Thursday, July 31, 2014

Frontline: “Losing Iraq” (PBS, 2014)

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

Two nights ago I watched a quite interesting PBS Frontline special called “Losing Iraq,” which was essentially a wrap-up on the whole sorry saga of Iraq War II, the one the George W. Bush administration started in 2003 on the totally spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein’s regime was developing weapons of mass destruction and had collaborated with Osama bin Laden on stating the 9/11 attacks. The show had quite a wide range of interviewees, including General Jay Garner (who was removed as director of the Coalition Provisional Authority just before the U.S. finished major combat operations but stayed on as an advisor); his civilian replacement, L. Paul Bremer (who issued the two catastrophic orders kicking all Ba’ath Party members out of positions of authority in Iraq and disbanding the Iraqi army, thereby dumping on the streets with no jobs hundreds of thousands of embittered young men with guns and the knowledge of how to use them); Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker; Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Thomas Ricks, author of the book Fiasco about how the U.S. occupation of Iraq was mishandled from the get-go; and many others. If there was a weakness to this program, it’s that it all seemed too familiar; of its 85-minute running time the first hour was taken up by the well-known story of the Bush administration and how it blundered us into this war and blundered even more in the execution of it, including the blithe idea that by refusing to call the Iraqi resistance an “insurgency” they could magically make it go away. Only after about an hour rehashing the Bush administration’s follies and fuck-ups in Iraq does the program, written by Michael Kirk and Mike Wizer and directed by Kirk (and narrated in the familiar, soothing tones of Frontline’s go-to narrator, Will Lyman), finally get to the Obama administration, and the interpretation of Kirk and Wizer is that Obama just wanted Iraq to go away and therefore ignored it, including the increasing evidence that the U.S.’s chosen puppet ruler, Nouri al-Maliki, was starting a sectarian war of Shi’a against Sunni and systematically oppressing the Sunnis who, though a minority of Iraq’s population, had pretty much had things their own way under Saddam Hussein. The show made the usual division of Iraq’s population into “Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds” — ignoring that the Kurds are mostly Sunnis (my late roommate/client once asked me how you could be both Kurd and Sunni, and I said, “The same way you can be a Black Presbyterian” — Kurd is an ethnicity and Sunni is a religious sect within Islam) — and offered all too little insight into what’s going on in Iraq today, where the expensively trained Iraqi army that was supposed to maintain order after the U.S. withdrew is folding in the face of attacks from the Islamic State guerrilla/terror organization mainly because the Sunnis in the ranks no longer want to fight for a Shi’ite-dominated government that is just going to oppress them. America’s involvement in Iraq has been a disaster from the get-go — among other things, it created just what it was supposed to prevent: an al-Qaeda presence in the country that has now metastasized into a full-fledged Islamist revolution in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where the Islamic State (who are so crazy even people in al-Qaeda don’t want to deal with them — they compare to al-Qaeda pretty much the way Fred Phelps’ band of crazies compared to the Christian Coalition) can grab a foothold.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ritz (Courtyard Films/Warner Bros., 1976)

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

The film was The Ritz, a 1976 farce comedy set in a Gay bathhouse and reflecting the relative innocence of the Gay subculture in the 12 years between the start of the Queer liberation movement in 1969 and the advent of AIDS in 1981. (There’s a sort of sinister drumroll of fate in the wisecrack, when the protagonist worries about catching athlete’s foot from walking around the place barefooted and he’s told, “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch here.”) The Ritz began life as a Broadway play by Terrence McNally, back when he was still trying to get out of the shadow of his formidable partner and prove to the theatrical world that he was a major writer in his own right and not just Mrs. Edward Albee. The first scene of McNally’s script — he got to adapt his own play for the film and most of the principal actors carried over from the stage production — is the obligatory “opening  up,” set in a palatial (as palatial as the revenues from a Mob-controlled garbage business in Cleveland could make it, anyway) mansion in which a dying gangster named Vespucci tells his son Carmine (Jerry Stiller, who had a brilliantly funny stand-up act with his wife Anne Meara and the two later produced Ben Stiller, who had a brilliant success as a screen comedian even though he wasn’t anywhere nearly as funny as his parents), “Get Proclo.” At first he — and we — merely means the old man is summoning Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston), the younger Vespucci’s brother-in-law, but it soon becomes apparent that what it really means is the older Vespucci is ordering his son to kill Proclo. (Needless to say, this scene is shot in the dank brown lighting of The Godfather, a virtually inevitable reference for a 1976 movie spoofing the Mafia.) When this dawns on the rather thick Proclo, he flees to New York City and tells his cab driver, “Take me to the last place in New York the Mob would think of looking for me.”

Accordingly the driver takes him to the Ritz, a free-swinging Gay bathhouse patterned on the real-life Continental Baths, which offered not only the usual attractions of a Gay bathhouse — including quite a lot of hot (and not-so-hot) men walking around wearing nothing but bath towels and available for quick on-the-spot sex — but entertainment as well. The real Continental Baths helped launch the career of Bette Midler — she was spotted there by a talent scout and signed to Atlantic Records (and the musical director for her first album was the young, and then equally unknown, Barry Manilow) — and I’ve long been amused by the Johnny Carson Tonight show where he clearly edges around the actual nature of the place where she was discovered while introducing her (“She was found in a Turkish bath … a men’s Turkish bath”). Alas, the fictitious Ritz has only been able to attract a singularly lower level of talent: aspiring star Googie Gomez (Rita Moreno, who clearly had to “dumb down” her performance to play someone considerably less talented than she is for real), who performs a version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy, screeching the high notes and singing in a thick Latina accent that makes the lyrics virtually unintelligible. (At that she’s not that much worse than the song’s originator, Ethel Merman.) Proclo finds himself in this world of prissy queens, drag performers, wanna-be cowboys and the rest of the Gay world as it existed (and as Hollywood was willing to depict it) in 1976 — and it’s to the credit of director Richard Lester and his casting director, Mary Selway, that they didn’t pick a whole bunch of drop-dead gorgeous men but instead filled the Ritz with the same mix of physical “types” one would have found in a real Gay bathhouse. Among them is “chubby chaser” Claude Perkins (Paul B. Price), who sees Proclo and immediately falls in lust with him; Chris (F. Murray Abraham seven years before Amadeus), the sort of decently attractive but not wildly hot Gay man who tends to get ignored in places like this and responds by trying way too hard; and Michael Brick (Treat Williams, easily the hottest guy in the cast physically but speaking in a high-pitched voice — was it a “trick” voice he worked out for the role, or was he dubbed?), who isn’t Gay at all but is a private detective who’s been hired by Vespucci to trace Proclo and has discovered him at the Ritz, where he’s infiltrated and has used the house phone to bring Vespucci there. Vespucci duly arrives — where he’s handcuffed to one of the Ritz’s beds by the insatiable Claude (who turns out to be an old Army buddy of Proclo’s — don’t ask) — and so does his sister, Mrs. Proclo (Kaye Ballard, who’s billed third even though she has all too little screen time), who gets let into the Ritz because her clothes are so baggy and her general demeanor so butch the doorman mistakes her for a man.

The Ritz is pretty much a French-style sex farce, differing from a million other similar plays only in that it features Gay people, and it gets pretty loud and formless towards the end, but it’s still quite a funny movie and a nice reminder of how good a comic actor Jack Weston was in his prime — as the clueless straight guy who’s literally fearful for his life as well as his sexuality, he’s marvelous and the glue that holds this whole piece together. A more sensitive author than the Terrence McNally of 1976 (including the McNally of his later, more “serious” plays) might have made Googie Gomez, with her aspirations and pretensions, a figure of genuine pathos like Marilyn Monroe’s character in Bus Stop, but she’s fine the way she is and Rita Moreno’s performance is a marvelous send-up of every clichéd “Mexican Spitfire” role a young, attractive Latina actress has ever been put through. One of the choicer bits is a sequence in which Weston’s character joins two other men in doing a lip-synch routine to the Andrews Sisters’ record “The Three Caballeros” as part of the Ritz’s amateur talent contest (naturally the sign advertising it is misspelled “amatuer”!). The Ritz’s greatest value is as a period piece, showing the cheery insouciance of Queer male culture c. 1976 before first the growing maturation of the movement (like other civil-rights struggles, the early leaders of Queer rights were people on the fringes with little or nothing to lose, and their successes paved the way for more “mainstream” people to come out and join) and then the advent of AIDS (which became mythologized in Queer history as the catastrophe which turned us away from sexual liberation and multi-partner lifestyles and made us all want to get married — that’s an oversimplification but not much of one) pretty much ended the party and led, among other things, to the closure of virtually all the Gay bathhouses, to the point where younger Gay men watching this movie would probably have to have the whole concept explained to them. The DVD of The Ritz included the original trailer, which proclaimed it “Richard Lester’s funniest movie!” — an odd thing to say when you consider this is the man who made A Hard Day’s Night — and some other people who worked with Lester on his Beatles projects, including Help! composer Ken Thorne and Apple Films producer Denis O’Dell (note the spelling of his first name; this film got it right but some of his other credits have it wrong), also worked on The Ritz, which effectively re-created New York City on the soundstages at Twickenham, England.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Poirot: The Big Four (BBC, 2014)

