highly sappy songs that sound like cross-breeds between Disney musicals and soft-rock, though Charles assured me (and I just confirmed by looking up the original online) that most of the third-person narration we hear throughout the film comes from Oscar Wilde. It’s a genuinely charming tale, effectively if not especially creatively told here, quite moving in its way even though more than a bit didactic. Indeed, while we were watching it I couldn’t help imagine the story as Ayn “Virtue of Selfishness” Rand would have written it; in her version, of course, the giant’s brilliant entrepreneurial spirit would have ensured that his garden blossomed while everyone else’s stayed stuck in winter, and at the end he would emerge from behind the wall and say, “If you want to play in my garden, you will have to do so on my terms.” (One quirky fact about the film listed on imdb.com: the movie was also released in a French-language version, and for the French soundtrack narrator Paul Hecht was replaced by, of all people, Charles Aznavour. If only they’d tapped him for the songs as well!)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

In the Good Old Summertime (MGM, 1949)

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

Judy Garland was the star of the movie Charles and I watched last night, In the Good Old Summertime, which I hadn’t seen in some time; released in 1949, it was her next-to-last film under contract to MGM, and while virtually all her other movies of the period either were abandoned and recast with others (Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton, The Barkleys of Broadway with Ginger Rogers, Royal Wedding with Jane Powell) or put both her co-stars and the behind-the-camera personnel through the trials and tribulations of sheer hell before they were finished (The Pirate, Easter Parade, Summer Stock), this one seems to have been an easygoing experience for her and the other people involved — including several she worked with only this one time: co-star Van Johnson (he’s billed second and is the only other cast member listed above the title), featured player Buster Keaton and director Robert Z. Leonard. Leonard had begun his career in the silent era directing his then-wife, Mae Murray, at Universal; they both obtained contracts at MGM and then broke up. Murray married one of the Mdivani brothers, scapegrace princes from Europe who ran through their celebrity wives’ money, while Leonard stayed on at MGM, directed Norma Shearer (wife of MGM production head Irving Thalberg) in her Academy Award-winning performance in The Divorcée, helmed the big musical The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 (dully; the director the film really needed was John Murray Anderson, who’d directed most of the Ziegfeld Follies on stage and had also made the awesome 1930 musical The King of Jazz) and the following year made one authentic masterpiece; Maytime, the third and (to my mind) the best of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy cycle. Then it was back to the hack salt mines, doing a wide range of film types including the quite credible 1949 film noir The Bribe (though when I watched it last I called it “a mediocre movie with a great one inside trying to escape”), and taking on a long-simmering project at MGM that had originally been a charming 1940 comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch called The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch had run afoul of MGM’s boss, Louis B. Mayer, in 1939 by making Ninotchka, a sophisticated, satirical comedy about Soviet Russia starring Greta Garbo as a commissar who comes to Paris to sell some of the Imperial crown jewels to get foreign exchange for the Soviet government, and is seduced away from her principles by gigolo Melvyn Douglas. It made money, but Mayer was fond of pointing out that a Hardy Family movie that had been released at the same time grossed just as much as Ninotchka and turned a bigger profit because it was so much cheaper to make.

Lubitsch got the message and looked for a story he could shoot that would have the kind of homey “family values” Mayer liked in his projects, which he found in a play by Miklós László called Parfumerie. Lubitsch’s writer, Samson Raphaelson, changed the business around which the plot revolves from a perfume store to a music store but kept the basic plot premise intact: a young man who works at a music store (James Stewart) is having an pen-pal relationship with a woman he’s never met and whose name he does not know. The music store’s owner (Frank Morgan — yes, the Wizard of Oz himself!) hires a new female staff member (Margaret Sullavan) and she and Stewart hate each other at first sight — only, you guessed it, she’s his mysterious pen-pal, and the whole running time is taken up keeping both them and us in suspense as to what’s going to happen when these two people who can’t stand each other in the flesh realize that they’re the people who have fallen in love by letter. (Later, in the 1990’s, there was a third version, You’ve Got Mail!, which seized on the Internet as a way to update the story and was actually pitched as “The Shop Around the Corner with e-mail!”) MGM seemed to be looking for a musical version of The Shop Around the Corner, with its turn-of-the-century setting, almost as soon as Meet Me in St. Louis became the biggest hit MGM had produced to date. (Gone With the Wind was even bigger, but it was a Selznick International production that MGM had merely co-financed and distributed in exchange for supplying Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler.) Though MGM announced the project for a dizzying array of stars in both the female and male leads — among the candidates to play the woman were June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven, while Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Peter Lawford were considered for the man — the people they ended up with, Judy Garland and Van Johnson, were near-perfect for the roles. The script was worked up from Raphaelson’s The Shop Around the Corner by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich along with Ivan Tors (whose presence puts Judy Garland one degree of separation from Flipper!), and they gave MGM pretty much what they wanted: another homey, family-oriented musical drawing on the actual early 20th-century songbook.

