Friday, November 28, 2014

Her Man (Pathé, 1930)

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

Charles and I watched a quite interesting movie last night: Her Man, a little-known 1930 cult film made by Pathé Studios in its death throes, directed by Tay Garnett (who also co-wrote it with Howard Higgin and Tom Buckingham) and starring Helen Twelvetrees as a “B”-girl in an unnamed Caribbean island — well, at least it’s somewhere in Latin America because it’s clearly a semi-tropical environment and the locals speak Spanish (the crew did four days of location shooting in Havana — Pathé and MGM did this as a joint venture because MGM needed background footage of Cuba for their film Cuban Love Song — and though the country’s name is never specified in the film, Cuban officials protested at the depiction of a locale that was at least physically their nation as an anything-goes land of bars, drinkers, “B”-girls and sailors being rolled) — torn between the requirements both of her job and her employer Johnny (Ricardo Cortez, showing some of the Valentino-esque mannerisms with which he had launched his career but also warming up for his magnificent portrayal of Sam Spade in the first version of The Maltese Falcon a year later) and her innocent attraction to sailor Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes, displaying real charisma and masculine attractiveness despite his typecasting as a pathetic nerd in other films). And he’s not the only actor here who's cast against “type” — Franklin Pangborn appears, not as the nellie stereotype he usually played but a surprisingly butch hanger-on at Johnny’s bar who holds his own with fistfights with the other patrons. This is one movie that actually makes believable Pangborn’s insistence in an early-1930’s interview quoted by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet that though he might play the “pansy” on screen he could more than hold his own with his fists against anybody who dared call him one for real!

Her Man actually takes its own sweet time getting us to its Latin location; it begins in New York City, where a boat is docking but one of its passengers, sleazy-looking good-time-girl Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), is denied entry into the U.S. and put right back on the boat because a customs inspector (Richard Cramer) who makes the house detective in Peacock Alley look like an Esalen staffer by comparison identifies her as “undesirable.” She spends most of the return voyage pacing on the deck until she finally arrives from whence she came and reports back to work at the Thalia, Johnny’s establishment. Only then do we meet this film’s lead, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), who greets Annie as a long-lost sister before they get to work. There’s also a third woman, a sort of “B”-girl in training named Nellie (played by Thelma Todd, taking a break from her usual jobs as comic villainess for Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers). The Thalia is such a sleazy establishment that they don’t content themselves with sending “B”-girls to the sailors that make up most of its clientele and divesting the sailors of most of their money by getting them to buy overpriced shots of gin. No, the “B”-girls in this bar are obliged to get the sailors so drunk (while they themselves are drinking only water) they can pick their pockets and turn over the proceeds to Johnny. Then Dan Keefe — a genuine hero with a medal (which Frankie steals from him) to prove it — shows up with two other sailors, comic-relief parts Steve (James Gleason) and “The Swede” (Slim Summerville).

Dan catches Frankie trying to pick his pocket but eventually forgives her, and the two start a relationship under difficult circumstances — particularly the watchful eye of Johnny, who’s in love with her himself and also needs her on his good side to cover up his crimes, including murder (he killed one bar patron who threatened to go to the police by throwing a knife into his back). Frankie loses a shoe when she gets it caught in a bicycle wheel — she extricates it but it gets knocked into the air and then washed down a storm drain; Dan is sitting there and could have caught it but didn’t, thereby having the excuse to buy her a new pair (between the business with Frankie’s shoes and the long scenes earlier showing Annie pacing up and down the deck of the boat, Charles wondered if director Tay Garnett was a foot fetishist) — and the scene kicks off a series of courtship sequences whose innocence contrasts vividly with Frankie’s work life. The two hang out at the beach and write their names in the sand (indeed, the opening and closing credits of this film both consist of names written in the sand), and later spend an afternoon inside an otherwise deserted church in what appears to be intended as a D.I.Y. marriage ceremony à la Lucia di Lammermoor and the 1933 William Wellman film Safe in Hell (a much better movie than Her Man but one clearly influenced by it). The two lovebirds arrange to meet at the Thalia before she joins him on the next boat he’s working on, but Annie learns that it’s a trap: Johnny intends to kill Dan as soon as he shows up. Annie means to warn Frankie but she doesn’t get the chance because Nellie lures her away with the promise of a free drink. Up until its final scene Her Man has been a quite unusual and compelling drama, limning Frankie’s central conflict — love and marriage with a decent guy or continuing in a sleazy lifestyle with a no-good crook — far better than the writers and director of Peacock Alley did with their female lead, but the end shades over into risibility: Dan’s arrival at the Thalia and Johnny’s attempt to kill him triggers an all-out bar fight (which Garnett makes the mistake of staging in fast motion; it may have been an accepted custom of action movies and serials in 1930 but today fast motion automatically conjures up comedy) from which Frankie, Dan and the other two sailors barely escape with their lives, and Garnett and his co-writers supply a predictable happy ending instead of the deeply moving tragic one of Safe in Hell.

Still, Her Man is quite a remarkable movie, one of a fascinating run of films Tay Garnett made (including Prestige and One-Way Passage) in the early 1930’s about doomed couples in exotic locales before his career degenerated into hackdom with only an occasional shot at a dramatically powerful and erotic story like The Postman Always Rings Twice to liven up his filmography. He’s particularly remarkable in how he handles Helen Twelvetrees compared to the performance Ralph Murphy got out of her in the similarly themed Panama Flo; while Twelvetrees’ acting in Panama Flo vacillated between the simpering coyness expected of a silent-era heroine and deeper, richer, more world-weary playing anticipating film noir, here she’s a world-weary noir heroine from the get-go and her performance (as well as the atmosphere Garnett creates around her) is strikingly reminiscent of what Josef von Sternberg did for (or to) Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and especially Morocco. (A decade after making Her Man Garnett got to direct the real Dietrich in Universal’s Seven Sinners, but it was a campy spoof of the flea-bitten-cabaret-in-an-exotic-locale genre instead of a serious film exploiting it.) I’d assumed that Twelvetrees, with that rather silly name (she was born Helen Marie Jurgens and the “Twelvetrees” actually came from her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, whom she married in 1927 and divorced in 1931), had been a silent-era star, or at least a silent-era starlet, but no-o-o-o: according to[1] she was actually a New York stage actress who came to Hollywood in 1929 to make talkies, and she worked quite often through most of the 1930’s until her film career came to a skidding halt in 1938 before she retired, moved to Pennsylvania with her last husband and died of an overdose of sedatives at age 49 in 1958. Her biography page contains a couple of quotes that show her on-screen attitude of world-weary fatalism carried over to her private life as well; “Between pictures I go away,” she said. “I think that is the best way to achieve happiness in Hollywood, the only way to keep one’s perspective. If you stay too close to the motion picture colony you lose your sense of values.”

[1] — Incidentally,’s page on Her Man has a couple of really bizarre errors: it describes the film as taking place in Paris (wherever that mythical country is, it’s certainly in the Western Hemisphere!) and it gives the name of Helen Twelvetrees’ character as “Frankie Keefe,” implying that she and the Phillips Holmes character are married in the film — which they’re not, at least not officially!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Fake (Pallos Productions/United Artists, 1953)

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

The film Charles and I watched was The Fake, a 1953 British production whose producers, Ambrose Grayson and Steven Pallos, borrowed two American stars, Dennis O’Keefe and Coleen Gray, for the leads but cast the rest of the parts with the great British character actors abundantly available to the London studios when they weren’t doing stage work. Directed by Godfrey Grayson (presumably Ambrose’s brother) from a script by James Daplyn (“original” story) and Patrick Kirwan (screenplay), The Fake is a pretty familiar story that seems to have been based at least in part on some of the legendary real-life art frauds documented in Lawrence Jeppson’s book The Fabulous Fakes and other sources, notably the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 (it was recovered three years later, but in the meantime six fake versions had been sold to private collectors, each of whom were told they were getting the stolen original, and there are people who believe to this day that the original Mona Lisa is still in the hands of a private owner and the one hanging in the Louvre today is one of the fakes — and that doesn’t even get into the earlier version of Mona Lisa Leonardo da Vinci painted himself and which is in a private collection in London) and the recurring stories of naïve artists who paint or sculpt new works in the style of the Old Masters (and deliberately use antiquated techniques), who intend to sell their works as what they are — new pieces made in the old styles — but instead their pieces are bought by unscrupulous dealers or crooks who pass them off as originals from the period.

