Friday, May 30, 2014

Young and Innocent (Gaumont-British, 1937)

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

Yesterday morning I ran Young and Innocent, the 1937 Hitchcock British film I’d already had on Beta, but which I’d just got on VHS in the same package as Rich and Strange. Young and Innocent is a masterpiece, though I can well imagine why it threw audiences in 1937 — there’s no espionage, no international intrigue and only one murder, which takes place at the beginning of the film (and, true to form, Hitchcock reveals the killer at the very outset of the plot, including a giveaway characteristic — an uncontrollably twitching eye — a clue that, in typical Hitchcock fashion, is revealed to the audience from the beginning but is unknown to the characters until about three-fourths of the way through the film’s plot) and is not even shown on screen. This film was based, very loosely, on Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles, though Hitch took little from the book but the character names, a vivid montage of newspaper headlines announcing the murder of the famous film star Christine Clay, and the idea of the innocent man and the police chief’s daughter locked together (metaphorically this time, not literally as in The 39 Steps) in a chase for the real killer while the police chase them. (Tey’s novel is too rambling and diffuse to have been filmable as written, but later she wrote a masterpiece, Brat Farrar, that would have made a wonderful Hitchcock movie; with its theme of imposture, its hidden murder and its vertiginous climax on the clifftops of Dover, it practically reads like a Hitchcock script — and Cary Grant would have been ideal casting for the dual role of the male leads.) What Hitchcock did film faithfully was the chase of man, woman and car (an old Morris Minor which is so endearing it practically becomes another character in both book and film, though Hitch and his screenwriters — Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong — should have kept the car’s nickname, “Tinny,” by which the girl who owns it — and is the only person who knows how to drive it — calls it in the novel).

It’s an oddly pastoral film, full of the subtle beauties of the English countryside (photographed, in one of those great black-and-white jobs from the 1930’s that questions the whole idea that anyone would want to make a film in color, by Bernard Knowles) and a slowly and beautifully developing relationship between the leads — including an overbearing performance by Derrick De Marney as the innocent man on the run and the remarkable Nova Pilbeam as the police chief’s daughter who helps him. Pilbeam’s performance has the same kind of edginess and forthrightness of Bette Davis’ work of the period, and one wonders what happened to her after this (she’d played the daughter in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Young and Innocent was her first adult role — and she was among the actresses considered for Rebecca, though for that film Hitchcock insisted she was all wrong as a type; which she would have been — if she had been in the position of the second Mrs. Max de Winter, she would have grabbed her husband by the scruff of the neck and burned all that crap that reminded both of them of Rebecca!). Donald Spoto’s book has a long and loving analysis of Young and Innocent, pointing out the motifs of vision (the hero steals his lawyer’s glasses to escape, the murderer has a twitch in both eyes, the children at the party where hero and heroine are socially trapped play blind man’s bluff and the heroine’s younger brothers fantasize the murderer lying dead on a beach with birds pecking out his eyes — a vision Hitchcock would later realize on screen in The Birds — and Hitchcock’s cameo appearance shows him wrestling with a small snapshot camera, trying to get a picture of the fleeing fugitive: an ironic reflection of his actual role in staging this entire story and using much more sophisticated cameras to record it as a film!) and of disguise (the murder victim is an actress, and the murderer is her secret husband; the murderer performs in blackface as a band drummer; and the hero, who knew Christine Clay and had an affair with her after selling her a story for one of her films, disguises himself to escape; “Everyone deals in creating illusion,” Spoto notes). He also points out at least two shots Hitch repeated in later films: the vertiginous rescue of Pilbeam by De Marney after the abandoned mine they’re hiding out in caves in and he has to pull her to safety from a gaping pit (repeated with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest) and the seagulls who circle the dead body of Christine Clay as she floats to shore on the beach below the house where she was killed (another forerunner of The Birds). — 3/13/95


Afterwards we went back to Charles’ place and ran Young and Innocent (which I had on tape as part of the two-pack that also contained Rich and Strange), which remains a marvelous movie — oddly pastoral and bucolic through much of its length, even though it contains a murder plot, and while Hitchcock may only have used about one-third of his source novel (Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles) he preserved Tey’s style, notably her emphasis on character development rather than the mystery itself. — 12/10/95


Young and Innocent, the film I chose for us to watch last night, turned out to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British movies. I’d seen it several times before (the first time was in the mid-1970’s at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco) but it came across as better now than it has before. It’s ostensibly based on the 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh but she wrote plays under the pen name “Gordon Daviot” — continuing the tradition of women authors using male aliases begun by George Eliot and George Sand — and mysteries as “Josephine Tey,” including The Daughter of Time — her marvelous re-examination of Richard III, whom she’d already tried to rehabilitate in the “Gordon Daviot” play Dickon, in the guise of a mystery novel; as well as Brat Farrar, an impersonation tale that Hitchcock should have filmed with Cary Grant in the lead[s]), but in fact Hitchcock and his writers (Charles Bennett — who was to Hitch what Robert Riskin was to Frank Capra and Dudley Nichols to John Ford — Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong, “screen play”; Gerald Savory, “dialogue”; and Alma Reville, a.k.a. Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, “continuity”) only used about one-third of what Tey had written and changed the identity of the murderer as revealed at the end. Both book and film start off with the murder by strangling of international film star Christine Clay (Pamela Carme), a British woman who achieved success in Hollywood and then returned home after having secured a Nevada divorce from her British husband, who in the opening scene of the movie is shown berating her for her affairs with “boys” — i.e., much younger men. He also says that since the British courts don’t recognize a Nevada divorce, he still considers himself her husband — he says he raised her out of a chorus line and boosted her to stardom, only to be thrown aside — and we get an extreme close-up of his face to show that he has an uncontrollable twitch in his eyes that manifests itself at times of high stress.

The next thing we see is a scene at a beach in which Christine Clay’s body washes up on shore, and one of her young boyfriends, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney), finds her body. Then he goes for help, thinking she’s merely drowned instead of having been thrown into the water after she’s already been killed, and in the meantime the body is found again by two young women out for a dip in the beach. They report to the police and Robert instantly becomes suspect number one, done in not only by the police looking for the most obvious culprit (Christine was strangled with the belt of a raincoat Tisdall formerly owned; he says it was stolen while he was at a countryside truck stop but of course the cops don’t believe him) but also by the wretchedly incompetent attorney the court appoints to represent him. Robert escapes from the courthouse during his arraignment — there’s a marvelously ironic Hitchcock cameo appearance showing him outside the courthouse, fumbling with a cheap box camera trying to take a picture of the fugitive (the irony, of course, is that Hitchcock in real life was staging this entire story in order to photograph it and turn it into a commercial movie that audiences would pay to see) — and, ironically, the only person willing to help him prove his innocence is Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam, top-billed — the Brits were really trying to make a star out of her; this was her second Hitchcock film, after playing the teenage daughter who’s kidnapped in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and when Hitchcock came to the U.S. in 1939 to make Rebecca he tested her for the female lead but decided she was too self-assured, not vulnerable enough, for that role), daughter of the police chief (Percy Marmont, in his third Hitchcock film after Rich and Strange and The Secret Agent) whose department arrested him in the first place. Erica drives an old, decrepit Morris car called “Tinny” — in Tey’s novel the car practically becomes a character on its own — so old it needs to be hand-cranked to get it to start, and so decrepit the choke is controlled by a string she loops over the steering wheel when it isn’t needed — and she and Robert do a surprisingly beautiful and pastoral journey through the British countryside during which she matures as a woman, she and Robert fall in love, and they ultimately trace the missing raincoat to Will (Edward Rigby), a homeless china-mender who was given the coat, sans belt, by Christine’s actual killer. Robert is ready to give up and turn himself in when Erica, going through the pockets of the coat after they’ve recovered it from Will, finds a matchbook from the Grand Hotel, a beachside resort, and deduces that the murderer is someone who’s either staying or working at the Grand Hotel.

