Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle (City Projects/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” for the evening was Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, a fascinating vest-pocket (53-minute) documentary on the life and death of one of the most enigmatic figures in Mexican-American history, whose bizarre and tragic exit (he was struck and killed by a tear-gas projectile in a seedy bar called the Silver Dollar Café where he’d ducked into during the police riot at the Chicano Moratorium anti-war demonstration in Los Angeles August 29, 1970) turned him into an instant martyr for the Chicano liberation movement — of which Salazar had often been fiercely critical during his lifetime. Salazar was a “man in the middle” both literally and figuratively; he was born in the town of Ciudad Juárez on the U.S.-Mexico border, just across la linea from El Paso, to which his family moved while he was still a child. He recalled the feeling he had every time he crossed the bridge that linked the two cities that he was at home in neither country. Salazar began his career as a journalist for an El Paso paper in the mid-1950’s, and his first big story was an exposé for which he got himself arrested for public drunkenness, was in jail for two days, and described the “circle of hell” he found in the local jail, especially among guards and staff who regarded him as just another drunken Mexican. That story got him noticed by the Los Angeles Times, which hired him in 1959; it also got him noticed by the FBI, which started a file on him. For the next several years he worked at the Times as a general-assignment reporter, interviewing Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon and writing all kinds of stories rather than being specifically assigned to cover the Latino community in L.A. In 1965 he was made a foreign correspondent and sent first to the Dominican Republic to cover the U.S. invasion, then to Viet Nam, and in 1968 he was assigned to Mexico City to cover the Olympics and the international fallout from them — though he missed the biggest story that happened in Mexico City when he was there, the police massacre of rioting students at the Zócalo plaza in front of the Mexican government buildings. Salazar was called back to L.A. and assigned to cover the rising Chicano movement — an assignment he regarded as a demotion — and amazingly, a man who had been a virtual model of assimilation (he married a white woman and lived with her and their family in Orange County) and who had regarded (with some justification) the original Chicano leaders as hucksters more in it for money and power than to serve the people came to share a lot of the ideals of the movement and in particular its determination to expose the way the police were used to repress Chicanos and minority communities in general.

Salazar was warned several times, especially after he quit his gig as a Los Angeles Times reporter to take a job as newscaster at a small Spanish-language TV station in L.A. called KMEX —though he continued with the Times as a columnist, which gave him the freedom to write opinion pieces unhindered by the constraints of “objectivity” within which he’d had to work as a print reporter. At one point Salazar bitterly commented that in any clash between L.A. police and Mexican residents, the mainstream media’s view of “objectivity” was you interviewed the police and that was what “really” happened. His current bosses at KMEX and his former ones at the Times both told him they’d got calls from the police department and the L.A. county sheriff’s department telling him he was overstepping the bounds of responsible reporting and there would be consequences for such actions, and at one point Salazar himself was summoned to the headquarters of the LAPD and given such warnings in person. Like any good journalist, he responded by writing an account of the meeting and publishing it in his column. Without access to Salazar’s actual articles (it seems likely that someone has published a book compiling his columns — and if that hasn’t been done, it should), it’s hard to trace his apparent evolution from “objective” reporter to print activist or have much of an idea of what his politics were when he died. Director Phillip Rodriguez was able to land interviews with former sheriff’s deputy Tom Wilson — who fired the fatal tear-gas projectile that struck Salazar and killed him — as well as the “man in red” who supposedly told sheriff’s deputies during the Chicano Moratorium demonstration that men with guns had gone into the Silver Dollar, were hiding there and needed to be flushed out, and he seems to have concluded that Salazar’s killing was what the coroner’s inquest at the time and a secret investigation by the federal Department of Justice said it was: a horrible accident during which the police were guilty of misconduct but not murder.

Of course, in the highly charged politics of 1970 — when radicals had disrupted the police inquest and one of Salazar’s closest friends, who’d been with him on the day, was told he’d be called to testify and wasn’t — it’s not surprising the underground paper L.A. Free Press ran with a headline, “Was Salazar Murdered?” and Salazar became a martyr to the Chicano movement that hadn’t before had one. Of course, it’s also not surprising that Salazar’s image after death took some bizarre twists and turns that made the real man’s life almost incomprehensible. One of the most interesting points Rodriguez makes in his film is that the issues Salazar wrote about are still dominating the politics of U.S.-Mexican relations and the way Mexican-Americans are treated by the U.S. government: immigration, drugs, gangs. Some awfully unlikely people have claimed Salazar’s mantle since (including Mexican-American Right-wingers), which is just an indication of what happens to your reputation when you’re dead and therefore no longer around to protect it. One curious fact I hadn’t known before was that the Silver Dollar’s awning on the day Salazar was killed had a sign hanging from it saying the bar sold wigs — or at least that’s what it looked like it said — which suggests that it might have been a Gay bar, or at least a drag bar, and though there’s no indication that Salazar knew about the bar before that day, or went in there for anything more than a beer and a chance to get away from out-of-control police, it does hint that it may have been a place already under more intense-than-usual police scrutiny and therefore a lousy place for a man who’d already pissed off the cops to hide.

Pioneers of Television: Breaking Barriers (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched an episode of the PBS Pioneers of Television series called “Breaking Barriers,” which basically talked about the people of color who cracked through the all-white TV mainstream in the 1950’s and 1960’s — starting with Desi Arnaz, who not only played Lucille Ball’s husband in I Love Lucy as the authentic Cuban-American he was but also produced the show, pioneered the three-camera technique for shooting on film in front of a live audience (even though Arnaz was only the first person to do this in a scripted show; Ralph Edwards had shot the quiz show Truth or Consequences live with three cameras as early as 1950, a year before I Love Lucy began) and built Desilu Studios into a major production company responsible for such TV hits as The Untouchables, Mannix and Star Trek (the latter two of which were also important steps up for people of color on television). A number of the pioneers were interviewed — Bill Cosby, Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll (who recalled that when she first showed up to work on Julia she could not be made up because the studio makeup department literally did not stock cosmetics suitable for Black women!), George Takei (who told the story of how as a child he had been removed, with his parents and siblings, from the two-story home they had bought with the earnings from their business and taken to a converted stable where they were interned during World War II — he said that the official term for the internees was “resident non-aliens,” stripping from them the constitutionally guaranteed designation of all U.S.-born people as U.S. citizens), Jimmie Walker, Margaret Cho (who when I did a brief phone interview with her for Zenger’s had a lot of nasty things to say about her sitcom, All-American Girl, and on this show recalled that the crash diet ABC insisted she go on before the show started shooting caused her kidney problems) — and Walker and some of the others noted that after the brief flowering in the late 1960’s and 1970’s there are now fewer people of color on TV than there were then, and virtually no shows built around non-white leads.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Inequality for All (72 Productions/Weinstein Company, 2013)

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

Inequality for All is a quite interesting 2013 documentary hosted by UC Berkeley economics professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who, incidentally, pronounces his last name to end with the soft “sh” sound instead of the hard “k” of the German word from which it derives) that, as its title suggests, is about the growing inequality of both income and wealth in the U.S. and how that’s harming the U.S. economy and its ability to provide for all Americans. His argument will be familiar to the dwindling share of Americans who actually have access to, and consume, progressive media — which, with FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s unilateral declaration of the end of “Net neutrality” and the impending takeover of Time Warner by Comcast (whose CEO has openly called his customers’ Internet connections “my pipes” and said he ought to have the right to censor customers’ access to any Web site of which he personally disapproves) that share of the country is likely to shrink even further as the Internet becomes as overwhelmingly a transmission belt for Right-wing pro-corporate ideas as all other media, especially electronic media — but the essence is that around the late 1970’s corporate leaders and their political allies in both the Republican and Democratic parties managed to undo the progressive consensus that had held in American politics and economics in the previous 30 years. In one of the most-quoted parts of the film Reich says he’s often asked if there’s a country he can point to that’s doing economic policy in what he would consider the right way, and he says, “Yes, the United States — between 1947 and 1977.” His argument was that in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. made a major investment in educating its workforce. At the same time government generally supported the right of U.S. workers to organize unions — the percentage of the U.S. workforce represented by unions reached a height of 35 percent in the mid-1950’s, and this put pressure on non-union employers to raise wages to compete for better workers — and as a result middle-class incomes kept increasing, workers spent this money on consumer products, government got high tax revenues which stimulated the economy (the highest marginal tax rate on incomes in U.S. history, 91 percent, was charged in the 1950’s under Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican — though his progressive tax policies and warnings against the military-industrial complex would be considered Left-wing fringe views beyond the pale of both major parties today!), which increased middle-class incomes and gave middle-class people more money with which to consume, which enabled companies to grow, in what Reich called “the virtuous cycle.”

