Thursday, December 31, 2015

Four Jills in a Jeep (20th Century-Fox, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the last item we hadn’t watched on the Alice Faye Collection, Volume 2 boxed set: Four Jills in a Jeep, an odd item to appear on an Alice Faye box because she only appears for one song, a modern-dress version of “You’ll Never Know” from her big film Hello, Frisco, Hello which somehow seems to be more moving here, shorn of the period trappings of Hello, Frisco, Hello and in mellow black-and-white instead of Technicolor, even though she may have sung here to the same pre-recording she made for the earlier film. Four Jills in a Jeep (a title which for years I got confused with another wartime musical, Four Jacks and a Jill, which was made by RKO and was yet the third recycling of the Street Girl/That Girl from Paris plot line) actually began life when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 and, by executive order, President Franklin Roosevelt created the United Services Organization (USO) to provide entertainment to the troops both at training camps in the U.S. and overseas, including in actual combat zones. Among the big-name celebrities who made the trips were Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis and Mitzi Mayfair, who isn’t as well known as the other three because she was a well-known dancer on stage and made a number of those charming vest-pocket musical shorts for Warners/Vitaphone in New York with Hal LeRoy but did only one feature film, this one. Carole Landis — who’s probably best known today for playing Betty Grable’s ill-fated sister in the 1941 mystery I Wake Up Screaming (she’s killed early on and Grable teams with her boyfriend, Victor Mature, to solve the crime) and for her bizarre suicide on July 4, 1948 at age 29. She’d already been married and divorced four times (her third marriage, to a servicemember she met on a USO tour, is dramatized in this film) when she started an affair with actor Rex Harrison even though he was still married to German expat actress Lilli Palmer. When Harrison ended their affair and went back to his wife, a despondent Landis, who even before had been prone to fits of depression, took her own life — and Harrison became persona non grata in Hollywood and didn’t make a U.S. comeback until his stage triumph in the 1956 musical My Fair Lady.

Anyway, the USO tour Francis, Raye, Landis and Mayfair made took them to London and then to the combat zone in North Africa — and Landis wrote (or someone ghost-wrote for her, or she and a ghost writer collaborated) a book about their experiences which she (or someone) called Four Jills in a Jeep. According to a documentary featurette included with the DVD, Landis was the only Hollywood star who wrote a memoir about their USO experiences. So 20th Century-Fox, the studio which had Landis under contract (the other three were all free-lancing by then), decided to develop a film based on their real-life experiences in which the four stars would play themselves, and while the movie (written by Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and someone or something called Snag Werris from a story by Froma Sand and Fred Niblo, Jr., and directed by William A. Seiter at least marginally better than Irving Cummings or Walter Lang helmed the usual generic Fox musicals). They built it around the real-life Armed Forces Radio Service program Command Performance, which was advertised as being built entirely from songs and sketches requested by American servicemembers writing in from combat zones (ironically the German government was producing exactly the same sort of show for their troops; it was called Wunschkonzert, which literally means “Wish Concert” but is usually translated as “Request Concert”), and Command Performance was the working title for the film. But eventually Fox decided to go with the title of Landis’s book and release the movie as Four Jills in a Jeep even though, predictably, the story in the movie didn’t have that much to do with the real-life tale in the book. What they came up with was an interesting, entertaining and blessedly short (91 minutes — one advantage of the older films is they don’t suffer from the narrative bloat of all too many present-day releases, at least partly because in the 1940’s you often got a feature, a “B,” several cartoons and one or two shorts in a movie program instead of the billed feature being the only thing you got to watch, the way it is now) mixture of musical, comedy and war movie, in which the girls (that’s the word that would have been used then!) get to go in the first place because Raye says they’d serve abroad if they could, and later they get to North Africa because Landis issues a similar dare that they’d go to a combat zone if only they were allowed to.

I was a bit disturbed by the fact that the final scene, supposedly taking place as an impromptu show in a North African building while it’s being shelled by the enemy, is accompanied (like all the other performances in the movie) by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra — he was one of the guest stars called in to bolster the film’s appeal and, even though he’s playing himself, he probably had more dialogue in this movie than in any other he made (and it was ironic, after listening to his early performances on “Cornfed” and “Mean Dog Blues” from 1927 with Red Nichols on Albert Haim’s latest WBIX online radio program, to be watching and hearing him at the peak of his career in this film) — instead of being backed only by the ratty old piano that would likely have been the only instrument available in that environment. The guest stars include Faye, Carmen Miranda (who’s shown singing “I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much,” not one of her stronger songs, and Miranda lost a lot every time she was filmed in black-and-white; she really needed color to shine) and Betty Grable (singing “Cuddle Up a Little Closer,” one of the many ancient songs she had to perform in all the period musicals 20th Century-Fox kept assigning her). Dick Haymes is also in it, making his film debut (a special credit tells us that, though he was already a “name” in the music industry — he’d followed Frank Sinatra in the bands of both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and for good measure he’d stopped into Benny Goodman’s as well, and had just signed a solo recording contract with Decca in 1943; given how opposed Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was to his stars making records — instead of promoting the films, he thought records of his stars singing songs from their movies would lead people to buy the records instead of paying to see the films — he must really have wanted Haymes to take him when he already had a record contract) and actually playing an acting role as Lieutenant Dick Ryan. Of course, he’s mainly there to sing, and he does that well enough, singing the haunting ballad “How Blue the Night” (written, like most of the new songs in the film, by Jimmy McHugh, composer, and Harold Adamson, lyrics), and an O.K. song called “You Send Me.” Haymes came out at about the same time as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and though he lacked both Sinatra’s eloquent phrasing and Como’s fabled smoothness, he was a quite interesting singer who was briefly successful but never really achieved superstardom or lasting fame.

What’s good about Four Jills in a Jeep is the wartime urgency of it all — though the North African war was pretty much over by the time it was made, the war overall was still going on and the parts about the women saying they want to fight and would do so if only they were allowed to “play” quite differently now that the U.S. has finally got rid of the ban on women servicemembers in combat. Though quite obviously shot on the 20th Century-Fox backlot, the North Africa scenes are quite credible at creating the illusion of combat conditions and providing a powerful and surprisingly dramatic ending to a film that for the most part was an un-serious morale-booster. Four Jills in a Jeep is an engaging film, even though the writing committee is quite obviously shoehorning the real story of the four female stars’ actual USO trip into the well-honed and hardend conventions of movie clichés — and it seems an odd choice for a boxed set honoring Alice Faye, since she’s only shown for about five minutes doing one sing that was already part of her repertoire. Week-End in Havana, the superb tropical musical from 1941 would have made a better fit in either of the Faye boxed sets, or the Carmen Miranda box for that matter, since they’re both in it and they have major roles. Incidentally, the DVD of Four Jills in a Jeep also includes three of the five songs that were deleted from the movie before release — Martha Raye in a surprisingly restrained (especially for her!) version of “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” Kay Francis half-singing and half-rapping her way through a new Kelser-Adamson song called “It’s the Old Army Game” and a definitely pre-pubescent kid dueting with Sebastian on the dance floor before Francis herself calls a halt to the proceedings, reminding us that in 1936 she was playing the mother and Deanna Durbin her wayward daughter; and Carmen Miranda doing the Brazilian song “Mamae Yo Quero” (which I first heard in Spanish, as “Mama Yo Quiero,” on a record by Xavier Cugat), which shows her off a lot better than “I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much.”

Monday, December 28, 2015

Road to Rio (Paramount, Hope Enterprises, Bing Crosby Enterprises, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Road to Rio, fifth of the seven-film cycle with Bing Crosby as the energetic but not-too-successful con artist and Bob Hope as his patsy, a series that kicked off with Road to Singapore (1940) — though they were only the third choices for the casting: Paramount at first planned the movie for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, later tried to do it with George Burns and Gracie Allen, and ultimately settled on Hope and Crosby. According to the recent PBS bio-doc on Crosby, Road to Singapore reinvigorated Crosby’s movie career after he had started to slump in the late 1930’s (though that wasn’t the impression I’d had); certainly it was a blockbuster hit for the studio and both its stars, thanks largely to the innovative approach of director Victor Schertzinger, in particular the so-called “breaking the frame,” in which the stars came out of character and addressed the audience directly, sometimes brilliantly spoofing movie conventions — as when in the second film, Road to Zanzibar (my favorite of the seven), Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hilariously ridicule the “invisible orchestra” that comes out of nowhere when the stars are about to sing, even if they’re supposed to be in an isolated location with no other people around for miles. Schertzinger died after Road to Zanzibar and I had been under the impression that Hal Walker took over the directorial reins for the rest of the series, but Road to Rio — the fifth film in the series and the first that was a co-production between Paramount and the stars’ own companies (you can tell because the opening logo simply says “A Paramount Release,” not “A Paramount Picture”), which has left the ownership of the film somewhat murky — was helmed by Norman Z. McLeod. The height of McLeod’s career was undoubtedly the two films he made with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), though in 1947 he made a bit of a comeback with this film and Sam Goldwyn’s Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously this was a director at home with zany comedy!