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

I turned on KPBS and watched the latest episode of Poirot, “The Big Four,” which given its origins in the seemingly endless series of mysteries by Agatha Christie about her insufferably annoying Belgian detective (don’t dare call him French!) Hercule Poirot (played by David Suchet, who acts this character as if he’s thoroughly bored with him) was actually surprisingly good. It’s set against the lead-up to World War II and centers around the efforts of a supposed “Peace Party” to stop that event from happening. At a public benefit for the Peace Party, reclusive Russian chess genius Savanaroff (Michael Culkin) is killed while in the middle of playing a game — electrocuted by the combination of a wired chessboard and chess piece, the sort of preposterously complicated murder method Christie was always overly fond of — and the two heads of the Peace Party, Abe Ryland (James Carroll Jordan) and Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge), mysteriously disappear. Their disappearance and the subsequent murder of Stephen Paynter (Steven Pacey), who was having an affair with Olivier even though he was married, are supposedly connected to “The Big Four,” a terrorist organization led by Ryland, Olivier, a Chinese politician and a fourth, unknown person. Poirot, faking his own death (and underscoring yet again how much Christie owed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and how much Poirot was Sherlock Holmes with a funny accent and an even more annoying manner!), ultimately learns that the Big Four was a figment of the demented imagination of Whalley (Peter Symonds), a young man who left home to join the theatre and became enamored of Flossie Monro (Sarah Parish), his old co-star in the Methuselah Theatre Company, who turned him down back then, so he decided to stage a series of crimes that would impress her enough to come back to him. Whatever Christie’s problems in coming up with believable characters, especially sympathetic ones, she did have a flair for psychopaths (one recalls Basil Rathbone’s performance in the Christie-derived Love from a Stranger) and Whalley is a reasonably convincing one, chillingly matter-of-fact in his weird determination to impress his wanna-be girlfriend no matter how many other people have to die for his plot to work

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Choking Game (Orly Adelson Productions/Lifetime, 2014)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “Saturday Night SoCial World Premiere” movie was actually quite good even if it did trod down paths a million previous Lifetime productions have gone before: The Choking Game, about what is apparently the latest trend among teenagers interested in finding new, creative, experimental ways to risk long-term health damage (including the very real possibility of doing themselves in well ahead of schedule) for the sake of a transitory “high.” Having already done, drinking, drugs (various kinds), self-mutilation and even Internet porn, writer Jen Klein (adapting a novel called Choke by Diana Lopez but, interestingly, changing the girls imperiling themselves with this sort of play from eighth-graders to high-school seniors) and director Lane Shefter Bishop seized on one that was a new one on me: people deliberately choking either themselves or each other until they lose consciousness. Our heroine is Taryn (Freya Tingley), a gooder-than-good high-school girl who’s about to turn 18 and is tired of getting good grades and being shoved towards enrollment in the University of Michigan by her impossibly overprotective mom Heidi (Peri Gilpin) and Elena (played by a tall, leggy young African-American actress who regrettably isn’t listed on the page for this film), the surrogate for her mom who’s a classmate of hers and is counting on sharing her dorm room at U of M when they both go there after they graduate.

Only Taryn is chafing under the intense pressure from mom to stay the “good girl” and keep focused on getting into college (the local state university because Mom doesn’t want to loosen the apron strings long enough to let her go out of town) and staying successful. She wants alternative possibilities, and they duly arrive in the person of Nina (Alex Steele), who’s just transferred from another school and the scuttlebutt is that she was thrown out of her previous high school for doing something really, really nasty. Taryn meets Nina when she finds Nina passed out in the girls’ restroom, and she immediately assumes Nina has been doing drugs — as would we if the title of the movie hadn’t been so obvious about what she’s really up to. There’s also a bitchy young woman at the school named Courtney (Ferron Guerrerio), a blonde social-director type who’s elected herself the arbiter of which students are “in” and which are “out,” complete with a malicious put-down of the people who aren’t on her version of the “A”-list as “G.P.” or “GenPop” — short for “general population,” and the use of a phrase that initially denoted life inside a prison as a metaphor is an indication of just how far the prison-industrial complex has embedded its tentacles into the rest of American life. Elena’s got her wild side (she dyes blue streaks in her hair — a rare case of an African-American dyeing her hair and actually looking good at it — and for Taryn’s 18th birthday she offers to score both of them fake ID’s so they can go to a local bar and see a particularly prestigious alt-rock band) but has strict limits on the amount of edginess she’ll allow herself and basically functions as Micaëla to Nina’s Carmen. By more or less dumping Elena for Nina, Taryn scores her way into Courtney’s social circle even as her grades plummet, she blows her SAT’s, she’s threatened with expulsion from the track team (the one extracurricular activity she actually wanted, though Mom signed her up for yearbook without asking her first) and Mom’s spying on her reaches NSA-level proportions as Mom frantically searches through her bedroom looking for … something.

What makes this movie more interesting than usual is that Taryn has been accustomed to the relative independence of being a so-called “latch-key kid,” raised by a single mother who was at work a lot of the time, and though she missed the experience of love and support from her mom she also enjoyed the freedom from close-in supervision — until mom met and married her stepfather Will (Ray Galletti), who was well-off enough that he suggested Heidi quit her job and devote herself to parenting Taryn full-time. As if in a demented attempt to make up for lost time, Heidi is running her daughter’s life like a concentration-camp commandant — so much so that even Will, who isn’t any biological kin to Taryn at all, thinks she’s overdoing it and let Taryn have her taste of teenage rebellion before she realizes that the wild side isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and goes back onto the straight and narrow. Also part of the dramatis personae is Ryder (Mitch Ainley, tall, gangly and a bit too homely to be credible as the irresistible dreamboat he’s playing; he’s easy enough on the eyes but there are probably a million unknown kids in Hollywood who could have outshone him in both looks and acting skills), a former childhood friend of Taryn who wants to pursue a relationship with her now that he and his previous girlfriend broke up over the summer. In one nicely cliché-reversing scene (albeit one we’ve seen before in one of Lifetime’s movies about the nice girl who goes off the rails and becomes an exotic dancer) Taryn practically rapes Ryder at one of Courtney’s parties — and he recoils in horror from this bizarre person she’s become, so different from the cute, clever, funny version of Taryn he fell in love with back when they were just kids. Bishop and Klein manage to make this whole familiar plot unusually intense and emotional — though maybe I was responding to this movie because, while my own mom was nowhere nearly as crazily judgmental as the one in the film, nonetheless the feeling of being kept under a microscope was familiar enough to me from my own childhood even though I didn’t become a teen rebel, I suspect because I simply wasn’t interested in it: my mom was already counter-cultural enough there was hardly any room to rebel anyway.

Whatever the reason, I found myself totally gripped by The Choking Game and utterly believing in the characters and the way they were portrayed — until Klein decided to put yet another unusual spin on the expected clichéd ending in which Nina comes to no good and Taryn gets shocked back onto the straight and narrow. Worried that she hasn’t heard from Nina in a while, Taryn decides to go to Nina’s home — her mom grounded Taryn but her stepdad slips her the car keys so she can use them in this emergency — only to arrive too late; we see the paramedics pushing Nina out on a stretcher and for the next act or so we assume she’s died. After a confrontation between Taryn’s and Nibna there’s a bizarre scene in which a terminally out-of-it Nina sits on the edge of her bed, immaculately dressed but unable to talk except for some gurgling noises she emits at the end. Of course we assume that Nina is already dead and this is either a fantasy or a dream of Taryn’s — but then it’s explained to us that Nina is still alive and this is supposed to represent story reality. Though one of the reasons Nina thought that choking yourself was safe was the well-known fact that you cannot strangle yourself with your bare hands — as soon as you lose consciousness and pass out, you let go of yourself and start breathing again — in her case she hit her head against something as she passed out and the blow caused permanent brain damage. The film ends with Taryn’s life relatively back to normal and she and Ryder (ya remember Ryder?) sharing a burger and fries at the local hangout — since it’s previously been established that he’s going to college to do pre-med studies one wonders why an aspiring doctor is willing to do what a doctor’s wife on a previous Lifetime movie called “31 grams of fat” — and a set of statistics including that 1,000 kids kill themselves with “the choking game” every year, 74 percent of those do it while adults are in the house with them, and 86 percent of parents have never heard of it. This soupçon of social commentary and awareness-building is expected from a Lifetime movie — and certainly the rather outré nature of this relatively new teenage amusement means that someone should be building awareness of it — but the power of The Choking Game is in its relative emotional honesty and the way we’re drawn into the characters and situations instead of being pulled above them and made to observe the movie’s people dispassionately like a scientist studying lab rats, as has been the case with all too many recent feature films with far more prestigious casts than this one!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al Capone: Icon (PBS, 2014)