Dennis O’Keefe plays American private detective Paul Mitchell, charged with bringing over a Leonardo called Madonna and Child from New York to the Tate Gallery in London. When the crate carrying it is stolen off the London dock Mitchell produces the real painting, which he’s carried himself — only is it the real painting? Previously there were thefts of Leonardos from musea in New York and Florence, and in each case the stolen painting was replaced with a nearly exact copy. Mitchell starts hanging out at the Tate (which gets a screen credit; the producers acknowledged the assistance of the real gallery) and meets librarian Mary Mason (Coleen Gray), daughter of painter Henry Mason (John Laurie), who had enough of a reputation that in 1939 he had a one-man show, but by 1953 is considered hopelessly out-of-date because he’s so convinced that art history has gone steadily downhill since the Renaissance that he’s adopted the techniques used then, including making his own blue paint from lapis lazuli pigment and clove-oil and beeswax medium (which means that, at least in 1953, people couldn’t have told one of his works from a genuine Renaissance piece just by chemically analyzing the paint — more recent techniques have been discovered that can document when paint was applied to a canvas, thereby exposing forgers that used period canvas as well as period-style paints, but those didn’t exist when this film was made).

Of course Mitchell falls in love with Mary, and she resists him, then accepts him, then rejects him again when she figures he’s only courting her to get evidence against her dad, who it turns out painted copies of Leonardo’s works that were used by an art-theft ring to substitute for the originals when they stole them. Mitchell wonders why anyone would steal such valuable works that were so famous they couldn’t be sold or fenced — it’s obvious to us that there’s a private collector somewhere who wants them, plans to display them secretly in a space only he can access, and is willing not only to pay through the nose for them but will countenance any crime, including murder, to make sure he gets the paintings and they can’t be traced back to him. By the end of the movie it’s revealed that the private collector is Sir Richard Aldingham (Hugh Williams), and though we missed the ending because TCM’s equipment glitched out, it’s pretty obvious that Aldingham was either captured or killed and Mitchell and Mary Mason kissed and made up following the death of her father (her dad’s death provided the clue Mitchell needed — he painted a picture of Aldingham’s sitting room with the Leonardos plainly visible instead of hidden behind the sliding panels in his wall that usually concealed them from ordinary visitors, and somehow his killer missed it) and his exoneration when he noticed the “Leonardo” on display at the Tate was actually the copy he had painted himself. The Fake is well made, though its debt to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (set in the British Museum) is pretty obvious, especially in the vertiginous chase sequences in the Tate in which Mitchell futilely pursues one of Aldingham’s minions as he steals the real Leonardo and substitutes Henry Mason’s copy. I’d love to see the ending of this sometime, but even in truncated form Charles and I enjoyed The Fake even though it did seem awfully familiar through much of its running time!

Peacock Alley (Tiffany, 1930)

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

Afterwards Charles and I ran the 1930 film Peacock Alley, made by Mae Murray on her way down and out. Mae Murray was a former Ziegfeld Follies star who’d studied dancing with Vernon Castle and worked with him in a 1906 musical (when she was just 17!) called About Town. She made her film debut in 1916 in To Have and To Hold with Wallace Reid, and after two previous husbands she married director Robert Z. Leonard, who even though movies were still silent managed to build her into a major screen attraction by staging spectacular dance numbers with her. Murray helped boost Rudolph Valentino’s career, dancing with him first “live” and then in two films, including The Delicious Little Devil, directed by Leonard at Universal in 1917. In 1925 Murray got the plum assignment of playing the title role in Erich von Stroheim’s adaptation of The Merry Widow at MGM — which turned out to be a disastrous experience for both of them. Stroheim got along just fine with the film’s male star, John Gilbert — ironically, they bonded over their mutual detestation of studio head Louis B. Mayer — but he and Murray hated each other from the get-go and at one point Murray actually pulled rank with Mayer to have Stroheim fired from the film. Only she did that at a time when her big dance number to the Merry Widow waltz was half-finished — and the extras refused to come back for the second day’s work unless Stroheim was rehired. About the same time Murray divorced Robert Z. Leonard and married Prince David Mdivani, one of three brothers from an impoverished Polish royal family, all of whom latched onto major movie stars and bled them dry financially — so five years after being the star of one of the biggest movies of the year Mae Murray was reduced to working at Tiffany Studios (a company she and Leonard had co-founded in 1921 but had passed to other hands by then). Peacock Alley was actually filmed in 1929, though not released for a year afterwards, and the original print included a big 10-minute production number called “In My Dreams, You Still Belong to Me” (in which she lip-synchs to a voice double and does the big dance number her audiences would have expected in her first sound film), which was shot in two-strip Technicolor. Apparently the sequence actually exists, but the currently circulating version (we got it from an download) doesn’t include it.

So what we got was a 54-minute soap opera in which Broadway showgirl Claire Tree (Mae Murray) spends her spare time hanging around the lavish (as lavish as a Tiffany set-design budget could make it, anyway) Park-Plaza Hotel and occasionally going up to a room and spending the night with a male companion. From this, the typically obnoxious house detective Dugan (William L. Thorne) has concluded she’s That Kind of Girl, though she really isn’t. At the start of the film she’s having a confrontation with her latest well-to-do boyfriend, Stoddard Clayton (George Barraud), who wants to keep her as a mistress and set her up in an apartment in Long Island. But she’s virtuously disgusted with that idea and instead insists that she’ll only be with him if he marries her. He declines on the basis that marriage is an old-fashioned institution and if two people really love each other they don’t need validation from the government or a church. She regards that as so much malarkey and, after giving him one last night together, she tells him she has another partner who is willing to marry her and she’s going to take him up on it. The other man is Jim Bradbury (Jason Robards — the father of the famous Jason Robards who became renowned starring in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s plays on Broadway and briefly became Lauren Bacall’s second husband), who works as a district attorney in the Texas county in which Claire grew up and has always loved her. He arrives in New York, they get married and they end up spending the wedding night at the Park-Plaza even though Claire, knowing what she’s going to be up against, pleads with him to take her anywhere else. Their wedding night is interrupted by Dugan, who orders them both out of the hotel; the hotel manager apologizes to them and offers to comp them for the rest of their stay if they remain and he doesn’t sue; but Jim will only accept that offer if Claire can assure him that there’s no truth to Dugan’s allegations — and Claire refuses to lie. Jim storms off and then there’s an abrupt cut in which the production number (which takes place at the Peacock Alley nightclub where Claire works — without that sequence there’s no explanation of the film’s title) is supposed to take place, following which Stoddard Clayton reappears, again tells Claire he’s in love with her and this time is willing to marry her (presumably after her marriage to Jim is annulled).

Directed by Marcel de Sano (who turned up at MGM the next year collaborating on the script of Red-Headed Woman with F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people — though their script wasn’t used and Anita Loos wrote the brilliant, wisecracky version that was finally filmed and became Jean Harlow’s breakthrough movie) from a script by some prodigiously talented writers — Carey Wilson and Wells Root, both of whom had their names on much better films than this, as well as Frances Hyland — Peacock Alley seems like a great idea for a movie that faltered badly in the execution. Most of it is played in long dialogue scenes aimed directly at the camera, though at least the actors don’t have to take long pauses between hearing their cue lines and speaking their own, and while the two male leads turn in serviceable performances, it’s clear that Mae Murray was pretty much at sea in sound-film acting. She’s not downright bad — the problem seems that, like her Merry Widow co-star John Gilbert, she didn’t know how to act with her voice, how to vary her inflections to convey emotions. It also doesn’t help that she was 40 years old when she made this, and the makeup department tried to cover up her age by plastering the stuff on her with a trowel; between that and the horrible bee-sting lips that had been her trademark in her peak but had gone way out of fashion by 1929 she looks less like a woman than a drag queen, and a modern viewer might have some interesting fantasies about what really upset that house detective about “her”! There’s one interesting scene early on, as she’s leaving Stoddard for the first time, when her voice starts to growl like Bette Davis and we start to think that under a better director and with a more challenging script she could have learned to act with her voice and had a decent talkie career — but it comes on like a flash and goes just as fast, leaving Murray to declaim her rest of her lines in a dreary monotone.

