Monday, June 30, 2014

Endeavour: Trove (BBC-TV, 2014)

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

Last night’s TV “feature” was an episode of the British TV show Endeavour, an intriguing BBC production set in 1966 and dealing with the youth of the popular character Inspector Morse — and in case you were wondering why such a show would be called Endeavour, that’s Inspector Morse’s first name. I’ve only sporadically watched the later shows featuring the older Morse, a homicide detective in Oxford, England who’s depicted as a recovering alcoholic with a bug for opera in general and Wagner in particular (though his younger self as depicted here seems to listen only to Italian operas — I recognized Bellini’s I Puritani and Verdi’s La Traviata) and a rather dyspeptic approach to crime-solving: I wonder if Michael Connelly was inspired to create his character of Harry Bosch by Morse. Anyway, this episode was called “Trove” and featured the Oxford police being confronted by a variety of crimes: a paintball attack with a starter’s pistol in the middle of a parade in which the victim was its guest of honor, “Miss Great Britain” a.k.a. Diana Day (Jessica Ellerby); a body falling from a roof on top of an Anglia (a singularly ugly but serviceable compact car made for the British market by the U.K. branch of Ford); the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, Frida Yelland, and the understandable upset of her dad, Bernard Yelland (Philip Martin Brown), who thinks she was murdered; and the theft of priceless antiquities from the Oxford museum, three relics of King Harold — the last Saxon king of England who was dethroned and killed by William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066 (and all that) — a loss that hits the university hard because they were about to exhibit the items as the centerpiece of a 900th anniversary celebration of the battle.

Morse — played to perfection by attractive young actor Shaun Evans even though he doesn’t really seem like he’s going to grow up to be John Thaw, who played the middle-aged dyspeptic Morse in the BBC’s earlier (and still running) series about him — insists that all these crimes are linked despite the insistence of his superiors that they’re all separate and distinct. As things turn out, the theft of the trove of antiquities from Hastings (which gives the episode its title) is distinct from the others — it was committed by a couple of Oxford students (both male, though the show is set at the time when the great universities of both Britain and the U.S. were finally starting to admit women) interested only in the financial gain from them — but the others are linked. The paintball attack on “Miss Great Britain” was committed by Kitty Batten (Jessie Buckley) as a feminist gesture to highlight that there’s more women can do than just win beauty pageants. Her mother Barbara (Beth Goddard) has been drafted to run for Parliament by the Labour Party in a by-election (what the Brits call a special election) to replace a member who died nine months after the regular election (and one reason Kitty was so upset at the “Miss Great Britain” pageant was that she felt if there weren’t a glass ceiling her mom would have been the candidate in the regular election in the first place). Her father Archie (Jonathan Coy) seems to be odd man out on the campaign trail even though Barbara’s chief concerns seem to be that neither her husband nor her daughter do anything else to embarrass her and jeopardize her chances of winning the election.

The man who fell out of the window onto the Anglia car — whom the older police at first thought had committed suicide — was Pettifer (Nathan John Carter), a petty blackmailer who was eliminated by [spoiler alert!] Archie Batten, who had had an affair with Frida Yelland before realizing that the Yellands were only her foster parents and she was in fact Archie’s daughter from a previous relationship. Horrified at what the accusation of incest will do both to his own career and his wife’s chances in the election, Archie teamed up with the promoter of the “Miss Great Britain” contest and its feeder contests to cover up the incident, even if that meant knocking off Frida and also Pettifer when he got wind of the truth and started blackmailing him about it. The episode was compelling and genuinely suspenseful — a lot of these ultra-polite British mystery stories aren’t — and though nowhere nearly as interesting a character as the older Morse, the young Morse is still a lot of fun to watch (and not only because Shaun Evans is nice to look at, even when he gets beaten up by thugs hired by the promoter because he’s getting too close to the truth and, like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, has to go through most of the later stages of the show with bandages or fresh scars on his face) and the writer, Russell Lewis (who gets credit for having “devised” the show based on the character of the older Morse as created by Colin Dexter), deserves credit for throwing enough intriguing red herrings (including a professor of medieval history at Oxford whom Morse briefly suspects) at us before giving us the real solution (which I must say I didn’t see coming!). It also helps that the Black (should I call her “African-British”?) maid who lives in the same apartment building as Morse and helps nurse him back to health after he’s beaten is played by a fine actress of African descent who has mastered the Queen’s English well enough to pronounce the “t” in “often.”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs (Sony/Lifetime, 2014)

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

Last night’s movie was a Lifetime “world premiere” called Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs, a sure-fire exploitation topic — let’s face it, the Mormon doctrine of “plural marriage” (polygamy) has been grist for the pop-culture mill ever since Joseph Smith first proclaimed it in 1843, a year before he was lynched — and one that Lifetime and its contributing producers have already milked in productions such as Escape from Polygamy (2013), which grafted an offtake of Romeo and Juliet onto a polygamy story drawing on the real-life cults of Ervil LeBaron (whose murderous reign had already been the subject of an NBC TV-movie called Prophet of Evil in 1993, 12 years after his death in prison) as well as Warren Jeffs and his dad Rulon. Lifetime helpfully followed the dramatized version of the Warren Jeffs story with a Behind the Headlines episode about the real one, which cleared up some points the movie left annoyingly ambiguous and also corrected some factual errors. There are many conceivable “takes” with which one could have approached the Warren Jeffs story for a film, but director Gabriel Range and his writing committee (which included Alyson Evans, Bryce Kass, Steve Kornacki, Art Monterastelli and Range himself, all based on a book called When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular — who was also interviewed for the Behind the Headlines documentary) decided to go all out for the Gothic and turn it into practically a horror film. Warren Jeffs was the One True Prophet of a breakaway Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS for short, which got started in 1890 when U.S. troops massed on the borders of Utah, prepared to invade and occupy the Utah Territory if the Mormons didn’t give up their church’s sanction of polygamy. William Woodruff, the fourth Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, got the message loud and clear and issued a revelation that God no longer sanctioned “plural marriage” and it was time for the church to end the practice.

Several breakaway sects left Utah and hid out in even more remote areas on the not illogical ground that it was wrong to give up a central tenet of their religion simply because the federal government in Washington, D.C. didn’t like it. The FLDS was one of these (though it probably didn’t have that name originally — the term “Fundamentalist” as a name for an especially strict religious movement didn’t come into common use until 1910, when brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart published a series of books called The Fundamentals, in which they decreed what they thought were the essential doctrines of Protestant Christianity, including the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and the historical reality of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s birth from a virgin, the miracles and the resurrection), and by the early 1950’s it was governed by a man named Rulon Jeffs. In 1953 the federal government staged a raid on Rulon Jeffs’ compound, which straddled the Utah-Arizona state line and was known as Colorado City in Utah and Hildale (only one “l”) in Arizona, the whole being located in an area called Short Creek sufficiently close to Monument Valley that the famous elevated mesa that featured prominently in so many John Ford Westerns was clearly visible in the long-shots of this film. The purpose of the raid was to bust the Jeffs compound and its residents for tax fraud, welfare fraud and the forcible marriage of underage women to middle-aged men — but the feds got a major public backlash. People in the area, even ones who were either mainstream Christians or mainstream Mormons and wouldn’t have dreamed of a polygamous lifestyle themselves nonetheless rallied around the poor FLDS members who were being harassed just because they were living their religious beliefs. The FLDS prospered and managed to infiltrate their own people into local law enforcement just in case anyone got any damn-fool notions about trying to bust them again.

There matters stood for nearly 50 years until Rulon Jeffs (played in the film by Martin Landau in what’s probably his best acting opportunity since his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) got deathly ill; according to the movie, at least, he intended Noah Fielding (David Grant Wright) to be his successor as head of the FLDS. But he made the mistake of communicating this instruction to Warren, and instead of going along with his dad’s dying wish Warren took over the cult himself, married all but two of his father’s 19 wives and began a practice hitherto unknown in the cult of “reassigning” women to other husbands as a punishment for men he considered disobedient. He was finally brought down by a determined local sheriff’s deputy, Gary Engels (David Keith, who looks strikingly like the real one we see in the documentary), who put the FLDS compound under personal surveillance and waited for victims to emerge and be willing to testify against Jeffs. It took him years, but he finally found them in Rebecca Musser (Sabina Gadecki) and her sister, Elissa Hall, whom Jeffs married off to her 19-year-old first cousin Allen Steed (Will Buchanan) in 2001 when she was just 14, while Rulon Jeffs was still alive (Elissa appealed to Rulon to block the marriage, but he was too sick to do so). Married without her consent, she was repeatedly raped — and eventually Warren Jeffs was prosecuted in Utah for being an accomplice to statutory rape in connection with his forcing underage girls to “marry” adult men. Though the film really doesn’t go into this much, one of Warren Jeffs’ tactics was to expel large numbers of teenage males from the compound for no other reason than that they were teenage males, and therefore if he left them around the teenage females might get involved with them instead of the middle-aged codgers to whom Warren Jeffs was parceling them out as rewards for loyalty and services rendered. They became known as the “Lost Boys,” congregated in communities near the FLDS compound but not under its control, and tried as best as they could to live in a world they hadn’t been equipped to handle.

