Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (BBC-TV, 2013)

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

I watched an episode of Shakespeare Uncovered, a quite interesting British TV series for which so far lists only one season (and the PBS Web site is even less helpful; instead of offering printed transcripts, cast and crew lists, all they seem to have for their shows these days is video links so you can stream the program itself — hey, guys, I’ve already seen it; now, how about some of the honest-to-goodness information your site used to provide in the days before social media?) but there is a second one, and this episode featured British actor Hugh Bonneville (who, blessedly, pronounced the “t” in “often”!) expounding on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and talking about three recent productions of it as well as reminiscing about his professional acting debut in a 1968 production at an open-air theatre in London (called, simply and directly, “Open-Air Theatre”) understudying the role of Lysander, the principal romantic lead, for another actor who went on to an even more illustrious career than his: Ralph Fiennes. There were brief clips from the first film ever made of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a one-reel American silent from 1909 — as well as the first talking version, produced by Warner Bros. in 1935 and directed by Max Reinhardt (based on his famous stage production of the play) with the incidental music composed by Felix Mendelssohn in the 19th century and adapted here by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for his first job in films. Ironically, Bonneville’s narration argued that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best-constructed plays while I, in my blog post on the Reinhardt film, felt the other way about it: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most charming plays but also one of his least well structured; the three interlocking plots — the battle of Athenian prince Theseus (Ian Hunter, a British actor who delivers the Shakespearean dialogue idiomatically enough but seems so hammy he practically glues himself to the lens) to get the bride he’s forced to marry him, Amazonian queen Hippolyta (the Athenians have just defeated the Amazons in battle and she’s his prize for the victory), to love him; the interlocking romantic intrigues of Lysander (Dick Powell, pushing his naturally high voice even higher than usual and responding to the challenge of acting Shakespeare by speaking as if he sucked on helium before each take), Hermia (Olivia de Havilland), Demetrius (real-life Bisexual Ross Alexander, who looks so queeny in this one you wonder why he and Powell don’t pair up and leave the women alone) and Helena (Jean Muir); and the intrigue among the fairies and also the proletarian players who are anxious to win the lifetime pension offered to anyone who performs a show at Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding — don’t really reflect each other that well and often get in each other’s way.”

Where the show was strongest was in exploring the performance tradition of the play, including its virtual disappearance from the British stage for 200 years (all theatre was banned in Britain under the Taliban-like rule of “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell in the 1650’s but most of Shakespeare’s plays returned to British stages after the Restoration), explained mainly due to producers’ and audiences’ discomfort about the supernatural elements: fairies, love potions, a human turned into a donkey, and the like. Even when it was performed it was frequently done in mutilated versions in which at least one of the three separate levels of characters — the ordinary people in and around the Athenian court, the fairies and the so-called “Mechanicals,” the proletarians putting on a play about star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe (quite obviously a Shakespearean self-parody of Romeo and Juliet!) — were removed. I remembered the Reinhardt film as sometimes magnificent and sometimes maddening, but the clips from it shown in the Shakespeare Uncovered episode — particularly of James Cagney’s great performance as Bottom (his edgy combination of masculine toughness and quirky vulnerability absolutely blew away all the prissily “correct” British actors we saw clips of from later productions!) — were welcome. A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be considered the first (or one of the first; Christopher Marlowe’s and Samuel Rowley’s Doctor Faustus also might be counted if it weren’t so obviously the work of two separate people, with Marlowe’s magisterial language in the first and last acts and mostly Rowley’s comic-relief prose in between) examples of a post-modern play (well, Shakespeare invented so many of the conventions of the modern theatre, why shouldn’t he be credited with inventing post-modernism as well?), with its wrenching gear shifts in tone and genre and its overall impression of a work almost terminally at war with itself. Shakespeare is believed to have written it not for a production at the Globe Theatre, his usual stamping ground, but for a private performance at the second wedding of the Earl of Oxford’s mother (you know, Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, who some contentious goons regard as the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays with the Man from Stratford serving merely as “front” — as opposed to the people who think Christopher Marlowe was the “real” Shakespeare, both theories that have a lot of ’splainin’ to do about how new Shakespeare plays continued to appear after both DeVere and Marlowe were dead), which makes it odd that he should have written a script that was so cynical about love (it’s the source of the famous cliché about how “the course of true love never did run smooth”) and in which the long-term married couple, fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania, are the biggest butts of the jokes.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is greater than any one production of it — it’s been chopped, channeled and run through the modern meatgrinder of Regietheater, including one abominable-looking production we get clips of by Peter Brook in 1970 which dispensed with real forests (or the usual stage simulacra thereof) and had the action staged in front of a backdrop of geometric lines with the actors suspended above the stage like performers in Cirque du Soleil (which, to Brook’s credit, didn’t yet exist when he did this production). What comes through most from this show is how sophisticated a writer Shakespeare really was — when the four fairy-crossed lovers meet in the woods after the love potion has scrambled their affections, Shakespeare writes first in rhyming couplets and then switches to blank verse as the emotional mood grows darker and more “serious” — and this play just adds to the Shakespeare enigma, that an author from a relatively humble background who may not even have been able to read or write (I’ve long suspected that one reason we have no original manuscript pages from Shakespeare’s plays and few documents bearing his signature is he may never have learned to read or write and may have written the plays by dictation) could create such works not only of everlasting linguistic beauty but structural literary complexity as well. What, one wonders, did the groundlings at the Globe make of these plays when they were new? Did they realize they were watching something special, or did they just sit through them the way modern moviegoers sit through an action film, waiting through the exposition for the big effects scenes to happen?

She Goes to War (Inspiration Pictures, 1929, re-edited 1939)

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

Last night’s “feature,” which Charles and I screened in the wee hours from 11:10 p.m. to midnight, was She Goes to War, a recent download which from the title I was expecting to be a comedy. Surprise! It was an ultra-serious movie about World War I with an odd production history; it was made by a company called “Inspiration Films” in 1929, at the tail end of the silent era, and it got caught up in the transition to the extent that two songs and some bits of “wild” (non-synchronized) dialogue were included. The “War” to which the titular heroine goes was the Great War — which was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II — and apparently it was originally a full-length 87-minute feature released in 1929 with a few sound sequences but most of the plot carried by intertitles in the standard silent-film manner. Then someone else got hold of the negative and re-edited it 10 years later, adding a sententious printed foreword by Mitchell Leichter explaining that the story of America’s involvement in the Great War was topical again now that the European powers were about to fight another war and it would be a matter for the American people to decide whether we would get involved in it. The original producers were Victor and Edward Halperin, makers of White Zombie, and director Henry King, who would continue to make films into the 1960’s and already had some major-studio blockbusters on his résumé: Tol’able David (1921), The White Sister (1923), the silent Stella Dallas (1925) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (also 1925). (Later King would direct some even bigger and better movies, The Song of Bernadette and The Gunfighter in particular.) The original story was by Rupert Hughes (Howard Hughes’ uncle) and it was adapted into a full screenplay by Fred de Gresac (co-writer of Rudolph Valentino’s last film, Son of the Sheik) and Howard Estabrook. According to the page on She Goes to War, the full-length version was about a woman, Joan Morant (played by Eleanor Boardman, director King Vidor’s second wife — they divorced either in 1933 or 1934, depending on whether you believe his or her page), who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the U.S. Expeditionary Force in World War I and thereby see war up close and personal. There are other women floating around in the action, including Margaret Seddon as the mother of Tom Pike (male lead John Holland), who gets a genuinely moving scene when she turns up as he’s been seriously wounded and more or less nurses him back to health; and a singing camp-follower played by Alma Rubens who does two songs by Harry Akst, including a piece called “There Is a Happy Land” which she sings to wounded servicemembers in a desperate attempt to cheer them up. (David Bowie would record a different song called “There Is a Happy Land” on his first album, but his was a James M. Barrie-esque ode to lost childhood.)