The plot of Road to Rio, in case you cared, deals with Brazilian heiress Lucia Maria de Andrade (Dorothy Lamour, leading lady for all the Road movies except the last one, Road to Hong Kong, in which Joan Collins replaced her) and her sinister “aunt” — actually her guardian — Catherine Vail (a marvelous performance by Gale Sondergaard at once copying and spoofing her work in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman — in both films she plays a master hypnotist) — who wants to grab Lucia’s fortune by marrying her off to Catherine’s brother, Sherman Mallory (George Meeker). Crosby and Hope play two out-of-work musicians (as one gag line in the film says, that’s pretty redundant), clarinetist “Scat” Sweeney (Crosby, whose actual instrument was drums) and trumpeter “Hot Lips” Barton (Hope) — ironically, there was a real (and quite good) jazz trumpeter named “Hot Lips” Page (his birth name was “Oran”), but he was Black. The film’s beginning is a virtual rip-off of Road to Zanzibar — the credited screenwriters were Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose, but lists Barney Dean as “contributor to dialogue (uncredited),” and given the way comedies were (and still are!) usually written, there were probably other gag writers from Hope’s and Crosby’s radio staffs — in which Crosby lands Hope a gig riding a bicycle at a carnival and doesn’t tell him he’s going to be doing it on a high-wire. (In Zanzibar Crosby enlisted Hope to be a human cannonball.) Needless to say, he loses control and the carnival staff have to get a net to save him — at one point, desperately hanging from the high wire, Hope turns to the camera and says, “This picture could end right here!” — but in the process they start a fire that burns down the carnival and force Hope and Crosby to stow away on an ocean liner bound for Rio. On board ship they meet Lamour’s Lucia, who’s about to commit suicide when “Scat” saves her — much to “Hot Lips’” irritation (previously the gag had been that every time the two got some money ahead, “Scat” got sweet-talked out of it by some woman) — and the two end up working their way across by joining the ship’s band. (There’s an hilarious scene showing them hiding out in below-zero temperatures in the ship’s refrigerator — Crosby got them on board by posing as a steward and dressing Hope as a slab of frozen meat for the voyage, and when he has to find him again “Scat” goes among the packages and says of one, “I’m getting close — it’s ham!”)

While in Rio they try to assemble an authentic American band for a nightclub owned by Señor Cardoso (Nestor Païva), but, unable to find any other American musicians in Rio (at least ones willing to work for them), they recruit a local ensemble played by the Wiere Brothers, a European comedy team (oldest brother Harry Wiere was born in Berlin on June 23, 1906; middle brother Herbert Wiere in Vienna on February 27, 1908; and youngest brother Sylvester Wiere in Prague on September 17, 1909) who had made their film debut in the U.S. in a short in 1937 and kicked around Hollywood, appearing in Walter Wanger’s Vogues of 1938 and getting a buildup from 20th Century-Fox. They were put into The Great American Broadcast (1941) in hopes that they would replace the Ritz Brothers, who’d made an acrimonious exit from the studio two years earlier, but their act was just too subtle and too European to appeal to American audiences. They got shunted off into a couple of “B” movies — Swing Shift Maisie with Ann Sothern for MGM and Hands Across the Border with Roy Rogers for Republic — and then got to work on this one, a major production with “A”-list stars. The gag is that they’re trying to pose as American musicians when they don’t know a word of English, so Our Heroes teach them each a jive phrase — “You’re telling me!,” “You solid, Jackson!” and “It’s murder” — which they repeat over and over until Cardoso “outs” them by noting that they can’t read the “No Smoking” sign on the wall of the club’s dressing room. (They did a short-lived TV series called Oh, Those Bells! in 1960 but made only one more film appearance, as three bumbling detectives on Elvis Presley’s trail in the 1967 film Double Trouble.) Along the way, the Hope and Crosby characters get into various scrapes, including one in which as stowaways they have to pose as the ship’s barbers and accidentally shave off the moustache of one of Catherine’s thugs — a gag McLeod self-plagiarized from the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, in which they played stowaways. Eventually they learn about the existence of a set of papers in Catherine’s possession that will prove that she and Sherman are crooks, and they’re supposed to break into Catherine’s bedroom, open the safe and steal the papers, only Hope drops something and makes a loud noise (which started to remind me of the scene in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in which Chico and Harpo, assigned by the bad guys to steal Freedonia’s war code and plans from a safe in Margaret Dumont’s room, only the safe has a musical alarm, it blasts away with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and nothing the Marxes can do — not even smash the thing to smithereens — can turn the music off), and a chance remark that they’ve made themselves “sitting ducks” causes them to quack for the next minute or two.

The person who’s trying to get Our Heroes to steal the papers is Rodrigues (Frank Puglia in one of his ultra-rare appearances as a good guy!), who at one point literally appears as a deus ex machina: wondering how they’re going to get to the wedding of Sherman and Lucia, Hope snarls, “I’ll be someone’s going to come out from behind that tree with enough money for us to hire a plane,” and sure enough, there’s Rodrigues with enough money for them to hire a plane. (We don’t actually see the plane in flight, but when it lands it turns out to be a quite cool compact two-seater.) Of course, Our Heroes break up the wedding, and Bing ends up with Lamour (as he usually did in these productions), while intercut with Hope and Crosby trying to get to the house where the wedding is taking place to give the Brazilian prefecto —who’s there to perform the ceremony but is also the area’s principal law enforcement officer and the man Rodrigues told them to give the papers to (ya remember the papers?) — is Jerry Colonna, Hope’s sidekick on his radio show (who had passed away just before his 1967 Southeast Asia military tour; on the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special shot that year Hope narrates about how much Colonna was missed), leading the Seventh Cavalry to the tune of the big theme at the end of Rossini’s William Tell overture — easily recognized by moviegoers then and now as the theme of the Lone Ranger radio show. When the Seventh Cavalry arrives too late to save Lucia from having to marry the bad guy Colonna shrugs his shoulders and said that this was the first time in movie history the Seventh Cavalry had been late, but it had to happen sometime. Road to Rio is a delightful movie, not the best of the Road films but sprightly and entertaining in the goofy way of the series, and the frame-breaking gags hold up well as lampoons of the conventions of filmmaking then and now. This film also features some great songs by James Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, including “But Beautiful” — offhand, I think it’s the only song from a Road movie that ever became a standard (though the title song of Road to Zanzibar is surpassingly lovely and should have!) — and a guest appearance by Carmen Miranda’s backup band, with Hope fronting them in full drag as Miranda: that’s a delight!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stalked by My Doctor (Shadowland, Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the most recent “world premiere” on Lifetime, Stalked by My Doctor, which begins with an opening scene in which Dr. Albert Beck (Eric Roberts, Jr.), a basically attractive man physically but one on whom the years have not been too kind — his face has acquired a cragginess much like Ted Cassidy’s makeup as Lurch the butler on the 1960’s TV show The Addams Family — is receiving a dear-John call from his latest girlfriend, who says she no longer wants to see him because he’s too maniacally controlling. He responds by getting into his car and pushing the speedometer to 115 miles per hour, until we cut to another set of characters: high-school seniors Sophie Green (Brianna Joy Chomer) and her boyfriend Ryan (Carson Boatman, who looks dorky in his introduction scene but gets better-looking as the film progresses and his character matures), both of whom — along with their friends Caitlin (Wyntergrace Williams) and her boyfriend Eddie (Devon Libran) — are obsessing about what college they’ll get into. Though this movie is set in southern California (just where in Southern California is maddeningly unclear in writer-director Doug Campbell’s script), for some reason Sophie has applied to, and is accepted by, Whittendale University, a key part of the fictional universe in which the films Ken Sanders’ Shadowland and the Johnson Production Group make for Lifetime (yes, this takes place in the same world as The Surrogate, Dirty Teacher and Sugar Daddies). Ryan is driving himself and Sophie when his phone rings to indicate he’s got a text, and of course being an adolescent idiot he tries to receive and reply to the text without stopping the damned car — it’s about how he’s just been offered a soccer scholarship to USC — only the car crashes and both Ryan and Sophie suffer severe injuries. (It’s unclear from Campbell’s direction and Clayton Woodhull’s editing whether the car they crashed into — or which crashed into them, that isn’t clear either — is Dr. Beck’s, though if we were meant to believe that this would be an even kinkier movie than it is.) The two young lovebirds are taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where cardiac super-surgeon Dr. Beck is on duty and immediately takes charge of Sophie’s case. It seems that Ryan is fine — except his leg has been permanently injured and therefore his college athletic career is over before it started (which we get is the retribution he deserves in Campbell’s universe for texting while driving) — but Sophie’s heart has been desperately injured and she needs an immediate super-operation from, you guessed it, incredibly successful and well-regarded cardiac surgeon Dr. Albert Beck. Once he sees Sophie in the hospital room he’s immediately smitten with her to the point of obsession — he even kisses her while she’s under anesthesia the way McTeague did to Trina in Stroheim’s Greed — and Sophie, who wasn’t totally “under” at the time, has a dim memory of it that’s the first intimation she and her parents Jim (Jon Briddell) and Barbara (a quite good avenging-angel performance by Crystal Allen) have that all’s not quite “right” between the doctor and their daughter.