It seems that one thing Warren Jeffs was opposed to was education; though he organized his minions to vote in Colorado City school board elections and take over the school district in 2002, shortly thereafter he decided that all his followers’ kids should be home-schooled and pulled them out — thereby plummeting the enrollment of Colorado City’s K-12 program from over 1,000 to just 250. As a result, both men and women who either got kicked out of the cult or left it themselves had literally no idea how to make it in the outside world: supermarkets were terra incognita to them, and so were banks. What’s more, since the compound supported itself by farming and mostly eschewed modern farm equipment, they were turned out without any salable skills in the outside job market. The film tells this story with an actor playing Warren Jeffs, Tony Goldwyn, who’s considerably more attractive and charismatic than the real one (but then quite a few cult leaders, including Charles Manson and David Koresh, have succeeded even though they didn’t seem to be especially charismatic to those outside their cults) — indeed, the first we see of him shows him sitting in his bedroom, wearing just a T-shirt and underwear, wielding a gun and holding it between his legs (a classically phallic image evoking Freud’s ironic comparison of a penis and a gun as similar objects with opposite functions — a penis is a long, cylindrical object that shoots things which create life, and a gun is a long, cylindrical object that shoots things which destroy it), getting ready to flee because he’s been tipped that the compound is about to be raided and he is about to be arrested. Actually Warren Jeffs was prosecuted twice, once in Utah and once in Texas — the Utah case was dismissed on a technicality but in the meantime police and prosecutors in Texas had staged a raid on his satellite compound, YFZ (“Yearning for Zion”), and had found documents including photos and “marriage licenses” indicating that Jeffs had not only helped other people “marry” underage girls but had had relations with underage girls himself (and according to some allegations, not just girls; as early as the 1980’s Jeffs is supposed to have raped two of his nephews, one of whom committed suicide after filing his complaint; the other, Brent Jeffs, testified against Warren at his trial in Texas even though the specific crimes he was charged with were exclusively heterosexual).

Jeffs was finally convicted in August 2011 and sentenced to life plus 20 years — he won’t be eligible for parole until 2038, when if he survives he’ll be 83 — but he’s regularly visited in prison by his brother Lyle and gives the community marching orders, so he’s still running it from behind bars. Director Range goes for some of the obvious titillation this material lends itself to, but mostly shoots the film in a neo-Gothic vein, full of doomy music by Tony Morales and chiaroscuro cinematography that makes Warren Jeffs almost a super-villain, a man with uncanny abilities to evade the law and dominate others. Oddly, the film also makes the Jeffs compound(s) look considerably grungier than the appear in the documentary, where they were dominated by large church buildings designed in frank imitation of the mainstream Mormon temples. Overall, Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs (the first dramatic film about him, though his Wikipedia page lists at least four previous documentaries) is a somewhat better-than-average Lifetime movie, powered by Range’s atmospheric direction and Tony Goldwyn’s powerful performance in the lead — you really get the idea of why the people in this community, especially those who (because of how long the community had lasted) had been born and raised into it and literally knew nothing about the outside world other than it was all ruled by Satan and therefore not something they should venture into, could have believed that this man was in direct communication with, and getting his marching orders from, God. It’s even harder to believe when you watch the Behind the Headlines documentary and realize how ridiculously nerdy, twerpy and uncharismatic the real Warren Jeffs looked — obviously it was more his lineage and his cunning than his own appeal as a leader that kept him in control so long!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Step by Step (RKO, 1946)

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

I ran a movie I’d recently recorded off TCM, Step by Step, a 1946 film that when I first saw it in the TCM listings I assumed was a Monogram production because it reunited the two stars from Monogram’s 1945 film Dillinger, Lawrence Tierney and Anne Jeffreys, and its director, Phil Rosen, was also a Monogram “regular.” Surprise: it was actually made at RKO — Rosen, who’d made one of the two best films of his career, Dangerous Corner, at RKO a decade before[1] probably regarded the assignment as a welcome relief from the Monogram salt mines — and enough of RKO’s standard personnel (producer Sid Rogell, composer Paul Sawtell, musical director C. Bakaleinikoff, art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller, set decorators Claude Carpenter and Darrell Silvera) are in the behind-the-camera credits that it’s clear RKO produced this film itself and didn’t simply buy a finished negative from Monogram — even though the “original” story (quotes definitely appropriate!) is by another Monogram regular, George Callahan (author of most of the Charlie Chan films made at Monogram), though the script is by the slightly more prestigious Stuart Palmer. RKO had already lucked into “their Bogart” with the surprise success of Murder, My Sweet (1944), which transformed Dick Powell from 1930’s musical star to 1940’s tough guy, but they were looking for similar actors who could also play tough roles, and they found them in Robert Mitchum (who’d been kicking around Hollywood for about five years when he landed the part in United Artists’ The Story of G.I. Joe that made him a star) and Lawrence Tierney.

They grabbed Tierney from Monogram after the success of Dillinger and started giving him a buildup, only Tierney was as much a tough guy off screen as on and his career trailed off into a series of tabloid scandals in which he’d continually start fights in bars, get arrested and embarrass the hell out of the studio. Basically Step by Step is a knock-off of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, only set in an old Gothic house instead of on a train. Secretary Evelyn Smith (Anne Jeffreys) has come out to the house to work for Senator Remmy (Harry Harvey), who wants her to transcribe a list of German agents being dictated to him by James Blackton (Addison Richards) — only Blackton notices a microphone dangling from just outside his hotel window, decides it isn’t safe to give the list out over the phone, and tells Senator Remmy he’ll come out west (this is one classic-era film that was not only shot in Los Angeles but actually takes place there) and give him the list in person. The conceit in the Callahan-Palmer script is that the German High Command has remained in overall power despite having lost two world wars and is still meeting and actively planning to regroup and have another “go” at conquering the world. There was quite a bit of this sort of propaganda during the latter stages of World War II (one remembers The High Command, a bonus item on Kino on Video’s DVD of Erich von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands, which was based on the same idea as this movie: that the Prussian High Command had been intact at least since Bismarck’s time and they regarded military defeats as just minor setbacks from which they would recover), and Charles was amused that when Step by Step was made the Zeitgeist was still worrying about Germany, not the Soviet Union, being the dastardly evil country that was out to rule the world by force.

Anyway, Remmy sends Evelyn out because he won’t be needing her after all until Blackton actually arrives, and says he has bathing suits available so she can dress in one and swim at the beach. She does this, and while she’s doing so she’s spotted by Johnny Christopher (Lawrence Tierney), who instantly falls in lust with her, strips down to swim trunks himself (and turns out to be a nice hunk of man-meat and even gets to show a little chest hair — the studios were lightening up after the 1930’s, when on the rare occasions a man got to show his chest on screen either he was naturally hairless or he was required to shave his body hair) and goes out to cruise her. Only when he gets back he finds he’s locked himself out of his car — his only companion is a wire-haired terrier (at least I think that’s the sort of dog represented) who, like quite a few members of his species, out-acts the human performers. Johnny gets a ticket from an obnoxious cop and takes Evelyn back to the house — only everyone else in it is different: there’s a new person posing as Sen. Remmy, Bruckner (Jason Robards, Sr.), as well as a vaguely British-accented German named Von Dorn (Lowell Gilmore) and Gretchen (Myrna Dell), a horse-faced woman who says she is Evelyn Smith. These three overpowered and knocked out the real Senator and Norton (Phil Warren), the Senator’s chauffeur, and took over from them, knocked off Blackton and are now looking for his secret list of the German High Command’s 200 co-conspirators worldwide (which they don’t know, but we do, he typed on a torn ribbon of bedsheet and concealed inside the lining of his leather jacket). The cop accepts the phony Senator and Evelyn as the real deals and threatens to take Johnny to a mental institution, but eventually Johnny and Evelyn escape and hide out in a seaside motel owned by Captain Caleb Simpson (a very Will Geer-ish performance by George Cleveland). Since he needed more clothes, Johnny took a pair of Norton’s pants and put on the leather jacket that, unbeknownst to him, contains the secret information. Suspected by the police of Blackton’s murder, and also being pursued by the bad guys, Johnny and Evelyn realize they have to solve the crime themselves. What they don’t know is that the bad guys are also staying at the motel, and they come close to discovering the leather jacket when the captain buries it, along with some fish, and Johnny’s dog digs it up.