What makes this a problematical film now is that the only version that survives is the 1939 re-edit, and the people who did the re-edit apparently decided that intertitles were so hopelessly obsolete that they would delete all the scenes containing them — which rendered the plot, such as it was, almost totally incomprehensible and turned the film into basically an anti-war documentary with the credited actors standing in front of process screens showing either actual World War I combat footage or scenes of the war from previous films. This movie probably has more process-screen footage than any ever made that wasn’t an out-and-out “effects film,” and the film as it stands is little more than one patch of grim war footage after another — I nodded off through much of it but Charles didn’t and he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, either, and when a full list of the actors in the movie came up after the end credit he said, “I defy anyone to match any of those names with anyone we saw in the movie!” The original She Goes to War was probably a genuinely powerful film, even though done in by the technical crudity of a lot of films in that awkward three-year transition period (1927 to 1930) from all-silent to all-talking movies, but what’s left is just a misbegotten hash of dire-looking war footage in which the stars, such as they are, tend to get lost amongst all the process screens. The prologue boasted that what you were about to see was more powerful than All Quiet on the Western Front (the 1930 Universal film, made a year later than the original cut of She Goes to War) and yet it wasn’t intended as propaganda (though it sure looked like an anti-war propaganda film to me; Leichter’s added prologue may have said it was up to the American people whether or not to get into World War II, but it was pretty clear from the context in which he presented the film and the way he — or whoever — re-edited it that the conclusion he wanted the American people to draw was a principled, pacificist isolationism) — yet well before All Quiet there were plenty of other morally ambiguous and complex U.S. films about the Great War, including Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), King Vidor’s (and George Hill’s) The Big Parade (1925) and John Ford’s Four Sons (1928), all of which were far better and more moving drama than the mash-up of the 1939 She Goes to War and probably better than the original 1929 cut as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

American Experience: Thomas Edison (PBS, 2015)

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

I watched the PBS American Experience (oddly not American Masters!) program on Thomas A. Edison. It was a two-hour documentary written and directed by Michelle Ferrari — hers was the only name on the rather scanty page for the show and the PBS Web site is so hyped up on social media and offering the program itself for “streaming” (bah, humbug!) that I couldn’t find a button on the page giving the credits the way I used to be able to for PBS programs. The Edison documentary was two hours long and was basically a warts-and-all presentation — it was certainly not a hagiography and it focused almost as much on what Edison got wrong as what he got right. He was right about the electric light bulb but wrong about what would power it — he clung to direct-current generating technology despite the far greater practicality of alternating current, which could be transformed (lowering the amperage — the amount of current — and simultaneously raising its voltage, the force with which it moves down a conductor) and thereby could be moved across long distances; Edison’s technology would have required a power station every mile or so. He was right about the phonograph (though he let that invention lay fallow for a decade — 1877 to 1887 — while he pursued electric light research, and was only spurred into action by Alexander Graham Bell’s cousin, Chichester Bell, who developed an improved phonograph in the 1880’s that used wax instead of foil as the recording medium; Bell offered to go into partnership with Edison to develop it and Edison, fiercely protective of his intellectual property, vowed instead to build his own improved phonograph and put the upstarts out of business) but wrong about the recorded medium of choice, which would be discs (invented by Émile Berliner based on a paper French inventor Charles Cros had filed with the Academy in Paris to establish his prior claims on the technology since he didn’t have the money actually to build a working model) instead of the bulkier, less convenient cylinders.

He was right about the automobile but wrong about what would power it — he bet on electricity instead of gasoline (electric cars were tried at the turn of the last century but the problem was the huge, bulky storage batteries required to make them go took up virtually the entire space of the car — you could carry people in them but nothing else — and they also had a limited range). He was right about how to film motion pictures but wrong about how to display them, clinging to the Kinematograph private viewer while other motion-picture pioneers, including the Lumière brothers in France, were figuring out how to project them to mass audiences. (He later bought a prototype projector from inventor Joseph Armat and marketed it as an Edison invention, telling Armat he was better off financially selling it to him than trying to market it himself.) He was also a century ahead of his time in developing mountaintop-removal mining — with the Eastern veins of iron ore running out and the entire modern world running on objects made of steel, he used his profits from the electric light to pioneer a technology of blowing up mountains, pulverizing the dirt into ever finer mixtures, then pulling the iron out of the remaining sand and gravel with magnets — only just as he’d got the bugs out of the process, the Mesabi range of high-grade ore was discovered in the Midwest and Edison’s process suddenly became uneconomical. (This is something like what happened more recently to the Solyndra corporation; they developed a technology for making photovoltaic solar cells without silicon, a mineral largely controlled by China — and then the Chinese government decided to dump so much silicon on the world market its price dropped to one-tenth of what it was before and Solyndra’s process no longer made economic sense.)

What’s most interesting about this program is the degree to which it makes Edison out as the pioneer not only of various inventions but the whole modern system of research and development; Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, with its collection of researchers working for him and an open space in which they could interact, was essentially the first modern research campus, and the late Steve Jobs comes off more than usual as the Edison of our time, both in the sort of operation he ran and his ferocious protectiveness of his intellectual property (on his deathbed Jobs was pleading with his successors to continue the no-holds-barred patent war he had declared against Samsung and the Google Android technology that competes with Apple’s iPhone and, in Jobs’ view, infringed on his patents; he was even quoted as saying that if he had to spend his whole fortune to put Samsung and Android out of business, it would be worth it). The show also indicates the extent to which Edison essentially turned himself into a “brand,” using his name and logo (a stylized version of his signature that probably bore no more relationship to his real signature than Walt Disney’s corporate logo did to his actual hand — Marc Eliot’s Disney bio reproduced an actual contract signed by Disney that looked nothing like the logo signature) to sell all manner of products.

One person commenting on the show on the PBS Web site protested the omission of any mention of Nikola Tesla — who was one of the pioneers in developing alternating-current generators — and the show also didn’t mention Elihu Thomson, the third (along with Edison and Tesla) in the interesting triumvirate of electrical pioneers in the late 19th century, who was the main researcher on George Westinghouse’s team to develop alternating current but has got lost in the shuffle because he didn’t become a public figure the way Edison did or a cult figure like Tesla. Charles noted that the real unsung hero of the show was Samuel Morse, since Edison had cut his teeth as an inventor by developing improvements to the telegraph and it was Morse who had first had the idea not only of using electricity for communication but sending it over long distances and laying an infrastructure of wires and poles to be able to do so. If anything, the story of Edison shows the contradiction between the patent system (Edison won more than 1,300 patents from the U.S. Patent Office, more than any other person; Thomson is second) and the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research, in which people build on each other’s discoveries: Alexander Graham Bell may have invented the telephone (though claims have also been made for Elisha Gray and Bell’s researcher, Antonio Meucci) but it was Edison’s improved transmitter that made it practical (and made him more money than anything he’d invented on his own to that time), while as noted above it was actually Bell’s cousin who made the phonograph a viable commercial product. The clash between the exclusivity of patent rights and the inclusivity needed for scientific progress to occur is still a live issue today, when scientists report that they’re scared to pursue certain lines of research for fear they’ll run afoul of someone claiming a patent in the field (and the U.S. Patent Office hasn’t helped by becoming far more indiscriminate in awarding patents than they were in Edison’s day) and you have to wonder whether patents and copyrights are fulfilling their constitutional purpose “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” or are actually retarding the progress of science and useful arts.

