Sunday, June 30, 2013

Full Metal Jacket (Natant, Stanley Kubrick Productions, Warner Bros., 1987)

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

The film was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which Charles had wanted to see because we’d watched a clip of it somewhere “out” and also because Matthew Modine, one of his celebrity crush objects as a young man, was the star. (I remember him mentioning that when he came upon me watching a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode in which Modine played a serial pedophile rapist and my crush object, Christopher Meloni, was the cop out to catch him.) I’d heard about this film when it came out and had seen bits and pieces of it — for a while those bizarre, almost psychotic images of drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey (a real drill sergeant whom Kubrick originally hired just as a technical advisor, but when he heard Ermey bark at the actors and repeatedly call them “ladies,” “cocksuckers,” “maggots” and even less pleasant things he realized no one could possibly reproduce the institutionalized sadism of military drill leadership as well as this man who had actually done it) were virtually inescapable. Full Metal Jacket came at the tail end of a cycle of big movies attempting to come to grips with the Viet Nam War and the U.S.’s fiasco of an involvement in it — Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and, a few years later, Oliver Stone’s Platoon — and though Stone’s film overshadowed Kubrick’s, won the Academy Award and was given points for authenticity because Stone had actually served in Viet Nam, at this point I think (though I haven’t seen the others in years) that Full Metal Jacket was quite the best of them.

Full Metal Jacket does have a big flaw that a lot of the original reviewers picked up on — its first 45 minutes, detailing the basic-training ordeal a bunch of raw recruits go through at the U.S. Marine training center on Parris Island, South Carolina, is a taut, well-constructed drama of what the recruits go through at the scatologically torturous hands and mouth of drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and the bitter revenge taken out by one of them, Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) — nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by Hartman due to his poor physical shape (D’Onofrio reportedly put on 70 pounds to play the role, and in later years actually ballooned to those dimensions) and constant screwing-up (ironic because it was the Gomer Pyle, USMC TV show that helped turn me bitterly anti-military and made me determined never to be part of this ridiculously cruel institution — and of course the man who played Gomer Pyle, Jim Nabors, years later came out as Gay and eventually married his partner) — while the remaining hour and 10 minutes or so, which actually takes place in Viet Nam during the 1968 Tet offensive, seems barely to belong to the same movie even though some of the same actors appear in it as their characters from the opening. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said for Full Metal Jacket — and, as I pointed out to Charles afterwards, it’s nice that Stanley Kubrick actually made one genuinely great film in the 28 years between A Clockwork Orange and his death: it wasn’t all pretentious, overblown pieces of garbage like Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. The training scenes are gripping, intense drama, the shock ending is logical (when — spoiler alert! — the put-upon “Gomer Pyle” finally shoots Hartman and then kills himself, I couldn’t help but warble a bit of the Glenn Miller/Etta James hit “At Last”!) and the transition to real war emphasizes the randomness and pointlessness of it all by its sheer plotlessness.

The guys, including J. T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine), “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) and “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood, who got the part of the main Black character after Denzel Washington inexplicably turned it down) from the first part of the film as well as several others, are first seen in Saigon for some R&R (which basically means frustrating negotiations with the local prostitutes and their pimps — and in the first sequence, a young boy, presumably the prostitute’s younger brother, stealing Joker’s expensive camera) before they end up stationed at the Marine base at Danang when the Tet offensive hits. Later they’re involved in fighting at Hue and the unit is decimated by a Viet Cong sniper — who turns out to be a woman (it’s a variation on a scene Samuel Fuller had done earlier in his Korean War film The Steel Helmet and Kathryn Bigelow would rip off in The Hurt Locker). Kubrick and his writers, Michael Herr (who also worked on Apocalypse Now) and Gustav Hasford (who wrote the novel, The Short Timers, which inspired the film — the term refers to the fact that with the draft still in effect, the services could rotate their men in and out of country quickly and didn’t have to keep sending them back for tour after tour the way they do now in the era of the so-called “volunteer army”), seem to be saying that war is plotless; it’s just one damned thing after another, one life-threatening encounter after another punctuated by long (or not-so-long) interludes of boredom, and the real evil of war is as much its pointlessness as its destruction of life. It shouldn’t be that surprising that Full Metal Jacket should be by far the best of Kubrick’s last four films; war was a subject he had gravitated to from the very beginning of his career (his first feature film as a director, the long-lost but recently rediscovered indie Fear and Desire, was a war movie, and Paths of Glory, Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove also count as war films) and he often seemed more at home on the battlefield than in other aspects of human life. There’s even a bit of autobiography in his making Joker a journalist for the service magazine Stars and Stripes; Kubrick himself had been a photographer for Stars and Stripes during World War II.

In some ways Full Metal Jacket seems to have been almost deliberately intended as an “answer movie” to The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon; whereas Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola had had a public argument over the authenticity of their locations (Cimino said that because he shot in Thailand whereas Coppola did his location work in the Philippines, his movie was more honest just because Thailand is closer to Viet Nam on the map), Kubrick did the old-fashioned Hollywood thing and re-created Viet Nam in England — stunningly convincingly, I might add, though the people who look for this sort of thing noted on imdb.com that the palm trees were not only patently fake but made from the same mold since they all had exactly the same leaves, bending exactly the same way. Whereas Cimino ended his movie with his lead character, back home and reunited with his family, singing “God Bless America,” Kubrick sent up this pretension by having his unit, on their way home after being mustered out, walking through a battlefield singing the theme song from the Mickey Mouse Club. Whereas both Cimino and Coppola (and Stone too, though not quite as absurdly) sought to use Viet Nam as a metaphor for (allegedly) deep reflections on the human condition, Kubrick shot with a gritty realism and structured his movie to say that the Viet Nam war just was — it didn’t mean anything in particular, and though there’s a clear anti-war sentiment through the film it’s nowhere near as preachy as Kubrick’s own previous film Paths of Glory. (Indeed, of all the earlier anti-war classics it comes closer to All Quiet on the Western Front than any other movie I can think of in terms of contrasting the meticulousness with which commanders plan their battles with the barely controlled chaos fighting actually turns into on the field, with the servicemembers giving a damn about nothing but staying alive themselves and killing the people who are trying to kill them.) Kubrick also avoided the pretentiousness of the use of the Doors’ music in Apocalypse Now and instead included pop-rock songs far more likely to have been what the grunts in ’Nam actually listened to: “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen.

And whereas Coppola shot Apocalypse Now mostly with the past-is-brown style he (with the first two Godfather films) probably did more than anyone else to establish as Hollywood’s default look for virtually everything, Kubrick shot Full Metal Jacket in rich, vibrant, saturated color that looks more like the TV newscasts of the actual war than anything we’ve seen in a post-war movie (and it’s an indication of how profoundly divided the country was over Viet Nam that only one major film about the war — John Wayne’s The Green Berets — was made during it; and given Wayne’s status as an American icon of machismo and Right-wing politics it’s not surprising that on various occasions during Full Metal Jacket the servicemembers go into obvious John Wayne imitations). Full Metal Jacket is a fascinating movie, profound because it isn’t trying for profundity — it’s a series of events presented in a certain way simply because this is the way things happen in real life, especially in a part of real life as doggedly random as war, and though it utterly stumps me how the incessant abuse the recruits went through at Parris Island was supposed to prepare them for the ordeal of combat (and the boredom of life at war when you’re not actually experiencing combat), the film in general and Ermey’s bizarre performance in particular made it clear just why the military resisted for so long either having women in combat or Queers openly serving. It’s a bit difficult to insult your recruits by calling them “ladies” and “cocksuckers” when you’ve got people in the ranks who are either or both!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Falcon in Hollywood (RKO, 1944)