The Gaumont-British studio, where Hitchcock filmed Young and Innocent, had just gone through a major reorganization before the movie was produced — Hitchcock’s original producer, Michael Balcon, had just jumped from the company to head a British subsidiary MGM had launched (mainly to sign Robert Donat, the international star who refused to work anywhere but his native England, so MGM set up a British operation to be able to put him under contract and use him at home), and Hitchcock found himself working in a smaller studio than he was used to and with a significantly lower production budget. Instead of scrimping on the entire movie, he decided to shoot the works on two openly spectacular scenes and really hold down costs on the remainder — which accounts for the wretchedly obvious model work on the two shots of passing trains and the painted backdrops we see in several scenes. One of the big scenes is when Will tells Robert and Erica they can hide out from the police by driving into the cave of an old, disused mine — only the mine’s floor caves in under the weight of Erica’s car as soon as they drive in, and Robert has to rescue her from certain death in a scene Hitchcock duplicated almost exactly, setup for setup, 22 years later with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. The other is towards the end, in which Erica has bought a dress outfit for Will (who’s complaining that the new boots are pinching his feet because he hasn’t had a chance to cut holes in them to accommodate his corns the way he had with his old ones) so the two of them can enter the Grand Hotel and search for the killer. In a scene that required Hitchcock to use two soundstages and build an extensive Grand Hotel interior set that extended between them, he does a long camera track from Will and Erica walking through the hotel lobby onto the dance floor of the hotel’s nightclub, then keeps the camera moving towards the bandstand — where a white singer is holding forth in front of a band performing in blackface — and, as the singer belts out a song singing the praises of his band’s drummer (“No One Can Like the Drummer Man”), the camera keeps traveling until we get an extreme close-up of the drummer’s face, and we see his eyes start to twitch. It’s typical of Hitchcock that we get the information that the drummer, Guy (George Curzon), is the killer well before the characters do — and that he has Guy recognize Will before Will recognizes Guy. The sight of Will (“outed” by a lap dissolve that penetrates the evening dress he has on to the appearance of the tramp we saw in the previous scenes) freaks Guy out; he tries turning away from the stage and playing a xylophone (a frequent double for drummers who also wanted to play a melody instrument) in the middle of a number (for which he’s upbraided by the bandleader: “I pay someone else to make the arrangements”), then during an intermission he belts down a large number of pills (explaining to one of his bandmates they’re a prescription to control his eye twitch), and when the show starts again he freaks out completely, becomes nonfunctional, collapses on the bandstand and, when he comes to, blurts out a confession to Erica, Will, Robert (who’s just come on the scene) and the cops in the audience who’d come there looking to arrest Robert. It’s not clear whether Guy lives to stand trial or dies on the spot, but Robert is exonerated and the police chief asks his daughter to invite her new young man to dinner.

Young and Innocent is a fascinating movie, partly because so much of it is quiet and pastoral in mood (it’s hard to remember that both these “young and innocent” people are fleeing the police because he’s accused of a murder he didn’t commit), partly because there are scenes that anticipate later Hitchcock works (like the seagulls that cluster around Christine Clay’s body on the beach — Hitchcock wanted to include the scene Tey described of the gulls pecking out the dead Christine Clay’s eyes, which would have brought this film even closer to The Birds, but the British Board of Film Censors nixed it), and partly because of the intense acting of Nova Pilbeam. It’s typical of Hitchcock’s subtlety that Derrick de Marney’s character comes off as an obnoxious little pill (he received money from Christine Clay, though he says it was payment for a film story he sold her, and he was left 1,200 pounds in her will, which the cops think was his motive for killing her) and it is Pilbeam’s character who takes command of the investigation. Wearing the blonde hair bob that was the hallmark of Hitchcock’s later “cool blondes,” Pilbeam turns in a quite daring performance for 1937, a convincing feminist heroine who takes command of her boyfriend’s exoneration and bucks up his spirits when he’s ready to give up and turn himself in. She’s a quite remarkable actress and it’s a real pity she didn’t become more of a major star (her next project was, of all things, an experimental TV-movie for the BBC called Prison Without Bars). The U.S. distributor of Young and Innocent changed the title to The Girl Was Young (which makes no sense at all) and cut one of Hitchcock’s most audacious scenes — in which Robert’s and Erica’s escape is delayed by a courtesy call she puts in to her aunt (Mary Clare) and she gets roped into a game of blind man’s bluff at the birthday party of her nephew; it doesn’t really add to the plot but it screws up the tension in the way Hitchcock was so fond of doing, and it helps to have it there. Young and Innocent was considered a minor Hitchcock at the time (and certainly the course of the de Marney-Pilbeam relationship mirrors that between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps two years earlier in his canon), and when David O. Selznick’s British representative saw it he thought it was a bad movie and sent a memo to Selznick saying he wondered if Selznick would really want to hire its director — to which Selznick didn’t reply until he’d seen the film himself, after which he cabled, “Regret to say I do not agree with you.” — 5/30/14

Thursday, May 29, 2014

D-Day’s Sunken Secrets (PBS, 2014)

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

Last night’s “feature” was a PBS NOVA episode called “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets,” a rather odd but still compelling program that with the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion coming up in a few days, decided to tell the story of D-Day (I remember in grade school being amused by the whole concept of the name “D-Day” — the “D-“ merely stood for “day” — and extending it to “D-Day, H-Hour, M-Minute, S-Second”) in a quirky way: by profiling a Canadian expedition in the present day to explore under the waters off the Normandy coast for wreckages of D-Day ships and landing craft that got sunk (most of them by German mines — the Allies sent minesweepers ahead of their main invasion force but the Germans, having by then figured out how to drop ocean mines by air, were often able to re-mine sea lanes that had supposedly been cleared, and one of the most poignant stories was from a surviving veteran whose ship did three runs to and from Normandy, offloading men and supplies successfully each time, until on their fourth run they hit a German mine, their ship sank, 90 percent of the men aboard died and he and the others who survived lucked out only because they were rescued in time by another Allied ship). The show, written, produced and directed by Doug Hamilton and narrated by Peter Thomas (a D-Day veteran himself — he fought in the landing at Omaha Beach, the easternmost and most bloody of the five battle beaches), emphasized not only the sheer size of the operation (7,000 ships and 200,000 servicemembers) but also the extent of the technological innovations involved and the inventiveness with which the Allies worked out specific solutions to the specific problems they encountered or expected to encounter. One of the most interesting stories was about a New Orleans boatbuilder named Higgins who made his fortune during the waning days of Prohibition, building boats for the liquor smugglers that could navigate the shallow waters of the Mississippi Delta and then building more advanced versions of his design for the Coast Guard, constantly playing both sides off against each other. He was enough of a U.S. patriot, though, that during World War II he realized that his boat designs would be useful to the war effort in that they could be adapted to landing craft — and when he figured out how to design a boat with a usable front door (instead of the tapered bow virtually all boats have had since people first started designing seacraft, it had a flat one, partly to negotiate the sandbars in the Delta, and the flat bow could easily be converted into a door) he created the famous personnel landers that have become iconic in all filmed representations of D-Day. The advantage was they reduced the time needed to off-load the men and equipment (the boats could accommodate 12 soldiers and a Jeep) from 57 to 19 seconds — and those extra 38 seconds are incredibly important when you’ve got well-placed soldiers from the other side shooting at you from bunkers mounted atop the cliffs just up from the beach and you want your guys exposed for as short a time as possible. 

Another problem the D-Day invaders had was the fact that even if they seized the beaches at Normandy, if they wanted to make it inland (which was, after all, the whole point!), their access to the interior of France was dependent on two bridges, which meant infiltrating servicemembers to secure those bridges before the enemy could blow them up. The first thought was to send in paratroopers, but the invasion planners realized the airplanes paratroopers fly in would make noise, alert the Germans and thereby blow the whole element of surprise the Allies were counting on, so instead they commissioned gliders to fly in troops without making noise — though the gliders were flimsy wood, fabric and light-metal constructions and they could only remain airborne for three minutes once they were cut loose from the tow planes that lifted them up in the first place. The invasion planners were certain up to 70 percent of the people in the gliders would be killed — as a matter of fact, their casualty rate, though still high, was lower than that and the glider part of the operation was a success. What didn’t work out for the invaders was the decision to launch the invasion in the middle of bad weather (they delayed it one day because of the rotten weather but decided they couldn’t afford to wait any longer than that, partly because the tides would shift seasonally and partly they didn’t want to risk the Germans discovering a large force massed on the British coast across from Normandy instead of where the Allies wanted the Germans to think they were going to invade, Calais) and to do so with minimal air support and at low tide (to avoid the German “hedgehogs,” huge metal spikes the Germans had planted in the tidewaters to rip apart invading ships like can openers), which meant that though the Allies actually took the beaches, it cost them more time and a lot more lives than they thought it would. The show made the interesting point that the British used several technological innovations the Americans eschewed, including a weird contraption that was basically a giant thresher attached to the front of a tank — it was essentially the minesweeper principle on land, since the object of the thresher was to blow up land mines in the tank’s path without injuring the tank itself. (One invention was less lucky; an engineer worked out what was supposed to be a system of turning a tank into a floatable device by attaching a balloon to the top of it and filling it with air, enabling the tank to be driven through the water long enough to hit the beach. In calm waters this might actually have worked, but with the fierce storms off Normandy in June 1944 every tank that tried this device sank.)