Monday, January 26, 2015

With This Ring (Sony Pictures Television/Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night I watched a Lifetime movie called With This Ring, essentially a modern-day equivalent of a “race” movie from the 1930’s and 1940’s in that the character leads are all Black and they seem to move in a hermetically sealed world where they’re able to socialize exclusively with other Black people and almost never encounter anyone white. Lifetime promoted this one heavily on the basis of the gimmick that the three female leads — talent agent Trista (Regina Hall), gossip columnist Viviane (Jill Scott — the great soul singer, probably the best “belter” between Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, is used in a role that doesn’t allow her to sing!) and aspiring actress Amaya (played by someone billed on only as “Eve”) — make a pact on the New Year’s Eve their friend Elise (Brooklyn Sudano) is being married and decide that within the year all three of them will tie the knot, either to someone they’ve met during that time or, if they can’t find a suitable man, to the not particularly exciting but good-enough men they’re dating. At the start of the film Trista is having a sexual quickie with Damon (Brian White), whom she’s broken up with but still gets together with for hot times even though she doesn’t consider him marriage material. Viviane has a troubled relationship with Sean (Jason George) — they’re not a couple anymore but they’re stuck with each other because they have a son and are at least trying to be responsible parents and both take an interest in the boy’s life — and Amaya is dating a married man named Keith and trying to get him to leave his wife for her. Alas, writer-director Nzingha Stewart (bearing one of those oddball first names that’s either genuinely African or a jumble of letters either she or her parents concocted to sound African) doesn’t do as much with this story as she could have, veering between light-hearted romantic comedy and drama and not doing either particularly well. It’s a film of moments rather than a totality, and most of the best moments involve Amaya: she makes an appearance dressed as a catfish (for a commercial advertising a Black-oriented fast-food outlet; the shoot required her to do 10 takes in which she bit into a foul-tasting catfish sandwich and had to pretend this was the best-tasting fare in the world) and later she crashes a party Keith is giving and is thrown out, but not before she catches Keith’s wife making out with another guy and she thinks she has them dead to rights until the woman (who’s considerably sexier than Amaya is!) explains that she and Keith both have an open relationship but keep it on the Q.T. because he’s a bigshot executive at some corporation or another and the news that he and his wife were not sexually exclusive with each other could derail his career. (Nonetheless, Amaya gets a smartphone photo of Keith’s wife and her boyfriend together and leaks it to Viviane in hopes she’ll put it on her Web site and screw up Keith’s marriage.)

After a series of complications neither as funny nor as moving as Stewart thought they were, eventually Viviane decides to marry Sean; Amaya gets lost in the shuffle but seems to have succeeded in landing Keith after his divorce (not that he seems like such a prize package); and Trista has been through the romantic as well as the career wringer. She landed a role in a coveted independent film for Black superstar Terrence Robb (not identified on the page) and thought he would be the great love of her life — only she went to his house to break the news to him and found him in the middle of a party complete with bowls of pills and scantily clad people of both genders ministering to the great man’s physical needs, including a queeny masseur named Mikiko (Jason Rogel) indiscriminately spraying Terrence and his guests with massage oil. Trista fainted at the sight of these goings-on and Terrence had her fired by her agency (the supercilious guy she was working for is the only significant white character in the film), but not to worry: like the leads of Hot Rhythm, she and Nate (Stephen Bishop) literally run into each other in the agency’s hallway and end up setting up a talent management business which lands Amaya a supporting role in Terrence’s movie after Viviane obtains photos of that wild party (courtesy of Mikiko) and threatens to publish them if Amaya doesn’t get the part. At the end Trista resigns herself to marry Damon, only Nate shows up at the wedding and Trista gets cold feet, though in the end she doesn’t hook up with Nate either but decides to remain single and not define herself by a relationship with a man. (A pity; Stephen Bishop is hardly as sexy as Brian White but he’s playing a far more grounded character and it’s clear Nzingha Stewart thinks he and Trista do belong together.) With This Ring seems in part to be a propaganda piece aimed at encouraging upper-middle-class Black women to look for upper-middle-class Black men instead of dating white guys — they do exist, Stewart seems to be telling her sisters — and it’s also one of those how-far-we’ve-come films in that it shows that African-American actors definitely have equal access to the same screenwriters’ cliché bank as white ones, but it’s not a great movie and it’s hardly the good clean dirty fun it could have been!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Transamerica (Belladonna Productions, Weinstein Company, 2005)

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

Somehow Charles and I had previously missed the 2005 film Transamerica even though it’s a decade old and had achieved an enormous reputation as a major step forward in the depiction of Transgender people on screen and the actor playing the Transgender lead, Felicity Huffman, won an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal. The plot deals with Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), née Stanley Chupak, who as the movie opens is living in Los Angeles, practicing for her transition (at the start she’s watching a video about how to adopt and maintain an appropriately female vocal register when she speaks, and attempting to duplicate the lip movements of the person making the video) and ready for her final gender reassignment surgery in a week. The humiliation she has to go through in pleading for permission to have the operation with her doctors, Dr. Spikowsky (Danny Burstein) and psychotherapist Margaret (Elizabeth Peña, who died tragically young — age 55 — in October 2014, a year that had more than its share of celebrity tragedies), is something I’ve heard all too much about in interviewing and interacting with real Transgender people. Just a week before she’s scheduled for her operation she receives a phone call for Stanley stating that (s)he has a son in jail in New York City for possession of a controlled substance and stealing a frog. (Writer-director Duncan Tucker doesn’t clarify whether this is a sculpture of a frog or a living one.)

The son — product of an early relationship she had in college with a woman who quickly broke up with her (“Lesbian drama,” Bree calls it) — is Toby (Kevin Zegers), a hard-bitten amoral Gay hustler (though Tucker keeps it powerfully ambiguous whether he’s really Gay, Bi or just a straight kid doing “Gay for pay” — he also describes Toby as having been brought out by his stepfather, who regularly molested him; as with Brokeback Mountain this film presents a much more complex and less clear-cut vision of how people develop and discover their sexual orientations than most of the orthodox “we’re born that way” propaganda of Queer activists and lobbyists) torn between childhood and adulthood, between drugs and the Curious George doll he had at home. Bree tells Toby she’s bailed him out because she’s from a Christian church and he’s become her charity case, and the two of them set out across country in a beat-up car bought from one of Toby’s similarly economically marginal friends. Bree insists on driving Toby to the Kentucky town where he was raised by a stepfather who kept him — and kept molesting him — after his mom committed suicide. They stay in Austin, Texas at the home of a Transgender woman who runs a support group for the gender-dysphoric and who’s considerably more open about it than Bree, who hasn’t told Toby that she’s really a guy (something he learns later on when he sees “her” peeing by the side of the road and realizes she has a penis) and still less that she’s actually his biological father. The two pick up a hitchhiker (Grant Monohon, who seems more than a little sexually ambiguous himself) in the Southwest, only the hitchhiker steals their car — costing them not only their transportation but also Bree’s hormone pills, without which her body will inevitably revert to its male internal chemistry.

They’re rescued by the movies’ typical philosophical Native American, Calvin (played by Graham Greene, who’s made a specialty out of this sort of role), who finds himself being attracted to Bree. He drives her as far as the home of her parents, Murray (Burt Young) and Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and her syster Sydney (Carrie Preston) — why they gave Bree’s sister such a masculine name when they’re Transphobic remains a mystery — and Bree desperately asks them for a loan of $1,000 to get to L.A. for her operation. She’s told her parents, but not Toby himself, that he’s her biological son, and they agree to put up the money if Toby stays there and they’re allowed to raise him (obviously they’re hoping their grandson will take the place of the “son” they lost when s/he turned out Transgender), but Toby refuses — until Bree finally tells him she’s his father, and he responds by belting her in the eye and fleeing. Eventually, of course, they end up together, she has her operation (there’s a curious shot of Bree fingering her “new” vagina while taking a bath, a moving scene even though it’s somewhat less edgy than intended given that we know what we’re seeing is the vagina nature and the gene pool endowed Felicity Huffman with at conception) and there’s a curious peace between them as Bree returns to her proletarian existence as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant by night and a work-at-home phone solicitor by day. At first I was afraid Transamerica would turn out to be one of those movies I’d find myself respecting more than actually enjoying — but eventually, especially once I suspended disbelief and accepted Felicity Huffman as a Transwoman instead of the cisgender biological female she really is (an imposture she maintained with the aid of a special voice she worked out and didn’t abandon during the shoot, even off-camera, for fear that if she gave up the voice she’d never get it back again; and a prosthetic dick she nicknamed “Andy”), I started really enjoying the movie. It’s true it’s a mix of clichés, the fish-out-of-water and road-trip movies, but writer/director Tucker deserves credit for using those clichés to add freshness and depth to his story.