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

I switched on TCM and watched The Falcon in Hollywood, a 1944 entry in the series made after George Sanders, the original lead actor in the role, was replaced by Tom Conway (Sanders’ real-life brother, though Conway had changed his last name so he wouldn’t find the path to success greased by his brother’s coattails), a remarkable little movie that’s most noteworthy for its plot premise [spoiler alert!], which is the same as The Producers only carefully not played for laughs: an unscrupulous Broadway producer, Martin S. Dwyer (John Abbott), best known for dramas — he did a production of Hamlet on the Main Stem and proudly displays a poster for it in his office, along with a bust of Shakespeare, whose dialogue he’s fond of quoting — comes to the “Sunset Studios” in Hollywood to make his first film. He picks a musical, Magic Melody, and sells 200 percent of the film to various investors, including John Miles, a playboy with a fortune which he’s willing to use part of to bankroll a movie so he can act the lead role even though he’s never acted before; Alec Hoffman (Konstantin Shayne), a Stroheim-like director with a string of flops behind him; and Louie Buchanan (Sheldon Leonard), a gambler who was imprisoned in New York for fixing horse races but escaped. Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), nicknamed “The Falcon,” is in Hollywood on a vacation when he encounters movie star Lili D’Allio (Rita Corday), a believer in numerology, at a horse race. He also encounters Peggy Callahan (Barbara Hale, a bit of a surprise to see as a baddie since we’re used to her role as Della Street in the 1950’s Perry Mason TV series), Louie Buchanan’s girlfriend; and Billie Atkins (Veda Ann Borg in a great vehicle for her), a lady cabdriver who zips Tom Lawrence around the L.A. streets (playing themselves instead of being safely represented by the RKO backlot) at near-warp speeds.

She explains that she’s a stunt driver in movies when she isn’t working as a cabbie, and her salty performance makes her a considerably more interesting character than the more openly attractive glamour girls the cast abounds in — Hale, Corday and Jean Brooks (Richard Brooks’ first wife and the star of the magnificent Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim) as Roxanna Miles, costume designer for Magic Melody and John Miles’ estranged wife, who has the hots for director Hoffman and hopes to marry him — as does D’Allio. There’s a lot of running around the “Sunset” lot and the character of an old gatekeeper who becomes a red herring, but eventually Tom Lawrence figures out the whole plot: producer Dwyer was sabotaging his own production, including murdering his leading man, wounding his director with a supposedly blank-loaded gun (and deliberately exposing the day’s film, ruining it so that it couldn’t be developed and reveal the truth about the attempted murder of Hoffman), and eventually killing Buchanan with a trick ring from India that contains poison in its metal so that as the wearer has it on, the poison is slowly leaching into his system and ultimately knocking him off. The film has some interesting real-life L.A. locations, including a confrontation at the Coliseum as well as an opening scene at the Hollywood Turf Club at which we meet most of the principals, but the most fascinating thing about it is the Producers plot element (Dwyer was sabotaging his own film so he wouldn’t have to pay off the investors since either it would never be released at all or would fail) done deadly seriously. It was actually an urban legend on Broadway for decades before Brooks filmed it — indeed, Groucho Marx actually wanted to use it as the plot for A Night at the Opera but MGM production chief Irving Thalberg vetoed it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Honolulu (MGM, 1939)

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

I was able to hot-foot it over to Charles’ place and run the 1939 MGM musical Honolulu, starring Eleanor Powell and Robert Young with George Burns and Gracie Allen in supporting roles. The film had a witty script, even though — as Charles pointed out — it milked its one situation (Young plays a dual role as movie star Brooks Mason and Hawaiian planter George Smith; the two trade places and Smith does Mason’s personal appearance tour in New York while Mason goes to Honolulu to relax on Smith’s pineapple plantation, only to find that Smith is wanted for allegedly stealing $50,000 from his fiancée’s father) to death, getting all too many gags out of the two Robert Youngs being mistaken for each other. (The trick photography when their characters do meet is quite good, however.) The Halliwell guide quoted a New Yorker review from 1977 (this must have been from the listing for a theatrical revival) as saying the whole movie “seems to have been thrown together so that Eleanor Powell can do a frenetic hula,” though I don’t see anything wrong with that; even though Powell’s reputation was mainly as a tap dancer she had a remarkably flexible body (at times she looks like the prototype for Gumby, and I mean that as a compliment), and it’s a real treat to watch her hula (as well as the impression of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson she does in her other big number in the film, which is spot-on and a good deal closer to the real Robinson’s style than Fred Astaire’s performance in “Bojangles of Harlem” from Swing Time — though, as Arlene Croce noted, Astaire was doing the number as an homage to Robinson, not an imitation).

Burns and Allen are wickedly funny, though their appeal is weakened by the boneheaded decision of screenwriters Herbert Fields and Frank Partos not to have their characters meet until the very end of the film; true, Gracie gets her share of alternate straightpeople earlier on (and she herself makes a dual-role appearance as herself and her sister at the end, a charming touch) — and it sounds very much like Burns contributed some dialogue for her — but he fed her so much better than anyone else ever did that it’s really a relief to see them finally team up at the end. There’s also an elaborate masquerade party on board the ship taking Young and Powell to Hawaii in which the guests come as their favorite movie stars — Gracie Allen (who earlier in the film had sung the title song and revealed a quite good singing voice in that “mosquitoish soprano” style popular in the 1920’s) shows up as Mae West and a vocal group called the King’s Men appears as the Marx Brothers (one Chico, one Harpo and two Grouchos!) and sing a song called “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music” after Young, who was appearing as Leopold Stokowski, disappears. (The Chico and Groucho were convincing masqueraders; the Harpo, however, didn’t look at all like the real one.) Honolulu is an engaging minor musical and a lot of fun (Powell’s hula turned up in the compilation film That’s Dancing! to represent her work), even though Charles and I had a mini-argument (the only kind we ever have) after he said that he could have gone to his grave content without ever having seen this or most of the other films I’ve shown him (a remark I heard as a bit more of an insult than he clearly intended). — 3/5/99

•••••

The film I picked was Honolulu, a negligible but rather charming 1939 musical from MGM with an interestingly assorted cast: Robert Young (in a dual role), Eleanor Powell, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Rita Johnson, Clarence Kolb and two racially stereotyped servant roles: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as “Washington” and Willie Fung as “Wong.” The plot, such as it is, casts Young as Hawai’ian planter George Smith and Hollywood superstar Brooks Mason, who is constantly being mobbed by his fans, getting his clothes torn off him and ending up in hospital. (When Young-as-Mason is explaining this he holds up three ultra-shredded dinner jackets in succession and says, “This is the one I wore to The Lady Said No, this is the one I wore to The Lady Said Maybe, and this is the one I wore to The Lady Said Yes.”) When Mason misses the premiere of his latest film, Smith attends and is mistaken for Mason by his fans, getting the full treatment; when he demands to be taken home, the ambulance drivers take him to Mason’s home, the two Robert Youngs meet and Mason hits on the scheme of sending Smith in his place on a six-week personal-appearance tour in New York while Mason goes and takes Smith’s place on the Hawai’ian plantation. On the ship going over Mason meets up with singing-dancing team Millicent de Grasse (Gracie Allen) and Dorothy March (Eleanor Powell — gee, another 1939 film from MGM in which the heroine is named Dorothy!) and immediately falls in love with Dorothy as soon as he sees her dance.