One thing the planners didn’t think of was the infamous hedgerows, barriers of shrubs and stones the French farmers had erected over the decades to separate their parcels from each other and also provide a dumping ground for rocks and dead trees they had had to clear from their fields in order to plant. I remembered this because it was also dramatized in Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, The War, and the explanation Burns and his crew gave was that all the reconnaissance the Allies had done on the Normandy coast was two-dimensional — they noticed the fields and the gaps between them but didn’t realize the “gaps” were actually virtually impenetrable barriers. In the 1950’s the Israeli army would figure out a way around such barriers; they invented the armored bulldozer, which could charge into enemy fire (since it was basically a tank with a bulldozer attached) and take out both natural and artificial architectural barriers to their armies’ advance (this weapon was key to the Israelis’ quick victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars), but apparently this was one technological solution to a challenge the Allies either never knew about or never took into account. The gimmick of the underwater exploration didn’t really add much to this show — aside from some poignant scenes of aging veterans returning to Normandy for the first time since the actual invasion (a real-life version of the gimmick of Gloria Stuart as Kate Winslet’s older self revisiting the site of the Titanic shipwreck in James Cameron’s 1997 film) — but it was still a compelling re-examination of the greatest military operation in history, a sort of warmaking that is likely never going to happen again (which is one reason why the U.S. Marine Corps has to keep fighting so hard for its very existence, since the sort of war it was designed to fight — large-scale amphibious landings — is unlikely to occur anymore).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mozart: Zaïde (Medici Arts, 2008)

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

The DVD we watched last night was Mozart’s Zaïde, an unfinished opera he began in 1780 as a German-language Singspiel (i.e., an opera with spoken dialogue, a form later known in Austria and Britain as an operetta, in France as an opéra-comique and in the U.S. as a musical) but only wrote the first two of three projected acts. What survives are musical numbers with lyrics, and unfortunately the original libretto (except for the parts Mozart set) is also lost, so we don’t know how the librettist, Johann Andreas Schachtner, intended the piece to end. It is likely, however, since the piece was in the “rescue opera” genre (of which the most famous examples today are Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s Fidelio), it was supposed to end more or less happily, with the leads rescued from their captivity in the palace of the Sultan of Turkey (also the basic situation of Abduction, where it’s handled considerably better — and not just because Mozart actually finished Abduction) and the evil Muslims who kidnapped these good Christians to turn them into slaves (including, in the women’s cases, sexual slaves) get their comeuppance. The Wikipedia page on Zaïde summarizes the original plot thusly:

Zaïde falls in love with Gomatz, a slave, which strikes up jealousy and rage in the Sultan, who happens to also admire her. After capture she chooses a free life with Gomatz rather than a good life with the Sultan. Allazim encourages the sultan to consider Gomatz as a man, not as a slave. The final surviving quartet suggests Zaïde and Gomatz are sentenced to punishment or execution. This is where Mozart’s manuscript breaks off.

There are similarities with Voltaire’s play Zaïre (Zara) in which Zaïre, a Christian slave who had been captured as a baby, falls in love with Osman, the Sultan of Jersusalem. Osman wrongly believes Zaïre and another Christian slave Nerestan (Gomatz in Mozart’s opera) are lovers and kills Zaïre in a jealous rage and then kills himself. The elderly Lusignan, a prisoner of the Sultan (paralleled in the character Allazim) recognizes Zara and Nerestan as his children as she escorts him to safety. From the surviving arias we can deduce a few differences between Voltaire’s play and Mozart’s opera. By Act II of the opera Zaïde, Gomatz, and possibly Allazim actually escape, only to be captured once more. In the opera there is no evidence that Mozart intended to cast Zaïde, Gomatz and Allazim as a reunited family. Indeed, the original ending of Voltaire’s play may have been too serious for contemporary tastes and may have been a reason for Mozart’s leaving the project incomplete.

Also, for all his own burgeoning sexuality (Carter Harman’s chapter on Mozart in his short history of classical music notes that when Mozart was on tour he wrote letters to his wife Constanze telling how much he missed her, “and the text of the letters made clear in what way he missed her most”), Mozart was morally conservative and he was not about to compose a love duet for two characters who turn out to be brother and sister: Wagner he was not! The production of Zaïde we were watching was based on a production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 and was directed by one of the most infuriating opera directors of all time, Peter Sellars. He first made his mark in the opera world by directing John Adams’ contemporary opera Nixon in China — where, since he was working with a living composer and the two were actually collaborating, his stylizations were built into the drama and actually made sense — and doing three productions with the New York City Opera of the big operas Mozart wrote with Lorenzo da Ponte as his librettist: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. These were aired on PBS as videos in the early 1990’s and I quite liked The Marriage of Figaro, for which Sellars carefully picked modern-day equivalents for the class relationships of the characters in the original, but couldn’t stand Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte because Sellars’ settings didn’t seem to relate in any way to the originals and seemed designed just to be arbitrary and “different.”

This production of Zaïde was staged live, and the operadis Web site speculated that the DVD was from the July 7, 2008 performance, which was the one broadcast, but I suspect it was a special performance staged in a studio especially to be filmed rather than an ordinary live show. It’s a dreary affair, set entirely in a makeshift prison with tin walls (the Wikipedia page said it was supposed to be a “sweatshop,” but it looked like a prison to me, albeit one that would seem all too easy to escape simply by kicking in the walls), and Sellars deliberately cast the principals, Ekaterina Kekhina as Zaïde and Sean Panikkar as her lover (definitely not her brother!) Gomatz, to look vaguely Middle Eastern, and all the other parts he cast with Blacks (I’m deliberately not using the term “African-American” because I’m not sure how many of them are actually Americans, though the three of the four who are actually credited — Alfred Walker as Allazim, Gomatz’ faithful friend and confidant; Russell Thomas as Sultan Soliman and Morris Robinson as his grand vizier, Osmin — also the name used for the grand vizier in Abduction — at least have Anglo-American names), which gives a rather sour racial cast to the proceedings. Lacking the original dialogue to get us from number to number, Sellars decided to have his cast members pantomime the action to music from Mozart’s incidental score to the play Thamos, King of Egypt, which he also raided to supply an overture (Mozart never wrote an overture for Zaïde and most productions use his Symphony No. 32 — he wrote the symphony, Zaïde and Thamos at about the same time), and what there is of the plot is a series of dreary-looking scenes in which the characters creep around the prison set, the good white people try to conceal themselves and ward off the advances of the bad Black people (though in Sellars’ staging there’s a sixth character, unnamed in the credits, yet another Black person in the Sultan’s entourage and one whom Zaïde for some reason actually seems genuinely interested in before she returns to Gomatz — and the fact that he’s cast with someone who looks quite a lot like the Allazim, Alfred Walker, bald-headed, clean-shaven and with a silly-looking skullcap, doesn’t help the verisimilitude).

The music is quite good and very Mozartean-sounding, but the only truly memorable numbers are Zaïde’s lament in Act I, “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,” and the final quartet, in which (at least in this version) the Sultan is waving a gun at both Zaïde and Gomatz, threatening to shoot him no matter what and shoot her too if she won’t have sex with him, and Allazim stands around helplessly — and all of a sudden, even having to fight Sellars’ stupid and boring production, the music takes off and flies in a way the opera hasn’t had before and makes one actually regret Mozart didn’t finish it. Zaïde can probably be best considered as the beta version of Abduction (though in that one the Sultan — a speaking part instead of a singing role because the singer Mozart intended to use fell ill and he had to use an actor instead — has a change of heart, pardons the Westerners he’s kidnapped and enslaved, makes a magnanimous speech of forgiveness and sends them back home) and it also features an aria sung by Gomatz to a picture of his beloved (a device Mozart later used far more beautifully and effectively in The Magic Flute), but comparing anything in Zaïde to any of the Mozart operas in the standard repertoire just shows how much Mozart progressed as a composer in the remaining decade or so of his life. As it is, Zaïde is a frustrating torso, too good to ignore completely but not good enough to work as a piece of entertainment in its own right — and, unlike such other famously uncompleted operas as Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Boïto’s Nerone, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Puccini’s Turandot, without a complete libretto to go by and without the recollections of Mozart’s friends to provide hints, doing much more with Zaïde than just performing it as the torso it is is not really possible.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tora! Tora! Tora! (20th Century-Fox, 1970)

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

I ran Charles the DVD of Tora! Tora! Tora! — another movie, like In the Heat of the Night, that I hadn’t seen since its original release (when my stepfather took me to see it at a drive-in). It got lousy reviews and was a box-office flop in 1970 — the New York Herald-Tribune, famous for its joking one-line reviews of films, called it “Torable! Torable! Torable!” — but I liked it then and I still do. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the story of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and what made it unique among war movies was it told the story from both U.S. and Japanese points of view — which had the ironic result of showing how similar the military mind-set and sense of ritual is regardless of what nation the military belongs to and which side they’re fighting on. Charles joked that the U.S. officers looked like “Keystone Commanders” and the Japanese ones looked like figures out an opéra-bouffe (which I suspect was simply because Japanese naval officer uniforms in 1941 were so much more ornate than U.S. ones), and I replied that Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander who was the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, seemed like the only officer on either side who really knew what he was doing. (That’s an impression you get easily from reading the historical literature on Pearl Harbor as well.) The original plan was to use separate directors and crews for the two halves of the film — Akira Kurosawa for the Japanese sequences and Richard Fleischer for the U.S. ones — but for some reason Kurosawa was fired, no other reputable Japanese director would agree to replace him because of the great insult done to Japan and its culture by his firing from the film, so in the end two hacks did the Japanese sequences and Fleischer got credit for the overall film.