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

Last night PBS proclaimed itself to be “Gangster Night” and showed a couple of one-hour documentaries, one on Al Capone called Al Capone: Icon and a follow-up on the History Detectives: Special Investigations series about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, boss of the Teamsters Union from 1957 to 1964 and father of the union’s current president (plus ça change, plus ça même chose). I suppose it was just schedule coincidence that PBS happened to be broadcasting a documentary on Capone just six days after TCM showed the 1932 Scarface (a film quite obviously inspired by Capone’s career) and its 1983 remake, but the Capone program (for which I have been unable to download a cast and credits list, either at or on PBS’s own Web site) was an unsatisfying hour-long mishmash that gave the basic facts of his career (an apprenticeship in petty crime in New York City — including the rather surprising fact that as a teenager he had been part of the Five Points Gang, which I had thought was exclusively Irish-American — before he was ordered out of town and to Chicago in 1919, his lucky break in that Prohibition was passed just as he got to Chicago, his mentorship by gangster Johnny Torrio, whose gang he took over when Torrio retired and left the country following an attempt on his life, his career as a crime boss and his downfall when the federal government managed to convict him of income tax evasion) but jumbled them into a presentation that also encompassed the rise of the gangster-film genre and its fall at the hands of the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency in 1934.

Needless to say, both Capone’s real story and the history of gangster films were considerably more complicated than they were presented here, and if the thesis of the film was that Capone was the first American criminal concerned about his public image, they were wrong; Jesse James had famously hired a newspaper reporter basically to be his P.R. person and present his robberies in the best possible light, as Robin Hood-like struggles for the poor and downtrodden. Capone also famously posed as a champion of the poor — he opened a soup kitchen in Chicago — though the makers of this film downplayed that, saying he only opened one soup kitchen and it didn’t stay open long. (The PBS Web site says that Capone also lobbied to have dairy companies required to put expiration dates on their products, but that’s oddly unmentioned in the movie itself.) The issues surrounding Capone’s life and the slow (much slower than it’s shown here) disintegration in the public support he once had are considerably more complex than they’re depicted here; the filmmakers argue that the February 14, 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was the game-changer that overnight turned Capone’s public image from lovable rogue to monster — even though they also make a case that Capone had nothing to do with the massacre: he was in Miami when it happened and there is apparently no solid evidence that the people who actually carried out the killings were part of his operation. (Indeed, there’s still some question as to whether the killers, who came to the garage wearing police uniforms, were gangsters or corrupt police officers carrying out the “hit” at the behest of one of Chicago’s warring gangs.) As Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition, another PBS production, made clear, the image of the gangsters had been on the downgrade for about two years before that, mainly due to the number of innocent civilians injured in the drive-by shootings the mobsters aimed at each other.

In my comments on the Scarface movies I noted that the depiction of gangsters in films mirrored the changing perceptions of them in real life; the gangster film cycle kicked off with a movie not mentioned here, Underworld (1927), a silent directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by Ben Hecht (who wrote the first Scarface five years later), and in that and the follow-ups Sternberg and others made the gangsters were depicted as quasi-noble, offering the public a service and relatively harmless to everyone but each other. Then, as the movement to repeal Prohibition gained strength (a key factor in turning public opinion against the gangsters; once it looked like people would once again be able to buy alcoholic beverages legally, the gangsters and their baggage no longer seemed necessary evils — not that many people were going to partake of illegal gambling, loan sharking, prostitution and the gangs’ other services) and actions like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre made the gangsters look more bestial, gangster films changed from the relative nobility of Sternberg’s silents to the vicious characters of Rico in Little Caesar, Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and Tony Camonte in the 1932 Scarface — films that made instant stars of their male leads (Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni, respectively). The Capone documentary doesn’t mention the even more cynical transformation the genre went through after 1934, when Jack Warner responded to the rise of the Legion of Decency and the strict enforcement of the Production Code by having Muni take over as star of Warners’ prestige biopics and casting Robinson and Cagney in crime films but on the right side of the law — Cagney as an FBI agent in G-Men and Robinson as an undercover cop infiltrating a gang in Bullets or Ballots. One good thing about Al Capone: Icon is how it showed just how weak the government’s case against Capone was, how Capone overreached by trying to bribe the jury, and the government double-crossed him by substituting a fresh jury panel for the tainted one at the last minute — a plot device I’ve seen in at least one movie without realizing it had a real-life basis in such a famous case. It also savors the irony that what ultimately laid Capone low wasn’t either a fellow gangster or his conviction (he got out in 1939 and lived seven more years) but an untreated case of syphilis he’d picked up in his early days in New York, and which manifested itself so drastically that by the time he got out of prison his mental age had disintegrated to about 12 and he spent the remaining years living in the lavish house in Palm Beach, Florida he’d bought during the glory years, increasingly out of it and mentally unable even to attempt a comeback in the world of crime. This Capone documentary is good enough to hint at part of the story but make one wish for a richer and more comprehensive treatment.

History Detectives Special Investigations: “Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa?” (PBS, 2014)

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

The “Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa?” program which followed suffered from its origins as an episode of the series History Detectives: Special Investigations (a pretentious subtitle which basically means the established cast of the “History Detectives” program spends an entire episode on one famous incident in history rather than investigating a whole host of trivial items in each show) and the fact that the history detectives themselves — Tukufu Zuberi, Kaiama Glover and Wes Cowan — get way too much screen time, and are singularly boring people to boot. Nonetheless, the show offers quite a lot of documentary and archive material, ranging from footage of Hoffa addressing the Teamsters Union and being interviewed on TV to audio from the Nixon White House tapes of Nixon, John Mitchell and Charles Colson discussing the controversial pardon Hoffa was given in 1971 that imposed on him a ban on union activity for nine years. To recap: Hoffa went to work for the Teamsters in 1939 in Detroit (at a time when the socialists Farrell Dobbs and the Dunne brothers who had built the union were being pushed out by organized crime) and, at least according to this program, was Mob-connected from the beginning. When Hoffa was elected president in 1957 he hired Frank Sheeran as a hit man and literally eliminated his competition within the union — and he was regularly investigated by John and Robert Kennedy, first when John was a U.S. Senator and Robert a staff member for the Senate Labor Committee, then when John was President and Robert was Attorney General, determined to prosecute Hoffa for something and ultimately successful at convicting him for jury tampering in a previous trial and sentencing him to prison.

Then Richard Nixon became president, and in 1971 he decided to pardon Hoffa — but, at the behest of Hoffa’s successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons, imposed the ban on Hoffa rejoining the union. According to Hoffa’s own account, in an autobiography he completed just before he disappeared but which wasn’t published until afterwards (and on which his collaborator was, of all people, Oscar Fraley, who’d also co-written the autobiography of U.S. Prohibition agent Elliot Ness that became the basis for the hit TV series The Untouchables), the ban on his union activity was inserted into the pardon deal at the very last minute, and he almost refused to sign it on that basis. The program argues that Hoffa was killed at the behest of Mob boss Russell Bufalino, for a bizarre reason: Bufalino, the so-called “Quiet Don” who made as much of a fetish of avoiding publicity as Al Capone had made of embracing it, was worried that the Church Committee hearings on CIA abuses would reveal information about how the Mafia had worked in collaboration with the CIA to attempt to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro — so he went out of his way to eliminate the three people who knew the most about that collaboration: Sam Giancana (who had shared his mistress Judith Campbell with President Kennedy and Frank Sinatra), Johnny Roselli and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a reasonably persuasive case even though it’s something of a head-scratcher — though as someone who’s long believed the Mafia killed Kennedy because they were mad at him for not following through with air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion (the Mob lost a lot of money when Castro took over Cuba and deprived them of the lucrative revenues from the casinos there), the idea that Hoffa may have been yet another victim of the government/Mafia connection over Castro seems all too believable.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Scarface (Universal, 1983)