In the Good Old Summertime is what I’ve taken to calling a “monomusical” since only one cast member sings, but even though Van Johnson (who did have something of a voice — he replaced Gene Kelly in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey, much to lyricist Lorenz Hart’s disappointment) doesn’t sing he’s a surprisingly good co-star for Judy. The two make themselves believable as both lovebirds and hatebirds, and they have an easygoing chemistry that gives the musical an old-fashioned charm. In the Good Old Summertime also benefits from glowing Technicolor (The Shop Around the Corner had been in black-and-white), though so many of the interiors are burnished brown that at times this looks like a more recent past-is-brown “color” film. And most of all, it has Judy Garland, who despite the troubles she was going through at this time — her fraught relationship with MGM and fragile marriage-on-the-rocks with director Vincente Minnelli (who had, on Judy’s psychiatrist’s orders, stopped directing her films in a failed attempt to save their off-screen relationship) — turns in one of her most remarkable performances, showing herself capable of physical comedy, witty repartée and, of course, incredible singing. Her voice shows traces of the muscle-bound quality that would afflict it in the post-MGM years, but for the most part it’s still a lovely instrument that does justice to the songs, especially the scene in the beer garden where the store owner, Otto Oberkugen (S. Z. Sakall in Frank Morgan’s old role — he’s even identified on his credit with his nickname “Cuddles”), is throwing a party and Judy harmonizes with four male singers on “Play That Barbershop Chord” and then does an uptempo belt version of “I Don’t Care,” the star-making song for vaudevillian Eva Tanguay. And In the Good Old Summertime is also notable as the first film in which Liza Minnelli appeared — at least visibly; Judy had made Till the Clouds Roll By while she was pregnant with Liza and, despite their best efforts to cover it up, some intimations that she was “with child” are visible in the final cut — at the very end, when she shows up at a park in the company of Judy and Van Johnson, playing their daughter.

In the Good Old Summertime was made at a time when Judy Garland was not only fed up with MGM generally but in particular was upset at being thrown one big period musical after another when she desperately wanted to play more sophisticated roles in stories set in her own time. She’d wanted to make Yolanda and the Thief with Minnelli but got assigned The Harvey Girls instead (one time when the studio was right and a star was wrong: The Harvey Girls was an enormous hit and Yolanda an enormous flop), and she got In the Good Old Summertime after having one of her nervous breakdowns and being bounced out of The Barkleys of Broadway (which became, instead of a reunion between Fred Astaire and Judy Garland after their joint success in Easter Parade, a reunion between Astaire and Ginger Rogers 10 years after their last RKO film together, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) — indeed, this film was cut so much to the Meet Me in St. Louis formula that it even features Judy singing a Christmas-themed song to a pre-pubescent girl (supposedly someone her aunt, whom she lives with, is baby-sitting), though the song is a simple piece called “Merry Christmas” by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre, and is hardly on the level of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (a masterpiece that no one has sung as well as Garland did). One surprise in this film is the opening narration delivered, in character, by Van Johnson, over a sequence that dissolves from Chicago (the film’s setting) as it was in 1949 to the representation of it half a century earlier — the text is so much like the opening of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (and the Booth Tarkington source novel) I suspect at least one of the writers was consciously copying it even though usually Welles’ name and anything he’d done was persona non grata at MGM. Another MGM bête noire who got an unexpected rehabilitation on this film was Buster Keaton, who’d been hired back by the studio as a gagman in the early 1940’s but hadn’t appeared on screen in an MGM movie since he was fired after What, No Beer? in 1933. Keaton was asked to come up with a way for a character accidentally to break a violin (a key plot point), and he did such a spectacular pratfall director Leonard decided to have him play the character — and he also worked out a marvelous slapstick sequence when Van Johnson’s and Judy Garland’s characters meet early on; indeed, he had enough creative involvement in this film that imdb.com lists him as an uncredited co-director!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Wolverine (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Donners' Company, 2013)