Tora! Tora! Tora! has its defects — it’s very slowly paced and not especially exciting, and the script sets up all too many sequences where actions of the U.S. officers in particular seem incredibly stupid in 20/20 hindsight but would have been defensible at the time (while others — notably Army general Walter Short’s insistence on parking his entire fighter-plane force wingtip-to-wingtip outside the hangars, and the decision to shut down the Pearl Harbor radar capability at 7 a.m. every day — just seem dumb, period) — but overall it’s a quite compelling tale even though its interpretation of Pearl Harbor is, not surprisingly, an orthodox one that ignores the long-standing accusation that President Roosevelt knew the attack was going to occur and allowed it to take place to provide a casus belli for U.S. entry into World War Two. A special bonus on the DVD, a 20-minute pocket documentary called Day of Infamy, briefly examines the “revisionist” theory that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and rejects it on three grounds: 1) Roosevelt cared too deeply about the American people to permit 3,000 of them to die in an attack if it could have been prevented; 2) Roosevelt really didn’t care about Japan that much — to him the main enemy in 1941 was Germany; and 3) Roosevelt wouldn’t have allowed an attack that would have destroyed as much of the U.S. fleet (though elsewhere in Day of Infamy the documentarians noted that Pearl Harbor really didn’t destroy the fleet — only three battleships were permanently taken out of commission that day; the others were either repaired or rebuilt and did see action later in the war) — to which John Toland, who didn’t believe that Roosevelt knew in advance when he wrote The Rising Sun (his book on overall Japanese strategy during World War II) but did when he wrote his Pearl Harbor book Infamy a decade later, said that Roosevelt simply underestimated how much damage the attack would do: he accepted the assurances of his naval commanders that ships in Pearl Harbor would be invulnerable to attack by torpedo bombs because the waters at Pearl were so shallow the torpedoes would sink and hit bottom before they leveled out and homed in on their targets. Tora! Tora! Tora! mentions this but does not make clear how the Japanese figured out how to make the attack work — by replacing the metal stabilizing fins on the torpedoes with wooden ones, which kept the torpedoes afloat long enough to level out in shallower water and make it to their targets at Pearl.

Still, Tora! Tora! Tora! manages to tell its story compellingly and engagingly. The official “fall guys” for Pearl Harbor were the commanders on duty at the time, Admiral Husband C. Kimmel (and where did this guy get a first name like “Husband” anyway?) and General Walter C. Short; the film makes Kimmel look O.K. (aware of at least some of the dangers of his position but denied the resources he needed to keep tabs on the Japanese or to repel the attack once it came) — though the real Kimmel was considerably taller and handsomer than Martin Balsam, who plays him — but Short comes off as a total doofus. It’s also nice to see people like Joseph Cotten (as Henry Stimson) and Leon Ames (as Frank Knox) even though their appearances are over and done with in a flash. And while the special effects of the attack are below modern standards, certainly the horror of the attack itself comes through quite strongly — especially in the remarkable scenes of planes on the ground being blown up by Japanese bombs and aerial machine-gun fire either before their pilots can get to them or while their pilots are desperately trying to get them off the ground to offer some defense. (Interestingly, the story of the Black mess cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun and fired at the attacking planes is depicted only in passing, and only visually; this part of the story became far more important in Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor film.) Of course, it’s impossible to see Tora! Tora! Tora! or any other depiction of Pearl Harbor today without making the inevitable comparisons between December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 — including the macabre coincidence that about the same number of people (3,000) were killed on both those days of infamy — though the differences are as obvious as the similarities: as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, for all the surprise behind Pearl Harbor (more surprising in its execution than its intent — the Japanese fully intended their declaration of war to reach Washington before the attack began, but it didn’t because of their own set of darkly humorous — in retrospect — communications glitches) at least it was an act of war by another country, executed by planes clearly marked with insignia indicating where they were from and who was doing this to us, whereas 9/11 came from a non-governmental organization of worldwide reach and scope which has proved impervious to conventional retaliation, no matter how much the Bush administration keeps trying (against Afghanistan and now Iraq!). — 1/27/03


The film was Tora! Tora! Tora!, the 1970 war epic from 20th Century-Fox dealing with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The movie was a flop in the U.S. — though, oddly, it was a hit in Japan — and though it was one of the cycle of big all-star movies about World War II battles Fox had kicked off eight years earlier with The Longest Day it was innovative in that it sought to depict the battle from both sides. The original plan by producers Elmo Williams and Richard Fleischer was to hire separate directors for the American and Japanese portions of the film, and Fox recruited the legendary Akira Kurosawa to helm the Japanese parts — which would have been interesting. Alas, Kurosawa departed the project early — apparently he actually shot some footage, though less than one minute’s worth of his material made it to the final cut (so he got treated even worse than George Cukor did on Gone With the Wind!) — but I’ve seen three different versions of his dismissal. In Steven Bach’s memoir Final Cut he talks about interviewing David Brown, Richard Zanuck’s producing partner in Zanuck fils’ post-Fox career, who said that the Japanese film industry considered it such a collective insult when Kurosawa was fired from the film that no other Japanese director would take the assignment. Two posts on’s “trivia” page for the film give contradictory accounts: one says Kurosawa resigned because he had been told, or led to believe, that David Lean would be handling the American portions, and he didn’t want to be associated with a film in which his co-director would be a hack like Richard Fleischer instead of an acknowledged master like Lean. Another account is that Kurosawa wanted to pad the cast with wealthy Japanese investors so he could score brownie points with them to get them to finance his future films, and Fox caught him doing this and let him go. I’ve seen Tora! Tora! Tora! three times — the first at a drive-in showing to which my stepfather took me (he and my mom ultimately broke up over the Viet Nam War — he was for it, she against — and the overall political estrangement it symbolized); the second with Charles when I first got the DVD; and the third last night with our friend Garry. It seemed a bit slower this time than it had before, since it was divided into two acts (like a lot of big movies at the time) with an intermission in between, and the intermission was spotted so the break would occur at dawn on December 7, 1941.

The first half of the film was therefore about the planning for the attack — both on the Japanese side and on the American; the Japanese were working out the details and doing practice runs (one grimly amusing little scene shows the dive-bomber pilots doing their rehearsals along the Japanese coast, while women wave to them and a local fisherman complains, “Those pilots! They’re attracting the geisha girls — but scaring away the fish!”) and the Americans were getting information about the planned attack from MAGIC, their interception of the Japanese diplomatic code (though as historian John Toland — who had the advantage on this subject of having married a Japanese woman and therefore having learned to speak and read Japanese — pointed out in his two books on the subject, The Rising Sun and Infamy, the Americans were able to read the Japanese code but not to translate it accurately because no one on the translation staff knew the Japanese diplomatic language; instead they translated the intercepts according to what the words meant in ordinary Japanese, which made the Japanese intentions sound considerably more warlike than they were), but glitches in the distribution of this information and the complacency with which much of the American command structure greeted the warnings from the code-breakers ensured that nothing was done to stop the attack. At least that’s the conventional historical view, and the one endorsed not only by the movie itself but also by a documentary featurette included with the DVD as a bonus item, which deliberately set out to knock down the alternative view that President Franklin Roosevelt knew the Japanese were set to attack Pearl Harbor and did nothing to stop it because he wanted a casus belli to get the U.S. involved in World War II on the Allied side, and a Japanese bombing attack on the U.S. fleet would provide it. (There’s been a similar historical argument over whether the Bush administration knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance and allowed them to occur because they would provide the pretext for a “global war on terror,” including an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and heavy repression of dissent here at home.) Interestingly, John Toland rejected the “Roosevelt knew” analysis of Pearl Harbor when he wrote The Rising Sun but changed his mind and embraced it a decade later when he wrote Infamy. If the version of Pearl Harbor presented in Tora! Tora! Tora! is historically accurate — and the filmmakers worked as hard as they could, within the limitations of Hollywood, to make it so — it’s an object lesson proving one of my favorite sayings, “Never attribute to malignity what can be explained by incompetence.” As portrayed here, the Americans had all the information they needed either to stop the Pearl Harbor attack or at least to mount a more effective fight-back (the “Tora! Tora! Tora!” call itself was devised by the architect of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto [Soh Yamamura], as a go-code to the pilots; the idea was that would be the signal that they had achieved the complete surprise Yamamoto regarded as essential for the attack’s success), but they never put it all together in one place (and the same is likely true for the Bush administration and 9/11 as well).