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

The film was the 1983 remake of Scarface, which I’d just recorded from Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday with their double bills of classic crime films and their remakes: the 1931 film The Criminal Code and its 1950 remake, Convicted; then the two versions of Scarface back to back. (Ironically, as I pointed out in my notes on the 1932 version, both The Criminal Code and Scarface were directed by Howard Hawks and featured Boris Karloff in important character-villain roles pre-Frankenstein.) Charles had never seen the 1983 Scarface before and I hadn’t either; the film’s reputation for ultra-violence had put me off, and while I admire its star, Al Pacino, Brian de Palma has never been one of my favorite directors. He has too much of the eager-beaver film student about him, relying way too much on the work of his elders and betters — not only Hitchcock (he made thinly veiled remakes of Vertigo and Psycho that were so obviously derivative Saturday Night Live once did a sketch in which de Palma’s next film was going to be called The Clams, featuring a screamingly funny film clip of killer clams massed on a playground monkey-bars set in homage to you know what … ) but in this film Billy Wilder (two shots of a murder victim lying face down in a swimming pool), Orson Welles (a shoot-out in the mirrored dining room of a fancy restaurant), and Tobe Hooper (one of the early murder scenes involves a crazed drug lord hacking someone to death with a chain saw). I had also assumed from what I’d read about it that the 1983 Scarface took nothing from the original but the basic situation — a kill-crazy thug sets out to murder his way to the top of a criminal enterprise, does so but is ultimately brought down by his enemies — but in fact screenwriter Oliver Stone (who, according to an “trivia” poster, wrote this tale about cocaine dealers while battling cocaine addiction himself) stuck surprisingly closely to the template of Ben Hecht’s script for the 1932 version, and quite a few of the characters (not just the lead) are derived from the original. Tony Camonte becomes Tony Montana[1] (Al Pacino), a refugee from Cuba deported in the 1980 Mariel boatlift (a sententious foreword — another element from the 1932 version that got transferred to this one — explains that Fidel Castro made it seem like a humanitarian gesture to allow Cubans with relatives in the U.S. to rejoin their families, but he also sneaked out some of his most hardened criminals, and the film claimed that about one-fifth of the 125,000 people who left in the Mariel boatlift had criminal records (though some of them may have been Gays and others involved in what we would call “victimless crimes” — indeed, when Tony is being questioned by U.S. immigration officers two of the questions they ask him are whether he’s homosexual and whether he likes to dress as a woman, reminding us that as of 1983 we weren’t welcome either in Cuba or the U.S.).

Tony is one of them; the immigration authorities catch him with a gang tattoo between his thumb and forefinger and send him to the so-called “Freedom Camp” detention center, from which he gets out only by agreeing to murder another detainee, a former high-level official in Castro’s government who later fell afoul of the Jefe and got busted, but while he was in power ordered several people tortured, one of whose relatives wants him dead for revenge). We meet quite a few other people in the course of the movie with close counterparts in the 1932 version, including Tony’s mother (Miriam Colón); his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) — though the incestuous attraction between them is, not surprisingly, played far less subtly than it was in 1932 — his more businesslike boss in the drug trade, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia); Lopez’s mistress, hard-bitten Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer, the one actor in the piece who far surpasses her 1932 counterpart in creating an indelible character), whom Tony immediately gets the hots for even though she couldn’t be less interested in him; and the key role of Manny Ribera, Tony’s assistant and best friend (Steven Bauer — despite his German-sounding name he was actually the only one of the principal actors who was genuinely Cuban ­— playing the counterpart of George Raft’s character in the original) until he marries Gina and Tony catches them together and kills him. The script by Stone also makes use of some of the plot devices of the 1932 original, and the updates are sensible and well thought-out; instead of making Tony just another generic gangster, using the Mariel boatlift to give him a convincing backstory (the idea of Sidney Lumet, who was briefly assigned to this project before de Palma ended up directing it instead) works — and it may have been suggested by a part of Armitage Trail’s original Scarface novel Hecht had left out of the 1932 version, in which Tony (like Humphrey Bogart’s character in the 1939 film The Roaring Twenties) serves in World War I and thus finds, at least temporarily, a socially acceptable outlet for his love of killing. Obviously the criminal enterprise at the heart of the story had to be changed from illegal booze to illegal drugs, and the cocaine epidemic of the early 1980’s and the use of Florida as a smuggling point were easy enough to tie in with the original plot. Even that rather horrible scene in the editor’s office, crudely inserted into the 1932 version in a blatant attempt to appease the censors of the time, has its counterpart in a TV show Tony Montana watches from his sunken bubble bath in an ornate, Gatsby-esque living room, in which a typically hypocritical spokesperson for the “war on drugs” rejects the idea of putting the drug gangs out of business by legalizing drugs.

The best aspect of the 1983 Scarface is the tour de force performance by Al Pacino in the lead; playing a very different sort of gangster from his other most famous role in the genre — as the cool, calculating Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies — Pacino (like Paul Muni, an all-around actor who’d been effective in many different kinds of roles and was hardly a gangster specialist) makes Tony Montana believable; not only does he manage a far more convincing Cuban accent than anyone else in the cast, he manages to convey the character’s intensity, his energy, his drive and his determination to get ahead at all costs. Though Ben Mankiewicz (a nodule from one of Hollywood’s greatest family trees) said in his introduction that Pacino deliberately played the character two-dimensionally and wanted to do nothing that would give us any sympathy for him, he does come off (much the way Edward G. Robinson did in the original Little Caesar) as a striver, an immigrant who’s trying to make a success for himself and achieve the American dream, and like Robinson and Little Caesar’s writers (W. R. Burnett, Robert N. Lee and Francis Edward Faragoh), Pacino and Stone give us a sort of sneaking admiration for his determination and drive even though we loathe him for the way he’s chosen to make it. Pacino is also a good enough actor to make the character both amoral and immoral; it’s clear he takes a psychopathic joy in murder but it’s also clear he doesn’t particularly care about other people one way or another; he considers anyone in his path to be fair game. And that includes his relationship with women, including Elvira; once he kills Lopez, he literally regards her, along with Lopez’s drug organization, as part of his inheritance — and what makes Michelle Pfeiffer so good in her role is that she realizes she’s a pawn in a game between powerful men that literally regard women as property, and in order to get what she wants, which is a life of affluence and leisure, she’s willing to put up with that even though she can’t — or won’t — hide her distaste for the men she’s allowing to use her. Those are some of the good aspects of Scarface — along with the surprising fact that the movie is considerably less violent than its reputation; there are probably more violent incidents in the 1932 version and certainly violence takes up a much higher percentage of the running time of the 1932 than the 1983 version! It’s true de Palma and Stone take full advantage of the greater brutality allowable in 1983, including that early chainsaw scene (in which the first drug deal in which Tony is involved goes horribly awry and his brother is hacked to death before his eyes) and a quite effective suspense sequence in which, told to assassinate a Bolivian activist who’s about to spill the beans about his country’s cooperation with the drug lords before the United Nations, Tony, in his one act of conscience in the entire movie, refuses to set off the bomb — and instead shoots the guy who’s holding the control — because he won’t kill the man while his wife and children are in the car with him. (Remember that in Little Caesar Rico’s downfall also came through his one act of compassion in the entire movie — refusing to kill his best friend.)

The downside of Scarface is its sheer length and ponderousness; the film lasts 170 minutes (almost twice as long as the 1932 version), and whereas it probably would have been quite good at two hours the bloated running time makes the film seem patchy and dull, the sort of movie through which you wait impatiently through reams of boring exposition to get to the “good parts.” Though he’s expert at staging violent scenes, de Palma simply isn’t as good as Howard Hawks was in conveying that violence (mostly against each other) was the very milieu in which the gangsters lived; the big action set-pieces seem more like the production numbers in a 1930’s musical than integral parts of Tony Montana’s story. As Charles noted, the film suffers from an inflated sense of its own importance in more than its running time; while Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht just intended to create an exciting, action-packed gangster story, and succeeded, Brian de Palma and Oliver Stone seemed to want to steer Tony Montana’s story into some Big Statements about violence, capitalism (no doubt a Leftist like Stone liked the irony of having Tony flee a socialist dictatorship and then find that capitalism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either), the allure of drugs (one element of Tony’s downfall is when he becomes addicted to cocaine himself — he finally gets shot right after he’s consumed a small mountain of his own product — violating the rule Frank Lopez had laid down that the people in his operation should avoid getting hooked on their own stuff) and the overall Human Condition — only the movie’s political and philosophical pretensions seem spackled on to stretch the running time and make it seem more Important. The 1983 Scarface is a bad movie — despite the excellence of Pacino’s and Pfeiffer’s acting — and yet it’s a bad movie that haunts the imagination, not only because of the gap between what it could have been and what it is but also because the parts that work work so well you want the parts that don’t to be better. An indication of the difference between 1932 and 1983 and the reason movies run so much longer (and often to much less effect) now than they did in the 1930’s comes during the scene in which Tony, convinced (correctly) that Lopez sent a gang to ambush and kill him at the Babylon restaurant (where a young Richard Belzer, virtually unrecognizable in a bad long-haired wig, is the MC of the floor show), arranges for one of his gang members to call Lopez at precisely 3 p.m., tell him the hit on Tony failed and he got away, so Tony can see how Lopez reacts and therefore tell whether Lopez ordered the hit on him. Any 1930’s director would have cut quickly to the clock and then back to the main action (and if digital clocks had been commonplace in the 1930’s he would have cut to the clock at the precise moment it changed from 2:59 to 3:00); de Palma and his cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, pan to it instead, eating up crucial seconds and detracting from, not adding to, the suspense of the scene.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s a toss-up between the two leads — both Muni and Pacino crudely but effectively “dumb down” their acting chops to play the thuglike character — and Michelle Pfeiffer far outpoints her opposite number in the 1932 version, the always wooden Karen Morley. (When I saw Morley playing the President’s mistress in William Randolph Hearst’s 1933 production Gabriel Over the White House I wrote, “One wonders not only how Hearst resisted the temptation to cast Marion Davies in the role but also if the film might not have actually been better with Davies as the female lead.”) But Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, an actress I ordinarily like, can’t or won’t make the sister either as alluring or as chilling as Ann Dvorak did in 1932, and as handsome as he is and as superficially effective in the part Steven Bauer is just too nice a “type” to be as credible as Tony’s sidekick and co-conspirator as George Raft (though the rumors that Raft had been a gangster himself until he fell into show business first as a dancer in New York nightclubs and then as a Hollywood star no doubt added credibility; he was supposedly the real-life basis for the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. character in Little Caesar). The whole deficiency of de Palma’s and Stone’s approach to this material can be seen in the way they use the symbolism of the slogan “The World Is Yours,” which in the 1932 version hovers over Tony’s home via a lighted billboard for Cook’s Tours; in 1983 we see it only twice — on a blimp advertising Pan American Airways that flies by as Tony and Elvira are together (ironically Pan American Airways is now part of corporate history — if corporations have souls, as the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled in Hobby Lobby, is there a corporate heaven they go to when they die? — while Cook’s Tours is still a going concern), and again on a sculpture we haven’t seen before as Tony finally gets gunned down by a hit squad ordered by his Bolivian contact, Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar), for whom he was supposed to assassinate the Bolivian activist and didn’t, and his body falls off a carefully placed railing into a pool below. Once again, as with so much in this maddening movie, a device that in the original seemed well calculated and sensible comes off as just one more bit of ornamental spackling applied to the outside of this version.

[1] — An “Trivia” poster claimed that Oliver Stone gave the character the name “Montana” in honor of his favorite athlete, football star Joe Montana — but the symbolism of the name, which means “mountain” in Spanish, seems to go with and reflect the character’s outsized view of himself and his inflated sense of self-importance.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Scarface (Caddo/United Artists, filmed 1931, released 1932)

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

The film was the 1932 version of Scarface, which TCM was showing as part of a program comparing original versions of movies to their remakes — and by coincidence both original versions were films directed by Howard Hawks in the early 1930’s and both with featured roles for Boris Karloff at a time when he was just establishing himself as a character villain before the surprise success of his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein took his career in a quite different direction. They began the evening with The Criminal Code from 1931 and one of its two remakes, Convicted (1950) — there was an intervening version from 1938 called Penitentiary — and then showed both this Scarface and the 1983 semi-remake with Al Pacino not as an Italian-American gangster dealing bootleg beer but a Cuban-American gangster dealing drugs. I’ve never seen the later Scarface — I like Pacino and his success in the first two Godfather movies inevitably typed him as a gangster, but just about everything I heard about this movie, including the sheer length and the reports of its ultra-violence, put me off. (The Scarface remake was actually a box-office disappointment on initial release but it picked up money on video and DVD sales, largely after rappers adopted its violent iconography, and when The Black Dahlia was issued on DVD I was amused it was promoted as “Directed by Brian DePalma, director of Scarface,” as if that was his most marketable previous credit.) The 1932 Scarface began life as a novel by Armitage Trail, a writer I knew of elsewhere only as the author of The Thirteenth Guest, a haunted-house mystery filmed in 1932 by the first iteration of Monogram with Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot as the stars. It was produced by Howard Hughes — yes, that Howard Hughes — who after a six-year fling at moviemaking that had mostly just run through a lot of the fortunes generated by the oil drill-bit business that made the Hughes family its money, had finally started to generate blockbuster hits when he abruptly had to shut it down because as part of his divorce settlement from his first wife, Ella Rice, he had to agree not to make movies for seven years because she was afraid he would blow his whole fortune on filmmaking.

The idea to film Scarface came to Hughes from his screenwriter, Ben Hecht, who knew the Chicago gang scene intimately because he’d written about it as a reporter before he got into playwrighting and then screenwriting, and he reportedly sold the story to Hughes by telling him it would be a modern-dress version of the lives of the Borgias. The title, of course, suggested a more recent (indeed, still alive and at liberty when the film was made) figure, mobster Al Capone, and the script did indeed include the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other well-known real incidents from Capone’s life even though, contrary to the horrible sententious foreword added later to the film at the insistence of the censors, not every incident in the movie is based on actual events. Hughes bought Hecht’s screenplay and hired Howard Hawks to direct — and Hawks found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was Hughes, who saw Hawks’ rough cut and asked for more, and more explicit, scenes of gang violence — Hughes was especially big on drive-by shootings and there are quite a few of them in the film — and the hard place was the Production Code Administration and the censor boards in various states. Hughes had filmed Scarface in early 1931, in the wake of the success of the Warners gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (which made instant stars of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively), and he spent nearly a year afterwards fighting the movie censors. The censors wanted the title changed to Shame of a Nation (some prints bear that as a subtitle), wanted a scene inserted in which a crusading newspaper editor pulls together a citizens’ committee to build a public movement to stop the gangsters (this is in the current print, and it brings the action to a dead stop — Charles correctly guessed this was a censor-mandated addition), and most of all they wanted the central character, Tony “Scarface” Camonte (played by Paul Muni in a major comeback role for him — he’d been under contract to Fox for three years, had gone nowhere and had just been dropped when Hughes hired him for this role, which won him a Warner Bros. contract and leads in some of that studio’s most prestigious films), arrested, convicted and hanged at the end instead of mowed down in a defiant shootout with police.

Hughes agreed to all the above changes even though, with Paul Muni already at Warners making I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the shots of him in the courtroom and walking to the gallows were done with a double and only his hands and feet were shown. Then the censors demanded still more changes, and Hughes, with nothing to lose — he was making movies as an expensive hobby and he wasn’t dependent on the income from them — sued the censors and finally won the right to release Scarface with the original title and ending. But the battle between Hughes and the censors had delayed the movie’s release by nine months, so by the time it finally came out Paul Muni was a Warner Bros. star and Boris Karloff, who had taken the role as one more in a series of gangster roles he’d played (including a quirky film from Columbia called The Guilty Generation, a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet in which the young lovers are the offspring of rival gangsters in the U.S. instead of feuding families carrying on a vendetta in medieval Italy, and Karloff and Leo Carrillo are the gangsters whose feud is keeping their children from getting together) in his attempt to establish himself as a character villain, was on his way to a quite different sort of fame based on his star-making performance as the Monster in the 1931 Frankenstein. As a result, his jarring appearance as Thomas Gaffney, last survivor of the O’Hara (read: O’Bannion) mob after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre until Tony Camonte (read: Al Capone) traces him to a bowling alley and guns him down (Howard Hawks was especially proud of the shot he worked out in which Gaffney has just thrown his last bowling ball when he’s killed, the ball takes out nine of the 10 pins and then, as Gaffney dies off-screen, the last pin shakes and ultimately falls), probably seemed as odd to 1932 audiences as it does to us. Seen today, Scarface is a quite incredible movie, slower-paced than the slam-bang Warners epics that inspired it (much the way Hawks’ The Criminal Code was slower than the Warners prison pictures one usually thinks of as exemplars of the genre), with less music (there’s a scene at a dance hall where an unseen band — Gus Arnheim’s, according to, though they sounded Black to me and I had guessed Curtis Mosby’s Blue Blowers — plays “St. Louis Blues” and “Some of These Days” while the characters dance, but no one sings on camera even though, in a nicely artful Hecht touch, the dialogue between the romantically involved characters during “Some of These Days” echo the unheard, but well known to 1932 audiences, lyrics to the song) and quite a bit more open violence.