As the film progresses Dr. Beck’s conduct gets more and more psychotic: he briefly steers his attentions from Sophie to date a 38-year-old (and therefore more age-appropriate) woman he’s met online, only when on their first dinner date he sits across from her at the table and says he’s about to retire to a villa in Cabo San Lucas and he wants to take her there, marry her and have kids with her, she freaks out at his forwardness and, instead of acting the way Barbara Stanwyck did to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity — cold-bloodedly saying, “Hold on. There’s a speed limit in this town,” she gets up to leave and he loses it in the restaurant, calling her a “bitch” for not immediately taking him up on his offer, chasing her outside and even banging on her car as she drives by. Then he goes into yet another one of his anger fits — which reminded me of how I used to behave when I totally lost my temper, though he got even crazier than I ever did — trashing garbage in an alley and screaming that he’s a doctor and therefore he’s entitled to love and companionship from any woman he asks for it. (Much of this movie really did remind me of the old joke, “What do you call a man who thinks he’s God? A schizophrenic. What do you call a man who knows he’s God? A doctor.”) He redoubles his efforts to get into Sophie’s life — and her pants — including “accidentally” running into her and Caitlin at the mall at a coffee shop and offering to take Sophie to a movie. In line with the other productions from Shadowland and Johnson — Ken Sanders, who appears to have created the “Whittendale” universe and wrote the initial scripts in it, though he’s credited here as just one of four producers, probably established this device as de rigueur in every one of their obsessive love tales — we get periodic scenes in which it looks like Dr. Beck has successfully seduced Sophie and they’re about to do the down-’n’-dirty, but those are only his fantasies. Stalked by My Doctor — the sort of clinically accurate but, well, clinical title Lifetime seems to like to pick for its movies — just gets weirder and weirder, and the moment it slides over from overwrought thriller to total high camp is when Dr. Beck breaks into the Greens’ home when he thinks no one is there so he can sneak into Sophie’s bedroom, rearrange her pillows, get into her bed and presumably jack off. Only before he can do that Sophie comes home with her boyfriend Ryan, whom she briefly broke up with because she (not entirely unjustly) blamed him for her accident but with whom she’s ready to kiss (and do a lot more than that!) and make up. So Ryan and Sophie have sex while the hugely important and successful cardiac surgeon watches them from his vantage point in a hall closet, then sneaks out as best as he can after Ryan leaves. It gets even loonier when, in an attempt to break Sophie and Ryan up, Dr. Beck steals Ryan’s cell phone when Ryan is being treated by another doctor and uses it to send Sophie a text saying he (Ryan) isn’t going to date her anymore because the scar on her chest from her surgery makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein. (And it didn’t even do anything to her hair!)

Wanting to get Sophie to himself once and for all, Dr. Beck decides to make it look like Sophie has died in yet another car crash — only the body, burned beyond recognition when the wreckage is discovered, is of a “Jane Doe” Beck abstracted from the hospital’s corpse stash — while he kidnaps Sophie and ties her to a bed, where he intends to hold her until she goes Stockholm and genuinely falls in love with him. She briefly plays up to him but only to get him to untie her, whereupon she grabs a knife and stabs him, but she only grazes him, he overpowers her and ties her up again, where in a finale Doug Campbell seems to have ripped off from the movie Boxing Helena (one of those films that a lot of people have heard about but few have actually seen), he threatens to operate on her then and there to remove her legs, so she can’t try to escape; remove her arms, so she can’t try to attack him; and remove her tongue and vocal cords, so she can’t cry out for help. He’s actually laying out the instruments for this operation when Sophie comes to, manages to escape and makes her way to the memorial service being held for her (just like a 19th century opera!), whereupon someone must have reported all this to the cops because the next scene shows two uniformed detectives breaking into Dr. Beck’s home — which they find empty; the bad doctor has flown the coop and in a final tag scene is in Cabo, where he’s chatting up a Mexican waitress in Spanish even while assuring her that he’s not ready to order yet because he’s expecting someone to join him … and we’re left wondering whether he’s become so delusional he’s really expecting Sophie or he’s got some other pigeon in Mexico for his next dysfunctional relationship. As silly as this one is — other Lifetime movies have stretched the suspension of disbelief to a taffy pull; this one shatters it and makes it seem like Doug Campbell, to paraphrase the famous quote from Lewis Carroll, believes he has to write at least six impossible things before breakfast — it’s got one saving grace: the full-blooded characterization written by Campbell, and vividly played by Eric Roberts, as the psycho doctor. While through much of the movie one wonders why no one at the hospital notices how crazy he is — are we supposed to believe he’s so good at compartmentalization he can be a busy and professionally responsible doctor[1] when he’s working and a bonkers S.O.B. when he isn’t? — Campbell’s script and direction gives Roberts the space he needs to create a relentless and truly frightening villain character whose unforgettable man-you-love-to-hate appeal projects not only the psychopathology of his personality but the arrogance that’s been overlaid on it by what profession he’s chosen and how good he is at it, to the point where by the end of the movie he’s literally telling Sophie that, having saved her life, he now has it in his potential to take it. By all normal standards, Stalked by My Doctor is a perfectly terrible movie even for Lifetime, but Roberts’ acting gives it a sort of irresistibility and camp appeal.

[1] — Though there’s one aspect in which he’s not professionally responsible: at no time during the movie, even when he’s preparing for surgery or rubbing ointment into Sophie’s wound, is he shown wearing medical gloves.

King of Jazz (Universal, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

(graphic from the Bixography Forum Web site,

I ran him [my then-partner Bob] the video of the 1930 musical The King of Jazz. I’d been telling him a lot about two-strip Technicolor, but this was the first time he’d actually seen a film shot in the process. He noticed the anomalies — that, for a process that supposedly could not reproduce blue, there sure seemed to be an awful lot of blue in the film (even the leaves on the trees seemed to be a gun-metal greyish blue, suggesting that the “blue” objects actually were green originally and look blue now because the yellow components of the dyes have faded) — and the whole process seemed biased towards orange and green (it could reproduce bright red quite well, but director John Murray Anderson and his designers seemed to be avoiding red deliberately, as an aesthetic choice). Bob, with his engineer’s low tolerance for old-fashioned technology, said the film’s color was poor but at least better than black-and-white; I found the effect pleasant and harmonious, with little or none of the garishness that affected later three-strip color films.

As for the movie itself, I still have a great deal of affection for it. Paul Whiteman’s band, while not good enough to merit his P.R.-awarded “King of Jazz” title (“Louis who? Duke what?” Newsweek commented ironically when it mentioned Whiteman in a recent issue), was the best white jazz band of the time, and many of the arrangements heard in the film are Whiteman at his jazzy best. (Bix Beiderbecke may have missed out on being in the film, but Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and the Rhythm Boys vocal group — Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker — were still around to keep the jazz flame alive.) Anderson’s direction, if not quite as imaginative as Busby Berkeley’s in the Warners classics of 1933-35, is still stunning, and Hal Mohr’s camerawork is quite innovative in its use of the famous “Broadway crane” for moving-camera effects — and also in its pioneering use of wide-angle lenses so both musician and instrument could be in focus simultaneously (creating some interesting distortion effects).

Though The King of Jazz was a revue with no plot — and Universal’s contract list wasn’t comparably stellar to those of MGM, Warners and Paramount in their all-star revues — it remains a far more creative movie than any of the competitors, not only due to Anderson’s direction but also the screenwriting as well. Many of the gags are surprisingly racy for a movie this old — nearly all the blackout comedy sketches between the number rely on sexual gags, and the whole movie makes fun of the whole Victorian ethic and the very concept of fidelity. Perhaps the funniest line in the movie — certainly it was Bob’s favorite — came from a skit about a prospective bridegroom, being warned by his bride-to-be’s father that, even if he was making enough money to support her, there might be children. His response was, “Oh, we’ve been lucky so far.” (The King of Jazz was made during that four-year period — which I call “Hollywood’s glasnost” — of lax Production Code enforcement between 1930 and 1934. Many of Hollywood’s best movies came out during this period, and benefited from it: the Berkeley musicals; the Lubitsch films with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; Stroheim’s last film as a director, Hello, Sister!; and the original Maltese Falcon, which had the “strip scene” from the book that couldn’t be used in the later remakes.) — 3/25/93