The film goes into great detail about all the missed opportunities for the U.S. to put two and two together — including one set of commanders that actually predicted a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but predicted it for November 30, a week before it actually took place (which meant that the warnings of the actual attack were treated as more nonsense from the boys who’d cried wolf). It also mentioned a missed opportunity on the Japanese side: a second wave of attackers were ready to go when Yamamoto’s on-site commander, Admiral Zengo Yoshida (Junya Usami), called it off, partly because he wanted to preserve Japan’s own planes and the aircraft carriers that had launched them, partly because he didn’t know exactly where the American aircraft carriers were (the absence of the carriers from the fleet at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred is the principal piece of evidence cited by the “Roosevelt knew” crowd — supposedly Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the navy in World War I, had divined ahead of most military people that in future naval wars the battleship would become increasingly useless and the carrier would be decisive, so he was willing to sacrifice the U.S. battleship fleet to preserve the carriers — but I still don’t believe FDR was either that brilliant or that Machiavellian) and he didn’t want to risk his planes running out of gas and crashing in the sea while they were looking for them. (This seems to me a military blunder comparable to Civil War Union General George B. McClellan’s failure to go after Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces after the Union victory at Antietam Creek in September 1862, which allowed Lee to do a strategic retreat instead of facing a rout that might have ended the war then and there.) Aside from its importance as an historical document — though, not surprisingly, some inaccuracies slipped in despite the best efforts of the filmmakers to avoid them — Tora! Tora! Tora! is a quite good movie, slow going in the early stages (and missing a key piece of information included in the later, and mostly far inferior, 2001 film Pearl Harbor: the Americans thought their fleet would be invulnerable to attacks from dive bombers with torpedoes because the harbor itself was so shallow the torpedoes would sink before their reached their targets, but the Japanese figured out a way around this: they took off the metal stabilizing fins from the torpedoes and replaced them with wooden ones, which kept the torpedoes buoyant long enough to hit the ships they were aimed at) but building up to an exciting climax with the actual attack, which seems (unlike in most depictions of it) to go on forever. The film shows not only the Japanese attack but also the attempts of the U.S. forces to mount some sort of resistance — hindered by the lame-brained decision of the on-base Army commander, Walter C. Short, to leave the base’s planes out in the open, parked wingtip-to-wingtip, because he thought the real danger to them was from sabotage and he wanted to be able to see any potential saboteurs. Instead the Japanese were able to blow up most of the planes with a few well-aimed bombs, and even the ones that weren’t destroyed had a difficult time actually getting airborne.

It’s mostly an ensemble cast, but at least two performers stand out: one is E. G. Marshall as Col. Rufus Bratton (he’s designated a lieutenant colonel in the movie but he was a full colonel in real life), the head of the office that had broken and was intercepting the Japanese coded messages. Marshall turns in a finely honed performance expressing his frustration at being virtually the only one in the U.S. military or the civilian government who understands the danger Pearl Harbor is facing from an imminent Japanese attack. The other standout actor is Soh Yamamura as Yakamoto, who in this reading of the Pearl Harbor story comes off much the way Colin Powell did in the second U.S.-Iraq war: loyally signing on to and executing a policy he knows will have disastrous consequences for his country, and doing his best to make a government decision he disagrees with work. The much talked-about line at the end of the film in which Yamamoto says, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” is probably fictional — at least no one has ever traced it to anything the real Yamamoto said or wrote about the war — though there’s a similar quote in Hiroyuki Agawa’s biography of Yamamoto: “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.” What that’s a reference to is an element in bushido, the traditional Japanese code of the samurai warrior, that it was wrong to sneak into an enemy’s bedroom and stab him in his sleep, but O.K. to wake him up, allow him to reach for his sword and defend himself as best he could — and the Japanese plan had been to hand the U.S. government an ultimatum at 1 p.m. Eastern standard time on December 7 and launch the attack a half-hour later, but because the Japanese secretary typing up the ultimatum only knew how to type with two fingers, the ultimatum didn’t reach U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (played in the film by George Macready) until an hour or so after the attack started (and Hull’s fury when he receives it is one of the best moments in the movie).

Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t a great movie, but it’s surprisingly good — better, I think, than The Longest Day (its clear model) and also comparing to Pearl Harbor about the way the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, about the Titanic, compares to the James Cameron Titanic; like A Night to Remember, Tora! Tora! Tora! avoids inventing fictional characters and having them play clichéd situations. Instead it uses only dramatis personae that actually existed historically and gets more than enough drama from the real people involved. It’s certainly a movie that didn’t deserve the rather arrogant dismissal it got from the New York Herald-Tribune when it was released (the one-line summary of their review was, “Torable! Torable! Torable!”), and it’s worth recounting the joke around the 20th Century-Fox lot when it was about to be released in Japan. Fox had just put out the movie Star!, an attempt at a follow-up to The Sound of Music — same director (Robert Wise), screenwriter (William Fairchild) and star (Julie Andrews — again cast as a real person, Gertrude Lawrence), and it had been such a total bomb they tried reissuing it in a cut-down print under the title Those Were the Happy Times. (It still flopped.) So the joke around the lot was that when Tora! Tora! Tora! was released in Japan, they were going to cut an hour out of it and call it Those Were the Happy Times. — 5/26/14

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Shanghai Express (Paramount, 1932)

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

Shanghai Express was the fourth of the seven Dietrich/Sternberg collaborations and the most successful at the box office, grossing over $3 million in the depths of the Depression and helping keep Paramount out of bankruptcy. (In 1930 the Dietrich/Sternberg Morocco and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers had been Paramount’s highest-grossing films.) It’s also, oddly, the most derivative, clearly having roots not only in MGM’s Grand Hotel, made earlier that year, but also in W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain — Dietrich plays a white prostitute in the Far East who travels with a phonograph and a collection of jazz records, and interacts with a self-righteous minister, Dr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant — like Davidson in the various film versions of Rain, the Production Code Administration forced Sternberg and writers Harry Hervey and Jules Furthman to defrock Carmichael and make him a doctor of divinity instead of an actual practicing minister), in an isolated environment — though the setting of much of the film on a moving train traveling through a country in the middle of a revolutionary war also anticipates Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes[1] (much the way the immediately preceding Sternberg/Dietrich film, Dishonored, anticipates Hitchcock’s Notorious). The story is a highly convoluted one in which Dietrich plays Madeleine, former lover of British army surgeon Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), who staged a scene to make him jealous, only to have him take it seriously and break up with her, forcing her to sell her body for a living and become the notorious prostitute “Shanghai Lily.”

That’s in the backstory: the film proper picks up with Shanghai Lily and Harvey meeting each other again on a crowded train from Peking to Shanghai along with a host of ominous characters: a Chinese prostitute, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong, photographed superbly by Sternberg and Lee Garmes and coming close to matching Dietrich in sheer star charisma — had the movie business been ready for an Asian mega-star in the 1930’s Wong would have had a far bigger career than she did!); the aforementioned Carmichael, D.D.; an elderly lady, Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), who attempts to smuggle her dog aboard the train in a picnic basket; an American trader and gambler, Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette); a German with a walking cane and a history of heart trouble, Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz — a former Moriarty playing in the same film with Brook, a former Holmes!); and the most enigmatic character of all, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a half-European, half-Chinese (was this Sternberg’s in-joke on the frequent casting of the Swedish Oland as an Asian?) who turns out to be the general-in-chief of the revolutionary army and ends up having his forces ambush the train and order Harvey held hostage for the release of his second-in-command, whom government forces took off the train and arrested at an earlier stop in Tientsin. (Wong’s character eventually gets both Harvey and Lily out of this pickle by knifing Chang to death and earning the Chinese government’s $20,000 reward for him “dead or alive.”) Shanghai Express is the one film in the Dietrich/Sternberg series which really seems recycled: not only from Grand Hotel and Rain but from other films in Sternberg’s own canon. The most obvious source is Dishonored: both films cast Dietrich as the ex-partner of an officer, turned prostitute (in Dishonored she was a war widow); both films have Warner Oland in a significant role as a character whose actual loyalties are opposite to his professed ones (in Dishonored he’s an Austrian officer who’s really a Russian spy, while in Shanghai Express he’s apparently a Chinese government army officer but really is the commander of the rebels they’re fighting); and both feature scenes in which Dietrich offers herself sexually to Oland’s character with some higher purpose in mind (in Dishonored to expose him to the Austrian secret service; in Shanghai Express it’s to ransom Harvey and prevent Chang from carrying out his threat to blind him). Shanghai Express also borrows from Sternberg’s pre-Dietrich film The Last Command (1928) in that both take place in a country wracked by civil war and both feature the revolutionaries ambushing a train. 