There are a few scenes in which killings take place off-camera and are merely narrated (including the one of North Side kingpin O’Hara, which spreads the gang war from the South Side to the whole city), but most of the murders are shown to the audience in detail as graphic as a well-known censor-provoker like Howard Hughes could get away with in 1932. The plot of Scarface casts Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as a kill-crazy thug intent on murdering his way to the top of gangland (the city is officially unnamed but is pretty obviously Chicago) no matter what anyone else has to say about it: he begins by offing Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar), whom he’s presumably working for as a bodyguard, as a contract hit man for Costillo’s rival Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ father). This makes him officially number two man in Lovo’s operation, but Lovo wants to organize the illegal beer trade as an industry and drive out his rivals within the South Side but leave the North Side alone. Tony couldn’t care less what his nominal boss wants; he provokes a gang war by targeting O’Hara’s operations and later killing O’Hara and seven others in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. One quirk of this film is that the letter “X” appears just before nearly every murder — the Massacre takes place in a garage and is viewed through a trellis with a cross-hatched pattern of seven X’s — one of the many Hawks touches that give the film visual richness (the cinematographers were L. William O’Connell and the great Lee Garmes) even though they also trade in an expressionistic look Hawks, like John Ford, pretty much abandoned by the late 1930’s. And though Scarface is a gangster movie and not a film noir, the final reels get awfully noir-ish as Tony becomes more and more isolated. He’s driven by passions for money, power and women — two women in particular: Johnny Lovo’s mistress Poppy (Karen Morley, wooden as usual but in a part that doesn’t suffer much from her limitations) and Tony’s own sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), whom he embraces in decidedly un-brotherly ways and gets ferociously jealous of any man who shows interest in her — including Tony’s own sidekick Guino (George Raft, doing the famous coin-flipping gesture that became de rigueur for all impressionists doing Raft and launched a thousand in-jokes — notably the one in Some Like It Hot in which Edward G. Robinson, Jr., playing a hood in Raft’s organization, is shown flipping a coin and Raft says, “Where’d ya learn that cheap trick?”), whom he guns down when he catches them in a hotel room together despite Cesca’s pleas that it’s O.K. because they’re married.

In a sense Scarface is a transitional film between the honorable-gangster movies of the 1920’s — made when public opinion regarded gangsters as a necessary evil to supply them drink in the wake of Prohibition — which showed the gangsters as motivated by almost medieval codes of honor that generally limited their killings to each other; and the depictions of the kill-crazy outlaws of the 1930’s who were considered nothing but public enemies (a phrase actually coined by whoever in Warner Bros.’ marketing department decided to use it as the title of James Cagney’s breakthrough film, which had been shot under the awkward working title Beer and Blood). An article at the time noted the contrast between Al Capone, who for all the killings he ordered had at least provided a service the public wanted; and John Dillinger, the paradigmatic criminal of the 1930’s as Capone had been of the 1920’s, who was just a predator. Public opinion began to turn against the gangsters in the late 1920’s as their killings got sloppier (and more frequent) and innocent people started dying in large numbers, but there are shards of the noble-gangster characterization even in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (in his autobiography Edward G. Robinson said he saw Caesar Enrico Bandello as a striver, eager to work himself up and make something of himself, and a villain only because he chose to do so in a criminal instead of a legitimate enterprise). Not here; Muni’s performance in Scarface is openly bestial, thuglike in a way that exposes the polite pretensions of the rest of the gangsters (the ones he’s supposedly working for, Costillo and Lovo, in particular) for the hypocrisies they are, a virtually uncontrollable id. When I commented on Little Caesar after not having seen it for years I noted how bestial Robinson became in the later parts of the movie and noted that Francis Edward Faragoh had worked on the scripts for both Little Caesar and Frankenstein; in Scarface Muni becomes even more openly monstrous, more Frankensteinian (which makes it even more ironic that Boris Karloff is in this movie as one of Muni’s victims!), grunting rather than speaking his lines and acting as if a thin veneer of civilization has been pasted over a wild animal. No wonder Howard Hughes insisted that he die in a hail of bullets instead of a properly administered due-process hanging; Scarface would be considerably less powerful and believable if Tony Camonte had shown himself a mere mortal at the end instead of an otherworldly presence whom law enforcement could dispatch only by sinking to his level.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The White Angel (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1936)

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

Last night’s “feature” turned out to be a quite remarkable movie I’d recorded earlier in the day off TCM: The White Angel, a 1936 Warner Bros. (in “First National” drag) biopic of Florence Nightingale. I’d seen it once before in the 1980’s and had loved the movie for its direction (William Dieterle), writing (Mordaunt Shairp — Lillian Hellman, who worked with him on the script for the sound version of The Dark Angel — interesting title coincidence — had so little good to say about him in her various autobiographies she didn’t even deign to mention his name, but judging from his work here Shairp had real talent) and cinematography (Tony Gaudio), but had spent much of it wishing that Warners would have borrowed Katharine Hepburn from RKO to play Nightingale instead of Kay Francis. This time around Francis’s performance seemed much better — certainly quieter than how Hepburn or Warners’ own Bette Davis (who was in the middle of her contract walkout and ensuing litigation when this was filmed — according to the American Film Institute Catalog, the now-forgotten Josephine Hutchinson was the only other actress actually considered) would have played it, but as the film develops Francis’s understatement makes the film a powerful feminist statement in its own right: her Nightingale takes the sexist objections against her and the whole idea of women nurses in stride and answers them with a steely implacability instead of Hepburn’s ferocity or Davis’s rage.

Florence Nightingale is depicted as the younger daughter of an upper-class couple in early Victorian England who seems to have it all — money, social position and a nice, hunky boyfriend, Charles Cooper (Donald Woods), who wants to marry her and give her a perfectly acceptable Victorian woman’s life of home and children, though being a diplomat (as is Nightingale’s father, played by Charles Croker-King), a lot of travel is part of the bargain. But Our Florence couldn’t be less interested in all that: both an intertitle (there are quite a few intertitles for a sound film made as late into the talkie era as 1936) and Florence’s own dialogue lament that the only woman in the realm whose independence is respected and who can make her own decisions is Queen Victoria herself. She sees her chance to be an independent woman and make her own contribution to the world when a drunken nurse named Mrs. Waters collapses in the street, and the incident provokes a government investigation of the public hospitals in London. Nightingale’s father receives reports on these investigations, and Florence reads them, is horrified and is determined to do something to improve the quality of nursing care and build nursing into a recognized profession with quality standards and a sense of commitment. Accordingly she seeks out a nursing school in Germany that’s the only place in the world giving nurses anything like the quality of training she thinks they need — only to find, when she gets back, that no hospital in England will hire her. She gets her chance when the Crimean War breaks out and a series of dispatches from London Times correspondent Fuller (Ian Hunter) exposes how shoddily the wounded soldiers are being treated at the field hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Florence recruits a company of 34 nurses and trains them herself, then takes them to the front (it’s not stressed in the movie, but she took full advantage of her family’s money to finance the cause when she needed to) and demands they be used. In a recurring pattern throughout the movie, she meets resistance from a male authority figure, Dr. Hunt (Donald Crisp), who’s bound and determined to sabotage Florence’s efforts at every turn no matter what the cost to the wounded men Dr. Hunt and his colleagues are supposedly there to care for. Hunt even sends Florence’s one supporter on the medical staff, Dr. Scott (Henry O’Neill), to the front to run the field hospital for the wounded at Balaclava (and since Warners shot this film the same year they made The Charge of the Light Brigade they had excellent footage reconstructing the battle available for this project). Nonetheless, Florence manages to turn the hospital at Scutari into a fit care facility and reduces the casualty rate among British soldiers from 56 to 6 percent. Then she hears of a cholera epidemic at the hospital in Balaclava and determines to go there — and not even the fears of the other nurses of catching cholera (which the people in this movie seem to believe is casually transmissible instead of water-borne) or the orders from Dr. Hunt that Florence not be let in the doors of the Balaclava hospital — to which she responds by staging a one-woman sit-in in cold weather until Lord Raglin (Halliwell Hobbes), the commander in chief of British forces in the war, countermands Dr. Hunt’s ridiculous order — can stop her. Neither can catching cholera herself and having to interrupt her nursing care to recover from the disease — though, true to form, she goes back to work even before she’s fully recovered and returns to Scutari, where Dr. Hunt has put the field hospital nursing staff under the direction of silly socialite Ella Stephens (Ara Gerald), whose definition of “nursing” seems to be “partying 24/7.” Once she gets back to Scutari, Florence — armed with Lord Raglin’s support — sends Ella home and takes over the nursing department, imposing strict discipline and getting the nurses Ella brought in to follow her program — and she’s fêted and honored in the media back home (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes his poem “The Lady with the Lamp” about her, and it’s an instant sensation) and her supporters want to give her a heroine’s welcome when the war ends and she returns.