Charles and I drove back to Hillcrest, found Davids’ Place coffeehouse closed for an AIDS Art Alive exhibit, then went back to his place where I ran him the videotape of the 1930 movie The King of Jazz. It’s a movie that holds up pretty well — though the two-strip Technicolor print has faded quite badly (last week I ran Charles the movie Whoopee!, which he liked considerably better, at least partially because it’s survived in considerably better shape visually); many of the short comedy sketches are surprisingly risqué (well, it was a “Forbidden Hollywood”-era movie), the music was pretty good (though, like virtually all of Whiteman’s projects, it suffered from his insistence on demonstrating that his band could play virtually anything, from the sickliest sentimental Victorian-era style of “My Bridal Veil” to international music to the kind of lightly jazz-flavored dance music that was what his band actually did well) and the production (“Entire Production Devised and Directed by John Murray Anderson,” ran his credit) was stunning (one could well see why Herman Rosse’s set designs won an Academy Award). It wasn’t a movie that was all that creative in terms of camera movement and stunning editing (Busby Berkeley’s work was ahead of Anderson’s in the innovation department at that time, though Anderson would out-Berkeley Berkeley in that bizarre final number he created for the 1944 Red Skelton/Esther Williams movie Bathing Beauty, which I believe was excerpted in the first That’s Entertainment! as well), but the sheer audacity of the conception of some of the numbers made it work. — 2/10/96


Two nights ago Charles programmed an interesting set of movies for Christmas — including a couple I’ve written about in this space before, the 1971 cartoon adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and the 1967 Bob Hope Military Christmas Special (what struck me most this time around was the viciousness of the jokes Hope was making attacking the anti-war protesters back home), as well as a Donald Duck cartoon from 1942 called Donald’s Snow Fight, which was surprisingly good. The conventional wisdom of the history of animated film holds that by the early 1940’s artistic leadership in animation had passed from Disney to the Warner Bros. cartoon department, with such unforgettable characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and my all-time favorite, the Road Runner (there was an online poll on to name the cartoon villain you feel most sorry for, and my choice would certainly be Wile E. Coyote; like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which fellow cartoonists tend to regard as the greatest comic strip ever created, the Road Runner cartoons were set in the American Southwest and took advantage of its awesome geographic features) — but Donald’s Snow Hunt, featuring an all-out battle in the snow between Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie (all four of the duck characters were voiced by the same person, Clarence Nash, whose 1934 radio broadcast reading “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the voice of a girl duck had attracted Walt Disney’s attention and led Disney to sign him, though in working out the character Disney decided that Nash’s duck voice would work better for a male than a female) that was quite well staged and had a lot of truly inventive gags, including one in which Donald wears a “winter coat” that is almost perfectly conical (is this where the makers of A Christmas Story got their gag about the almost totally spherical winter garment Ralphie’s parents send him to school in?) and another in which Huey, Dewey and Louie fire a well-placed shot at Donald’s fortress, split it into ice logs and the ice forms bars around him like a prison. But our “feature” for Christmas night was a movie I was startled to find online given that the reports I’d read about it — mainly that UCLA was in the middle of a full restoration but it was taking so long I was wondering whether I’d able to see the film again in my lifetime — King of Jazz (I noted that the opening credit didn’t feature the definite article, and neither did a Variety cover from January 1929 announcing that Paul Whiteman and his orchestra were going out by train from New York to Los Angeles to make the film), Universal’s amazing 1930 musical revue built around Paul Whiteman and, as his credit reads, “Devised and Directed by John Murray Anderson.” I first saw King of Jazz when MCA Home Video released a tape of it in the early 1980’s — I got the Beta version but later dubbed it to VHS alongside the other great full-color musical from 1930, Sam Goldwyn’s Whoopee — and I didn’t quite know what to make of it: it seemed to be split between numbers that had the lumbering, ponderous effect of other contemporary musicals and numbers that were attempting to break free of the restrictions of the stage-bound films of the day.

Certainly it’s a film of major historical importance: it marked the screen debut of Bing Crosby and was shot entirely in the two-strip Technicolor process, which as I’ve pointed out in these pages before at its best had a painterly elegance that’s often more watchable than the shrieking, overly vibrant hues of the three-strip process that replaced it. Two-strip Technicolor had a major weakness — it could not photograph blue — though in surviving two-strip films there are some sequences that look blue because the yellow chemicals in the green dyes have faded over the years while the blue ones have survived or faded less — as witness the Irish tenor who sings “Killarney” in the final sequence, “The Melting Pot of Music.” His coat looks teal, and it seems likely given the usual iconography of Hollywood that everything from Ireland is green, the coat was probably a bright, vivid green in the original release. Well, the more times I’ve seen King of Jazz — in the 1990’s, when I ran my VHS dub of the Beta tape for Charles; and now Christmas night — I’ve liked it better and better, and the person who really made this film great was its director, John Murray Anderson. King of Jazz was a troubled production — the date on the Variety cover that showed Paul Whiteman and his “boys” on their way to the coast to make it was January 2, 1929 and the movie was released April 20, 1930 — and much of the reason for that was a huge fish-out-of-water disconnect between Whiteman’s tightly disciplined way of running his band and the movie industry’s more devil-may-care attitude towards things. Whiteman took himself and his band out to California on a train called the “Old Gold Special” (Old Gold Cigarettes was the sponsor of his weekly CBS radio show) and expected Universal to be like a nightclub, ballroom or concert hall: everything would be ready for him and all he and his boys would have to do was set up and play. When he got to Universal, ready to hit the soundstages and begin filming, he was told that no one had yet written a script for the film — which made Whiteman furious. He said it would be like having a band on stage, ready to play, having to apologize to the audience because no one had brought music. Universal’s writers suggested various ideas for a script, including a Whiteman biopic with Whiteman playing himself and a romantic love story in which Whiteman and Ruth Etting would be the leads — and Whiteman was well aware that his overall bulk, as well as his lack of acting experience, would make it difficult if not impossible for the audience to accept him as a romantic lead.

Whiteman was also having difficulties with the sound engineers, who had suddenly become the divas of Hollywood now that talking pictures were a reality; unless a strong director stood up to them, sound men were taking over virtually every movie made, insisting that the actors speak s-l-o-w-l-y and d-i-s-t-i-n-c-t-l-y and … pause for at least a beat between hearing their cue line and speaking their own. (This is what accounts for the existence of films like the 1929 Fox production Behind That Curtain, which will make clear just why some critics wrote that silent movies were actually more naturalistic than sound ones.) Universal’s sound engineers had the Whiteman band play through their entire repertoire for hours on end, supposedly doing “tests,” and they thought Whiteman would be as awed by them and uninclined to resist as all the Hollywood actors were. Whiteman, who had been one of America’s top-selling recording artists for nine years and probably knew more about sound recording than all the self-appointed “experts” in Hollywood combined, first complained and then, when that didn’t do any good, went through the indignities and probably rationalized, “At least we’re getting paid for this.” The Whiteman musicians lived in L.A. for six months, consuming a lot of bootleg alcohol and getting themselves into so many scrapes with the law that ultimately they started removing the cloth spare-tire covers with Whiteman’s famous potato-head caricature on them because the L.A. cops were targeting cars so equipped for special enforcement. Finally, in August 1929, Whiteman, worried that the band was getting stale since its members weren’t playing for live audiences, accepted an offer from a New York nightclub and told Universal president Carl Laemmle and his “suits” that they weren’t coming back until the Universal executives approved a finished script and were actually ready to make the film. In the meantime Whiteman lost the greatest musician who ever worked for him, Bix Beiderbecke, whose alcohol abuse finally caught up with him and weakened him to the point where he could barely get through a show, much less make a movie.

Universal also lost the director they had originally assigned to the film, the Hungarian-born Paul Fejos (whose name is listed on in its Hungarian form, Pál Fejös — though in Hungary it would have been Fejös Pál!), when he had a nervous breakdown while shooting a film called La Marseillaise (it was eventually finished, retitled Captain of the Guards, by John S. Robertson, whose most famous credit today is probably John Barrymore’s 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and spent most of the rest of his life working as an anthropologist and combining those two careers by making nature documentaries in Asia. At this point the Universal executives decided that King of Jazz would be a revue — a term usually meaning a stage musical without a plot, one that simply alternated songs, dances and comedy sketches, but which in 1929 was being pursued by Hollywood. MGM made Hollywood Revue of 1929, Warner Bros. made The Show of Shows, Fox made Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Paramount made Paramount on Parade. Alas, by the time King of Jazz actually made it before the cameras, movie audiences were in open revolt against musicals in general and revues in particular. MGM abandoned their second revue production, The March of Time, in mid-shoot (they ultimately commissioned Moss Hart to write a screenplay that could link the March of Time footage to a plot, and in 1933 released Broadway to Hollywood, a multi-generational story of showbiz performers which in the end contained only about two minutes of the March of Time footage, though some of the numbers got released as shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret). Universal plunged ahead with King of Jazz and hired the director who probably knew more about how to do a stage revue than anyone else in the business: John Murray Anderson, who had directed most of the Ziegfeld Follies on stage but had never made a movie before. Anderson plunged in with both feet, designing spectacular numbers and getting Universal’s art director, Herman Rosse, to build some of the hugest, most over-the-top sets ever designed for a musical. (Rosse won the Academy Award for art direction for this film; as Charles pointed out, he was probably the first Oscar winner ever for a film made entirely in color.)

