Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sole Custody (Johnson Production Group, Annuit Coeptis Entertainment, Lifetime, 2014)

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

I watched the latest Lifetime offering in what they’ve taken to calling their “Saturday Night SoCial” series (at least I think that’s the typography they want from this series!), Sole Custody, one of those shrieking melodramas Lifetime puts on that would actually be better if the writers (Gary Imhoff and Brian Young) and the director (Brenton Spencer) had possessed what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “the supreme facility of the artist: the gift of knowing when to stop.” The plot — actually there are several plots bumping into each other like crash-’em cars at an old-style amusement park, but the two main ones are the increasing estrangement between two police officers who are also married to each other and the parents of a seven-year-old son, and the case the woman in this relationship is working on in which she’s going online to pose as a teenage girl and thereby attract a particularly elusive serial rapist the department is after. The rapist is especially skilled in computer hacking and is able to jump around enough so that the cops can’t trace him to any one ISP or computer network. The cops are Our Heroine, Zoey Logue (the last name isn’t listed on but it’s the one I thought I saw on a newspaper headline insert in the show), played by Julie Benz; and her husband Barry (Rick Ravanello). Barry claims to have to work long hours because he’s undercover on a case, only when he tells Zoey he didn’t come home one night because he crashed at his partner’s place after a long shift on the job, the partner inadvertently “outs” the lie and leaves Zoey convinced that he’s having an affair. The fact that he’s suddenly become disinterested in sex with Zoey and is often sleeping on the couch even when he does come home isn’t helping their relationship either. Zoey has just about had it with Barry when the film opens but is determined to maintain at least the appearance of a successful marriage for the sake of their son Tommy (Maxwell Kovach), since Zoey was raised by a single mom and suffered enough from that she doesn’t want her son to have the same fate.

Unfortunately, Zoey also has a busybody friend named Ann (Chelah Horsdal) who to my mind is the real villain of the piece, since her wretched and insistently pushed “advice” to Zoey on how to handle her potentially straying husband consists of refusing to talk to him, pushing him out of the house, preventing him from seeing his son and ultimately filing for divorce while insisting on keeping both the house and the boy. Barry is understandably freaked out by this, and if Imhoff and Young had stopped here — with the two hatebirds locked into an increasingly bitter custody battle over Timmy while still having to work together as police officers to solve crimes, and with the story of the serial rapist (ya remember the serial rapist?) and Zoey’s involvement as part of the force’s computer-crimes unit to apprehend him and set herself up as a decoy to attract him — they could have had a tight, suspenseful and believable thriller. But of course, being modern writers — and modern Lifetime writers, at that — they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop there: in the middle of the story Zoey wakes up to find her house is burning down and she desperately tries to wake up and save Timmy, but can’t come to in time. What’s weird about this scene is it’s supposed to represent the turning point in the story, but because earlier sequences had shown Zoey having nightmares when Barry left her alone in bed all night, it takes us a while (well, it took me a while, anyway) to realize that the fire, and Timmy’s death from it, were supposed to be real events in the story. At least the fire was; for the second half of the movie Zoey finds herself accused of arson and criminally negligent homicide in the death of her son, and everyone on the force, including her ex as well as her current computer-crimes partner Fish (Maxwell Kevin Anderson, whose head shot makes him look considerably hotter than he does in the movie, where he’s given Buddy Holly glasses and a geeky haircut to establish him as a standard-issue computer nerd) is convinced she drank, took sleeping pills, fell asleep smoking a cigarette (she insists she used to be a smoker but had long since quit) and thereby set her house on fire and killed her son. The main reason they believe this is that the toxicology report on her while she was unconscious and in the hospital showed nicotine, alcohol and sleeping pills in her system — and she’s told throughout the whole second half of the movie, even by her so-called “friend” Ann, that the “evidence” against her is so overwhelming she should just accept what she’s done, seek therapy and throw herself on the mercy of the court as best she can. Naturally, being not only a cop but a thriller heroine as well, she won’t accept that.

She gets bailed out of jail, only to have her bail revoked when she sneaks into the police station to peek at the records of the case, then escapes from jail after subduing a male prisoner almost twice her size who became violent in the holding area, enlists the aid of a 16-year-old hacker whom she and her partner previously arrested on suspicion that he was the serial rapist (the whole plot line about the rapist gets dropped along the way, though there’s a hint that there really wasn’t a serial rapist and the 16-year-old — who was actually cute in a bearish sort of way — invented the whole thing and used his hacking skills to make it look like a serial rapist was predating online) and ultimately realizes that her soon-to-be ex-husband Barry set up the whole thing. He burned their house down, after first spiriting Timmy out of it and leaving behind another kid’s body — an eight-year-old boy who’d been killed in a car accident — with the hoped-for result that he would have Timmy, his wife would have a murder rap against her, and he’d retire from the police force and flee the state to join his relatives elsewhere. The finale features Zoey confronting Barry in a motel on the outskirts of town just outside the state border and having a violent confrontation — though she’s savvy enough to turn on the video camera of her cell phone and thereby broadcast back to police headquarters exactly what’s going on, including Barry’s confession — in which she shoots out the gas tank of Barry’s car so he can have the experience of thinking Timmy is dead — which he isn’t, Zoey having previously instructed him to play hide-and-seek so he was safe behind a dumpster when Zoey shot out the gas tank of Barry’s car and the police finally figure out where the motel is and arrive in time to take Barry into custody. Sole Custody was actually great fun, and there was real suspense and uncertainty about the ending (it wouldn’t have surprised me if Fish had turned out to be both the serial rapist and the arsonist who burned down Zoey’s house, his motive being a decidedly unrequited crush on her), but the multiple plot reversals and piling of credibility-stretching event on top of credibility-stretching event, as well as the baroque overdirection by Brenton Spencer, made this considerably less entertaining than it could have been.

Sea Divers (Harold Minniear Productions, 1958)

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

When Charles finally got home from work I ran a half-hour unsold TV pilot from 1958 which I’d downloaded from Sea Divers, a pretty obvious knockoff of the successful syndicated series Sea Hunt, which had starred Lloyd Bridges as a freelance ocean diver who got mixed up in various adventures. “Created” by Harold Minniear and Lamar Boren for their own production company, written by Charles Maxwell and James Benson Nablo and directed by old RKO “B” hand Leslie Goodwins, Sea Divers wasn’t bad. Alas, it wasn’t very good, either; whatever interest it has now lies mainly in the absolutely gorgeous body of series star Rhodes Reason as Tom Gorman, who spends most of the show blessedly clad in nothing but a pair of super-tight swim trunks that show off a quite enviable basket. Charles joked that had Minniear and Boren been able to pitch it to a Gay TV executive, they probably could have got it sold just on the basis that it featured a really hot guy wearing almost nothing! Alas, Sea Divers was an all-too-obvious ripoff of Sea Hunt (a show that wasn’t any great shakes, either) and the only really interesting aspect aside from Reason’s bod was the ambiguous character of Hilda Thayer (nicely played by Joyce Holden), who gives a series of increasingly preposterous reasons for wanting to hire Gorman and his boss and business manager, Mike Gilbert (John Smith — not the same one as Pocahontas’s boyfriend, surely!), to salvage a mysterious canister from the wreck of a small boat called the Katy. (It might have had more of a name than that, but “Katy” is what we get to see.)

At first she tells them her father was an oceanographer and had left an important scientific secret aboard the Katy and she wants them to salvage it so he can be properly credited with its discovery. Later she tells them her dad found the location of the legendary wreck of the Spanish treasure ship San Salvador and had started to salvage it when the Katy sank (or was sunk by hostile parties also after the fortune) and took him down with her. There’s also a fishing boat with its lines out where there aren’t any fish to be had — obviously the inhabitants are spying on Hilda and Our Heroes for some nefarious purpose, but we’re not told precisely what. Later it turns out that Hilda and the two divers aboard the mystery boat are jewel smugglers — though why Hilda felt a need to hire two more divers to go after the sunken loot when she already had two divers for that purpose is a mystery — and Hilda tries to shoot Our Heroes with a gun they gave her for protection against the bad guys (“Haven’t you guys ever seen a movie?” I joked. “You never give a gun to a morally ambiguous woman!”), but they’re able to escape surprisingly easily and end the situation decently by shooting a harpoon gun at Evelyn’s sleeve, thereby pinning her to their boat and preventing her from firing her gun. (Huh?) There’s also a comic-relief character named Marty (Jeanne Vaughn), an 18-year-old girl who specializes in making herself obnoxious as she tries to horn in on the divers’ adventures and drink alongside them even though she isn’t yet 21. Sea Divers takes place in San Diego and at least some of the exteriors are quite recognizable (including the outside of the Bali H’ai restaurant), which made the piece a bit more fun for San Diegans like Charles and I, but mostly this is pretty dull, with lots of shots of divers chasing each other either on the surface or underwater, and such is the nature of SCUBA equipment that one deep-sea diver looks pretty much like another deep-sea diver and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who or what side they’re on.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Morey Amsterdam Show: Season 2, Episode 1 (DuMont TV, April 21, 1949)