It also helps that he gets excellent performances from both his leads; Felicity Huffman got the Academy Award and the acclaim for her great (and utterly convincing) performance as a Transwoman, but Kevin Zegers, a young actor (born 1984) with both the gender ambiguity and the riveting intensity of James Dean, also deserved kudos for the subtlety of his performance, the balance he achieved between playing the character’s edginess and superficial hardness and hinting at, and ultimately showing us, the torment and vulnerability inside. Unfortunately, in the decade since this movie he’s worked mostly on television and, at least if the titles on his page are any indication, he didn’t get anywhere near the career boost this movie should have given him! I’d love to see more honest Transgender stories on the screen, but the big — and obvious — problem is how do you cast them? I remember recently reading the novel Trans-Sister Radio (about a male-to-female Transgender film professor, the woman who falls in love with her when she’s still a he, and the irony that her husband ends up with him after he’s transitioned) and thinking it would make a marvelous movie, except that the only way I could think of casting it was to hire an actual Transgender actor who was about to transition and filming them on both sides of the surgery (much the way Richard Linklater’s acclaimed Boyhood was filmed over 12 years so the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, would literally age from five to 17 on screen and the actors playing his parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette — who, ironically, has a “Trans-sister” of her own, Alexis — would also age for real instead of requiring makeup or doubles). But I can see why Trans people generally thought Transamerica was a real advance in their depiction on screen, and I loved the movie precisely for making us identify with the characters, making us feel for their sufferings and ache to see them happy and fulfilled, instead of the lab-rat detachment we get from all too many modern-day movies!

Hot Rhythm (Monogram,1944)

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

Hot Rhythm was a movie I really hadn’t had much hope for, mainly because it was presented by Turner Classic Movies as part of a tribute to director William Beaudine — so notorious for making bad movies that Harry and Michael Medved nominated him as one of the “Worst Directors of All Time” in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. Beaudine had actually begun his career in the 1910’s as a director of comedy shorts (including a spoof of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea called — almost inevitably — 20,000 Legs Under the Sea) and had actually worked his way up by the mid-1920’s to direct features with “A”-list stars like Mary Pickford (her last two films in child roles, Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows, in 1925 and 1926 respectively) before the Depression wiped him out financially and forced him to accept a long succession of jobs in “B”-movies (and then, in the 1950’s, in the graveyard of “B” directors, series TV). He’d still made some good movies in the early sound era, like Three Wise Girls (1932) with Jean Harlow (though its quality came more from its writer, future Academy Award winner Robert Riskin) and The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) with W. C. Fields (but then anybody could make a great movie with Fields — all you had to do was make sure the camera had him in range and in focus, and the soundtrack was recording his dialogue audibly), but by the early 1940’s he was forced to work in the swamp pit of Monogram, making things like The Ape Man (1943) — Bela Lugosi’s all-time worst movie, at least until Ed Wood got hold of him! The stars of Hot Rhythm were Dona Drake, a reasonably attractive young woman singer with a reasonably attractive voice (she wasn’t going to keep Anita O’Day or Peggy Lee up nights worried about the competition, but she was a more than competent band-style singer in the manner of Helen Ward and Martha Tilton with Benny Goodman, Edythe Wright with Tommy Dorsey or Irene Daye with Gene Krupa), and Robert Lowery, tall, gangly and oddly clumsy-looking for an actor who within four years would become the screen’s second Batman (in the 1948 Columbia serial Batman and Robin). I also knew that even though the title was Hot Rhythm, there was likely to be very little actual hot rhythm in the movie; “B” studios like Monogram and PRC often made musicals whose titles promised far swingier songs than the films themselves delivered, and this was no inception: the hottest rhythm we hear in the film is in the very opening shot, in which the camera tracks down the various studios of the “Beacon Record Company” (almost certainly the fictional invention of the film’s writers, Tim Ryan and Charles R. Marion, though there was an actual Beacon recording company owned by entrepreneur Joe Davis, one of whose other imprints was modestly called “Joe Davis Records”!) and the first performer we see is a hot Black boogie-woogie pianist. Alas, the camera keeps tracking and we end up in the studios featuring less exciting, though still capable, white performers.

Surprise! Hot Rhythm, though unoriginal, is at least fun and stylishly done all the way through. The plot is no great shakes; it has to do with Beacon owner Mr. O’Hara (Tim Ryan) and his battle with crooked attorney (is that redundant?) Herman Strohbach (Robert Kent), manager of Tommy Taylor (Jerry Cooper) and His Orchestra, Beacon’s most successful act. Taylor is resisting pressure from his manager and the owner of the nightclub where he works to add a girl singer to his band — Taylor insists he’s doing fine taking the vocals himself (and the first song we see him perform is — surprise! — the old Harry Barris-Gus Arnheim-George Clifford “It Must Be True” from 1930, recorded then by Arnheim’s band with Bing Crosby doing a superb vocal Jerry Cooper in this version is trying his level best to copy). Jimmy O’Brien (Robert Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (the engaging Sidney Miller) are two aspiring songwriters working for Beacon in its lucrative sideline of recording jingles for radio commercials, though instead of coming up with original melodies for these O’Brien simply recycles public-domain tunes like “Clementine” and “Little Brown Jug.” One of the quartet of girl singers at Beacon who record the jingles is Mary Adams (Dona Drake), and O’Brien runs into her — literally — in a hallway and instantly falls in love with her and is determined to build her career. O’Brien decides to make a test record of Mary by tuning a radio to a broadcast of Tommy Taylor’s band and having her overlay a live vocal on his broadcast performance of the song “Where Were You?” (written by Lou and Ruth Herscher and, while hardly as good as the similar but better-known song “Where Are You?” is actually a quite nice ballad, worthy of revival, that showcases Dona Drake’s voice better than the rather forced “swing” numbers she sings later in the movie). Rubin questions whether that would be legal, but O’Brien assures him there’s nothing wrong with it as long as the record is used only as an audition test and is not publicly released. Well, the inevitable happens and the record gets picked up by mistake along with the six instrumentals Taylor recorded that completed his contract with Beacon; it is publicly released, and despite O’Hara’s and his ditzy secretary Polly Kane’s (Irene Ryan, Tim’s real-life wife and later Granny on the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies) attempts to go around and break all the records of it that have been put on sale (which gets them arrested and O’Brien and Rubin have to bail them out), the record gets released, it’s a hit and Herman Strohbach threatens a lawsuit that could put Beacon out of business. O’Hara decides to pull a fast one on Strohbach by claiming that Polly is the mystery singer on the illegal record — she actually filled in on one of the jingles and thought that was the record her boss was talking about — and O’Brien cuts a record with Polly that turns out to be a novelty hit. It all ends happily, of course, with Strohbach publicly humiliated, O’Hara with two huge hits on his hands and O’Brien and Mary together.

Though owing a lot to Manhattan Merry-Go-Round and virtually every other Hollywood movie of the period depicting the recording industry as a bunch of bozos who, if they ever stumble on something the public will buy, do so purely by mistake, Hot Rhythm is fun start to finish and is especially entertaining when Irene Ryan is front and center. It’s obvious she’s channeling Gracie Allen — and the whole crazy business between her and her boss, played by her real-life husband, is all too reminiscent of all those movies in which Gracie played a bizarrely incompetent secretary for her real-life husband, George Burns — but like Burns, Tim Ryan wrote excellent material for his wife and she manages to duplicate Allen’s feat of being surrealistically dumb instead of just ditzily dumb à la yet another great comedienne who worked with her actual husband, Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. Her best moments are when she gets so confused about various people’s names she starts introducing people to themselves and then quits in frustration and says things like, “Names! They’re so confusing! Why do people have to have them?” One reviewer, who signed himself (herself?) only as “ptb-8” from Australia, made the interesting case that in the mid-1940’s the quality of Monogram’s output was actually improving, mentioning a couple of other musicals, Lady, Let’s Dance and The Sultan’s Daughter, as well as the “B” noirs When Strangers Marry (an early credit for Robert Mitchum) and Dillinger, before the studio got into bigger-budgeted films like the quite good 1946 Suspense (an intriguing mixture of ice-skating musical and Double Indemnity-ish crime drama with Belita as the skater and Barry Sullivan as her corrupt manager and husband, directed by Frank Tuttle and with Belita showing real acting chops that eluded her ice-skating consoeurs Sonja Henie and Vera Hruba Ralston). Dillinger is the only one of these movies I’ve seen and it’s no great shakes as a film (though it has its moments), but it’s certainly arguable that one shouldn’t judge Monogram just by those dreary East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies, Sam Katzman’s cheapies with Lugosi and the endless Charlie Chan movies with the dying Sidney Toler and his replacement, Roland Winters; though even the best movies of Monogram 2.0 (the incarnation formed by original founder W. Ray Johnston in 1937 after he exited the 1935 merger that had created Republic) don’t equal the films of genuine quality made by Monogram 1.0 (The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and the 1934 Jane Eyre with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive), it’s nice to know the little studio wasn’t entirely a wasteland — and Swing Parade of 1946, with Gale Storm, Louis Jordan and the Three Stooges (!), also counts as well worth watching.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Behind the Headlines: Whitney Houston (Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan

I watched a Lifetime Behind the Headlines special on Whitney Houston, yet another episode in their weird “tribute” to her that included the TV-movie about her, Whitney (so focused on her ill-advised — to say the least — marriage to Bobby Brown one commenter on an message board said it should have been called Bobby), an hour-long tabloid interview with Bobby Brown giving his side of their relationship and the one I would most have wanted to see but didn’t, a one-hour “performance special” I caught a bit of (and which contained a clip of a very young Whitney Houston singing a nondescript song but singing it powerfully in a Broadway-ballad style that didn’t sound at all Black but was still considerably moving). I was hoping last night’s show would be a rerun of that but instead it was a bit of sleazy tabloid story-mongering starting with the factoid that Houston died in the Beverly Hills Hotel on the eve of the big Grammy Awards pre-event party being thrown by Clive Davis, the head of her record company (Arista), and Davis went ahead with the party, ostensibly turning it into a tribute to her, while her body was still in the hotel several floors above. The show gave a thumbnail sketch of her career, and included the interesting revelation that the earliest and last performances of Whitney Houston that exist on video are both of her singing religious songs: a clip of her from the New Hope church in her home town of Newark, New Jersey (where her mom, Cissy Houston, was music director when she wasn’t on tour as a backup singer for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley) and a drop-in she did at a nightclub where she joined a much younger male R&B singer in a hymn. (They showed a bit of this and her voice was considerably more ragged than it had been in its prime, though a different sort of artist could have used this to her advantage and presented herself as a hard-bitten woman who had been through a lot and survived it — sort of like the way Billie Holiday and Judy Garland presented themselves during their last years.) There wasn’t much of an attempt to get an insight into What Made Whitney Run — and the rather pat summing-up at the end, talking about how sometimes addiction is more powerful than love or fame, didn’t really answer the question, “Why Whitney Houston?” You might as well ask, “Why Billie Holiday?” “Why Judy Garland?” “Why Dinah Washington?” “Why Amy Winehouse?” (Though in Winehouse’s case she already had a big — and well-known — drug problem before she became a star, and her most famous song was a forthright statement about why she wasn’t going to go to rehab.)

Whitney Houston’s case was complicated by the fact that her carefully built-up image (mostly by Clive Davis, who was pushing her — as Berry Gordy had pushed Diana Ross earlier — for the “Black Barbra Streisand” market niche) didn’t allow for the complexities of real life to intrude: while Billie’s, Dinah’s and Judy’s pain became part and parcel of their work, Whitney was marketed as a performer whose beautiful, pure voice could soar over all that was mean and sordid in life — and the embarrassments of the later years (including her weird appearances on the TV “reality” series Being Bobby Brown, in which we got to see Mr. and Mrs. Brown playfully but edgily confronting each other in their kitchen over breakfast, which probably did as much to de-mythologize Whitney Houston as all the tabloid headlines about her drug use ever did) blew her career in ways that for other kinds of performers (including Bobby Brown himself, with his carefully cultivated “bad boy” image) wouldn’t have hurt and to some extend would actually have helped their myth-making. Whitney Houston’s story is a sad waste of talent, and despite all the churning of her private life in shows like this and tabloid articles both during her lifetime and since her death, we’re really not any closer to an idea of why a singer who seemed to have it all fell so far, so fast, and didn’t have the kind of either personal or career longevity her obvious models, Streisand and Ross, did.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Whitney (Sanitsky Company, Silver Screen Pictures, Lifetime, 2015)

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

The film was Whitney, a much-hyped biopic of Whitney Houston … well, not the whole life of Whitney Houston, which would have been considerably more interesting. A story that told her transition from good little church-singing daughter of soul courtier Cissy Houston, a classic “40 Feet from Stardom” singer whose group, the Sweet Inspirations, sang backup for Aretha Franklin and later, after he offered them way more money, for Elvis Presley, to pop-soul diva to spoiled star to her mysterious death on February 11, 2012 on the eve of the Grammy Awards (where she was supposed to be featured in a big tribute as part of her comeback attempt) would have been considerably more interesting than the film we got from writer Shem Bitterman and director Angela Bassett — yes, the same person who made a splash playing another troubled soul diva, Tina Turner, in What’s Love Got to Do with It (a much better movie than this one!). They decided to focus their film entirely on the relationship between Houston (Yaya DaCosta) and her husband, soul/R&B singer Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta), picking up Houston’s story as she’s sweeping the Soul Train awards and she meets Brown because the two of them are both performing at the event. The film was apparently produced with Brown’s full cooperation and definitely was opposed by Houston’s family — mom Cissy bitched to Entertainment Tonight that no one involved in the making of the film had actually known Whitney Houston and the daughter she had with Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was upset that she was not picked to play her mom in it. Angela Bassett said that was because “she’s not an actress. I know she’s acted here and there. I know she’s been on their family’s reality show, but she’s not an actress and acting is a craft.” (That seems an odd criticism considering how wretchedly Whitney Houston herself acted in the film The Bodyguard; her stunning cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” made both the film itself and its soundtrack album mega-hits, but her performance was so bad Charles rather nastily cracked that she wasn’t even able to play herself — though in her defense, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan created such a wildly inconsistent character that even someone with far more acting experience — like Barbra Streisand, for whom Kasdan originally wrote it — would have been thrown.) What makes me suspect that Bobby Brown was Bitterman’s and Bassett’s principal source of information is not only that Lifetime immediately followed up the film with an hour-long interview with him reminiscing about their relationship and dredging up its more sordid, tabloid-friendly aspects (the drinking, the drugs, the infidelities) but the script seemed designed deliberately to counter the standard “legend” of Houston’s career.

The “legend” is that she was a talented and professionally responsible, straight-edge singer until she met Brown, who got her hooked on drugs and a party-hearty lifestyle and basically dragged her down with him, and though she ultimately divorced him in 2007 (five years before she died) it was too late. The version presented in this film not only shows her using cocaine before he ever did but him trying to talk her out of it, and her status as a drug-user becoming public when he went into rehab and someone in his group violated the anonymity principle big-time and sold his revelations to a tabloid. There are some parts of this movie that ring true — like when Cissy Houston (Suzzanne Douglas) lectures Whitney when she’s about to marry Brown and makes it clear she’s against it because the Houstons were from the Black middle class and the Browns were from the ghetto, and “you can take the man out of the projects but you can’t take the projects out of the man” — but for the most part it’s a pretty standard-issue movie biography, leaning heavily for inspiration on The Jolson Story, Funny Girl and quite a few other movies I can’t think of at the moment simply because their clichés have become so much a part of the culture that it’s hard to trace them back to their origins. Indeed, the ending is a stone ripoff of Funny Girl (appropriate enough given that Houston’s big breakthrough film was originally planned as a Streisand vehicle): Whitney Houston has finally broken up with the man with whom she’s had a troubled and acutely dysfunctional relationship when she has to go out and deliver a performance of “I Will Always Love You,” and the song becomes a summing-up of her heartbreak the way “The Music That Makes Me Dance” did in the stage version of Funny Girl and “My Man” did in the film. I remember Whitney Houston as someone whose first flush of popularity coincided with my coming-out as a Gay man, and every time one of her records was played in a Gay bar I felt a sense of relief that the loud, obnoxious pounding “dance music” that dominated such places (and mostly still does!) would part for at least a few minutes and I’d get to hear a glorious pop-soul voice caressing songs with actual melodies. Whitney Houston was one of the most perfect voices ever to record (on a par with Karen Carpenter’s — another tragic, ill-fated figure — for sheer beauty and purity), and whatever I thought of her music (she was the sort of singer who was great when they gave her the right song; alas, especially after the first two albums, that didn’t happen all that often), I always loved the sheer sonority of the voice itself.