King of Jazz is basically a revue that purports to take us inside “Paul Whiteman’s Scrap Book,” a 10-foot tall prop that taxes the ability of the film’s M.C., Charles Irwin, to turn its pages. Whiteman brings his entire band inside a little satchel — though double-exposure photography the band appears as miniature people while Whiteman and Irwin show them off on top of a piano (for some reason showing people in radically different scales in the same scene was an effect that was quite popular then) — and though some of the shots of choristers on the big sets have the best-seat-in-the-theatre placement of most musicals this early (which frequently made the dancers look like ants on a wedding cake), Anderson also shoots three-quarter shots, vast panoramas, moving-camera shots (he had access to the famous “Broadway crane” designed and built by Paul Fejos and cinematographer Hal Mohr for the 1928 film Broadway and used by Universal for years) and even a couple of Busby Berkeley-style overhead kaleidoscope shots, including one showing off Whiteman’s violin section playing Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois.” By coincidence, Berkeley was also in Hollywood at the time making his first film, another all-color musical, Sam Goldwyn’s adaptation of Ziegfeld’s hit Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor — and he and Anderson were both pushing the bounds of what had previously been done in musical films. So the two most creative musicals made in Hollywood in 1930, King of Jazz and Whoopee, both had Ziegfeld connections. It also seems likely that Berkeley saw King of Jazz because he did strikingly similar numbers later on: the Manhattan landscapes shown as part of the “Happy Feet” song were duplicated in Berkeley’s ground-breaking 1933 film 42nd Street (the blockbuster hit that marked the comeback of musicals as a genre after audiences had got tired of them in the early 1930’s) and the “Bench in the Park” number, featuring Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys (the other two were Harry Barris and Al Rinker, Mildred Bailey’s considerably slimmer brother) and a group called the Brox Sisters, who weren’t at the level of the Boswell Sisters musically but still impress, was quite closely copied by Berkeley for “Pettin’ in the Park” in Gold Diggers of 1933. “Happy Feet” even begins with an animated sequence of empty shoes dancing by themselves, an idea Fred Astaire recycled almost two decades later for his last film with Ginger Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway.

King of Jazz shows off the wide range of Whiteman’s musical interests, from a salon piece called “My Bridal Veil” (a middle-aged but still attractive woman clutches her bridal veil and flashes back, Proust-style, to memories of her wedding day, and the number ends with the bride descending a giant staircase, her attendants flanking her and all three women wearing gowns whose trains seem to trail off into eternity, much like Carmen Miranda’s bahiana hat in Berkeley’s 1943 film The Gang’s All Here) to the piece most closely associated with Whiteman, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s presented here with an introduction in which Irwin says that jazz originated in Africa — “to the beat of a voodoo drum” — and then we get a scene of either one voodoo dancer and his shadow or two dancers “shadowing” each other to a drum beat before an actor wielding a clarinet pantomimes to the famous opening of the Rhapsody (Gershwin originally wrote the phrase as a 17-note scalar progression, but Ross Gorman, featured clarinetist with the Whiteman band when it premiered the piece in 1924, decided to play it as a glissando, Gershwin altered the score accordingly and it’s bedeviled numerous clarinetists ever since — including Benny Goodman, who flubbed it on a 1942 broadcast with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony) and we get chorus boys in top hats, white ties and tails marching out of the wings for a night on the town. We also get a giant piano. so large eight people can sit at it, though obviously they’re not actually playing it — just pantomiming a piano performance on those giant keys, unstrikable by any human. Number after number showcases Anderson’s staging skills and the talents of the cast he assembled, including seemingly impossibly acrobatic dancers of both genders (I particularly like the “My Ragamuffin Romeo” number, in which, in a way anticipating Universal’s production of Frankenstein the next year, a lonely rag dealer assembles himself a girlfriend from rags; she turns out to be Marion Stattler, an amazingly limber and accomplished contortionist dancer; Charles called the number “Raggedy Ann Meets Raggedy Apache”), one of whom, Paul Small, impersonates Whiteman and does a dance number until Whiteman himself “outs” him by pulling off his reproduction of the Whiteman moustache.

The huge finale, a song called “Song of the Dawn” (sung by Universal leading man John Boles, one of the few people featured in the film who wasn’t a part of Whiteman’s organization) staged to look like Boles is a Third World peasant leader about to stage a revolution, segues into “The Melting Pot of Music,” in which Paul Whiteman is presented as a sort of mad scientist stirring a huge cauldron in which just about every sort of white European music is blended into that “exciting new rhythm — Jazz!” There’s no intimation here that Black people had anything to do with creating jazz (though there was that earlier reference to the voodoo dances that supposedly inspired the Rhapsody in Blue), and some online commentators have questioned that as well as the whole idea of Whiteman being crowned “King of Jazz” in the first place (by his publicist, Mary Margaret McBride, who also quoted Whiteman as saying he had “made a lady out of jazz,” as if that were a good thing), but “The Melting Pot of Music” is yet another number that soars on the sheer audacity of Anderson’s directorial conception; at its end, Whiteman stirs the cauldron, concentric rings emerge from it like the ones with which the robot in Metropolis got turned into the “false Maria” (Brigitte Helm), and out of it all, in yet another sequence anticipating the next decade and Universal’s involvement in horror films, the Whiteman band emerges for a reprise of “Song of the Dawn.”

Incidentally, Whiteman originally intended the vocal lead in “Song of the Dawn” for Bing Crosby, but he got into trouble — he took a girl out one night, drank too much and got involved in an auto accident in which she was killed. He pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and, probably due to pressure from Whiteman and/or Universal, was given only a one-month sentence — but he was essentially work-furloughed, taken to Universal under police escort to do his work on King of Jazz during the day and then transported back to jail at night. During all this Whiteman reassigned “Song of the Dawn” to Boles — though Bing still sang the song on the Columbia record Whiteman made to promote the film, and the comparison shows that Boles was actually the better singer for that song. It calls for a stentorian, quasi-operatic delivery on the order of Nelson Eddy’s, and Bing, despite his enormous talents, never could sing that way. (For some reason, Bing never got over his bitterness over losing “Song of the Dawn.” He was still complaining about it in an interview he did with Barbara Walters in 1977, just months before he died!) So Bing was featured only as part of the Rhythm Boys — though, unlike a lot of other legendary stars who seem to be groping towards a character in their first films, Bing seems already fully formed; when he interrupts the Rhythm Boys’ performance of “Mississippi Mud” with a speech about how in an expensive movie like this “we’ve got to get out of the mud, and reach for the finer things,” he says it in the rising and falling inflections he used his entire career to endow even the most prosaic speech with musical qualities.

There are some low points in King of Jazz — mostly the novelty sequences like “Oh, How I’d Like to Own a Fish Store,” “Has Anyone Here Seen Nellie” (an homage to the earliest days of the nickelodeons in which the projectionist leads the audience in a sing-a-long) and a dreary novelty number in which Willie Hall, ordinarily a Whiteman trombonist, plays “Silent Night” (so there was a Christmas connection to this movie after all!) and “‘Pop’ Goes the Weasel” on violin and “Stars and Stripes Forever” on bicycle pump — but the dazzling high points, number after number that offers one impressive vista after another and is quite creatively staged for 1930, as well as some raunchy gags in the comedy sequences that mark this film as definitely a product of the so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, make King of Jazz a film for the ages. Samples of the raunchy dialogue: in one skit a man and a woman receive word that their marriage is not legally valid, and the man says, “That makes me a bachelor!” The woman says, “That makes me a spinster,” and their baby — played by Paul Whiteman (complete with moustache) in an oversized cradle — whines towards the camera, “Well, look at what that makes me!” Another one: a young man is meeting with his girlfriend’s father to ask for permission to marry her. Dad questions whether the man has enough money to support a wife, and the boy assures him that he makes $65 a week and that should be enough to support her. Yes, says the father, but there may be children later on. The boy says they’ve decided not to have any, and when Dad asks them how they’re managing that, the boy says, “Well, we’ve been lucky so far.”