It’s also unique in the Sternberg/Dietrich canon in one respect: not only does he direct Dietrich to be enigmatic, bored and imperturbable, he directs her leading man, Clive Brook, to act the same — almost as if he wanted to remodel him into a male version of the Dietrich character. Their scenes together are among the most bizarrely low-keyed love scenes ever filmed, with each character trying to rekindle the other’s interest through the Sternbergian strategy of feigning utterly no interest at all. Shanghai Express is also probably the most visually baroque of all the Sternberg Dietrichs except The Scarlet Empress (where the stylistics were far more tolerable since it was a period piece); not only are there long scenes in which images are superimposed on each other until it seems the screen will sag under their weight, but this is one film in which Sternberg goes to the max with his style of staging scenes under shadows, gratings, and whatnot. Dietrich wears a veil through most of the film and when she and Brook finally kiss at the end his struggle to get his lips under the veil and onto hers is quite obvious. Shanghai Express deserves points of innovation for its use of sound — much of the film isn’t underscored with music but with natural sound, and Sternberg effectively uses the clattering of the train’s wheels and the sounding of its bell to add drama to his scenes the way less imaginative directors would have trotted in a score; and when the music finally does cut in once the train finally reaches Shanghai there’s a long sequence in which there is no dialogue at all (the frequent mark of a director who started in silents). But this is one film in which, at least for me, all the visual stylistics, all the marvelous underacting, and all the unexpected spins on the clichés (Carmichael turns out to stick up for Lily at the end and urges Harvey to return to her instead of maintaining his moral condemnation, a nice touch) don’t make up for Sternberg’s weakness as a suspense director and a happy ending that is far less effective emotionally than the tragic one of Dishonored. It seems the Sternberg/Dietrich series was at its best at the beginning (The Blue Angel and Morocco) and the end (The Scarlet Empress — which I still think is the best of their seven films together and the greatest Dietrich film, period — and The Devil Is a Woman, Dietrich’s own favorite of her films); in between, in Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, Sternberg’s attempts to marry his wilder visual and romantic-political ideas to Hollywood’s conventions seem to weaken the series and make the films less effective. — 1/4/03


And speaking of the American Film Institute Catalog, I noticed a mistake in their entry on Sternberg’s Shanghai Express: it says that “modern sources” credit Travis Banton with the costume designs. “Modern sources” my ass; he’s actually credited with the designs in the opening roll. — 1/12/03


Charles and I ran the 1932 Josef von Sternberg film Shanghai Express because watching the PBS documentary on Anna May Wong the night before had piqued my curiosity to see some of her films. Shanghai Express is probably the best film Anna May Wong ever made and the best showcase she ever got — even though she’s still playing the exotic woman of loose morals and she has surprisingly little screen time, though every time she and the film’s star, Marlene Dietrich (this was the fourth of her seven collaborations with von Sternberg and apparently the most financially successful one at the box office, though the Academy snubbed it; it got six nominations, including Best Director for Sternberg, but no awards), appear in a scene together they bond immediately. The story is based on something by hack writer Harry Hervey (whose name I’ve seen on a few other movie credits) but Sternberg said in his autobiography that virtually every film he made, no matter what the nominal basis for its story was, he reshaped it in his own image. The credited screenwriter is Jules Furthman, who according to Frank Capra was usually called in at the end of the writing process and whose main asset was an encyclopedic knowledge of public-domain plots, so if the writers and/or director on a project were stumped for a way to get out of a certain hole they’d written themselves into, he could reference a story safely in the public domain that contained a device they could use to write themselves out of it again. The plot, such as it is, is a fever dream of contemporary China in which Dr. Harvey (Clive Brook), a captain in the British army’s medical corps, is on his way from Peiping, a.k.a. Peking (and now known as Beijing) to Shanghai because he’s needed to perform an operation on the governor-general of Shanghai. Also on the train are two notorious prostitutes, Madeleine a.k.a. “Shanghai Lily” (Marlene Dietrich) and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong),and for all his dubious racial attitudes in some other films (it still rankles me that in Morocco Gary Cooper as a French Foreign Legionnaire referred to the Arabs he was fighting as “walking bedsheets”) Sternberg shows Lily and Hui Fei as total equals, their racial difference meaning less to either of them (or to the people around them who feel insulted by being stuck on the same train with them) than the fact that both are women who’ve had to live by their bodies and their wits, not so much flouting conventional morality as simply ignoring it.

There’s also quite a cast of characters on the train, including American businessman Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette in at least a marginally more multidimensional role than usual), Rev. Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant, who by order of the Production Code Administration — which still threw its weight around even in the 1930-34 period commonly but inaccurately referred to as “pre-Code” — had, like Reverend Davidson in the various films of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, to be defrocked from a practicing minister to a mere doctor of divinity), Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) — a boarding-house owner who, in the closest thing this film has to a comic-relief scene, at first offers Lily and Hui Fei rooms in her super-respectable establishment in Shanghai until she realizes they’re both Those Kinds of Women, German officer Eric Baum (an unusually sympathetic role for ace character villain Gustav von Seyffertitz), French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) — who’s the object of attempts at conversation from the English-speaking characters which he rebuffs because he doesn’t know a word of English — and enough people to populate what’s essentially Grand Hotel on rails (though this film was released February 12, 1932, seven months before Grand Hotel). The main plot concerns Dr. Harvey’s discovery that the notorious Shanghai Lily is his former girlfriend Madeleine, whom he broke up with five years earlier when a stratagem she pulled to make him jealous backfired big-time, and the presence on the train of warlord Henry Chang (Warner Oland in his usual Asian “drag” — it’s the same makeup he used as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan), who at first poses as a government general but is really the leader of the rebels the government in this part of China is fighting. Early in the movie government soldiers stop the train and arrest one of Chang’s henchmen; later he agrees to trade Dr. Harvey to the Chinese government in return for his associate — but he adds ominously that he didn’t say in what shape he’d return him. Chang threatens to put both Dr. Harvey’s eyes out and brandishes a hot poker with which to do it; Lily agrees to become Chang’s mistress if he’ll let the doctor walk off the train with his eyes intact; Dr. Harvey catches the two of them together and Lily tells him she’s going with Chang but doesn’t tell him (or want him to know) why; and she’s spared life as the camp favorite of a Chinese warlord only because Hui Fei, surprisingly matter-of-factly, stabs him to death out of revenge for his having raped her earlier.

Not that the plot of this one really matters — though one can see the influences of earlier (or contemporaneous) films like Grand Hotel and Rain — like Sadie Thompson, Lily has a phonograph with which she blasts jazz music at fortissimo volume when she’s at her most morally transgressive — as well as its influence on later films like The Lady Vanishes (another thriller set on a train traveling a country in the middle of a civil war); the influence of Sternberg on Hitchcock is one of the film-research papers dying to be done — what matters is the virtually dreamlike quality of the narrative and the superbly atmospheric visuals with which Sternberg tells an offbeat story. Though the basic elements of the plot are the stuff of a million movie clichés, as Charles pointed out afterwards the film — especially its middle third — is off-base not only from ordinary human reality but from the usual movie-cliché version of reality as well, and at times it seems that Shanghai Express (like a lot of the Sternberg-Dietrich films, especially the later ones) is a private dream world to which only the director and his star held the key. Sternberg was not only one of the key directors in the creation of film noir (even though he was considered burned-out by the time the noir era arrived and hardly got the sorts of assignments he deserved), he was an influential artist whose influence went beyond films: after he was forced out of the movie industry he took a job teaching film at UCLA, and Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors met in one of his classes — and one can readily trace back much of the doom-laden imagery in the Doors’ songs back to Sternberg and his unique, quirky world on film. — 5/25/14

[1]Shanghai Express was made in 1932, which puts it not only before Hitchcock filmed The Lady Vanishes (1938) but before Ethel Lina White wrote the novel that was Hitchcock’s story source, The Wheel Spins (published 1933), so it’s entirely possible Ethel Lina White got the idea from Sternberg’s film — just as Charles and I both found ourselves wondering if J. Arthur Rank got the idea to use a gong as the trademark for his releasing company from the giant gong that is sounded under the credits of this film.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Anna May Wong; In Her Own Words (Yunah Hong/PBS, 2013)