Once they finally arrive the film turns into an oddly unfocused mistaken-identity comedy (Herbert Fields and Frank Partos were the screenwriters), energetically directed by Edward Buzzell, which features a costume party aboard ship in which the guests are directed to dress as their favorite movie stars. This sequence is the source of the still from this film in Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams in which Gracie (dressed as Mae West, of all people) is fêted by four ersatz Marx Brothers — a Harpo, a Chico and two Grouchos — played by the King’s Men vocal group (Rad Robinson as Harpo, Ken Darby as Chico and Jon Dodson and Bud Linn as the Grouchos); it also features a bandleader dressed to look like Stokowski and a screamingly funny Bing Crosby impersonator doing a lead vocal (well, since Paramount had a “lock” on the real one … ). Maltin’s book also has a rather deceptive still with Young, Powell, Burns and Allen leaning over a ship’s guard rail — the deception is that Burns and Allen actually play in separate parts of the film (Burns plays Mason’s manager and is with the fake Mason in New York while Allen plays Powell’s performing partner and is with the real Mason in Hawai’i) and only come together at the end, much to the detriment of this movie: for all the stalwart attempts of the other actors to “feed” Gracie Allen her straight lines, Burns still did that better than anyone else and it’s a relief when they finally do appear on screen simultaneously. (It’s even more of a joy when, as a nifty final gag, Gracie Allen’s “sister” appears on screen — and she’s actually playing both of them, and of course they’re equally ditzy.)

Though burdened by a not-terribly-interesting script which drops hints of a lot of interesting situations — notably the $50,000 allegedly embezzled by George Smith from Horace Grayson (Clarence Kolb), daughter of Smith’s fiancée Cecelia (Rita Johnson), from which writers Fields and Partos could have got a lot more than they did — and a not-terribly-interesting set of songs by Harry Warren and Gus Kahn (let’s face it: when you’re trying to make a musical and your best singer is Gracie Allen — though she’s quite good as the sort of mosquito-ish soprano who was so popular in the 1920’s, less so in 1939 — you’re not going to have much in the way of flexibility in terms of the songs you’re going to be able to write), including two novelties, “Honolulu” and “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music,” which Allen dispatches quite well. However, the best piece of music is a “Hawai’ian Medley” with no composer credit, indicated in the credits merely as “played by Andy Iona’s Islanders” (misidentified in the American Film Institute Catalog as “Hawai’ian Melody” and credited there to Warren and Kahn) and obviously the sequence of three traditional Hawai’ian tunes (though the middle one, a hula, is burdened with a schlocky chorus singing schlocky English lyrics) to which Powell gets to do her big dance number at the end. Eleanor Powell’s career has its frustrations; she was a great dancer and she got to make one film with Fred Astaire (Broadway Melody of 1940), but other than that she never got to dance with a male partner worthy of her talent and as a result most of her films end with big extravaganzae showcasing her alone. Here, at least, she gets to show off the liquid beauty of her body and her ability to use her hips and torso to evoke the Hawai’ian dances she’s trying to copy; unlike her MGM replacement, Ann Miller, Powell was far more than just a pair of legs capable of machine-gun tapping. — 8/9/03

•••••

I showed Charles a DVD I had got a few months ago of Honolulu, a 1939 MGM musical vehicle for Eleanor Powell that’s always been a special favorite of mine even though it’s not that good a movie. I remember having my curiosity piqued about this film by a still in Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams that showed Gracie Allen — she and George Burns are in this film and it was actually their last theatrical movie together, though they continued for almost two decades afterwards on radio and TV (their radio show was cancelled in 1941 and Burns got another radio offer at a much lower fee, whereupon he saved their careers by deciding that instead of playing two young sweethearts the new show would cast them as the long-time married couple they in fact were) — in the frame with four Marx Brothers impersonators: a Harpo, a Chico and two Grouchos. They were the King’s Men vocal group — Ken Darby, arranger & bass; Rad Robinson baritone; Jon Dodson, lead tenor; Bud Linn, top tenor — and whichever ones played Chico and one of the Grouchos were utterly convincing but the other Groucho and the Harpo were not (indeed, the “Harpo” looked more like a drag queen than one male performer impersonating another). They appear in a scene that represents a costume party on an ocean liner — “Come as Your Favorite Movie Star,” reads the invite — which also includes a Bing Crosby impersonator (considerably more adenoidal than the real one, with whom Burns and Allen had made We’re Not Dressing in 1934) and a conductor made up to look like Leopold Stokowski (apparently his successes in the films One Hundred Men and a Girl and Fantasia counted him as somebody’s favorite movie star!) who walks out on the band in mid-song, provoking the King’s Men in Marx Brothers drag to sing a song called “The Leader Doesn’t Like Music.”

I won’t pretend Honolulu is a great film, but it’s a charming trifle about romantic movie star Brooks Mason (Robert Young) who keeps ending up in hospitals after fans mob him whenever he makes a public appearance; and Hawai’ian planter George Smith (Robert Young) who looks astonishingly like him, so much so that when Brooks Mason decides to stay home from the premiere of his latest movie and Smith happens to go instead, he’s mobbed by fans and his clothes are torn off. The two meet when Smith is inadvertently taken to Mason’s home on his release from the hospital, and Mason asks Smith to double for him on a six-month personal appearance tour in New York while Mason will pose as Smith and go to Hawai’i to get six months’ R&R. Only while on the ship going over Mason falls hard for dancer Dorothy “Dot” March (Eleanor Powell, top-billed), who is traveling to Honolulu for a club gig with her performing partner Millicent “Millie” DeGrasse (Gracie Allen). Complications ensue when it turns out that Smith has a girlfriend, Cecelia Grayson (Rita Johnson, ill-used as usual), and she has a pissed-off father, Horace Grayson (Clarence Kolb), who’s convinced that Smith stole $50,000 from him under the pretense of using it to do a business deal and is determined to have him arrested for the theft. What makes Honolulu worth watching are Gracie Allen’s witticisms and Eleanor Powell’s production numbers — they even get to do a brief dance together on board the ship taking them to Hawai’i (though Powell pushes Allen out of the way too soon and takes over the spotlight herself — Gracie Allen and George Burns were both excellent dancers and in vaudeville they’d spent as much time in their act dancing as talking, but their later fame as radio stars led them to emphasize comic dialogue even in visual media like movies and TV, and in 1937 Fred Astaire had picked her as his partner for the “nut” or “runaround” dance in the film A Damsel in Distress; this had been a trademark for Astaire and his sister Adele in their stage shows, but Astaire hadn’t filmed it before because he didn’t think Ginger Rogers would be right for it).

While no one fed Gracie Allen straight lines as well as George Burns did — which makes it odd that the writers, Herbert Fields and Frank Partos, had them play in separate plot strands of the film and didn’t bring them together until the very end (though I suspect Burns and their radio writers had a hand in coming up with Gracie’s bizarre one-liners) — she’s still hilarious. And Powell is one of the most spectacular tap dancers ever filmed, even though MGM tended to drown her in spectacle; her big number in this one is an elaborate medley of three Hawai’ian dances, including a hula (and the Hawai’ian music is provided by Andy Iona’s Islanders, a real Hawai’ian band; there were enough authentic Hawai’ian musicians in L.A. that the Hawai’ian music you heard in classic-era Hollywood films was quite close to the real thing as it was being recorded on the islands, a far cry from the travesties of Latin American music you usually got in American musicals then!) that proves that she could dance beautifully with her entire body, not just her feet. It’s a film I’ve shown Charles at least twice before but he didn’t mind seeing it again, and after all the angst lately I wanted something ultra-light last night! — 6/27/13

Thursday, June 27, 2013

NOVA: “Earth from Space” (PBS, 2013)