Beginning in the late 1970’s, all that changed; the corporate elites became more aggressive in their demands on the political system, both corporations and individuals demanded that taxes be lowered (oddly, given where he’s working these days, Reich doesn’t mention California’s Proposition 13 and its role as a bellwether not only for the Right-wing demand to “starve the beast” by reducing government’s tax income but also for the ease with which the corporate Right would be able, then and again and again later, to induce lots of ordinary non-rich, non-1 percent people to vote for things that would enrich their corporate bosses and increase income inequality in the U.S.), President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers sent a signal to workers that the President does not want you to join a union and to employers that the government would not only turn a blind eye to but actually assist union-busting efforts, and at the same time the watch word among both parties became lowering taxes and deregulating, dismantling the carefully constructed controls that had been put into place during and after the Great Depression to prevent the financial speculation that had given rise to the 1920’s stock market boom in the first place. Reich traces how the working people who had considered themselves “middle class” responded to this attack on their fortunes (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word): first, by sending women into the workforce (Reich uses Dolly Parton’s record “Nine to Five” to illustrate these sequences), then by working longer hours (he notes that Americans work longer hours today than the famously workaholic Japanese — though he doesn’t mention that major advertisers and mainstream political and economic commentators have sold the American people on the virtues of a longer-than-usual workday — notably that bizarre Cadillac commercial that ran during the recent Winter Olympics that boasts that Americans are better than those panty-waist weaklings in Europe because they work longer hours), and finally by borrowing, mostly on the equity in their homes (he doesn’t mention the explosion in credit-card debt that was even more devastating to many Americans, particularly people who hadn’t owned homes for long enough to build equity), until the entire speculative bubble in housing prices collapsed overnight in 2008 and created what Reich refers to as the second depression (and argues was caused by the same thing — financial speculation — as the one that started in 1929).

What all this deregulating, de-organizing, de-industrializing and globalizing — as communications and shipping networks improved (most Americans have never heard of “container freight” and don’t realize how much of the devastation of America’s manufacturing base has stemmed from it — container freight makes it far easier for companies to make components in one country and then ship them for assembly in another, always taking advantage of the lowest wages they can pay and still get the quality they need to make the final product salable) it became easier and easier to move production away from high-paid U.S. workers to low-paid or virtual slave labor forces elsewhere — did was break Reich’s “virtuous cycle” and substitute a “vicious cycle.” As workers get paid less, they buy less; they also pay lower taxes, which means government is forced to disinvest and cut back programs that help everybody (like strong public education systems, both K-12 and higher education); as people buy less, companies cut back productions and either lay workers off altogether, cut their pay or move their production to other countries with cheaper labor, and the economy sinks further into stagnation (at best) and decline (at worst). Coming in at 90 minutes (not too long to get boring) and with vivid illustrations (notably the suspension-bridge diagram which shows what happened to America in between its two peaks of income inequality, the 1920’s and the 2000’s), Inequality for All is a first-rate documentary, obviously influenced by the success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (also a film that tried to use tricks to make an intellectual indigestible subject palatable and comprehensible to an ordinary audience), though despite the filmmakers’ (the director is Jacob Kornbluth, the production company is an independent — probably a collapsible — called “72 Productions,” though in a film so full of numbers it’s odd that the number in the company name is never referenced or explained — and the distributors are the Weinstein Company) best marketing efforts it’s almost certainly the sort of thing that will only draw audiences that already agree with its basic conclusions. In an effort to break that, various organizations set up programs around the film to get it screened in private homes where people of various political, economic and social persuasions could talk about it informally afterwards — but as one reviewer pointed out, the film is surprisingly weak about what audiences moved and persuaded by it can actually do about the issues it presents.

Indeed, the film’s most chilling moment comes when workers at Calpine (a geothermal-energy company in Utah), in the middle of a union organizing drive and an aggressive anti-union counterattack by company management, are shown at a meeting and one man says that the company pays him and treats him better than he deserves, and he doesn’t resent the rich because he’s convinced he could have been rich if he’d only had the talent and drive to do so. This is the task of any ruling class that wants to stay in power: to convince the vast majority (O.K., let’s call them the 99 percent) that their control is not only the natural order of things but ordained by laws beyond human ken, either divine laws (historically the medieval social order held itself in place because the church preached that everyone was in the place that God had decided they should be in — the king because God had decided he should be king, the lords because God had decided they should be lord, the serfs because God had decided they should be serfs) or the impersonal laws of “The Market.” Reich is properly withering about this common but cockamamie notion that “The Market” exists outside of human guidance — particularly outside the rules set up by governments under which commerce is allowed to take place (including those pesky little laws against things like slavery and child labor) — but as theologian Harvey Sachs argued in The Atlantic in 2001, “The Market” (in quotes and in capitals to distinguish it from the ordinary use of the term “market” as simply a place where goods and services are bought and sold) has not only become a religion, it’s gradually displacing all other religions as the basis by which the modern-day corporate ruling class justifies its power and convinces the rest of the world that it deserves to rule and that challenging its power is like challenging the existence of gravity or the need to breathe air.

As Reich’s vicious cycle continues — and as the political system becomes more and more simply a bought-and-paid-for dispenser of favors to the corporate elite, and the whole idea of “democracy” (which, as James Madison noted in Federalist #10, the U.S. was never supposed to be anyway) becomes more and more theoretical (yes, Americans still get to vote and “choose” their political leaders, but only from a narrowing menu of choices the corporate rich who fund the political campaign system allow them) — the very ideas he is championing here slowly but surely fall out of the political and social and intellectual marketplace (sorry for that old metaphor). What you end up with are phenomena like the Tea Party movement — which one commentator compared to a putative mob of French revolutionaries storming the palace at Versailles and demanding that the aristocrats pay even lower taxes — and Occupy, which offered a persuasive indictment of corporate power but only a few odd and inchoate ideas about what should replace it. (Reich’s film depicts both the Tea Party and Occupy with considerably more optimism than they deserve.) In short, Inequality for All is a first-rate film that expertly does what it set out to do, but it’s hardly going to be much more than a teeny-tiny speed bump for the express train taking us to even greater and more gruesome levels of economic, social and political inequality.

Miss V from Moscow (M&H Productions/PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Miss V from Moscow has sometimes been called the worst World War II “B” ever made. It’s not that bad, though it has its risible elements ­— notably some of the silliest plot devices ever put into a movie and one of the most bizarre mishmashes of accents ever collected on the same soundtrack. It was basically the attempt of the PRC studio (the initials stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation,” though given the low quality of much of their output the joke around Hollywood was it really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap”) to do their own World War II-themed movie of espionage and intrigue. The plot (the script was by Arthur St. Claire and Sherman T. Lowe) had the makings of a decent, if not deathlessly great, movie: Russian agent Vera Marova (Lola Lane, on her way down after she and her sisters Rosemary and Priscilla all got star buildups at Warners in the late 1930’s) is called into the office of her commissar and given an assignment: because of her striking resemblance to German agent Greta Hiller, recently secretly murdered in France by Resistance fighters, she’s going to be infiltrated into Paris, where she will impersonate Hiller, ingratiate herself with the Germans running occupied France, and learn the location of German submarine fleets so the U.S. convoys shipping arms and supplies to the Soviet Union can either avoid them or sink them. She nearly gets caught in the French countryside when, disguised as a peasant and hiding in a hay cart, she’s spotted by a German officer (one wonders why the Germans have this guy staking out a road in the middle of nowhere) who pokes his bayonet through the hay, shoots the cart’s driver and forces Vera to run through the woods to avoid getting shot herself. “What? Is she going to run all the way to Paris?” I wondered — and indeed, one jump-cut later director (and co-producer) Albert Herman shows her in Paris, in an immaculate fashion-conscious street dress, turning up for her contact with the Resistance (who betrays her to the Germans — or at least pretends to in order to establish her “German cred” with the Nazi authorities) and then ingratiating herself with the Germans as planned, notably Col. Wolfgang Heinrich (John Vosper). She wants to get his secrets and he wants to get into her pants, but he’s got competition in the latter department from escaping American pilot Steve Worth (Howard Banks), whom she tells to hide in a closet so he isn’t caught by her German friends, including police chief Fritz Kleiss (Cocaine Fiends star Noel Madison, second-billed here) and Captain Richter (William Vaughn — according to that’s a pseudonym for Wilhelm von Brincken, which would certainly explain why of all the actors playing Germans he’s the only one believable as one, even though he’s so blatantly imitating Erich von Stroheim one wonders why Stroheim didn’t sue).