King of Jazz is considered, at least by one of the “Trivia” posters, to be the film that killed off musicals for the next two years because it was such a big flop (though at least part of that might be a Zeitgeist problem; it’s clearly a film conceived in the freewheeling 1920’s and released in the Depression-era 1930’s — albeit Richard Barrios claims in his book on early musicals that King of Jazz was reissued in 1933 and did better then than it had in 1930), but seen today it’s an extraordinary movie and makes it seem inconceivable that John Murray Anderson never again made a feature film. He got just two more movie assignments: staging the final water ballet in Esther Williams’ 1944 film Bathing Beauty (the first of the big color extravaganzae starring the Olympic champion swimmer) and doing some circus-performing scenes for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1953 movie The Greatest Show on Earth. (He also ran an acting school with Robert Milton that trained at least two legendary stars, Bette Davis and Lucille Ball.) But he remains so little known that his Bathing Beauty number is frequently misattributed to Busby Berkeley, who did do similar choreographies with Williams on some of her later films. I’ve long felt it was a cultural crime that Anderson wasn’t hired to direct MGM’s 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld — instead MGM gave the directorial assignment to one of their house hacks, Robert Z. Leonard — because as the director of many of the Follies Anderson knew Ziegfeld (personally and artistically), while King of Jazz had proven he could direct a movie. A John Murray Anderson-directed Great Ziegfeld might have been a masterpiece instead of the slow, ponderous bore, redeemed only by the acting of William Powell and Myrna Loy, it actually is! — 12/27/15

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stolen Daughter (Odyssey Media/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Stolen Daughter, which I had recorded on its “world premiere” showing on Lifetime some months ago — August 1, I believe, since the commercial breaks included a promo for the film Patient Killer, which I watched on its “world premiere” and commented on August 3. Lifetime movies generally run the gamut from surprisingly good to flawed but capable (which is what I had to say about Patient Killer) to entertaining trash to the depths. This one was somewhere between the entertaining trash and the depths, and judging from the page, which gave “Wilkins” as the last name of the central characters (considerably less risible than the one the filmmakers, director Jason Bourque and writers Sue Bourque — who I presume is Jason’s wife — and Daniel Winters finally came up with), the script went through some last-minute changes before it got filmed. Stolen Daughter contains two parallel plot lines. The main one centers around police detective Stacey Tipping (Andrea Roth) — see what I meant about the Bourques and Winters giving this character and everyone in her family a thoroughly silly last name? — who in the opening scene confronts a madman who’s kidnapped a teenage girl and is about to kill her because, as he explains, “She’s too beautiful to live.” Stacey and her partner, John Riley (Keith MacKechnie), corner the guy but are too late to save the girl’s life. Then Stacey wakes up in bed with her husband Jack (Steve Bacic, a considerably better-looking guy than usually plays Lifetime’s non-psycho leading men), and it turns out this is just a series of nightmares she’s been having reliving the incident, which got her forcibly put on medical leave even though she’s chafing at the bit and wants nothing more than to be put back on the force. Her superiors finally agree to let her return, but only part-time and only on desk duty.

Meanwhile, Martha Dixel (Rachel Hayward) is being paroled from prison after serving a four-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter; when she was involved in an auto accident and her husband and daughter Anna (seen in flashbacks and played by Erika Shave-Gair) were killed, she sought out the guy who’d done it and deliberately ran him down. As she’s released protesters outside the prison express their displeasure that she wasn’t convicted of murder and sentenced either to life imprisonment or the death penalty. No sooner is she outside the prison walls than she’s nearly run over by a guy in a van — he’s backing up and doesn’t see her — but the shock undoes all her rehabilitation and sends her back into her former crazy state: she’s convinced the van driver is her husband and their daughter is still alive. She steals the guy’s van and takes off, and by an incredible bit of coincidence-mongering the Bourques and Winters should have been ashamed of themselves over, Martha comes upon Stacey Tipping’s daughter Sarah (Sarah Dugdale) at a barbecue party — Sarah and the boy she’s interested in romantically have edged away from the party and are talking to each other on some swings when Martha comes upon them, insists that Sarah is her daughter Anna, pulls a gun on Sarah and kidnaps her. Martha drives away with Sarah in her stolen van, and the rest of the movie intercuts the plotline of Martha with Stacey Tipping’s kidnapped daughter and Stacey’s insistence on being allowed to work the case despite the insistence of the officer in charge, Detective Garcia (Curtis Caravaggio), that she doesn’t belong on the case. There’s some potential for ambiguity in the writing that the Bourques and Winters don’t take much advantage of — including one surveillance video shot in a convenience store (and containing audio, which these things usually don’t) in which Sarah seems to be playing up to Martha and Garcia immediately assumes she’s fallen victim to the Stockholm syndrome and gone Patty Hearst on them (Patty Hearst’s name is even mentioned on the soundtrack!), while Stacey angrily defends her daughter’s honor and insists she’s just playing along with Martha’s delusion for survival. (“Then she’s playing a really dangerous game,” Garcia and Riley insist.) It gets to the point where Garcia sets up an interview for Stacey with a reporter, telling her it will help if the TV audience gets to see the Grieving Mother, but the reporter’s first question is about how in Stacey’s last search for an abducted child the kid died, and what makes her think this one is going to turn out any differently? Stacey angrily walks out of the interview and, when Garcia admits he set it up to get her kicked off the case, she punches out her fellow cop and colleague.

Stacey is suspended from the force and has to turn in her badge and gun, but does that stop her? No-o-o-o-o, acting now more like an avenging mom than a cop, she browbeats a friend of Martha’s who spent time with her in prison (after nearly being walloped by the woman’s boyfriend, a club-wielding guy identified only as “Shirtless Junkie” and played by Colby Chartrand, who not surprisingly is the sexiest guy in the film!) and tricks her into giving away Martha’s likely hiding place — a cabin near a lake where the Dixel family used to go fishing before the catastrophe. She calls in the tip and of course the cops tell her to wait for backup, while, equally predictably, she doesn’t; armed with a gun she “borrowed” from the friend of Martha’s she interrogated al fresco, she confronts Martha directly, they have a gunfight (in which, incidentally, Stacey fires far more bullets than the gun she’s using — a six-shot revolver — is likely to contain) and, when Martha’s gun runs out of ammo they have a fight and They Both Reach for the Gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for such a wonderfully reliable income stream), and as they’re struggling for it Sarah herself grabs a rock, clubs Martha with it and subdues her so she can be taken into custody when the other, still on-duty cops arrive. Stolen Daughter’s main problem is the sheer preposterousness of the plot — any story which depends so totally on coincidence as its driving force is going to have a hard time keeping the audience’s disbelief suspended — and it also doesn’t help that Andrea Roth and Rachel Hayward look so much alike, both being tall, thin blondes with long, willowy hair, that only when Jason Bourque moves in for a closeup can you really tell them apart (though at least that makes it more believable that Sarah Dugdale could be Roth’s daughter and Hayward’s character could mistake her for her daughter). That said, the performances of the women are by far the most powerful aspects of the movie — this is one Lifetime movie in which the gynocentricity of their plotting works to the film’s advantage, as the males in the movie are either boring or turds (or both). Still, there was a lot more potential in this premise than the Bourques and Winters realized — though there’s an in-joke of the kind that Lifetime is starting to run into the ground: in an early scene, before her own daughter is kidnapped, Stacey is at the police station running through computer files of missing girls, and one of them is named “Anna Bourque.”

Monday, December 21, 2015

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony (National Parks Service/PBS, filmed December 3, 2015; aired December 20, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony actually took place on December 3, with President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, her mom and the Obamas’ two daughters in attendance, and ironically I was watching this after having just returned home from downtown, where as I was walking to the bus stop I heard a man who was out with his wife and their two kids singing, predictably tonelessly, “Kill Obama, put him on trial for treason.” Of course I avoided any contact with him for fear that if I’d asked him why Obama should be killed and put on trial for treason (in that order?), I’d get an hours-long answer that would leave me thoroughly incensed and annoyed. (He’s entitled to his opinion but I think it’s a bit tasteless to be advocating the assassination of a sitting President in front of his children.) The PBS show scored points over the similar one on NBC recently, which commemorated the lighting of the big tree in Rockefeller Center, New York City, in that they got the actual tree-lighting out of the way first and made way for the speechifying and the musical guests. The speechifying came not only from the President himself but also the head of the National Park Service (the whole show was framed as an infomercial for the national park system! I might have minded that, but given how relentlessly the corporate media and the Republican Party propagandize against anything that is still publicly owned and ridicule the whole notion that the government should set aside any property as indefinitely protected for the use and benefit of the people as a whole, I’m not going to complain about a bit of counter-propaganda that reminds us that we have a collective heritage, a patrimony that ought to be left intact to our grandkids and beyond) and a 97-year-old woman who was introduced as the oldest still-serving park ranger. The musical portion of the show — which of course was what I was most interested in — began with the best act, the rock band Fall Out Boy tearing through Vince Guaraldi’s song “Christmas Time Is Here,” written for the original soundtrack to the 1964 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas and responding well to Fall Out Boy’s treatment, which was as hard-core rock ’n’ roll as PBS was going to let on the air during a family program.