Johnny and Evelyn become convinced that the chauffeur Norton was involved in Blackton’s murder, and Johnny roughs him up — ironically, Phil Warren was actually sexier than Lawrence Tierney but gets knocked off all too quickly after one of the baddies sees him and Johnny fighting and fires at him through an open window, killing Norton and setting Johnny up for murder number two — providing the fisticuffs that people going to see a Lawrence Tierney movie expected to see. It all ends as it should, of course, with the cops rescuing Johnny and Evelyn in time and a federal agent exonerating them and recovering the secret list from inside the jacket. Step by Step is one of those movies that isn’t exactly fresh entertainment — it’s hard to keep track of how many earlier, better films it borrows from (including an odd self-plagiarism from Rosen’s Dangerous Corner in which Johnny steals a tube out of Captain Simpson’s radio so Simpson can’t hear the police description of him and turn him in; in Dangerous Corner a burned-out radio tube forces the guests at a weekend retreat to talk to each other, and their secrets — particularly their illicit sexual couplings with each other — come out; then the story is repeated but with a replacement on hand for the burned-out tube and with the secrets thereby staying secret) — but it’s fun, it’s filmed by Rosen and cinematographer Frank Redman in a quasi-noir style even though the script features good-good guys and bad-bad guys with very little of the moral ambiguity of true noir, and it offers Lawrence Tierney a role that fits his limited acting skills without making him actively unpleasant to watch the way he was as an out-and-out psycho in Born to Kill. It also leaves one mourning that Anne Jeffreys didn’t have more of a career; she was one of those not-quite stars who made enough films to show off her considerable talents without ever getting the chance she deserved to make it to the “A”-list.

[1] — His other good one was The Phantom Broadcast, made for the first — and decidedly more interesting — iteration of Monogram in 1933.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

American Experience: Freedom Summer (Spark Media, WGBH, PBS, 2014)

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

Last night I watched a quite powerful documentary, Freedom Summer, on the PBS American Experience series, dealing with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 — a high-stakes venture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which at that time still represented the Left wing of the mainstream African-American (a term that hadn’t been coined yet) civil rights movement before it broke off two years later and became the home of the “Black Power” racial nationalists. Back in 1964 SNCC’s logo was a Black arm and a white arm holding each other’s hands — a visual representation of what the late Michael Harrington called the “Beloved Community” of Black and white activists that together he hoped would transform the country. Freedom Summer was a three-pronged offensive against entrenched racism in Mississippi, whose population in the 1960 census was 42 percent Black (the highest percentage of African-American residents in any U.S. state at the time) but where Black people were so systematically denied the franchise that only 6 percent of the adult Black population was registered to vote.

SNCC had formed in the wake of the 1960 sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina and elsewhere in the South, where Blacks (mostly male college students) sat in at whites-only lunch counters and demanded to be served. But Robert Moses, the SNCC official in Mississippi who got the idea for Freedom Summer and ran the project (and who next year briefly changed his name to “Parris” because he didn’t want a cult of personality to form around him when he did a similar project in Alabama), decided that for Blacks in Mississippi, winning the right to participate in the political process was far more important and immediate an issue than getting served crappy meals at the lunch counters at Woolworth’s. Freedom Summer was a three-pronged approach that included 1) having volunteers, both Black and white, go door-to-door and urge people to go to the county courthouse to register to vote (the fact that volunteer registrars couldn’t just sign people up then and there at their homes itself shows how tightly the Mississippi state government and the whites who ran it controlled the franchise to make sure the “wrong” people didn’t get to vote!); 2) running “Freedom Schools” to teach African-American kids in Mississippi their heritage, both in Africa and in the U.S. (I happened to read one of the “Freedom School” history primers at age 11 and was grateful that it inoculated me against the Columbia University school of thought about Reconstruction that in the 1960’s was still being taught in mainstream public schools as unchallengeable fact — this is the version, unforgettably dramatized by D. W. Griffith in the film The Birth of a Nation, that held the Reconstruction governments in the South were run by opportunistic “carpetbagger” whites and naïve, easily manipulated Blacks until the native white Southerners rose up, cleaned house and put the Blacks back “in their place”); and 3) organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to elect an alternative slate of delegates to the 1964 Democratic Party convention and challenge the right of the all-white mainstream Mississippi delegation to sit at the convention. Considerable personal risk was involved — the show’s Web site quotes a song from the period about going to Mississippi that sounds like one of those stiff-upper-lip songs associated with someone on his way to fight a war: “And if you never see me again/Remember that I had to go.”

The risks were dramatized early on in the campaign when three civil-rights workers who had gone to Neshoba County, Mississippi ahead of most of the people in the project — Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white; and James Chaney, Black — disappeared and were ultimately found murdered (and their killers turned out to be the sheriff and deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, a fact oddly unmentioned in this film, though it does cover the role of Michael Schwerner’s widow Rita in dramatizing the case and spreading word about it in the media nationwide). The film shows the famous shot of the three civil rights workers’ station wagon being pulled out of the water — the car was discovered well before their bodies were — but it treats their story, properly, as incidental to the overall saga of Freedom Summer and what it did and didn’t accomplish. The filmmakers, director Stanley Nelson (an African-American who has previously produced six other episodes of American Experience, including one about the Freedom Riders who sought to integrate interstate bus service in 1961-62 and also suffered personal jeopardy for their pains, and who’s currently in post-production on a documentary about the pioneering woman jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams) and his co-writer, Paul Taylor, showed a wide range of interviewees — including quite a few clips of surviving members of Freedom Summer that dramatically clash with the archival footage of what they looked like 50 years ago —and also include some horrifying footage from “the day” of the racists themselves, dripping with the weird combination of patronization and hatred with which people who think they’re racially superior to others justify those beliefs. One of the most dramatic sequences comes when one of the white Mississippi officials starts talking about how he’s particularly horrified at the white women who came down to work on Freedom Summer and how he can’t conceive of any reason for a white woman to stay in the home of Black people except to have sex with Black men — and we see him melt down and start sputtering and stammering, until he reaches the point where he degenerates from a comprehensible spokesperson for a contemptible point of view to a virtual idiot, literally unable to put or keep a sentence together. This is intercut with a horror story from a woman who recalled being kidnapped by three white men who put a rope with a noose on it around her neck, dragged her down, chanted loathsome slogans about her being a “nigger-lover” and put her in abject fear of being lynched — and though they let her go, she was so unnerved by the experience that she literally peed in her pants out of fear.

Freedom Summer also goes into the ways white Mississippians made sure Black Mississippians couldn’t vote; at a time when many Black Mississippians lived on plantations and made their living sharecropping, an attempt to register to vote meant almost certain eviction, thereby depriving them of their livelihoods as well as rendering them homeless. And for those who couldn’t be dissuaded, there were always arrests (often on trumped-up charges) or out-and-out beatings. The film tells its chilling story matter-of-factly (as I’ve seen from other documentaries by Stanley Nelson; he’s the sort of filmmaker who stays out of the way, gives you the information and lets the story tell itself, generating emotional outrage without the director blatantly forcing it on you in the manner of Michael Moore and his imitators) and leads up to an emotional climax with Fannie Lou Hamer’s intense testimony before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic convention. Hamer gave a wrenching account of how she personally had been forced off the plantation where she lived, arrested and beaten for trying to register to vote in 1962 — and President Lyndon Johnson was so outraged at being challenged that he called a press conference to announce the nine-month anniversary of the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, just to get Hamer’s testimony off the airwaves. It backfired; kept by Johnson’s press conference from broadcasting it live, the networks showed it on film and Johnson’s weird attempt to suppress it itself became a subject of nationwide debate. Though President Johnson did more for civil rights and racial equality than anyone else in that office, before or since, the show reveals his obsession with party decorum and order; his paranoiac belief that Hamer was a stalking horse for Robert F. Kennedy, the late president’s brother and still U.S. Attorney General at the time, whom Johnson believed wanted to stage a scene at the convention so the delegates would dump Johnson and nominate Kennedy; and his willingness to play the same sort of hardball to block the Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge that the Mississippi whites had used to deny Blacks the right to vote in the. first place.