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

Charles and I watched the DVD edition of the latest X-Men movie, The Wolverine — a flawed but surprisingly interesting and almost tragic superhero movie which was released earlier this year as a summer blockbuster but didn’t do well at the box office. One can readily see why; it’s true that Marvel Comics, which introduced the X-Men characters in 1963 (I hadn’t realized it was that early until I saw the recent PBS documentary on the history of superheroes), really began the whole idea of the angst-ridden superhero — the being with superpowers who also longed for a normal life, to the point of thinking and sometimes even asking the universe to take this cup from their lips. But they’ve rarely taken it so far as they did here, or been so relentless about it. The premise of the X-Men movies is that a certain number of people are born with superhero mutations — though Wolverine seems to have acquired his via an accident in which his body was injected with a metal called adamantium, which has made him immortal, given him the power to heal just about any injury he suffers, and also has allowed him to grow three fearsome metal blades that sprout from his knuckles (not his fingernails) and make him an incredibly effective combat weapon, since the super-strong metal can slice through walls and other metal objects as well as the bodies of his attackers.

The group X-Men movies have centered around the uncertain affiliations between these mutants — some of whom have reacted by becoming antisocial villains and others by becoming good guys who try to fight them — but Wolverine’s solo movies (of which this is at least the second — the first was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a clunky title but also quite a good film) have cast him as an angst-ridden version of the Lone Ranger who travels the world over looking for a place where he can feel at home and a woman he can love. Of course, despite his success in fighting evil he never really accomplishes either of those tasks. The Wolverine is set mostly in Japan, and casts Logan (Hugh Jackman in his sixth appearance in the role), Wolverine’s non-hero alternate identity, as a U.S. servicemember in World War II who’s taken prisoner by the enemy and held in a prison camp in Nagasaki. When the city is bombarded by an atomic attack — the genuine one that took place August 9, 1945, three days after the better-known one on Hiroshima — three junior Japanese officers in charge of the camp commit suicide rather than face dishonor, but the commandant, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), is rescued by Logan. The two survive the attack by hiding at the bottom of a long pipe in the ground that apparently serves as the only entrance and egress to Logan’s cell — and then the film flashes forward from 1945 to 2013, where Logan is wandering aimlessly around Alaska following the death of his girlfriend, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) — an event depicted in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, so far the only one in the cycle Charles and I haven’t seen. He’s met by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a red-haired female martial artist and an emissary of Yashida’s company — since the war he’s become a billionaire and owns a high-tech corporation — who tells him that Yashida (played in the modern footage by Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is about to die of natural causes and wants to say goodbye to his old friend Logan before he croaks. Only what he really wants is to steal Logan’s superpowers and make himself immortal.