Oddly, the vocals on this movie sound only superficially like the real one; I’m not sure who did the singing since the page on this film does not yet have a “Soundtracks” section, and I had assumed it was Yaya DaCosta herself but one message board contributor said she had a voice double named Deborah Cox, but whoever was singing didn’t have the sheer purity of Houston’s own voice but made up for it by singing far more soulfully, indulging in a lot more melismas, “worrying” and the other devices of soul music (and the Black gospel from which it derived), to the point where the vocals on this movie turned out to be interesting in themselves as reworkings of Houston’s style with less sheer beauty but more emotion and passion. Unfortunately, when the Houston character wasn’t singing this film was so overwrought as to be virtually unwatchable — DaCosta and Escarpeta did such convincing beaver imitations on the scenery it’s hard to imagine anything was left of it when the film wrapped, and Bassett seemed intent on going out of her way to disprove my theory that actor-directors (from Stroheim and Welles — even though as actors they were unmitigated hams — to Allen, Redford, Costner and Eastwood) generally get marvelously quiet, understated performances from their casts. Even the soft-core porn scenes — of which there were several, featuring sex-machine Brown not only with Houston but the two other women with whom he had kids (one of whom he dated and knocked up a second time while he and Houston had already begun their relationship), as well as the party-girl he gets introduced to by one of his “projects” friends and takes up to Houston’s palatial home, only to have Houston unexpectedly come home early and catch them in flagrante delicto (not that old cliché again — that one’s so hoary there’s probably a painting of it at Lascaux!) — aren’t especially exciting or interesting. Whitney Houston’s story, though one with all too many of the makings of cliché (enormously talented star wastes it and ends up ruined and dead way too early), could have made an excellent (or at least a very good) film; instead this one is just a mess, and between this and the savage reviews Lifetime got for their biopic of Aaliyah (which I haven’t seen, though I undoubtedly have it in the backlog somewhere), maybe they just ought to lay off and not do any more movies based on classic and prematurely deceased Black divas, even if they think this is the best sort of programming they can offer for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Debussy: The Fall of the House of Usher (Dutch TV, 2008)

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

The “feature” we watched last night was a complete — more or less — performance of Debussy’s second opera, La Chute de la Maison Usher, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and left incomplete after his death. (At least two other composers, Peter Hammill and Gordon Getty — yes, a relative of those Gettys — have written operas based on “The Fall of the House of Usher.”) What survived was a complete libretto (Debussy’s own adaptation of the Poe story) and the first 25 minutes of what was projected to be an hour-long short opera (he planned to pair it with another Poe adaptation, “The Devil in the Belfry,” which he never even started), plus nine disconnected fragments from later in the piece. Debussy never orchestrated any of it, but his orchestral style is well known enough that various attempts to reconstruct it have been made, including one by Carolyn Abbate and Robert Kyr in the 1970’s, by Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin also in the 1970’s and by Robert Orledge in the 2000’s. The Allende-Blin version — recorded on EMI in the 1980’s and issued first on LP and then on CD, coupled with two more works by French composers based on stories or poems by Poe (André Caplet’s The Masque of the Red Death and Florent Schmitt’s The Haunted Palace — ironically, based on a poem that occurs within “The Fall of the House of Usher”) — merely orchestrated Debussy’s surviving fragments. Orledge attempted to fill in the gaps and present the work “complete,” though towards the end he seems to have given up on attempting to duplicate Debussy’s style of vocal writing and the characters merely speak their lines accompanied by Debussyan instrumental music (the original meaning of the term “melodrama,” by the way: a spoken text declaimed against a musical accompaniment). What we were watching last night was a 2008 performance on Dutch TV, with a Dutch cast — baritone Geert Smits as Roderick Usher, baritone Henk Neven as his friend (the character who narrates the story in Poe’s original), tenor Yves Saelens as the doctor (though Debussy originally marked this role for a baritone, too — in his one completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, he had also written the male lead on the cusp between tenor and baritone) and soprano Cécile de Boever as Roderick’s sister Madeline, who has basically driven her brother crazy by suffering from a long, wasting disease (remember this was a personal issue for Poe; both his parents died of tuberculosis as, much later, did his wife) and coming back to life after she has been pronounced dead and interred in the Usher family crypt (Poe also wrote a story called “The Premature Burial” and the idea of being buried by mistake while one was still alive clearly haunted him). Not that we could make out much of the story from what we were watching, which was a semi-staged concert performance in the original French with Dutch subtitles — and about the only attempt at staging was to have de Boever come out and walk down a staircase in front of some red curtains at the beginning and again at the end, when all she has to do is scream to let Roderick Usher, his long-suffering friend and the audience know she’s still alive.

It’s clear both from this and from Pelléas (Debussy’s one completed opera and the only one performed during his lifetime — among his unrealized projects were not only another Poe adaptation but Romeo and Juliet and a spit-in-Wagner’s-eye attempt to do his own Tristan et Isolde, using the French version of the legend by Joseph Bedier rather than the German one by Gottfried von Strassburg Wagner had used) that Debussy’s tastes in operatic material ran towards shadowy stories that were frankly unrealistic and concerned more with mood than realistic human emotions or actions, and his style of setting text basically used the voices to carry the principal texture and relegated the orchestra to the background — the opposite of Wagner’s style and, I suspect, a deliberate rejection of Wagner by a composer who had such a bizarre love-late relationship with Wagner he referred to him as “Old Klingsor’s Ghost” and tore up the first draft of Pelléas because he thought too much Wagnerism had sneaked into it. What that means is that Debussy’s operas can work but only if you know what the singers are singing about — which requires you either to be a native speaker of French or to have learned it so well you can absorb it instantly. This is why Mark Elder’s 1980’s recording of Pelléas was such a revelation to me: it was in English, and while English translations of German and Italian opera are usually disasters, the English version of Pelléas brought home the score’s dramatic beauty and intensity in ways no French-language recordings ever had. All of this is a rather roundabout way of saying that I don’t think I can really judge Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher until I can see a staged performance sung in English; what emerges here is a lot of convincing atmosphere that seems to capture the aura of terror and dread that suffuses Poe’s tale and is effectively communicated by his matter-of-fact (at least by 19th-century standards) writing style, and an effective frisson at the end when the supposedly dead Madeline reappears and screams. But it’s little more than an operatic curio by a composer whose instrumental works have become cornerstones of the standard repertory for both orchestra and piano, but whose one finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, still has no more than a toehold on the operatic repertoire — as I noted to Charles, Debussy may have only written one finished opera, but so did Beethoven, and Fidelio is a repertory work while Pelléas nestles on the fringe!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Holiday (Pathé, 1930)

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

Last night I thought I’d do something that Charles and I used to do fairly often in our movie-watching but now do only rarely: run two versions of the same story consecutively on the same night. This time our story was Philip Barry’s play Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1928 and in some ways is a 1960’s story in 1920’s garb: on a vacation in Lake Placid 10 days before the main action begins, socialite and heiress Julia Seton meets and instantly falls in love with Johnny Case. Case is a young man who came from humble origins, worked his way through Harvard and just masterminded a merger between two utility companies that will make him a bundle and pave the way for a potentially major career in finance. He doesn’t realize that Julia comes from a family with major money until he shows up at the address she’s given him where she lives — and realizes it’s a palatial mansion. Julia’s father, Edward Seton, is the son of a self-made man but he’s picked up such an insufferable set of conventions about not only being a hereditary millionaire himself but insisting that his children — he’s got three, all grown, daughters Julia and Linda and son Ned — marry only people who already have money and social connections. Meanwhile, Johnny is rethinking the path he’s been on all his life and is thinking seriously of using his earnings from the utility merger to take off for a few years and have a “holiday,” a break from earning a living and building a career to give himself a chance to figure out what he really wants to do with his life.

Julia is aghast at her husband-to-be coming up with such a plan, and her dad is even more viciously negative about it, but her sister Linda thinks it’s a wonderful idea: Linda has been searching for an opportunity to rebel against what she calls “the reverence for riches,” and though she doesn’t explicitly set out to take Johnny away from her sister, that’s duly what happens at the end, with Linda accompanying Johnny on a steamship to Paris for his “holiday” and Julia left back home at the Seton manse with her dad, presumably to wait for a more stable, more grounded and less free-spirited man with an appropriate bank balance and social pedigree. There are also interesting supporting characters, including the third Seton offspring, son Ned, who’s being groomed to take over the family business (whatever it is) but lives his days in an alcoholic haze and cares about little but getting genteelly drunk (sometimes not-so-genteelly drunk) and avoiding as many responsibilities as he can. There’s also a pair of distant cousins, Seton Cram and his wife (Charles wondered why “Seton” would be the last name of some of the characters and the first name of another, but it was common among well-to-do families at the time to give their kids as a first name the maiden name of a woman who’d married into the family — which is how Cole Porter got his first name; his maternal grandfather was someone named J. D. Cole), who are additional enforcers of the social and monetary rules by which the Setons in general, and dad and Julia in particular, live. Holiday began life as a Broadway play that premiered November 26, 1928 and ran for 229 performances — not a blockbuster but a solid hit — and in the normal order of things it was bought by a movie studio (Pathé, in the last throes of its existence as an independent company — the founding branch in France would survive but the U.S. division would soon get absorbed by RKO), though in the nearly two years between the debut of the play and the release of the film on July 9, 1930 the Great Depression started, and all of a sudden the conflicts driving this story — particularly the whole idea of a man on his way to a fortune being willing to walk away from both it and the love of a glamorous and rich woman — must have seemed excessively out of date.

Pathé originally bought this as a vehicle for the musical star Ina Claire, but her nine-month contract with them expired before it could be filmed and Ann Harding, of all unlikely people, stepped into the role — not of Julia, at which she would probably have been quite good, but of Linda, the free spirit who doesn’t know she’s a free spirit and yearns to rebel against her dad’s idea of a proper lifestyle. Pathé cast Mary Astor as Julia and put solid actors in the men’s roles: Robert Ames (fresh from his triumph in Gloria Swanson’s first talkie, The Trespasser) as Johnny; Monroe Owsley as Ned (the only actor from the Broadway production to repeat his role in the movie); Edward Everett Horton and Hedda Hopper as Johnny’s socialite friends Nick and Susan Potter; Hallam Cooley as Seton Cram and William Holden — no, not that William Holden but a middle-aged character actor who also appeared in Dance, Fools, Dance with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable (the later, and far more famous, William Holden was originally named “Beedle”!) — as the self-important father, Edward Seton. The play was adapted by screenwriter Horace Jackson and directed by Edward H. Griffith, who had nowhere nearly as illustrious career as his famous namesake D. W. but was a solid craftsman who made a number of very interesting films, of which this is definitely one. The 1930 Holiday really seems like the beta version of a screwball comedy, though Griffith’s pacing is just a bit too slow and ponderous for it to take off and fly in the way similarly class-conscious stories did later in the 1930’s. But the basic plot is sturdy enough to work, the acting is certainly competent (and Mary Astor better than that!) even though Edward Everett Horton practically steals the movie with his down-to-earth characterization, and there are haunting plot devices like the playroom Linda Seton has kept as it was when her mom died and regards as an oasis of sanity and fun in her otherwise museum-like manse — where Linda and Johnny dance to a Regina music-box recording of Sol P. Levy’s “That Naughty Waltz.” (The Regina, which we’ve already seen in operation in Ken Maynard’s contemporary Western Smoking Guns from 1934, was a giant music box whose songs were programmed on discs, so you could have it play different songs the way you could with a record player. Indeed, as record players developed and threatened to put the Regina company out of business, Regina responded with a machine that could at least theoretically play both.)

The second-act climax (even if you didn’t know in advance that this movie was based on a stage play you could tell just by looking at it where the original curtains fell!) takes place on New Year’s Eve (thus adding Holiday to the oddly short list of movies — Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Horn Blows at Midnight, and Woody Allen’s recent and utterly marvelous Whatever Works — in which key sequences take place on New Year’s Eve), where Linda has wanted to celebrate her sister’s engagement with a handful of people in the playroom, and her dad has taken over the event and invited virtually the entire Social Register for a thoroughly dull event enlivened only by a society-style dance band and Ned’s alcoholic commentary on the whole drab affair. Holiday is also a transitional film in the history of talkies; the actors deliver their lines relatively naturalistically and without those … horrendous … pauses … that … make a lot of films from 1928 and 1929 almost totally unwatchable today, but the actors are still facing front and center, treating the camera as if they were on a stage and it were the audience, and director Griffith does surprisingly little of the shot-reverse shot angling and cutting that became standard for long dialogue sequences in the mid-1930’s. It also didn’t much help that the print we were watching was a download from that was in poor shape technically; the soundtrack was relatively clear but the picture often cut off the tops of people’s heads in long shots and in one scene, set inside a car, the image washed out so that we were essentially seeing little bits of people’s features in a sea of off-white. Ironically, when we screened the 1938 version — a recent recording from Turner Classic Movies (which showed this film twice in the last two weeks, as part of their December “Star of the Month” tribute to Cary Grant and more recently as part of a birthday celebration for Lew Ayres) — we noticed it carried a UCLA film preservation credit; we can only hope somebody steps in with a grant to restore the 1930 version as well!

Holiday (Columbia, 1938)

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

The 1938 Holiday would on paper seem to be a much better movie — Barry’s play was adapted this time around by Sidney Buchman and Donald Ogden Stewart, two Leftist writers whose politics showed in the much nastier “spin” they put on the character of the father, Edward Seton (veteran character actor Henry Kolker); the director was George Cukor and the stars were Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton, Cary Grant as Johnny Case and Lew Ayres as Ned Seton — all far better actors than the ones who played their parts for Edward Griffith in 1930. I’d seen this one before in the 1980’s and regarded it as the weakest of the four collaborations between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, partly because I didn’t think very much of the plot and partly because Cukor seemed to be directing under water; the film became less interesting in its own right than as the beta version of the 1940 masterpiece The Philadelphia Story, which reunited Hepburn, Grant, Cukor, Barry and Stewart (along with a more famous Stewart than writer Donald Ogden: James Stewart, who played the second male lead and won the Academy Award for Best Actor even though Grant had the leading male role — MGM, which produced The Philadelphia Story, promoted Stewart instead of Grant because Stewart was under contract to them while Grant was a free-lancer) and was both a great movie and a blockbuster hit. Katharine Hepburn had been interested in Holiday for a decade before she filmed it; in 1928 she had understudied Hope Williams as Linda in the original Broadway production, and in 1932, auditioning at RKO for the female lead in a film based on the play A Bill of Divorcement, while all the other actresses up for the role were shooting screen tests of scenes from A Bill of Divorcement, Hepburn thought she’d stand out if she shot a test of a scene from Holiday instead. During pre-production for the 1938 version George Cukor scored a copy of Hepburn’s screen test and showed it to her — and she responded, “I’m terrible! I look so awful I wonder why you hired me!” Where the 1938 version suffers by comparison is not only the hiring of a weak and uninteresting actress, Doris Lloyd (who’s billed fourth, after Hepburn, Grant and Ayres — Mary Astor had been billed second in the same role in 1930!), as Julia.