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

The show was a two-hour NOVA special called “Earth from Space,” whose promos made it sound a lot more interesting than it turned out to be: instead of a series of views of earth from space (which is what you’d expect from the title, wouldn’t you?) it was a lot of computer-simulated graphics supposedly showing what earth is like based on measurements taken from satellites of phenomena that because they don’t give off light waves in the visible spectrum (most of the information came from infrared or microwave spectra) are invisible either from earth or space. The ballyhoo was about how wind events, water flows (including ones under the ocean where heavy, briny water moves in waterfall-like patterns through lighter, fresher seawater), volcanic activity and the like can cross thousands of miles of earth and make an effect on weather and life across nearly half the earth’s circumference. It’s an interesting point but it made for some rather dull viewing, even though I was struck that one thing the show did do was demonstrate how interconnected all the earth’s biological processes are — including a nice segment on the Amazon rain forest and how important its output of oxygen is for the survival of all life worldwide even though most of the oxygen given off by plants in the Amazon is consumed there — and how the show was an unstated but unmistakable warning that attempts to muck around with the natural balance of things will often leave matters worse than they were before. There were some interesting personalities among the talking heads, including British scientist Emily Shuckburgh (whose lower-class accent was fascinating given her intellect — Henry Higgins would have had a field day with her!) and U.S. scientist Carl Feldman, who looked like the Richard Dreyfuss character from Jaws as he would have naturally aged, but for the most part this was a dull program on a subject that should have been really exciting and dynamic. I was amused that one of the PBS sponsors for it was the “David H. Koch Fund for Science” — ironic given that the political contributions funded by David Koch and his equally evil brother Charles could be called the “David H. Koch Fund Against Science,” since so much of the Kochs’ money goes to deniers of evolution and human-caused climate change!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Blue Angel (UFA, 1930)

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

Charles and I hung out at his place and ran The Blue Angel, my rather crude videotape of the 1930’s (I think) reissue, from a not-too-good print shown in the early 1990’s by KPBS (a reissue by something called “Screen Classics” that offered a subtitled German print, with the billing revised so Dietrich got billed above the title and Emil Jannings was the first actor billed after the title — a reversal of the way they were billed on the first release!). It’s still a pretty good movie, though some of the fights the Jannings character gets into in the cabaret after which the film is named get a little confusing (the print we were watching had obviously deteriorated over the years, and I’m sure better material on this film exists — and, interestingly, the English-language version, long thought lost, just resurfaced and was issued on laserdisc a few years ago in a package that also contained the German version). I’ve seen at least two endings for the film; the first version I ever saw (in the early 1970’s, reproduced by Janus Films from what I believe were the original German prints) ended with Emil Jannings returning to his old classroom to die, and the statues in the clock above the school revolving as the clock chimed at the end. In this print, the scene cuts from Jannings’ death to a sequence showing Dietrich singing her big song on a cabaret stage, then dissolves to a silent shot of the clock statues and back to her song — it’s this version that generated what John Kobal called “the haunting final shot” in his book on Dietrich, a caption that baffled me because at that time I’d only seen the version that ends with Jannings’ death. In some ways, the Dietrich ending — though less “authentic,” if my hunch that the Janus Films print is from the original German release is correct — is more powerful, since it makes the cynical point that Dietrich’s character will continue to live her life the way she has in the film we’ve seen (including cruising the strongman Mazeppa, played by Hans Albers, in front of her husband, Jannings), without compromise to any “moral” code either held by the characters in the film or by outside censors (certainly the Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S. would have demanded that she “suffer,” and possibly even die, for what she had done to wreck the professor’s life). — 4/14/96

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I had the idea to show a movie I’ve long wanted our friend Garry to see: The Blue Angel, the 1930 German classic directed by Josef von Sternberg and originally intended as a vehicle for Emil Jannings. After his international success in German silents — particularly Friedrich Murnau’s film The Last Laugh in 1924 and E. A. Dupont’s Variety in 1925 — Jannings had received an enormous contract offer from Paramount, which billed him as “The World’s Greatest Actor” and starred him in four films, including von Sternberg’s melodrama The Last Command (about a White Russian general who flees to the U.S. after the Bolsheviks win the Civil War, settles in Hollywood, ekes out a living as a character actor and is finally hired to play a White Russian general in a movie directed by William Powell, who before he moved to Hollywood was one of the general’s Bolshevik torturers). Only Paramount fired Jannings when talkies came in (Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now offers a sorry tale of Jannings returning home with the first Academy Award for Best Actor in one hand and the letter firing him in the other) because they didn’t think he could speak English well enough to make sound films in the U.S. So he returned to Germany and, much to Sternberg’s astonishment — for he and Jannings had fought through much of the shoot for The Last Command — requested him as director of his first sound film, an adaptation of a 1905 novel by Heinrich Mann (Thomas Mann’s brother) alternately called Professor Unrat (“Professor Garbage”) and Small-Town Tyrant. Mann’s story, at least as far as I know, dealt with a professor at a German high school who meets and falls for a cabaret performer, marries her, loses his job over her, and is forced into a humiliating life as a stooge in her act until the two settle in a small town in which, by alternatingly seducing and blackmailing its key power brokers, she ultimately gets him elected mayor. What Sternberg was most interested in, not surprisingly, was the humiliation part — he and his credited writers, Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann merely lopped off the second half of the story and turned the film into a pitiless account of the degeneration of the male lead, Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), as he’s thrown fish-out-of-water style out of the comfortable, routine world of his room and his job into the raunchy, raucous cabaret scene and the small-time star, Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), with whom he falls in love.

There are a number of accounts of how Marlene Dietrich got the part of Lola Lola. She wasn’t a complete unknown then — she’d actually risen from extra work in early-1920’s German silents to bit parts (including an unconfirmed one in the 1925 film The Joyless Street, whose star was Greta Garbo) to starring roles in late-1920’s silents like The Ship of Lost Men and The Woman One Desires (directed by Curtis Bernhardt, who later also emigrated to Hollywood — though Dietrich frequently told interviewers that The Blue Angel was her first film, Bernhardt said when he saw Dietrich in Hollywood she remembered him and the film, and jokingly said it should have been called The Woman One Does Not Desire) — but she still hadn’t cracked the barrier from featured player in programmers to star. The imdb.com page for The Blue Angel lists a whole lot of people who were supposedly under consideration for the role, including non-Germans like Gloria Swanson, Phyllis Haver and Louise Brooks (though Brooks was already a major star in Germany thanks to her role in the 1928 film Pandora’s Box, in which she played Lulu, an even more amoral and sexually rambunctious character than Lola Lola) as well as Brigitte Helm (Maria — both the real one and the robot — in Metropolis), Lya de Putti (who’d starred in a 1926 German version of Manon Lescaut with Dietrich in a supporting role), Lucie Mannheim (the woman spy who’s murdered in the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps), Trude Hesterberg, Kathe Haack, Lotte Lenya and even Leni Riefenstahl (though the last claim — her own — is dubious; more believably, Riefenstahl said that she was always jealous of Dietrich because with her bad-girl image she could party a lot off-screen and have a lot of boyfriends, while pre-Hitler Riefenstahl played the virginal good girl of German mountaineering films and therefore had to maintain that pure image off-screen as well). One account says Dietrich got the role because she was equally fluent in German and English, and UFA, the producing studio, planned to shoot The Blue Angel in both languages so they could have an English-language version to release in the U.S. and Britain.

The one I tend to believe is Josef von Sternberg’s story in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (the title is the name of an Edison one-reeler that was the first film Sternberg ever saw): according to Sternberg, Dietrich came to test for the film with a bored, world-weary attitude because she was convinced she wasn’t going to get the role and was merely going through the motions — and Sternberg hired her because that world-weary attitude was precisely what he wanted for the character. Years after I read that, I learned (from Robert Osborne’s introduction when TCM showed Pandora’s Box) that Dietrich had been up for the part of Lulu but at the last minute Louise Brooks had been hired instead — and it’s likely that the world-weary bitterness she showed when she came to test for The Blue Angel and her conviction that Sternberg would never hire her were lingering traumas over having lost another big part in a major film two years earlier. I remember first seeing The Blue Angel in 1971, when the film Cabaret was in its initial release, and the two have been “paired” in my mind ever since because of their dramatically different portrayals of the German cabaret scene during the Weimar Republic, one shot while the raffish Berlin cabarets were still a going concern (in fact the cabaret scene, or part of it, actually lingered under the Nazis, though considerably censored) and the other a retrospective look at it as shaped by the very different demands of Broadway and Hollywood. Indeed, one reason I’d long wanted our friend Garry to see The Blue Angel was he’s a huge fan of the film Cabaret and I thought he’d enjoy the comparison — and it was at least partly in deference to him that we ran the English-language version (the DVD set from Kino Lorber has two discs, one containing the German version and one the English) — but as it turned out he didn’t like it, I suspect because very little of the film actually takes place in and around the cabaret. It’s obvious that the film was planned as a star vehicle for Jannings — even though, much to his embarrassment, when it was released instead of rehabilitating his career it boosted Dietrich and made her an international star (what did rehabilitate Jannings’ career was, ironically enough, the Nazi takeover; the Nazis saw him as a prestige star and gave him important roles in historical epics, including playing Bismarck in the 1942 film The Dismissal) — and we see very little of Dietrich’s singing, even though her songs and her marvelous deadpan delivery of them, an ocean of calm in the raucous world of the cabaret, are the parts we remember.