As documented by actual recordings of Johnson’s White House conversations (contrary to popular belief Richard Nixon was not the first President to record White House conversations — that began with Franklin Roosevelt, the first President to serve once recording technology had developed enough to make it technically possible — though Nixon was the first, and probably still the only, President who had his office and phones literally bugged so they recorded whether he consciously wanted them to or not), Johnson interceded with United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther to get Joe Rauh, the attorney for the UAW and also the legal representative of the Freedom Democratic Party, essentially to sell them out or else lose the UAW as a client. The result was that instead of unseating the 68 delegates from the regular Mississippi Democratic Party — or getting the compromise they would have been willing to accept, which was a half-and-half split (a fact I recall from the time that’s oddly unmentioned here) — the Freedom Democratic Party was offered just two seats as “delegates-at-large,” and they angrily (and unanimously) rejected this sop. Director Nelson makes the interesting argument that it was the shabby treatment of the Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge that broke the multiracial “beloved community” of the first civil rights movement and sent the African-American movement into the swamps of reverse racism represented by the “Black Power!” slogan and the violent, incendiary rhetoric of the late 1960’s (though in fairness the “Black Power!” groups were considerably less incendiary and violent in practice than they were in their rhetoric), alienating whites and leading to the racial polarization we’ve seen since (though the analysis above is mine, not his!). The Freedom Democratic Party in general and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony in particular also come off in Nelson’s film as a precursor of the so-called “second-wave feminism” of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s (Susan Brownmiller, who later became known as author of the book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, which made the case that by terrorizing women and leaving them feeling restricted in their ability to go out in certain places at certain times and dress in certain ways, rapists were “the shock troops of the patriarchy,” was a Freedom Summer volunteer and appears briefly in this film); Nelson makes the hope that the women serving on the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee were much more moved by Hamer’s story, and much more emotional about wanting to respond to it, than the men. 

Overall, Freedom Summer is quite a documentary, its low-keyed presentation just adding to its historical persuasiveness, and its continuing relevance was just underscored by a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law ( Last year the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the principal legislative legacy of Freedom Summer (the Freedom Summer volunteers actually got very few people to register but they dramatized the issue nationwide and led to the push that got the Voting Rights Act through Congress and President Johnson to sign it), by eliminating the “pre-clearance” requirement that had forced states with histories of discrimination against people of color in voting to have all changes in their elections laws cleared by the federal government to make sure they didn’t have the effect of discriminating. Once this part of the law was thrown out by the Right-wing majority of the current Supreme Court on the ground that it was historically unnecessary, virtually all the states of the Old South that the law had been directed at in the first place, as well as quite a few states (mostly in the Midwest) that were under Republican control, rushed through restrictions on people’s right to vote. “Since the 2010 election, new voting restrictions are slated to be in place in 22 states,” the Brennan Center report said. “Unless these restrictions are blocked — and there are court challenges to laws in six of those states — voters in nearly half the country could find it harder to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm election than they did in 2010. The new laws range from photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to voter registration restrictions. Partisanship and race were key factors in this movement. Most restrictions passed through GOP-controlled legislatures and in states with increases in minority turnout.” As Clarence Darrow said in his opening statement at the Scopes trial (a legislative attack on the teaching of evolution which, in different forms, is still going on!), “Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more.” Just because the party identification of the white Southern establishment has changed from Democrat to Republican, and out-and-out racist statements of the type seen in the archival clips in Freedom Summer are now de trop, that hasn’t lessened one bit the determination of the Right, Northern as well as Southern, to restrict the franchise so only the “right” people vote and phenomena like the presidency of the mixed-race but Black-presenting Barack Obama are never allowed to happen again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

High Pressure (Warner Bros., 1932)

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

The film was High Pressure, a 1932 Warner Bros. comedy/drama on the same DVD as the one we’d screened a couple of nights earlier, Private Detective 62 — and, much to my surprise, a considerably better movie. High Pressure began life as a Broadway play by Aben Kandel called Hot Money that opened in November 1931 and closed after just nine performances; Warners grabbed the movie rights and filmed it with their newly acquired actor, William Powell (grabbed from Paramount in a talent raid that also bagged Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis, though Powell wouldn’t achieve true superstardom until Warners dropped him in 1934 and he ended up at MGM, where he broke through with back-to-back mega-hits, Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man), along with hotshot director Mervyn LeRoy and an excellent supporting cast featuring at least one player outside the usual Warner Bros. contract list, Evelyn Brent (more on her later). The wisecracking screenplay was by Joseph Jackson and an uncredited S. J. Peters, and it begins with Ginsburg (played as a well-to-do Jewish stereotype by George Sidney), a money man who claims to have a contract with an inventor for a formula that will make rubber out of sewage, hooking up with Mike Donahey (Frank McHugh at his most Frank McHughiest) to promote the new invention. Donahey tells him that the secret to success is to get the super-promoter Gar Evans (William Powell) to organize the promotion and head the company formed to exploit the new process. Unfortunately, Gar is just finishing up a five-day bender and Donahey has to visit every speakeasy within walking distance of Gar’s home on 47th Street in New York City just to find him, after which they have to spend five days of workouts and steam baths just to leach the alcohol out of Gar and return him to sobriety, coherence and business acumen. The trio launch the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company after Gar convinces his new partners that a) they should never mention the word “sewage” in connection with the process, b) they should pick a corporate name with the word “gold” in it, and c) Ginsburg should henceforth be referred to as “Colonel Ginsburg” because either a military or a ministerial title is essential for the front man in this sort of enterprise, and the alternative — “Reverend Ginsburg” — would be utterly unbelievable attached to someone so stereotypically Jewish. (“Rabbi Ginsburg” obviously wouldn’t have had the same ring, or been equally persuasive in getting the goyim to invest in the company.)

Once Gar is on board — for 51 percent of the enterprise — he insists on spending $25,000 of Ginsburg’s money on an ultra-fancy office (I think the floor of this was recycled from the big nightclub set in Al Jolson’s 1928 film The Singing Fool) and starts taking orders for Golden Gate stock even though Ginsburg’s inventor has disappeared and therefore there’s no one at the firm with any idea whether the process actually works. Of course, this being a 1930’s movie, romantic complications enter into things as well: Gar is in love with Francine Dale (Evelyn Brent), whom he was dating and was, indeed, visiting at her apartment when he abruptly told her he needed some Bromo-Seltzer and disappeared on a five-day drinking binge instead. She doesn’t want to get involved with him only to have him jilt her for another preposterous reason, but she agrees to sign on to Golden Gate as their receptionist — only to get into hissy-fits of jealousy when Gar hires secretary Helen Wilson (Evalyn Knapp, for once acting like a human being instead of a mannequin), insists that she not have a boyfriend (explaining that he doesn’t want to train a private secretary only to lose her to matrimony) and tells her he’ll be working her late. Francine overhears this and assumes the worst, but Helen couldn’t be less interested in Gar personally, namely because she does have a boyfriend, Jimmy Moore (John Wray), whom she was hoping to save enough money on the job to marry. One interesting aspect of High Pressure is Brent’s almost viciously cold performance in this role, a part that would have sent Bette Davis, fangs bared, out to chew the scenery; before Josef von Sternberg discovered Marlene Dietrich, Brent had been his favorite actress, and he had directed her much the way he did Dietrich: act as emotionlessly as possible, feign total indifference to the events of the story in general and the feelings of the male lead in particular, and affect an icy world-weariness almost the opposite of the intensely engaged, emotionally driven performances most of Warners’ female stars gave in the early 1930’s. Brent really does seem like a Sternberg heroine dropped into the middle of a shrieking Warners melodrama, and her glacial intensity contrasts oddly with the typical hurly-burly of an ordinary Warners film, especially one helmed by a fast-paced director like LeRoy.