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

I ran Charles a curious TV item he’d downloaded from the season two premiere of The Morey Amsterdam Show, aired April 21, 1949 on the short-lived and really quirky DuMont network. Morey Amsterdam was the pint-sized Jewish comedian best known for his supporting role as Buddy Sorrell, one of Rob Petrie’s (Dick Van Dyke) compadres in the writing room of the fictitious “Allan Brady Show” on the real Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960’s (a series created by Carl Reiner based on his memories of working in the writing room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows alongside Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon!). Before that he was a nightclub MC and he got to do this show, first on the CBS radio network, then for the first year on CBS-TV and for its second and third years on DuMont, playing a nightclub MC with two sidekicks who later went on to much more important careers: Art Carney as Newton the Waiter (the character had been called “Charlie” on the CBS version, also played by Carney, and several times during this show Amsterdam slips up and calls Carney “Charlie” instead of “Newton”) and future author Jacqueline Susann as a cigarette girl with a surprisingly good deadpan sense of humor. (The show was produced by Susann’s husband, Irving Mansfield, who promoted her so energetically — first as a performer and then as a writer — that the hype itself became the subject of a film, She’s So Fabulous!, with Bette Midler playing Susann.) It’s the sort of show that’s funny but nowhere near as funny as the writers thought it was (Amsterdam gets the writing credit himself — though it’s highly likely he had help — and David B. Lewis managed traffic, oops, I mean directed). Amsterdam is funny, all right, but he’s clearly sucking off the bones of better, funnier Jewish comedians, including Groucho Marx in his opening monologue (Charles was startled that the conventions of TV variety shows, including the comedian/host’s opening monologue, were already in place as early as 1949) and Jack Benny in his schtick of playing an instrument terribly. Benny became famous for, among other things, his deliberately rotten violin playing (that he could genuinely handle the instrument became obvious on one of his shows in which he’s shown finger-picking notes on the fretboard, and we have Joe Venuti’s testimony that Benny was an excellent jazz violinist who could give Venuti a run for his money in jam sessions), so Amsterdam decided to go him one better — or at least two sizes bigger — and deliberately badly play a cello. (He, too, is shown finger-picking on the fretboard and thereby giving away that he could really handle the instrument.)

The musical content of the show is supplied by a band led by jazz pianist Johnny Guarnieri (who had played with Artie Shaw’s band and, as a member of the Gramercy 5 — the band-within-a-band Shaw formed to compete with the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — he became the first musician to record a jazz solo on harpsichord), who as he has to back Amsterdam in a not-especially-funny novelty song called “Yuk-a-Puk” has a bored look on his face that certainly makes me think he was saying to himself, “Gee, I wish I was back playing with Artie Shaw instead of having to do this shit.” (Yuk-a-Puk” went nowhere but other songs with equally silly nonsense lyrics, like “Mairzy Doats” and “The Hut-Sut Song,” were hits in the late 1940’s, in those dog years for music between the end of the big bands and the rise of rock ’n’ roll.) Also we get a vocal from Vic Damone on Cole Porter’s song “So in Love” from Kiss Me, Kate — Damone, here as in his later appearances on TV and film, shows off a really nice crooner’s voice but is utterly clueless about phrasing; opportunities to use rubato and syncopation a singer like Frank Sinatra would have grabbed in a song like this go sailing by the oblivious Damone. (I recall my late roommate/client John hearing me play Mel Tormé’s version of the song “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” and informing me that it was Vic Damone who’d had the hit on that song originally; it was utterly impossible for me to imagine Damone singing that song as well as Tormé, who was a master of phrasing.) The show was appealing in a certain dorky way — the scene with Susann was genuinely hilarious (she plays a woman who’s taken to a baseball game and is clueless about what’s going on; she can’t understand why all those people are torturing that poor defenseless ball, including hitting it with a stick and throwing it around the field) and Amsterdam proved a worthy straight-man for her, but in the rest of it he’s pretty overwhelming and it’s easy to see how he worked better as a sideman on The Dick Van Dyke Show than as a lead performer.

The show also featured commercials for DuMont’s own line of TV sets — ironic since you had to own a DuMont set to be able to watch this show at all! The company had been founded by experimental TV researcher Allan B. DuMont, who had decided that the future of TV broadcasting lay in the ultra-high-frequency, or UHF, band (channels 14 to 83, for those of you who weren’t around in the days before cable when the number of available channels was strictly limited to what could be broadcast over the air) rather than the very-high-frequency or VHF, band (channels 2 to 13) the major broadcasting players, RCA (parent company of NBC) and CBS, were using. So DuMont made sets that could only tune in to UHF channels — which meant you could only watch DuMont shows if you had a DuMont set and you couldn’t watch NBC, CBS or ABC shows if you only had a DuMont set. Not surprisingly, DuMont’s TV enterprise went out of business in 1955 and the sets became very expensive pieces of useless furniture — at least until the FCC started granting more UHF broadcasting licenses in the early 1960’s and in the late 1960’s mandated that TV manufacturers had to start making sets that could receive both VHF and UHF bands with equal quality. The fact that so few DuMont programs survive (apparently there was a warehouse full of them until the early 1970’s, when it was emptied and most of the surviving kinescopes were dumped into the sea) has just added to the quirky allure of the network and its legend — though DuMont deserves credit for being the only company to film Charlie Parker performing live (with Dizzy Gillespie and a pickup band on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” for a 1952 awards show hosted by Earl Wilson, who’s also seen in a cameo here), a clip whose rediscovery and first public showing in San Francisco in 1976 was a galvanic event for jazz fans. (Later two other clips of Parker performing “Celebrity” and “Ballade” were discovered, but they were post-synched to Parker’s records rather than him performing in real time.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Unexpected: “High Adventure” (Ziv TV, 1952)

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

I showed Charles the other episode of the early-1950’s TV series The Unexpected I’d downloaded from (which had an Alpha Video logo on it, leaving open the possibility that other episodes exist and Alpha’s catalog has them available). It was called “High Adventure” and was first aired October 15, 1952, and was set in the mountains of Southern California. Despite flood warnings, concerned mother Elaine Barlow (Paula Raymond, looking and sounding very much like the young Bette Davis even though she was dark-haired instead of ash-blonde) takes her sick son Tommy (Gordon Gebert) and the boy’s nurse, Miss Ryan (Virginia Carroll) to the family’s lodge cabin in the woods. Only a mysterious and unseen intruder clubs Miss Ryan to death, and Elaine is understandably freaked out by the sight of the body. For the rest of this compact half-hour show (as Charles and I have both noted before, it’s amazing that 1950’s writers and directors — here, Stuart Jerome and Eddie Davis, respectively — could cram so much drama into a half-hour time slot whereas so many TV shows and feature films today seem bloated and ponderous, artificially inflated into more running time than their meager plots can contain) the Barlows are terrorized by odd sounds, mysteriously opening and closing doors, and a so-called “Cat-and-Mouse Killer” who’s shown only as a pair of legs stalking the Barlows both inside and outside their house (Elaine is drawn as confused whether she and her son will be safer indoors or out).

She calls the police, then hears someone pick up the extension phone and overhear the call; the police tell her that due to the flooding they won’t be able to get to her until the morning, so she’ll just have to protect herself and her boy as best she can. There’s another complication in that the kid needs some medicine (a liquid she has to administer with a tablespoon) and it’s in the bathroom, which is upstairs where he is lurking. Eventually Mrs. Barlow is startled when she’s confronted face-to-face by [spoiler alert!] Captain Forrest of the local police, who tells her he’s already arrested the “Cat-and-Mouse Killer” and that he lied to her because he knew the killer was listening and wanted to fool him into thinking he would be able to have his way with the Barlows while the cops were in fact on their way to take him into custody. The Unexpected was one of many anthology crime and science-fiction shows on in the early 1950’s (including the quite remarkable Tales of Tomorrow, which anticipated The Twilight Zone and would probably be as well known if it had been shot on film instead of done “live” and surviving only via crappy-looking kinescopes) and it’s directed quite effectively by Davis, who uses overhead camera angles to make Elaine Barlow seem even more trapped than the script tells us she is. Raymond’s acting was a bit on the mannered side (a bit of a surprise given how effectively understated she was in the feature films I’ve seen her in) but she’s a powerful screen presence and manages to portray the terror the character is in as well as the depths of her concern for her son — who’s drawn as a wise-guy kid who enjoys Western stories and comic books. Any film from the first 30 years or so after Shirley Temple’s era that features a kid (of either gender) who isn’t drawn as a cutesie-poo stereotype in the Temple mold is welcome!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Going Places (Warner Bros., Cosmopolitan, First National, 1938)

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

I watched the movie I’d recorded that morning: Going Places, a 1938 Warners musical directed by Ray Enright in his usual traffic-cop style (I remember when I ran Charles the 1942 version of The Spoilers, with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne, I found it a surprisingly dull movie despite the star cast — the only exciting part was the final fight, which was directed not by Enright, but by action specialist B. Reeves Eason) and starring Dick Powell and Anita Louise in a quirky story (based on an old play called The Hottentot) involving two race-fixing gangsters (Allen Jenkins and Harold Huber), a sporting-goods store manager (Walter Catlett) and salesperson (Powell), an uncontrollable horse called “Jeepers Creepers,” a stablehand (Louis Armstrong) who can soothe the savage beast by playing the song of the same name on his trumpet, and a lot of rich swells (including Louise and, of all people, Ronald Reagan!) who are putting on a steeplechase.