All the German officers and Gestapo agents are completely fooled by Miss V’s impersonation — even though Lola Lane’s sole concession to “Germanicity” was to abandon the almost totally incomprehensible Russian accent she spoke with in the opening reel and switch to … her normal American-accented English. She’s caught out by the real Greta Hiller’s maid, Minna (Kathryn Shelton), who notices differences in habits between her and the real Greta, and in the end after a rather half-assed action sequence taking place in a bar, we see a German firing squad aiming at an unseen victim and letting go, and just when we think Miss V finally got it we see her and her American pilot beau in the back of another hay truck, making their escape. In the middle of the movie Adolf Hitler comes to Paris to deliver a speech to a huge rally of enthusiastic French people — “When the hell did that happen?” any even remotely serious student of World War II history will wonder (it didn’t; the scenes are stock shots lifted from Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece Triumph of the Will) — which just underscores how silly much of Miss V from Moscow is and how the typical PRC sloppiness just takes away from what could in other hands (including other PRC hands — what, one wonders, was Edgar G. Ulmer doing that week?) could have been a minor but still entertaining little movie. There are a few good things about Miss V from Moscow — the sets look like refugees from Universal’s horror films (indeed I wondered whether Herman and his producer, George Merrick, actually rented studio space from Universal and the deal included using their old sets) and director Herman does some surprisingly atmospheric moving-camera shots, while cinematographer Marcel le Picard (whose “B” credits are often surprisingly inventive photographically even if, as with the 1944 Bela Lugosi Monogram vehicle Voodoo Man, they dress up stories even sillier than this one) does some effective quasi-noir lighting effects (even though his lighting of Lola Lane is singularly unflattering and makes her look like Marlene Dietrich c. 1960). The script also does a better job of dramatizing how arbitrary and cruel Nazi rule was like than some other, bigger-budgeted and better-plotted wartime dramas. But though Miss V from Moscow is better than its reputation, it’s still a pretty silly movie whose potential is undercut by sloppy plotting and unappealing actors who (except for Vaughn von Brincken) don’t seem to have a clue as to what accent to adopt to convince us they’re the nationalities they’re supposed to be playing.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (MGM,1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I went back to his place and I ran him the 1945 film Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, in which the titular comedy team (I’m pretty sure they hold the record for the number of times actors got their own names included as parts of the titles of their films) co-starred with Robert Stanton, Dick Haymes’ brother, in a pretty obvious reworking of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera with a movie studio instead of an opera company. There’s the arrogant established star who thinks he can get the newly discovered ingenue to go to bed with him in exchange for a major part, and the young unknown guy whom the comedians help to replace the arrogant established star so he and the girl can romance each other on screen as well as in real life. There’s also an exciting thrill climax on a rollercoaster that’s set to blow up on cue, on which Costello and the arrogant established star are fighting even though no one is supposed to be on the set except dummies in the cars. This occurs right after Robert Stanton and a cast of hundreds, directed by Charles Walters — S. Sylvan Simon did the bulk of the film but Walters directed the dance numbers — have sung and danced a paean to the wonders and joys of a carnival midway, to a song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, whose work here compares to their efforts in Meet Me in St. Louis about the same way Harold Arlen’s and Yip Harburg’s songs for the Marx Brothers film At the Circus compare to their songs in The Wizard of Oz. I found the comedy scenes held up surprisingly well, despite Abbott and Costello’s oft-criticized (even then) reliance on old jokes — one critic dismissed them with the line, “Some of their gags are older than they are!” — and Robert Stanton, though he had all the personality of a stuffed pig, did look nice and sing well. Lucille Ball and Preston Foster appeared as guests in this one — just as seven years earlier Lucy had made a movie with the Marx Brothers (Room Service) but had had no comedy scenes with them, so here she made a movie with Abbott and Costello but had no comedy scenes with them, either! — 2/28/98


Our “feature” was Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, made in 1945 and the third of three films Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made for MGM. Their main contract was with Universal, but their Universal contract provided that they could make one film per year for another studio, so in 1942, at the height of their popularity (their star-making film, Buck Privates, was the biggest-grossing film of 1941 — amazing when you consider that was also the year of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Sullivan’s Travels, Sergeant York, Meet John Doe and John Ford’s Academy Award winner How Green Was My Valley), they signed a three-film contract for the one film a year they were allowed to make elsewhere than at Universal. MGM kicked off the contract with a 1942 remake of the 1929 RKO film Rio Rita, with Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the leads originally played by Bebe Daniels and John Boles, and Abbott and Costello taking over the comedy parts originally played by Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. In 1944 (they didn’t make a film at MGM in 1943 because Costello fell ill with rheumatic fever) they did an Arabian Nights spoof called Lost in a Harem on the sets of the just-completed non-musical version of Kismet with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich (a pity MGM didn’t make Lost in a Harem in color the way they did Kismet!). Then, with the box-office take on their Universal films falling, MGM put them into this one in 1945 and did not renew their contract. Abbott and Costello In Hollywood is basically a veiled remake of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, copying its romantic triangle — established singer/actor and big-time asshole Gregory LeMaise (Carleton G. Young) thinks he can get into the pants of aspiring starlet Claire Warren (Frances Rafferty) by promising her the female lead in his new film, but she only has eyes for unknown crooner Jeff Parker (billed here as Robert Stanton but later known as Bob Haymes) — and casting the comedians as barbers turned up-and-coming agents Buzz Kurtis (Bud Abbott) and Abercrombie (Lou Costello) who worm their way into representing Parker and getting him the big romantic role after they frame LeMaise for murder. (He’s supposed to have killed Abercrombie, and the scene in which the two — both wearing outrageously fake beards — come across each other in a bar is delicious.) Abbott and Costello insisted on Martin A. Gosch, the producer of their radio show, as producer of this film as well — and Gosch also co-wrote the “original” story with ex-Marx Brothers gagman (and future Addams Family show-runner) Nat Perrin, with Perrin and Lou Breslow collaborating on the script.

Surprisingly, there aren’t any of the elaborate A&C word-play routines here (it’s one of the few films they made that does not credit the “Who’s on First?” author, John Grant, as a writer), but there are enough delicious slapstick sequences — especially one at the beginning when Costello, as an aspiring but spectacularly incompetent barber, tries to shave “Rags” Ragland (a great comedian who’s largely forgotten today because he died young — age 40 — after making only one movie after this one), and one at the end in which Costello and LeMaise end up fighting each other on a roller-coaster that, unbeknownst to them, is supposed to be blown up as the conclusion of the spectacular musical number that’s going to complete the film LeMaise got aced out of by A&C’s frame. Abbott and Costello in Hollywood isn’t a great movie — few of their films were (perhaps because they never got a truly great director — one wonders what Leo McCarey, who worked so memorably with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, could have done with them) — and in the middle of shooting it they were called back to Universal to film a version of “Who’s on First?” for inclusion in The Naughty Nineties (and quite frankly that classic routine is even funnier than anything in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood!), but it’s still a lot of fun even though the implicit promise of a look at some of MGM’s star names isn’t really kept. We get to see director Robert Z. Leonard shoot a sequence which, predictably, Costello ruins (later we get to see Costello impersonate a dummy and mess up another scene for one of the film’s comic high points), and we get to see another sequence in which Preston Foster and Lucille Ball enact a scene from a Civil War drama. (That’s right: Lucille Ball, one of the most brilliant physical comediennes of all time, made movies with both the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello and didn’t get any comedy scenes with either of them!) Aside from a cute scene in the MGM schoolhouse with child star Jackie “Butch” Jenkins, that’s about all you get here — Abbott and Costello went to Hollywood and all they got to meet were the “B”-listers — though the film at least benefits from some infectious songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, coming off the high of writing the brilliant score for Meet Me in St. Louis and here coming up with tunes that, like the film itself, are pleasant and entertaining even if not great — though I’d seen this film with Charles before and didn’t remember it as being as good, or as funny, as it seems now! — 4/26/14

Peg o’ the Mounted (Universal, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copryight © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began the evening, before running our “feature,” with an intriguing 12-minute short from Universal in 1924 starring “Baby Peggy,” a child star from the silent era whose career not only anticipated Shirley Temple’s but who seemed to be the beta version of Temple. At least as far as she can be judged from this little movie, she shared Temple’s enviable spunkiness and wise-beyond-her-years assertiveness without playing the saccharine sentimentality that has made Temple’s name a swear word for a lot of old-movie buffs who can’t understand why she was literally the biggest star in the country between 1935 and 1938 (and another recently deceased juvenile star, Mickey Rooney, succeeded her at the top of that list in 1939!). Baby Peggy was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego (!) on October 26, 1918 and according to is still alive (!!), though she wasn’t the first pre-pubescent girl to become a major star (Virginia Lee Corbin, who starred in a weird series of movies in the late teens with all-child casts parodying the blockbusters of the era, preceded her) and when people think of actresses playing children’s roles in the silent era, they usually think first of Mary Pickford, who (much to her disgust) kept getting cast as kids even into her early 30’s. Like Shirley Temple, she realized once she hit adulthood that the way to a healthy and happy grownup life was to get the hell out of showbiz forever, and unlike Temple she cut herself so far off her early fame that she even changed her name, becoming a children’s book author and signing her works “Diana Serra Cary.” At least one of Baby Peggy’s films, Captain January (1924, her first feature), was remade with Temple (in 1936, same title).