I hadn’t seen The Blue Angel in years and among the things I hadn’t remembered about it are Otto Hunte’s almost Caligari-esque sets — even in a naturalistic film like this in which the characters are motivated by romantic and sexual obsessions rather than out-and-out insanity, the filmmakers couldn’t resist the temptation to create these bizarre Expressionist images of the world. The parts of the film that look relatively normal are the school (the images of the schoolboys cutting up in class before their teacher arrives seem universal) and the tiny room in which Prof. Rath lives, with only a housekeeper for company — he’s kept a bird but when we first see him at home, he whistles a birdsong, intending for the bird to respond, and when it doesn’t he realizes it’s dead — while the streets Prof. Rath ventures down to visit Lola Lola at the Blue Angel to tell her to stop encouraging the attentions of his students are full of Caligari-esque houses that lean down over him and a backdrop that reveals the whole scene as obviously an in-studio “exterior.” The impression we get is that Rath is venturing way outside his safety zone and encountering sex for the very first time; indeed (though this is a stronger plot point in the German version than the English one, which runs about 20 to 30 minutes shorter), when he gets drunk on his second night at the Blue Angel and wakes up in Lola Lola’s bed, we get the impression that until that night he’s never had sex before in his life. (Usually movies about middle-aged victims who fall for young temptresses show them as having been widowed by a fine, good, upstanding woman who died on them and sent their emotional and sexual lives into mothballs; here there is no sign that Rath has ever been married or, indeed, been in a relationship at all.) Sternberg observes Rath’s downfall — he’s fired from his job the first day he shows up late after that night with Lola, she agrees to marry him (apparently because she considers him a novelty) but eventually his savings run out and they have to live on her money, and she gets him to sell postcards of her during her performances (ironically the same postcards that he had discovered his students carrying, which had led him to Lola Lola and the world of the Blue Angel in the first place); ultimately he’s forced to appear in the act as a clown, sidekick of the magician Kiepurt (Kurt Gerron from the original cast of The Threepenny Opera), who owns the troupe with which Lola Lola performs.

The ending takes place in the town where Rath once taught, in which for the first time in five years (the story starts in 1924 and ends in 1929) the troupe is to perform at the Blue Angel — and virtually the whole town comes out to glory in the ultimate humiliation of their formerly respected professor. Rath initially refuses to go on, but eventually does so (and Sternberg films his humiliation through a sheer white curtain, reflecting his alienation through what pioneering film writer Theodore Huff called “his annoying trick of always having something in the way” — this was a lifetime trademark of Sternberg and it’s the giveaway that Sternberg, not replacement director Nicholas Ray, shot the final chase scene in 1952’s Macao, especially when Robert Mitchum takes out a knife and slices through a fish net that’s blocking his way), only after he’s done he attempts to kill Lola Lola, is pulled off her by Mazeppa (Hans Albers) — the strongman who’s replaced him in her bed — slinks out in shame, walks the familiar route to the school where he used to teach, and ascends the stairs to his old classroom — where he dies just as the ornate town clock, which features a series of statues that revolves around the clock as it strikes the hour, goes off at 8 a.m., his old start time, and the school’s custodian discovers him at the desk, tries to rouse him and realizes he’s dead. (Oddly, the last shot of the clock statues, one of the most profound and beautiful moments of the German version, is omitted from the English one even though we’ve seen quite a number of premonitory shots of the clock in action.) There are in fact at least three different endings for this film: the German one, the English one and a re-edit of the German version that was reissued (with subtitles) in 1937 in which, reflecting their subsequent career paths, the order of the final scenes was swapped so that Dietrich’s final performance of her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” occurs after, not before, Jannings’ death. (The German lyrics of this song — “From head to foot I’m made for love” — have a very different, less world-weary and more blatantly sexual affect than the English ones, but Dietrich doesn’t seem to have minded because throughout her career she performed both; as I pointed out to Garry, this was her signature song the way “Over the Rainbow” was Judy Garland’s.)

The Blue Angel has become one of those films whose classic status is so far beyond dispute it was surprising that Garry didn’t like it — I suspect he was too tired to appreciate it and it was also too “Continental,” too European, too dark for him — and like a lot of other classics in all media it’s had its share of bizarre readings. Siegfried Krackauer in his book on the films of Weimar-era Germany, From Caligari to Hitler (a nice title if only because of its juxtaposition of a fictional madman and a real one!), read the students in The Blue Angel as prototypes of the Hitler Youth, tormenting the professor as a representative of the more liberal, cultured Germany of the Republic. Sternberg was withering about Krackauer’s analysis in his autobiography, stating that before he went to Germany to make the film (Sternberg was bi-national, Austrian and American; his parents had divorced, one had gone back home to Austria while the other stayed in the U.S., and he was shuttled between them for most of his childhood) he had never heard of Hitler or the Nazis. Once there, he saw two Nazi rallies but otherwise knew nothing about them, and in any case they had nothing to do with the inspiration for his film; everything in it that wasn’t from Sternberg’s own imagination, he said, came from a novel first published in 1905, well before the Nazis existed. I hadn’t realized this before but there is a striking parallel between The Blue Angel and Bizet’s opera Carmen — also a story about a relatively well-respected man brought down by his romantic obsession with a sexually liberated woman; indeed, I suspect Sternberg and his writers may have deliberately reshaped Heinrich Mann’s material to heighten the Carmen similarities. The main difference is that while Don José actually kills Carmen once he rejects her (a possibility she’s been well aware of all along; in Prosper Merimée’s source novel she tells him that under Gypsy law he is her Rom and she is his Romi, and “you may kill your Romi but you may never leave her”), in The Blue Angel Rath attempts to strangle Lola Lola after his humiliating performance at the cabaret in the final scenes but Mazeppa pulls him off in time — one could readily imagine a remix of Carmen in which the bullfighter Escamillo similarly comes on her and José after his bullfight and pulls him off her, thereby saving her life.

The Blue Angel remains a fascinating film, and in his autobiography Sternberg mentions that to make it Dietrich had to sign a contract, similar to the one Bette Davis signed with Warner Bros. two years later to get the part opposite George Arliss in The Man Who Played God, that gave UFA the right to put her under permanent contract if they liked her. Sternberg was sweating bullets hoping UFA wouldn’t exercise that option — his master plan for Dietrich was to bring her back to the U.S. and sign her to his home studio, Paramount (which despite having fired Jannings was also UFA’s main U.S. distributor and had the American rights to The Blue Angel) — and in the end they didn’t, Dietrich came to America and never returned to Germany until she was booked there for a concert tour in 1960. One thing I found remarkable about the English-language Blue Angel — which wasn’t rediscovered until the 1980’s — was how good Dietrich’s English was, especially given that she had never been out of Germany when she made it and the only native English speakers she would have heard were tourists from Britain, America and other English-speaking countries. She nails the “th” and “w” sounds — the biggest traps for Germans learning English since they do not exist in German (indeed, one of the film’s cruelest scenes is of Rath browbeating one of the students for speaking Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as “To be or not to be/Zat is ze question” and making the entire class write the word “the” 200 times because the one boy failed to pronounce it properly) — and I’ve long thought the entire concept of casting Jannings as a professor whose job it is to teach English as a foreign language to German students was his screw-you to the “suits” at Paramount who hadn’t thought he could speak English well enough to act in American talkies. The Blue Angel was a formidable start to that fascinating series of seven films in which Sternberg directed Dietrich — some of them masterly, some of them maddening, some of them both — even though Paramount chose not to release it in the U.S. until after Dietrich’s first American-made film, Morocco (and after Paramount’s dieticians had slimmed her down considerably the way MGM’s had with Garbo five years before!). — 6/24/13