The plot, which you could just about write yourself from the above data, has Powell hang out among the rich swells posing as a famous jockey, fall in love with Louise, and ride “Jeepers Creepers” to victory in the steeplechase even though the closest thing to a horse he’s ever been on before is the mechanical bucking bronco in his store. (Urban Cowboy, 42 years earlier.) Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan — who shares with him and his band a big production number called “Mutiny in the Nursery” — steal this movie right out from under the white stars (though the number itself is prosaically staged and one wonders what Busby Berkeley or Vincente Minnelli could have done with a song with so many striking images from traditional nursery rhymes) — though Walter Catlett’s Gay act is a real treat (when Powell asks him if he’s ever been in love, he bats his eyes and rolls his head as if he thinks that’s a proposal) and the script (by Jerry Wald, Sig Herzig and Maurice Leo) is surprisingly (at least by 1938 standards!), and refreshingly, frank about the sexual dalliances of the characters. It seems odd that this film includes two of the most beautiful romantic ballads Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer ever wrote, “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss” (both hauntingly recorded by Billie Holiday), but uses them only as instrumental background music! It’s less odd, unfortunately, that the film casts Armstrong in his first speaking role in a feature movie (prior to this he’d just done guest appearances, popping up, playing a song or two, then disappearing again), but he and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (another marvelous African-American character actor) had to play the usual shuffling stereotypes. Describing Going Places in his Armstrong biography, Hugues Panassié writes, “Louis not only did a musical number but he had an actual part, even if it was far too modest for his ability. The inept process of dubbing robbed moviegoers of his voice and savory speech in the French version; fortunately his singing was not dubbed, as it was for other films!” Incidentally, Armstrong had already acquired the stout proportions and receding hairline that were to become trademarks of his physical appearance by the 1950’s, when he hit the peak of his international popularity — in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s he’d slimmed down radically and looked surprisingly, and strikingly, handsome; but as early as 1938 he was already lovable, roly-poly ol’ Satchmo! — 3/31/98


The film was Going Places, an odd 1938 semi-musical from Dick Powell’s dog days as a Warner Bros. star. Two years earlier he’d made Colleen, the last film that co-starred him and Ruby Keeler from the glory days of the Busby Berkeley musicals (42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933), and in 1937 Warners dropped Keeler from their contract list after the financial failure of Ready, Willing and Able, her last film for the studio. Powell soldiered on with a key role in Hollywood Hotel — though Benny Goodman’s orchestra was as much a “draw” for that film’s initial audiences than Powell (who played an aspiring singer who was also a saxophonist in Goodman’s band) and two of the Lane sisters, who were the rivals for his love (one a diva-esque star, the other a down-to-earth stand-in whom he ends up with at the end) — but it was clear that Jack Warner and Hal Wallis didn’t have that much faith in his continued drawing power, either. So they put him in Going Places, a film about horse racing (doesn’t the name Going Places just automatically make “horse racing” leap to mind as the subject of a film so titled? Me neither) based on an old Broadway play called The Hottentot (which doesn’t really make “horse racing” leap to mind as a subject, either) by Victor Mapes and William Collier, Sr., which premiered on Broadway on March 1, 1920 (so this wasn’t exactly cutting-edge story material even then) and hired old Warners standby Harry Warren as composer and Johnny Mercer as lyricist to construct a series of songs. Warren and Mercer obliged with “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss,” two haunting mid-tempo ballads for Dick Powell to sing to leading lady Anita Louise (that it wasn’t Keeler or Powell’s own real-life leading lady at the time, Joan Blondell, itself says volumes about Warners’ lack of faith in this project), and Warners’ music publishing division obliged by placing the songs with such major recording artists as Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters and Artie Shaw. Only for some bizarre reason that seems to be lost in the mist of time, at the last minute Powell’s performances of these songs was cut from the film — and the fact that this was done at the last minute is readily apparent because the song cues remain in the film even though the songs themselves don’t (except as part of the background score, where they’re readily noticeable if you’ve learned them by the recordings by Holiday, Waters or Shaw). What’s left over is the shards of the Mapes-Collier plot, which deals with a failing sporting-goods store in New York City, Detridge and Frome. The remaining owner is Frome (Robert Warwick) but he’s left the management of the place to hidebound Franklin Dexter (Walter Catlett, brilliant as usual) and his top salesman, Peter Mason (Dick Powell). Dexter is so old-school he believes the store should sell only on its reputation and shouldn’t advertise; Mason suggests that the store should send a representative to the upcoming steeplechase race hosted by Col. Withering (Thurston Hall) and his wife Cora (Minna Gombell) at their big estate in Maryland.

There’s only one problem — actually there are quite a few problems but one that rears its head early on is that Col Withering is the store’s biggest customer. He regularly orders moth-eaten stuffed heads of big game from around the world because he’s keeping a mistress (shown surprisingly obviously for a post-1934 film from the era of strict Production Code enforcement) but telling his wife that he’s going on hunting trips, and he relies on Detridge and Frome to supply him with “trophies” of animals he supposedly killed on these fictitious safaris. Also in the plot mix is a couple of corrupt racetrack touts, Droopy (Allen Jenkins) and Maxie (Harold Huber), who seek to make a killing on Jeepers Creepers, a wild, almost untameable but potentially great horse owned by Col. Withering’s son, Jack (Ronald Reagan, who’s billed fourth — behind Powell, Louise and Jenkins — which led Charles to the almost inevitable joke, “Hey, why couldn’t we have had Allen Jenkins as President?”). “There ain’t nothin’ on four legs that can beat that horse!” Maxie exclaims when he sees Jeepers Creepers in action. “Yeah, and there ain’t nothin’ on two legs can ride him,” snarls Droopy at his most Allen Jenkinsish. The only person anywhere in the vicinity who can control him is his stablehand, Gabriel (Louis Armstrong, who more than anyone else really makes this movie; though he’s still playing the silly Black servant stereotype, his singing and especially his trumpet playing blow away all the white cast members), who wrote a song called “Jeepers Creepers” that the horse particularly likes. The gimmick is that Frome allows Peter Mason to go to the Maryland steeplechase posing as Peter Randall, the one star rider the store did sign an endorsement contract with, but who’s unavailable because he’s riding in his native Australia at the moment — and, to get back at Dexter for his martinet ways as Peter’s boss, Peter drafts Dexter into service as his valet so he can boss Dexter around for a change. The idea is that Peter will only appear in the riding togs Detridge and Frome sells and generally promote the store, but naturally a lot of people want the famous Peter Randall to ride their horses — including Cora Withering’s ward Ellen Parker (Anita Louise), who wants him to ride her horse Lady Ellen; and Droopy and Maxie, who want him to ride Jeepers Creepers and are threatening him with the traditional gangsters’ “or else” (“Or else what?” Peter innocently asks) if he doesn’t.

Eventually Droopy and Maxie sabotage Lady Ellen by giving her a diet of apples and water just before the race, which bloats her, and to make it up to Ellen — who in the meantime has decided she’s in love with Peter and, like Joan Fontaine’s character in A Damsel in Distress (a 1937 movie dissed then and now because it co-starred Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, but which is much better than Going Places) she’s aware that he’s a fake but is nonetheless awed by his courage in doing something dangerous and foolhardy just to prove his love for her. The songs that got left over were the marvelous “Jeepers Creepers,” well sung and played by Armstrong and periodically reprised by the Armstrong band and Dick Powell (who sings it to the horse a cappella with a megaphone during the final race) as needed to get Jeepers Creepers to run like a championship horse. (The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races — the most commercially successfully film they ever had — seems to have started this vogue for movies in which a potentially prize-winning horse needs some weird and rules-straining co-factor to win the big race.) There’s also a gag quartet sung by Dick Powell, Walter Catlett, Allen Jenkins and Harold Huber called “Oh, What a Horse was Charlie,” and a nice production number for Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan (a Black singer who’d just become a major — and unexpected — star for her vocal on Claude Thornhill’s swing version of “Loch Lomond”), the Dandridge Sisters (when they were only in their teens!) and quite a few talented African-Americans with Powell and Louise making periodic vocal interjections. The big number is called “Mutiny in the Nursery” and it’s a series of swing rewrites of classic nursery rhymes and the songs based on them — and if Warners had had more confidence in this project they might have brought in Busby Berkeley (who was still under contract to them) and had him stage the piece on a series of spectacular sets representing the various nursery rhymes instead of just having the whole thing take place on a relatively simple set representing the courtyard in front of the Withering racing stables.