After that a Warner Bros. recording artist named Andra Day — a light-skinned Black woman with one of those upswept hairdos, wearing a light white dress (in Washington, D.C.? In December?) — came out and did “Winter Wonderland” in a rendition that reminded me of Aretha Franklin’s 1960’s Columbia record (one I had on a compilation cassette of various Christmas ditties and which I recently dubbed to CD as part of my copy of Aretha’s first secular album, The Great Aretha Franklin); Day had the benefit of a less gloppy arrangement but hardly sang the song with Aretha’s passion and soul (but then, who’d expect her to?), but it was still in the same tradition and she spared the song the ghastly over-ornamentation of such awful soul remakes of standards as Aretha’s “Look to the Rainbow” and Patti LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow.” Then there came a reunion of Crosby, Stills and Nash doing an O.K. version of “Silent Night” — alas, their trademark vocal harmonies were in eclipse that night — and afterwards came one of the highlights of the evening, young New Orleans jazz musician Trombone Shorty (t/n Troy Andrews; his older brother James Andrews is a trumpeter and bandleader and their material grandmother is Jessie Hill, the R&B singer and songwriter who had a hit with the song “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”) working out on “Jingle Bells.” He was improvising so creatively on the piece that its melody didn’t emerge for about a minute or so, and I’m a bit surprised to learn from his Wikipedia page that he started playing trombone as a child since he does not limit himself to the closest slide positions the way Jack Teagarden, who also started as a child, did. Then came a singer named Bellamy Young doing an O.K. version of the Mel Tormé-Bob Wells “The Christmas Song” (incidentally the last time I was in a store I heard a record of “The Christmas Song” by Tormé himself, from a live nightclub gig and backed only by piano; I wish I could find that one since it’s better than the other two Tormé versions of that song I already have), and then Michelle Obama joined forces with the voice of Miss Piggy (who is it now? The character’s creator, Frank Oz, is still alive, but according to he’s relinquished the Miss Piggy Muppet to Eric Jacobson) for a charming reading of “The Night Before Christmas” (though I still think Louis Armstrong’s recording, made in March 1971 just four months before he passed, is the best).

Afterwards we got an uncommonly good children’s string orchestra called the Joyous String Ensemble making their way quite ably through Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” — the fact that I was less bothered by any flaws in the players’ intonation (I could hear virtually none) than by the absence of the other orchestral instruments called for in Anderson’s original arrangement says a great deal for the skills of these kids. Then Tori Kelly — who seems to crop up on a lot of these shows and therefore must be a big star even though I’d hardly heard of her — came out and did an O.K. version of “O Holy Night” (Céline Dion had done this one a lot better on the NBC show even though both Charles and I were disappointed that Dion didn’t sing all, or at least part, of the song in the original French) and someone named Aloe Blacc (that’s how he spells his last name! From that appellation you’d probably guess he was a rapper, but he’s actually a fairly good Black soul singer) came out and did the song “This Christmas” from (I believe) the Jackson Five’s Christmas album in the old Motown days. Mr. Blacc and Ms. Day later joined forces on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” spiced up with a nice solo from Trombone Shorty, but in between Blacc’s two numbers someone named Kelsey Boccherini (actually I’m not at all sure of the last name but I’m going with that version because it’s evocative of the Italian Baroque composer and therefore I know it’s somebody’s name) did “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” agan less soulfully than her opposite number on the NBC special (Mary J. Blige), and of course neither could hold a candle to Judy Garland’s eloquent, prayerful reading of the song both in the film Meet Me in St. Louis and on her contemporaneous Decca recording. The entire ensemble came out to do “Jingle Bells” as a finale, with President Obama singing lead — mediocrely; whatever he’s planning to do once he’s termed out of the Presidency on January 20, 2017, I would not recommend to him that he pursue singing as an alternative career!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Universal, 1916)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had just returned from his home where we’d watched another silent movie I’d taped from TCM earlier: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the 1916 version from Universal — which I’d first heard about over 20 years ago from S. J. Perelman’s wicked spoof of it in his “Cloudland Revisited” series of articles collected in his book The Road to Miltown. It’s interesting that, despite the success of this version (it’s one of those movies that, like The Wizard of Oz on its initial release, was popular at the box office but had cost so much to make it was not a major profit winner for the studio), no one attempted to remake this story in the sound era until Walt Disney had a go at it with Kirk Douglas and James Mason in 1954. The surviving print lists none of the cast members — “much as if all the actors in the picture had been slain on its completion and all references to them expunged,” Perelman rather macabrely joked. Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Universal Story at least identifies some of the actors — Captain Nemo was played by Allen Holubar, who later went on to become a Universal director himself; and other people in the film included Jane Gail, Dan Hanlon, Edna Pendleton and William Welsh — not exactly names that resonate through the history of the cinema.

At least the print Perelman saw did identify Stuart Paton as the director — and while neither source indicates any writers for this film, its incredibly incoherent plot line (jumbled together, in Perelman’s words, from “three unrelated plots — 20,000 Leagues, The Mysterious Island, and Five Weeks in a Balloon — as well as a sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state that must have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake”) led Perelman to say, “I daresay that if Stuart Paton … were functioning today (i.e., 1952), the votaries of the Surrealist film who sibilate around the Little Carnegie and the Fifth Avenue Playhouse would be weaving garlands for his hair. That man could make a cryptogram out of Mother Goose.” And I would add that if Paton were functioning today, in 1998, he’d be getting great reviews and the critics would consider him on the level of Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch as a master of post-modern storytelling. Actually, the parts of the film that actually tell the story of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are surprisingly good — aided no end by the superb underwater photography system developed by Ernest and George Williamson, who gain an accolade no technical people in movies would even dream of today: they not only get screen credit, they actually appear — as themselves — in a prologue sequence (as, courtesy of an old photograph, does Jules Verne). The underwater sequences — especially the ones featuring sharks in their natural habitat — are impressive even now and must have wowed them back in 1916 when no one had ever shot film like this before (indeed, these scenes are so good that when the men of Nemo’s crew kill a patently fake octopus on the ocean floor to rescue one of the castaways from Mysterious Island it’s a major disappointment by comparison — though at least their mechanical octopus, unlike Ed Wood’s in Bride of the Monster, actually moved). The problem is that Paton (and whatever writers may have worked on the film) decided to cram so many plot lines into the film that it rapidly gets confusing, with plenty of intertitles beginning with words like, “About this time … ” or “Meantime … ” or “Meanwhile … ” (“‘Meanwhile’ to what?” Charles, thoroughly exasperated, asked at one particularly confounding juncture). “Everything in 20,000 Leagues happens in the meantime,” Perelman joked; “the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively.”

The variegated dramatis personae of 20,000 Leagues include the characters from Verne’s story we all know and love; a quartet of U.S. balloonists who drift off-course and end up, not in Oz, but on Mysterious Island; a mysterious “leopard girl” who already lives there and has grown up “wild” since childhood (and with whom one of the balloonists falls genuinely in love while another one attempts to rape her); and a trader named Charles Denver who used to be in the employ of an Indian maharajah named Prince Daaker until he attempted to rape Daaker’s wife, she committed suicide rather than submit to him, and he kidnapped Daaker’s eight-year-old daughter (“possibly finding the furniture too heavy,” Perelman joked) and ran off with her, though not without first fomenting a peasant revolution (this part of the plot line begins to sound like The Emperor Jones) and blaming Prince Daaker for starting the rebellion against himself as a means of reconquering his kingdom from the British. Eventually all these disparate plot lines do blend together: the “leopard girl” turns out to be Prince Daaker’s daughter, growing up on Mysterious Island after Charles Denver abandoned her there; and Nemo turns out to be Prince Daaker himself, though we’re not given any clue about how an Indian prince who’d just lost his throne and all his money was able to turn himself into a high-tech submarine captain — instead we’re given a splendiferously produced flashback showing Prince Daaker’s palace, which has an air of ultra-extravagance that suggests someone at Universal had just seen the Babylon sequence in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance and wanted a set that would compete in sheer size and impressiveness. What’s more, to add to the overkill, the flashback scenes in the Indian kingdom (one of them narrated by Denver; the other by Nemo, which, to quote Perelman again, “culminates with his demise and a strong suspicion to the onlooker that he has talked himself to death” — the title introducing Nemo’s flashback is at least honest enough to admit that it contains “the story never told by Jules Verne”!) are the only scenes in the film that are in pure black-and-white; everything else in the movie is color-tinted, sometimes spectacularly so (the orange stock used for sunrises and sunsets is dramatic and convincing), sometimes oppressively so (the brown tones used for the interior of Nemo’s submarine — except when they’re looking through the sub window at the ocean, in which case the tint becomes green) and the blue used for all the exteriors at sea get pretty old after a while. Still, for the time, 20,000 Leagues is an impressively produced movie (timing out at 108 minutes, which is especially surprising given that it was made only two years after the first U.S.-produced films of feature length!) and a quite good one, though with a more coherent plot line it could have been even better. — 6/15/98


Last night’s entry in the series of “Vintage Sci-Fi” film screenings in Golden Hill was the fascinating 1916 silent version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, produced by Universal Film Manufacturing Corporation (that was its official name then!) under Carl Laemmle’s personal management, written and directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio (younger brother of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Tony Gaudio). I first heard of this movie in the early 1970’s, when a friend of mine at College of Marin lent me a copy of S. J. Perelman’s 1957 essay collection The Road to Miltown: Or, Under the Spreading Atrophy. (“Miltown,” for those of you not up on pharmaceutical industry, was one of the first prescription tranquilizers approved by the Food and Drug Administration.) Among the essays in this book were a series called “Cloudland Revisited,” in which Perelman went to the New York Museum of Modern Art (the history of that institution and its founding film curator, Iris Barry, in establishing that films were works of art that deserved to be preserved cannot be overestimated!) and re-watched silent movies that had particularly impressed him in his childhood or youth, and wrote mocking and often acerbic commentaries about them. (If you’ve never read anything by Perelman, the best way to explain him is he was a lifelong friend of Groucho Marx and worked on the scripts for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. That will give you an idea of his sense of humor.) Perelman wrote a piece on the 1916 20,000 Leagues called “Roll On, Thou Deep and Dark Scenario, Roll,” in which he described his own failed attempt at deep-sea diving as a child, inspired by his first viewing of the film, and noted that, rather than simply do a straightforward adaptation of Verne’s novel, Paton’s script “more than equaled the all-time stowage record set by D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, managing to combine in one picture three unrelated plots — 20,000 Leagues, The Mysterious Island and Five Weeks in a Balloon — and a sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state that must have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake.” The only people credited on-screen were Paton, Gaudio and the special-effects technicians George M. and J. Earnest Williamson, who invented the incredible camera equipment with which the underwater scenes were filmed and got probably the ultimate accolade for effects workers: not only were they given credit, they were actually shown on screen in the film’s prologue. None of the cast members were given screen credit — “much as if all the actors in the picture had been slain on its completion and all references to them expunged,” Perelman rather grimly joked — though the actor who played Captain Nemo, Allen Holubar, graduated from acting to directing within a year and made The Heart of Humanity, one of those World War I melodramas in which Erich von Stroheim played the dastardly Hun so well Universal’s publicists started promoting him as “The Man You Love to Hate.”