He’s got help in doing that from another mutant, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose superpower is being able to absorb every poisonous substance in the world into her own body and then breathe or otherwise transfer them out again to anyone else, thereby either killing or incapacitating them. He’s also got the assistance of Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Noburo (Brian Tee) — the latter is Japan’s attorney general but, like a lot of real-life politicians, is looking to be in the good graces of a 1-percenter so he’ll have a lucrative career when he leaves (or gets thrown out of) office. What Yashida doesn’t reckon with is his own granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who inherits the company when Yashida dies and falls in love with Logan. It turns out, this being a superhero movie, that Yashida isn’t dead; his body has been kept alive artificially, partly by the share of Logan’s superpowers that Viper has been able to extract from him and insert into Yashida’s corpse to revive him, and partly due to the Silver Samurai, a huge robot made of adamantium which Yashida operates from inside, and which since it’s made of the same stuff that gave Logan his powers can off him once and for all. The plot leaves a lot of room for the typical, highly baroque and elaborate action scenes you expect in a comic-book movie — all of which are set in high-tech environments looking nothing like anything you or I are likely to encounter in our own lives — but there’s also some real emotional conflict here. Logan begins the movie in full death-wish mode, lamenting the curse of his own immortality and sounding an awful lot like a cross between Jesus Christ and Wagner’s Wotan, but no sooner has he realized that Yashida wants to take over his immortality than Logan decides he wants to live after all, even if that means that at the end of the film he abandons Mariko and hits the road again, Lone Ranger-style — and in one of the post-credits sequences Marvel movies have become famous for, he’s greeted at the airport by Professor X (Anthony Hopkins) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), setting up a couple of upcoming new entries in the group version of the X-Men cycle, Days of Future Past (2014) and Apocalypse (2016).

I’m not sure stretching the cycle that far is all that good an idea, and I’m not sure including Wolverine in the group movies is that good an idea either — he’s really much more powerful as a solo character — but The Wolverine, as much as it sometimes seems on the verge of collapsing from its weight and darkness, is really a surprisingly intense and moving film, especially for a genre that really doesn’t truck much with sophisticated human emotions. It probably helps that the script was written by only two people (Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) and also that the director, James Mangold, is not a superhero specialist; his best-known previous credits are Girl, Interrupted (about a mentally ill teenager), the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the recent remake of the 1950’s Western 3:10 to Yuma — which means he isn’t burned out on the genre and instead could look at it with fresh eyes (literally and figuratively). Though the relentless past-is-brown, present-is-brown, everything-is-brown cinematography of Ross Emery makes the film wearing at times, and a few of the action set-pieces (including an otherwise exciting fight-to-the-finish on top of a speeding bullet train) suffer from the obvious digitization of the images, The Wolverine is actually a quite impressive superhero movie and a worthy entry in a cycle whose central premise (mutants living in the “normal” world and having to cope with the often deadly prejudices against them) has been analogized to both the African-American and Queer civil-rights struggles; apparently much of the original fan base for the X-Men comic magazine was 1960’s and 1970’s Queer people identifying with the mutants’ dilemma: stay in the closet or come out?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Alphabet Killer (Intrinsic Value Films, New Films International, Wideye Creative Films, 2008)

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

I ran a Lifetime movie from the backfiles, The Alphabet Killer, which I recorded last March around the same time as Lifetime aired Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story — which they were promoting incessantly during the showing of The Alphabet Killer, pushing the fact that the real Chris Porco had filed suit to block the screening of that film and had actually won in district court before an appeals court ruled that this was precisely the sort of prior-restraint censorship the First Amendment was designed to prevent, and the ban was lifted so they could show the film. The Alphabet Killer was also based on a true story — the mysterious murders of three pre-pubescent girls in and around Rochester, New York in the early 1970’s — which got the nicknames “the alphabet murders” and “the double-initial murders” because not only were the victims young girls whose first and last names began with the same letter, their bodies were dumped in towns whose names began with the same letter as the victims’ names. According to the usual online sources, the Rochester “alphabet murders” have never been solved, though a later series of four “alphabet murders” in California has been solved — the convicted killer was a man named Joseph Naso who moved from upstate New York to California in the mid-1970’s — which leads some people to suspect that the Rochester murders may have been committed by Naso as well. Then again, Naso’s victims were adult prostitutes instead of little girls, and it’s rare for a serial killer to change his victim profile that radically. Besides, as some online sources pointed out, both Naso and the Rochester killer could have copied the gimmick from Agatha Christie’s suspense novel The ABC Murders.