Only, true to form, she says she wants no celebration — instead she returns to England in an ordinary ship under a pseudonym — and instead wants the money contributed to her triumph instead to be used to start a school for nurses which she will head. She still has one more stupid, sexist authority figure to overcome — undersecretary of war Mr. Bullock (Montagu Love) — and the only person in the entire British government who can overrule his ban on female nurses is Queen Victoria herself. In an intriguing final scene, Florence is scheduled for an audience with the Queen right after Bullock, and scared at having to follow him after he’s already presumably poisoned the monarch’s mind against her, she rehearses her speech in front of a portrait of Victoria — and the Queen sneaks into the room and overhears her. The portrayal of Queen Victoria as dea ex machina is so carefully done that all we see of her is an arm handing Florence a broach with a slogan, “Blessed Are the Merciful,” which fills the screen as Kay Francis’s voice intones the real nurses’ creed Florence Nightingale wrote on the soundtrack. The End. The White Angel is a mightily impressive movie, in the mold of the Warners’ biopics of the time (most of them directed by Dieterle, whose German expat credentials gave him cachet and no doubt helped him get the assignments to direct most of Warners’ big “A”-list pictures in the mid-1930’s) but with the feminist aspects of the story faced honestly and in some ways brought forth more effectively by Dieterle’s somber direction, Shairp’s literate writing (both Lytton Strachey and Michael Jacoby claimed he had drawn upon their biographies of Nightingale for his script, but the Motion Picture Academy ruled he hadn’t and he’d written a truly original script based on his own research) and above all by Francis’s subtle, nuanced performance. She played an independent woman again in Wings and the Woman, and The White Angel certainly suggests she had potential for a far rangier career than the dreary series of soap operas that constituted most of her Warners’ output.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Endeavour: “Sway” (BBC-TV, 2014)

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

Charles and I watched the latest episode of Endeavour, the quirky program on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series dealing with the young career of then-Detective, later-Inspector Morse of the Oxford police. This episode was called “Sway” and was set, like the others in this series, in the year 1966 — specifically in November, as is evidenced by the paper cut-out poppies most of the characters are wearing in their lapels (a commemoration of Armistice Day, Charles told me) and the Guy Fawkes festivities are also a part of the plot. It’s not clear just why the episode is called “Sway” but overall it’s quite good, the best of the three I’ve seen so far, mainly because at least within the conventions of mystery writing the plot makes sense. It was interesting to be watching this shortly after reading J. A. Jance’s Second Watch — also about a police detective character’s younger days, though Jance mashed up her protagonist’s past and present in ways Endeavour writer Russell Lewis didn’t — and the plot features Morse showing up his superiors at the Oxford P.D. by identifying three recently deceased women — all middle-aged, all married but with husbands either temporarily or indefinitely absent, and all with their wedding rings missing from their fingers — as the victims of a serial killer. The investigation leads to Burridge’s department store, recently inherited by a rather twit-like young man, Alan Burridge (Joe Bannister) — “Call me Alan,” he tells everyone, from his staff to the cops — because the killer offed his victims by strangling them with a high-end French stocking and Burridge’s is the only store in the area (according to Alan, the only store in the entire U.K.!) that sells them.

While all that’s going on there’s a fascinating subplot, surprisingly emotionally intense for a mystery (especially a British one!), between Burridge’s salesgirl Luisa Armstrong (Cécile Paoli) and Morse’s superior, Fred “Fredo” Thursday (Roger Allam), who it turns out knew each other and had a brief affair in Italy during World War II, where Fred was stationed, until Luisa was captured and nearly executed. When she sees Fred again she faints dead away, and later we learn that Luisa married another British serviceman after her escape (which was how she got the decidedly non-Italian last name “Armstrong”), only he is now dead and she would very much like to resume her relationship with Fred — only he is married to Win (Caroline O’Neill), one of those wives in movies who remains her husband’s faithful helpmate even though the sexual fires between them (which, they being a typical fictional British couple, probably lasted only long enough to produce their two kids) have long since died out. There are several intriguing red herrings, including a blind piano tuner who was acquainted with one of the victims (she was an amateur musician and had to leave her piano behind when she separated from her husband) and a sexy blonde salesgirl at Burridge’s, Gloria Deeks (Gina Bramhill), whom we see being angrily coaxed into a car by a mystery man — we immediately assume she’s going to be victim number four but in fact victim number four is someone else, though the climax has her coming very close to becoming victim number five. There’s also a man, a “slow” stockroom clerk named Norman Parkis (Matthew Wilson), who’s stabbed when he catches the real killer boosting a pair of the ultra-expensive stocking — only the killer catches him and dispatches him with a pair of scissors ordinarily used for opening packages. Police arrest Burridge’s employee Joey Lisk (Max Wrottlesley), who seduced and had edgy sex with all of the victims — he’s the mysterious “Mr. X” referred to in the diary of one of the victims that the police recovered at her home — but it turns out he’s been framed by another staff member, Roy Huggins (Rob Jarvis) — interesting that the character name should also be that of the real-life writer who created The Fugitive — who, after Joey seduced his wife and got her to leave him, was determined to have his revenge by tracking down all the other women Joey was having affairs with, killing them and planting evidence to make it look like Joey was the killer.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Mystery Hour: “The Machine Calls It Murder” (NBC-TV, May 29, 1060)

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

I ran Charles an intriguing 1960 hour-long TV mystery program from an anthology series originally aired as a summer replacement (I remember summer replacement shows!) under the title Chevy Mystery Theatre, though the print I got (a download from came from a rebroadcast with the series title changed to Sunday Mystery Hour and the Chevrolet sponsorship deleted. (There were a couple of commercials for rather repulsive household products — seeing how female domesticity was depicted on TV at the time one can readily understand why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was a best-seller and why the second-wave feminist movement was so badly needed! — including something called Perma Starch, a spray-on starch that was applied before you ironed through a plastic squeeze bottle instead of an aerosol can.) The show itself, directed by future Star Trek regular Marc Daniels from a script by Harold Swanton, was at least partly an excuse to show a working computer (an object from Univac that looked like two portable wardrobes stuck together and for which the input devices were perforated tape and punch cards) at a time when this was the acme of high technology, but it also offered a quite compelling story. Peter Meinecke (Larry Blyden) is an actuary for a New York-based insurance company which has been using its newly acquired computer to compile and crunch statistics about the death rates of every American, subdivided by age, gender, occupation and presumably any other characteristic Meinecke and his boss, Charley Frey (David White, who later played a similar obnoxious-boss role on the TV series Bewitched) could ascertain and consider relevant.

Meinecke notices an anomaly: within the last three years five female models between ages 20 and 25 have all died in accidents — and, insisting that the computer can’t possibly be wrong but that many sudden deaths among young, healthy people couldn’t possibly have happened, Meinecke ultimately deduces that there’s a serial killer who’s marrying women, dispatching them within two weeks of their weddings, then collecting on the insurance policies he took out on them. What’s more, Meinecke becomes convinced that the man is traveling around the country so he never strikes in the same place, and is taking out the insurance policies with different companies so no one at any one insurance company notices his pattern. He traces the man: his name is Albert Endicott (Peter Walker), though he’s currently using the name “John Jerome” and has just married his latest pigeon, Susan Jerome (Betsy von Furstenberg). Meinecke visits Susan to try to convince her she might be in mortal danger from her husband, but not surprisingly he only antagonizes her. Once he traces who “John Jerome” really is, though, he gets to see Jerome/Endicott’s mother (Lee Patrick) and learns a lot of background about him, including that he washed out of the U.S. Army in 1944 on a psych discharge, lived in Mexico for a decade and worked for a while in insurance, learning the ins and outs of the business so he could more skillfully defraud insurance companies without getting caught. Eventually he traces Endicott to a resort near San Francisco, where he’s taken Susan and is planning to have her accompany him on a nature hike, ostensibly so he can photograph her (when he married her he told her he was working as a commercial photographer and he does have a nice camera) but really so he can push her off a convenient cliff and make her victim number six. Though most people who meet him think he’s crazy, Meinecke does get a San Francisco police detective, Lt. Malotte (an almost unrecognizable Everett Sloane), to believe his story and help him, and the two of them trace Endicott to a resort in an area with high cliffs