Peg o’ the Mounted is a charming little 12-minute short (the surviving print came from the Netherlands and was retitled Hands Up!) in which Baby Peggy is living in a mountain cabin in Canada (“played” by Yosemite National Park, by the way). She seems to be living there alone — at least there’s no sign of adult habitation; when the film begins she’s doing her own laundry with a washboard and tub, and the only mention of her parents is a brief reference in a title (this version left in the Dutch titles and ran English titles under them) to a father who left her a child-sized Mountie outfit which she could wear as a mascot for his troop. An unrelated Mountie (Bert Sterling) comes to her cabin, wounded in the pursuit of a gang of “moonshiners” (the Dutch titles simply call them “liquor smugglers” and says the original U.S. prints called them bootleggers — though real bootleggers from Canada generally didn’t make their own stuff; they simply bought legally obtainable booze on the open market and smuggled it across the U.S.-Canada border), and Baby Peggy feeds him a tablespoon of Sloan’s Liniment and rubs down his face with castor oil. When he’s still incapacitated despite her dubious ministrations, she pledges to go after the gang of bootleggers and capture them herself — which, of course, she does. She goes after them with a pistol and actually holds three of them at gunpoint before the gang leader (Jack Earle) sneaks up behind her with a rifle and disarms her, but she manages to sneak away (there’s a nice scene in which she grabs on to Earle’s legs to follow him and he wonders why his legs seem to be getting heavier) and ultimately tie up the liquor smugglers with a rope and drag them to the police station — only to be embarrassed because along the way she lost her mini-Mountie uniform and showed up there in her undies. Baby Peggy suffered the usual fate of the child stars of her generation — her parents (and, in her case, her step-grandfather) ran through all her money and left her broke and reduced to extra work (in an interview in the Fall 2010 Films of the Golden Age she recalled being on the “panic list,” the ex-stars who out of compassion got first call for extra assignments), though eventually she changed careers and wrote a biography of Jackie Coogan (the first true child superstar, who lost his fortune to his gambling-addict father) and some other books about pre-teen Hollywood.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Glad All Over: The Dave Clark Five and Beyond (Dave Clark Productions/PBS, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was the rather awkwardly titled music documentary Glad All Over: The Dave Clark Five and Beyond, about the group that emerged on the British rock scene in early 1964 and was immediately hailed, Great White Hope-style, by the London show business establishment as the London-based group that would finally take down those parvenus from Liverpool who couldn’t even spell their band name right. The Dave Clark Five were five young working-class kids from the Tottenham district of London — Dave Clark, drummer and leader (and manager, and record producer!); Mike Smith, lead vocals, electric organ and piano; Lenny Davidson (the cute blond one who reminded me of the young David McCallum — I’d probably have had a similar crush on him if I’d been more aware of both this music and my sexuality in 1964!), electric and acoustic guitars; Denis Payton, tenor and baritone saxophones, harmonica and occasional second guitar; and Rick Huxley (presumably no relation), electric bass. They’d known each other since childhood and they got an interesting set of gigs at U.S. military bases because the Americans running the bases wanted to be able to treat the servicemembers to a reasonable simulacrum of American rock ’n’ roll. Between sets by the Dave Clark Five, the people in charge of the dances on base would play U.S. records on a jukebox, and Dave Clark recalled learning new songs from these records and often badgering the base staff to sell them to him. The base gigs seem to have been the Dave Clark Five’s equivalent to the grueling apprenticeship the Beatles went through in Hamburg (before another audience that wanted the music to sound as “American” as possible!), and their equivalent to the Cavern Club was the Royal Theatre in Tottenham, where their explosive performances got the audience members (up to 6,000 people in a space whose official capacity was 1,500) bouncing up and down on the floor until it vibrated so much that one night it broke under the strain — all this before the band had a recording deal! When Clark finally did record, he was so explosively popular (and he had the credibility with the London showbiz establishment of being from their city) he was able to sign a deal with Columbia Records that allowed him to produce the band’s records himself and regain control of the masters after five years. Though Clark understandably bristled at comparisons of his band to the Beatles — when they were made in 1964 he pointed out to the interviewers making them that his band wasn’t all guitars; it also included organ and sax (the sax had been a major instrument in the rhythm-and-blues of the 1940’s out of which rock evolved, and aside from the rockabilly acts most 1950’s rock acts had used sax, but by 1964 rock was considered exclusively a guitar sound and the sax was regarded as retrograde — though Payton’s presence in the lineup did allow the Dave Clark Five to cover sax-driven R&B songs like Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” more credibly than the Beatles could have) — in fact their histories track quite closely.

The Dave Clark Five made their record debut in 1964 and “broke” in both the U.K. and the U.S. the same year the Beatles came to America — in fact, though the Beatles did a handful of shows in the U.S. in February 1964, they didn’t do a full-dress tour of America until August, three months after the Dave Clark Five had done it. The Beatles made A Hard Day’s Night, a fast-paced rapidly cut movie with a director who would become a major filmmaking “name,” Richard Lester; the Dave Clark Five made one — called Catch Me if You Can in the U.K. and Having a Wild Weekend in the U.S. — in a similar rapidly-cut style and also used a director who would later become a “name,” John Boorman. The Beatles gave up live performance in 1967; so did the Dave Clark Five. The Beatles made an avant-garde special for British TV, Magical Mystery Tour; so did the Dave Clark Five, Head On. The Beatles broke up in 1970; so did the Dave Clark Five, albeit without the bitterness — Dave Clark simply decided the band’s run had lasted as long as it could be reasonably expected to, and he folded the band and changed careers. Though the Wikipedia page on the band says that Dave Clark had a short-lived band in the early 1970’s called “Dave Clark and Friends” (with only Clark and Mike Smith from the original lineup), his main interest in the early 1970’s was studying acting. Then he decided to become a writer and director for the theatre, and in the late 1970’s he started putting together an elaborate musical called Time, drawing from the movies A Matter of Life and Death and The Story of Mankind for its central premise: a rock star (played in the original London production by Freddie Mercury of Queen and in the short-lived U.S. touring version by David Cassidy) is beamed up to a heavenly court and put on trial for all the terrible things humans have done over the years. Time also became noteworthy as the last theatrical production starring Laurence Olivier, who played the outer-space consciousness in charge of the heavenly judicial system and filmed his role as a hologram that was projected above the live action on stage — which enabled Olivier to continue “playing” the part after he died. Clark also became a show-business entrepreneur; when he heard that the British TV company Rediffusion, which had produced the live rock-music show Ready, Steady, Go! in the 1960’s, had gone out of business, he bought the rights to Ready, Steady, Go! He says in this documentary his initial purpose was just to make sure the shows were preserved — at the time it was routine for both the BBC and commercial British TV to erase and reuse the videotapes of lighter programming (six of the original Monty Python shows were lost this way and the only reason the rest exist was some anonymous bureaucrat at the BBC tagged them and said, “Save those. We might be able to do something with them in the States”) — but eventually he reissued some of the spectacular performances on these shows, which featured not only his own band but also the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals and American stars like Otis Redding (who’s shown here on an RSG clip performing his cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and, not surprisingly, outdoing the Stones on their own song; it’s as if Otis were saying, “Even with a song you wrote as a ripoff of us, we still do it better!”).

Dave Clark’s business acumen enabled him to own his own career and avoid the destructive legal battles the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John went through with their former managers (the Beatles and Stones with Allan Klein and Elton John with Dick James) — Paul McCartney and Elton John filmed interviews for these shows and Paul is incredibly bitter that Dave Clark owns the publishing rights to his songs and Paul lost the Beatles’ catalogue twice (first to Sir Lew Grade and then to Michael Jackson) — but there’s an interesting article on the Huffington Post ( by Harold Bronson, co-founder of Rhino Records, who claims Clark blundered badly by holding on to the catalog for as long as he did and not allowing any legitimate releases of Dave Clark Five material between 1975 and 1993.”Dave hadn’t realized that by keeping the records out of the stores for nearly twenty years, he diminished their value,” Bronson wrote. “Oldies radio programmed less of the hits, as they were not available to the stations. Similarly, the records did not get exposed in other media like movies, TV shows, and commercials. He also was insensitive to music fans who wanted to hear the records: some wore out their vinyl copies, others replaced their turntables with CD players. Whatever residual presence the Dave Clark Five records had, had dissipated, and much of the band’s great music faded from memory.” According to Bronson, the only legitimately issued Dave Clark Five CD in the U.S. was the compilation A History of the Dave Clark Five, a two-disc set released in 1993 on Walt Disney’s Hollywood Records label (a deal Clark cut because Disney was promising to use the Dave Clark Five’s music in their films and TV shows, and put a Dave Clark Five-themed cabaret into the Disney theme parks, none of which happened), though a number of the songs, including the History compilations and a remixed version of the band’s first album, Glad All Over, are available as downloads on iTunes.