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

The show was called Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, and it was alternately fascinating and frustrating because, instead of building it around interviews with people who knew Anna May Wong (though some of those, including Paramount executive A. C. Lyles and a relative of her occasional co-star Philip Ahn, did appear) and film clips of Wong’s movies (though some of those also appeared), writer-director Yunah Hong chose to build it around Wong’s letters and published interviews. This wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d kept the actress reading that material off-screen, Ken Burns-style, but no-o-o-o-o: she actually hired a modern Chinese actress, Doan Ly, to play Wong on screen. Doan Ly (since she’s using a traditional Chinese name instead of adopting an at least partially Western one the way Wong herself did, I presume “Doan” is her family name) is superficially right for the part: she’s the right height, build and age (and after having suffered through the 5’ 6” Leonardo DiCaprio as the 6’ 3” Howard Hughes I’m especially attentive to issues like that in biopics!), and her speaking voice is reasonably convincing — though when we get to see footage of Wong’s 1936 trip to China to see her relatives there (she was born in L.A. in 1905 but her dad had two wives, one in China and one in the U.S., and in 1936, after the death of Wong’s mother, her dad moved back to China but then later returned to L.A.) and the voice we hear on the soundtrack is Wong’s own, narrating the silent home-movie footage 20 years later, the effect is galvanic. Also, Doan Ly attempts to reproduce Anna May Wong’s cabaret act, and she sings in a breathy, almost toneless voice I can’t believe is at all like Wong’s own. (Wong’s singing voice seems to be lost; as far as I know, she never sang in a film, nor did she make records.) I’d already come to admire Anna May Wong’s career and curse the institutionalized racism of Hollywood (and America) during her lifetime that denied her the stardom she should have had — though even in the modern day a brilliant Chinese actress like Gong Li hasn’t been able to rise much higher than the muck of villainesses and “traditional” roles that constituted most of Wong’s oeuvre — and by chance Charles and I had recently re-watched A Study in Scarlet, which may have given Wong yet another “yellow peril” villainess role but also offered some stunning Avedon-esque close-ups of her by cinematographer Arthur Edeson.

This documentary mentions Wong’s greatest career frustration — that she didn’t get the starring role as O-Lan in MGM’s 1937 film of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth (according to this movie, she was instead offered the second female lead, the villainess Lotus, who seduces the good Chinese farmer played by Paul Muni away from O-Lan and ruins him) — according to another documentary I’ve seen on MGM she actually tested for O-Lan but the studio executives considered her performance too weak (and gave the role to the God-awful Luise Rainer, who won her second undeserved Oscar in a row for it after The Great Ziegfeld — beating out Greta Garbo, who had given the performance of a lifetime that year in another MGM production, Camille). She faced opposition not only from MGM’s executives but also from Pearl S. Buck herself, who wanted MGM to make the movie in China and cast exclusively Chinese-born Chinese actors instead of a Chinese-American like Wong. Apparently Buck didn’t approve of all the villainous yellow-peril stereotypes Wong had played and either didn’t understand or didn’t care that those were the roles Anna May Wong was being offered, and it was a question of taking them or not working at all. Yunah Hong covers Wong’s several trips to Europe in the late 20’s and early 30’s, where she performed in vaudeville (singing songs in English, French and Chinese) and made bigger, more elaborate movies like Song (1928, a German production directed by Richard Eichberg, whom I’d never heard of before, though Hong makes him out as a major director of comparable importance to the ones from the period I had heard of: Murnau, Lang, Wiene and Leni, with two screenwriters I’ve also never heard of, though I have heard of Karl Vollmöller, who wrote the source novel), in which she has an interracial affair with the male lead, Heinrich George (later a favorite of the Nazis), though even in a European movie she still had to die for transgressing the racial bounds in her affections. She was also in Piccadilly (1929), a British production (though directed by another German, E. A. Dupont) which also featured Charles Laughton in a minor role, making his film debut.

Her first sound film was called Flame of Love, made at British International (the big studio that was at the same time doing its damnedest to wreck Alfred Hitchcock’s career; in his six years under contract to them he made the first British sound film, Blackmail, and his first masterpiece, Rich and Strange, but for the most part he got put on unsuitable assignments and it wasn’t until he worked free from them and got back with the producer Michael Balcon, who had launched his career in 1925, that he made the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a mega-hit which set the pattern for the rest of his career) and filmed in English, French and German versions (Richard Eichberg is credited on as co-director with Jean Kemm but I suspect Eichberg probably just directed the German version and had nothing to do with the other two). She eventually returned to the U.S. and landed what is probably her greatest film, Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich, under Josef von Sternberg’s direction — the clips from it here seem to be masterpieces in indirection, with both women competing to be as low-keyed as possible and project sexuality and exoticism by seeming to be doing nothing at all — and then there was the disappointment of not getting the lead in The Good Earth, a return to her frequent silent-era casting as the second lead in Chinese- or Chinatown-set films like Limehouse Blues with George Raft; a late-1930’s Paramount contract that landed her fairly decent roles in “B” movies like Daughter of Shanghai (in which she was a woman who runs into Philip Ahn as a Chinese-American FBI agent investigating a case of human trafficking of Chinese immigrants; for once she and Ahn got to play the good guys!) and King of Chinatown; a sorry exit at the ultra-cheap PRC studios with a couple of war-themed cheapies called Bombs Over Burma (the title was inaccurate in one particular — the film took place entirely in China, not Burma — but all too accurate in the “bomb” part) and Lady from Chungking; a bit part in the 1949 film noir Impact and a career spent mostly on stage and on TV (she did an actual series in 1951 called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong but it only lasted a few months) until her death in 1961, just before she was scheduled to film an important part in the Asian-American-themed musical Flower Drum Song. (Her actual last credit was a guest shot on Barbara Stanwyck’s anthology series.)

I’ve noticed my comments over the years on films in Anna May Wong’s oeuvre: the 1924 Peter Pan (in which Wong played the American Indian Tiger Lily, “which makes it all the more disappointing that scenarist [Willis] Goldbeck makes so little use of her and the Indians”), the 1927 Mr. Wu (a film that comes in for special condemnation in this documentary because Wong played the second lead to Renée Adorée, a French actress crudely made up to look Chinese; I wrote, “Frankly this film would have been better with Anna May Wong in her role, not only because she was authentically Asian but because she was a better actress as well”), Shanghai Express (in which, I said, Wong was “photographed superbly by Sternberg and Lee Garmes and [came] close to matching Dietrich in sheer star charisma — had the movie business been ready for an Asian mega-star in the 1930’s Wong would have had a far bigger career than she did!”), A Study in Scarlet (in which Wong was “billed second and stunningly photographed by cinematographer Arthur Edeson — the previous year she’d appeared as the second female lead in the Sternberg/Dietrich Shanghai Express and Edeson and director Edwin L. Marin were obviously giving her the same inscrutable treatment,” though Marin and the writers, Robert Florey and Reginald Owen, took pains to point out at the end that Wong was simply the mistress, not the wife, of one of the white characters to avoid any hint of interracial marriage), Limehouse Blues (in which George Raft was in “yellowface” as a Chinese gangster about to dump his Chinese fiancée, Wong’s role, for a white girl; “Wong plays this scene in her most sepulchral, ‘inscrutable’ tone, a far cry from the hysteria with which white actresses usually played confrontations with guys who were about to break up with them in 1930’s movies,” and I said the film itself was “notable for the sheer beauty and power of the atmospherics … and for Anna May Wong’s haunting performance in what was, alas, the second lead”), Daughter of Shanghai (“Once again it’s worthwhile to see Anna May Wong, who had the talent to be a major star if the American audience had been open to people of color becoming major stars back then. It’s ironic to see her playing a detective just four years after she was one of the principal villains in A Study in Scarlet, the Sherlock Holmes movie made by KBS World-Wide just before it went out of business in 1933, and certainly her role here is a throwback to the revenge figure she played so well in the Sternberg-Dietrich Shanghai Express. A nice bit of moviemaking featuring an almost forgotten star!”), and Bombs Over Burma (the only one of those movies in which I was critical of Wong, who “seemed to be sleepwalking through her part”).

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (Red Granite/Paramount, 2013)

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

The film was The Wolf of Wall Street, a title ironically used for a Paramount film made in 1929 starring George Bancroft as a ruthless stockbroker and Olga Baclanova (in her first talkie) as the female lead. The plot synopsis of the 1929 Wolf of Wall Street (which by the way was issued in February of that year, eight months before the Crash) says, “A ruthless stockbroker sells short in the copper business and ruins the life of his friends by ruining their finances.” The 2013 Wolf of Wall Street, the one we watched last night, also deals with a ruthless stockbroker who ruins the lives of his friends, but he doesn’t involve himself in any business as socially useful as copper; he’s Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who really existed — the film is based on his memoir — who worked his way into a job at a Wall Street firm owned by a branch of the Rothschild family and got mentored by a fellow named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a name that looms large in the history of America’s last predatory age where corporations ran everything and bribed their way into total control of the political system, the 1890’s, since Mark Hanna was the unscrupulous political operative who masterminded William McKinley’s election as president over William Jennings Bryan and was often cited by Karl Rove as his role model. Hanna’s advice to Jordan is that the whole point of being a broker is to “move the client’s money from his pocket to yours,” and he also tells him to masturbate at least twice a day — the first of innumerable bits of dialogue in this film linking moneymaking to sex and drugs. Alas, Jordan Belfort’s first day on the job as a fully licensed broker (following a six-month apprenticeship as a “connector,” which basically means someone who takes phone calls and connects the brokers to the clients) coincides with the October 1987 stock-market crash, in which one-fourth of Wall Street’s paper value disappeared overnight (itself a commentary on how unstable and unsustainable an economy based on financial speculation really is) and the venerable Rothschild’s brokerage Jordan was working for ceased to exist overnight.