There’s a myth that virtually none of the silent-era stars crossed over to the talkies and had major careers in sound films, which is half true; most of the major male stars actually did make the transition (Gary Cooper, William Powell, Ronald Colman), and while fewer of the women did, it was more because when sound came in a lot of  them, including Murray and Gloria Swanson (whose first talkie, The Trespasser, was actually the biggest hit she ever had!), were hitting their mid- to late-1930’s, an awkward age for women stars then and now! It would be nice to see Peacock Alley with the color musical sequence inserted — as with Chasing Rainbows (that odd early musical with Jack Benny and Marie Dressler for which the two-strip sequences are lost, making the film seem much more of a soap opera and less of a musical than its makers intended), without a showcase for Murray’s dancing skills Peacock Alley is dangerously imbalanced — but even if it were restored and shown “complete” it would be nothing more than a curio, a regrettable footnote to the career of a once-major and now-forgotten star. (She made two more movies in 1931 and then retired, though she had something of a comeback in Britain in the late 1940’s as a producer.) Charles did have an interesting comparison between Peacock Alley and The Fake that hadn’t occurred to me: he noted that in Peacock Alley Mae Murray’s character actually has some agency — she has values and is able to exert them in her relationships with men — while in The Fake, made 23 years later, the female character is purely decorative, just there to provide someone for the leading man to fall in love and have a few minor romantic crises with, with virtually no plot role at all.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Thief of Bagdad (Alexander Korda/United Artists, 1940)

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

I got home at 7 and caught my friend Peter Ray watching the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, and it was interesting to note all the mistakes in the set designs, decorations and locations — I wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but Peter spotted that the idol that was supposed to represent the Hindu god Vishnu was actually designed like a Chinese Buddha — even the multiple arms (the only part of the figure that gave it away as Hindu rather than Buddhist) were in the classic hand gestures of the Chinese representations of Buddha. Peter was also amused that, when the scene shifted from India back to Iraq, the courtiers were costumed like Buddhist monks in the Indian Buddhist tradition (the sole concession to Iraq’s real-life religion, Islam, was the use of the name “Allah” in the dialogue) — so we had a lot of fun joking about an India that looked like China (when it didn’t look like the Grand Canyon, where the “desert” exteriors were filmed) and an Iraq that looked like India. — 9/19/93


Last night I watched a couple of programs on TCM paying tribute to fantasy in films. One was a show that doesn’t really require extensive comment — a supposed documentary on fantasy films hosted by George Lucas that was really yet another ego-suck for the Star Wars creator (most of the clips were from films either Lucas or his friends Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis were involved in) — and the other was the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad (that’s the official spelling on the credit — like the 1923 silent with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., this one omits the “h” from the usual transliteration of the Arabic name for Baghdad), starring Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, the evil grand vizier of … well, whatever it was called in the legendary (and entirely fictional) period in which this is set, it’s now Iraq. The country is ruled by a benevolent but thoroughly jaded king, Ahmad (John Justin in his film debut), who as the movie opens reveals that he’s been blinded by one of Jaffar’s evil spells, while his faithful friend Abu the Thief (“son of Abu the Thief, grandson of Abu the Thief”), played by Sabu — who wears nothing but a loincloth throughout and was just hitting puberty when he made this (and he’s quite a bit hotter than Justin, the nominal romantic lead!) has been turned into a dog. He’s telling all this in a flashback that narrates how he got that way; while he wanted to be a benevolent king, Jaffar — unbeknownst to him — was mounting a reign of terror. Jaffar tricks Ahmad into leaving the palace and going about among the common people — it’s a trap so Ahmad will be arrested and executed as a madman for claiming to be the king. Only while in custody Ahmad meets Abu and the two of them escape; all Abu wants is to go to sea (he even sings a song about it, in a voice that pretty clearly is not Sabu’s[1]) but Ahmad insists on returning to Baghdad and getting his throne back.

That’s pretty much the setup for a lot of relatively un-linked action scenes, in which Ahmad catches a glimpse of the princess (June Duprez) and falls in love immediately (even though it’s already been established that he has 365 other wives, one for each day of the year!) despite Jaffar’s determination not to allow any other person to lay eyes on her until he can trick her into marrying him. The movie perks up about half an hour before the end when a genie (played by African-American actor Rex Ingram, who was the first performer to play both God and the Devil on screen — God in The Green Pastures and the Devil in Cabin in the Sky — others who’ve done it since include Max von Sydow and George Burns, and Burns topped the other two by playing God and the Devil in the same movie) finally gets liberated from the lamp in which he was trapped by none other than King Solomon 2,000 years previously, and he grants Sabu three wishes, including a ride to an even wilder fantasy kingdom in which Sabu has to vanquish a bloodthirsty giant spider in order to steal the All-Seeing Eye, which gives the good guys the power — finally — to vanquish Jaffar, who tries to escape on a mechanical flying horse that’s shot down thanks to a well-aimed arrow fired from a crossbow given to Sabu by an old man who wants him to take over as king of his Realm of Legend — only Sabu couldn’t be less interested and ends up going off on his own adventures at the end. The Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad from 1923 I haven’t seen in years but I remember it as a pretty boring movie redeemed only by the spectacular settings by William Cameron Menzies — who’s the only person from that film involved in this one as well — and I found the 1940 Thief of Bagdad less fun this time around despite the spectacular color (this is three-strip Technicolor at its ripest and most neon-bright — and a welcome flashback to the days in which color films were actually expected to be colorful!) and the marvelously energetic performance of Sabu in the action-hero lead. The other actors are less interesting; Conrad Veidt was usually an old hand at this sort of villainy but on this occasion he just seemed bored, like he’d played this sort of part more than once too often before. At times he looks like his Casablanca character, Major Strasser of the Third Reich, dressed up for a costume party. And the romantic leads, John Justin and June Duprez, are even more boring than usual in this sort of film; let’s face it, the core audience for a movie like this, then or now, is boys just heading towards puberty and still going through the “Girls — Yuck!” phase.

The Thief of Bagdad went through a succession of real-life troubles almost equaling the perils its characters went through; it began with Viennese expat Ludwig Berger as director (and he wanted to score the film with operetta tunes by Oscar Straus, who wrote pretty much in the style of his near-namesakes, those Strausses, but producer Alexander Korda vetoed that and hired Miklós Rósza to write a score, which is musically quite impressive but used with way too Mickey-Mousing[2] in the final print). Korda eventually replaced Berger with Michael Powell (and the film does feature a lot of the decorative use of color that made Powell’s later films so interesting), only to replace him with Tim Whelan, a British-born director who mostly worked in the U.S. Then World War II intervened, and with the German air raids making film work almost impossible and Winston Churchill becoming convinced that movie production was eating up both people and materiel that could be used for the war effort, the entire British film industry was shut down for two years and Alexander Korda took the half-finished negative and all his principal cast members to Hollywood to finish the film in the relative safety of the pre-war U.S. The U.S. scenes (which are easy to tell from the British ones both because the Production Code Administration made Korda have his women button their dresses higher up their necks and the exteriors include such famous U.S. vistas as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley) were directed by Korda’s brother Zoltan, by William Cameron Menzies and in a few cases by Alexander Korda himself — so this is a film that had twice as many directors as it did writers (Lajos Biró — yet another beneficiary of what seemed to be a full-employment program Korda was running for his fellow Hungarian émigrés in England — and Miklós Rósza are credited with the story and Miles Malleson with the script). It’s a messy movie but fun in a Boys’ Own Story way, and despite the troubles of its making it was enough of a hit that Universal signed Sabu to a contract and just two years later essentially remade the film as Arabian Nights (their first production shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor), with Sabu repeating his role and Jon Hall and Maria Montez (hardly deathless screen legends, but considerably more charismatic than John Justin and Jean Duprez!) in the romantic leads. — 11/26/14

[1] — There are three songs in the movie, all heard early on, which for a while makes one think that The Thief of Bagdad is going to qualify as a musical. One is a song sung in the streets of Bagdad by a singer played by American expat Adelaide Hall — whose presence here puts Sabu one degree of separation from Duke Ellington.

[2] — “Mickey-Mousing” became a slang term in the film business for an especially tight synchronization between music and on-screen action, thanks to Walt Disney’s insistence that to make his animated sound shorts seem more realistic, a very exact and precise use of music to mimic the on-screen action was needed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Freshman (Harold Lloyd Productions/Pathé, 1925)

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

On last night's TCM tribute to silent comedy Harold Lloyd was represented by The Freshman, a 1925 comedy that was one of Lloyd’s biggest hits — and one can see why; though Lloyd was 31 and therefore way too old to be playing a college freshman, he managed to project enough guileless innocence he made the concept work. The plot cast Lloyd as Harold Lamb (a name close to his own but also one which itself projects the innocent lovability of the character), who’s grown up in a household in which his father is a successful bookkeeper who’s taken up radio as a hobby. Dad spends virtually all his time at home with his headphones on (in 1925 most radios still played so faintly you needed headphones to be able to hear anything), and his grand obliviousness to everything going on around him when he has his headphones on seems all too au courant today! Harold has saved up nearly $500 to finance his college education, and when we first see him he’s practicing college cheers in front of the mirror in his room — and dad hears the noises his son is making and thinks they’re static on his radio. He goes off to Tate University, described in an introductory title as “a large football stadium — with a college attached” (yet another aspect of this movie that’s still funny because it’s all too true today of nominal “colleges” that are really in the sports business), wearing a knit sweater with a bit “T” on it that the other students ridicule behind his back for being dated. The big man on campus (Brooks Benedict) and the other students in his circle decide to ridicule Harold and exploit him — there’s a marvelous scene in which he offers to treat a few fellow students to ice cream and kids start pouring out of the dorms to follow him and take him up on it — and the only person who’s nice to him is Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, who replaced Mildred Davis as Lloyd’s on-screen leading lady when Davis quit films to marry Lloyd for real), who runs a cigar stand at a local store and who met him on the train taking him to college.

With his whole idea of college influenced by a movie he saw (over and over again) called The College Hero starring someone named “Lester Laurel” (whose last name would be used by another one of the greatest movie comedians of all time!), Harold tries to buy his way into the good graces of the campus in crowd by hosting the “Fall Frolic” dance. For this he commissions a new suit from the college tailor (played by Joseph Harrington as a typical oy vey Jewish stereotype), only the tailor suffers from dizzy spells and is merely able to baste the suit instead of actually doing the final sewing job on it before the Big Night. Warned not to over-exert himself in the suit lest it fall apart (and with the tailor there to do emergency repairs in case Harold starts having wardrobe malfunctions), Harold ignores the advice and the suit literally starts falling apart as he’s wearing it. Originally Lloyd wanted to avoid a big pants-dropping scene because he thought it would be undignified and too clichéd, so he shot the sequence losing just the suit jacket — only when the film previewed the sequence went over like a lead balloon and his gag men did a lot of I-told-you-so’s, so he went back, recruited all the extras again, and dropped the pants for a screamingly funny finish. The rest of the movie deals with Harold’s attempts to make his rep by joining the football team — at which he’s so incompetent the coach first uses him as a tackling dummy, then makes him the water boy, though he nominally puts him on the roster (his jersey bears the number “0”). This actually comes in handy during Tate’s big game against Union State, which forms the climax of the film, in which the Union State players manage to knock so many Tate squad members out of the game the coach has to put Harold in or forfeit the game — and of course after a few glitches (like catching a spectator’s hat, thinking it’s the football, and running with it to the end zone) Harold scores the winning touchdown and becomes an instant campus hero.

The Freshman is a marvelously funny film — it has two nominal directors, Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer, but Lloyd was clearly the auteur — and it benefits from Lloyd’s stiff-upper-lip attitude towards pathos. Though there aren’t any of the big “thrill” scenes people think of when they hear the name “Harold Lloyd” (I’ve seen an interview clip with Lloyd complaining that he only made six movies with big thrill sequences, but that’s all anybody remembered him for), the plot of The Freshman puts Lloyd through a series of traumas and tortures he handles with an almost masochistic determination. Silent-comedy criticism has often both praised and damned Charlie Chaplin for his use of pathos — ignoring that Lloyd and Buster Keaton also did pathos in their own ways, though far less glaringly and romantically than Chaplin did — and the grim determination with which Harold seeks to overcome the trials of college and earn his reputation makes The Freshman more than just a very funny film — though it is a very funny film. One oddity about The Freshman is that at no time are any of these alleged “students” ever actually shown studying or attending class — the only authority figure we see is the college dean, and he’s in the movie only as a target Harold can inadvertently insult — it’s common for Hollywood movies about college to de-emphasize academics but few of them have so totally ignored the “education” part of higher education as this one!

So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (Photoplay Productions, 2004)

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

Before The Freshman TCM ran So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a documentary by Kevin Brownlow (who had previously collaborated with the late David Gill on a three-hour film about Keaton’s whole career, A Hard Act to Follow) and Christopher Bird, about how Keaton’s career collapsed when Joseph Schenck, who’d produced his films throughout the 1920’s, decided to close the company he and Keaton had formed after Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928. Schenck urged Keaton to sign with MGM because Schenck’s brother Nicholas was the company president and would protect him. Alas, though Nicholas Schenck ran the business end of MGM from New York, he had little or no creative role in the company; the studio itself was run by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, who were excellent producers (Mayer was mostly responsible for keeping the studio going administratively and Thalberg was the creative production head) but had little or no patience with unique filmmaking talents who wanted to control their own destinies. The list of directors who bombed out at MGM because they couldn’t deal with the factory-like production system is legendary, including Erich von Stroheim, Joseph von Sternberg, Mauritz Stiller, Victor Seastrom, Rupert Hughes (Howard Hughes’ uncle), Maurice Tourneur (Jacques Tourneur’s father) and Buster Keaton.

Actually Keaton’s career had begun to decline in 1926, two years before the date given here, with the release of The General; today it’s considered Keaton’s masterpiece, a comedy classic with a nervy mix of terror and humor that seems quite modern today. But in 1926 it was a movie that had cost way too much to make — Keaton’s mania for authenticity, especially in depicting Civil War-era railroading (he insisted on shooting the film in Oregon because they still had a railroad that ran on the narrow-gauge track in use during the Civil War), meant the film cost more than $1 million to make (more than had ever been spent on a comedy before), and it was Keaton’s first box-office flop. At least part of that may be due to Joseph Schenck having just taken the reins of United Artists, and bringing the Keaton releases with him — United Artists didn’t have the clout of Schenck’s previous distributor, MGM — but the contemporary reviews indicate that the nervous mix of comedy and war drama that seems modern about The General simply put off 1926 audiences. “Some of the gags are in gruesomely bad taste,” the New York Herald-Tribune reviewer sniffed — and it’s not hard to figure out which ones he was talking about.

After The General bombed at the box office, Schenck put Keaton into a film called College that was a blatant ripoff of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman — complete with a big pole-vaulting scene in which, for the first time in his career, Buster Keaton had a stunt double — and then made a truly Keatonesque movie called Steamboat Bill, Jr. with a thrill climax of Keaton blown wildly about by a storm (inspired by the real Mississippi River floods of 1927 and created on the set by six giant wind machines powered by airplane motors) that includes the famous scene of the front of a building detaching itself and falling towards Keaton. He escapes because he’s standing on the spot where the house has an open window — and given that the house front weighed two tons, Keaton had to be in exactly the right spot or he’d have been killed for real. This too was released to disappointing box-office results, so Schenck decided to place Keaton at MGM — where, in spite of studio interference, he made two more masterpieces, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Then sound came in, which — unlike Chaplin — Keaton actually welcomed. He was a gadget freak (the show contains an interview clip with Keaton in which he recalled that the first time he visited a movie set the first thing he wanted to do was take apart the camera to see how it functioned) and he’d already done gags, like the scene set to the song “Asleep in the Deep” in The Navigator, that are funny as they stand but would have been even funnier in a sound film. But MGM decided first to make Spite Marriage a silent with synchronized music and effects instead of a talkie, and then plunged Keaton into a lumbering musical called Free and Easy as his first talking film.

Most of So Funny It Hurt is narrated by Keaton himself, via interviews he filmed in the last years of his life (when he’d become a respected elder statesman of comedy), which are fascinating not only in his comments about what happened to him but also his bitching about other comedians (he regarded the Marx Brothers as irresponsible and Abbott and Costello as just lazy), including the ones he wrote gags for when MGM rehired him to write for other performers in the 1940’s. As Keaton explained it, the big problem with his MGM movies was that the screenwriters wanted him to do wisecracks, and he pleaded with them to give him as few lines as possible and let him do long silent sequences in which he could do the kind of comedy he did best. This really got to be a problem when the “suits” at MGM got the bright idea of teaming Keaton with Jimmy Durante, who wouldn’t shut up; Durante’s rapid-fire delivery of verbal comedy just overwhelmed Keaton. As both his career and his first marriage (to Natalie Talmadge, whose far more famous sister Norma was Mrs. Joseph Schenck) disintegrated, Keaton sought refuge in partying and drinking — his dad was an alcoholic and it seems to have run in the family — though the narrator, James Karen (who actually knew Keaton), diplomatically avoids making the point that had Keaton been as compulsively frugal as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, it’s entirely possible he could have bought out Joseph Schenck’s interest in the Schenck-Keaton comedy studio and continued to make his movies independently. Instead he paid for the upkeep on the lavish “Italian villa” he’d bought for Natalie Talmadge (and put in her name, with the result that she sold it out from under him, divorced him, got sole custody of their kids, changed their name from Keaton to Talmadge and had him arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border when he tried to take them on vacation) and then moved into what he called his “land yacht,” a converted bus (today it would be called an R.V.) in which he could live, drink and party, conveniently parking it on the MGM lot when he was working so he didn’t have to face a drunken commute.

It’s a familiar and tragic story — though the truth of Keaton’s decline is considerably more complicated than the version we get here — which left Keaton blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer and virtually unemployable (after MGM fired him he’d make two films in Europe, The King of the Champs-Élysées in France and The Invader in England, then he returned to the U.S. for a dreary series of two-reel shorts for Educational and Columbia), though he occasionally appeared on screen for MGM and other studios (including his marvelous cameo as a bus driver in Universal’s San Diego, I Love You). Then in 1949 director Robert Z. Leonard asked Keaton to work out a gag sequence for the film In the Good Old Summertime in which an actor would take a pratfall while carrying a violin, breaking the instrument, and Leonard like Keaton’s demonstration so well he hired him to play the character on screen. Keaton got to do a local TV series in L.A. recycling his old gags, and meanwhile the Italian villa was sold to actor James Mason, who looked in a cupboard behind the projector in the house’s built-in movie theatre and saw a pile of film reels that turned out to be all Keaton’s silent features and most of his silent shorts. Mason called in Raymond Rohauer, who was running a silent-film revival house in L.A., and Rohauer called in Keaton, who went over the movies and supervised their reissue to a more appreciative audience than they’d had on their first go-round.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Other Woman (20th Century-Fox/LBI Productions, 2014)

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

I ran Charles and I a recent movie last night, The Other Woman, a 2014 romantic comedy with some pretty mordant undertones. I’d bought this one by mistake at Vons — I thought it was a discount oldie but they charged me rack rate for it and I didn’t want to bother telling them I didn’t want it — and Charles shared my mistake, in a way: when I told him the basic plot (a successful woman attorney finds out her boyfriend of eight weeks has a wife, she and the wife meet, they find that he’s already got yet another girlfriend and the three women team up to extract their revenge on this man) he wondered if it was a Lifetime movie. It could have been, except both the stars (Cameron Diaz as the attorney, Leslie Mann as the wife, Kate Upton as the bimbo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the guy who’s used them all) and the director (Nick Cassavetes, son of John) have upper-level cachet these days, and the movie was such a success it dethroned last summer’s Captain America sequel as the number one box-office grosser on its original release weekend. The Other Woman turned out to be, if not a total laff-riot, a quite amusing and genuinely entertaining film. The characters of attorney Carly Whitten (Cameron Diaz), whose cutthroat killer instincts have made her a success at her profession but done her less good in the world of dating; cuckolded wife Kate King (Leslie Mann — whom I think came off as a bit too whiny, reminding me of all the jokes about Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that she’d made herself so repulsive her husband would get on a spaceship flown by aliens from another planet just to get away from her; about the last thing we want in a movie about a man getting his comeuppance for cheating on his wife is the wife drawn as such a drip we start feeling sympathy for him!) and rather faceless bimbo Amber (Kate Upton, whom Cassavetes shows us butt-first while Carly and Kate joke that she’s a walking — and ass-swinging — cliché of the sort of woman a man picks up to steer him through his mid-life crisis). I could have done without the involuntary body-function gags just about every movie that attempts comedy seems to be obligated to have these days — in addition to Kate feeding him estrogen in his smoothies (so he grows small but discernible breasts with sensitive nipples; it’s also supposed to render him impotent with the fourth woman he gets involved with as part of the plot, but the revenge-seekers notice that isn’t happening and figure he’s using Viagra), Carly slips him a laxative so he has to beat a hasty retreat to a restaurant restroom, doesn’t get his pants off in time and has to try to buy a replacement pair while still stuck behind the stall door (though the tight red velvet pants he comes home in after all this are quite amusing).

Otherwise, though, the film is genuinely funny even though it does seem to fall off a bit in the final third — until screenwriter Melissa K. Stack throws us a curveball that’s considerably less of a surprise than she obviously thought it was. It seems the guy, Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) — and yes, it was a bit creepy to be watching a movie in which the principal villain was my namesake! — is not only a sex addict but a crook as well. His official business is raising venture capital and supplying it to Internet start-ups — but every company he’s launched that was actually a success was an idea suggested to him by his wife, whom he never gave either credit or money. With a possible divorce looming, he’s decided to abscond with his remaining assets by electronically transferring them to Bermuda, and as an extra precaution he’s set up shell companies with his wife listed as CEO (and tricked her into signing the papers for them) so if he’s caught stealing his investors’ funds, she will be legally to blame and he’ll be in the clear. Only Carly catches on to this — she is a lawyer, after all! —and our three musketeerettes head to Bermuda, where Kate withdraws the million-plus her no-good husband has stashed there under her name, escapes prosecution by paying back the investors her husband stole it from, and launches her own company (with Carly as her legal advisor) that becomes a legitimate success. There are also two other males in the film that add to the merriment — Taylor Kinney as Kate’s contractor brother Phil (whom Carly ends up with at the end) and Carly’s father Frank (Don Johnson — yes, that Don Johnson), whom Amber latches on to as her latest sugar daddy once Mark ends up not only divorced and jilted but broke — and a marvelous sidekick performance by singer Nicki Minaj as Carly’s office assistant Lydia (the sort of part that would have gone to Joan Blondell if Warner Bros. had been making this in the 1930’s). I must say Minaj has been pretty much off my radar screen since I’m not a big fan of the modern dance-pop music that’s her chief claim to fame, but though she has little screen time she turns in an excellent performance in a voice-of-reason role and I’d gladly watch other films she’s in.

About the only weak link in the cast is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who’s neither drop-dead gorgeous enough to convince us he could get all those women to have sex with him nor a great enough comic actor to make his plight at the end hit home — but then barring a successful experiment to clone Cary Grant, it’s hard to imagine anyone today who could have played it (and I found myself mentally casting a putative late-1930’s or early-1940’s version with Grant as the asshole anti-hero, Barbara Stanwyck as the attorney, Ginger Rogers as the wife, ditzy Marie Wilson as the bimbo, Tom Neal as the brother and John Barrymore as the attorney’s dad, even though it’s next to impossible to imagine this material getting by the Production Code) — even in today’s looser but still maddeningly arbitrary censorship regime, the producers originally got an “R” rating because the dialogue included the word “vagina,” but they protested and got it knocked down to PG-13. I was also amused to note on’s “Trivia” page for this film that Dana — a heavy-set character of uncertain gender (they have a blond wig and a bad yellow dress, but a moustache and beard “outs” them as genetically male) whom one of the women invites to join her for a three-way with Mark, and who grips Mark in a bear hug and lifts him off the floor — was played by Colin Bannon, director Cassavetes’ long-time assistant — and, speaking of Nick Cassavetes, anyone who expects his films to look like his father’s, with long stretches of hesitation as the actors improvise their dialogue and an overall sluggishness of pace (or lack of same), needn’t worry: The Other Woman is shot from a tightly constructed script by Melissa Slack and it moves quickly and is refreshingly free of angst. 

Hong Kong Confidential (Vogue Pictures/United Artists, 1958)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of late-1950’s “B”’s I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies during an all-day salute to actress Allison Hayes. She’s basically remembered as a figure of ridicule for her starring role in the sci-fi ultra-cheapie Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (which they showed as one of the films), a film actually better than its reputation but one in which Hayes is out-acted by Yvette Vickers (playing her husband’s illicit girlfriend — Hayes’ character is enlarged to the titular size by a space alien who has the hots for her and wants her the same size as him, but she escapes and gets her own comeuppance by catching her hubby and Vickers in a bar and literally bringing the house down on both of them), but the movies we watched — both directed by Edward L. Cahn (who’d begun his career making shorts and “B”’s for MGM in the 1930’s) for a production company headed by former screenwriter Robert E. Kent (the man who was renowned for having such a command of movie clichés he was able to recount a baseball game he’d been to the night before and keep working on his script at the same time) which had a releasing deal through United Artists. The Web site lists it as “Robert E. Kent Productions” but it had other names, including “Vogue Pictures” and “Premium Pictures.” (Kent may have started a “collapsible” company for each new film, since the tax laws at the time made it advantageous to collect the income from a film as capital gains and then, when its theatrical and possibly TV runs were finished, close down the company that had officially made it and distribute the profits to the various investors and participants.) The first was Hong Kong Confidential, an interesting title because Charles and I had seen several films with a city name followed by the word “Confidential” in the title, but this was the first I could recall in which the city was outside the United States. (The “Confidential” film series was inspired by a run of best-selling books by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer that purported to expose the dirty political, financial, criminal and social secrets of one major American metropolis after another.)