Early on it occurred to me that High Pressure could easily have been remade in the modern era, with an Internet start-up instead of an industrial process as the product the highly inflated “company” is supposed to be making — and about midway through Charles and I both realized that the basic story had been remade recently as The Wolf of Wall Street, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the Powell role of the brilliant manipulator ultimately undone by his own manipulations, both financial and romantic — though the two films end dramatically differently in ways that reflect the various attitudes towards money of the 1930’s and the 2010’s. In the wake of the 1929 Depression audiences were highly skeptical and even angry at characters like Gar Evans who exploited ordinary people to make unethical killings in the markets, and so the writers of High Pressure were careful to give Gar a worm-turning scene in which, his company about to be shut down by the attorney general and the Better Business Bureau, he sells out to the trust interests controlling the natural rubber industry and is able to wangle a deal by which all his stockholders are made whole even though the rubber process itself is useless (he learns this when the “expert” chemist who supposedly invented it turns out to have a “degree” from a diploma mill Gar set up himself as one of his previous schemes), whereas Di Caprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t have cared less about the welfare of his pigeons. The American economy collapsed in 1929 and led to an era in which people openly questioned the whole idea of wealth and its concentration, and many folks mobilized in the streets to demand programs aimed at helping the 99 percent; alas, the nearly as severe collapse of the economy in 2008 led not to a revival of progressivism but to a nation whose citizens mostly continued their blind worship of money and people who have it, and to a Tea Party movement aimed at making the rich even richer — reason enough that the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, unlike the one of High Pressure, could retain the audience’s sympathies even without giving back his ill-gotten gains!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stolen from the Womb (Lighthouse Pictures/Borderline Distribution, 2014)

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

Last night I watched the second showing (the night after the so-called “world premiere”) of Lifetime’s latest “pussies in peril” genre piece, Stolen from the Womb — whose very title is a “spoiler.” It’s yet another one about the Psycho Woman from Hell, who in this case is Chelsey Miller (Laura Mennell), a dark-haired beauty who works as a real-estate agent and has a husband, Jesse (the nicely hunky Corey Sevier), who owns a construction firm in the town of Pineville in what’s pretty obviously Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for the U.S. Pacific Northwest. In the opening sequence Chelsey is in the hospital at the end of a pregnancy, only the baby is stillborn (the script by Vivian Rhodes and Jennifer Notas makes the usual confusion between a miscarriage — a pregnancy that ends spontaneously before it goes full-term — and a stillbirth, which is what we see here: the pregnancy runs the full term and the baby is born, but is dead at birth). Then we get a “Two Years Later” title and we eventually learn that Chelsey had two more pregnancies that went wrong — miscarriages instead of stillbirths this time — and her doctors have warned her that getting pregnant again will be dangerous for her health. Their failed attempts at reproduction have so strained the Millers’ marriage that Jesse has moved out, but apparently their last tumble in bed together produced at least a conception, and Chelsey uses the promise of a baby at long last to win Jesse more or less back into the relationship. She joins a pregnancy-training class headed by a yoga instructor (Heather Feeney) — just why modern-day women are supposed to need so much training for something that’s a natural part of female life and which women had been doing for hundreds of thousands of years pretty much on their own before doctors came along and “medicalized” it is a mystery — and there she meets the Good Girl, Diane King (Larisa Oleynik). She and her husband Rob (Sebastian Spence, who played the Psycho from Hell himself in a previous Lifetime movie, The Obsession, in which he was a crazed ballet teacher trying to get in the pants of his underage star student; he wasn’t particularly impressive in that role — I wrote in my notes on that film that the part “needed tall, dark and handsome and got sandy-haired, pasty-faced, buff but only moderately attractive” — but he was a lot more interesting there than playing the gooder-than-good suburban husband he is here) are expecting their first child and hanging out a lot with her friend Paula, her husband and their children. (“Once you have one of your own, you won’t spend so much time doting on mine,” a rather exasperated Paula tells Diane.)

Chelsey and Diana befriend each other at the yoga class, but Chelsey doesn’t stay pregnant very long: she has yet another miscarriage, but she starts padding herself out (the scene in which she abandons the cushion she’s been using for this purpose and puts on the medical prosthesis she’s ordered to make it more convincing is one of the most chilling in the film), continues to pass herself off as pregnant, and hatches a nasty and malignant plot: bereft of a fetus of her own, she’s going to kidnap Diane just as Diane is about to give birth and claim Diane’s baby as hers. Alas, though that only happens in the last half-hour of this film and is supposed to be a Big Surprise, Lifetime’s promos (and indeed the title itself) gave it away big-time and left the audience (this audience, anyway) sitting rather impatiently through the intervening parts of the movie, blowing what was supposed to be a slow, suspenseful buildup in the Rhodes-Notas script and Terry Ingram’s workmanlike but uninspired direction and wondering, “When is Chelsey going to kidnap Diane already?” The last half-hour at least is appropriately chilling — Chelsey drugs Diane at a roadside café (and leaves Diane’s cell phone there, which makes it absurdly easy for her husband and the cops to trace her) and takes her to a deserted house in Brewster, a five-hour drive from Pineville (Chelsey knew it would be deserted because the company she works for was trying to rent it out). When Diane comes to, Chelsey has strapped her to a bed in a classic bondage pose and is ready to help her deliver her baby — she’s got a bunch of medical tools at the foot of the bed and plans a D.I.Y. delivery — only Diane convinces Chelsey (truthfully) that the baby developed a hernia while in Diane’s womb and the doctors had planned to do a C-section and operate on the kid as soon as they “untimely ripped” him from mom’s body. Thinking she can pass herself off as a woman who’s just given birth, Chelsey smears some of Diane’s blood between her own legs and takes the baby (a boy Diane and Rob were planning to name Johnny — after Johnny Appleseed[1] — but Chelsey wanted to name Alexander, after her stillborn daughter Alexandra) to the hospital — where, by sheer coincidence (or authorial fiat), Diane has also been taken after a neighbor taking out his garbage, heard her screaming, called 911 and thereby made it possible for Rob and the police to rescue her. Eventually Chelsey is sedated and taken into custody, the baby boy is operated on and Diane finally gets her child back — while the final scene is Chelsey in a mental ward (obviously the justice system has decided she’s too bonkers to stand trial for kidnapping), holding a doll and talking to it as if it were a real-life baby.

Stolen from the Womb probably wouldn’t seem so mediocre if Lifetime hadn’t done a far better film on the same theme eight years ago: that one was called Cries in the Dark and, despite the rather generic horror-thriller title, came off as far superior. Though Cries in the Dark is considerably more gruesome than Stolen from the Womb — its writer, Kraig Wenman, actually had the bad girl murder the expectant mom and literally steal her baby from the womb (it was established that the villainess in that one was a dental hygenist and had learned enough to do D.I.Y. surgery) — it was also a far more exciting thriller, excellently directed by Paul Schneider and with stellar performances from Eve LaRue Callahan as the victim’s sister, a cop; and Adrian Holmes as her police partner, a drop-dead gorgeous African-American detective named Darrell Wynn. (I posted a review of Cries in the Dark to and pleaded with Dick Wolf to hire Holmes as Christopher Meloni’s replacement if and when Meloni left Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — alas, Wolf wasn’t listening and instead hired the unspeakably awful Danny Pino for the role!) Next to Cries in the Dark, Stolen from the Womb is a lot more flat and ordinary, sucking up to the usual Lifetime clichés instead of transcending them — and with one rather odd bit of typecasting that rankled me a bit. Remember how in the old “B” Westerns the good guys wore the white hats and rode the white horses, while the bad guys wore the black hats and rode the black horses? Well, in Stolen from the Womb — as in a lot of other Lifetime movies — the good girl is blonde and the bad girl is dark-haired. To the extent that anything redeems Stolen from the Womb, it’s Laura Mennell’s cool performance as the psycho — writers Rhodes and Notas help the actress out by not making her too evil too soon, allowing her to seem sympathetic and also keeping her sufficiently in control that she can still do her job and perform effectively at work (all too many movie psychos act so flamboyantly “off” one wonders how they can keep a job!) even while manipulating the people around her. But it’s the sort of actor’s triumph that makes one wish Laura Mennell would get either a sympathetic role or at least a more interesting, complicated villain in her next film!

[1] — A private joke between them: they learned the gender of their baby-to-be at the stage in pregnancy when the fetus is the size of an appleseed, and thereby nicknamed him “Johnny” — which stuck.

Poirot: “The Clocks” (BBC-TV, 2011)

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

After Stolen from the Womb I watched the next episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot — to give the series its full official title — on KPBS, and according to this episode, “The Clocks,” was actually shown before the one they ran last week, “Three Act Murder.” It was also considerably better; based on a book Christie wrote either during the early days of World War II or just before that — at a time when, at least according to this story, the prospect of another brutal war between Britain and Germany was a hot topic of discussion in the drawing rooms and on the streets of the U.K. — “The Clocks” is a considerably more resonant story than most of Christie’s mechanical concoctions. Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke) is an agent of MI6 (the “MI” stands for “Military Intelligence” and MI6, which is usually involved in actual espionage, is generally considered the British equivalent of the CIA — while MI5, which deals with counter-intelligence, is sort of the British FBI), though this story has him basically doing MI5’s work: trying to ferret out a German “mole” inside the British secret service. He learns who the “mole” is but loses track of him when the “mole” kills Race’s girlfriend, Fiona Hanbury (Anna Skellern, who gets an awful lot of screen time for a character that’s killed in the first few minutes — thanks to Colin doing an awful lot of flashbacking about her). A blind woman named Miss Pebmarsh (Anna Massey), who works at a photography studio (I’m not making this up, you know!), stumbles across a dead body in her living room right after the arrival of Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone), a secretary from Miss Martindale’s (Lesley Sharp) temp agency, who was summoned and told that Miss Pebmarch had specifically requested her services, where the real Miss Pebmarch had not only not requested a secretary but had never heard of Sheila Webb. The usual stupid police, headed by Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels) and his sidekick, Constable Jenkins (Ben Righton), immediately jump to the conclusion that Sheila was the killer, and that she impersonated Miss Pebmarch and placed the call to Miss Martindale so she’d have a quasi-legitimate reason to be at the murder scene.