With his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) pushing him to find any kind of work to support them, Jordan signs on to a sleazy brokerage called Investico operating out of a space in a shopping mall, and realizes that they’re dealing in so-called “penny stocks,” companies way too shaky to earn a place on the New York stock exchange, the NASDAQ or any other even remotely credible exchange. Jordan becomes a superstar at this firm when he talks up a Midwestern startup that’s doing radar research in a garage and makes it sound like the next big high-tech buy, and quickly he leaves the shopping mall to start a brokerage of its own, calling it “Stratton Oakmont” because he realizes two big heavy-duty Anglo-sounding names will give his motley crew of white ethnics (plus one token Asian) credibility with potential customers. He assembles his friends Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Manny Riskin (Jon Favreau), Nicky Koskoff (P. J. Byrne) — whom he contemptuously nicknames “Rugrat” for his ill-fitting toupee — and the token Asian, Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi), as his brokerage crew, and they build Stratton Oakmont into a huge brokerage that graduates from penny stocks to blue chips (Jordan’s strategy is to sell potential clients the blue-chip issues and then graduate them to the far more speculative piles of shit in his inventory) and then to the crème de la crème of the financial sector, Initial Public Offerings (IPO’s). An IPO is supposedly the first time a stock in a particular company is made available to the general public, though given the legerdemain of the financial world companies like Firestone that have existed (and been publicly traded) for decades can buy back all their own stock, then resell it and that is also called an IPO. The IPO that puts Jordan on the map in the brokerage world is for the Steve Madden company, which makes high-end women’s shoes and whose founder, Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), is a wimp barely more functional than the supposed art “genius” Monroe in Untitled. Jordan keeps 85 percent of the stock in Madden’s company for himself, though he lists it in Madden’s name, which starts a bidding war on Wall Street that ultimately earns him a cover story in Forbes and the title, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s furious at the way the article portrays him but his wife assures him that all publicity is good publicity, and so it proves; the Forbes portrayal of Jordan as an unscrupulous market buccaneer attracts dozens of aspiring brokers to want to work for him and enables him to expand his operation even further.

When he’s not playing Master of the Universe with other people’s money Jordan’s principal diversions are sex and drugs — particularly prostitutes (in one of the in-character narrations DiCaprio delivers as Jordan throughout the film, he rates them as high-, middle- and low-end, saying that the low-end “skank” ones require either a condom or a shot of penicillin immediately after you fuck them, though of course Jordan and his partners plow on regardless, in more ways than one) and Quaaludes, which were so totally outlawed in 1982 (the government not only put Quaaludes themselves on Schedule 1 but the precursor chemicals out of which they were made as well; later the DEA tried to do the same thing with methamphetamines but were unable to because the big drug companies that made cold medicines were able to lobby and get the bans on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine blocked) that their scarcity value shot up and they became the drug of choice (along with cocaine, which Jordan and company used as much as an antidote for the tranquilizing effects of the Quaaludes as for its own pleasures) for Jordan and his entourage. One wouldn’t think that people involved in a high-stakes business that operates 24/7 worldwide and in which fortunes can be made or lost in a matter of milliseconds would use a drug that would render them almost totally nonfunctional once the big effects kick in, but apparently they did.

The Wolf of Wall Street is unsparing in its depiction of Jordan and his colleagues as totally unconcerned with the welfare of any other people — Jordan even dumps Teresa and remarries to a hot blonde trophy wife named Naomi (Margot Robbie) as casually as you’d throw out one facial tissue and replace it with a fresh one, and of course he isn’t any more sexually exclusive to Naomi than he was to Teresa. There’s a chilling scene, shown in highlight at the opening of the film and then in greater depth later on, in which they hire a little person to be thrown through a target of money and casually debate whether or not it will hurt him (they decide it won’t because little people’s heads are supposedly bigger and thicker than other people’s), and the film’s sexism is so relentless that one woman on the Stratton Oakmont staff gets paid $10,000 to have her long hair crudely shaved off like an admittee to a concentration camp, and even a woman who was involved in the early days of Stratton Oakmont gets sexually humiliated in the guise of being recognized for her achievements. Its homophobia is equally relentless; the worst way Jordan and his male entourage can insult each other is to call each other “fags,” and the one actual Gay person in the movie (Jordan’s butler) is dangled off a balcony and then beaten to a pulp, first by Jordan’s bodyguards and then by the police Jordan bribes to do so, because when Jordan was supposed to be away the butler staged a Gay orgy in his home and $50,000 (small change compared to Jordan’s worth) was stolen from a dresser drawer.

The director is Martin Scorsese — who seems to have the attitude towards Jordan and his gang he did towards the Mafiosi of his earlier films; he’s so fascinated by them he’s totally uninterested in even acknowledging, let alone depicting, the social harm they cause — and the credited screenwriter is Terence Winter, though the film is peppered with so many uses of “fuck” and “shit” I found myself wondering if “Terence Winter” was a pseudonym for David Mamet. (I remember reading for years that Mamet was considered a master at “well-turned dialogue,” and when I finally saw something he wrote I thought, “Is that all I have to do to be credited with writing ‘well-turned dialogue’ — make every other word an obscene one?”) Together they managed to make a film about a highly politically charged issue — the overwhelming importance of the financial sector in the modern U.S. economy and the total lack of scruples or conscience among the people who run it — with virtually no expressed point of view about it at all. Oh, there are a few veiled bits of social commentary at the beginning that hint at an Occupy-like critique of Wall Street, and a few bits at the end (especially as Jordan’s scams start to unravel and the government gets serious about prosecuting him) that feint at making him an Ayn Rand hero, an individualist heroically standing up against the forces of collectivism, Big Government and anything that might get in the way of the free spirit of capitalism. But even Rand would have been hard put to make a hero out of someone who was basically a swindler, and as in so many movies today the hints of anti-corporate commentary are just leftover tics from an earlier age of filmmaking (and an earlier Zeitgeist) reflecting a more populist America that was suspicious of the rich instead of virtually worshiping them.

It’s ironic that Leonardo DiCaprio made this movie the same year as he starred in the latest version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — also a story about a poor man who became super-rich through dubious deals and machinations — and that this, not Gatsby (in which he portrayed a much more complex character who reflected his creator’s decidedly mixed view of the rich), was the film that won him his Academy Award. DiCaprio manages to nail Jordan Belfort’s energy, salesmanship and drive — though we still wonder how Jordan was able to keep his enterprise afloat for so long when he spent so much of his time pursuing drugs and pussy (I hate using that last word but it’s an all too obvious reflection of the way Jordan, at least as presented here, thought about women; apparently the real Jordan Belfort had no objection to the way his business career was portrayed in the film but was really upset at the portrayal of his relationship to Naomi, and especially about how it ended), and rather than making a huge fortune one would expect someone as out of control of his appetites as Jordan is shown here to lose one and end up on the street, not on Wall Street. The Wolf of Wall Street is also a typical modern movie in that we don’t really get to meet anyone who’s actually likable; the characters are all so unattractive — relentlessly ambitious, money-grubbing, cheerily unconcerned for anyone else’s welfare (in an early scene with Mark Hanna, Jordan asks isn’t it good if he can make money for both himself and his client, and Hanna chews him out as being hopelessly naïve) and interested in women only as play-toys and possessions. Though it’s clearly a superior movie to American Hustle (mainly because Scorsese is a much more exciting director than David O. Russell, and also because Jordan Belfort’s sex and drug obsessions enable Scorsese to get us out of all those dull offices and hotel rooms and actually show us things with movie cred!), it’s equally matter-of-fact in its portrayal of the American ruling class as hopelessly corrupt and of that corruption as a fact of life we can’t do anything about except live with and suffer through. In their combination of vivid depictions of inequality and the futility of attempting to reverse it, these movies are essentially propaganda aimed at getting the masses to accept the current social order as the so-called “new normal,” a phrase a writer in the current Monthly Review has said is itself reactionary.