The 1930 version is actually more evenly cast, and there’s real suspense whether Robert Ames will accept his future father-in-law’s offer to help him get started in business and assume all the responsibilities attendant thereto or run off to Paris either on his own, with his scapegrace friends the Potters (who, though Edward Everett Horton repeated his role from 1930 and Jean Dixon played his wife, were socially demoted in the 1938 version from one-percenters to college professors on the ground that Stewart and Buchman thought audiences would find it easier to relate to Johnny’s friends if they did not have money themselves) and/or with Linda. In the 1938 Holiday it’s all too obvious from the get-go that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are going to end up together; precisely because the two of them are so much more charismatic than the rest of the cast that there’s no sense the outcome is uncertain and that Johnny might indeed end up sacrificing his free-spirit ideals the way Jason Robards does at the end of A Thousand Clowns (1964), though in that film it’s to preserve not his engagement but his right to parent his son. What’s most interesting about Holiday is how forbidding Hepburn’s performance is; she made this film after Harry Brandt of the Associated Exhibitors had put her on his infamous list of stars he considered “Box-Office Poison” (Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Fred Astaire also made his list) and she and her original studio, RKO, had parted company following the box-office failure of Howard Hawks’ comedy Bringing Up Baby (today it’s hailed as a masterpiece, but in 1938 it did well in New York City but flopped dismally in the rural areas that still dominated much of the U.S. film market) and Hepburn’s furious refusal to take on a cracker-barrel soap opera called Mother Carey’s Chickens as her next film. At the time she was dating the super-rich Howard Hughes, and he put up the money for her to buy her way out of her RKO contract. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia and a man who delighted in making stars of people who’d burned out at other studios — in 1934 he’d had a huge success with opera diva (in both senses) Grace Moore in the film One Night of Love after MGM had fired her for being overweight — grabbed the chance to sign Hepburn for one film and gave her everything she wanted: her favorite director, Cukor; her favorite co-star, Grant; and a play she’d longed to perform in for a decade.

What seems especially odd about this is that at a time in Hepburn’s career with so much hostility against her from both theatre owners and audience members (David O. Selznick seriously considered casting her as Scarlett O’Hara but ultimately rejected her partly because 1939 audiences hated her and partly because he didn’t think Hepburn was sexy enough to be believable as Scarlett), instead of seeking out a part in which she could express lovability and soften her image, she opened her performance in the same serious, defiant mode she’d begun her film career with in A Bill of Divorcement. Selznick’s comment on that film — that instead of inviting the audience to like her she came out with a chip on her shoulder and dared them to — applies to Holiday as well. Holiday ended up as another flop on Hepburn’s résumé — 1970’s film historian Marjorie Rosen thought Depression audiences felt that anyone who’d turn down the sort of job Johnny Case was being offered was too irresponsible to bother with — and it didn’t help that Harry Cohn decided to use the “Box-Office Poison” label in his ad campaign, essentially challenging audiences to see the film in defiance of Harry Brandt’s label. Not surprisingly, this backfired big-time; when roller-derby star Wes Anderson was worried that too many people were forsaking roller-derby matches to attend movies, he took a billboard right across from Harry Cohn’s “Do you think Katharine Hepburn is box-office poison? See her in Holiday!” with his own billboard, “Wes Anderson thinks it’s true.” Nonetheless, Hepburn retained enough confidence not only in her own judgment but in Philip Barry as a suitable writer for her that (with another infusion of Howard Hughes’ money) she commissioned a new play from him for a Broadway production, ensured that she would own the movie rights (so no studio could buy the play and make it with someone else in the lead) and came up with The Philadelphia Story, a blockbuster hit on both stage and screen and the renaissance of Katharine Hepburn’s status as a movie star.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Screen Directors’ Playhouse: “One Against Many” (Hal Roach TV, 1956)

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

I just watched an interesting little half-hour show on Turner Classic Movies: “One Against Many,” an episode of the woefully short-lived (only 35 episodes during the 1955=1956 season) TV series Screen Directors’ Playhouse. This was a Hal Roach production during the time in which Roach had suffered business reversals — notably from the failure of his idea of producing 45-minute “streamliner” films to bridge the gap between the old two-reelers his studio had specialized in during its glory days and full-length features. He was trying to reinvent himself as a TV producer,  notably with The Gale Storm Show, and this was an effort to launch a prestige project: the gimmick was that each episode would be shot on film by a major movie director, and the scripts would also be by “name” feature writers. This one was aired March 7, 1956 and seems almost bizarre in its typecasting: Lew Ayres, famous both for playing Dr. Kildare in MGM’s “B” series in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s and for serving as a medic in World War II after asking for (and, controversially, receiving) conscientious objector status regarding actual combat, gets cast as real-life veterinarian Dr. John Mohler, who in California in 1924-25 demanded extermination and destruction of whole herds of cattle, sheep and other cloven-hoofed animals to stop an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease (called “foot and mouth disease” in the script by Malvin Wald, John Jacobs and Donald F. Sanford).

The Wikipedia page on foot-and-mouth disease reports, “Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has severe implications for animal farming, since it is highly infectious and can be spread by infected animals through aerosols, through contact with contaminated farming equipment, vehicles, clothing, or feed, and by domestic and wild predators. Its containment demands considerable efforts in vaccination, strict monitoring, trade restrictions, and quarantines, and occasionally the killing of animals.” The Wikipedia page states that the disease is caused by a virus — as does the script of this program, something I wanted to check on given how many things these days are blamed on viruses (I’m still reeling from the reference I read recently to syphilis being a “sexually transmitted virus” — it’s sexually transmitted, all right, but it’s a bacterium) — and the plot of this show deals with an epidemic that threatened the entire livestock industry in California. The famous director who was assigned to this was William Dieterle — the actor who played Dr. Kildare working for the director of the biopic of Louis Pasteur (who gets mentioned at least three times in the dialogue), though oddly the announcer who introduces and narrates the show didn’t mention The Story of Louis Pasteur in his intro and instead hailed Dieterle as “the director of great films like The Life of Émile Zola and Elephant Walk.” (Well, great films like The Life of Émile Zola, anyway.)

The show depicts Dr. Mohler first treating a dog named “Taffy,” the pet of a young girl he’s befriended (these days we’d be asking, “What’s that dirty old man doing with that young girl and her dog?,” but the 1950’s were more innocent times), just so we know he’s generally compassionate towards animals and therefore he wouldn’t make the recommendation he does make that whole herds of cattle, sheep and pigs consisting of over 100,000 animals must be destroyed to contain and ultimately eliminate the foot-and-mouth epidemic if it weren’t absolutely necessary for health reasons. Dr. Mohler — who’s being played by an actor whose conscientious-objector status during “The Good War” had truly made him “one against many” in real life! — appears before a Congressional committee and convinces them that his genocidal war against California’s farm animals is necessary. Then he has to go convince the farmers themselves to consent to the destruction of their herds, and though the federal government is compensating them that’s still small beans compared to the years — sometimes decades — the farmers have put into breeding their herds, work which will die with the animals themselves. Mohler’s first target is his old friend, farmer Ed Rawlings (Wallace Ford) — who, unlike his fellows in central California, always prided himself on using scientific methods — only this time he goes ballistic and, in words similar to those used by Cliven Bundy and other defiant ranchers who have become Right-wing culture heroes for threatening to shoot federal agents who dare suggest they pay grazing fees to feed their cattle on public land, he threatens to shoot Dr. Mohler if the doc dares set foot on his ranch. Only Rawlings’ cute, tow-headed son (Rudy Lee) — there had to be a cute, tow-headed kid in it somewhere! — agrees to hand over his own pet calf for destruction and that softens dad’s heart.

The Rawlingses (he’s also got a long-suffering wife, played by Emlen Davies with the sort of hang-dog expression that’s standard for all Hollywood depictions of farmers’ wives) are ultimately mollified that they’ll only be out of business for three months; after that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which gets a special-thanks credit at the end) will introduce test animals, and if they survive the Rawlingses and their fellow ranchers will be able to use the government compensation money to restock. Only the test animals end up catching the disease, and Dr. Mohler traces it to mountain deer, who are carrying the disease and, fleeing the winter snows, are coming down to the farms and infecting the farm animals. This requires another confrontation with a whole bunch of men with guns, following which Mohler sends out teams of hunters to wipe out the deer population so they can’t keep reinfecting the farms. (“Oh, great,” I thought. “As if wiping out the cattle isn’t bad enough, he’s going to have to kill Bambi.”) In a marvelous scene he has the deer hunters served a dinner in enclosed plates which, when the covers are lifted, contain oranges — he persuades them to go along by pointing out that Nevada and other neighboring states are refusing to allow any California agricultural products in even though foot-and-mouth disease doesn’t affect plants. “One Against Many” is a pretty standard tale, and the writers were good enough Hollywood pros they hit virtually all the accepted cliché points for their type of story, but it’s still an oddly moving piece even though the “herds” are obviously stock clips and the burial of the infected cattle and the shooting of the deer are kept off-screen, which actually makes the scenes more powerful and heart-rending since they’re indicated Val Lewton-style by sound alone.