But The Alphabet Killer is hardly your standard-issue Lifetime true-crime drama — indeed, it’s at least as enjoyable if you don’t know it’s at least nominally based on actual crimes — instead it’s a psychological horror-thriller whose central character is not the killer but the lead police detective on the case, Megan Paige (an absolutely first-rate performance by Eliza Dushku), who when the film begins is living with fellow cop Kenneth Shine (Cary Elwes) when the two pull the case of the first “alphabet murder.” (Incidentally, the real first victim was 10 years old but the actress playing her here, Bailey Garno, is 15.) Megan, it turns out, has a long history of mental illness but has never been diagnosed before; it’s been responsible for many of her successes as a homicide detective because it’s enabled her to get into the head space of the criminal she was looking for and thereby figure out who he or she was. But when she starts investigating this killing she finds the victim’s ghost literally haunting her, and ultimately within two acts she’s so frustrated by her inability either to crack the case or to sleep that she attempts suicide by slashing her wrists. Ken rescues her but she ends up in a mental hospital being treated by Dr. Ellis Parks (Carl Lumbly, who for some reason is made up to look less like an African-American human than a character from Planet of the Apes), and though she’s allowed to return to the police force she’s only given a desk job in the records department and isn’t permitted to have a gun. Nonetheless, when additional “alphabet” killings start occurring, she starts investigating them whether she’s officially allowed to or not — thereby creating problems with Ken, who’s no longer her boyfriend but is still on the force and is, in fact, her superior officer. Eventually police think they have the Alphabet Killer trapped in an attic, where she’s holding Elizabeth Eckers (Sarah Anderson) and her father hostage — only not only is Eckers a sexually mature adult, she’s always been called “Beth” and therefore doesn’t fit the double-initial pattern. In a scene writer Tom Malloy probably copied, consciously or unconsciously, from the end of Rebel Without a Cause Megan goes up the stairs to the attic and talks the suspect into giving up his gun, only when the man appears at the attic window two of the officers staking out the building fire their guns and blow him away.

The Rochester police consider the alphabet cases closed, but of course Megan knows better; she discovers that all the girls attended the same church, and her suspicion falls first on a priest there, Father McQuarrie (Rocco Sisto), though we’ve already been given an intimation that the real killer is Richard Ledge (Timothy Hutton), a member of the therapy group Megan is attending. Yes, there’s the minor little detail that Ledge is in a wheelchair when he attends the meetings, and the killer was obviously someone who could walk, but as anyone who’s seen virtually any 1930’s movie involving a wheelchair could have guessed, he really is the killer; he’s simply faked being disabled and needing the chair. (Virtually all movie characters you saw in wheelchairs before 1938 didn’t actually need them; the breakthrough finally came when Lionel Barrymore’s chronic arthritis got so bad he needed a wheelchair in real life, so MGM started casting him as people who needed wheelchairs.) He abducts Megan and takes her to the Genesee River, intending to inject her with propofol, throw her into the river and let the water and the currents do their work — but instead she manages to escape, get to her gun (which she’s not supposed to be carrying at all) — or was it his gun? Director Rob Schmidt’s staging of the final scene was a bit ambiguous ­— and blast away at him so he falls into the river. His body is never recovered, and the police have already closed the case, so Megan goes back to her desk job and, as the closing credits inform us, “In 2006, police exhumed a fireman’s body and posthumously cleared him as a suspect. To date, the Alphabet Killer has not been found.” (So this is another story, like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, that gives us a fictitious solution to a famous unsolved real-life crime.)

What makes this one special is the relentlessly Gothic visual style of Rob Schmidt’s direction, the obsessiveness of Tom Malloy’s script, and above all the magnificent acting of Eliza Dushku as Megan: she perfectly captures the inner conflict between the controlled cop and the madwoman, and is at her best moments when she’s trying to appear calm and collected and inside is seething with trauma and fear. There’s one remarkable scene in which she gives a passionate kiss to one of her fellow (male) officers — and when he asks her afterwards, “Did you mean that?,” she says, “Probably not,” leaving him disappointed because it’s clear the answer he was hoping for was yes. That gimmick of the villain faking disability is so old it’s groan-inducing, but otherwise The Alphabet Killer is well above the Lifetime norm (it apparently was filmed for Showtime pay-cable and then released to Lifetime in an edited version with typical deletions like the “God-“ from “Goddamn”), a genuinely moving film with a first-rate performance by the female lead. This should have been a star-making role for Dushku (indeed, one could readily imagine it being a series!), but somehow she’s got stuck hovering at the edge of the “A”-list even though she’s been in feature films with such “A”-listers as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio!