Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Call Her Savage (Fox Film, 1932)

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

The film was Call Her Savage, a 1932 Fox Film (three years before the 20th Century merger) production that represented something of a comeback attempt for silent star Clara Bow, whose career had risen in the late 1920’s with the Paramount production It only to fall with the rise of the talkies, Bow’s own mental problems and a lot of sleazy rumors about her — most of them started by her former private secretary (today she’d be called a “personal assistant”) Daisy DeVoe, whom Bow sued in 1931 alleging financial misappropriation. DeVoe fought back with a series of charges mostly about Bow’s personal life, especially her sex life — the oft-repeated rumor that Bow was a nymphomaniac who took on the entire UCLA college football team in one night was one of DeVoe’s inventions — which sent Bow scurrying first into a sanitarium suffering from a nervous breakdown and then into the arms of “B” cowboy star Rex Bell, who married her in 1931. According to her Wikipedia page Bow wasn’t interested in a comeback — even though she was getting offers from MGM (who wanted her for Red-Headed Woman, which instead became Jean Harlow’s star-making film), RKO (who wanted her for What Price Hollywood?, eventually filmed with Constance Bennett) and Howard Hughes as well as Fox. She was willing to make a couple more films because she and her husband needed the money to maintain his ranch in Nevada, but she didn’t want to be tied down to a long-term contract and she apparently picked Fox because they only wanted her for two movies, this one and Hoop-La (that’s apparently the correct spelling) from 1933. I was interested in Call Her Savage, which TCM was showing as part of their Friday festivals of so-called “pre-Code” productions (the common, though inaccurate, term for the years between 1930, when the Motion Picture Production Code was first promulgated by the major studios to ward off potential government censorship of films, and 1934, when under pressure from the Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency, the studios finally got ultra-serious about enforcing it) and which I’d recorded the previous week, partly as a late Clara Bow vehicle and partly because Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet said it was the first film in history to depict a Gay bar.

The initial omens weren’t promising; the credits listed Clara Bow’s name in an arc taking up half the main title and dwarfing the actual name of the film, and the story source was a novel by Tiffany Thayer, a soft-core pornographer (if he were around today he’d probably have the sort of reputation — and level of success — of Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks) whom Dorothy Parker famously dissed as “beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.” Prior to this my only direct experience of anything based on a novel by Tiffany Thayer had been the 1932 RKO film of Thirteen Women, a preposterous movie starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy in which Loy plays a half-caste woman out to murder, one by one, the 12 other women who snubbed her when she went to college with them. Though Loy tried her best to redeem a ridiculous role, it was the sort of part that led her to rebel against the way she was being typecast as Oriental villainesses, and after one more film in the genre (as Boris Karloff’s nymphomaniac daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu) she complained to MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and got a rare admission from him: “I was wrong about you. From now on you’re only going to be a lady.” Call Her Savage had all the earmarks of an interesting but not particularly good movie — a faded star trying at once to live down a scandalous reputation while playing a “bad girl” role that capitalized on it; a story by a racy novelist whose reputation was for writing as close to porn as could be got into mainstream print in 1932; and a studio that already had the reputation of being a place where careers went to die (like Bow, Jeanette MacDonald signed with Fox after Paramount dropped her — fortunately, after three Fox films MacDonald decamped to MGM and her sensationally successful series with Nelson Eddy!). Well, surprise! Call Her Savage turned out to be a masterpiece, one of the glittering gems of the “pre-Code” era alongside Love Me Tonight, I’m No Angel, Safe in Hell, Sensation Hunters, Three Wise Girls, Virtue and several others, one which used the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement to create an artistically and emotionally intense world in which people’s sexual drives are depicted as integral parts of their nature and characters fall in and out of love (or in and out of bed) with each other for reasons similar to those that obtain in the real world.

John Francis Dillon, a director I’ve never thought much of (mainly because the most prestigious film I’ve seen of his before this one is Sally, the 1929 filmization of Marilyn Miller’s hit musical, done as dully and in the same stage-bound manner of most pre-Berkeley musicals), turns in a magnificent job here, using oblique angles and surprisingly noir-ish lighting; aided by the superb cinematographer Lee Garmes, he throws together a dazzling array of different visual “looks” to bring home the point of each scene. I suspect only his early death (at age 49 in 1934, just after directing Charles Farrell and Bette Davis in The Big Shakedown, in which gangsters just put out of business by the repeal of Prohibition decide to branch out into counterfeit or watered-down pharmaceutical drugs) prevented Dillon, who’d worked himself up from Mack Sennett comedies to silent features, from remaining a major director well into the talkie era. The screenplay is by Edwin J. Burke, who managed a tough assignment — bringing a Tiffany Thayer novel to the screen and making it both cinematically coherent and agreeable to the Hays Office, enforcement arm of the Production Code (and anyone who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on Call Her Savage will quickly be disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movie was truly “pre-Code”! Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays’ enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K., being particularly upset by a scene in which the estranged husband of Bow’s character tries to rape her while suffering from insanity associated with syphilis) — and came up with a script full of both wisecracks and surprisingly emotional situations to show Bow’s emotional range as an actress. And Bow’s emotional range as an actress is probably the biggest surprise about this movie; there are sequences in which she’s the uncontrollable flibbertigibbet she’d been in her silent films (and which drove the sound engineers on her first talkie, 1929’s The Wild Party, nuts; since she wouldn’t hold still they couldn’t get a decent recording on her voice — a problem solved by The Wild Party’s director, Dorothy Arzner, who brought a fishing pole to the set one day and ordered the technicians to tie the microphone to one end so a grip holding the other could suspend it over Bow and therefore record her voice wherever she went: Arzner thus invented the mike boom) but also scenes, especially when her character is suffering, in which she is almost Garbo-esque in her non-acting, her refusal to “milk it,” her somber, serious mien.

Call Her Savage is a multigenerational saga which begins — another surprise — in a wagon train in the Old West; the wagon train’s leader, Silas Jennings (Fred Kohler) is ignoring his wife and children for another woman — whom he’s shown necking with in another wagon, a surprisingly “modern” image of the Old West. Jennings’ daughter Ruth is playing cowboys-and-Indians when a real Indian band attacks (and the sequence is staged in a surprisingly John Ford-ish way by Dillon — this is probably what a Ford Western from 1932 would have looked like if the undeserved failure of Ford’s silent masterpiece Three Bad Men from 1926 hadn’t led him to abstain from Westerns for 13 years, until Stagecoach), and Mort (Carl Stockdale), one of the men on the wagon train who’s been boring both Jennings and the audience with his religious pronouncements, is fatally wounded. Jennings stomps on Mort’s neck, both to put him out of his misery and to shut him up about how the Bible says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children, and so on through three and even four generations — obviously the filmmakers were pulling the Cecil B. DeMille stunt of showing spectacular sinning as an example of a moral lesson in how not to behave — and from our cinema-conditioned expectations we expect the little girl Ruth to grow up to be Clara Bow. Instead Ruth grows up to be Clara Bow’s mother (and is played as an adult — quite movingly — by Estelle Taylor, wife of the star boxer Jack Dempsey), who marries up-and-coming railroad tycoon Pete Springer (Willard Robertson) but is secretly in love — and carrying on an affair — with an Indian named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn), until the elders of his tribe force him to break it off by arranging a marriage between him and the daughter of the chief of another tribe. Ruth gives birth to a daughter she names Nasa — the character that does grow up to be Clara Bow — and giving her a piece of her Indian ex-lover’s name offers a clue about her true parentage even though that isn’t a major dramatic issue until the very end of the film. (It also makes the movie a bit risible because anyone hearing “NASA” today will think of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — Charles joked that Nasa would have cousins named Tsa and Noaa — though the pronunciation of the name in the film is “Naaah-zuh.”)

Nasa grows up to be a wildcat, a tempestuous woman with a hair-trigger temper, fiercely jealous in her relationships and so determined to mess around with whomever she wants that, in order to get her away from her half-white, half-Indian boyfriend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland, who’s billed second even though he barely has 10 minutes of screen time in this 90-minute film), her dad Pete sends her to a finishing school in Chicago. Well, Our Heroine is overjoyed to go to Chicago because she sees the Second City as ideal territory to get herself deflowered by every male she can get to hold still long enough for her — and when dad arranges a party for her to announce the engagement she’s arranged between her and Charlie Moffett (Tyrell Davis, an even more insufferable queeny twit than usually got cast in these roles!), whom he wants his daughter to marry so Moffett’s oil-rich family will agree to transport their oil on Springer’s railroads, Nasa rebels and comes to the party with an ex-boyfriend, Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), who’s got his current girlfriend Sunny DeLane (Thelma Todd) in tow. Nasa makes quick work of Sunny, beating her in a catfight at the party and eloping with Crosby — though when he spends the wedding night with Sunny and shows up at Nasa’s at 1:30 a.m. quite the worse for wear, the marriage breaks up almost as soon as it started and Crosby offers to let Nasa use his charge accounts to buy anything she wants but doesn’t want to live with her. Nasa, of course, uses Crosby’s money to the max, adorning herself with furs, jewels and just about every other extravagance she can think of (including cosmetic treatments from Elizabeth Arden, which I hadn’t realized was already a trade name in 1932 — and which also startled Charles given the studios’ general unwillingness in the classic era to use the names of real businesses and products on the ground that that would be giving them free advertising).

Then she receives word from Crosby’s attorney that he’s in a New Orleans hospital and is not expected to live, and (in the scene that so bothered Col. Joy) he makes an attempt to have sex with her in his hospital room even though he’s obviously suffering from something quite a bit more serious than flu, the illness he told her he had. When she won’t give Crosby his mercy fuck he demands his jewels back, then throws them out of the hospital window, apparently totally impoverishing her. Nasa settles in New Orleans and has a son (and given the way she’s been carrying on it’s anybody’s guess who the father is, though given her concern about whether her son is O.K. after she realizes Crosby has syphilis Charles was convinced we were supposed to assume that Crosby was the father), and settles into an SRO hotel where, desperate for $6 for medicines she needs for the baby, she turns a trick with a sleazy guy she meets on the street. While that’s going on the girl Nasa trusted to baby-sit walks off, another sleazy guy accidentally sets the hotel on fire, and by the time the firefighters put the blaze out the baby has already died from smoke inhalation. Nasa also receives word that her grandfather has just died and left her $100,000 — “a bit too late,” she says with a grim bitterness quite removed from what most people think of as Clara Bow’s acting style — with which she finances a trip to New York (though given the way she went through Crosby’s money it’s hard to avoid the idea that at her rate of spending when she’s flush, $100,000 — even in 1932 money — will last her about two weeks) and hires a man she thinks is a professional gigolo to show her around. We know the man is really rich and is looking at the job as a way to get in Nasa’s pants, but we don’t know precisely who he really is until he takes her to that first on-screen Gay bar — actually a Greenwich Village restaurant that, he explains, is “so dangerous only poets and anarchists eat there.” Just before Nasa and her guide walk in we see two waiters in drag doing an outrageous little song about being sailors going out on a battleship to “service” the crew members, and in a front table we see two very butch women sitting together. But once Nasa and her date enter he’s recognized almost immediately by a customer (an unbilled but instantly recognizable Mischa Auer) as viciously anti-labor tycoon Jay Randall.

Nasa tells Randall she’s known who he was since the second day they were together, and Randall of course is in love with her and wants to marry her — but his dad Cyrus Randall (Hale Hamilton) quickly puts a stop to that by inviting Lawrence Crosby (ya remember Lawrence Crosby? Apparently he recovered from his unmentionable disease with the treatments of the day — the mercury and arsenic compounds that were front-line drugs for syphilis until they were mercifully replaced by penicillin after World War II) and his once-again girlfriend Sunny DeLane. Nasa and Sunny have the predictable bitch fight (though this time, unlike the previous ones, Dillon cuts away from it and depicts it with sound effects alone), Randall breaks their engagement — and just then Nasa receives word that her mom is dying back home in Rollins, Texas. She returns there and mom tells Nasa on her deathbed that it was really the Indian Ronasa, not Pete Springer, who was her biological father — which revelation leads Nasa to give up her “savage” ways and settle down with fellow half-breed Moonglow (ya remember Moonglow?). After seeing a bunch of films both old (Something for the Boys, Doll Face) and new (the most recent Godzilla) that fell far short of their potentials, it was refreshing to watch a movie like Call Her Savage where everyone concerned got it right and nailed every aspect of their story they were aiming for: Dillon’s assured direction, Garmes’ deep cinematography (the “down” parts of the story in which Nasa is suffering were obviously inspired by the “street” films about urban poverty that had been the rage in Germany in the 1920’s, and Garmes copied the shadowy chiaroscuro look that in the 1930’s would have been called “the German look” and nowadays is known as film noir), Burke’s mordant script and, most important, the surprisingly nuanced and multidimensional acting of Bow combine to create one of the finest films of its era.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Miss Marple: Endless Night (ITV/PBS, 2014)

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

I watched the latest episode of the current Miss Marple series on KPBS, “Endless Night,” which turned out to be an engaging and convincingly atmospheric bit of neo-Gothic suspense as well as a charming character study and a story that neatly inverted audience expectations. It’s basically told in flashback by Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes), a boyishly handsome young man who narrates to Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, who comes off less like Margaret Rutherford in the 1960’s Miss Marple theatrical films than like Angela Lansbury in the TV series Murder, She Wrote — a character quite obviously based on Miss Marple’s creator, Agatha Christie!) how he came to fall in love with and marry Ellie (Joanna Vanderham) even though she came from the British aristocracy (with a fortune to match) while he was penniless. He wanted a country estate but didn’t have the money to buy one; no problem, she said, and bought him the land and home he had his heart set on with her money. Mike hired a hot-shot architect to design a modern home on the property and had it built, and he and Ellie seemed happy there despite the insistence of local Gypsy woman Mrs. Lee (Janet Henfrey) that the land was cursed and Mike himself was “born to endless night,” in the words of the famous poem by William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence” (“Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to endless night/We are led to believe a lie/When we see not thro’ the eye/Which was born in a night to perish in a night/When the soul slept in beams of light”). Naturally Mike’s actions rouse the ire of Ellie’s upper-class family and friends, though oddly when Ellie is found murdered an hour into this hour-and-a-half teleplay (quite late in the running time for the first killing to happen in a Christie story!) oddly they don’t suspect Mike.

Years of reading mystery novels and/or watching their film adaptations have conditioned us to expect that Mike will be unjustly suspected of Ellie’s murder and Miss Marple will prove him innocent — but Christie throws us a curveball this time; Mike really did kill Ellie, and her friend Claudia Hardcastle (Rosalind Halstead), and later on Mike’s own girlfriend Greta (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), whom he met after the war and with whom he worked out the plot to use his native charm to get a rich Englishwoman to fall in love with and marry him, and then kill her for her fortune. As the last half-hour plays out Mike’s body count rises to such dimensions we’re left in the dark as to whether we’re supposed to believe Mike was a greed-motivated opportunistic murderer or a psychopathic serial killer — but then character consistency was always Christie’s weakest suit as a writer — and at the end the modern house on the estate is burned down by the brother of a man Mike drowned to steal his expensive watch (I’m not making this up, you know!), though of course, this being a Christie story, the main murder is committed by Mike substituting cyanide for a medication Ellie was taking (and Claudia died accidentally when she took some of Ellie’s pills). “Endless Night” is made watchable and even engaging by director David Moore’s superb atmospherics, screenwriter Kevin Elyot’s literate adaptation of Christie’s novel, and above all by the excellent cast: Tom Hughes is absolutely convincing as the surface charmer the script tells us he is (he plays essentially the boyish killer Anthony Perkins pioneered as Norman Bates in Psycho, but without the twitchiness that gave Norman away) and Joanna Vanderham is utterly believable as the besotted young woman who will do anything for her man. I think we’ll see much more of these two in the future!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Godzilla (Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Disruption Entertainment , 2014)

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

The 2014 Godzilla movie was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose main previous work was a 2010 film called Monsters (not to be confused with Monster, the serial-killer story starring Charlize Theron as real-life murderess Aileen Wuornos, who worked as a prostitute and started murdering her johns) which when Charles and I screened that I wrote was “the sort of movie that’s frustrating because it’s mediocre and could have been great.” This time Edwards had a significantly bigger budget ($160,000,000 instead of $15,000), a brand name that’s been a proven audience draw ever since the original Japanese Godzilla (or, as it was called in its home country, Gojira) came out in 1954 (the release of this one was deliberately timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the first film), a major studio (Warner Bros., which bought the rights to the Godzilla character from the Japanese Toho studio that originally developed it), and two writers other than himself: David Callaham for the story and Max Borenstein for the script. Nonetheless, Edwards’ Godzilla has an interesting family resemblance to Edwards’ Monsters: both films attempt to use classic horror tropes to make oblique comments on current political and social issues (in Monsters it was undocumented immigration, and this time around it’s the overconfidence of human beings and their solid conviction that there can’t be anyone or anything else on this planet that can threaten their supremacy) and both are surprisingly reticent about showing their actual monsters.

The plot of Godzilla gets confusing mainly because of the rapid time shifts — the first third or so of the movie takes place in 1999, the rest in 2014, and male lead Ford Brody is shown as a child in the earlier part of the film before he appears again as a grown young man and is played by someone named Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The part isn’t multidimensional enough to let us know whether he can actually act, but he’s certainly hot enough he’s a lot of fun to look at! After a few film clips supposedly set even earlier, the 1999 sequences begin at a nuclear power plant in Japan where Ford’s father Joe (Bryan Cranston) is working as a consulting engineer when a mysterious accident threatens to cause a meltdown and irradiate the entire area. (This Godzilla sometimes seems to be as deliberate a response to the tsunami that wiped out the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan as the 1954 original was to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) In the film’s most horrific and most emotionally moving sequence, Joe loses his wife (who also works at the plant) when he has to seal a reactor door, thereby saving the lives of the rest of the workforce but dooming her and the party she was with (who meet the cavalier fate of the “Red Shirts” in Star Trek) either to suffocation, radiation sickness or both. Sam remains in Japan and several times is caught sneaking his way onto the former reactor site in his endless quest for answers as to why his wife died. Ford gets shipped off to America, is raised by relatives and ultimately joins the U.S. Army and becomes an Explosive Ordnance Detail (E.O.D.) operator, a job that’s had movie cachet since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture and which has almost instant movie cred since it involves disarming bombs — or attempting to — before they have a chance to explode, and the built-in potential for suspense and thrills in telling stories about people who do that for a living is obvious.

Godzilla seems like several genres mashed together in a way that was once more common than it is: a suspense thriller, a conspiracy film (even the opening credits — and I give Edwards a lot of points for having opening credits instead of just opening his film in medias res, as if we already know from the title on our ticket or the DVD box what film we’re watching and therefore we don’t need a main title — are made to look like top-secret documents from which everything has been redacted except for the names of the people being credited and their job descriptions), a domestic drama and (oh, yes!) bits and pieces of a horror film. It occurred to me that Edwards’ Godzilla has at least one thing in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: both are attempts to re-imagine famous, legendary stories to make fresh social comments about people and their role in the universe, though Edwards and his writers had one major advantage. As much of a cult following surrounds the Godzilla movies, there isn’t a religion built around them; the plot for the original 1954 film doesn’t come from a holy book revered by three of the world’s largest and most important religions (the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and therefore Warner Bros. didn’t have to worry about outraged defenders of the faith denouncing their movie and picketing the theatres that dared to show it. What they did have to deal with was outraged fans of the original Godzilla and its multitudinous sequelae nit-picking the film to death and bitching about how it wasn’t what they were expecting (and which the 1998 reboot — which I’ve never seen — apparently delivered): an up-to-date CGI version of the old Japanese originals in which a guy in a monster suit (two guys in a monster suit, actually; I’ve read that the Japanese Godzilla was really an electromechanical contraption that required two people inside to work it) stomped on balsa-wood models of a major Japanese city.

Instead they got a film that was deeply philosophical about the world and humanity’s proper role in it, a rivalry between Godzilla and two rival monsters (a male-female monster couple who look like more angular versions of pterodactyls) in which — as he did in the later films in the Japanese cycle as well — Godzilla seems not to be threatening humanity but protecting it from the really bad monsters on the other side. The chief complaint against the film on imdb.com seems to be that Godzilla is on screen for only 10 minutes of its two-hour running time, mainly because even with a huge effects team and a mega-budget to work with, Edwards is still worshiping at the shrine of St. Val Lewton, trying as much as possible to keep from showing the monsters full-figure and in bright light, instead presenting just bits of them in shadow and doing as much of the scaring as possible with sound effects alone. I have profoundly mixed feelings about this Godzilla; I really respect Edwards and his writers, and admire them for trying to make this a genuinely good movie with philosophical and psychological depth instead of just another summer action blockbuster, but and I also admire the laudable attempts to give the characters issues that would make us feel for them emotionally instead of watching them with the lab-rat detachment for which I criticized Monsters (as well as a lot of other modern films!); the loss of Joe Brody’s wife in the early scenes is genuinely chilling and sad, and so is the separation of Ford from his wife and child during the climactic monster attack on San Francisco. But there was a part of me that would rather have been watching a technically more proficient but still delightfully campy modern remake of an old-style Godzilla movie!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Doll Face (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

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

Last night Charles and I watched Doll Face, the next-to-last of the five films in 20th Century-Fox’s boxed set of Carmen Miranda, which begins with her greatest film — The Gang’s All Here, featuring the marriage made in movie heaven of Miranda’s larger-than-life talents and Busby Berkeley’s demented imagination) and has worked its way downhill from there with Greenwich Village (a nice musical that could have been better if the two satirical sketches the Revuers, authentic Village stars that included Judy Holliday, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had been included in the final cut) and Something for the Boys (an O.K. musical based on a Cole Porter stage hit — though with all but one of Porter’s songs replaced with new ones by Jimmy McHugh) and this one, which reunited Something for the Boys director Lewis Seiler with three of his cast members from that film: Miranda, Vivian Blaine and Perry Como. But Doll Face was relegated to the slate of “B” movie producer Bryan Foy (one of the Seven Little You-Know-Whats), who like Seiler was a refugee from Warner Bros., and — worst of all — the budget was shrunk so much the movie was in black-and-white. What’s more, by the time Doll Face was made Fox had lost so much faith in Miranda’s appeal — they basically treated her as a novelty act that had been left on the shelves past its sell-by date — they billed her fourth, after Blaine, Dennis O’Keefe and Como.

The most interesting name on the credits of Doll Face is the writer of the original play on which it was based, Louise Hovick. Never heard of her? That’s only because she became considerably better known as Gypsy Rose Lee, and like Maybeth “Doll Face” Carroll, the character Vivian Blaine plays here, she was a stripper with intellectual pretensions. Among those was a belief that she could be a writer, an ambition she fulfilled with a novel called The G-String Murders (filmed in 1943 as Lady of Burlesque with Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O’Shea; the movie isn’t much but Stanwyck is at her hard-bitten best and it’s probably the best movie ever made about burlesque during the Production Code era) and a play called The Naked Genius, on which Doll Face was based and from which it was adapted by Harold Buchman and Leonard Praskins. The film opens in a theatre where legendary Broadway producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) — and no, you don’t need two guesses to figure out what real Boy Named Flo who produced famous Broadway shows he’s based on — auditioning various performers for his latest production and insisting that anyone who appears in a Flo Hartman show must have “class.” After he rejects a two-man dance duo (who looked pretty good to me!) he hears Maybeth Carroll sing, is suitably impressed and is about to hire her when, in the middle of her song, one of his assistants recognizes her as the notorious “Doll Face” Carroll who’s currently appearing at the Gayety burlesque theatre run by her manager and boyfriend, Michael Hannigan (Dennis O’Keefe in a part that would have worked better for William Bendix, who had the analogous role in Greenwich Village). Hartman tells Hannigan, who brought Carroll to her audition and gave her a light kick in the ass before she started singing (a good-luck superstition between them), that he won’t hire a performer with so little class. While he’s shopping at a cigar counter, Hannigan notices that the clerk is giving away copies of a book called The Stars Reveal by author Frederick Manly Gerard (billed here as Michael Dunne but later known as Stephen Dunne). Judging from the cover design it looks like a science-fiction book, but the bits of its prose we hear make it seem like a self-consciously “intellectual” novel about ordinary people in grim situations.

Hannigan hits on the idea of having “Doll Face” write an autobiography, Genius de Milo, and having Gerard ghost it for her — and he converts her proletarian background as a plumber’s daughter in Brooklyn to an upper-class heiress who got bored with life among the 1 percent and thereby chose a sleazy theatrical career. That could have made an interesting movie — sort of like the Jessie Matthews vehicle It’s Love Again, where she was an aspiring entertainer being passed off as an heiress (this was during the time when Matthews was making a specialty of movies in which she had to pull off a difficult impersonation to achieve stardom — in Evergreen she had to pretend to be her own mother and in First a Girl, the second of the three versions of Victor/Victoria, she had to pretend to be a man) — but instead Gypsy Rose Lee and her adapters pursued a more normal romantic triangle as Doll Face starts falling for the writer, and he with her, while her understudy Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart — decidedly not the same one!) pursues her previously unrequited interest in Harrigan and the ludicrously named crooner with the burlesque show, Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) — c’mon, guys, couldn’t you have come up with a more credible name for an Italian than that? — pursues Frankie without success until Harrigan tells him that the way to win a woman’s heart is to beat her up, or at least threaten to. It’s a piece of advice that seems to have been taken to heart by at least one current (or recent) football star, but elsewhere in the modern world is considered nastily and vilely sexist. In this movie, however, it works, and Como — who acts with about the same (lack of) emotion as he sang (though he’s helped that with the exception of a swing novelty called “Hubba-Hubba-Hubba, Dig You Later,” on which the other Martha Stewart totally outsings him, the songs — by Jimmy McHugh again — achieve a level of professional blandness that quite matches Como’s singing of them) — has that sort of deer-in-the-headlights look we got used to during the George W. Bush presidency when he realizes that by threatening physical violence on Frankie he has in fact won her heart. The movie ends with a big show that Flo Hartman (ya remember Flo Hartman?) is producing with the cast of Hannigan’s burlesque show, based on Doll Face Carroll’s best-selling book — only Hannigan, furious at having apparently lost the battle for Doll Face’s affections to her amanuensis, gets an injunction forbidding her from performing in it. Eventually he relents and lets her go on, and she relents and ends up back in Hannigan’s arms at the fade-out.

As for Carmen Miranda, not only is she billed fourth, she’s saddled with the character name “Chita Chula” (apparently the writers weren’t any better at coming up with names for Latinas than they were for Italians) and she doesn’t get to sing until the very last reel, when she suddenly turns up in a low-rent version of one of her famous numbers called “Chico Chico (From Puerto Rico)” that looks like a scene from a color film watched on a black-and-white TV. Charles noted that in the decade since the great 1930’s musicals from Warner Bros., MGM and RKO Hollywood filmmakers seem to have forgotten the art of making a visually stunning and beautiful musical in black-and-white — there’s nothing here like the dramatic high-contrast photography (usually by Sol Polito) of the Busby Berkeley numbers at Warners or the glowing, burnished look of the Astaire-Rogers films from RKO — but despite the presence of an excellent cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) the overall approach to this one seems to have been more to get rid of a few contractual obligations as quickly and cheaply as possible. One wishes that, even if they weren’t going to pay for color for the entire film, they’d at least used it for Carmen Miranda’s number! It turns out that Miranda filmed another song for the movie, a 1930 work by comedienne Elsie Janis and Jack King called “True to the Navy,” but it had been written for Clara Bow to sing in the revue musical Paramount on Parade and Paramount, which still owned the publishing rights, forbade Fox from using it in Doll Face. Indeed, I suspect that the ukase from Paramount’s legal department may have come down before the number was actually finished, because the number as it stands — the outtake is included as a bonus item on the DVD — is merely a master shot, without close-ups. Doll Face is an O.K. movie, nothing special — and, like Something for the Boys, disappointing in the gap between what it could have been and what it is; certainly the plot (which in some ways anticipates Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday, premiered on stage in 1946 and filmed in 1950 with its original Broadway star, Judy Holliday) had far more interesting comedic possibilities than Gypsy Rose Lee and her adapters gave it!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Something for the Boys (20th Century-Fox, 1944)

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

The film was Something for the Boys, the third item in the 20th Century-Fox boxed set of Carmen Miranda, who began her Fox career with an explosive debut in the 1940 film Down Argentine Way — which also catapulted its female lead, Betty Grable, to stardom after she’d bounced around three studios in supporting roles through most of the 1930’s — but that film and her later big-budget second leads, That Night in Rio, Weekend in Havana and Springtime in the Rockies, weren’t included in this box (presumably because they were being saved for boxes featuring Grable and Alice Faye). The box starts with The Gang’s All Here, Miranda’s best film, featuring the marriage made in heaven between her and director Busby Berkeley — she was technically second-billed to Alice Faye (again) but she and Berkeley are the reasons you’d want to see it — and then filtered down to the later films she made after the appeal of her novelty act was beginning to wear thin. Indeed, the last two films in the box, Doll Face and If I’m Lucky, aren’t even in color — and color, particularly the shrieking hues of three-strip Technicolor honed to a neon brightness at Fox’s insistence, is a pretty basic part of Miranda’s appeal. Something for the Boys was based on a stage musical that had premiered on Broadway in January 1943 and run for 422 performances; it was written by Herbert and Dorothy Fields with songs by Cole Porter (none of which became standards), who as a Gay man with an eye for all the hot young men in uniform running around during World War II no doubt had his own ideas about “doing something for the boys.” The Fox producers kept the basic plot — three widely separated cousins who have never met, Blossom (Vivian Blaine), Chiquita (Carmen Miranda) and Harry (Phil Silvers) Hart, inherit a decrepit Southern mansion next to a U.S. Army base and turn it into a residence for soldiers’ wives — but threw out all the Porter songs except the title song, written for Porter’s fave Ethel Merman and here performed by Vivian Blaine at the head of a chorus line representing the show she’s appearing in at the start of the film. (The soundtrack of this song appeared on the CD Musical Ladies Sing the Music of Cole Porter but in a far inferior-sounding transfer than the one on this DVD.)

One of the gimmicks is that Chiquita (whose clash between her Brazilian mannerisms and her U.S. name is explained by making her the product of a marriage between an American traveling salesman and a Brazilian woman) has been working in a defense plant and has got the mineral carborundum stuck in her teeth, which has turned her essentially into a human radio — she can receive broadcasts no one else can hear, and her authenticity is established when she tells people what’s on the radio, they turn a radio on, and she’s right. All this is explained to us in a brief cameo by Judy Holliday, in her first film, playing one of Miranda’s co-workers; according to biographer Gary Carey, Holliday spat out the line at warp speed after being told by director Lewis Seiler that her part was unimportant and therefore she shouldn’t spend too much time getting out her dialogue. When her first take was incomprehensible Seiler told her, “Now, ah — what’s your name? Judy — yes, you’ve got the idea: fast, but intelligible, please!” Once we get to the Southern mansion — a place that gives the term “fixer-upper” a whole new meaning — Perry Como turns up as one of the servicemembers, sings two songs and then pretty much disappears. The love interest is between Blossom and Sgt. Rocky Fulton (Michael O’Shea), a successful civilian bandleader who got drafted; she always wanted to sing with his band, and now she gets the chance. They start an innocent relationship which is abruptly broken up by the arrival of his former fiancée, Melanie Walker (Sheila Ryan), a rich bitch who insists on taking over the entire operation and getting the royal treatment; she seems to be there because the writers (the Fieldses and their adapters, Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Frank Gabrielson) realized that some sort of complication had to intervene in the Rocky-Blossom relationship to have any hope of filling out this slender story to a 90-minute running time. Midway through the movie the mansion is declared off limits after Harry is caught running an illegal casino upstairs and trying to fleece the servicemembers (who of course end up fleecing him!); the wives can still live there but without their husbands being able to visit them, what’s the point? Then all the servicemembers end up in a war-games training exercise (it seems as if the members of the writing committee were ripping off Abbott and Costello’s vehicles at Universal, the deserted mansion from Hold That Ghost and the war-games climax from Buck Privates — both considerably more entertaining movies than this one!) and Miranda’s magical carborundum radio enables Rocky to get information to his side, the Blue Army (they’re fighting the Red Army and this movie makes it seem like they’re re-taking the South for the Democratic Party); his side wins the war, he gets assigned to officer’s training, and he and Blossom make up after Melanie conveniently disappears.

Something for the Boys is one of those frustrating movies that starts with real potential and goes wrong at almost every juncture; it’s worth watching for shimmering Technicolor, good songs by Jimmy McHugh (maybe they ill-treated Cole Porter but McHugh was no slouch as a songwriter either; anyone with “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Blue Again” and “I Must Have That Man” on his résumé is a talent to conjure with!) and nice production numbers, especially for Miranda (though the finale, “Samba Boogie,” jars in its rhythmic alternation between samba and boogie — McHugh wasn’t able to integrate the Latin and jazz rhythms the way Don Raye and Gene DePaul had in “Rhumboogie” for the Andrews Sisters’ vehicle Argentine Nights at Universal five years earlier), as well as pleasant vocals by Blaine and Como. Perry Como had a really nice voice — it kept him a star for decades — but he didn’t have a clue about phrasing, which is why his records achieve a sort of exquisite dullness while Bing Crosby’s, Frank Sinatra’s and Tony Bennett’s still move. Vivian Blaine was in the middle of an attempt by Fox to turn her into a “straight” musical star — and they deserve kudos for letting her keep her natural brown hair instead of trying to shoehorn her into the “Fox Blonde” mold of Faye, Grable, June Haver, Marilyn Monroe (who transcended the type and became a legend) and Jayne Mansfield — but, like Como’s, her voice was pretty but dull and it took Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, casting her as a second-lead, raucous-voiced comic singer in the original stage production of Guys and Dolls in 1950, to make her a star. The plot portions of the movie sort of lumber along, not actively unpleasant but not especially entertaining either (though Phil Silvers’ interminable minstrel number towards the end at least approaches “actively unpleasant”), and Something for the Boys ends up 90 minutes of O.K. diversion based on some pretty tired formulae that were boring both the filmmakers and the audiences by 1944.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: “A Caribbean Mystery” (ITV/WGBH/PBS, 2014)

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

Last night Charles and I settled in at home and watched a couple of TV shows. I put on the first half of a PBS double-feature of the Miss Marple TV series, “A Caribbean Mystery,” featuring Agatha Christie’s second most famous character and based on a Christie novel that was previously filmed in 1989 as a TV-movie with Helen Hayes as Marple (and that might be worth seeing!). The plot is typical Christie, and I noticed a self-borrowing from her story “Philomel Cottage,” quite well filmed in 1937 by a British company as Love With a Stranger with Basil Rathbone showing his usual authority as the principal villain (and a quite remarkable story from Christie because it’s a psychological thriller rather than a mystery). The self-borrowing is the character of Major Palgrave (Oliver Ford Davies), a typical upper-class Brit who has retired to a Caribbean resort called St. Honoré (presumably in Jamaica — exactly what former British colony in the Caribbean that has recently become independent isn’t specified but there’s a quite funny in-joke that narrows it down — more about that later) and, among other things, has brought his collection of photos of notorious murderers. Major Palgrave is found dead, ostensibly as a result of a side effect of medication to treat his high blood pressure, but of course Our Heroine (Julia McKenzie, who’s quite good in the role even if she can’t summon Margaret Rutherford’s marvelous dottiness and she comes off more like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote — a character obviously based on Agatha Christie!) suspects otherwise. We get the usual Christie-esque assortment of ill-defined supporting characters to provide the requisite number of suspects, including a wheelchair-bound chemical magnate whom I was expecting to turn out to be the killer, partly because he didn’t seem to have any other function in the plot and partly because I’m so used to all those 1930’s movies in which the bad guy is merely faking needing a wheelchair for some sinister purpose or other.

Instead the killer turns out to be [spoiler alert!] Tim Kendall (Robert Webb), owner of the resort hotel around which the action is centered, who wants to terminate his marriage to Molly Kendall (Charity Wakefield) and marry a younger woman not only for her hotter bod but her richer bank balance as well. He’s hatched an elaborate plot to make Molly look crazy enough to take her own life — including bribing a Black maid, Victoria (Pippa Bennett Warner), to fake her own death and thereby freak out Molly, though he actually kills Victoria later on — and apparently he’s murdered two previous wives and made their deaths look like suicide. Only Major Palgrave recognized him from a photo in his collection of famous murderers’ pin-ups and therefore Tim had to off him, too. There are a couple of quite nice bits in this movie, including one in which the Black police chief of St. Honoré tells Miss Marple to butt out with a nicely honed anti-colonial speech to the effect that their country is now independent and therefore they don’t have to listen when white Britishers come in and tell them how to do things, and an elaborate in-joke in which one of the characters turns out to be Ian Fleming. Fleming confesses to Miss Marple that he’s working on a spy novel but is stuck for a name for his central character — and just then the two attend a lecture by a thoroughly nerdy and boring ornithologist who introduces himself as “Bond — James Bond.” (The real Ian Fleming actually did get Bond’s name from a real-life ornithologist who did an Audubon-like survey of the birds of Jamaica, but he couldn’t have seen that James Bond lecture because he lived a century earlier than Fleming — though, ironically, when the first James Bond movie was being cast, one of the actors who auditioned for the role was actually named James Bond.) But for the most part it’s the usual Christie nonsense, handsomely photographed (it’s so nice to see a color film of anything these days that’s actually colorful, shot in an interesting setting and taking full advantage of the beauty of the Caribbean locations) but indifferently constructed and with Christie’s usual faults: arbitrary plotting, overly exotic murder methods (I remember the PBS Extraordinary Women episode on Christie, which said her experience with drugs as a war nurse in World War I was what led her to dispatch so many of her people with poison) and characters as flat as cardboard.

Parole Girl (Columbia, 1931)

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

After “A Caribbean Mystery” I ran Charles a recent recording from TCM of a film that proved surprisingly good: Parole Girl, a 1933 Columbia short feature (67 minutes) prefaced with that marvelously cheesy version of the Statue of Liberty logo the company was using in the early 1930’s. Norman Krasna wrote an “original” story whose debt to Bayard Veiller’s play Within the Law — already filmed twice in the silent era as well as a sound remake, Paid, with Joan Crawford, in 1930 — is pretty obvious, but it’s taut, suspenseful and well constructed even though there’s no real doubt as to how it’s going to turn out. The film opens in a department store, where heroine Sylvia Day (Mae Clarke) is accused of attempting to steal a male customer’s wallet. She’s called into the office of the store manager, the customer comes in and finds the wallet still on him, and Sylvia is released with an apology and a check for $500 to settle any legal claims she might make. Then we see her and her supposed “victim,” Tony Grattan (Hale Hamilton), in a cab together, and we learn this is a scam they’ve worked out together: he pretends to be a victim, she pretends to be the suspect, and they get the store to pay them off. She really doesn’t want to be doing this but feels she owes him because when the three of them were living in a boarding house together, Tony paid the medical bills of her dying father. She wants out of the racket but he persuades her to do it one last time, and of course she’s busted when Walsh (Sam Godfrey), the store manager, receives a call from an insurance agent warning him of the scam just as she’s in his office pulling it. Sylvia tells Walsh she’s really not a habitual crook and pleads with him to let her go — he’s willing but the store’s insurance contact, Joe Smith (Ralph Bellamy in a surprisingly edgy role for him), says he can’t do that. Sylvia is arrested and sentenced to a year in prison, where she swears she’ll have her revenge on Smith when she gets out. She’s regularly visited by Tony, who somehow escaped the rap, and she gets him to smuggle three matches into her prison inside the binding of a book. Her plan is to set fire to the pile of fabric scraps in the prison’s clothes factory, then use the fire extinguisher in the room to put it out and, Munchhausen-style, thereby establish herself as a heroine worthy of parole.

When she gets out she manages to trace Joe Smith, find out his address (he lives in a wildly modernistic building that seemed to have come from the same artistic world as the El Lissitzky exhibition at San Diego’s Timken museum Charles and I had been to earlier in the day), “accidentally” run into him at a nightclub, get him drunk and “marry” him — “marry” in quotes because not only does he already have a wife (a girl he met and hooked up with in college, who soon left him but never bothered to divorce him — at least as far as he knows) but her “marriage” is a phony, officiated by Tony disguised as a justice of the peace. Nonetheless, she sets herself up in his apartment and poses as his legitimate wife (though — even in a 1933 movie, made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement and benefiting from it in some surprisingly salty dialogue and risqué situations — it’s made clear that they aren’t sleeping in the same bed or having sex), and even impresses Smith’s boss, Mr. Taylor (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Alas, Sylvia’s old prison friend Jeanie Vance (Marie Prevost, who met a bleak real-life end — she died at 38 of extreme malnutrition and alcoholism, and her body wasn’t found until about a week after she expired — a rumor started that her dogs had started chewing on her body and Nick Lowe wrote one of his most bizarre songs about her: “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner”) turns up — and, needless to say, she’s Joe Smith’s legal wife and asks Sylvia to team up with her to sting him for a major settlement. Sylvia, who by now is genuinely in love with Smith, refuses, but she agrees to leave town and travel with Jeanie to Florida, where she’s cooked up some scams to target the tourists. Only while they’re on the train together Jeanie reveals that she isn’t Mrs. Smith anymore — she divorced him in Mexico two years earlier — and so Sylvia returns on the quickest train she can get back to New York City. She arrives at Smith’s apartment just as he’s finished reading the note she wrote him confessing all, and they enter a clinch at the fade-out, obviously headed for a genuine marriage and an above-board existence.

Parole Girl isn’t much of a movie plot-wise, and it’s powered by two pretty hard-to-believe coincidences (Norman Krasna was usually a better writer than this!), but it’s redeemed by the toughness with which it’s played by director Edward F. Cline, a former Keystone Kop who’s best known for his comedies (especially his vehicles for W. C. Fields) but here turns in a quite good job in a dramatic script and manages to get a stronger performance from Mae Clarke than quite a few more prestigious directors, including William Wellman and James Whale, did. Hard as nails, and sporting a butch haircut (I’m not sure which of the leads, Clarke or Bellamy, had the shorter hair!), Clarke is absolutely convincing in her role, portraying both the character’s surface toughness and her inner vulnerability. Parole Girl is one of those minor little gems of the studio system, a movie that draws on the cliché bank but repays it with interest, and it’s helped revise my opinions of Clarke as an actress and Bellamy as an actor (it’s a role that offers him a lot more than his romantic losers later on) considerably upward! Two other points about this quite interesting movie: Robert Kalloch is listed as the costume designer, presumably for the entire cast — later he went to MGM but there he designed men’s clothes almost exclusively (which perhaps explains why Mae Clarke’s outfits in this film, especially after she’s released from prison, are so butch!) — and two years after Clarke got the famous grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy here she is again, seated at a breakfast table with a half a grapefruit in an ornate cup in front of her, only at least this time she gets to eat it normally.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Roosevelts (Florentine Films/Roosevelt Film Project, PBS, c. 2013, aired 2014)

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

I watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts last night, and after the fascinating article in the current Harper’s about the political de-fanging of public television — how it’s become basically another outlet for pro-corporate propaganda, with a lot of mainstream political shows that seem daringly liberal only because so much of the rest of the media (particularly talk radio and Fox News) is so outrageously and flamingly reactionary — it’s interesting to watch a program taking two of the liberal icons of the 20th century (three, if you count Eleanor — half of the final episode of the series is about her life and public career after Franklin’s death) and essentially doing a hagiography of them. Charles came home about midway through the first of seven two-hour episodes of this production, and noted that Theodore Roosevelt’s concern for the common man and his attempt to steer the middle course between “mob rule” (i.e., the French-style revolution a lot of people were either hoping for or fearing in the late 19th century as the power of corporate elites became stronger and more oppressive) and the continued domination of society by the rich and economically powerful would have got him denounced today as at best a “RINO” (the “Republican in Name Only” epithet the Tea Party activists like to hurl at GOP’ers who aren’t sufficiently hard-line reactionary for them) and at worst a socialist. (In his independent campaign for President in 1912 — which was actually the beginning of the long-running and now complete purge of liberals and progressives from the Republican Party — Theodore Roosevelt became the first serious Presidential candidate to support national health insurance.) The show attempted to explain away Theodore’s imperialism — essentially treating it the way Jefferson’s hagiographers treat his ownership of slaves, as a nasty but historically understandable blot on an otherwise fine character — when, as Charles pointed out, Theodore’s eagerness to get the U.S. involved in imperialist wars and make this country the world’s dominant military power is the one aspect of his Presidency contemporary Republicans do support and want to emulate.

One thing the show doesn’t get into is Theodore’s open, out-front racism, which I hadn’t really known about until I read James Bradley’s book The Imperial Cruise — which described in detail how much Theodore Roosevelt was a supporter of the master-race crap that was mainstream thought among white Europeans and Americans through the first third of the 20th century until Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, by taking it to its logical extremes, gave it a bad name. The basic idea was that all civilization had come from the Aryan race, and then from a later branch of it called the Teutons, and that master races who were smart conquered countries with inferior populations and slaughtered them all. Master races who weren’t so smart conquered countries with inferior populations, slaughtered the men but had sex with the women — thereby diluting their racial purity and creating “mongrel” offspring that dragged down the quality and “purity” of the master race. Of course this is all a bunch of B.S., but Bradley (who’d written the book Flags of Our Fathers about the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II and then wrote and researched The Imperial Cruise to try to figure out what the hell the U.S. had been doing fighting wars in Asia in the first place) makes a good case that Theodore Roosevelt not only believed it but it was the prime motivation for his imperialism — not his obsession with naval power (interestingly the show, at least so far, hasn’t mentioned the name of Admiral Thayer Mahan, the theorist of sea power and its influence in history whom Theodore met with in the White House and regarded as his principal authority on the issue) or any desire to “liberate” or “civilize” Third World peoples. This first episode deals largely with Theodore’s personal challenges — it’s a Great Man view of history, and a psychotic Great Man view at that, taking the position that the great men of history work out their own personal demons through the actions they take in their public lives — including his boyhood weakness, the deaths of his mother and his first wife on the same day (though he quickly remarried and his second wife was a woman he’d actually dated before he met his first one) and the service in the Spanish-American war (which Burns and his writers take a lot more seriously than Bradley did!) that essentially established his credentials as a real-life action hero and got him elected first governor of New York and then vice-president under William McKinley. The show ends just as Theodore Roosevelt takes the oath of office and becomes President following McKinley’s death. — 9/15/14


I watched the second episode of the PBS-TV series The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’ latest production and (despite his tongue-up-the-butthole defense of the Bank of America, his principal corporate sponsor after General Motors went bankrupt and bailed on him) a whirlwind portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency that took the radical (for 2014) position that government regulation of businesses and antitrust enforcement are actually good things. I can readily envision what’s mostly a Roosevelt hagiography calling up all the old criticisms from the Right that PBS is a bastion of liberal thought (and indeed it is if you define the term “liberal” as what it meant in the 1950’s and 1960’s; the odd thing is that almost no Americans are still “liberal” in that sense — most Americans have moved Rightward on economic issues and, to a lesser extent, Leftward on social issues from what the term “liberal” historically meant, and what there is of an economic Left in this country — which there really isn’t, at least not a big enough one to matter — is considerably more radical). The film touches on some of the nastier aspects of T.R.’s presidency and his thought in general, including his typical-for-his-time division of the world into “superior” and “inferior” people (“superior,” predictably, mostly synonymous with “white,” though he was willing to grant the Japanese a sort of “honorary white” status since they had built up an industrial infrastructure and used it to create a military machine that won a war against a white country, Russia) and the astonishing incident in Brownsville, Texas in 1906.