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lightning Carson Rides Again (Victory Pictures, 1938)

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

The film was Lightning Carson Rides Again, a film made by Tim McCoy as was working his way well down the Hollywood food chain. As a silent-era Western star he had been under contract to MGM — where David O. Selznick had cut his teeth as a producer by taking McCoy’s unit out to the conventional Western locations and shooting two films at once, thereby giving the MGM distribution arm two McCoy films for little more than it usually cost to make one — and in the talkie era he’d been through Warners (where one of his sidekicks was a then little-known actor named John Wayne), Columbia (where he made his masterpiece, the 1932 pro-Indian Western End of the Trail) and by 1938, he was down to working at Victory Pictures, an all-Western operation headed by producer Sam Katzman. The director was Sam Newfield, whom I once referred to as “the Stephen King of directors, who seemed more interested in how fast he could make them than in how good they were.” The story was standard-issue Western stuff, though set in the 1938 present — automobiles and telephones appear in the story (though most of the characters still move themselves about on horseback!) — and the American Film Institute Catalog indicates it as part of a “Lightning Bill” series and a sequel to a Tim McCoy Western called Lightnin’ Bill (note the apostrophe instead of the final “g” in the first word of the name) produced under different auspices — Excelsior and Puritan Pictures — and with Sam Newfield directing but his brother Sigmund Neufeld co-producing with someone called Leslie Simmonds.

The original Lightnin’ Bill is set in Texas, but in the interval between the two films Lightning Bill Carson (Tim McCoy) has settled in San Francisco where he’s become a federal agent for the Department of Justice. Only he gets a call to come back to Jerome, a Western town near Los Angeles, where his sister Katherine Smith (Jane Keckley) has summoned him to get her son Paul (Bob Terry) out of a jam. It seems that bandits ambushed the car being driven by Paul with $10,000 of the Jerome National Bank’s money he was supposed to transfer to a larger bank in the city. The idea was to shoot both Paul and the other man in the car, Gilroy (Wally West, a silent Western star whose career descended faster than McCoy’s did, though he occasionally got character parts under his real name, Hal Taliaferro), and steal the money, but when Paul escaped — albeit without his gun — the baddies stole Paul’s gun with the intent of using it to frame him for Gilroy’s murder. Carson arrives in Jerome and hits on a plan to infiltrate the gang by posing as Mexican bandido José Fernandez — and his “Mexican” makeup is relatively convincing though his voice isn’t (and it is a bit disappointing that the man who showed such extraordinary sensitivity to Native Americans in End of the Trail is basically playing Mexican Stereotype #101 here) — which he does by hanging out at the combination saloon and casino run by Hagen (Slim Whitaker), beating the pants off of Hagen’s henchmen at poker (don’t these guys know how to rig a game to take the sucker from out-of-town?), and ultimately winning their trust enough that they give him the $10,000 they stole from the bank so Fernandez can take it across the border and launder it. Carson is interested in proving Paul innocent — when he caught Paul he sent him to L.A. and told Tom Reynolds (James Flavin), his colleague from the San Francisco office, to catch Paul at the general delivery window of the L.A. post office and hold him until Carson could complete the job of rehabilitating his reputation — but he also wants to find out who’s the big boss of the bank robbers, who in something we’ve known all along since we’ve seen him planning the robberies turns out to be bank cashier George Gray (Karl Hackett). But before Our Hero can find that out, Chuck (Ted Adams), one of the members of the gang, traces him to the barn behind the Smith home in which Carson makes his changes of identity, and when the gang meets to steal $50,000 in payroll money from the bank, Chuck shows up with the Carson clothes ready to “out” José as Carson, and there’s a final shoot-out in which Carson uses his ability to do super-quick draws to subdue the rest of the gang until the local sheriff (Frank LaRue) arrives with a posse to take the baddies into custody.

Lightning Carson Rides Again is a pretty generic “B” Western for the period — a lot of these films were set in contemporary times and one critic ridiculed them as being set in a “never-never time in which horses, automobiles and airplanes are equally important means of transportation” (though this one doesn’t contain planes, at least) — and though McCoy is 47 he’s still a believable action figure and, perhaps because Sam Katzman’s budget didn’t extend to a lot of stunt doubles and breakaway furniture, the action scenes are unspectacular but at least realistic. As Charles said, it’s odd to see a bar fight in a Western that stays confined to the two people who start it and doesn’t “go viral” and sweep up everybody in the bar (or, in the case of The Spoilers, outside the bar and onto the streets); and only the final sequence, in which Carson ambushes one of the baddies single-handedly with the old trick of suspending his hat against a rock so he can sneak around to the bad guy while the baddie still thinks McCoy is where his hat is, strains credibility. Though hardly at the level of End of the Trail (an amazing movie that was the first period-set Western to treat Native Americans sympathetically and makes the case that the U.S. government systematically broke its treaties with the Indians that otherwise wasn’t part of American discourse until Dee Brown, Vine DeLoria, Jr. and Howard Zinn published their revisionist histories in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s), Lightning Carson Rides Again is a competent, workmanlike Western featuring a lot of behind-the-scenes people who would later go on to work for PRC (director Sam Newfield  and set designer Fred Preble) or Monogram (cinematographer Marcel le Picard).

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Cyclops (B&H Productions/RKO, 1957)

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

Our “feature” last night was The Cyclops, a 1957 horror cheapie from Bert I. Gordon (as writer, director and producer, along with special-effects person, so he really had no one to blame but himself — unless you count his “assistant producer,” Flora M. Gordon, a keeping-it-in-the-family credit famously mocked on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when they showed another one of Gordon’s films: “Honey, pass me that plastic head, please”) which was actually released by RKO, back when RKO was limping along and suffering a kind of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder after its seven-year bout with absentee owner Howard Hughes that would lead to its extinction as a production and distribution company just a year later. It starts with a series of crudely printed credits and a title listing the location as “Guayjorm, Mexico” (which doesn’t look even remotely like a real Mexican place name), where American woman Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott, whose spunky but understated performance is the best in the movie) is vainly seeking permission from the local governor (Vincent Padula, who bears a striking resemblance to Paul Whiteman and speaks English with a risibly thick Frito-bandido accent) to fly her plane over the Tarahumare mountains (“Tarahumare” sounds only marginally more credible as a Mexican place name than “Guayjorm”) to see if she can locate her boyfriend, Bruce Barton (Duncan Parkin), who crashed his own plane there three years earlier. The governor refuses her permission because he doesn’t trust the motives of the other people on her crew: her pilot, Lee Brand (Tom Drake), an alcoholic who drank himself out of his pilot’s license in the U.S.; bacteriologist Russ Bradford (James Craig, top-billed); and stock manipulator Marty Melville (Lon Chaney, Jr., looking bloated and barely in control of his actions), who’s brought a “scintillator” (basically a glorified Geiger counter) to confirm his suspicion that the Tarahumare mountains are full of uranium. So she up and flies there anyway, only to find that the Tarahumares are full of huge animals, mostly really existing reptiles like lizards and snakes who have been artificially enlarged by the radiation from the virtually pure uranium of which the Tarahumares are made. The (normal) humans in the crew also meet the title character, a 25-foot-tall human (wearing, one suspects, an infinitely expandable loincloth of the same material as the infinitely expandable shorts the title character wore in Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man — virtually all of Gordon’s movies are about life forms either artificially enlarged or, less often, artificially shrunken) whose face has become distorted. Its right side looks like he was a wax-museum figure who started to melt and its left side has a crudely painted marble that’s supposed to represent his one remaining eye — unlike the original Cyclops, the one in Homer’s The Odyssey, he originally had two eyes au naturel and it was the radiation in the Tarahumares that melted half his face so he only had one left.