Fortunately Hercule Poirot (who in this episode, even more than in most, is quick to correct people who refer to him as French — he was Belgian and Christie made him a retired officer with the Belgian police), played (as usual in this series) by David Suchet, is on the scene. Lt. Colin Race, the MI6 agent, is immediately smitten with Sheila Webb and convinced a) that she didn’t kill the man (whoever he was) and b) that the murder is somehow linked to the spy ring he’s investigating. The cops, of course, are equally convinced that Lt. Race is thinking with his dick and Sheila is the killer — and the evidence mounts up against her, including the four non-working clocks, all set to 4:13 p.m., that were found on the murder scene along with the cuckoo clock that was the only one on Miss Pebmarch’s premises that she actually owned. A coroner’s inquest is held and another woman, Nora Brent (Sinead Keenan), calls the police after it’s over and says, “She was lying,” then is herself knocked off — the police, once again, assume she means Sheila, especially since one of the clocks was formerly her property, a gift from her mom with the name “Rosemary” on it (that was actually her original given name but she chose to use her middle name, Sheila, instead). Suspicion also falls on a pair of rather bookish intellectuals, a brother and sister named Matthew (Guy Henry) and Rachel (Abigail Thaw) Waterhouse, especially when Poirot deduces from their speech patterns that they are German, but when he asks them what they’re doing in England they make the chilling reply, “Wir sind Juden” — they’re Jewish refugees from the Nazis who took non-Jewish Anglo-sounding names because anti-Semitism wasn’t (and indeed isn’t) confined to Nazi Germany. Poirot and Lt. Race discover the German spies — an upper-class couple who are deliberately conspiring to pass secrets to the Nazis to keep Britain weak and thereby subservient to Germany instead of getting involved in a war that will lead to even more casualties than the Great War (which is what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II) — but Lt. Race turns out to be wrong about the mysterious murder at Miss Pebmarch’s having a connection with the spies; instead its cast of characters turn out to have more prosaic motives than that. (Though I just watched this show last night I can’t for the life of me remember whodunit, except that it was a middle-aged man who was unveiled as the killer after Poirot briefly suspected Miss Pebmarch.)

I liked “The Clocks” considerably better than “Three Act Tragedy,” the Poirot episode KBPS had shown the previous weekend (though in the original British run of the series “The Clocks” came first), partly because it seemed to have more story depth — the subplot about pro-Nazi English people spying for the Germans gave it more dramatic interest than Christie’s puzzle-box murder plots usually had — and partly because it seemed to have more genuine emotion: the oddly diffident relationship between Lt. Race and Sheila (hampered not only because he’s on the rebound from his dead fiancée but because she’s been, in the argot of the time, a “loose” woman, having a sexual affair with a professor who engaged her as a secretary and made her his lover as well, as well as other casual relationships), the honestly and emotionally depicted plight of the Waterhouses, and the disgusting rationalizations offered by the people who actually turn out to be the Nazi spies all add muscle and sinew to the bones of an otherwise rather typical Christie plot. Raymond Chandler generally couldn’t stand Agatha Christie’s work — she was the sort of mystery writer he was talking about when he praised Dashiell Hammett for giving “murder back to the people who commit it for reasons, not merely to provide a corpse” — but at least in this story the murders are committed for reasons, and Christie’s insertion of some of her real life (like the real Christie, the fictitious Miss Pebmarsh served as a volunteer nurse on the front in World War I — the recent Extraordinary Women episode on Christie said that work gave her an in-depth knowledge of poisons which figured extensively in her novels, including this one: the mystery victim is killed by stabbing, but an autopsy later reveals he was drugged with chloral hydrate before he was stabbed) also adds to the quirky appeal of “The Clocks.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Private Detective 62 (Warner Bros., 1933)

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

The film Charles and I finally watched last night was Private Detective 62, an intriguing entry from the unhappy two years (1932-34) William Powell spent under contract to Warner Bros. After making his film debut for the Goldwyn company in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, Powell ended up at Paramount in the later silent era (in Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command from 1928 he plays a former Russian revolutionary who emigrates to Hollywood and becomes a director, makes a movie about the Russian Revolution and hires a former Czarist general, played by star Emil Jannings, to portray a Czarist general in his film) and made the transition to talkies there. Then in 1932 Jack Warner decided to stage a major talent raid on Paramount’s roster and came back with Powell, Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis. Chatterton made some interesting movies (including the bizarre Female, in which she’s a woman who inherits her dad’s auto company and outfits her home to facilitate her one-night seductions of hapless employees) but was getting too old for major stardom — though in 1936, after Warners released her, she’d make a major comeback as Walter Huston’s shrewish wife in Dodsworth. Francis stuck to her contract to the bitter end, making all the crappy scripts Jack Warner and Hal Wallis gave her until her term (in more ways than one) expired in 1939. Powell spent two years at the studio, trying as best he could to fit his debonair acting style into the Warners machine, but didn’t produce any blockbuster hits. When Warners released him the best his agent could do for him was get an offer from Columbia. “Keep trying,” Powell told his agent, and the agent managed to use Columbia’s interest to get Powell a contract with the grandest studio of all, MGM, where he had back-to-back hits, Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man, and got back on the “A”-list with a vengeance. Directed quite stylishly by Michael Curtiz — who was still using some of the trick angles and oblique compositions he’d learned in his native Hungary before being brought over to the U.S. (by Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, who had seen his Biblical movie Moon of Israel and decided he’d be the perfect director for their big-budget late-silent production of Noah’s Ark) — from a script by Rian James based on a story by Raoul Whitfield, Private Detective 62 opens in Paris, where U.S. government agent Donald Free (William Powell) is being given instructions by his controller that he’s going to have to break into a French government office and steal some important papers.

Just why the U.S. needs to steal government secrets from France, a country we were still more or less allied with in 1933, is never explained, but the inevitable happens, Free is caught, he’s tried (in a French court in which, praise be, everyone actually speaks French instead of bad French-accented English!) and sentenced to deportation aboard a steamer with no other human passengers — only just as the steamer is about to land in New York Free is told by its captain that he’s not going home: instead he’s going to be put on another steamer and taken right back to France to be punished further. Free leaps off the deck (no doubt the actual dive was done by a stunt double) and swims ashore, then runs into a young woman and her lover, hiding out in his flat from a jealous husband who’s hired incompetent private detective Dan J. Hogan (Arthur Hohl) to follow her and catch her and her boyfriend in flagrante delicto (or as close to it as a mainstream Hollywood film, even in the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement, could come) — only Free, hiding out in the house, emerges, says he owns the place, the guy is his roommate and nothing untoward is going on between his roommate and the woman. There follows a typical montage sequence of Free finding himself unable to land a job or hold on to the hotel room where he’s actually staying in the middle of the Depression — the words “No Help Wanted” hang heavy over these scenes and take on a sinister aspect of their own — until Free finds the old card Hogan gave him for his Peerless Detective Agency, pretends to be Hogan and bluffs his way into a job. The job is for Harcourt Burns (Hobart Cavanaugh), who wants them to follow his wife Helen (the marvelous Natalie Moorhead, who isn’t given anything like the amount of screen time she deserves) and catch her having an affair — only Hogan and his assistant Whitey (James Bell) take the case from Free and end up breaking into Mrs. Burns’ hotel room in Atlantic City, where they indeed find her with a man … Mr. Burns. The Peerless agency is saved when Hogan cuts a deal with gangster and gambler Tony Bandor (Gordon Westcott), in which (anticipating the plot of Criminal Lawyer by 18 years) Hogan agrees to do all Bandor’s P.I. work in exchange for a cut of the take from his enterprises, legal and otherwise.