The other problem with the Dave Clark Five is that, in a period of tumultuous change in music, their style remained pretty much the same at the end as it had at the beginning; they recorded a few songs with vaguely psychedelic effects and at least one, “Inside and Out,” with a veiled antiwar message, but they basically sounded the same in 1970 as they had in 1964 (though they let Mike Smith sing solo more towards the end and thereby showed off what a really good voice he had), and even their sound in 1964 didn’t have the variety of the Beatles’ (largely because Mike Smith, as good as he was, sang lead on virtually everything and therefore you didn’t get the contrasts between singers you got with the Beatles. The Rolling Stones only had one lead singer, but they didn’t suffer therefrom because Mick Jagger had a much more distinctive voice than Mike Smith, and while his stage moves were a pale (in more ways than one) copy of those of Redding, James Brown and the other spectacular Black performers he was ripping off, at least he could appear front and center instead of being stuck behind an organ keyboard. Also their music, like the Beatles’ and unlike the Dave Clark Five’s, grew and changed with the times; among the clips from Ready, Steady, Go! included here is one of the Stones doing “Paint It Black,” with Brian Jones playing sitar (trying to keep up with the Harrisons), and the song has a life and vibrancy missing from the Dave Clark Five’s music at that point. (The Hollywood Records CD includes one attempt to change their sound, “Satisifed with You,” a tear-in-my-beer country ballad at a time when the rock audience regarded country music as almost totally useless — something that changed only when Bob Dylan started recording in Nashville and hanging out with Johnny Cash.) The Glad All Over documentary was produced, directed and written by Dave Clark himself, and as such is an “official” history with all the vicissitudes attendant thereto; Clark claims his band played the Ed Sullivan Show 18 times, more than any other British act, while other online sources say it was only 13 (still considerably more than the Beatles’ four!) and apparently repeats some inflated numbers of just how many members his fan club had. As music, the Dave Clark Five holds up pretty well, but even in 1964 the Beatles had it all over them in terms of both musical and emotional complexity; the show contains an interesting interview with Bruce Springsteen in which he said in the 1960’s he liked the Dave Clark Five’s records better than the Beatles’ because they had a “bigger” sound, but I suspect the only reason for that was that Clark was both the band’s drummer and its record producer, and so naturally he mixed the drums quite a bit louder than anyone else dared. Springsteen also said he related more to the Dave Clark Five than the Beatles because, like his own future bands, they included keyboards and sax — and his drummer, Max Weinberg, is shown on the program saying that he ripped off a lot of Clark’s licks and used them on between 80 and 90 percent of Springsteen’s material.

Clark himself says his idol as a drummer was Buddy Rich, and though he admits Rich could have played rings around him technically (one of the paradoxes of rock is that, even though it’s such a rhythmically driven music, there’ve been surprisingly few really great rock drummers — I suspect because rock rhythms are so simple and basic there’s little room for the kind of ornamentation the great jazz drummers could do — though there have been standout drummers who pushed the limits of the form: J. I. Allison with Buddy Holly and Jimmy Van Eaton with the Sun studio band in the 1950’s, and Mitch Mitchell with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, John Densmore with the Doors and Keith Moon with the Who in the 1960’s) he was trying for a similarly driving sound. He achieved it — at times the Dave Clark Five sound like the sort of band Pete Best should have formed after the Beatles fired him (if Best had taken an I’ll-show-them attitude to his firing instead of slinking back into Liverpudlian obscurity and doing almost nothing musically for the next two years, it’s at least faintly possible that he could have put together a Pete Best Five that would have pounded the Beatles into commercial oblivion, and the mid-1960’s fan magazines that did faux contests between the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five would instead have been asking, “Who’s the greatest drummer-leader of a British band — Dave Clark from London or Pete Best from Liverpool?” There’s a weird bit of alternative music history for you: the Beatles as a trivia item, that obscure little band Pete Best, superstar, started out with) — but at the cost of monotony; the Dave Clark-Mike Smith originals sound pretty much like each other and the Black R&B covers are quite capable but hardly in the same league as the originals. I remember having the Glad All Over album and quite liking their version of “Do You Love Me?” — until I heard the original by Motown’s one-hit wonders, the Contours, and backed by the incredible Motown studio band the Contours blew them away, as did Chris Kenner on “I Like It Like That” and the little-known (because, though Berry Gordy produced his records, he licensed them to United Artists instead of saving them for Motown) Marv Johnson on “You Got What It Takes.” The Dave Clark Five got a career boost early on from the London showbiz establishment, who as soon as “Glad All Over” knocked “I Want to Hold Your Hand” off the top of the British charts proclaimed, “The Mersey Beat is over — the Tottenham Sound rules!” In his interview here, Paul McCartney inevitably recalls being told over and over (also the title of a later Dave Clark Five song) that the Beatles were through when “Glad All Over” went to U.K. number one — though he probably wasn’t really worried about it, nor should he have been; the moment the Beatles released their next single, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” it went to number one in both the U.K. and the U.S. (where the next four songs in the charts were also Beatles records!) and the right and proper order of the universe was restored.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Red Hot Tires (Warner Bros./First National, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched Red Hot Tires, a 1935 Warner Bros./First National programmer (the opening titles identify Warner Bros. as the producing studio but the closing titles have the First National logo and name!) supposedly about the world of auto racing, running a little over an hour and with not exactly a stellar cast for the period: Lyle Talbot is top-billed as hot-headed mechanic and driver Wallace “Wally” Storm, with Mary Astor as his love interest. She’s Patricia Sanford, daughter of race-car manufacturer Martin Sanford (Henry Kolker), and Wally’s rival for Patricia’s affections is Griffin (Gavin Gordon, considerably more butch than usual but just as oily and mean), Sanford’s star driver. Wally builds a special car but Sanford gives it to Griffin to drive, and, not trusting either Wally or his assistant Bud Keene (a nicely edgy supporting performance by Roscoe Karns), Griffin has the car checked out by his own mechanic, Curley Taylor (Bradley Page). The film opens at a midget car race (at the notorious Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, which was eventually closed down because so many fatal accidents occurred there) won by Johnny (Frankie Darro, usually cast as a jockey and probably grateful this time around for being allowed to use a more modern means of transportation than a horse!), who seems to be Wally’s protégé both as a driver and as a hot-headed guy all too prone to settle his disputes with his fists. Wally’s own temper gets him fired by Sanford, but he gets a ride in an upcoming big race from another owner and duels with Griffin for the lead.

Unbeknownst to him, Griffin and Curley have outfitted his car with something that looks like a can opener and is intended to slice apart any car that comes too close to him — an interesting high-tech equivalent to the “Grecian wheels” on the bad guy’s chariot in Ben-Hur — though when the two cars finally tangle during the race it’s Griffin’s car that’s forced off the track and crashes, killing him. Wally is convicted of second-degree murder in Griffin’s death on the ground that he had threatened to run him off the track before the race began, and he’s sent to prison — whereupon the film turns into a quite close remake of The Life of Jimmy Dolan, a Warners programmer from 1933 in which the hero, a boxer played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is similarly convicted of murder and, like Wally in Red Hot Tires, becomes a fugitive from justice. (Dolan got a more come scritto remake in 1939 with John Garfield in the Fairbanks role and Busby Berkeley, of all people, directing — and doing so surprisingly well!) Wally joins an escape attempt that happens — ah, the irony — the exact same day Patricia arrived at the prison with the governor’s pardon in hand (courtesy of Johnny, who actually saw Griffin and Curley install the Grecian can opener on Griffin’s car and therefore knew the truth all along but hadn’t been allowed to come forward during the trial), and he and Bud flee to South America, where he becomes a star driver using the name “Bulldog Banks.” He wins the Argentinian Grand National (shown here as a standard oval-track road race but in fact a bizarre event that ran mostly through back roads closed for the occasion; the first great race driver of the post-World War II generation, Juan Manuel Fangio, got his start in these wild events and said driving them was quite a bit riskier and more difficult than the Grand Prix races he competed in later) and gets recruited by, you guessed it, Patricia Sanford to drive a new car she’s designed herself to compete in the “Dayton 500” (read: the Indianapolis 500, and actually represented by stock footage of the famous Indianapolis “Brickyard” at a time when the track actually was paved entirely in bricks; later an asphalt surface replaced all of it except for one foot of brick left in place near the starting line for historical reasons).