There are a few scenes in which the Cyclops gets visibly gentler when he recognizes Susan — as we realize well before the characters do, the Cyclops is actually her missing boyfriend, Bruce Barton (did Bert I. Gordon deliberately rip off his name from the real-life ad man of the 1920’s, co-founder of the BBD&O agency and author of the 1924 book The Man Nobody Knows, which recast Jesus Christ’s life as a case study in successful entrepreneurialism?) — until Lon Chaney, Jr. tries to shoot him just as he’s making nice and after he’s already saved Susan from being eaten by a giant snake. The monster goes after Our Lon, and he speaks in the incoherent moaning that is apparently the only sound his radiation-altered vocal cords can make, though I joked that what he was really telling Lon Chaney, Jr. was, “You have the gall to call yourself an actor? Now, your dad, he was an actor!” Eventually, with the Cyclops understandably raging against all the males in the movie, Russ Bradford remembers The Odyssey and realizes that the way they can get away from the Cyclops is by making a giant spear (actually in this version it’s a giant tiki torch — I’m not making this up, you know!) and using it to put out the Cyclops’ one remaining eye, and they do that, making their escape in the plane over the mountains and leaving the Cyclops, presumably asleep and now blind but still alive, behind them as they flee. The Cyclops — TCM’s schedule listed this without the definite article but both the actual credits and the imdb.com page on the film contain it — is one of those dumb, irritating films that lasts only 66 minutes but seems longer, and it’s got some O.K. moments (the footage of actual reptiles on miniature sets is surprisingly well matched to the scenes of normal-sized humans) and the interesting contribution of Paul Frees, who had a weird career as a voice artist: he was Bullwinkle the Moose, Maurice Percy Beaucoup in Gay Purr-Ee and also dubbed the voice of Toshiro Mifune in his English-language films, and in this he supplied the vocalisms of the Cyclops as well as the breathing sound of the giant lizard and the voice of an unseen Mexican air-traffic controller who vainly tries to order the plane back from its illegal flight. But it’s mostly just silly and dull, a movie that would have made good fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but is awfully slow going au naturel.

Alaska Lifeboat (RKO, 1956)

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

After The Cyclops I kept my disc running and watched the next item on it, Alaska Lifeboat, a pretty turgid but still interesting 1956 short by Herbert Morgan, also for RKO, about the good ship — or at least boat — Hygiene, in which a public-health nurse comes out to the remote community of Sitka, Alaska (though the town’s name is given away only in a tag seen on a boy who’s air-lifted out so he can be flown to a big-city hospital for an operation on his foot to make him walk normally — though given the speed with which he moves one wonders why he needs an operation). The nurse is unidentified in the credits (in fact, none of the participants are, though the imdb.com page on it lists one, Ralph Sarlan — the boy with the bad foot — because at one point in the film the narrator gives us his name) but she’s tough-minded and personable, though most of the movie was shot silent so we hear her voice but it rarely matches up with her lip movements on screen. As Charles pointed out afterwards, what’s most interesting about this movie is how relevant it still is; we still have a pay-to-play health-care system, we still have people in remote areas who have neither access to doctors nor much confidence in the normal health-care system, and for people living at the thin edge of poverty access to care is still pretty chancy. The film takes the predictable but annoying view that modern Western medicine is the be-all and end-all of knowledge about health care and anything else is just superstition and fraud — at one point the camera (manned by Floyd Crosby, 1931 Academy Award winner for the Friedrich Murnau/Robert Flaherty Tabu and father of rock musician David Crosby) shows us a cabinet full of patent medicines and the narrator informs us that they’re all utterly useless and some of them even make their users sicker — but it’s also a potentially compelling drama, though given the high-school audio-visual means of its presentation it’s a lot less compelling than it could have been.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Ever in My Heart (Warner Bros., 1933)

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

The film was one I had recorded recently off TCM as part of a run of “B” movies but one that proved unexpectedly interesting: Ever in My Heart, a 1933 Warner Bros. vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck with surprisingly sensitive and atmospheric direction by the usually hacky Archie Mayo and a marvelous script by Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix. (Millhauser is the writer Sherlock Holmes buffs love to hate — he wrote most of the Universal Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce and was largely responsible for the campy treatment of Bruce’s Dr. Watson and the anti-canonical overplotting of the later films in the series — but he’s in excellent form here.) The story opens in 1909 (note that date!) in Archerville, a smallish town dominated by the Archer family — we get an opening shot of a war memorial listing the Archervillians who gave their lives in the service of the U.S. and most of the people listed are named Archer — and we meet Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) along with her grandmother (Laura Hope Crews), her brother Sam (Frank Albertson) and quite a few Archer relatives who all live in the big Archer mansion. They’re anxiously awaiting the return of Mary’s second cousin, Jeff Archer (Ralph Bellamy), whom Mary dated and was planning to marry before he went off for several years to live and study in Germany. Jeff indeed arrives, but he brings with him a German friend, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger, surprisingly good-looking and restrained in his acting style, and fully credible as a romantic lead instead of the villain he usually played later).

Mary and Hugo instantly fall in love with each other — he courts her by playing a German song on the Archers’ family piano and singing it (in a quite credible though strictly amateur voice), and teaches her the words (which give the film its title) — and she marries Hugo instead of Jeff, much to her family’s consternation. For the next five years things seem to go swimmingly for the Wilbrandts — they have a son, Tommy (Ronnie Crosby), and get a dachshund dog; they also settle in the college town of Rossmore and Hugo gets a job as a college professor and becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen — until World War I breaks out. Even before the U.S. formally enters the war, a wave of anti-German propaganda sweeps the American newspapers and the Wilbrandts find themselves ostracized. Hugo is fired from their professorship, their son Tommy dies, and in an especially cruel plot twist a gang of the local kids beats up the family dog because it’s a German breed, and Hugo has to take out a gun and shoot the poor animal to put it out of its misery. When Mary asks why her husband didn’t report this to the police, Hugo says that not only wouldn’t they believe him, but as a German carrying a gun he’d probably have been arrested himself. After the U.S.S. Lusitania is sunk Mary finds herself rejected even by her own family — her brother angrily tells her his best friend was killed on the Lusitania — and though Mary arranges for them to move to Archerville where her family will arrange a job for him, Hugo angrily rejects the condition attached that he change his name to something Anglo-sounding.

Instead, Hugo leaves Mary and leaves behind a letter which ends with the statement that he’s going to go to Europe and “fight for my country.” Jeff, Mary’s second cousin and the person she was expected to marry all along, volunteers for the Army, and Mary herself signs up for the WAC’s or whatever it was called in World War I, arranging to be stationed in the same camp as he, where she runs the canteen. Two older women come to be volunteers and, convinced by the hysterical propaganda that if the Germans capture them they’ll suffer the “fate worse than death,” they bring along a gun and two poison pills just in case. Mary relieves them of these items because the regulations are that women volunteers are not supposed to carry anything lethal. Then Mary learns from Jeff that there’s a spy in the American ranks who’s already found out details of upcoming troop movements and, if he’s not caught, will relay this information to the Germans. Mary spots Hugo in a U.S. uniform in the ranks and is torn between still loving him and deducing that he’s the German spy. She arranges for them to spend one last night together — and, this being a so-called “pre-Code” movie, there’s no doubt that they actually have sex — and that night, as he waits for dawn when he’s supposed to go to the German lines and give his report, instead of getting out the confiscated gun and shooting him with it (which is what both Charles and I were expecting), she gets out the poison pills, puts one in each wine glass as she pours for both of them, and commits joint murder-suicide in an amazingly powerful ending that no doubt consciously evokes Romeo and Juliet — only instead of two feuding families, Hugo and Mary have been separated and ultimately forced to die by two feuding countries.