Bandor assigns Peerless to investigate Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay), a glacial beauty who’s winning big at Bandor’s casino night after night — I was expecting it would turn out she was cheating, using some sort of mechanical or electrical device to get the ball to land in the wheel in places that would win for her, but no such explanation occurred — and Bandor wants her scared off and dealt with however possible. Free’s strategy is to date Janet — only, of course, this being a movie he falls genuinely in love with her — and when Janet, on her way to Europe, demands that she be paid off now, Bandor and Hogan hatch a strategy to stop her. A casino employee (whom we never see enough of to identify) slips her miniature gun out of her purse and carefully cuts the bullets open so they’re turned into blank shells, then reloads the gun and returns it to her — so she’s carrying a harmless weapon but doesn’t know that. She confronts Bandor, who provokes her to shoot him — which she does, and he falls to the floor and makes it look like she’s killed him. She flees in a panic and asks Free to help, and meanwhile another assailant sneaks into Bandor’s room and shoots him for real. Free falls off the wagon big-time and does about five days’ worth of heavy drinking (now it was beginning to look like a William Powell detective movie!) before pulling himself together, figuring out the scheme and getting the key piece of information from Whitey, whose nervous, sniffling behavior marked him as a cocaine addict and whose drug of choice is at least twice referred to as “snow” (and once as “hop,” a slang term which generally referred to heroin), an electrifyingly frank reference to drugs even for a “pre-Code” film! The whole thing was a plot between Hogan and Bandor’s principal rival, Valentini, to off Bandor and frame Janet for the crime; instead Free and his honest and long-suffering secretary Amy Moran (a nice supporting performance by Ruth Donnelly) are the only ones not taken into custody when the cops raid Peerless and arrest Hogan. Free is reinstated by that mysterious and unnamed government agency that was employing him in the first reel, and Janet wants to marry him — “Are you proposing to me?” he asks incredulously — and though he warns her that his new/old job is going to require him to be away a lot, they agree to tie the knot anyway and drive off together as the film fades out.

Private Detective 62 qualifies as proto-noir (and of course Curtiz would direct some of Warners’ best films noir, notably Mildred Pierce), though as Charles pointed out there are surprisingly few noir movies about corrupt private detectives (one of the rare examples is the 1949 film Manhandled, with Dan Duryea as the bad P.I.), and though the moral attitudes behind this film aren’t as ambiguous as they would be in classic noir (or in other contemporary proto-noirs like Safe in Hell and Sensation Hunters) it’s certainly an engaging movie. Charles caught a resemblance between Private Detective 62 and the current USA Network series Burn Notice — a spy who was “burned,” disowned by the intelligence agency that had employed him, and had to support himself with odd jobs to survive — and though it’s unclear exactly what William Powell’s character was doing at the beginning of the film or who he was doing it for (the U.S. didn’t have an intelligence agency between the two world wars — the State Department had opened a “black office” to read enemy codes during World War I but it was shut down in 1923 with the pious argument, “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s secret communications” — and most synopses of the film refer to Powell as a “diplomat”), it gives his character an engagingly dark and unscrupulous background that makes his actions as the Peerless vice-president in the main part of the movie believable. At the same time his former government employment gives Powell’s character a sense of ethics no one else at Peerless (except the secretary) shares, and thus adds to the dramatic tension that makes this film appealing and quite a bit better than the common run of Powell’s Warners vehicles (though by far the best film he made in this period was the tear-jerker One Way Passage, in which he’s an ex-con being extradited to face execution, Kay Francis is an heiress with a fatal disease, and the two have a doomed romance on board a ship — years later Francis would regularly call her friends whenever One Way Passage was being shown on TV, and they recalled it was the one film out of her whole oeuvre of which she was genuinely proud).

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Petals on the Wind (A+E Studios, Cue the Dog Productions, Fries Film Company, MGM, 2014)

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

The film was Petals on the Wind, based on the late Gothic novelist V. C. Andrews’ sequel to her mega-best seller Flowers in the Attic. I already posted about the Lifetime TV-movie adaptation of Flowers in the Attic, to which this is a sequel, and explained Andrews’ intriguing background as a writer: she’d originally been a commercial artist but took up writing as a hobby in her early 50’s and managed to crank out a number of cycles of interlocking stories — all structured as five-book series, including an initial volume, three sequels and a final prequel — before her death. Needless to say, her publisher decided the name “V. C. Andrews” was too valuable a property to let expire with the demise of its original owner, so they hired another writer, Andrew Neiderman, to keep writing “V. C. Andrews” novels, ostensibly based on notes the original Andrews had left behind but, not surprisingly, drawing more and more on Neiderman’s own inventions (or at least his own deployments of Gothic clichés) as the work progressed and Andrews’ own collections of notes, jottings, outlines or whatever dried up. Flowers in the Attic was first published in 1979 and was such an enormous hit it not only spawned four more books in the series about the terminally dysfunctional Dollanganger family (as I noted earlier, Andrews seems to have inherited from fellow woman Gothic author Mignon G. Eberhardt a penchant for unwittingly — at least I hope it was unwittingly — silly character names). In the backstory, Corinne Foxworth Dollanganger Winslow (Heather Graham) married her father’s half-brother and produced four children whom Corinne’s own mother Olivia (Ellen Burstyn, giving an old-pro-showing-the-young-whippersnapers-what-acting-really-is performance in both films), the only member of this family whose given name does not begin with “C,” denounced as “spawn of the devil” because of their incestuous lineage. Corrine and her half-uncle break up (either that or he dies) and she remarries, and her new husband raises the kids as his own, but at the start of Flowers in the Attic he’s killed in a car crash and Corrine, in order to win back her family inheritance, not only has to move to the old manse — Foxworth Hall, Virginia — but has to pretend that she has no children. So she and Olivia have them hide in one bedroom of the house and give them access to the attic in which to play — and the kids draw flowers on the wall to nurture the fantasy that they are outside.

Flowers is about how the kids grow up (or don’t) during this period: little brother Cory (Maxwell Kovach) dies of pneumonia, his sister Carrie (Ava Telek in Flowers, Bailey Buntain in Petals) gets developmentally stunted so she never grows up psychologically or emotionally, and the oldest kids, fraternal twins Christopher (the drop-dead gorgeous Mason Dye in Flowers and the almost as hot Wyatt Nash in Petals) and Cathy (Kiernan Shipka in Flowers, Rose McIver in Petals), end up having a hot and heavy sexual affair with each other, not surprisingly since they’re reaching sexual maturity in a hothouse environment where they literally don’t have access to anyone else their own age. In Flowers the kids first assume that mom is on their side against their Grandma from Hell, but soon they realize that Corinne wants to keep them in the attic so she can marry her current boyfriend, attorney Bart Winslow (Dylan Bruce), who thinks she’s younger than she is and doesn’t realize she has four children, two of whom are almost grown. Eventually the kids realize what they’re up against after mom tries to off them by baking them cakes laced with rat poison, and they finally escape from the attic and the grounds of Foxworth Hall itself. Flowers ends with them on a bus to heaven knows where, and Petals opens a decade later. It turns out that the three remaining Dollanganger kids were adopted by a Dr. Paul Sheffield in North Carolina, who did his best to provide them a loving and nurturing environment (and also gave them a considerably less risible last name!), and Christopher was inspired by his adoptive dad’s example to go to medical school and become a doctor himself. Only Dr. Paul Sheffield dies just before Christopher is about to graduate, and Petals opens at his funeral; Christopher is about to join the staff of the local hospital and marry the boss’s airheaded daughter, Sarah Reeves (Whitney Hoy) — though the name more often than not comes out as “Sierra” on the soundtrack — when his plans get monkey-wrenched by Cathy.

It’s not quite certain who seduces whom, but they get their incestuous goings-on back together again even with alternative partners in their lives — Sarah in his and New York ballet dancer Julian Marquet (Will Kemp) in hers. It seems that Cathy has been taking ballet classes and Julian saw her, immediately fell in lust with her, and determined to get her to run away with him, join his ballet company (he’s the star dancer and he boasts that the company director is “in love with me,” which suggests that they’re Gay partners and he’s cheating on the director with women) and become an instant star. Only he turns out to be a thoroughly nasty piece of sexually exploitative trash, deliberately costing her a big role by dropping her during a rehearsal — and she blackmails him into putting ground glass into the ballet slippers of her rival, thereby getting the role back. Alas, things go sour when Christopher and Carrie come to New York for her opening, Cathy catches Julian putting the moves on Carrie, there’s a big freak-out and it ends up in a car accident in which Julian is killed and Cathy almost dies too — but she’s saved and so is Jory (Alex Salomon), the son she and Julian conceived before he croaked but who hadn’t been born yet when his dad died. The three return to North Carolina and Carrie resumes her education at a sort of finishing school in which she’s being unmercifully teased as a “freak” by two fellow students, who make fun of her for still carrying a doll (the only souvenir she still has of her mother, she explains); they grab the doll, hang it from a mock noose in the school’s third-floor storage room and lock her in — thereby, of course, flashing her straight back to that attic where she spent most of her childhood. Eventually Carrie meets a minister, Alex Conroy (Ross Phillips), and though he’s supposed to be seriously in love with her (even though he’s more than twice her age) director Karen Moncrieff (replacing Flowers director Deborah Chow — neither of these movies is going to advance the cause of equality for women directors in Hollywood) is unable to shoot the scene without making Alex look like yet another scumbag licking his lips in anticipation of molesting and deflowering Carrie.