It seems that the mayor and other white officials of Brownsville accused 30 Black soldiers from an all-Black regiment (remember that the U.S. military was strictly segregated until after World War II) of tearing up the town, harassing white women and killing a white bartender, and while the white commander of their unit alibied them and insisted they’d all been on base sleeping when the incidents occurred, Roosevelt countermanded the army’s verdict and ordered not only the 30 accused men but all 167 members of the unit thrown out of the army without pensions. Ken Burns and his writers note that Roosevelt didn’t mention the incident at all in his autobiography. The show periodically cuts away to the early days of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (remember that she was a blood Roosevelt herself and an even closer relative of Theodore than Franklin was — indeed, in the 1970’s TV-movie Eleanor and Franklin there’s a charming scene in which his proposal is dramatized by him asking her, “Mr. Roosevelt would like to ask Miss Roosevelt if she would consent to become Mrs. Roosevelt”) — but these become merely soap-opera relief for the hard-core political story of Theodore’s presidency. And in 2014 the T.R. presidency seems like the stuff of science fiction; despite his urgings that the U.S. maintain a “centrist” position between corporate control and what he called “mob rule,” the idea that a U.S. President — and a Republican at that — would actually use a phrase like “malefactors of great wealth” (today the orthodoxy not only of the Republican Party but much of the Democratic Party as well is that if you have amassed great wealth you have done so through your innate superiority and hard work, and therefore the whole idea that a rich person could be a “malefactor” is a contradiction in terms!), the idea that a President could mediate a labor dispute, treat labor as the rightful equal of capital and seriously address the concentration of corporate power is so far from the U.S. political mainstream as to be literally inconceivable. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency seems to come less from a different historical era than from a different culture, if not (indeed) from a different planet! — 9/16/14


I turned to PBS for the third episode of The Roosevelts. This one took the story from Theodore Roosevelt’s return from his African safari in 1910 to his attempt to regain the Presidency in 1912 — first as a Republican and then, after the party bosses denied him the nomination (an event of incredible historical significance since it was the first step in the Republican Party’s gradual, generations-long purge of its progressive, liberal and eventually moderate members to become the highly organized, unified extreme Right-wing party it is today), at the head of what was officially termed the Progressive Party but which became known as the Bull Moose Party because T.R. had compared himself to one of those animals in one of those “wild” metaphors of which he was so fond. The show depicted Roosevelt’s defeat in the 1912 election (though he out-polled the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft, and held the Democratic winner, Woodrow Wilson, to just 42 percent of the popular vote — in some ways the 1912 election was a precursor to the 1992 election, in which a charismatic third-party candidate split the Republican vote and thus allowed Democrat Bill Clinton to win with 43 percent of the vote) as a spirit-crushing blow that was only compounded by an ill-advised trip. He did another expedition, this time in the wilds of Brazil, where he nearly died and his son Kermit had to nurse him back to health — and people who knew him noticed how the experience aged him; though he would only be 60 when he died (peacefully, in his sleep) in January 1919, he already had the look of an old man in those last years (and the newsreel footage shows just how much he’d visibly aged). The show did not mention T.R.’s final political fight; though he died before it became a live issue, in the last two months of his life he was meeting with the Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate to plot the strategy that would ultimately hand President Wilson his last and bitterest political defeat: blocking America’s entry into the League of Nations after World War I.

The show also annoyingly treated the Zimmermann Telegram (ostensibly an offer from the German foreign minister to the government of Mexico to return California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico to Mexico after the war if Mexico would enter World War I on the German side; really — as Barbara Tuchman documented decades ago — a fake concocted by the British Secret Service to get the U.S. into the war on their side) as if it were authentic, and it noted Theodore’s own pathetic attempt to get into combat in World War I the way he famously had launched his political career by fighting in the Spanish-American War in 1898. It also noted the heavy-duty burden on his sons, all of whom enlisted and one, Quentin, was killed when his plane was shot down in a multi-plane melée with German aircraft. The show paralleled Franklin Roosevelt’s career as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (under Josephus Daniels, the moralistic prude who ordered New Orleans’ red-light Storyville district closed when the U.S. entered the war, an event of monumental importance in the history of jazz because it forced a lot of New Orleans’ musicians to flee the city and head north to Chicago or, in some cases, west to L.A. where Prohibition, another idiocy Daniels supported and Ken Burns has made a film about, was going to open up more opportunities for jazz musicians to work), his marriage to Eleanor and his affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer, but so far the parts of the film dealing with Franklin have been considerably less interesting and, as I noted yesterday, basically provided “soap-opera relief” from the political history of T.R. One quibble I’d have is why Ken Burns didn’t use any of the recordings that exist of Theodore Roosevelt’s actual voice; though he cast voice actors as all three of the major Roosevelts (Paul Giamatti as Theodore, Edward Herrmann as Franklin and Meryl Streep as Eleanor — the same actress playing Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher? The mind reels! Yes, Streep is an incredibly versatile performer, equaled among female movie stars in the sheer range of her talents only by Barbara Stanwyck, but still … !) he did include the sound clips of Franklin’s real-life speeches — but why not use the records of T.R. that exist? A few years ago Ward Marston put out a collection of the recordings of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan (and there had been enough of a market for these things “in the day” that in 1908 the Edison company had advertised, “No matter how the [Taft vs. Bryan] election turns out, we will have records by the new President”), so it’s not like these things haven’t been documented or preserved. With all the accounts of T.R.’s power as a stump speaker it would have been nice to hear what his voice really sounded like! — 9/17/14


I watched the fourth part of the Ken Burns TV mini-series The Roosevelts on PBS; written by Burns’ usual collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, this episode, “The Storm,” dealt with Franklin Roosevelt’s contracting polio in 1921 (I noted the irony that he probably got it from swimming with his children in the waters off Campobello Island, though how he got hit by the viral bullet and his kids dodged it is just one of the mysteries) and his long, slow struggle to regain as much of the use of his muscles as he could (which wasn’t much; the show included the diagrams of his muscle function made by his doctors and showed that all the excruciating courses of physical therapy and exercise he went on had almost no benefit — some of his muscles got better, some got worse, most remained pretty much the same) and also rebuild his political career, including getting elected governor of New York in 1928 (in defiance of a national Republican landslide — Roosevelt’s predecessor as New York governor, Al Smith, couldn’t even carry his home state as the Democratic Presidential nominee) and winning the Presidential nomination, and a landslide election victory, in 1932 after the Depression had devastated the economy for the past three years. It was a whirlwind presentation and, as in previous episodes, the political material was far more interesting than the soap-opera stuff (though it was interesting how Roosevelt hired a journalist to do an “investigation” of his health and place it as an article in Liberty magazine in 1931 to reassure doubtful voters that he’d be up to the job of President), and the subplot of Eleanor Roosevelt building her own political career while Franklin was invalided (including making friends with at least two relatively “out,” at least by 1920’s standards, Lesbian couples) was utterly fascinating — she saw Franklin’s election as governor and then as President as disappointments in that she’d have to wind up back in his shadow instead of pursuing her own ambitions and making the case for women in politics in general. — 9/18/14


Episode five of The Roosevelts, called “The Rising Road,” dealt with the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and touched on topics like Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate friendship with Lorena Hickox (whom she called “Hic” when she wrote her), though filmmaker Ken Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward (who oddly actually appears as a talking-head in the film as well as doing the overall script which actor Peter Coyote narrated) are predictably coy about just how intimate they were. What’s most fascinating about this film is that as late as 2014, with American politics being dominated by a rejection of “Big Government” and much of the ideology of the Roosevelt years, this show presents Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency much as it would have done if it had been made in 1964, with the New Deal depicted as pretty much a done deal instead of what it’s looking like now — a brief interruption in a history of a country that for the most part has preached self-reliance and “rugged individualism” (a phrase I hadn’t realized until recently was actually coined by FDR’s immediate predecessor as President, Herbert Hoover) and rejected the whole idea that was central to FDR’s politics in general and his response to the Depression in particular: that each person has at least some responsibility to all other people and it’s up to society as a whole to step in and help people when circumstances beyond their control make them unable to help themselves. Even George F. Will, whose appearance among the talking-heads on this program might have led one to expect he’d be the voice of Right-wing contrarianism questioning not only whether FDR’s policies were moral but whether they were effective (a growing body of Right-wing revisionist literature, notably Amity Shlaes’ book The Forgotten Man, which according to her Wikipedia page “argues that both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted economic policies that were counterproductive, prolonged the Great Depression, and established the modern entitlement trap,” says outright that Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, was right when he said the Depression ought to be allowed to run its course without any help from government whatever), instead pretty much joins in the chorus of praise, albeit with a few mild caveats.