Charles and I had seen this once before, in a VHS tape I’d made off TCM of the Kino on Video edition — which was considerably better; it was digitally restored and contained the original tinting and toning effects (quite a few silent movies were tinted to give the effect of color even though the images themselves were black-and-white, and when the Kino version reverted to plain black-and-white after an orgy of green, blue and brown tints for the flashback sequence to that “sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state” late in the film, it was a shock). The print shown last night was from Alpha Video and was of an old, beat-up copy (especially unnerving in the spectacular underwater sequences), while the music was spliced together from the first, third and fourth movements of Dvorák’s New World Symphony (presumably not the second, because the famous English horn theme which later got turned into a faux-spiritual called “Goin’ Home” — though some Afro-centric music critics thought and wrote it was the other way around — would have been too recognizable), with various bits repeated to fill out the length of a feature film. I hadn’t realized before last night how much 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea owes to Intolerance, not merely in the blending of four different, barely related plot lines (in Griffith’s near-masterpiece it was the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christs, the massacre of the Protestant Huguenots in Renaissance France and a modern-dress tale of an innocent young man about to be executed for murder when he’s reprieved and the pardon reaches the prison in a thrilling last-minute rescue sequence) but in the sheer splendiferousness of the sets representing the Indian kingdom in the flashback sequences, as if Carl Laemmle wanted not only to build the most technologically advanced and elaborate movie studio to his time but wanted everybody in the film world to know what he’d done. The opening of 20,000 Leagues presents what’s roughly Verne’s story (which I haven’t read since I was a kid), at least the way it opens: various captains and crew members of oceangoing vessels sight what they think is a sea monster emerging from the deeps and threatening — and eventually damaging — their ships. The U.S. Department of Marine (nobody apparently told Jules Verne that the official title of the Cabinet department dealing with naval affairs in the U.S. government was the Department of the Navy) sends out a ship, a schooner called the Abraham Lincoln (a name which oddly seems to have been used for quite a few fictional U.S. navy vessels long before it was assigned to a real one — Verne published his novel in 1870, when Lincoln had been dead for just five years), to investigate —and the mysterious “sea monster” crashes into the Lincoln, rendering it inoperative.

Of course it turns out to be the submarine Nautilus, helmed by Captain Nemo, who in this rendition is dark-skinned (for reasons not explained until the end of the movie) and has a scraggly beard that makes him look like an (East) Indian Santa Claus. He captures the Lincoln’s crew — Professor Aronnax of France (Dan Hanlon), who in Verne’s book narrates the story (of course a French author would make the principal voice of reason a Frenchman!); his daughter (Edna Pendelton) and Ned Land, Prince of Harpooners (Curtis Benson, a surprisingly hunky guy for a movie male lead in 1916) — the capitalizations are in the title introducing him — and at first keeps them prisoners in the Nautilus’s brig but then decides he’d rather have them as guests. “Most submarine captains, as a rule, busy themselves checking gauges and twiddling the periscope,” wrote Perelman, “but Nemo spends all his time smiting his forehead and vowing revenge, though on whom it is not made clear” — not until much later in the movie, anyway. “About this time,” announces a title, “Lieutenant Bond (Matt Moore) and four Union Army scouts, frustrated in an attempt to destroy their balloon, are carried out to sea.” This brings in the Mysterious Island elements of this disjointed movie’s story, as one of the scouts hangs on to the balloon until he’s forced by the elements to let go, whereupon he’s spotted by one of Nemo’s crew members. The other four land on the island, which for a supposedly deserted island turns out to be quite a popular place. Also present there is a lost beachcomber who thinks he’s alone on the place, sort of like Robinson Crusoe pre-Friday; a woman who’s identified only as a “child of nature” (Jane Gail, considerably heftier than we’d expect her to be given that she’s supposedly spent most of her life subsisting on whatever food she could gather from the island, but then in 1916 we were at the tail end of the era in which zaftig women were considered the epitome of sexiness before the 1920’s brought forth the flapper, with her short hair, boyish figure and overall hoydenish rambunctiousness); and Charles Denver (William Welch), who’s been drinking himself into a guilt-ridden stupor since years before, when he was a trader negotiating with Prince Daaker, a maharajah of a nominally independent Indian state.

Unfortunately, he also got the hots for Daaker’s wife, and when she killed herself rather than yield to being raped by him, he fled and kidnapped Daaker’s daughter (Lois Alexander) — “possibly finding the furniture too heavy,” Perelman snottily commented. Along the way he consulted the British authorities (at least we assume they were British, since this was still the era in which the U.K. ran India, but their costumes are pure Ruritainian ceremonial) and got Prince Daaker arrested for murder, but in the meantime (“Everything in 20,000 Leagues happens in the meantime,” Perelman wrote; “the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively”) the natives of Daaker’s state respond to his arrest by starting a revolution, and in the confusion Daaker escapes and flees the country. In case you were wondering how all these plot lines linked up, once Daaker escaped he built the Nautilus and renamed himself Captain Nemo (in the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”). Just how he financed this undertaking is a bit of a mystery, unless we’re supposed to believe that during his days as a maharajah he funneled most of the national wealth into Swiss bank accounts (well, it’s worked for more recent tyrants!), but in any case Nemo, with his high-tech undersea watercraft built with technologies no one else had ever dreamed of (one of the many things we’re never told is how the Nautilus propels itself), has spent years variously hunting for fish undersea (he’s also invented SCUBA gear, which Jules Verne apparently thought of decades before anyone actually made the concept work) and trolling the seas looking for Charles Denver, the man he wants his much-ballyhooed revenge on. Eventually the Nautilus fires a torpedo at Denver’s yacht, blowing it up, and the survivors listen to Nemo narrate a lengthy flashback depicting all the events that happened when he was still the Indian maharajah Prince Daaker. The scene, wrote Perelman, “culminates with his demise and a strong suspicion to this onlooker that he has talked himself to death.” It all ends with Ned Land and Aronnax fille in each other’s arms after the crew members return from an underwater excursion in which, unable to dig an undersea grave for Nemo because the ocean currents fill up the sand as quickly as they uncover it, they leave Nemo’s coffin at the bottom of the sea among the undersea plants.

The film is historically important as the first science-fiction movie ever made by Universal, and though lists a version of 20,000 Leagues (presumably a one-reeler) as early as 1907, this 1916 film was the only feature made from this story until Walt Disney took it on in 1954. Its glories are the superb underwater photography by the Williamson brothers — according to some trivia notes on, in order to have clear enough waters to use their gizmos (which apparently were not actual submersible cameras, but ordinary movie cameras shooting through an elaborate periscope system, and the waters needed to transmit enough light to expose the film properly) the crew went to a particularly clear stretch of sea off Bermuda … and the makers of Disney’s 1954 version picked the exact same location for their underwater scenes! Perelman rather pettishly describes these scenes as looking like “what anybody might who has quaffed too much sacramental wine and is peering into a home aquarium,” but in fact the footage — including some surprisingly close-in shots of sharks — is not only convincing but quite beautiful, though the realism of the actual underwater creatures makes the fake octopus dragged into one scene just to add menace to the proceedings look all the sillier. 20,000 Leagues isn’t especially well acted — Allen Holubar is appealingly quirky as Nemo but no one is going to mistake him for James Mason — but then in 1916 we don’t really expect it to be (Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin were delivering naturalistic screen performances that early, but virtually nobody else was), and for its time it’s quite well staged even though the forced attempts to integrate so many disparate storylines into one movie (a far cry from the all too typical modern-day action “thrill rides” whose directors and writers seem to regard any amount of plot as a necessary distraction to get us from one action set-piece to another!) creates so much disorientation and confusion that I remember Charles asking, the first time we watched this together, after one title reading, “Meanwhile,” “Meanwhile to what?” — 12/20/15