Armstrong is in superb form but the sort of atmospheric direction Berkeley might have given him — or film novice Vincente Minnelli did give him in the big “Public Melody No. 1” number in Paramount’s 1937 film Artists and Models — is sorely missed. Though it would be a stronger movie with a more elaborate big number and with Dick Powell’s big vocals on “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss” included (even though if they had been, I’d probably be complaining that he didn’t sing the songs anywhere nearly as well as Billie Holiday did!), Going Places is still a fun film, with screenwriters Sig Herzig, Jerry Wald and Maurice Leo plugging a lot of hot wisecracks into that ancient Mapes-Collier plot and Powell and Louise at least personable and appealing, though the romantic sparks don’t fly nearly as brightly as they did when Powell played opposite Keeler or Blondell. Still, Powell’s days at Warners were numbered — yet more evidence of their lack of faith in him was that, though they gave him top billing, it was below the title (actually he and Louise headed a separate card shown after the title credit, and the next was a miscellaneous actors’ card which was topped by Jenkins and Reagan, in that order) — and so were his days as a juvenile musical lead. He kicked around various studios between 1939 (when Warners dropped him after the film Naughty but Nice) and 1944, turning up as a beachcomber in a Paramount musical called Happy-Go-Lucky and a singer who enlists in the Navy to get away from his mobbing teenage fans in the 1941 Abbott and Costello vehicle In the Navy at Universal. In 1944 RKO wanted to sign Powell, thinking that musicals were on their way back, and he insisted that they give him a serious dramatic acting role first — said serious dramatic acting role was in Murder, My Sweet, their superb adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and suddenly Dick Powell 1.0, musical star, was history and in his place stood, proud and tall (a bit too tall either for Philip Marlowe or his role in Going Places as a jockey, since the real Powell was six feet even and it was difficult for Murder, My Sweet director Edward Dmytryk to get the effect he wanted of Mike Mazurki looming over Dick Powell when Mazurki was only three inches taller), Dick Powell 2.0, film noir icon. — 8/27/14

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lullaby of Broadway (Warner Bros., 1951)

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

Last night I watched one of the films Turner Classic Movies was showing as a tribute to a nearly forgotten almost-star, Gladys George, who had a strong career on Broadway and seemed ready for stardom in films when she drank herself out of a potentially major career, becoming notorious for her unreliability and sinking from featured roles to minor parts in major films and leads in “B”’s. Her biggest movie was probably the 1937 version of Madame”X”, which I’ve seen and which, rather cruelly, cast her as a dissolute woman who falls into the gutter via alcohol and drugs (actually absinthe, a liqueur which counts as both alcohol and drug since it has brain-altering properties from its other ingredients). The film I watched last night was Lullaby of Broadway, an odd choice for a Gladys George tribute because even though she’s in it, her role is pretty peripheral. It’s really a vehicle for Doris Day, made in 1951 in the first flush of her movie success, when Jack Warner regarded her as the great white hope that would save his studio and plunked her into one big, splashy musical after another. One of their strategies for making these films quickly and cheaply was to recycle old songs; Warners not only owned the rights to the great songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin that had been used in the famous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930’s (like “Lullaby of Broadway” from Gold Diggers of 1935 and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” from 42nd Street) but they’d also bought the Chappell music-publishing company, which gave them the rights to songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and other luminaries. The plot is nominally a knockoff of Damon Runyon’s “Madame la Gimp” and the film Frank Capra made from it in 1933, Lady for a Day, with Doris Day playing Melinda Howard (why did they give her such blah character names?), daughter of former Broadway star Jessica “Jessie” Howard (Gladys George). Doris — oops, I mean “Melinda” — has been raised in England and her mom has sent her a long series of letters saying that she’s an enormous Broadway star, but really drink and general unreliability have plunged her from that status. What she’s really doing is singing in a sleazy (as sleazy as Warner Bros. could make it under the Production Code, anyway) club in Greenwich Village, belting out songs like “There’s a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” in a rough, gravelly voice but an appealing one (and it’s almost certainly Gladys George’s own singing voice). Doris is cruised on the ship taking her from the U.K. to the U.S. by egotistical Tom Farnham (Gene Nelson), who in a gag writer Earl Baldwin pretty obviously ripped off from the meeting between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time pretends not to be able to dance so he can get close to Our Heroine, when he’s really a fully accomplished professional dancer. (One reviewer lamented that he never got to be as big a star as Astaire or Gene Kelly, but part of the problem may be that he couldn’t sing; his vocals here were dubbed by one Hal Derwin.)

When she gets to New York the house her mom used to live in, and which she still used as a return address on her letters, is now occupied by Adolph Hubbell (S. Z. Sakall) and his wife Anna (Florence Bates); they really own the place, but their servants, Lefty Mack (Billy DeWolfe) and Gloria Davis (Anne Triola), conceal that fact from Our Doris, whose own talents as an entertainer soon land her the lead in an upcoming Broadway show, Lullaby of Broadway, being produced by George Ferndel (Harvey Stafford) and bankrolled by Adolph Hubbell. The film’s one gag is that Hubbell is giving Doris — oops, Melinda — lavish gifts, including a mink jacket (one thing that really dates this film is the reverence towards fur, as well as the cheery indifference to their surroundings with which its people smoke; now that it’s become routine to ghettoize smokers into smaller and smaller slices of the world, and when people think of fur coats they’re more likely to think of animal abuse than status, these scenes “read” very differently than they did in 1951), which lead people (including, eventually, Mrs. Hubbell) to think he’s giving her all this stuff to get into her pants. Not that we believe it; after all, this is Doris Day we’re talking about! (Doris is playing a character so protective of her virtue — something that would become a trademark of hers — I couldn’t help but recall Oscar Levant’s quip that “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”) Anyway, it ends the way you expect it to, with Doris learning the truth about her mom from a reporter trying to interview her about Anne Hubbell’s divorce suit against her husband, which is naming Melinda as co-respondent; eventually everything ends happily, the Hubbells reunite, Melinda pairs up with Tom Farnham — who’s her co-star in the big show — and she returns from the boat she was about to take to go back to England to play in her show on opening night, and it’s a huge success.

Along the way Doris Day gets to sing some of the best items from the Great American Songbook, including Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” and Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” and there’s an elaborate final number based on the title song in which director David Butler copies the famous opening shot of Busby Berkeley’s original staging of “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935 — Doris Day’s face is just a pinprick in the middle of an otherwise black screen, only as the camera tracks closer to it, it grows in size until it fills the screen. Alas, the rest of the number is pretty ordinary; we get a lot of shots of the proscenium of the stage this is taking place on — serving us notice that Butler and his choreographer, Eddie Prinz, aren’t going to pull the Berkeley trick of having the number take place over acres of space instead of the limited room available on a real stage — and a lot of chorus girls clumping around behind Day and Nelson. When I first saw this film in the 1980’s I was very disappointed that they hadn’t got Busby Berkeley to stage the numbers and had him re-create the marvelous original choreography of “Lullaby of Broadway” in color — though Doris Day’s voice may not have had the sepulchral depth of Wini Shaw’s she was a very capable singer with a surprising feel for jazz (maybe not so surprising since she did begin her career with a big band, Les Brown’s), and it would have been marvelous to see her go through a color version of the famous Berkeley staging of the song instead of the relatively dull Prinz staging we actually get. Still, Lullaby of Broadway is a nice movie — not a world-beater but reliably entertaining, a suitable vehicle for its star, a luscious reminder of the days when color films were actually colorful (this is one of the last gasps of three-strip Technicolor at its vibrant, if somewhat garish, best) and also a surprisingly good showcase for Gladys George — even if the filmmakers were pulling the same nasty trick on her previous moviemakers had done with John Gilbert and John Barrymore: casting them as people destroying themselves with drink when they were doing that for real!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

#popFan (TLH Productions/Lifetime, 2014)

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

I watched what turned out to be a quite good Lifetime TV-movie, the “world premiere” of something called #popFan — the Twitter-style hashtag at the beginning and the capital letter in the middle of an otherwise blended-together lower-case word are in the official title on the Lifetime Web site, though lists it as the more normal “PopFan” — still one word with a capital letter in the middle, in that horrible style of nomenclature bequeathed to us by computer software writers in the 1980’s, but at least beginning with a capital letter and not a hashtag. Oddly, despite all the to-do about hashtags — not only does the film’s official title begin with one, but so do all the credits: “#directed by Vanessa Parise,” “#written by Dean Orion,” etc. — though the film alludes to social media in general there isn’t a specific reference to Twitter in its plot. I guess the filmmakers just thought putting hastags all over the title and credits would make it look cool. Anyway, #popFan is basically Stephen King’s story Misery with the genders reversed; instead of a male romance writer held hostage by a crazed female fan, it’s a female pop singer and aspiring actress held hostage by a crazed male fan.

When we first see Ava Pierce (Chelsea Kane) — the page gives “Maclaine” as the last name of her character but it was probably changed in the later stages of writing, too late for to get the information before the film was released — she’s at a release party for her new CD and the hot, sexy video she’s shot for it in which she does a strip tease and practically rapes the camera. Her manager, Damon (Danny Wattley), has an offer for her to make a serious film with a major director (carefully unnamed) but she wouldn’t be the star and she would only have four scenes, so she’s less than thrilled. Her boyfriend, investment banker Curtis Flemming (Ben Hollingsworth), is offended by the fact that she’s having the biggest hit of her career by selling herself as a sex object, and Ava (she’s referred to throughout the film almost entirely by her first name, and so are her real-life colleagues “Taylor” and “Miley”) gets back at him by picking out one of the guys at the party, practically going down on him in front of everybody, then doing a deep kiss with a Black woman (breaking both racial and gender taboos), inviting the white guy she’d just nearly raped to join them for a three-way — and suddenly noticing, after Curtis threw a hissy-fit, that at least five people have been photographing the whole thing with the video cameras on their smartphones, waiting and practically drooling at the prospect of posting the scenes to YouTube. Ava, disgusted with herself over the whole scene, decides to take some time off from her career as a hot pop star and drive up from New York City to New England, hide out in one of the picturesque local inns, and write some new songs. Only along the way she has to get gas — there are some nice little gags put in by #writer Orion to the effect that she’s so unused to driving herself she doesn’t know which side of her car the gas cap is on or how to get it open — and the gas-station attendant (a job that in the 1930’s was a symbol of honest proletarianism and the beginnings of a successful strive at least to the middle class, if not to the very top, but now reads very differently given that all a modern-day gas-station attendant has to do is take your money and hit the button that turns on the self-serve pump) is a young man named Xavier (Nolan Gerard Funk) who warns her that a “nor’easter” is coming up — and being the naïve child of privilege she is, she needs to have it explained that that means a terrible storm.

Xavier insists on pronouncing the “x” in his name — it comes out sounding like “ex-avier” — which leads Ava to nickname him “X-Man” (and, much to his credit as an actor, Nolan Gerard Funk also pronounces the “t” in “often”!) — and at first he seems like the nicest guy you could imagine, especially after Ava loses control of her car in the storm, the car is wrecked, she’s knocked unconscious and when she comes to she’s in Xavier’s bed. Of course, appearances are deceiving; Xavier has the soft-spoken solicitousness of Norman Bates in Psycho but any hardened movie-watcher knows he’s probably hiding a black heart, or at least a crazy head, inside. He also claims to have served as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, but when Ava gets suspicious and drugs his pasta to put him out for a while so she can go searching into the secret room of the lighthouse, she finds a whole wall plastered with pictures of herself — into some of which Xavier has inserted himself, presumably via Photoshop — and also a desk drawer containing a file marked “MILITARY” whose contents are a series of letters he’s received back from his attempts to enlist, all of which have declared him unfit for service, presumably due to his mental issues. Ava tries to escape in Xavier’s truck but he catches her — I was thinking #writer Orion was going to pull the old gag that she can’t drive a stick-shift, but instead he did the gag that she can’t get it started because she hasn’t pulled out the choke, never before having driven (or probably even seen) a car that had one — and when next we see her she’s in his bed but he’s got her tied up, suspended above the ceiling by rope in a classic bondage pose. Not that Xavier wants to rape her — oh, no, Lifetime was probably worried what sort of rating this would get from the TV board (just as Ava’s descent into crazed diva-dom carefully does not include drug use, unlike #Orion’s obvious real-life prototypes for her character) — he wants her to reproduce the sexy video for her mega-hit song in his living room with him filming it on his cell phone.

Meanwhile, Ava’s entourage, including Curtis, Damon and Ava’s mom Tracy (Kehli O’Byrne, who frankly looks like her older sister than her mother), is worried about her — they have one clue in that Ava found her cell phone in Xavier’s back room, used it to make a call, said she was being held in a New England lighthouse and would call right back with the exact location, only her battery died — and, determined not to involve the police for fear of starting a scandal that would damage Ava’s career, Curtis and Damon go out to find her themselves. First they have the predictable wild-goose chase among all New England’s old lighthouses, and then when they find the one Xavier, who even though the military didn’t let him still got really good with guns (and of course in a country basically governed by the National Rifle Association had no problem getting plenty of them!), drills three precisely aimed bullets into Damon’s chest, killing him instantly. He gets a shot at Curtis but Curtis is protected because he’s hiding behind a rock. Now, what does Curtis do? Does he do the obvious thing and, while he’s still covered by the rock, take out his cell phone and call the police? A director like Alfred Hitchcock would probably have cut to a shot of his cell phone on the dashboard or floor of his car — rubbing in the irony that he forgot to bring it when he would most need it — but #Parise and her #writer can’t be bothered with that. Instead they have Curtis shot in the leg, non-fatally but with no access to pain medication (Xavier flushed the rest of his supply after Ava drugged him with some of it) and held by a crazy guy who in the film’s weirdest scene brings out a power saw and threatens Curtis with a D.I.Y. amputation, then tells Ava that Curtis has just shown himself unworthy of her by peeing in his pants at the prospect. Eventually Xavier enlists Ava’s help in getting rid of Damon’s body (ya remember Damon?), including sending her to get boulders so he can weight it down so it will sink into the sea, and Ava clubs him with it, knocking him unconscious long enough for her and Curtis to regain control of the situation and drive off together at the end once Curtis, still without intervention of the authorities, has finally taken Xavier out.

Despite the typical thriller-plot contrivances and holes, and the lack of a sense that Ava has learned much from her horrible experience, #popFan (shot under the working title Lighthouse until someone at the #production company, TLH Productions, realized that that wouldn’t tell audiences much about what the story was) is actually a quite engaging movie, suspensefully #directed by #Parise, decently #written by #Orion (even if he could have worked on some of the sillier devices and made the story make at least a bit more sense), and surprisingly well #acted. Chelsea Kane is just right as Ava, making us feel for the character as she starts out flirting with the dark side without any real knowledge of what the dark side is — knowledge that the main story will impart to her — and the two men are not only quite hot (it’s a joy to see Nolan Gerard Funk shirtless and, if anything, Ben Hollingsworth is even sexier — odd to see a Lifetime movie in which the good guy is more exciting physically than the bad guy!) but good actors, with Funk in particular managing the nice-guy-turned-psycho act almost as well as its originator, Anthony Perkins (and he doesn’t have Norman Bates’ excuse that his mother made him do it — even though I couldn’t help but think that when Ava started rummaging around in his forbidden room, she was going to find Xavier’s stuffed mom hidden in the fruit cellar). I’d like to see either of these guys again — and I’d like to see Chelsea Kane again, too; though she’s quite a bit slimmer than the original she’s hot enough and has the right kind of cooing sexuality I wouldn’t mind seeing her in a Marilyn Monroe biopic.

Criminal Lawyer (RKO, 1937)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I screened one of the movies I’d recorded on a recent Turner Classic Movies tribute to actor Lee Tracy, a 1937 RKO “B” called Criminal Lawyer. It’s impossible for me to think (or write) about Tracy without recalling how he literally pissed away a major career; in 1934, on location in Mexico for MGM’s big-budget biopic ¡Viva Villa! (with Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa and Tracy as his gringo press agent responsible for getting him and his revolution good publicity in U.S. papers), he stood on the balcony of his hotel room one day and urinated on a passing detachment of soldiers in the Mexican army. This antic got not only Tracy but the entire film crew thrown out of Mexico immediately, and MGM got back by firing not only Tracy but director Howard Hawks, replacing him with Jack Conway (who got sole screen credit even though between two-thirds and three-fourths of the released film is Hawks’ work) and the Mexican locations with whatever places they could find in alta California that looked more or less right. Tracy drifted through the studio food chain, ending up at RKO and then an even cheaper (but still semi-major) lot, Universal, doing cheaper movies designed to show off his fast-talking wise-guy persona. Criminal Lawyer is listed on as a remake of a 1932 film called State’s Attorney (with John Barrymore, of all people, as the character Tracy plays here) — in 1951 RKO would make another “B” called Criminal Lawyer that would have certain plot devices in common with this one but wasn’t really a remake — and is actually a crackling-tough little melodrama which casts Tracy as attorney Barry Brandon, who wins his cases with spectacular courtroom stunts and, it’s hinted (but not officially revealed until the end), bribing jurors.

His main client is gangster Gene Larkin (Eduardo Ciannelli), and while running an illegal casino in New York City is a bit of a comedown for this actor after he played a character (based on Charles “Lucky” Luciano) who was running the entire New York Mafia in Marked Woman the year before, he’s nonetheless sinister enough that we applaud when Brandon, as a weird practical joke, arranges for the casino to be raided. He gets everyone off in night court with a $50 fine, which Larkin agrees to cover for everyone even though this sets him back over $2,000 and he’s naturally pissed at Brandon for costing him that much money. Incidentally, the night court judge is a woman (Claire McDowell) — there may have been an earlier one, but offhand this is the first film I’ve seen that shows a woman judge — and Brandon stays on to watch her hear her next case. This involves Madge Carter (Margot Grahame), a “woman of the streets” — it’s ambiguous in that maddening Production Code way exactly what she’s accused of doing, but whatever it is it involves picking up a man, Jack “Fingy” Doremus (Francis McDonald), who Brandon, taking Madge’s case on the spot as a lark, establishes is a paid police informer who’d swear out a complaint against anybody for the fees the cops are paying him. Brandon takes Madge home and installs her in an apartment in his building — chastely, of course, this being a post-Legion of Decency strict-Code-enforcement era film — while still continuing his relationship with Betty Walker (Betty Lawford), daughter of political boss William Walker (Frank M. Thomas). Larkin and Walter père have hatched a plot to get Brandon appointed as an assistant district attorney, and then move him up to full D.A. when Walker’s political machine gets the current D.A. elected to the U.S. Senate — only Brandon warns Larkin that if he expects this will give him a free pass from prosecution, he’s mistaken. While I took your money I was on your side, Brandon tells Larkin, but if I’m going to be paid by the people of New York to prosecute criminals, then I’m going to prosecute them — and that means you. Accordingly he aggressively pursues Larkin’s criminal enterprises and also wins a spectacular conviction against Nora James (Lita Chevret), who murdered her husband after she reviously tried to hire Brandon to help her divorce him and he refused on the rather hypocritically “virtuous” ground that he never did divorce work and regarded the marriage bond as sacred.

With Madge Carter working in his office as a secretary and personal assistant, Brandon expects to stay in the good graces of Walker’s political machine long enough to get elected governor — only one night, after a drunken crawl through various nightclubs and parties, Betty Walker steers the drunken Brandon to a justice of the peace and marries him. (Usually in the movies it was the guy who got the girl drunk so she’d agree to a “marriage” she wouldn’t have consented to sober.) The shock of realizing that Betty tricked him into marrying her convinces Brandon that it was Madge he really loved anyway, but now that he’s a married man she wants nothing to do with him either professionally or personally. She quits Brandon and goes to Larkin, of all people, to cash Brandon’s severance check — maybe her final get-back at him was supposed to be to give Larkin the check and therefore a hold over Brandon that would destroy him, but writers Louis Stevens (story), G. V. Atwater and Thomas Lennon (script) don’t make that clear — and as she leaves Larkin’s she sees him go out and shoot his gangland enemy “Bird Dog” Finn (probably William A. Williams, since he’s the only actor lists for this movie without a character name). Then Larkin kidnaps her and forces her to testify at his trial that he shot Finn in self-defense after Finn pulled a gun on him — only Brandon destroys Larkin’s self-defense claim by revealing that Finn was shot in the back. Brandon gets Madge to admit that she was forced to perjure himself, and in a climax that seems more like a 1960’s movie than a 1930’s one he confesses to jury tampering and other forms of complicity in Larkin’s crimes, announces he’s stepping down as D.A. and giving up his law license, and he and Madge (like William Powell and Myrna Loy at the end of Manhattan Melodrama three years earlier) walk out of the courtroom arm in arm to heaven knows what.

Criminal Lawyer is a well-made film (the director is former D. W. Griffith assistant Christy Cabanne, who didn’t have anywhere nearly as distinguished a career as Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning or Raoul Walsh but did work a long time and make some entertaining films, as well as total crap like the 1947 Bela Lugosi stupidity Scared to Death; according to both the American Film Institute Catalog and, however, Edward Killy filled in briefly while Cabanne was ill) and Margot Grahame gives a performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters, but didn’t. If there’s a fault in it, it’s Lee Tracy, who as in his other films plays a character whose sheer energy is entertaining but is utterly unable to make us like him; he’s great in the scenes where Barry Brandon is an unscrupulous shyster but he’s utterly unable to convince us that he’s having a crisis of conscience. Lee Tracy was a superficially similar “type” to James Cagney — they were both short, highly energetic Irish wiseguys — but the depths Cagney could sound even within the limits of the stereotyped gangsters and con men Warners kept casting him as were completely beyond Tracy, and to a modern audience the surprise is not that Tracy so stupidly blew his chances at a major career but that he got as close to one as he did in the first place.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Royal Danish Opera, Cubus Film, Decca Music Group, 2009)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a 2009 video of Wagner’s Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen, Denmark (if I saw that in a movie intertitle I’d probably joke, “As opposed to Copenhagen, Manitoba” or something), which turned out to be the sort of modern-day opera production in which a supposedly “brilliant” and “innovative” director takes a piece that was dramatically fine in its original design and setting and makes post-modern hash out of it. This time the “brilliant” director was somebody named Kasper Holten, who according to the blurb on the DVD box was coming off “the triumph of The Copenhagen Ring” — note the extent of the italicization of the title, as if The Copenhagen Ring were a fundamentally different work from the Ring of the Nibelung as conceived, written, composed, designed and staged by Richard Wagner. Judging from the hatchet job he did on Tannhäuser, it probably was; though I’ve seen modern Regietheater productions that were considerably worse than this one (including the Met’s current stagings of Traviata and Parsifal), this was still pretty silly. I’d made up in my own head an idea for a modern-dress Tannhäuser in which Heinrich Tannhäuser (at least as far as I can think of at the moment, he and Cola Rienzi are the only two Wagner tenor leads who have both first and last names!) is a drugged-out rock musician — the Venusberg would be a drug den and when we first saw him he’d have a needle in his arm — the song contest would take place under a giant neon sign reading “German Idol,” and in Act III Tannhäuser would be returning not from Rome but from rehab. Mine would probably be considerably less silly than Holten’s turned out to be: even before the actual opera starts, he has his shenanigans begin during the Overture.

It supposedly takes place in Tannhäuser’s home, which reveals him to be an upper-middle-class German Burgher of the 19th century (quite a few directors who don’t want to drag Wagner’s operas whole-hog into the modern era but don’t want to leave them in their actual historical or mythological settings either plunk them into the 19th century because that’s when Wagner himself lived) with Elisabeth as his wife, their two sons (the older of whom, played by Ioannis Marinos, gets to sing the shepherd boy’s song in the middle of Act I) and various servants, guests and whatnot cavorting around a big set representing the inside of Tannhäuser’s home. The set itself has three levels of steeply angled staircases for the participants to cavort on; Tannhäuser has a pen with which he is compulsively writing on just about every surface available, ranging from paper to the staircase to Elisabeth’s back (for a while I was wondering if this was going to be The Pillow Book: The Musical) to his kids’ collars. The people in Tannhäuser’s home also like to throw water, pebbles, sand or whatever on each other. Just as a point of reference, the plot of Tannhäuser as Wagner wrote it is a story about a medieval Minnesinger, Tannhäuser (Stig Andersen), who before the opera begins has been pulled away from his respectable colleagues — at least two of whom actually existed in history, Wolfram von Eschenbach (Tommi Hakala), who wrote the epic poem Parsifal on which Wagner more or less based his last opera; and Walther von der Vogelweide (Peter Lodahl) — and his nice girlfriend Elisabeth (Tina Kiberg) by the goddess Venus, who has seduced Tannhäuser and got him to live with her in her mountain redoubt, the Venusberg. There he pursues a life of sensual pleasure in fantastic realms Venus has conjured up for him, sort of like Sir Basil Elton in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ship,” until he gets bored and says he wants a normal, mortal life again, including seeing real nature, hearing real birds (the Minnesänger, medieval troubadours who were a generation or two before the Mastersingers Wagner wrote a later opera about, legendarily claimed to have learned music from the birds themselves) and hanging out with ordinary people again. Tannhäuser utters a prayer to the Virgin Mary — and the entire Venusberg disappears and Tannhäuser finds himself in a meadow where a shepherd boy is leading a flock of sheep and singing a song to “Frau Holda,” which is really another name for the Norse goddess Freia, who appears as an onstage character in Das Rheingold, two Wagner operas later. (So the plot of Tannhäuser is a Wagnerian mashup of Greco-Roman, Norse and Christian myths.)