No one else has caught on to Banks’ dual identity — even as his South American race triumphs are getting front-page treatment in U.S. papers (it must have been a slow news year) — but Patricia figures it out from the old song lyric, “The bulldog on the bank/And the bullfrog in the lake,” which Banks Storm used to warble with Bud in their off hours at the track while both were working for her dad. The problem is that Storm is a wanted man, and Curley reports him to the police and threatens to have him arrested as soon as he goes near the track — but Storm evades them by having a South American pilot fly him in and land his plane in the track’s infield so he can make it to the Sanford pits and take over the driving from Bud (while Patricia herself continues as the ride-along mechanic cars were allowed to have then). Frankly, I was expecting Wally to bail out of the plane and make a spectacular entrance at the track via parachute, but even Warner Bros. probably didn’t have the money to stage that on a “B” budget! Of course it all ends well: Wally wins the race, his legal troubles are conveniently forgotten (it helps that the judge in his case is sharing Patricia’s box at the race, and also that one of the cops has money on Wally to win and therefore is in no hurry to arrest him!) and he and Patricia are in a clinch at the fadeout. There’s nothing particularly innovative about Red Hot Tires — even the title was ripped off a Warner Bros. silent from 1925 (though it doesn’t appear that they have similar plotlines) — and there’s not much in the way of action to satisfy the auto racing fan (though one does get interesting glimpses of pre-World War II Indianapolis and that notorious killer track in L.A.), but it’s still a harmless time-filler even though its most talented actors, Mary Astor and Frankie Darro, are rather wasted.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Day Late and a Dollar Short (Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All Rights Reserved

The film was A Day Late and a Dollar Short, a quite remarkable if overly melodramatic Lifetime production with a (mostly) all-Black cast headed by Whoopi Goldberg (who’s also credited as “executive producer,” a catch-all title which can mean virtually anything from active creative involvement to just another slice of the pie for a star) as Viola, matriarch of an extended African-American middle-class family (the fact that anyone made a movie about American Blacks who aren’t gang-bangers, welfare moms terrorized by them, or hard-scrabble rural poor people scraping by like the one Whoopi played in her star-making movie, The Color Purple, is a miracle in itself!) who as the movie begins is facing the loss of both her husband (of 36 years, enough that their grown children have teenage children of their own!) and her life. She’s losing her life to chronic asthma brought on by a lifetime of smoking, and her husband Cecil (Ving Rhames, for once playing a believable, multidimensional character instead of a bad-ass killer or a comic-relief cliché) to what she (and we) at first think is simple ennui but turns out to have a more flesh-and-blood cause: Barbara, the town “welfare widow” (this takes place somewhere in suburban Illinois), who’s a single mom raising several kids of her own and when we meet her is also visibly pregnant with a baby she claims is Cecil’s. Cecil has kept the family together and provided for through the restaurant he co-owns with a business partner (who’s carried on a non-serious flirtation with Viola for decades), only he’s got restive in that life and he talks about selling their house, buying a boat and sailing around the Caribbean. This isn’t exactly how Viola envisioned spending their twilight years, both because her dream has always been to visit Paris (indeed, she named one of her daughters “Paris” in honor of the French capital!) and because her family is so relentlessly dysfunctional they still need her in her mom role.

Viola has three daughters and a son, Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), who left his wife and son, has ducked his child support and wasted his life drinking, getting into fights and ending up arrested and in police custody — from which he’s just being released as this movie begins. (In a nice touch, he’s shown checking out of jail with a copy of a book by Sartre that he had on him when he was arrested: an indication that he’s smarter than you’d think from the way he’s wasting his life.) The daughters are Paris (Anika Noni Rose, the only cast member besides Goldberg and Rhames I’d actually heard of before; she was the largely forgotten third member of “The Dreams” — i.e., the Supremes — in the film Dreamgirls), a celebrity chef whose own stresses and marital burn-out have led her to a prescription pill addiction; Charlotte (Tichina Arnold), who seems to have a workable marriage going and who lords that fact over Paris and is therefore thunderstruck when she learns her husband is having an affair; and Janelle (Kimberly Elise), whose marriage to her daughter Shanise’s (Shanise Banton) father broke up years before and who trusts her second husband to provide for her and her daughter until … well, that would be getting ahead of the story. A Day Late and a Dollar Short began life as a 2002 novel by Terry McMillan, an African-American female author who specialized in creating stories about relatively affluent Black women having essentially the same sorts of problems and crises as relatively affluent white women; she got her 15 minutes of fame in the early 1990’s with the novel Waiting to Exhale, about a quartet of young middle-class Black women and their affairs with men. It was filmed in 1995 with Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett as the stars and Forest Whitaker directing (during that long interregnum between Bird and The Last King of Scotland when he took up direction because there were so few strong acting roles available for Black men, and especially for Black men too heavy-set to be sexy), and McMillan went on to a series of reliable best-sellers but not one that became another blockbuster hit (though three of her other books were filmed and one, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, did well enough that its title reference became common slang).

A Day Late and a Dollar Short turned out to be an interesting movie but one with an all too common failing of Lifetime’s fare: after a while, it just started to choke on its own melodrama. It’s hard to tell how much of that is Terry McMillan’s fault and how much is the responsibility of the screenwriter, Shernold Edwards (at least two major changes were made between novel and film — I haven’t read the book but there’s a summary on Wikipedia — Lewis’s history of being sexually abused as a child wasn’t included, and Charlotte’s Gay son was dropped from the dramatis personae; also the novel’s setting was Las Vegas, but no doubt Lifetime wanted something more placid, more Middle America-y and also easier to reproduce in Canada), but after a marvelous opening in which Viola’s offspring reunite around her hospital bed — only to argue so loudly that Viola’s doctor, worried that his patients’ kids are putting such an emotional strain on her it’s going to hurt her chances for recovery, grimly jokes to them, “You’re so loud the people in the parking lot are beginning to take sides!” — one by one the kids are revealed to be monumentally dysfunctional. Viola tries to match Paris up with landscape architect Randall (Lyriq Bent, to my mind by far the sexiest male in the film) and he’s interested in her, but when he catches her popping pills he recalls his own history of addiction and the excuses he made for it and insists on getting her to “a meeting,” which she not surprisingly rejects. When Lewis takes off his son’s dirty shirt he notices his chest is bruised, and concludes his ex-wife’s new husband is beating his son; and, being the hot-head he is, he goes over to her home and confronts the guy — he’s white, a fact that’s been carefully kept from us until we actually see him as an on-screen character, and he informs Lewis that he’s going to raise the boy the way he sees fit and no drunk jailbird who’s bailed on his child support is going to get in his way, whereupon Lewis hauls off and hits the prick and is rewarded with a return to jail for his pains. Janelle has the bitterest comeuppance of all when he walks in on her husband literally fucking her daughter — “Now it looks like a Lifetime movie!” I joked — and as if her pill addiction wasn’t enough of a problem, Paris also has to deal with her teenage son not only dating a rich white girl but knocking her up. Viola dies just before the last commercial break, but if you think Whoopi Goldberg’s part in this movie is over you’ve got another think coming: she’s left notes for all her children and her husband to read to each other after she’s gone, and through this rather transparent device she’s able to engineer a family reconcilation and fix the lives of the other characters even from beyond the grave — while her own vision of the afterlife is, you guessed it, dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Despite its weaknesses, A Day Late and a Dollar Short is worth watching largely for the fineness of the acting; however much Whoopi Goldberg had to do with developing this project as well as appearing in it, it’s a welcome reminder that she can act, that she can do far more than her standup schtick and her earth-mother bit on the daytime TV show The View. Her performance is magnificent and so is Ving Rhames’; he’s an actor I’ve never much cared for, but that was probably more due to the way he was cast than his intrinsic talent. He’s great as a good but befuddled husband, facing the end of his marriage and the end of his wife’s life well ahead of schedule (Viola’s age isn’t specified in the film but it’s given in the book as 59), and all too aware of his responsibilities even if he can’t always bring himself to live up to them. The other actors are all quite fine; one sees the flaws in these people but still likes them and want to see them prevail, and as manipulative as the story seemed sometimes I quite liked it — even though, despite her success, it seems that Whoopi Goldberg was ill-used in her film career (partly her own fault for taking parts she never should have gone near, like Theodore Rex) and it’s a special pity she never played the role for which she seemed to have been made: a biopic of the great Black comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Extraordinary Women: Coco Chanel (BBC-TV, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the weekly news programs last night, Charles and I watched the next show that was on PBS: an episode in a series of Extraordinary Women about Coco Chanel (the other women profiled in this quirky and bizarre BBC series are Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Indira Gandhi, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly), whose story I hadn’t really known much of because of my acute distaste for the whole world of fashion. (One thing I have noticed working for a woman client and talking to her and her women friends is how many more clothes women buy than men; we tend not to give a damn about what we looked like — as long as we have something clean and reasonably presentable to put on in the morning before we go out, we’re cool — but women go out and buy scads of various costumings, many of which they may wear once, or not at all.) I knew a little about her — basically how she had fought her way up from the French gutters with a talent for clothes much the way Edith Piaf did later with a voice, and how her reputation collapsed after World War II when she was accused both of collaborating with the Nazi occupiers and of having failed to keep up with the latest fashion trends — and the show was quite fascinating. Chanel wasn’t born in Paris — she was born in a small town called Samour in southern France — and her last name on her birth certificate was “Gabrielle Chasnel.” Her parents weren’t married to each other — not that this was that big a scandal, not in 1883 France, when rich people flaunted their affairs and not-so-rich people like the Chasnels didn’t flaunt theirs but had them anyway — and when Gabrielle was either five or nine (the information on the Wikipedia page for her varies, but I believe the TV show said nine) her mom died (her dad had already abandoned this wing of his family) and her relatives placed her in a convent school, sort of like the one in The Sound of Music, where upon graduating you had two choices: either take the vows and become a nun, or leave and be totally on your own.