They get formally engaged and Carrie seeks out their mom, who’s still living in Foxworth Hall with her attorney husband and having the place obsessively remodeled again and again to remove the “damned spots” the way Lady Macbeth kept washing her hands. Carrie has regularly written mom, only to have the letters come back marked “Return to Sender,” and when she gives mom the invitation to her wedding mom coldly brushes her off and says, “You must be mistaken. I don’t have a daughter.” Crushed by this final rejection, Carrie makes a batch of cakes laced with rat poison, and instead of delivering them to mom and killing her with them — which is naturally where I thought this was going — she uses them to commit suicide. Cathy decides to avenge herself against her mom for his sister’s death, and the way she decides to go about this is to seduce her stepfather Bart, then go to the big Christmas party at Foxworth Hall, “out” herself as the offspring of Corinne and ultimately burn the place down with her grandmother Olivia (ya remember Olivia?) in it. (Needless to say, the fire is staged in a way that shows Moncrieff saw Rebecca at least once in her life.) Cathy also gets it on with Christopher again and the two are caught by Sarah, which ends both Christopher’s engagement and his hopes for a medical career in North Carolina, so Petals end with the incestuous pair living in California with Cathy’s two kids, Jory and Bart (her stepdad impregnated her and she named their son after him), posing as husband and wife and passing themselves off as a perfectly normal suburban family; while the final scene shows mother Corinne in the main room of an old-style snake-pit mental hospital, wearing a blue hospital gown and babbling incoherently about her kids. I’ve gone into such detail about what actually happens in Petals on the Wind because whatever entertainment value it has is dependent on the piling on of ridiculously improbable event on top of ridiculously improbable event — next to this insane sequel, Flowers in the Attic looks like a masterpiece of hard-edged realism by comparison. There are other defects — like Heather Graham barely looking any older than her on-screen daughter Rose McIver —but those are the stuff of normal moviemaking.

Petals on the Wind is the product of the seriously warped mind of V. C. Andrews — though whether she was really as crazy as this story makes her sound or was a keen manipulator who had an excellent sense of what her audience wanted and a willingness to give it to them, whether or not it made sense, is a pretty open question — and what appeal it has is due to the sheer bizarreness of it and the ability of its actors to keep straight faces while enacting all this garbage. Aside from Burstyn’s three scenes as the old woman, bald and trapped in her bed in the upstairs bedroom of Foxworth Hall (where she had the children locked up lo those many years ago) and dependent on her daughter, who sends away the visiting nurse (an African-American who’s just about the only rational character in the entire film), says she’ll take care of her mom herself, and of course sadistically neglects her instead, the acting here is coolly competent rather than inspired, though at least there’s a lot of soft-core porn and Wyatt Nash, though hardly as hot as Mason Dye (who played his role in the earlier film), is at least good-looking enough it’s a delight to see him screw his “sister” on screen in some pretty explicit scenes for a mainstream cable-TV movie! Incidentally I should also mention that there’s a brief reference to the child Christopher and Cathy conceived themselves in the attic — there’s a tossed-off line about how she thinks it’s just as well she miscarried that pregnancy, and I wanted him to say, “Just think — if that baby had been born he could have grown up to be a great hero, killed a dragon, got the one ring of power, crossed through the magic fire to get to his girlfriend — who, by the way, was also his aunt — and ultimately got killed by his foster-father’s nephew, which would have triggered the end of the world — oops, wrong story.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Belle of New York (MGM, 1952)

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

The Belle of New York is a 1952 MGM musical, directed by Charles Walters and starring Fred Astaire as a playboy in 1890’s New York and Vera-Ellen as a pretty rescue-mission proprietor with whom he finally finds true love (Anita Ellis was her voice double, since she could dance but not sing). It’s not one of Astaire’s really great films, but it does have a nice charm, with a pleasant score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer and some really good comic supporting performances by Marjorie Main as Astaire’s rich aunt (who has control of him by the purse strings) and Alice Pearce (as the drummer in Vera-Ellen’s mission band). — 1/20/96


The film was The Belle of New York, a 1952 musical from MGM (Arthur Freed produced) starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in a very loose adaptation of an old stage show that had been an enormous hit in the 1890’s in both New York and London. But the only thing the writers — Chester Erskine (“adaptation”), Robert O’Brien and Irving Elinson — kept from the old show was the female lead, Angela Bonfils (Vera-Ellen), who’s grown up in the “Daughters of Right” ministry where she works under the direction of rich do-gooder Mrs. Phineas Hill (Marjorie Main). Hill’s scapegrace playboy nephew Charlie (Fred Astaire) runs into Angela while she’s on the street banging the drum in the mission band and is instantly smitten with her — though he’s got six previous fiancées, all of whom he’s paid off, the last of whom is a crack shot in a circus who bills herself as Dixie “Deadshot” McCoy (Gale Robbins, whose part was hardly big enough — frankly I was hoping for a scene in which this character threatens to shoot up Charlie’s and Angela’s wedding — am I really springing any surprises on you when I note that the two ill-matched lovers get together at the end?). Arthur Freed had had this one on his production schedule since 1946, when he’d planned it for Astaire and Judy Garland — but he could never get them together at the same time, and when he finally did it was to make Easter Parade (with Astaire a last-minute substitute for Gene Kelly, who’d injured himself playing touch football) instead.

Then in 1950 the stage show Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway and was an enormous hit, and Freed got the greenlight for a similar story involving a nice mission girl and a ne’er-do-well but charismatic man from the dark side (or as dark as a Production Code-era musical was allowed to get). The Belle of New York, stylishly directed by Charles Walters (though one can’t help but imagine what Vincente Minnelli could have done with this script!) and with a good score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer that didn’t generate any standards (the best song, “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” was obviously too tailored for Fred Astaire to work for anyone else!), tends to be a forgotten stepchild among Astaire’s movies even though it has one of his most audacious dance inventions. Wondering how on earth he was going to top his gravity-defying around-the-walls-of-a-room dance to “You’re All the World to Me” in Royal Wedding, his immediately previous film, Astaire concocted the idea of doing a dance solo in mid-air — or at least on a pane of thick glass (thick enough to support his weight, thin enough so a camera could shoot through it and the lights wouldn’t reflect off it) that could be suspended above a painted backdrop to make it look like he was dancing in mid-air. To add to the irony, the song he did this physically impossible but utterly joyous dance to was called “Seeing’s Believing”! (Some of the shots of Astaire and, later, Vera-Ellen floating in space were done with process work as well; MGM’s usual effects people, Warren Newcombe and Irving Ries, really did a beautiful job on this.)

Otherwise it’s a comfortable movie, with Astaire once again using the device that made his films with Ginger Rogers so deliciously entertaining — they’d hate each other until he somehow got his leading lady on the dance floor with him, whereupon the sheer romantic sensation of them dancing together would dissolve her resistance and get her to fall in love with him — only the two stars get together with over half an hour of this 82-minute film still to go and the writers have to work overtime to plug in enough complications to keep the film going longer than that. (They do that with a scene in which Vera-Ellen’s lumpen friends come to Astaire’s palatial home and insist that he drink toast after toast to her charms — and he gets drunk and so hung over the next day he misses their scheduled wedding.) The plot of this one is even more pretextual than usual for an Astaire musical, but the numbers are so delightful, who cares? According to Robert Osborne’s intro (this wasn’t included in TCM’s “Star of the Month” tribute to Astaire but it was shown there later as one of the “Bob’s Picks” nights), 40 percent of this film consists of singing and/or dancing — a much higher percentage than usual in an Astaire musical (Arlene Croce noted that just 10 of The Gay Divorcée’s 107 minutes were devoted to Astaire dancing alone or with Ginger Rogers, then said, “The film’s enduring popularity is a testament to what those minutes contain”) — including big numbers about Currier and Ives (they kept the turn-of-the-last-century time setting) and Astaire’s tribute to a horse pulling a streetcar (the song was called “Oops” and is just about the only piece in The Belle of New York that got a cover version — Louis Armstrong recorded it for Decca). While one can imagine the heartbreak Judy Garland could have brought to this character (she was nowhere near as good a dancer as Vera-Ellen but at least she could sing — Vera-Ellen’s voice had to be dubbed — and she was a far better and more inspiring actress), as it stands The Belle of New York is one of Astaire’s more engaging movies, not one of his very best but certainly entertaining — and the “Dancin’ Man” solo is a virtual compendium of what “Fred Astaire” — dancer, singer, actor, personality, star — was all about! — 6/18/14