Ever in My Heart is a quite remarkable movie — and not just because Barbara Stanwyck, who I have become convinced over the years is the greatest film actor of either (or any) gender and any era, is the star; and not just because she is superb in this film, understating scenes just about anyone else at the time would have used as excuses to chew the scenery and at the same time coming through when she needs to for the genuinely big moments. Its conflicts between love and family, love and social position, and love and country, ring true even today — indeed, one could readily imagine a modern-day remake in which the heroine’s husband is an Iraqi-American, they marry in the mid-1990’s and 9/11 serves the plot function of the Lusitania sinking, as the ostracism, vicious social prejudice and insane government discrimination against Arab-American and Muslim-American men (remember the so-called “special registration” program, instituted just three months after 9/11, when all documented male U.S. immigrants from a list of 31 countries, all but one of which — North Korea — were either Arab or majority Muslim, were forced to turn themselves in for special government scrutiny, indicating that though it didn’t turn into a prelude to internment the mentality that had led to the internment of German-Americans in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II was alive and well) slowly radicalizes him and leads him to go to Iraq to fight for the Resistance.

Within the framework of a standard-issue tearjerker Ever in My Heart makes some quite stinging social comments about prejudice and the way war heightens the fear of the “Other,” whoever the “enemy” de jour happens to be; also about scapegoating and how easily otherwise decent people succumb to it and break up family connections and long-standing friendships because the person they’ve lived alongside of, broken bread with and even shared a bed with is now part of an “enemy” they’ve been told to fear and hate. It’s a story premise so powerful that even people like Bertram Millhauser and Archie Mayo, who usually savored every opportunity the material they were working with gave them for over-the-top melodrama, restrained their usual (bad) instincts and created a film that moves precisely because it’s subtle — indeed, one suspects Millhauser picked the murder-suicide by poison ending instead of having Mary shoot Hugo precisely because it was more subtle and genuinely tragic than the more melodramatic and more superficially “exciting” ending of having the good girl shoot the bad guy. As it stands, we leave this film feeling for two people literally destroyed by circumstances beyond their control, facing their fates with a kind of awestruck resignation rare in the movies then and even rarer now (indeed, it reminded me of the similarly intense joint suicide of the characters at the end of William Dieterle’s 1928 German silent Sex in Chains). Ever in My Heart is a film that really deserves to be better known, and Stanwyck’s performance is so luminous I suspect (as I have with other movies in which Archie Mayo directed her) Mayo copied Frank Capra’s trick of working with Stanwyck: dispensing with master shots and shooting the all-important star close-ups of her first, thereby capturing her performance of each scene when it was at its freshest and most intense.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Thirteenth Chair (MGM, 1937)

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

The film was The Thirteenth Chair, a 1937 MGM movie I’d recorded from TCM earlier in the day and which had looked interesting — a phony psychic, Madame Rosalie LaGrange (Dame May Whitty, billed in the opening credits as “the distinguished English actress Dame May Whitty”), helps solve a real murder by hosting a séance with the suspects — but it turned out to be a beautifully staged bore, one of those mysteries which is less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit. It was based on a play by Bayard Veiller — always a bad sign; his leaden stage efforts were the basis for quite a few of MGM’s early talkies, including The Trial of Mary Dugan (which wags at the time thought should have been retitled Mary Dugan, You’re a Trial to Me), Within the Law and this one, which had already been filmed in the silent era by Acme in 1919 as well as MGM’s first sound version in 1929, directed by Tod Browning and starring Conrad Nagel and Leila Hyams as the romantic leads; Margaret Wycherly (who from 1901 to 1922 had been Mrs. Bayard Veiller) as the phony psychic; and Bela Lugosi making his sound-film debut in a minor role. The 1937 version takes place in Calcutta, India during the raj and centers around the mysterious murder of Leonard Lee, one of those nasty bounders who populated stories like this, whom apparently no woman could resist and no man could stand. Lee was stabbed to death and his body was cremated almost immediately — the local police official, Commissioner Grimshaw (Matthew Boulton), released the corpse and unctuously tells the visiting Scotland Yard official, Inspector Marney (Lewis Stone, who probably found this role a refreshing change from being Mickey Rooney’s father in the Hardy Family movies!), that there was nothing he could have learned from the body anyway because the cause of death — a knife wound to the back — was obvious. John Wales (Henry Daniell at his most unctuous), about the only male in the dramatis personae willing to acknowledge he actually liked Leonard Lee, suggests that Madame LaGrange be brought in to lead a séance; he doesn’t believe in spiritualism any more than the Inspector does, but he’s convinced that a séance in which LaGrange can make it look like she’s communicating with Lee’s spirit will entrap the murderer into confessing al fresco.

Instead, even though the usual precautions are taken — all the séance participants are supposed to be holding hands in a circle and LaGrange’s own hands are tied to the arms of her chair with handkerchiefs — Wales is stabbed to death during the séance and Marney deduces that he was killed by the same sort of knife as Lee, and therefore both were murdered by the same person. Among the suspects are Helen “Nell” O’Neill (Madge Evans, an excellent actress in the right role, which this is not); her on-again, off-again fiancé Dick Crosby (Thomas Beck); his mother, Lady Crosby (Janet Beecher); his father, provincial governor Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert); Mary Eastwood (Heather Thatcher), a former girlfriend of Lee’s whom he was blackmailing; Lionel (Ralph Forbes, wasted as usual) and Helen (Elissa Landi) Trent — presumably this is not the Helen Trent of the infamous radio soap opera which ran from 1935 to 1958, though in the part Landi wears an odd gown that gives us an excellent impression of the shape of her right breast, including her nipple: a remarkable thing indeed to see in a Code-era film! — and Dr. Mason (Charles Trowbridge), who had gone to India because he’d been on the verge of a knighthood and instead had been disgraced by scandal because a week before his honor was supposed to come through Mrs. Mason announced that she was leaving him for Lee and she filed for divorce. It turns out Mason was the killer and he broke from the séance circle (leaving the two people on either side of him holding hands with each other instead of him — wouldn’t they have noticed not only that they were holding a different hand but the reach had suddenly grown longer?) long enough to stab Wales and throw the knife up so it would stick in the ceiling of the room (what if it had fallen to the table, or the floor, instead?) before rejoining the circle as if nothing had happened.

There’s some legitimate pathos when LaGrange turns out to be Nell O’Neill’s long-lost mother, anxious to keep her from being jailed for murder because mom is sure her daughter couldn’t have killed anybody, and writers Veiller and Parsonnet really pile on the false evidence to keep the finger of suspicion on Nell until almost the last minute. Otherwise The Thirteenth Chair is a pretty dreary movie, full of clunky dialogue and dull exposition, and it doesn’t help that the most electrifying actor in it, Henry Daniell, gets killed way too soon. (Daniell played Professor Moriarty in The Woman in Green, third and last of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films in which the character appeared, as well as taking over from Rathbone as principal villain in the Errol Flynn swashbucklers at Warners — and a lot of modern commentators on The Woman in Green have said it was a pity Daniell didn’t get to duplicate Rathbone’s transition from villain roles to playing Holmes himself.) Whitty turns in a schticky but oddly moving performance, but it isn’t enough to save a pretty dull film — though I must admit it fooled me; Charles didn’t register a guess as to who the murderer was (if he had he probably would have correctly picked Trowbridge’s character on the principle that the person who has the least reason to be there story-wise must be the killer) but I was convinced it would turn out to be Dick Crosby, if only because in their opening scene together Nell seemed oddly unwilling to accept his marriage proposal (then again, since he was pushing her down into the swimming pool every time she said no, maybe it wasn’t so odd after all that she was hesitating to marry this abusive boor!) and usually if a woman in a mystery has an unrequited lover, he’s going to turn out to be the murderer.