The nuns brutalized Cha(s)nel but also probably inculcated in her the tight sense of discipline that helped her build her later career. She first worked as a seamstress by day, and at night tried for a career in the music halls in the small towns of Moulins and Vichy (she got the name “Coco” from the nonsense lyrics of the two songs she knew), then ended up the mistress of a rich man named Étienne Balsan, a former cavalry officer in the French army. Balsan bankrolled her first fashion venture, a hat-making shop (like the later designer Halston, Chanel began with hats and then worked her way down the body to full outfits). Chanel, who like a lot of the women French society referred to as les grandes horizontals knew how to use her good looks and bedroom skills to get what she wanted out of life, ended up involved with one of Balsan’s friends, a British nobleman and army officer named Arthur Capel, whom she nicknamed “Boy.” Once Capel invited her to a horse race, and she came wearing an outfit she’d adapted from one of his — including a necktie — and when she finally started designing full outfits instead of just hats she made her clothes loose-fitting, cut in chic patterns but made out of common materials, with the idea that instead of wearing heavily padded, ruffled designs that required them to encase their waists in corsets that made even the simplest tasks of daily life excruciatingly difficult and painful, women should dress in styles both beautiful and practical.

According to the program, Chanel was actually the first woman to create a major business designing and making women’s clothes — the idea that clothes should actually be manufactured by a company run by a person with the same sort of body as the ones that were going to wear them was revolutionary (which is itself an indictment of how deep the sexism of the time ran; today it seems common sense that a woman might know more about how women should dress than a man!) — and she managed to make it to Paris (via stops in Deauville in northern France and Biarritz in the Pyrenees, both hot spots for France’s 1 percent of the time) and set up hat shops, clothing shops and even perfume shops (I’ve heard two different accounts of how the Chanel No. 5 perfume got its name — one that it was the fifth formulation she tried and the first one she liked; one that she simply liked the sound of the number — and this show offered a third: that she considered it her lucky number when she gambled.) When World War I broke out she kept the House of Chanel going through the war by whatever means necessary, including making clothes out of jersey because that was a fabric readily available as war surplus, but as the war wound down she suffered a double blow: her lover Arthur Capel married a fellow British aristocrat in 1918 and then died in 1919. What this show doesn’t mention — though Chanel’s Wikipedia page does — is that she had long-standing prejudices against both Jews and Queers; in 1946 she told her friend Paul Morand, “Homosexuals? … I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and to wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women—but they are lousy women. They are charming!” In 1923 she started an affair with another English nobleman, the Duke of Westminster (while she was also involved with the composer Igor Stravinsky, an association depicted in a recent movie), and through him got introductions to Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII until he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson) and Winston Churchill — associations that led to Chanel’s apparent delusion that she could use those contacts to negotiate an end to World War II that would leave the Nazi government in place.

She had an affair with German officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage (13 years her junior; indeed, when she was called out for collaboration after the war one of her defenses was that she wanted a boyfriend and in her 50’s she couldn’t be that choosy!) who worked for Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS Intelligence in occupied Paris. Schellenberg apparently hit on the idea in 1943 that Chanel could be used as a back-channel contact to the British aristocracy to see if Churchill could be persuaded to end the war on terms more favorable to Germany than the “unconditional surrender” he and the fellow Allied chiefs of state were publicly demanding. Nothing came of this, but apparently Churchill personally interceded with the French authorities after the war to make sure Chanel wasn’t prosecuted for collaboration. The TV show then went into Chanel’s comeback: she exhibited a collection in 1952 that was a reaction to postwar fashion in general and Christian Dior in particular (apparently she particularly resented Dior for reintroducing cinched waists, ruffles and all the other confining crap Chanel thought she had permanently removed from women’s clothes); it got terrible reviews in both France and Britain but was a huge hit with American buyers. This is the part of the story dramatized in the musical Coco, which the program erroneously dated from 1962 (it was actually 1969) and which starred Katharine Hepburn in her one musical role on stage or film — it was bankrolled by Paramount in exchange for the movie rights, but with big-budget musicals on their way out by 1969 they never actually filmed it; and Hepburn only got to be in it when producer Frederick Brisson’s first choice, Rosalind Russell (also, by a freak coincidence, Mrs. Frederick Brisson), was too ill to do it. For the rest of her life Chanel held forth from her Paris boutique, still officially listed as working when she died on January 10, 1971 at age 88.

Among the aspects of Chanel’s life mentioned on Wikipedia but not in the show were her political oscillations (at different times she bankrolled both Right- and Left-wing papers in Paris), her unsuccessful sojourn in Hollywood (Sam Goldwyn, recognizing a marketable name when he heard one, signed her in 1931 but she only worked on two films before giving up her movie career, though she designed again for films in Jean Renoir’s fascinating 1939 production Rules of the Game), her long-standing rivalry with Schiaparelli (the second woman to open a major fashion house), and the sweetheart deals she cut with Pierre Wertheimer, his family and others off the revenues of Chanel No. 5 perfume, which covered her living expenses from the end of the war until she died (she’s known primarily as a couturiere but she made far more money off the perfume than she ever did off her clothes). Seen today, Chanel comes off as an indomitable woman, making her own career and living life her way, though also a quirky, cranky and crotchety figure whose collaboration with the Nazis, such as it was, seems more opportunistic than anything else: amoral, not immoral.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The King’s Thief (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a 1955 movie called The King’s Thief, recently shown on TCM, a potboiler historical epic that essentially took the basic plot template of Robin Hood and moved it up about 3 ½ centuries in British history: Charles II (George Sanders, who only appears in two scenes but acts with his usual power and authority in them) has just regained the throne when he is shocked to learn that two of the nobles who helped lead his army against Cromwell (that would be Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s son, who assumed the title of Lord Protector when his dad died in 1658 but only lasted two years before he was defeated in battle and the monarchy restored) are traitors who were ready to betray him and the Crown. He signs the execution orders against both men when they’re presented to him by his principal advisor, James, Duke of Brampton (David Niven), clueless that both were innocent and the whole thing is a plot set up by Brampton to kill all his rivals in Charles’ court, take half their estates for himself and ultimately dethrone Charles and re-establish the Protectorate with himself as Protector. Charles comes close to discovering this in the opening scene when a little black notebook falls out of Brampton’s inside pocket and Charles is momentarily curious as to what’s in it — it’s a list of the 12 targets Brampton intends to have framed and executed, including the two he’s already eliminated — but Brampton convinces Charles it’s simply his “little black book” of actual or potential girlfriends, and given his own well-known real-life proclivities in that direction Charles says he understands and gives it back to Brampton. Given what it usually means these days when a little black object falls out of someone’s pocket, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wait a minute! They didn’t have cell phones in 17th Century England!”