It’s surprising to hear Will, of all people, describe Franklin Roosevelt as the most important President of the 20th Century — people of his political persuasion usually give that honor to Ronald Reagan, and one can certainly make a case that Reagan (who was a New Deal Democrat during FDR’s Presidency until the destructive jurisdiction squabbles among the Hollywood unions in the late 1940’s, at least according to his own account, “conservatized” him) was the most important President of the second half of the 20th century, as FDR was of its first half. Not that the Right-wing reaction to the New Deal (and to some of the reforms pursued earlier by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — as an earlier episode of The Roosevelts pointed out, it was the Hepburn Act to regulate railroad rates, signed into law by T.R., that first gave federal agencies the power to make “rules,” i.e. to write legislation without Congressional involvement except for the option to vote them up or down after the fact, a power that’s been key to expanding the reach and scope of the U.S. federal government) has been complete; Reagan may have come into office pledging to abolish the Department of Education and radically shrink the federal government, but today there are more Cabinet positions than there were in 1981 and some of them (notably the Department of Homeland Security) were created on the “watch” of Republican Presidents. But at this late date the idea that a President of the United States from either major party would so vividly and staunchly attack “economic royalists” (or, as T.R. had called them, “malefactors of great wealth”) seems, in John Woo’s words about the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint.” The whole idea that the government has any obligation whatsoever to individual citizens to help them out of economic jams is quickly being relegated to the history books; the ruling orthodoxy of today is the Libertarian idea that we are all on our own, and that taxing the rich to help the not-so-rich is penalizing the “makers” to benefit the “takers” and is therefore not only bad public policy but downright immoral. Certainly one of the major accomplishments of the Franklin Roosevelt administration — the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act that guaranteed the rights of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively — has become virtually a dead letter today; private-sector union membership has dropped to less than 7 percent of the workforce and if it weren’t for the labor movement’s success in organizing government workers (itself under vicious and unrelenting attack by Right-wingers determined to smash this last remaining bastion of organized labor in the U.S.) there basically wouldn’t be a labor movement in this country anymore. And though Social Security and its Lyndon Johnson-era derivative, Medicare, still exist and pay benefits to millions of Americans, they too are on the Right-wing chopping block and their days are probably numbered; once the Republicans gain full control of the federal government again (and that’s not a matter of if, but when) they will no doubt implement the full agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council and privatize Social Security, Medicare and what’s left of the social safety net FDR and his supporters thought would be permanent. The other side of The Roosevelts that rankles, besides its blithe assumption that FDR’s changes were an ongoing part of American life and unlikely to be undone (which, as I said, would have been a perfectly reasonable assumption for a documentary made in 1964 but seems increasingly tenuous today), is its enthusiastic endorsement of the “Great Man” theory of history.

For a filmmaker like Ken Burns who in his earlier movies (particularly his epics on the Civil War and World War II) has been so powerful and moving in bringing to life the ordinary people who were involved in momentous historical events, it’s surprising to see him depict Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt basically as colossi who bestrode the U.S., bringing enlightened public policy and a sense of mutual obligation despite the pettifogging objections of busybodies both on the Left and the Right. While I think some of my Leftist friends who call FDR a reactionary who was forced to the Left by mass public demonstrations overstate the case the other way, the fact remains that in the 1930’s there was a mass Left of a size the U.S. had seen only once before (in the 1890’s) and hasn’t seen since, and it did put pressure on the U.S. government to act considerably more radically than it would have otherwise. The Roosevelts only briefly mentions California activist Dr. Francis Townsend, who offered a pension plan for people over 60 that even progressive economists thought was impractical and would bankrupt the country, but I’ve long felt that Social Security owes its existence more to Dr. Townsend than any other single individual — because it was the great popularity of his plan and the likelihood that the people could force its adoption that led the Roosevelt administration to come up with a more workable alternative that would accomplish much the same thing. One thing The Roosevelts is honest about is that the 1937 recession came about largely due to FDR’s and his advisors’ budget hawkery — Roosevelt had attacked Herbert Hoover in 1932 for running budget deficits and FDR remained an advocate of balanced budgets all his life, someone who thought that as soon as the emergencies of the Depression and World War II were over the government should go back to running in the black — this recession turns up in Shlaes’ book and other Right-wing sources as evidence that the New Deal was a failure — and this film depicts the economy as expanding again in 1938 and 1939 once at least some of the public-works money started flowing again. The Roosevelts is a tale of triumph for a man and an ideology — the man remains a compelling historical figure but the ideology is pretty worn out by now; today’s Washington gridlock is between a Republican Party at least rhetorically determined to wipe out the New Deal and its progeny and tear them root and branch from the fabric of American governance, a Democratic Party desperately protecting what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society without offering any new ideas, a fired-up mass movement of the Right demanding even more evisceration of the social safety net and even lower taxes and less regulation of business and the rich — and virtually no mass Left at all! — 9/19/14


Part six of The Roosevelts, “The Common Cause,” took the story of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency from 1939 (and the beginning of World War II in Europe, a struggle Roosevelt knew the U.S. would someday have to enter on the side of Britain but, with a large majority of the country committed to isolationism, he had to proceed gingerly and involve the U.S. in the war on Britain’s side in baby steps — first cash-and-carry arms purchases, then the famous exchange of 50 destroyers for Caribbean bases, then Lend-Lease) to 1944. Somewhat surprisingly it did not carry FDR’s story to his fourth term and his death, though it did end with the diagnosis of congestive heart disease (which is what finally killed him at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia at age 63). With — as Roosevelt himself put it — “Dr. Win-the-War” taking over from “Dr. New Deal,” this episode — especially once the U.S. actually entered the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (the program showed the typescript of Roosevelt’s speech calling that “a date which will live in infamy,” and it was interesting that he had crossed out something milder in the original text and wrote “infamy” in by hand) — didn’t seem quite so ideologically dated as the previous one about the New Deal had, to the point where George F. Will, of all people, called Social Security a basic redefinition of the contract the American government had with its citizens. (And Will, of course, is part of a Right-wing movement committed to undoing that change and returning us to the days when you were old, disabled or otherwise unemployable, you were on your own.) This episode traversed much more familiar ground, especially since director Ken Burns had already done World War II in a considerably better epic series that focused on a handful of ordinary servicemembers and their families — and while one asked, “Why them?,” after a while, a show like Burns’ The War is a necessary corrective to one like The Roosevelts that pretty much describes history as being made by a bunch of old white men in rooms who make decisions for the rest of us. One quirky thing about the war episode of The Roosevelts is how much of it is in color — we tend to think of World War II as a black-and-white war but Kodachrome film was readily available and extensively used to film battles for documentary movies (notably John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, which is all-color) as well as ceremonial occasions involving both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Kudos are also in order to Burns for making Eleanor an integral part of the story even long after she and Franklin had ceased to have an intimate relationship; they remained a working partnership, and while this film somehow missed the incredible story of Marian Anderson’s concert in Washington, D.C. (the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent out their concert hall for a performance by an African-American — whereupon Eleanor Roosevelt announced that she would host the concert and it would take place on the White House steps), it did make clear that Eleanor was considerably more committed to civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular than her husband was, at least in part because she didn’t have to worry about winning the votes of racist Southern Democrats first for the New Deal programs (many of which were either segregated or completely restricted to whites for that reason) and then for the war.

The film also makes the point that it wasn’t at all clear FDR could have got the U.S. Congress to declare war against Germany if Hitler hadn’t declared war on us first, though the case it makes against the oft-repeated notion that FDR knew in advance that the Pearl Harbor attack was going to happen and let it occur because he needed a casus belli to overcome American isolationism and get us fighting is pretty lame, focused mainly on the fact that as Assistant Secretary of the Navy he had laid the keep for the U.S.S. Arizona himself and had paternalistic feelings towards the battleship fleet and therefore would not have let it be destroyed. There are other, better arguments on both sides of this controversy — which historian John Toland took both sides on at different points, rejecting the Roosevelt-knew idea in his book The Rising Sun and accepting it in Infamy, written a decade later. My own view is that the U.S. missed advance warning of Pearl Harbor in 1941 for the same reason it missed advance warning of the 9/11 attacks 60 years later: all the information needed to put it together that the attacks were about to occur existed somewhere in government intelligence agencies, but it was so diffused among different government agencies that weren’t communicating with each other that no one was able to put it together correctly. Another point the show made was that there were three major candidates for the Republican nomination in 1940, two of whom were heavy-duty isolationists — but the Republicans actually nominated the third one, Wendell Willkie, who totally agreed with FDR that World War II was a struggle for basic human freedoms worldwide and the U.S. would therefore have to get involved in it on the Allied side. This was ironically depicted in a cartoon by the British artist David Low, who drew the U.S. Presidential campaign of 1940 with adjacent posters reading “Vote for Roosevelt and a Black Eye for Hitler” and “Vote for Willkie and a Kick in the Pants for Hitler.” It’s ironic that in that regard the 1940 campaign anticipated that of 1968, in which despite a growing sentiment among U.S. voters that the Viet Nam war was unwinnable and we should get out, both major parties nominated pro-war candidates and therefore the American people didn’t have a real choice on the issue. It also mentioned that when Roosevelt was pushing the first peacetime U.S. military draft through Congress, he got an unexpected boost from Willkie, who came out for it publicly while Roosevelt was still publicly uncommitted but privately lobbying Congress — and all of a sudden it was a lot harder for Congressional Republicans to oppose the draft when their party’s Presidential standard-bearer was for it. The show also detailed the compromises FDR had to make, essentially shelving his domestic reform agenda (he quietly let the Congress kill the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, though one could have made a case that with so many jobs being created by war production they were simply no longer needed), and at least hints he’d made his peace with the big capitalists he’d once denounced as “economic royalists” and abandoned any further interest in redistributing wealth and income.