Hong Kong Confidential was a basic Cold War espionage thriller starring Gene Barry — looking considerably older and more heavy-set in 1958 than he’d looked just a few years earlier saving the entire world from nuclear annihilation in The Atomic City and from Martian attack in his best-known film, the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. Barry plays American government operative (this was during a period in which real American intelligence agencies like the FBI and the CIA dared not speak their names on screen) Casey Reed, whose cover identity is as a mediocre lounge singer in places like “Frisco Joe’s” in Hong Kong. His partner in the act is Fay Wells (Beverly Tyler), who’s also his girlfriend but who’s understandably restive at the long separations between them during which he’s tearing off to do heaven knows what, leaving her to hold forth at the club as a single. The plot of Hong Kong Confidential involves a fictional Middle Eastern country called Thamen, which is being courted by both the United States and the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) as a site for a missile base. To ensure that they get the base and we don’t, those dirty Russkies have kidnapped the sheik of Thamen’s son and are holding him somewhere in the world — if the sheik rejects his already negotiated treaty with the U.S. and signs with the Soviets instead, the boy will be released (at least that’s what the baddies have told the sheik — actually they intend to murder both the son and Casey Reed, to make it look like it was the Americans in general and Reed in particular who snatched the boy) — and the film runs for about 15 of its 67 total minutes before we finally find out how Hong Kong is going to figure in the action: that’s where Casey Reed is and that’s where the baddies have taken the boy, though if screenwriter Orville H. Hampton actually gave any clue as to how the CIA (or the nameless agency Casey works for) knew he would be there, I don’t recall it in the actual movie. Anyway, Reed soon realizes that the key to the boy’s whereabouts is a sexy female smuggler, Elena Martine (Allison Hayes), who’s in league with a turncoat British agent named Owen Howard (Noel Drayton, who out-acts everyone else in the film).

To get in their good graces, Reed approaches them with a scheme to smuggle gold out of Macao (the other main setting of this film’s action) to Hong Kong by disguising it as worthless souvenir junk jewelry (the smugglers are suspicious that Reed could have thought of that on his own, but they needn’t be; it’s pretty obvious he, or rather screenwriter Hampton, had got this idea from seeing The Lavender Hill Mob, in which the crooks plan to smuggle gold bullion they’ve stolen by melting it down, remolding it into toy replicas of the Eiffel Tower, and painting it black to make it look like junk souvenirs. When Reed illustrates his point by drizzling acid on one of the supposedly worthless knickknacks to expose the gold beneath, I couldn’t help but joke, “It’s The Maltese Falcon in reverse!” Eventually — after quite a few action highlights shot in convincing neo-noir style by Cahn and cinematographer Kenneth Peach — Reed locates the Arab boy, his station chief gives Reed the O.K. at long last to tell his girlfriend what he really does for a living, and all ends well. The film features some quirky casting, including Philip Ahn as one of the locals and Walter Woolf King as the CIA (or whatever) chief back in Washington, D.C. — so everyone in the cast of Hong Kong Confidential is one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers! It also has a stentorian third-person narrator who really gets in the way, laboriously explaining things when we can see for ourselves what’s going on — a wretched convention of a lot of films of the time that were going for pseudo-“documentary” reality. Still, it wasn’t a bad movie if you could take the heavy-duty Cold War politics, hammered home by that obnoxious narrator — and the use of a lounge singer as Reed’s cover identity made me think this film offers a hint of what North by Northwest might have looked like if Alfred Hitchcock had followed his original casting plan and put Frank Sinatra into the male lead, essentially playing himself as an entertainer (instead of an advertising man) thrust into a real-life spy plot (an idea he abandoned after he realized that Sinatra was so well known he couldn’t possibly be mistaken for someone else!).

Pier 5, Havana (Premium Pictures/United Artists, 1959)

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

Pier 5, Havana was quite a different kettle of fish politically: I had wanted to watch it largely on the strength of the TCM synopsis: “An American in Cuba tries to thwart a bombing plot aimed at Castro.” Made in 1959, just after the Cuban revolution succeeded and Fidel Castro took over — driving out the kleptocratic U.S.-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista — Pier 5, Havana sounded from that synopsis that the filmmakers were portraying Castro and his revolutionary government as the good guys and the Batistanos who were trying to stage a counter-revolution and retake control as the bad guys — and the original poster for the film, reproduced on its page, made it clear that that was exactly their intent. The poster advertised the movie as “The Screen’s First Bombshell Out of Newly-Freed Cuba!” This was, of course, before the U.S. party line changed dramatically and Fidel Castro became at least the third most terrible man in the world (after Khrushchev and Mao), and instead of welcoming his revolution we imposed an embargo on the island that has lasted to this day (albeit with occasional modifications) and which has provided Fidel and his brother and successor, Raúl Castro, with a ready-made excuse every time anything goes wrong with the Cuban economy. Aside from the novelty of its politics, Pier 5, Havana is a pretty ordinary late-noir thriller, though with at least two improvements over Hong Kong Confidential: Cameron Mitchell, its star, is a considerably better actor than Gene Barry, and he gets to deliver the narration himself in first-person, thanks to the screenwriter’s (Robert E. Kent himself, under the pseudonym “James B. Gordon,” adapting a story by Joseph Hoffman) decision to use that classic noir device to get us closer to the central character.

Mitchell plays Steve Daggett, world-weary adventurer who finds himself in Havana and is almost immediately asked to leave by several people close to a mysterious plot centering around a speedboat workshop owned by a mysterious character named Schluss. It’s annoying that the name is pronounced similarly to “slush” instead of the long double-“o” sound that “u” would have in German, and it’s even more annoying that the actor who plays him, Otto Waldis, can’t seem to make up his mind whether to channel Erich von Stroheim or S. Z. Sakall. Daggett eventually discovers that the factory is a front for a planned terrorist attack on key locations throughout Cuba (the giveaway is a map of the island with all the targets circled), and working together, he and the Cuban police official Lt. Garcia (Michael Granger, who despite his Anglo name is actually quite convincing as a Latino) uncover the plot and trace it to Fernando Ricardo (Eduardo Noriega), whom Daggett’s girlfriend Monica Gray (Allison Hayes) had left him for years earlier because Fernando was a sweeter sugar daddy than Daggett could ever be. (At least there isn’t a female rival for Daggett’s affections the way there for Reed in Hong Kong Confidential — the jealousy schtick in that movie really weighted it down.) Oddly, though Pier 5, Havana is thematically more noir than Hong Kong Confidential, it’s considerably plainer and less atmospheric visually; the cinematographer, Maury Gertsman, simply doesn’t shoot this film (especially the action scenes) with the power of Kenneth Peach’s work in Hong Kong Confidential. Also, Cuba was largely “played” by Santa Monica, and in a bit of sloppiness the editor (uncredited on, for pretty obvious reasons) left in a short glimpse of the famous sign at the entrance to the Santa Monica pier, which not only identifies it as such but is, of course, in English.

Pier 5, Havana was out of circulation for decades, and an contributor mentioned the rumor that when the U.S.’s official policy towards Castro’s Cuba became relentless opposition and a blockade in hopes it would bring down Castro’s government (so much so that Castro requested “defensive” missiles from the Soviet Union, and a reluctant Khrushchev complied, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and Khrushchev’s removal of the missiles in exchange for U.S. assurances that they wound never again attempt a covert operation to remove Castro the way they had at the Bay of Pigs in 1961), the government bought up the negative and all prints of this movie to have it suppressed. That turned out to be untrue — United Artists merely withdrew it from distribution once it became “politically incorrect” and it’s only now slipped back into circulation courtesy of TCM, which has shown packages of Edward Cahn’s 1950’s “B”’s before (I remember on their last go-round, during which they actually named Cahn “Director of the Month,” one they ran called The Music Box Kid, which was quite exciting even though it was a pretty ordinary 1920’s-period gangster tale — the title refers to a young Mob hit man who nicknames his Thompson submachine gun his “music box”). Like most of them, Pier 5, Havana is a workmanlike but unoriginal movie — but still it’s nice to know that for one brief shining moment it was actually possible for a Hollywood studio to make a movie in which the Castro government of Cuba was on the side of good and the bad guys were the Right-wing terrorists trying to overthrow it!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cold War Roadshow (PBS, 2014)

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

The first show I watched last night on PBS was an American Experience episode with the intriguing title “Cold War Roadshow,” dealing with the 12-day visit of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the U.S. in September 1959. According to the official synopsis on the PBS Web site, “For both men, the visit was an opportunity to halt the escalating threats of the Cold War and potentially chart a new course toward peaceful coexistence. For the American press, it was the media blockbuster story of the year.” The show turned out in a weird way to be a prequel to the one the same series had done several years ago, “Spy in the Sky,” for it suggested that Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. had been a key road-not-taken in the history of the Cold War, a potential for reopening positive relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that got sandbagged when U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russian soil just a week before Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower were scheduled to hold a summit meeting in Paris, following which Eisenhower had been scheduled to tour the USSR as a reciprocal visit to Khrushchev’s in the U.S. — and the remaining four years of Khrushchev’s tenure as Soviet leader were a series of hard-line bits of brinkmanship (including sending ICBM’s to Cuba) and his eventual overthrow by old-line Kremlin people who didn’t think Khrushchev was defending the Fatherland quite aggressively enough and who were particularly upset about the supposed “weakness” he had shown in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

What’s most fascinating about Cold War Roadshow is not only the sheer amount of footage that exists of the tour — including plenty of color home movies taken by Sergei, Khrushchev’s son, who is interviewed as part of the program and wryly admits at the end that he came to admire America so much he eventually moved here and became a U.S. citizen — but the bizarre mixture of fascination and revulsion with which he was greeted by the American crowds that came out to see him. After all, Khrushchev had been the target of American propaganda that had literally painted him as the most evil and dangerous man in the world — particularly via his oft-repeated quote that “we will bury you,” which was widely misinterpreted as a threat of war when he meant it as quite the opposite (as a statement that Communism was so obviously superior to capitalism that eventually the U.S. and the rest of the Western world would adopt it), and his actions (not mentioned here) in sending the Soviet army to crush the Hungarian revolt in 1956. At the same time the show makes clear how amazing it was that Khrushchev did make a state visit to the U.S. — as historian William Taubman says at the beginning of the show, “Stalin had never come to the United States. Hitler never came of course. Mao Tse-Tung never came,” and Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan said it was “far riskier” to have Khrushchev come to the U.S. in 1959 than it would be to have Vladimir Putin visit now. Khrushchev had his share of disappointments; when he went to Los Angeles he got fêted at an official luncheon at 20th Century-Fox and was treated to watching a scene from the musical Can-Can being shot (he regarded the scene as morally offensive), but he was denied permission to visit Disneyland. The show indicates that was the “call” of then-L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson, but Disneyland was in Anaheim and Poulson couldn’t have prevented Khrushchev from going there (my understanding was it was the formidably Right-wing Walt Disney himself that nixed the idea of the Soviet premier setting foot in the Magic Kingdom).

It also includes an archive clip from Marilyn Monroe, who was famous for being late for her film shoots but came to the Khrushchev lunch right on time — causing Billy Wilder, who’d suffered her tardiness throughout the films he’d directed her in (The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot), to joke, “Finally we have someone who can get Marilyn to come on time. Now we know who should direct all her future pictures — Nikita Khrushchev.” And of course the show includes the famous anecdote of 20th Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras and Khrushchev clashing over the relative merits of capitalism and Communism, and in particular the potentials they offered for upward advancement, with Skouras saying, “I came here as a Greek immigrant and I worked as a busboy and I worked my way up and now I’m the president of a movie studio.” Khrushchev replied, “I grew up as a shepherd. And then I worked in a mine owned by the French. And then I worked in a factory. And now I’m the head of the Soviet Union.” Though little actually got settled at the summit meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev at Camp David that ended the trip, it was probably the most relaxed encounter between a U.S. and Soviet leader until Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, and if it hadn’t been for that pesky spy-plane program and its incompetent pilot getting himself shot down the horrific tensions of the Kennedy years (including the near-annihilation of the world in a nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis) and the even harder lines that emerged when Lyndon Johnson replaced Kennedy and Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev, just might have been ended and the Soviet Union might have made a peaceful transition to a more liberal mixed economy instead of carrying on until it was unsustainable and then breaking apart at the end of the 1980’s. (When Putin says the breakup of the Soviet Union was one of the world’s great historical tragedies, I can’t help but think he was right; the world in general and the former USSR in particular would be a lot better off today if Gorbachev’s reform program had succeeded than they are now, with Russia an effective dictatorship again and most of the other former Soviet republics in the hands of kleptocrats.)

Firestone and the Warlord (WGBH/PBS, 2014)

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

The other PBS program I watched last night was in some ways even more interesting: it was called Firestone and the Warlord and was about the succession of coups, revolutions and civil wars that afflicted Liberia in the 1980’s and 1990’s and how those affected the giant rubber plantation the Firestone company built there in 1926 (archive footage of the company’s founder, Harvey Firestone, announcing it was accompanied by the Bix Beiderbecke-Frank Trumbauer recording of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”). The focus was on Firestone’s determination, once the plant was taken over and trashed by revolutionary warlord Charles Taylor in 1989, to get the place reopened no matter how much money they had to pay Taylor to support his revolution and how many scummy deals they had to make with him and his henchmen. The show also goes into the fascinating history of Liberia — a topic briefly touched on in the last book I read, Forrest Church’s So Help Me God, which was mostly about the religious conflicts between the Founding Fathers (and in particular between the established Congregationalist and Unitarian churches in New England and the Baptists, Catholics and Jews — with the Baptists in particular emerging as the staunchest defenders of the separation of church and state, a quite different picture from what one would think based on their current views!) but also touched on the two elephants in the room to any consideration of the U.S. as a country founded on freedom and justice: the foul treatment of the Native population and the existence of slavery. There were plenty of racists even among the early Abolitionists, and many people of varying views about slavery were convinced that the U.S. should not have an African-descended population at all — so they formed the American Colonization Society, whose objective was to buy the freedom of as many slaves as possible, send them back to Africa and create a settlement for them on African soil.

The result was the foundation of Liberia in 1847 (its capital, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe, a strong supporter of the American Colonization Society who was convinced it would solve the problem of slavery and eliminate the African-American population) and the domination, for over a century, of Liberian politics of so called “Americo-Liberians” — the descendants of freed slaves, who lorded it over the native Liberians the way their former slavemasters had lorded over them. (It’s yet another example of W. H. Auden’s statement that “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return” — like the example Auden was writing about, the German people responding to the injustices of the treaty of Versailles by putting Hitler in power; and the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians.) When Firestone built their rubber plantation — which ended up supplying 40 percent of their entire supply of raw latex — they ran it like a colonial outpost, creating their own community with lavish housing for the whites sent to run it, golf courses and the compound’s own Coca-Cola bottling plant. Things continued like that, with the Americo-Liberian elite giving Firestone free rein and Firestone operating like colonials in the African countries that had been taken over by European powers, until 1980, when the last Americo-Liberian President, William Tolbert, was killed in a coup by a soldier named Samuel K. Doe — who took over the country until he himself was overthrown and killed by Charles Taylor, a bloodthirsty creep who seems to have anticipated many of the tactics of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including forcibly recruiting child soldiers and training them to be his bodyguards, and murdering (today we’d call it “ethnic cleansing”) just about anyone his people captured who was part of any tribe other than his (most notably Doe’s tribe, the Krahn).

When Taylor was on the march he captured the Firestone plantation, drove off the whites who worked there — who fled and abandoned the Black workforce to their fates (one woman talks matter-of-factly about being gang-raped by the Taylor soldiers who had just killed her husband in front of her) — and looted the place before using it as a headquarters, because it had access both to a seaport (the town of Harbel — named for Harvey Firestone and his wife Idabelle — which Firestone had built to export its product) and an airport (Roberts International). Later, in the early 1990’s, with the civil war between Taylor’s army, Doe’s and a United Nations “peacekeeping” force that itself ended up bombing innocent civilians raging and the outcome uncertain, Firestone cut a deal with Taylor to reopen the plant and pay “taxes” that Taylor would use to finance his revolution and set up the final takeover of Monrovia. (He never captured the capital, but in 1997, in control of the rest of the country, he ran for president — and won overwhelmingly, courtesy of an intimidated populace that realized their choices were Taylor as a quasi-legitimate president or Taylor as a berserk warlord murdering people willy-nilly.) The show’s main point was that Firestone was only interested in getting the plantation up and running and didn’t care who they had to deal with to get it, and it was only exposed by a lawsuit filed years later by the Cigna insurance company (of all entities) against Firestone. It would have been nice to have an explanation of how that suit came about and what its outcome was, and overall the show has an air of “I’m shocked — shocked! — to find that capitalists will do deals with mass murderers just to make money,” but it’s still a fascinating story even narrated in the matter-of-fact tones of Frontline’s usual narrator, Will Lyman, who when he isn’t working for PBS is also the voice of BMW in its commercials.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Rag Man (MGM, 1925)

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

The film was The Rag Man, a 1925 production from MGM — or rather billed as “Metro-Goldwyn” because, in a rather curious bit of legerdemain, for the first year or so after Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer merged in 1924 productions could either be billed as “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” or as “Metro-Goldwyn,” but ordinarily with the proviso that the ones billed as just “Metro-Goldwyn” had also to be credited as “produced” or “presented” by Louis B. Mayer. Some films escaped that — among those the independent productions of director Rex Ingram, whom Metro founder Marcus Loew had allowed to work at his own studio in Nice on the south of France; Ingram hated Mayer so much — and had so much clout with Loew as the discoverer of Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro — he didn’t want the hated name of Mayer on his films, and Loew said he didn’t have to endure it. The Rag Man didn’t have Mayer’s name on it either, which seems odd because it was a much less controversial production, a film aimed at capitalizing on the soaring popularity of child star Jackie Coogan. Coogan had been the son of a vaudeville performer who introduced the kid at the end of his act; Charlie Chaplin saw the Coogans perform in 1919 and wasn’t especially interested in Coogan père but immediately saw the possibilities of Coogan fils co-starring with him. Then he heard Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had signed Coogan for a supporting role in one of his movies, and he despaired of ever getting to work with the boy until someone on Chaplin’s staff discovered it was Jack Coogan, the father, whom Arbuckle had signed; the kid was still a free agent. Chaplin approached Jack Coogan for permission to cast his son in a feature-length film, and Jack Coogan responded with the sort of dedicated loving, fatherly affection he always showed his son: “Why, of course you can have the little punk.” The result was a masterpiece, The Kid, in which Coogan was a foundling raised by Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, both living on the thin edge of starvation (much the way Chaplin and his older brother Sidney had in Chaplin’s own childhood in London after their father abandoned his family and their mom went insane) until the ending, when the Kid is reunited with his birth parents and Chaplin says a fond adieu to the boy whom he raised. The Kid was an enormous hit that changed the face of comedy filmmaking forever — it proved that a great clown could sustain interest over a film of feature length and that comedians no longer needed to cut short their aspirations to fit into a two-reel (about 20 minutes) running time.

Coogan went on to a popular free-lance career, including playing the title role in Universal’s 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist (with Lon Chaney, Sr. as Fagin), and in 1925 he ended up at MGM doing The Rag Man, which is basically The Kid lite: Timothy Kelly (Jackie Coogan) survives a fire that burns down the orphanage in which he’s been living (we’re not told how he became an orphan but we really don’t need to be) and ekes out a living on the streets until he’s picked up by Jewish junk dealer Max Ginsberg (Max Davidson). Years before Ginsberg was working at a garment factory and developed a revolutionary new manufacturing process, only the two attorneys he hired to patent it for him stole the rights and left him scrambling for survival. One of the attorneys who did that to him died in Denver in 1910 but on his deathbed wrote a letter to his former partner, Mr. Bernard (Robert Edeson, the character actor who made his reputation by filling in for the late George Christians in the role of the American tourist in Monte Carlo whose wife is tempted by Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives; Stroheim spent so long shooting that picture that Christians croaked just before completing his role and Edeson had to step in for him). Kelly declares himself a partner in Ginsberg’s junk business and takes Ginsberg’s pushcart — pulled by a horse named “Dynamite” who himself becomes a significant character in the film and got a separate line on the credits — to upscale Fifth Avenue, where unbeknownst to him he buys an old coat of Mr. Bernard’s from Mrs. Bernard (Ethel Wales). He also meets up with Reginald, son of Ginsberg’s own lawyer, and together the two kids empty 25 bottles from Reginald’s dad’s wine cellar (which must have struck audiences in 1925, during Prohibition, as a real waste!) to sell the empties for a penny each. Kelly finds the letter from Bernard’s former partner in his old coat and uses it to stuff a hole in a hatbox so he can use it to feed Dynamite, but he thinks he’s burned the letter for kindling. When he appeals to Bernard, the attorney pushes him out of his house and says that without the letter, he has no evidence that Ginsberg was swindled — but eventually Bernard has a change of heart and offers Ginsberg $200,000 for his rights even before Kelly rediscovers the letter. The final scene shows Ginsberg and Kelly playing golf at a time when that was considered exclusively a diversion of the rich, and when someone is about to hit a ball in Kelly’s direction and calls, “FORE!,” Kelly snaps back, “I wouldn’t give you more than $3.98 for it.”

Written by Willard Mack (who also acted and directed, though here he served only as a writer) and directed by former Keystone Kop Eddie Cline (a slapstick specialist who proved here he could do a situation comedy as well), The Rag Man isn’t much of a film plot-wise, and not surprisingly it’s considerably softer than The Kid (the terror of the scene in The Kid in which Coogan is threatened with being taken to an orphanage is hardly matched by the analogous scene in The Rag Man, in which the Irish priest who ran the orphanage comes on Kelly in the street and tells him he needs to go back, but eventually relents, though there’s a nice gag in Robert Hopkins’ titles in which Kelly explains that his guardian takes him to church — “Every Saturday we go to the synagogue” — and when the priest looks shocked Kelly adds, “And every Sunday I take him to Mass”), but it has its peculiar charm. Part of it might have been personal — being Irish on my father’s side and Jewish on my mother’s I had my own reasons for responding to the two particular ethnicities between which Kelly is whipsawed — but it’s also quite a well-made film, even if predictable. Coogan’s performance at age 11 (when his face, angelically beautiful in the Chaplin film, was already starting to hint at the puffiness it would famously have in his middle-aged comeback role as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family TV show in 1964) is hardly in the same league as his acting at age six in the Chaplin film, but he’s still eminently watchable and director Cline and scenarist Mack are able to use him to advantage in a story that, though sentimental, never descends into either bathos or the sort of gooey sweetness that marred Shirley Temple’s vehicles and set the mold for the movies’ depiction of children for decades afterwards.

The Rag Man was presented in 2004 as a much-ballyhooed rediscovery on Turner Classic Movies (they showed it again last night as part of their month-long tribute to silent films), mainly because at the time they were running a contest for composers to score entire silent films and presenting the movies with the winner’s score attached. The winner for The Rag Man was Linda Martinez, who, like Robert Israel in the previous night’s featured silent on TCM (Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack), composed sentimental rather than blatantly funny music for the film — in his autobiography Chaplin recalled having arguments with music directors because he wanted his films scored with sentimental, bittersweet music and they wanted the music to be funny, and when he released City Lights in 1931, though it remained technically a silent film, he was able at last to record his own musical accompaniment and thereby control the mood the music created. Martinez’ score is remarkable in its unobtrusive rightness for the on-screen action; a pity that just a year after composing it she took her own life at age 29 (the obituary I downloaded from the Los Angeles Times at offered no clue why other than that her father had died shortly before and she had “suffered from insomnia and back pain”), a fate even worse than that which befell Jackie Coogan. After a career that had made millions — for his parents, who had supposedly put his income into a trust he would inherit when both of them died — he found they had blown through virtually all the money, mostly on bad racetrack bets by Coogan’s dad. The California legislature responded by passing a bill that actually became known as “Coogan’s Law” which required half of a child star’s earnings to be put in trust, but child stars continued to get screwed — Shirley Temple recalled in her autobiography that in 1949 she received a lump-sum payment of $100,000 after a career that had made millions, which only reinforced her determination to get out of show business altogether.