Meanwhile, Lady Mary Overton (Ann Blyth, top-billed), daughter of one of the men Brampton framed, is getting restive in France, where she fled after her dad was hanged, and is determined to sneak back into England, appeal to the King and have her father’s good name restored (and, not incidentally, his fortune restored to her). While all that’s going on, Brampton’s coach is waylaid by bandits led by Michael Dermott (Edmond Purdom) and Jack (Roger Moore — I noted that The King’s Thief counts as a “doubles” movie since it contains two actors who later played James Bond, Niven and Moore), and they steal some jewels as well as the little black book — which Dermott thinks is the most valuable part of the haul because the 10 surviving nobles will pay handsomely to know that they’re on Brampton’s hit list. It goes on from there as Mary sets herself up at court and arouses the lascivious attentions of Brampton (to whom she loses a lot of money and a family heirloom at a table playing a rather preposterous card game), while Brampton’s men, led by Captain Herrick (competent but colorless John Dehner), trace the bandits and recover the book. Wounded by a pistol shot from one of Herrick’s men, Michael gets cornered at a tavern and forced to fight a duel with Brampton, which he loses — though Brampton arrests him rather than running him through — and eventually he and Jack end up in the same cell for a reasonably successful escape attempt even though their ability to pull it off seems to depend on the badly constructed, already crumbling walls of the prison. (“Who built this — the Acme Construction Company?” I joked.)

It all ends up the way you think it will, with Michael and Jack plotting the theft of the Crown Jewels to attract Charles’ attention (in fact the collection of Crown Jewels had already been decimated by Cromwell’s decision to break them up and sell the gemstones for foreign exchange, much the way Lenin had the imperial jewels of Tsarist Russia disposed of after the Revolution for similar reasons, and of the pre-Cromwell royal artifacts only the orb and scepter still exist — no actual crowns), Mary arranging a visit to the Royal Observatory where she meets Sir Isaac Newton (Peter Hansen, uncredited — it’s odd to see a real person other than an historical monarch depicted in one of these movies) and runs into the King, and at the end Brampton’s treacheries are exposed, the 10 other noble families are spared, Lady Mary’s fortunes are restored to her, the bandits are given royal pensions of 600 pounds a year each as long as they promise to stop robbing, and Michael and Mary end up in a clinch — their first P.D.A. in the entire movie, since the romance in these things was generally thrown in just as a sop to the female audience while the main attraction was to teenage boys either still in or just getting out of the “Girls — yuck!” phase. Shot in Hollywood instead of England (where MGM was making a lot of their big-budget period spectaculars to take advantage of frozen funds — the ban on currency exports that forced foreign companies to invest in your country was invented by the Nazi German finance minister Hjalmar Schacht and copied by many of the nations who defeated Germany in World War II — as well as actual castles and other period locations) and only lasting 77 minutes (about all its slender story could sustain), The King’s Thief is reliable entertainment — not a great movie, and not especially well cast (Edmund Purdom is a nice hunk of man-meat but he isn’t flattered by the Restoration costumes and he’s such a dull screen presence I couldn’t help but wish he and Roger Moore had switched roles), but made a bit special by the casting of David Niven as the villain. Offhand I can’t think of another film in which he was an out-and-out bad guy (as opposed to the good-bad jewel thieves he played in the 1939 Raffles and the 1964 original The Pink Panther), and in his scenes with Charles II he’s up against the master in this sort of understated villainy, George Sanders; but he’s still good, moving in a sly, oily way through scenes Basil Rathbone or Henry Daniell would have hammed up at fortissimo volume.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Symphony in Black (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I actually screened Paramount’s 1935 Duke Ellington band short Symphony in Black because I was doing a cue sheet for a mix disc containing its soundtrack, and I wanted to nail down the titles of the three subsections of the “Triangle” number — “Dance” (which was in fact a previous Ellington piece called “Ducky Wucky”), “Jealousy” and “Blues” — the last also a haunting song called “Saddest Tale” whose studio recording featured Ellington himself as vocalist but whose film version featured Billie Holiday. I watched the movie in the Kino on Video transfer — quite the best available version of this oft-reissued title, with excellent contrast and rich visuals — and it remains an amazing film, probably the best single “band short” (a 1930’s genre that held out pretty much until the advent of television, which featured popular big bands in often quite artful settings; they were essentially the music videos of the day) of all time. Though I have no indication whether Ellington himself was involved in the visual aspect of his shorts, this one and the previous film A Bundle of Blues 1933 — both directed by Fred Waller, later the inventor of Cinerama, for Paramount’s shorts department and shot in Ellington’s home base, New York City — are so much more imaginative visually than any other band shorts I’ve seen I can’t help but think Ellington, who’d been an aspiring painter before he settled on music as his career, had had something to do with the “look” of this film. The movie opens with a letter Ellington has supposedly received from either his music publisher or his manager reminding him that his “Symphony of Negro Moods” is supposed to premiere in two weeks and “I trust the manuscript is nearing completion so that you can start rehearsals.” (The film’s writers, Milton Hocky and Fred Rath, got that right about Ellington: he always hated rehearsing, generally called rehearsals only when he had new material to present to his band, and liked to throw things together at the last minute.)

The film has four segments, each introduced the same way: a shot of Ellington inside the “Duke Ellington Studio” sitting at his piano writing down music, dissolving to a scene of the Ellington band playing it, dissolving to a sequence illustrating, music-video style, what we’ve just seen Ellington composing and the band playing; and then a dissolve back to the band as the segment finishes. Symphony in Black is a remarkable 10-minute composition that, even though much of it derives from previously recorded Ellington pieces (the big “Harlem Rhythm” finale, with spectacular effects work that cuts off the chorus girls at the waist and turns dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker into a dance duo, was a song called “Merry-Go-Round”), holds together well as a musical sequence and is obviously a sort of pencil sketch for the Ellington masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige from eight years later. There’s a work song (“The Laborers”), a religious scene (“A Hymn of Sorrow,” which in an interview at the time Ellington said was supposed to represent the funeral of a child — and in Kino’s transfer the image quality is at last good enough that the oblong box at the minister’s feet is recognizable as a child-size coffin and not just a part of the altar) — though it comes third instead of second as “Come Sunday” does in Black, Brown and Beige — a romantic triangle leading to a blues song, and a finale depicting African-American life in the present. The result is a visual and musical tour de force in which, despite some lapses (the “Laborers” sequence shows stokers shoveling coal off a perfectly finished soundstage floor), Waller’s images and Ellington’s music create a stunning combination that comes off as creative and innovative today.

Another reason Symphony in Black has remained in circulation as long as it has is the singer in the blues sequence; for some reason, instead of using his usual vocalist, Ivie Anderson (was her chronic asthma acting up worse than usual that week?), Ellington and Waller hired the young Billie Holiday. Ironically, given Billie’s oft-expressed admiration for Bessie Smith, her sequence has the identical plot as Smith’s one film, St. Louis Blues — she catches her boyfriend dancing and about to go out with another woman, confronts him, is pushed aside by him (indeed, Billie is knocked to the ground by her faithless lover in a scene that still seems quite violent — and she recalled in her autobiography that, totally untrained in how to “break” a movie fall and subjected to take after take of this, she ended up incredibly sore and in pain for several days afterwards), and sings a blues. Billie recalled it as “a weird and pretty blues number,” and it’s wrenching both in Ellington’s composition, the superb support she gets from his band members (Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams in particular — as on Billie’s great record of “Moanin’ Low,” Cootie’s trumpet sounds like a second voice, “moaning” in sympathy with her pain) and the quality of Billie’s voice. When the Symphony in Black soundtrack was recorded in October 1934, Billie had made only two commercial records — those nervous, uncertain performances of “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch” in November and December 1933 with a Benny Goodman studio band — but at sometime during that year she had developed her mature style and transformed herself from a youngster of some promise into a fully fledged professional. Her intonation is flawless (a few notes may be “bent” out of absolutely correct pitch, but she’s obviously doing that for effect), her phrasing sublime, her vocal tonality is free of the nasality of those early Goodman records and sounds like what we’re used to from her later masterpieces, and the “dying falls” — the downward glissandi with which she frequently ended a line — are heart-rending. She’s also an amazing visual presence, showing the combination of good looks and screen charisma that later powered Lena Horne to stardom (indeed, when Lena Horne hit big at MGM in the early 1940’s Warner Bros. briefly considered signing Billie as competition, but after they ran a background check on her they decided she’d be more trouble than she was worth). The alliance of Billie and Ellington remains one of the most tantalizing might-have-beens of jazz history (as it was they only got to record together once more, on the Jazz at the Plaza album from 1958 — a year before Billie’s death), not only because they sound so great together but because the cocoon Ellington built around his musicians might have protected her from her self-destructive tendencies — and I rather think Ellington might have hired Billie if he hadn’t already had a quite good and stylistically unique singer in Ivie Anderson (who I’m still convinced would have been a star on the level of Billie and Ella Fitzgerald if her asthma hadn’t cut short her career and forced her into early retirement).