Elisabeth doesn’t appear on stage until the start of act two (at least she isn’t supposed to appear, but like most Regietheater directors Kasper Holten thought he knew better than the original composer and librettist — who in Wagner’s works were the same person), where she sings an ode to the hall where the song contest is to take place, and then she confronts Tannhäuser for an odd duet in which he’s evasive about just what he’s been doing all the years he’s been away. The contest duly occurs and Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach sing deliberately dull songs about chaste, pure love — and Tannhäuser is so pissed off at their ignorance of the dark side and their hypocrisy about it that when it’s his turn, he scandalizes the fellow contestants and the audience alike by singing the love song he had sung to Venus back in Act I. The other Minnesänger draw their swords and are ready to kill him when Elisabeth intervenes, and she and Wolfram suggest that he can redeem himself by joining a band of pilgrims who are about to leave for Rome and asking the Pope for forgiveness. He does so, and at the start of Act III Elisabeth and Wolfram are waiting for him to return. When he doesn’t come back with the other pilgrims, Elisabeth sings a prayer of hope that he’s all right and Wolfram comforts her with the opera’s most famous excerpt, the Song to the Evening Star. Then Tannhäuser enters and in the opera’s most emotionally wrenching moment, he sings a scena, “Inbrunst im Herzen,” about how he essentially used the pilgrimage as a way of self-flagellation, walking barefooted over the rockiest routes and agreeing to carry the other pilgrims’ burdens, just to suffer as much as possible in order to expiate his sin of hanging out with Venus at the Venusberg. Only it didn’t do him any good because when he finally got his audience with the Pope, the Pope told him that no mortal who’d lived (and had sex) with Venus and been in the Venusberg could ever be saved. The Pope specifically tells Tannhäuser that he’s as likely to be accepted into heaven as the Pope’s staff is to sprout leaves. Well, given that clue you can pretty much guess how it’s going to end: Elisabeth dies of shock but her death redeems Tannhäuser, who also dies but is now in a state of grace — a messenger or something comes in with the news that the Pope’s staff has indeed sprouted leaves — and Wolfram is left alone, presumably to write Parsifal.

This plot got amended by Wagner when he got an offer to present the opera in Paris in 1861 and he ran into the Jockey Club, a group of young aristocrats who had managed to get jobs for their ballerina girlfriends/mistresses/whatever by insisting that every opera produced at the Opéra in Paris had to have a ballet in it. What’s more, the ballet had to be in the second act because the Jockey Club members always arrived fashionably late and missed the first act. Wagner pondered this and, rather than spot the ballet in the “logical” place for it — just before the song contest — decided to expand his musical depiction of the Bacchanale in the Venusberg in Act I beyond what he’d written for the earlier (1845) Dresden version of the opera and place the ballet there. Wagner also rewrote all the parts of the opera involving Venus because, having just completed Tristan und Isolde, he was not happy with the passages about lust as he’d been able to do them in 1845 and thought he could do better this time around. To keep the evening relatively short despite the expansion of the dance sequence in the Venusberg, he cut Walther’s song from the Act II contest — leaving Walther basically little more than a comprimario role. The Royal Opera production in Copenhagen followed the Paris version (which I generally approve of, though I’d want Walther’s song put back in because the more boring material we hear from singers prattling on about love without any idea of what it’s really about, the more credible Tannhäuser’s attitude becomes and the easier it is to sympathize with his punk-like disruption of the song contest), but Kasper Holten’s weird staging significantly compromised the whole piece. In this version Venus becomes one of Tannhäuser’s maids, with whom he’s presumably having an affair; there’s also a lot of business about a floppy velvet hat (a sort of hat Wagner himself wore — most drawings, paintings and photos of him during his lifetime show him wearing one) that gets passed from Tannhäuser to his son during the prologue (which doesn’t have anything to do with any of Wagner’s original libretto) and eventually turns up on Wolfram’s head during the Song to the Evening Star. Venus the Maid is made up to look like Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety except for her hair, which is a long wig dyed punk-red. She hardly looks like a personification of the Goddess of Love, and why Tannhäuser would go with her when Elisabeth is far better-looking is a mystery locked inside Holten’s head. Once Tannhäuser says his prayer to the Virgin Mary and the entire Venusberg is supposed to disappear and deposit him on a meadow (one of the 19th century theatrical special effects it would have been difficult but far from impossible to do on stage), in Holten’s production he’s still in the same house, only with a couple of prop trees dangling from the rafters to indicate “meadowicity.” (I joked that it was in a later Wagner opera, Die Walküre, that a character was supposed to have a tree growing through his living-room floor.)

The second and third acts aren’t as elaborately and infuriatingly misdirected as the first — indeed, I quite liked a lot of the “business” in Act II, particularly the behavior of the people who are supposed to be the audience at the song concert and who act as nervously and inappropriately as many of their real-life counterparts at a fancy musical event) — but they both suffer from Holten’s annoying insistence at putting people on stage who are carefully indicated as being off stage in Wagner’s libretto. Venus is shown in the middle of the song contest, physically nudging Tannhäuser to disrupt it (in Wagner’s original he does so on his own), and in Act III Tannhäuser is visible on stage, compulsively writing away in his little notebook. as Wolfram and Elisabeth are declaiming about how worried they are because they haven’t seen or heard from him in quite a while. (If they were any closer to him they’d trip over him!) Nor is the strictly musical end of things good enough to make up for the silly stage production; Stig Andersen was a tenor who mightily impressed me when the Met did Siegfried and Götterdämmerung with him in 2000, but by 2009 his voice had developed a nasty wobble and here he’s giving one of those performances where it’s clear the role isn’t in his voice anymore even though he’s an intelligent enough performer and a sensitive enough actor one can’t write him off completely. (Then again he’d probably have had an easier time portraying Tannhäuser’s anguish in a production that stuck to Wagner’s original concept and setting.) Overall the singers are competent enough without being truly inspired, though since most of them have Scandinavian names I’m presuming they are Danish opera “regulars” that work together often and thus are better able to come together in an ensemble than international “stars” flown into town and brought together for just one production. But they’re hamstrung not only by a ridiculous production but by conductor Friedemann Layer, one of those modern-day Wagner conductors who equates slow = “spiritual” and ponderous = “profound.” Layer is actually quite good in the parts of the opera Wagner intended to be played slowly — Wolfram’s two big solos and Elisabeth’s prayer — but “Dich, teure Halle” (Elisabeth’s ode to the Hall of Song at the start of Act II) isn’t the energy rush it should be and Tannhäuser’s disruption of the song contest with the Hymn to Venus doesn’t pack the dramatic punch it’s supposed to have, and does have at a faster tempo.

As I’ve been writing the above I’ve been playing a quite different version of Tannhäuser — the abridged recording British Columbia made at Bayreuth in 1930 (Act I is complete but Acts II and III are each shorn to about half their intended length), conducted by Karl Elmendorff, who wasn’t considered one of the great Wagnerians of the 20th century but has it all over Layer in terms of bringing dramatic power and raw emotion to the action. It also helped Elmendorff’s cause that he had a significantly better cast: his Tannhäuser, a Hungarian tenor named Sigismund Pilinszky, has taken his lumps over the years from reviewers of this recording but his voice is considerably more secure than Andersen’s c. 2009 (alas, clashing record contracts prevented the best Tannhäusers from 1930, Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz and Franz Völker, from being on these records!), and Maria Müller as Elisabeth is so far ahead of Tina Kiberg as both vocalist and dramatic actress they practically seem to inhabit different universes. Ditto for the Wolframs (Herbert Janssen in 1930, Tommi Hakala in 2009) and even the shepherd boys — I usually give producers points if they can cast an actual boy in a pre-pubescent role instead of putting in an adult woman in drag, but when the Shepherd Boy’s solo is sung as well as Erna Berger did in 1930 (“seven minutes of sheer perfection,” said a High Fidelity critic of a 1980 reissue), who cares that she’s an adult she instead of a pre-pubescent he? Ultimately the 2009 Tannhäuser makes its point more from the sheer grandeur of Wagner’s music, which overcomes a silly production, a dull conductor and professionally competent but not especially inspiring singing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

“Chasing Choo Choos” (1927) and “One Week” (1920): Balboa Park Silent Movie Night, August 18, 2014

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

Last night Charles and I went to the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion for the “Silent Movie Night” that’s the high point of the summer festival, featuring a concert of theatre-organ music in the first half (before night falls) followed by a showing of a program of silent films — usually a feature but, last night, two shorts. The organist was Donald MacKenzie, a Scottish-born performer who works regularly at the Compton Organ at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square, London — the instrument on which Thomas “Fats” Waller made his last pipe-organ recordings while touring England in 1938 and 1939. (He was a hit both times but the outbreak of World War II kept him from going back.) This was only the second time in the history of the event that someone other than Dennis James was the organist — Charles and our companions suggested he might not have been invited back because of the satirical routine he’d done the year before about San Diego’s then-Mayor, Bob Filner, and the scandals involving inappropriate and bizarre sexual advances towards women that drove him from office — but MacKenzie (who came out wearing a bow tie and plaid pants with the MacKenzie family tartan) proved a more than adequate replacement. He began his pre-film set with a version of “California, Here I Come,” prefacing it with an introduction quoting Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story — ironically, “California, Here I Come” was a hit for the man who did so much to end the silent film, Al Jolson! Then he played a nice version of “I Cover the Waterfront” (after introducing it as if it had something to do with the 1954 film On the Waterfront, which it didn’t — it actually was written to promote the movie I Cover the Waterfront, made in 1933 and starring Claudette Colbert and Ben Lyon in a story based at least nominally on the career of San Diego columnist Max Miller, whose regular column in the San Diego Sun was actually called “I Cover the Waterfront”! So the piece had a San Diego connection even though MacKenzie seemed unaware of it) and a familiar novelty called “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” the sort of song you know even if you don’t know its title.