There’s a short complication when the fingerprints they find on a glass Endicott handled at the resort’s restaurant turn out to belong to the waiter (Paul Mazursky, later a feature-film producer and director of such interesting movies as I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice), and an exciting and somewhat surprising climax in which Malotte and Meinecke use a pair of binoculars to see Endicott right as he’s about to push Susan off the cliff, and Meinecke himself has to use a gun being stored at the resort to pick off Endicott from a 3,000-foot range (it’s a hunting rifle and it’s been established earlier that Meinecke owns a similar one, though he’s used it only to shoot targets, not game) and thereby kill Endicott with one shot before he can kill Susan. The writing was ambiguous enough that for a while I was wondering if the show was going to end with it turning out that Meinecke himself was the serial killer, he’d set up this elaborate frame to blame Endicott and he would really aim the gun at Susan, but even in a TV show this nervy they weren’t about to go there. I quite liked The Machine Calls It Murder even though there was one big problem with it — though it was probably shot on videotape rather than being aired live, it was still an early-years TV show, shot entirely in the studio, and the “outdoor” cliffs off of which the villain was supposed to push the heroine was too obviously an inside set made of papier-maché rocks and potted plants. A thriller story this good deserved some of the noir stylistics that were virtually impossible to do on TV back then, but the writing was otherwise compelling enough (as was the acting, even though one couldn’t help but wish for Jack Lemmon in the Larry Blyden role — alas, by then Lemmon had priced himself out of TV and was a major feature-film star!) to make the show surprisingly entertaining and leave me hoping some more episodes from this quite interesting series will turn up.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Big Broadcast of 1937 (Paramount, 1936)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the film The Big Broadcast of 1937, the third and most elusive of the four Big Broadcast movies made by Paramount in the 1930’s — one I hadn’t seen myself until last night even though I’ve long been familiar with the other three. The first Big Broadcast is by far the best — the plot deals with radio station owner Stuart Erwin trying to keep his star singer, Bing Crosby, sober enough to perform as the headliner of his big all-star broadcast, and like the later Going Hollywood it traded on Bing’s real-life reputation as an irresponsible alcoholic (a lot of wags in the early days said his nickname should have been “Binge” Crosby!) who missed shows and took a cavalier attitude towards his work. The Big Broadcast of 1936 was a semi-remake of International House and cast George Burns and Gracie Allen (who were in the first Big Broadcast and were part of the 1937 edition as well) as inventors of a remote television device (the same prop built for the film International House) which they used to throw in various guest stars. The Big Broadcast of 1938 took place aboard an ocean liner, which was racing across the Atlantic in a speed contest with another ship, and featured W. C. Fields (in a dual role, though this time around his main character was too boorish to be that funny), Bob Hope (in his feature-film debut), Shirley Ross and Martha Raye. Ross and Raye were in The Big Broadcast of 1937, which starred Jack Benny as radio network manager Jack Carson (it sounds jarring to hear him addressed with the name of another actor!), who’s putting on a huge broadcast to be sponsored by Platt Golf Balls. Platt Golf Balls is a company owned by Gracie Platt (Gracie Allen) and more or less managed for her by her predictably acerbic and long-suffering husband George (George Burns).

Martha Raye plays Carson’s pratfall-prone secretary Patsy, who doesn’t get a chance to sing until she’s pressed into service during the final broadcast, singing “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” (a song by Paramount’s house writers, Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, that like a lot of Raye’s vehicles at the time was recorded far better by Chick Webb and His Orchestra, featuring the young Ella Fitzgerald doing a far more infectious and swinging version of this supposed anthem to swing), and she doesn’t get the comic romance with Carson we expect. Indeed, the entire film is one of those annoying movies that’s fun enough the way it is, but we expect more from a film that packs together such powerhouse comic talents as Burns, Allen, Benny and Raye! We keep waiting to explode with laughter and instead we get the occasional bright chuckle. There’s a whole slough of guest stars, including Benny Goodman (making his feature-film debut — D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography suggests that Goodman might have been in a short with Ben Pollack’s band previously but he could never nail down definitively whether Goodman was in a film before this; lists a 1929 Vitaphone short with Pollack as Goodman’s first film but Connor reported on this, stating that the soundtrack survived but the film didn’t, and without the visual portion it was impossible to tell just by listening whether Goodman was there or not), Leopold Stokowski (conducting an orchestra billed as a studio group from New York but really the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he was just about to step down as regular conductor but continue to work with as a guest, including such later movie projects as One Hundred Men and a Girl and Fantasia), Benny Fields (billed as “The Minstrel Man” and singing an annoyingly stentorian vocal on “Here’s Love in Your Eye” — some listings give the song’s title as plural, “Eyes,” but the singular makes more sense — before Goodman’s crew takes over) and Bob Burns (an annoying “rustic” comedian whose gags detract rather than add to the amusement value of this film).

The plot, in case you cared, revolves around Carson’s decision that the success of the Platt Golf Ball program depends on hiring egomaniac singer Frank Rossman (Frank Forest), whose manager Bob Miller (Ray Milland in a part that requires him to be personable, handsome and charming but little more than that) negotiates a deal for him. Gwen Holmes (Shirley Ross) is a D.J. on a small-town station who makes fun of Rossman’s cult-like following by playing his records and talking over them, making snide comments à la Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and Rossman is so determined to get her off the air he insists that Carson’s network sign her but pay her to do nothing. Eventually both Carson and Miller fall for her and renege on their corrupt deal with Rossman, giving her first a guest shot and then co-star billing on the Platt program, but Gwen becomes a diva and has an affair with Rossman to get Miller, her true love, jealous. It ends with the various parties leading each other on a wild taxi chase through the streets of New York (on the Paramount backlot) and Miller marrying Gwen on the air during the Platt program (the show had been promoted as the on-air wedding of Gwen to Rossman, but she had the good sense to bail on that mismatch) while Carson is left emotionally bereft and the Platts are left with each other — this is one of the few films in which Burns and Allen play the married couple they in fact were (until 1941 they were unmarried on their radio show, too, until their initial sponsor canceled them, a replacement offered them much less money, and Burns realized that their popularity had been fading because audiences could no longer accept them as young sweethearts in the first flush of love when they knew they were a long-time married couple off-screen — so he had them play a long-time married couple, it reinvigorated their show and enabled them to stay popular for nearly two more decades, first on radio and then on TV), and they even use their real first names so audiences conditioned to hearing them call each other “George” and “Gracie” on air would feel comfortable.

The guest stars aren’t especially well used — Goodman’s band plays a brief bit of “Here’s Love in Your Eye” after Benny Fields finishes massacring this pretty little song, and later gets a big feature on the old jazz standard “Bugle Call Rag.” Stokowski performs the Bach Fugue in G minor in his own (stentorian) arrangement, and the focus remains on him and his hands rather than on the on-screen players — Charles pointed out he was probably just waving his hands in front of a blank screen while the pre-recorded soundtrack played — though at least his sequence isn’t as weirdly jarring as the token classical piece in The Big Broadcast of 1938, with Kirsten Flagstad singing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Die Walküre standing on a papier-maché “mountain crag” and waving a spear as if it were a baseball bat and she were warming up to take batting practice. By far the best aspect of The Big Broadcast of 1937 is the surprisingly atmospheric cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, one of the many German expats who fled the Nazis, first went to France, then came to the U.S. and ultimately took part in some of the early films noir. Sparkuhl’s rich, shadowy chiaroscuro lighting patterns aren’t exactly what we expect to see in a comedy-musical about radio whose stars are Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, but they add a lot to this movie, especially in Frank Forest’s big production number, “La Bomba” (notice the spelling — this is not the famous “La Bamba” that Ritchie Valens later rocked), a silly song not helped by Frank Forest’s stentorian voice that turns into a visual delight thanks to Sparkuhl’s high-contrast images. The director is Mitchell Leisen, who as in Murder in the Vanities (a clip from which is used here as part of a montage of nightclubs to which Milland takes Ross) shot his production numbers from a good-seat-in-the-house perspective and did not let his dance director, LeRoy Prinz, stage any Busby Berkeley-style numbers that couldn’t have taken place on stage (though the set on which “La Bomba” takes place is quite a bit bigger than one would expect from a real nightclub staging a floor show).

The sheer size of the writing committee — Erwin Gelsey, Arthur Kober and Barry Trivers, “original” story; Walter DeLeon and Francis Martin, script — once again makes one wonder why five credited writers (plus the film’s producer, Lewis Gensler) were needed to come up with this ragbag of clichés, but no one went to a movie like this for the script; frankly, by far the best lines of dialogue are the exchanges between Burns and Allen, which were almost certainly written by Burns himself and their usual radio writers rather than Paramount’s hacks — and one thing that’s interesting is that Allen does not come off as a total ditz; unlike another real-life couple who became comedy superstars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Allen’s wildest flights actually make a surreal sort of sense and are grounded in reality even if they often take a twisted view of it. Through much of The Big Broadcast of 1937, one gets the impression some formidable talents are working under water — George Burns and Jack Benny were long-time friends and their connection lasted even past Benny’s death (when Burns took over the part in the film of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys that had been intended for Benny) and one would have hoped for a much more convulsively funny meeting between them than the one we got here, and if I’d been writing the script I’d have had Martha Raye get Benny on the rebound once Shirley Ross and Ray Milland definitively paired up. For a major musical it also has a pretty weak set of songs — just about all its most interesting pieces had been written previously, and there’s a fascinating moment on the Past Perfect 20-CD boxed set of Benny Goodman in which the disc goes straight from “Here’s Love in Your Eye” to another film song from 1936, “Pick Yourself Up” from Jerome Kern’s score for the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time, and one can hear Goodman and the boys audibly perk up when playing a far better song from a far better movie than the one they were in! Still, The Big Broadcast of 1937 is a quite nice little movie, and if any of the major-domos at Universal Home Video are reading this, can we please have all four Big Broadcasts in a two-disc box the way you did with the first four Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies (and the way you should do with the four movies Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson made for Universal in the early 1940’s)?