And yet Roosevelt had publicly proclaimed the “Four Freedoms” — not only freedom of speech and freedom of religion but “freedom from want” (i.e., economic desperation) and “freedom from fear” (i.e., more wars) — and in a little-remembered speech in late 1944 he called for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would have been an even more sweeping redefinition of the American social contract and the relationship between our people and our government than anything FDR actually achieved in office. FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” speech has been seized on recently by modern-day progressives anxious to establish an historical antecedent for the politics of the Occupy movement and its attack on corporate power and rising inequality of wealth and income — though as I’ve noted in previous comments on The Roosevelts, the ideological tide in this country has so dramatically shifted in the direction of Libertarianism that talk of an economic bill of rights that would guarantee every person “freedom from want” has become as “obsolete and quaint” as the Geneva Conventions about treating prisoners of war. Today American politics is dominated by the ideology both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt opposed (with quite a bit of pressure on them from below — specifically from well-organized mass Left movements of a type that no longer exists in the U.S.): the idea that rich people are that way because they are intellectually and morally superior; that taxing the rich for the benefit of the not-so-rich is “slavery” and “theft”; that the decisions of “The Market” as to how wealth and income are distributed are inherently the correct ones, and any attempt to interfere with them will only make matters worse; and that if people are unemployed or poor it’s their own damned fault for being shiftless, lazy and unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Not that everyone — or even a majority — of Americans necessarily believe all that (if they did, Mitt Romney would have won the 2012 Presidential election in a landslide), but at least partly because of the increasing influence of the corporate media and its ability to crowd out any challenge to the view that government = oppression and “the private sector” = freedom (even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which partially funded Ken Burns’ program along with the Bank of America, doesn’t dare call itself a public agency; rather, it uses the bizarre circumlocution, “A private corporation funded by the American people”), at least some form of Libertarianism has become the default position of American politics and, if it can be challenged at all, the challenge is a lot more difficult than it was for previous generations of Leftists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s. — 9/20/14


The last episode of The Roosevelts was called “A Strong and Active Faith” — the title taken from the last letter Franklin Roosevelt ever wrote — and though the PBS description had suggested it would be a program dealing with Eleanor Roosevelt during the 17 ½ years after Franklin’s death, that was only the last hour of it — the first hour dealt with the final year of FDR’s life, including his final re-election campaign (against Governor Tom Dewey of New York — ironic that the 1944 election for President was between two former governors of the same state! — who also famously ran against Harry Truman in 1948, and though it wasn’t strictly within the purview of this show Ken Burns couldn’t resist including the famous photo from 1948 of Truman, freshly elected to the Presidency in his own right, holding the paper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”), the closing months of World War II, FDR’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945 and the subsequent conclusion of the war in the total victory and “unconditional surrender” FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had insisted on. Ken Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, went into full myth-buster status on Yalta, insisting that though President Roosevelt was physically weak during the conference his mind was still sound and he did not give away Eastern Europe to Stalin out of his incapacity, as decades of Right-wing mythology has had it. Indeed, Burns and Ward make it clear that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was basically a done deal well before World War II ended; the Red Army had conquered those countries back from Hitler and the only way the U.S. could have dislodged them was to have gone to war with the Soviet Union immediately after World War II concluded.

Certainly this part of the story begs the question of how the rest of the 1940’s and the 1950’s might have been different had Roosevelt lived to fill out his fourth term — just as the timing of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination just four days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox makes one wonder whether he would have handled Reconstruction better than Andrew Johnson did and whether Lincoln either would or could have “bound up the nation’s wounds” in such a way as to ease the bitterness of the former Confederates while still securing full civil rights and legal equality for the freed slaves. In Roosevelt’s case the what-if’s include not only what would have happened if he had survived but also what would have happened if he hadn’t been forced to dump Henry Wallace from the vice-presidency and replace him with a nominee of the Democratic Convention, who turned out to be Harry Truman; FDR had been persuaded to let Wallace go because his political advisors had convinced him he couldn’t win the election with Wallace on the ticket, and there’s a story that the night of the election, as the returns came in and he won his narrowest — but still comfortable — victory, he looked at the numbers and said, “See, I could have won with Wallace on the ticket.” Had either FDR lived or Wallace, not Truman, succeeded him, there might not have been a Cold War — though it’s possible that Wallace, running either as Roosevelt’s immediate successor or as his heir apparent in 1948, would have lost and the Republicans would have taken a hard anti-Soviet line and instead of a Cold War there might well have been a hot one. It’s the sort of counter-factual historical speculation that has fueled a few good novels and a whole lot of bad ones — what if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had won World War II? Or — one I’d be particularly interested in — what if Alexander Hamilton had won the biggest battle he lost at the Constitutional Convention and had the U.S. President elected for life?

That’s an especially relevant one for FDR not only because he’s the closest we’ve ever had (or ever will, unless the 22nd Amendment — a typical piece of Republican short-sightedness put in after FDR’s death; Eisenhower and Reagan could easily have won third terms if they’d been eligible to run for them — is repealed) to a President for life, but also, as one of the talking heads on this show commented, Roosevelt pursued Jeffersonian aims with Hamiltonian methods. The greatest single legacy of the Roosevelt presidency — here we should probably say the Roosevelt presidencies, since as this show noted it was Theodore Roosevelt with the Hepburn Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to regulate railroad rates, who first created the “rule-making” power by which federal agencies can essentially write “rules,” regulations that not only have the force of law but basically are laws, without the involvement of Congress — was not so much the pursuit of greater economic and social equality (which has been steadily reversed for the last 43 years) as the vast expansion of the powers of government in general and the federal government in particular. The increased power of government is something every president since FDR has used for his[1] own purposes, whether their ideological bent and intent has been similar to FDR’s or (as in the case of Reagan and both Bushes, the second one especially) quite the opposite. While I would have hoped that the program would have laid Franklin Roosevelt to rest at the end of episode six and devoted the full final episode to Eleanor and the years of her widowhood, the hour we did get on her post-Franklin life indicated her importance as a worldwide activist and in particular her shepherding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the United Nations, first to a special committee that was assigned to draft it and then through the full General Assembly, in 1948. The Universal Declaration makes fascinating reading today because a lot of the countries that signed on to it were not following its principles and had no intention of ever doing so — and that includes the U.S., which has never fully taken seriously the provisions of Articles 22 through 25 —

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
— and in various international fora since 1948 we’ve actively opposed attempts to include the kinds of economic rights described in these four sections (and, before Franklin Roosevelt’s death, in the call for an “Economic Bill of Rights” he made in his 1944 State of the Union address). The U.S. position on these issues has gone back to what it was before the Roosevelts, before the Progressive Era and before the mass Lefts of the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s organized to question capitalism and “The Market”’s allocations of wealth, income and resources. I’ve read specific conservative critiques of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to the effect that while the first two “Freedoms” (freedom of speech and freedom of religion) are legitimately within the purview of government because they represent constraints on government power, the last two (“freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”) are illegitimate because they call on government to take affirmative action (to use a phrase that later acquired a more specific and itself controversy-inducing meaning) to guarantee things to people, or as a Libertarian would say, to give things to people that are not within government’s right to give. Mitt Romney’s references to the 47 percent of Americans who were going to vote against him because they expected government to “give” them things — and his repetition of that after he lost — indicate how much the Libertarian ideology has become part and parcel of the Republican party, and the overall tenor of political debate in this country at least since 1980 has indicated how much that ideology has seeped into the Democratic party as well, especially without a mass Left to put countervailing pressure on the political system as a whole and the Democratic party in particular.

One point made in The Roosevelts is that Franklin Roosevelt had to do a lot of compromising with entrenched interests to get the Social Security Act and the other New Deal programs through Congress, and therefore the wishful whines of some American progressives for a leader like FDR or Lyndon Johnson who would just sweep away Congressional resistance and “get things done” are off-base. What that doesn’t take into account is that what we’re really wishing for is a President who would expend the kind of political capital FDR or LBJ did in pushing for social legislation — and that wish is based on us achieving something we haven’t been able to do since the early 1970’s: to build a truly mass Left movement in the U.S. that would pressure Democratic politicians to push beyond what they thought would be the bounds of political realism. The biggest criticism I would make of The Roosevelts as a film is that it didn’t really delve into the interplay between what both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt did (or tried to do) in office and the pressure put on them from below by the mass Left movements of their time — instead it depicted both men as loftily dispensing progressive wisdom from above, undeterred by the pettifogging objections from both Left and Right — an odd foray into the “Great Man” view of history for Ken Burns, who in his previous films (the ones on the Civil War and World War II in particular) has been especially good at showing ordinary people and how they both shaped and were shaped by great historical events. I’d have liked to see more about how the social movements of the times shaped the Roosevelt presidencies and put pressure on both Theodore and Franklin to be more radical than they would have been otherwise — maybe a movie like that would have helped teach the remnants of an American Left the lost art of doing electoral activism and direct action in tandem, as the Left did in the 1930’s and the 1960’s and the Right has done so effectively through the Tea Party throughout Obama’s administration — but otherwise The Roosevelts as a whole is an interesting documentary that hopefully should whet the viewer’s appetite for more information and knowledge about these very interesting people and what they did (and were pressured to do) for America and the progressive side of its ideals. — 9/21/14

[1] — So far, of course, it’s always been “his.” Maybe after 2016 we’ll be able to add “or her”!