After that he played a quite atmospheric version of “Loch Lomond” (injured but not ruined by a few people in the audience who were gabbing away during it as if it were a nightclub and MacKenzie were a lounge pianist) and an elaborate medley of songs from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz — with a San Diego connection MacKenzie did acknowledge: Lyman Frank Baum was living here (on Coronado) when he wrote some of the Oz books. MacKenzie’s Oz medley, praise be, did not make a total meal of “Over the Rainbow” and use the other songs just as seasoning, though he did clarify why “Over the Rainbow” is the only song from this score that’s become a standard out of context; the rest of the songs are just too tightly tied to the film’s story to work apart from it (though composer Harold Arlen and Barbra Streisand did do a quite charming duet on “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead” for his 1963 album Harold Sings Arlen on Columbia). After that he did “The Mouse Polka” by a Romanian composer with the Italian-sounding name of Iannucci (assuming I got that right, which I doubt — my notes are badly written and almost incomprehensible), and he closed his set with a medley of songs from Walt Disney movies that, praise be, included only songs from films Walt Disney personally worked on instead of ones from the movies the Disney studios have cranked out in the 48 years since his death: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (a film the Disney company has suppressed for decades, fearing it would be seen as racist); “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (ironically, “Someday My Prince Will Come” was also the last song Miles Davis and John Coltrane recorded together!), “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins, “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (a pity that when he was playing this the sky was so overcast there were no visible stars to wish on!) and a closer I didn’t recognize, though Charles did: “I Wanna Be Like You” from Walt Disney’s last film, The Jungle Book.

The films Donald MacKenzie accompanied were two two-reel slapstick comedies, one a little-known vehicle for a largely forgotten comic and one an acknowledged masterpiece by a genius of the film. The little-known one was Chasing Choo Choos, a 1927 production starring and co-written by Monty Banks. Sometimes billed as Montague Banks, he was actually Italian by birth (the name on his birth certificate was “Mario Bianchi,” which makes me wonder why when he wanted an Anglo-sounding name he didn’t just call himself “White”) but emigrated first to England, then to the U.S., then back to England (where he was married to the legendary entertainer Gracie Fields) and finally back to the U.S. again, before dying at age 52 in 1950 back in Italy. Banks was both a star and director — he made Laurel and Hardy’s first film for 20th Century-Fox, Great Guns (1941), though like most of Laurel and Hardy’s Fox output it isn’t much (a stone ripoff of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates) — and he’s described on his bio page on as “short, stocky, but somehow debonair,” which pretty well sums it up. Chasing Choo Choos was actually edited down from a feature film Banks had made the same year called Play Safe, though it doesn’t seem incomplete — indeed, one wonders how Banks could have got anything more out of his rather sketchy plot! The story casts Banks as a worker at a company technically owned by a dissatisfied heiress (Virginia Lee Corbin, a child star of the ’teens attempting a comeback in adult roles) but actually run by two unscrupulous one-percenters who are worried that if she marries Banks, with whom she’s in love, once she comes of age and inherits her fortune they’ll be frozen out and left without any money. So they hire a gang of thugs (including Bud Jamison, later a “regular” in the Three Stooges films) to kidnap her and frame Banks for the crime.

The first half of the film isn’t much — mainly a bunch of confusing fight scenes — but the second half, filmed on location on a particularly perilous stretch of railroad in San Diego’s East County (modeled on one of the most spectacular exhibits in San Diego’s Model Railway Museum, also in Balboa Park), is magnificent even though through much of it one’s wondering whether to laugh or simply sit and gape with astonishment at the sheer peril Banks and his crew put him and the other actors through. Though one scene in which Banks falls from the train into a nearby gorge and lands on a runaway car that’s on a track below it was pretty obviously done with a dummy and a model train, much of this movie has the same vertiginous thrill content as a Harold Lloyd comedy, made all the more scary by the knowledge that there was no way to fake most of this stuff in 1927: Banks’ body was really hanging over gorges and suspended over tracks as the train sped along. He proves a surprisingly athletic man even though he was short and stocky — he didn’t have the athlete’s build of Lloyd or Buster Keaton — and the film itself is quite engaging. It also benefits from the personality of Virginia Lee Corbin (whose first name is misspelled “Viginia” in the non-original credits of this version), who should have had more of a career than she got; she died tragically young (at 31 in 1942) after a quirky career during which she played in elaborate fairy-tale spoofs with all-child casts in the mid-teens (before that she’d been the baby rocking in the cradle in the framing scenes of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance), and she barely made it into the talkie era but pretty much stopped working after 1931 (her only subsequent credits are unbilled bit parts from 1938 and 1940). The existing credits list only Banks and Corbin, and don’t credit a director, but he was someone else with a Griffith connection: Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and found a niche directing band shorts for Warner Bros. in the 1930’s.

After that MacKenzie got to accompany a masterpiece: One Week (1920), the first film starring Buster Keaton (whose first name is in quotes on the original title) to be released. In 1917 Keaton had stumbled into films — literally — when he came to visit Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the set of The Butcher Boy, the first movie Arbuckle made after leaving Mack Sennett and partnering with producer Joseph M. Schenck to make films on his own. Keaton ended up acting in the film and appearing as a supporting player in Arbuckle’s movies until 1919, when Schenck’s distributor for the Arbuckle movies, Paramount, signed him to a feature-film contract and a stellar career until scandal abruptly ended it three years later. So Schenck decided to keep the two-reeler unit going and make Keaton the star. Their first film was a spoof of lodges called The High Sign which both Keaton and Schenck decided was too weak to release (eventually it came out when Keaton was laid low from an accident on the set of his film The Electric House). Desperate to come up with a vehicle that would establish Keaton as a worthy star, he and Schenck latched on to the idea of doing a movie around a prefabricated house — kits to build these things were apparently a hot new consumer item just after World War I — and taking the title from Elinor Glyn’s steamy best-seller Three Weeks. The gimmick is that Keaton and his girlfriend (Sybil Seely) have just got married, and his Uncle Mike’s wedding present to them is a prefabricated house kit and the lot to put it on — only the guy Sybil dumped to marry Keaton, out for revenge, changes the numbers on the boxes the kit comes in so that when it’s assembled the house looks like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a film Keaton may well have seen) and has such non-standard accoutrements as a front door on the second floor and a wash basin outside the house. During the week over which the film takes place (indicated by insert shots of a calendar with pages being torn off — naturally, the week is one that includes a Friday the Thirteenth), various complications ensue, including one in which a delivery person (Joe Roberts) drops off the Keatons’ piano (“What is home without a piano?,” advertised the piano manufacturers, leading a lot of people to buy pianos even if no one in the family could play one — and, according to jazz great James P. Johnson, making people who could play piano quite popular socially) and has Keaton sign for it while he’s still pinned under it — and Keaton uses an insanely elaborate block-and-tackle to try to get the piano inside the house — and a Friday the Thirteenth storm sequence in which, while they’re having their housewarming party, Keaton and Sybil have to deal with the house suddenly spinning on its foundation (it was really mounted on a turntable that spun it) and violently ejecting its inhabitants and their guests.

There’s also a surprisingly graphic scene of the naked Sybil Seely taking a bath and having to reach for the soap when she drops it outside the tub — and a neat comment on film censorship in this genuinely “pre-Code” age in which a hand comes over the camera lens so we don’t see any of her “naughty bits.” The famous finale occurs when Keaton is told that he’s built the house on the wrong lot, he and Seely attempt to move it by jacking it up and putting barrels under it so they can roll it, they get it stuck on railroad tracks and a train approaches. Amazingly (in a gag Keaton recycled several times later), the train is on an opposite track and passes the house without harming it — and then another train barrels down on it and reduces it to kindling. Keaton and Sybil put up a “For Sale” sign on the pile of lumber that’s left, include the directions to assemble the house, and walk off. Showing One Week after Chasing Choo Choos indicated once again the difference between talent and genius — between competence and brilliance, between cleverly amusing and genuinely hilarious. As good as Monty Banks’ movie was, Keaton’s demented imagination trumps Banks’ thrill-seeking even though there were plenty of gags in One Week that were as dangerous as anything in Chasing Choo Choos, including one he recycled in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: he’s standing in front of the house when its front wall falls off, and he’s saved only because he happens to be standing where the window is when the wall lands. Keaton and  his special-effects genius, Fred Gabourie (whose model shots for the 1924 film The Sea Hawk were so good they were used as stock footage in the 1940 remake), used surveyors’ instruments to plot the exact spot on which Keaton had to stand so the wall would fall where it was supposed to and not injure or kill him for real. And in the 1967 film Casino Royale Woody Allen did a screamingly funny variation on the two-trains gag from this film: as a spy on the run, Allen escapes a firing squad by climbing over the wall — and then finds another firing squad ready to kill him on the other side!